I am often disturbed to find myself the only one on the bus not using an iPhone or something like it. There’s no telling what they’re all doing. The iPhone can perform so many functions, each requiring the same bowed head and the same finger-grubbing micro-gestures, that its users become inscrutable to others. Read a book or a newspaper and it’s clear what you’re up to. Headphones are merely an accessory: music is less activity than accompaniment. But pull out a smart phone and you become instantly vague, perhaps even to yourself. I’m a seasoned iPhone user, but still I never know quite what I’m doing. It could always be, from one moment to the next, something else. The iPhone thus dials down the need to make even minor decisions about what you are doing and how you will appear to others. You ride the little movements of your fingertips. Commitments are weakened. Life in the city is necessarily an exercise in ignoring other people, but this studied ignorance is fascinating to watch in its various forms, many of them quite revealing. With iPhones and their illegible users, the picture goes slightly blurry. The imagination is cut off. If I wonder anything at all, it is usually about what the device is doing and what it’s screen is showing, rather than about the person, where she came from and where she may be going.
Your average internet-age mash-up aims to short-circuit the viewer’s brain. There is a momentary jolt of recognition, then the smell of burnt-out neurons. Now that little brain fissure can’t be used for anything else. The connections, melted, return to their Pavlovian function. You can no longer think of Pride and Prejudice without thinking of zombies–LOL. The internet is full of things that can’t be unseen or unthought.
But this, this is some modern-day demonological conjuration in the same league as seeing infants speak and watching film of your grandparents doing heroic, sexy things before you were born. The savage midbrain does not know whether to laugh or strike out in terror.
That song is exactly what those beings would be singing if they had aged along with the children they were created for in the 1980s.
The duck travels along the surface of the water. We travel on an asphalt path and its gravel apron, avoiding runners and dogs and strollers. Today is sunny: the young women are out in numbers, silently. I walked with a friend, eating hamburgers and coffee, discussing the humiliations of aging suffered by our grandparents and soon, perhaps, to be delivered to our parents. His mother, he said, claimed that she would kill herself if she ever got to the point where she could no longer talk straight or had to wear a helmet just to stand up. I thought this was the kind of thing that people say as a way of trying to change the past. It was not an intention, but a wish, a guilty wish, on her own mother’s behalf. At any rate, I was wondering about something else. I had an idea that I had long held in reserve and I was looking for some of way of turning it, like the soil, hoping that some fresh indication of fertility would rise. I thought, basically, that food was my young generation’s new drug of choice. The local, the organic, the ethnic, the gluten-free, the artisanal: it was all new form of fashion for a demanding, gluttonous people. It was all bullshit. We had been raised in the 1980s on cheap corn and protein. That surplus of induced appetite still existed, exercised now on other things as it got older, with a bad conscience and some cash. I didn’t know what to make of this but I thought that it had to be connected somehow. I didn’t want to be someone who made a big deal out of his pleasures and used them as a substitute for something else. I didn’t want to be humiliated by them when I no longer had the will or the logic to perform whatever act of transubstantiation other people were pulling. My friend said that right before his grandfather died angry he was drunk all the time. He vomited and every time he did it was deep blue. I laughed at this. I imagined a future where the old passed different colors as their insides went to mush. Not just any colors but bright, childlike, electric colors, constantly changing, more rapidly and more iridescent as the end neared. We passed under some trees and found a girl crouched on her roller skates, looking out. There was a motionless wood duck there and when it turned into the light, it flew away.
The wigger is the last honest white man in America. I say this not because I am about to argue that inauthenticity is the only remaining form of authenticity. Nor I do not want to romanticize false consciousness. There is enough of that to buckle all the structural beams of America. I need simply to inspect the deep roots of the affection I have felt for every genuine wigger I’ve ever met.
The word is a portmanteau of white and nigger. A wigger is thus a young white man who adopts the stereotyped style, tastes, and mannerisms of hip-hop culture, which is to say, a culture that belongs to poor black youth. Most young white people do this occasionally by listening to rap or dropping some lingo for humorous effect. The wigger does it all the time and with utter, youthful seriousness.
