Last year at New Year’s Eve my girlfriend and I hosted a party at my old place on 163rd Street—outer space as far as most New Yorkers are concerned, but only a block from 555 Edgecombe, where Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Joe Louis lived in the 1930s, and no more than three blocks from where W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall lived in that same tumultuous decade.
To begin with we drank good champagne and better wine, ate strange little French pickles (cornichons), and smeared strong mustard on salami-like substances from Italy, mostly courtesy of the guests. I don’t even remember what we served for dinner. What I remember is feeling at home in the world for the first time in many years, and there I was on the far edge of this city of immigrants, perched on a sharp precipice of Manhattan overlooking the Harlem River, in view of the Bronx, to be sure, but, more immediately, in view of a future I couldn’t predict because I knew I’d have a hand in its making.
That’s what home feels like to most Americans, for better and worse: satisfied with unsettlement. It’s a frontier mentality, this feeling, but it’s not rootless; in time it creates an urge to discover, or to invent, roots enough to become sunk in tradition. When people say “you can’t go home again,” they mean you’ll never find that origin because there never was one, except as a primal scene—a mere fantasy—that nevertheless became the proximate cause of the reality that is your life. Most fiction, it seems to me, is a way of resetting this scene, retelling the origin story, letting us see that its results are either as malleable as words on a page (Junot Diaz) or as irrevocable as the judgments of an angry god (William Faulkner). After the epic poem, either comedy or tragedy.
We spent this New Year’s Eve with the same small crowd on 79th Street and 1st Ave, way over on the East Side. The hostess is a writer—she teaches it, and she does it with great skill, having published award-winning articles in magazines and quirky biographies of famous men. The other principals, apart from my girlfriend the notorious writer of books that make you reexamine every assumption you bring to everyday life, but still lets you laugh while you’re at it, are a psychiatrist who knows everything about food and drink—he’s the chef who prepared the picnic on the Hudson I recount in Against Thrift—and who tends, being a polymathic shrink, toward global explanations of all phenomena, and an editor who came to New York out of college, camped out at Ms. Magazine determined to break into the feminist scene of writing, and finally got a job photocopying, then worked her way into periodical publishing, where by now, as a senior editor at a hugely successful women’s magazine, she surveys the future with some serious misgivings about the very possibility of writing seriously.
The main course was a beef tenderloin wrapped in bacon—I couldn’t make this up—and it was delicious: each of us got two thick slabs that didn’t look or feel cooked, being very red and very soft, but they tasted the part. The side dishes were squash and spinach, as befit the mid-winter moment of the feast, and they were equally delicious, although I must confess that my new carnivorous habits seem to crowd my sensorium in favor of whatever meat appears on the plate: I pay more attention to the dead animal because I feel like I’m making up for lost time—those difficult vegetables preoccupied me for a lot of years—and besides, the taste of meat is new. Two weeks ago, for example, I ordered venison in a nice Tribeca restaurant, hoping to compare the effect of its eating to my pre-pubescent experience with wild game, when my father and I used shotguns on artificial wastelands in Wisconsin to kill every colorful animal we could startle into flight by stomping through their dead brown habitat (pheasants, mainly, you can’t shoot the females, whose drab feathers keep them better camoflauged). There was no comparison because my remembrance was itself the most exquisite artifice.
The dinner conversation was all about the Internet. The complaint on the table was that in cyberspace there are no standards—everybody’s opinion is valuable, or is equal to any other—so the “crapification” of American culture, as my girlfriend puts it, proceeds at an accelerating rate. We’re all worried that the books we write can’t be read properly or even intelligently because they open questions that, in the most literal sense, can’t be addressed by readers equipped only with the conventional wisdom the Internet allows—because they challenge prevailing assumptions about the way the world works.
Right now I’m even more worried than these writerly friends because I know that a tiresome, middlebrow mind from a marketing department at Baylor University—his name is James A. Roberts, and he’s able without a trace of irony to juxtapose Abraham Maslow, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ben Franklin in a book called Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy—is selling many more books than I am, and in direct competition with mine. Yes, he blames consumer excess for the troubles of our time, including the Great Recession.
