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David Foster Wallace on the Devouring Double-Headed Snake of Consumerism/Individualism
“Camped outside laissez faire
People understand me there
Don't talk to me we'll get along just fine
Blowin' out your mores
Herny Ford tradition plays on
Idle minds left the emergency brake on too long
Underneath the city lies the ruin of mankind
The excavation was a financial success
With artifacts of gold
The arrowheads went straight to the Smithsonian
The rest was melted down and sold
Minimal losses are tolerable
As long as the machine keeps running fine”
Comedian Bill Hicks dispensed some life advice for marketers and advertisers back in the day that I can’t necessarily disagree with:
“If anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself…. Seriously, though if you are, do… There’s no rationalization for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers, okay?.... Planting seeds… Suck a tail pipe, fuckin’ hang yourself, borrow a gun from a Yank friend, I don’t care how you do it.”
(All apologies to any marketers in my audience; I don’t really mean it. Each of us is a special unique snowflake of special unique specialness.)
The problem society has on its hands is that God is dead – not in the literal sense of the phrase, or as a commentary on atheism defeating religion, but in the sense of a loss of belief in transcendent meaning that I have written about elsewhere.
Just before David Foster Wallace -- author of “Shipping Out”, arguably the best dissection of modern American culture I have ever read set in the context of an existential crisis aboard a cruise ship -- succumbed to his despair and hung himself in his basement, he had these prescient, and increasingly so, observations to offer on the dead God phenomenon and the desperate effort to replace Him with something, anything as an object of worship:
“We all worship, and we all have a religious impulse. We can choose to an extent what we worship, but the myth that we worship nothing and give ourselves away to nothing is simply… sets us up to give ourselves away to something different – for instance, pleasure, or drugs, or the idea of having a lot of money and being able to buy nice stuff. Or, in the tennis academy, um, it’s somewhat different. It’s devotion to an athletic pursuit that requires a certain amount of sacrifice and discipline that is nevertheless an individual sport and one that’s trying to get ahead as an individual…
Whatever the conditions of hopelessness… have to do with an American idea and not a universal one but one that I think kids get exposed to very early that you are the most important and what you want is the most important… and your job in life is to gratify your own desires…
Of course, nobody tells you. I mean, mom and dad don’t sit you down and say things. This is something very subtle as delivered by a great many messages... this is one enormous engine and temple of self-gratification and self-advancement and in some ways it works very, very well. In other ways, it doesn’t work all that well… It seems as if there are whole other parts of me that need to worry about things larger than me that don’t get nourished in that system.”
The self is not God. Nike shoes are not God. Fiat currency is not God.
Woe unto we who go looking for transcendence in these false idols.
I do my best to explore this truth in my own meandering way, perhaps not as articulately as Wallace, in the context of ironically ultra-capitalist Vietnam, in my expat memoir/novel-length existential diatribe “Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile”
“Where once healthy, vibrant mountain ecosystems flourished on the vast rolling borderlands between Vietnam and China, their replacements are enormous, carved-out pits of mountains mined for graphite, smoldering trash piles of burned plastic, and casinos for miles to entertain gambling Chinese tourists slipping over the border on day-trips.
Vomitus neon-green fluorescent lights have replaced the subtle greens of jungleland forests.
Year by year, the last frontiers of wilderness recede. In Vietnam, every resource that can be extracted for the sake of economic growth will be.
The economy is the new God the now largely Godless, post-Communist Vietnamese have been conditioned to worship. It has come to fill the religious vacuum the communists manufactured when they cleansed the ideological landscape during the mid-20th century, to nurture the spiritual holes left in the upheaval.
Atheism can't last forever; people will worship something, one thing or another. Otherwise, absent meaning, the crippling nihilism would be unbearable. Cultural suicide would be the inevitable result for a society that didn't revere something – it almost doesn't matter what…
Thanksgiving came and went that year in Lao Cai, as unremarked upon then as it was the previous year, and each year of the previous century. There were no festivities. Turkeys don't live in Southeast Asia, and no one outside of Irish pubs catering to expats in Bangkok eats mashed potatoes in Indochina.
However, the Vietnamese do curiously import one winter holiday festivity from the West: Black Friday. Black Friday minus the Christmas season is something akin to yoga sans the spirituality. Out of context, Black Friday becomes just another excuse to buy and sell, free of the giving/sharing intent that initially underpinned it. Storefront after storefront on the main artery through Lao Cai advertised Black Friday clearance sales on consumer goods, and the Vietnamese revel in communal bliss over their purchases.”
Ben Bartee, author of Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile, is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.
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