"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 16, 2015

We Are What We Seem –The Myth Of Uniqueness

We are all defined by more by externalities than internalities.  We are how we dress, where we dine, and what we drive far more than what we think. How could it be otherwise since it would be hard for anyone living in such a materialistic, media-saturated society to resist the allure of Hollywood looks and sophisticated European glamor?  At the same time it would be narrow and picky to conclude that we have no commitments to a higher-order definition of life, or no unique characteristics of soul, personality, or character.  Clothes, cars, and cuisine are merely trappings – gift wrappings on an often unappreciated, quieter, self.

In fact we are all externality, composites of the cultural bits and pieces adopted as our own but in fact are products of a crowdsourced culture. 

A number of years ago a young friend of mine, not much more than thirty, told me how he had discovered a new restaurant in an out-of-the-way corner of a forgotten neighborhood in DC.  He and his wife were going to leave wallets, cell phones, and cash behind; but the excitement of venturing into truly virgin terrain, taking chances for the sake of discovery, and staking out territory for those who would sure to follow was worth the trouble and anxiety.

“They were all like us”, he said to me afterwards referring to his fellow diners. “Fifty clones.” He had not discovered the restaurant, nor had someone else, but hundreds of other Upper Northwest, professional, thirty-somethings.

He might have shrugged off the cultural side of the experience – the food was as good as he had heard – but he could not shake the feeling of being irrelevantly similar.  Not only were the restaurant patrons like him and his wife, they were exactly like them.  Although they had not riffled through the same clothing racks at Saks or Bendel, had their hair cut by the same stylist, or gone to the same schools, they were unique in their unmistakable likeness.  Harvard, Princeton, or Yale made no difference.  The chatter was the same mix of innuendo, reference, and uptake as occurred in living rooms, bars, and block parties in his own white, exclusive, wealthy community.



From that moment on my friend dismissed any thought of personal uniqueness.”Nothing but vanity”, he said. “Illusion, arrogance, and blinkered vision.” Ah, Verlaine.

The ancient graveyard with new gravestones every day,-
But, come, regale us with appropriate detail,
Those disillusions weeping at the fountains, say,
Those new disgusts, just like their brothers, littered stale

He was on to something.  How was it that with no Chairman Mao, Mobuto, or Kim Jong Un to forbid anything but civilian uniforms approved by the State, Americans conformed so easily to the demands of the social milieu in which they found themselves? Although American culture has thousands of subdivisions, those who live within them conform absolutely to their conditions. Good ol’ boys in the South always look hairy, beefy, and tattooed; always drive pickups; speak with a proudly backwoods accent; vote Republican; and believe in God. Northern ‘progressives’ all take their religion lite – Universalist, Unitarian, Quaker, or United Church of Christ.  They drive environmentally friendly cars, dress in old tweeds and sensible shoes, and are all pro-choice, anti-gun, gender-neutral, and demur on issues of patriotism.

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Caricatures of course; but no visitor to either pole can deny the truth of at least some of them.  More people in Mississippi (58 percent) define themselves as ‘very religious’ than every other state; and the impression that there are more churches per square mile than anywhere in the North is valid.  On one of my first trips through the South my companion – a Philadelphia Presbyterian – was amazed at how many store-front churches there were.  “You would think”, she said, “that with a traditional church on every block, there would be no need for any more”; but she had underestimated the deep faith and cultural allegiances of the South. Evangelism, Pentecostalism, charismatic celebration, and just plain folks church on Sunday was as part of the cultural fabric as dinner parties, tennis, and the theatre were in the North.

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So far, nothing new. We are all products of our environment, conditioned by parental upbringing, peer influence and pressure, and local and regional habits, most of which are too old to even be identified.  Why is it, however, that we all – almost to a man – are unable to chart out exotically different courses?  We say we would like to and in fact labor under the illusion of ‘making a difference’ until we are into our forties; but we simply cannot break the mold in which we were cast.

“I think, therefore I am”, said Descartes after struggling with the metaphysical question of existence and coming up dry.  Yet, few people would like to be reduced to such a fundamental level of existence.  Of course Descartes was tinkering with phenomenology, and saw cognition as the only possible validation of life. We see and we think, he said; and meant that we process, consider, analyze, and make sense of the external world; and by so doing are individuated and separate from it.

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Other thinkers have disagreed and hundreds of theories are still circulating about duality, epistemological reality, perceptual dissonance, and virtuality.  Yet despite these intellectual speculations, one thing is absolutely clear. There is nothing new under the sun; and worse, we human beings have a driven necessity to make sure there isn’t.

It doesn’t take big data analysis to confirm the high probability of owning a Prius in Upper Northwest Washington; that tastes in cuisine lean towards the organic, the locavore, and inspired combinations of ingredients and veer away from spaghetti and meatballs, canned corn, and meatloaf.  There is no bling in Spring Valley and a lot of it in Anacostia. No pimp walk in Glover Park, and a lot of gangsta roll in Congress Heights.

White middle class Washingtonians cannot understand why any black person would deliberately name their child LaShonda or Latika, dress ghetto, and speak Ebonics. Why would a disadvantaged minority not do everything in its power to join the mainstream?

Whether cultural insularity is defiant (blacks’ refusal to act white is a validating expression of worth) or predetermined (how could one not linger at the window of Ralph Lauren, J. Press, or Brooks Bros. given a New England WASP past?), it is an incontrovertible fact for all of us.

Why do older people finally care little about such things. Who ever said that there was a pull-date on cultural identity?  Yet at some point former and familiar trappings begin to mean little and finally mean nothing. T.S. Eliot in The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock wrote:

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

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If the need for cultural identity is eventually lost, shunted aside by more pressing concerns about life and death, then how could it have been so important in the first place?

We are programmed to pad our cultural resumes for the sake of procreation; and to minimize the risk of natural selection by choosing a sure thing. In a competitive environment it makes no sense to stand out beyond the arc of the bell curve. Creative to a point, but not beyond. By the time one is north of seventy, natural selection is a distant memory.

The most shocking realization of sameness that came to my friend at the restaurant was not that the phenomenon occurred; but that he did not see it coming.  His social programming had been so complete, that even his expectations had figured into the algorithm.

So much for uniqueness, Brother. 

Et icelles qui s’inclinait

Unes contre autres en leurs vies,

Desquelles les unes regnaient

Des authres craintes et servies.

La, les voies toutes assouvies

Ensemble en un tas pele-mele

Seigneuries leur sont ravies

Clerc ni maitre ne s’y appelle. (Francois Villon, Testament)

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