STEVE CANAL JONES
You can stick a sign For Sale
on the biggest part of America, the people.
Nobody will complain, only there isn't a customer
wealthy enough for us, and so we sell in small
to each other.
— David Ignatow,
Our Masterpiece, 1948
In the United States, nothing can be understood that is not categorized. By understood I do not mean "to develop greater awareness of." Rather, to understand something in the United States means to group it with what it is like, no matter how superficially, in order to resolve whatever uncertainty there might be about it. Los Angeles artists. Tropical fruits. People of Color. Blue States and Red States. Gay authors who have won a Pulitzer Prize. All are examples of categories devised for understanding things in a way that is as efficient as possible, regardless of how much knowledge is occluded by the categorization.
In Francois Lyotard's book "The Postmodern Condition," he explains how conventional forms of knowledge - i.e., focused, specialized expertise - has been altered by the fact that, with the aid of information technology, any two or three characteristics can be combined to form a group that can be mapped and known on the basis of these similarities - that is, distinguished from everything they are not. Therefore, the study of any one group could be considered a kind of expertise based on nothing more than its sheer exclusivity.
Americans love this concept! Not because we are devoted postmodernists (in fact we are, but we are loathe to admit it), but because it makes life so much easier when everything can be understood simply by grouping it with what it is like. It does not matter to us that Lyotard felt obliged to point out this condition in order to show the slipperiness of deductive reasoning. We understand it appositively: not as a critique of deductive reasoning as the basis of knowledge but as a handy shortcut for it. Even tragedies, like terrorist attacks, or deaths, like the pope's, are easily understood by Americans because, almost as soon as they occur, we compare them to similar events so as to determine their magnitude. We don't even have to do that, really, because the media does it for us before we can even figure out how to work the calculators on our mobile phones.
We understand things in this fashion, almost immediately, for two reasons:
1) so we won't be troubled by not understanding something, experience doubt or confusion, and run the risk of behaving irrationally; and
2) so we'll know how to feel
For example, twice as many people died on September 11th, 2001, as died at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. So it would be accurate to say that Americans were twice as upset about 9/11 as we were about Pearl Harbor. Inversely, only 1/50th as many Americans have died in the Iraq War as died in the Vietnam War, so you can be pretty certain that Americans are only 1/50th as upset about Iraq as we were about Vietnam.
(It's important to note that the number of Iraqi or Vietnamese or Japanese deaths that did or are occurring do not factor into the equation, because American equations only work for Americans. We don't know how to factor in the value of foreign deaths because we don't know enough about the people who died, we don't know what their houses were worth or what kind of cars they drove. In any case, we've seen a few pictures of the rubble and let's just say we're skeptical that these lives are as valuable as our own. In any case, valuing human life is dubious because we all die regardless of nationality. Valuing assets is more reliable because they tend to outlast us and, if handled correctly, increase in value.)
Organizing our possessions by Lyotard's method is the quickest way to understand their respective values. Americans love comparisons, whether they make sense or not. Give us a comparison and we will be confident in knowing what to think, what to do and how much attention to pay. Most of all, Americans love the profits and losses that result from the simple algebra of comparing things. For example, a black and red 1989 Jeep Cherokee Laredo might be grouped with a 1989 Toyota Land Cruiser because they are both sport utility vehicles from the same model year. Or the Jeep might be grouped with a pair of 1985 Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes because they are the same colors (although, depending on condition, the shoes might be worth more than the Jeep). Or the Jeep might be grouped with a video camera, since both are popular consumer products whose technology was originally developed by the military. Or the Jeep might be grouped with the Space Shuttle Columbia, since both are vehicles in which people have died due to no fault of their own, other than their having had faith in the operational abilities of their chosen means of transportation.
America is obsessed with value: Moral values. Property values. Stock values. Insurance values. But the greatest value in American society is the value of a bargain. Nothing motivates Americans like the prospect of getting more for something than they think it is worth. This is why so many Americans are Christians. No one person or thing demonstrates the profit motive of Things That Fall more than Jesus Christ. He lived a meager life; he fell; he rose from the dead. And now look at him! He's the son of God and the moral compass of the Western World, so being a Christian, being Christ-like, is a good investment. Knowing the miserable, petty, hypocritical lives they live on a day to day basis, American Christians are positively nuts about the prospect of salvation through Jesus Christ because they can't resist the fact that someone wants to exchange so valuable a thing as everlasting life for their two-bit, Wal-Mart, aluminum-sided existence. What a bargain! Sure, you have to put in all that church time and occupy the moral high ground every once in a while, but hey, its worth it. Anything to come out ahead.
The curious paradox is that, in any equation of value, invisible resources like time and indirect costs are as worthless to Christian Americans as their invisible souls are valuable. For example, an American will drive two hours and spend twenty dollars on gasoline just to save ten dollars on a dvd player. And they'll more than likely spend another twenty or thirty dollars on a five-gallon bucket of snickers bars, or plastic lawn chairs, or some other such bargain in order to make the trip "worthwhile," further exacerbating their deficit.
Marcel Broodthaers, who was about as un-American a person as I can think of, once famously wondered if he, too, could sell something and succeed in life. His revelation, like many of mine, was attributed to the shear tenacity of Americans to turn absolutely every waking moment or gust of wind into a certifiable monetary value. And then - after every last subatomic particle has been surveilled and stacked and tallied and shipped according to the crushing logic of assigned monetary value, Americans wonder what ever happened to their peace of mind, their dreams, their sense of decency. In Our Masterpiece, the first stanza of which initiated this essay, David Ignatow, American poet and one of the rare few capable of elevating sarcasm to an art form, wondered too. He continues:
America, America on the dotted line,
and if we think we live purely on emotion,
go into any restaurant and see who flashes the wallet,
and who counts the change,
and who leaves embarrassed by his small tip.
I don't care what any man feels outside of business.
It plays as small a part as a bass fiddle
in a symphony. Blowhard trombone and French horn
are the money-makers,
and over all is the conductor, the idea of money itself,
pulling the song out of us, our masterpiece.