As a first move, separate wiggers from the various impersonators and appropriators of black culture, many of them all too prominent. Al Jolson was a paradigmatic impersonator, the Rolling Stones are appropriators. Wiggers, though, are not doing it to entertain anyone, least of all themselves. Impersonation and appropriation both imply a degree of creative mixing. Wiggers are not creative. They are not artists. They aim for a straightforward reduplication, from which they have nothing to gain economically, and probably much to lose. Impersonators and appropriators, if they last, win fans. Wiggers are clowns derided and/or laughed at by serious-minded people both black and white. Or rather, they would be clowns, if only they were in the joke.
That wiggers are a joke says a great deal. There are few cultural types who are so inherently comical. A small part of the humor is simply that anything exaggerated enough becomes funny and white people, in order to come off as culturally black, necessarily resort to exaggeration, often without much skill. But I believe the bulk of it comes from the fact that the wigger is trying, impossibly, to occupy a nonexistent piece of cultural territory, to stand on thin air. There are in modern day America cultural roles that simply do not make sense for white people to play. They do not tally, except as comedy or taboo.
Race in America has gone from a political and economic to a cultural matter. We talk about race by talking about culture. By some measures the country is highly integrated. At the level of consumption, white audiences are eager to buy the products of black artists. But this is cultural integration only in a superficial sense, no matter how much those white audiences come to appreciate the works of their black countrymen. Cultural appreciation can be done at home in one’s spare time. There is no risk here. None at all. Culture is about more than art and artifacts, it is about the spirit that expresses itself through them. Facing that spirit is a more an order more demanding by far than simply buying records or offering well-placed sympathy and applause. Is there really no deeper form of spiritual miscegenation that we might attempt? The wigger is the last white soldier for this cause.
That this function has fallen to someone like the typical wigger speaks of much a wider failure. When the issue of race is culturalized, it is no more possible to participate deeply in the culture of others than it is to change one’s race. Education makes us respect cultural differences, but it also makes us over-cautious. We are willing to sample others’ culture but only behind layer of playful unease, which is to say, not very seriously and at a certain distance.
I also want to attempt an argument that the gap, of which the wigger is symptomatic, between spiritual white America and spiritual black America is partly due to the damaged condition of hip-hop culture, which is continuous with the damaged condition of America as a whole. I do not mean for second to deny the humanity or subtlety or creativity of black artists. What I have in mind is the complex relation that rappers have to the system that saddles them with poverty and hardship. The near-universal narrative in rap is struggle against horrific conditions to achieve to material wealth. Poverty is both the obstacle and the means to success; it hardens and equips them, usually painfully. The ethos imparted is the awesome power of the almighty dollar. If it does not make sense for a white man to inhabit black culture, this may be because there is less and less of an unsuppressed spirit there to be inhabited.
For a long time now the standard magazine-article line about rappers has been that they are actually beholden to the white middle class. Their paychecks are signed by white teenagers in search of something exotic. But a culture that is all about the money cannot be appropriated. It is immune to the artistic depletion of popular success because the stated aim all along is to accumulate wealth. In this sense, the kinship between rappers and prostitutes runs deep. The image of the modern rapper is that of someone who, however conflicted, is fully plugged in to and on some level in love with the unjust capitalism that once oppressed him and now co-opts the art that he produces. Success, for all that it is celebrated, becomes its own kind of tragedy.
From top to bottom, the conditions that inform rap are inherently humiliating, all the more so when juxtaposed with prosperity, yet the rapper achieves mastery over these conditions by surviving to tell about them. Authenticity and street credibility are so important because, without them, you simply have other people’s humiliation. Your history does not earn you the right to celebrate poverty and lust after wealth in the way of people who have been, in essence, forced into it. And in our segregated country, you do not acquire that history without being black.
