Recently I caught the 2 train at 96th Street heading south on my way home to Brooklyn. It’s about an hour long ride. I was sitting next to two men, professional-looking types who appeared to be in their early 30s. They were talking about a small shoe brand, recently trendy, very animatedly. Or perhaps they were not talking about the shoes.
They engaged in a kind of rhetoric that I imagine would be recognizable to anyone who spends too much time on the internet. While ostensibly discussing shoes, they were really discussing the social and cultural signifiers that attach to everything we have and are like barnacles. To wear those shoes was not to purchase and use a practical thing but to place oneself in a complex social and cultural web, to make an existential statement about yourself and your place in the economic, political, and interpersonal world. A $100 pair of sneakers, to hear them tell it, conveyed one’s deepest personal meaning, particularly as it pertained to position within the social hierarchies of the educated caste. There appeared to be no way to own and wear these shoes without sending these messages. And yet the men speaking seemed to think that they were only discussing the quality of the sneakers themselves.
In the world of politics, particularly left politics, we see a similar dynamic among those who can conceive of the political only as a way to define the self, as a tool not to create change but as a system for sorting all of us into tiers of enlightenment, as something you are rather than something you do.
Recently we have seen a lot of critical discourse on the internet and its consequences, which is good. Digital technologies have dramatically expanded the amount and scope of writing that overthinks the minutiae of life and ascribes to it cultural connotations of great importance. We are living in a world of What X Says About Y. We have, to put it bluntly, too much culture. We have too many ideas. We have too many symbols. Our associations about things have overwhelmed our apprehension of the things themselves. Wallace Stevens said that the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world. For myself I would say that the battle now is to live in a world outside of the web of other people’s tangled pathologies about how every minor detail of our consumption and behavior aligns us in a social hierarchy many of us never asked to join. The fight is to return to a world of things. To let a shoe be a shoe.