My counter-argument at dinner, and I offered it with some hesitation, goes like this. The lack of standards in cyberspace is a function of something the Left might have welcomed in its Frankfurt phase—and that is the decommodification of information, opinion, argument, and analysis, whether offered as fiction or non-fiction. These things used to bear a price and have a very specific cost; they can now be appropriated without the intermediation of market devices, except that, once upon a time, you had to buy the machine that gives you access to the Internet. (The same goes for the production, distribution, and consumption of music, but that’s a slightly different story.)
As the market has come to organize less of our attention and energies in appropriating these things, so have the standards of the past come to mean less to readers. In other words, our intellectual standards have dispersed, eroded, changed, or disappeared as the market itself has become less regulative, and less determinative—or at any rate less ubiquitous—in the production and distribution of information, opinion, argument, and analysis.
What follows, however, is this: the intellectual standards whose passing we lament are, by and large, the standards of an information age that was thoroughly organized, indeed saturated, by the commodity form. Put it another way. Intellectual or artistic attainment of the most profound order is perfectly consistent with success in the market. You might say, well, duh, that’s what the post-modern condition has taught us, or rather that’s what its heralds, from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to Stephen King, have tried to teach us.
But my point is different: the complaints I hear from my friends on the Left about the corrupting force of cyberspace on standards of intellectual or artistic attainment would suggest that they long for a moment in which the market was more visible and consequential in producing and distributing information, opinion, argument, and analysis. They long, in this sense, for the standards set by the commodity form. That’s not a criticism, because, as some of you may know, I’m a great believer in markets as the historical groundwork and the enduring bulwark of political democracy. But there’s some interesting irony in their complaints.
And that irony comes at my expense, not theirs. They’re right, there are real downsides to the decommodification of information (and music), which I tend to overlook or discount in my zeal to discover subversive possibilities or epochal significance in recent economic changes. This “primitive disaccumulation” I have celebrated—this Internet-enforced movement toward the decommodification of basic cultural necessities like information and music—is no less destructive and terrifying than the primitive accumulation of resources that forced everyone to buy the right not to die. For me, that’s useful new knowledge for the new year.
When dinner was over, about 11:15, we all pretended to carry some plates somewhere, knowing that our real destination was six long blocks west and then some, we were headed for the midnight fireworks in Central Park. We got all the way down to 72nd on the west side of the park before 12:00, and by the time the sky lit up and the windows of apartment buildings on 5th Avenue responded with second-hand explosions of magnified color, the runners were pounding past us, heading uptown and uphill, contestants in a midnight run sponsored by the New York Road Runners Club. The stream of them widened quickly as the professionals disappeared to the accompaniment of trucks and motorcycles and loudspeakers. We were almost crowded off the road—of course we were on the wrong side of the race—by this thickening mass of amateur runners, their backs to the fireworks on this New Year’s Eve: the size of a small town went past, and many of this town’s wayward residents were in costume, on their way to a party.
I smiled madly at all of them, thinking, “You gotta love this town.” High fives for a couple of happy runners, but my favorite moment came when a spangled young woman stopped when I nodded at her costume, a T-shirted gesture toward Wonder Woman. Not right then, she stopped somewhere upstream and came back, touched my shoulder and asked me to take a picture of her against the light of those fireworks. “It’s for my parents,” she said. I was disappointed—what, it’s not about me?—and grateful all at once. I took the picture, backlit perfectly by another rocket’s white glare, and thanked her for asking.
When the fireworks ended, we walked west, toward the C train, past exhausted runners and befuddled tourists who probably mistook this ultra-foliated place for Times Square. Then we walked up to the 81st Street stop by the Natural History Museum, on Central Park West. As we walked, looking over that low brick wall into the sunken park at almost 1:00 in the morning on the first day of 2012, we could see hundreds of runners facing downtown, nearing the finish line, all headed for home.