I think we are living in a cultural moment where it is increasingly hard for young people of all classes to fully identify with capitalist culture except in a roundabout way. The youth of the nation are taught the defects of capitalism and yet have little hope and less opportunity of making any but marginal improvements. The position of rappers—having fully paid for their greed morally and spiritually —is therefore an attractive one. It explains in some measure why facile, conventional youth slip in and out of hip-hop idioms, and also why some more adventurous souls become wiggers. But I find in wiggers, foolish though they may be, also a mad, full-speed attempt to upset some of the hardened racial divisions in this country.
In the land of excesses, plastic surgery is the queen. It is biologically transformative and extremely expensive. It is vain and jealous, feared and desired. It symbolizes—gaudily—either the mad embrace of the artificial or, to its believers, the opening, once more, of a newly happy future.
The social logic of plastic surgery is scandal, the sex scandal in particular. There is secrecy and physical intimacy and the violation of established norms. There is, always, the implicit confession of a boredom sometimes deepening into hatred. The most scandalous aspect of plastic surgery rests with the various delicious overtones, both positive and negative, that it holds for bystanders. On one side is vicarious indulgence, on the other a pleasurable form of disgust, the anxious delight of seeing a familiar brought slightly lower and oneself thereby raised. A difference is that with sex, the possibility of scandal is rarely the aim of the business. It is not done (usually) to attract wide attention. Plastic surgery by its very nature seeks attention, and whether that attention comes in the form of scorn or approval is often irrelevant—its power is confirmed either way.
For Hollywood celebrities, plastic surgery may as well be stage makeup, the grotesquerie needed to keep up appearances in front of a hundred random cameras. But what about ordinary people who never go before that general audience? It is a truism that many who seek plastic surgery have a distorted view of themselves. Is this the result of not being able to see themselves as others see them? Or is it rather that they never develop for themselves the generous, unguarded eye that can, at least in private, see their own flaws as dear? I suspect that the psychology of plastic surgery arises when people see themselves always and only in the petty, impatient way that they see celebrities. They can imagine only two roles, the mass and the idol, each the inverse of the other and each in need of the other. So the only perspective from which they imagine themselves is that of an alternately adoring and punitive crowd. We live increasingly in a world that forgets and devalues genuinely private spaces where one or two people might exist without thought of a third. And in return we get far less than the luxury and privilege once granted to royalty.
At one time, people marched for their ideals. Where the streets are the main public forum, marching, more so than simply congregating, shuts down traffic and commerce over a wide area. It gives concrete human form to a moral agenda, especially a democratic one. Marches are, in a brutally simple way, a realization of democracy, the closest we come to seeing the people themselves, where political and moral authority are supposed to finally lie.
Here the whole point is not simply to be present but to perform some difficult, exhausting feat. By your suffering you earn funds and attention. It puts you somehow in sympathy with your bedridden aunt, or whomever. At the end of it all, you’re supposed to turn to the cameras and say, “that was hard, but it’s literally nothing compared to what obese children and their families go through every day.” You attract attention so that you can, at the final moment, deflect it; the real action, and the real heroes, are always elsewhere.
Whereas marches are inclusionary, walks are exclusionary, and sort of narcissistic. Your participation sets you apart, both from the victims you are helping and from the donors who have pegged their contributions to your efforts. If everyone walked, who would pledge money? Who would see your suffering and be moved to action?
On some level, the walkers and climbers and rowers are the main beneficiaries. Their self-serving actions get a larger meaning. They get an incentive to exercise or a reason to go on an adventure.
There is nothing wrong in principle with incentivizing altruism. But there are more issues than just right or wrong, namely: what kind of new psychology does this enterprise create?
Charitable awareness now supplies the primary model for patriotism. The troops are another cause, the cause. They are another group of victims suffering heroically. We honor them by performing the most self-regarding actions—shopping, watching professional sports, voting Republican—so long as we display appropriate colors. Nowadays displays of patriotism have less in common with fascist power-worship than with the self-sponsoring narcissism of modern charity.