Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bars, Codes, and Bar codes

This is the anniversary of two events that happened three years apart to the day. Today marks the first reading of Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" which occurred exactly three years after the invention of the bar code. The latter has become the symbol of modern life with its generic uniformity designed to maximize corporate profit, while the former is emblematic of the counter-cultural struggle against the dehumanization we face in our current cultural context.

The post-war 50s was a time in which the reality-altering aspects of technology -- from tv dinners and moon shots to the threat of nuclear annihilation -- was celebrated in the collective consciousness. But the beats challenged the idea of better living through chemistry with better living through living on the road, escaping, emoting, contemplating jazz with its lack of regularity, its improvisational, ineliminably human elements overtly on display.

The Beats set the stage for the hippie revolution of the late 60s which in turn embedded the crack in the cultural cohesion that first truly surfaced during FDR's rescue of the nation from the Depression, turning it into a full fledged culture war, making us two Americas, causing a rift that if not as stark as it was is at least ossified in ways that make our social and political discourse frozen, vacuous, ingenuous.

The Republicans have been running for a quarter century on a platform that seeks to turn the clock back to the fictional construct of the Richie Cunningham 50s. Yet, ironically with town hall outrage are seeing this as their 1960s. Glenn Beck's howling makes him the Allen Ginsburg of the modern conservative movement. No longer is it "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection," but baldheaded broken hipsters burning for the insurance companies' right to deny them coverage by using coded dog whistle rhetoric that is as hyperbolic as it is thinly veiled.

And we have a President who ran on post-partisan hope, the hope that we could move beyond our petty and not so petty divisions. Obama did not run as the next Lincoln, but the next Eisenhower. It is now the Democrats who stand for the placid picture of Norman Rockwell American simplicity and harmony that is our false image of the 50s. Those who instigated torture are not put behind bars out of a concern that it might offend the delicate sensibilities of the body politic. In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche writes of inversions of values coming with revolution. The last 50 years has seen this sort of switch.

But the switch has also reversed other aspects of the equation. The iconic example of being out of touch was the apocryphal surprise of Bush the elder in seeing a grocery store scanner. The bar code is the emblem of the alienation of modern America. Yet the dehumanization that was supposed to accompany the technological age has been turned on its head. Ipods rob the entertainment industry of its gatekeeper status, allowing us to download music they have not contractually approved. Blogs give voice to those who have no PACs. We literally have in our pockets the two-way wrist televisions that were fantasy in Dick Tracy comics allowing connection anywhere anytime. Long-lost friends are no more as Facebook lets me know exactly the last time the child of the woman I sat next to in seventh grade English class vomited and I know what she served for dinner that night.

Are the best minds of this generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix? Or are did they saunter through Suburban streets finding their contented fix at Starbucks, tweeting inane soundbites? Has the inversion robbed us of our edge, the energy needed to re-envision ourselves or are we catching up with the vision the Beats gave us and trying to make sense of it from the inside? Kerouac could not have gone on the road with a GPS. We cannot lose ourselves knowing we can never be lost. But can we find features we never would have found otherwise? Can we still walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of Allen Ginsburg's cottage in the Western night?