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Day August 12, 2017

Notes on America

Ilgaz sent me this great piece written by an American living in Istanbul. She writes on her revaluation of her personal identity through college and her stay in Istanbul. It’s thought provoking!

Unlearning the Myth of American Innocence

Suzy Hansen writes about the first time she understood that identity is created when reading James Baldwin:

“I’d had no idea that we had ever had to define our identities at all, because to me, white Americans were born fully formed, completely detached from any sort of complicated past.”

This rung my bell, as I had a similar experience in college, specifically an American Literature class I took in Wellington while reading The Great Gatsby. The class was entirely Kiwi except for me, and a lot of the lectures and discussions focused on American cultural identity in relation to a Kiwi cultural identity. I was the first time I’d heard anyone discuss American Culture from the outside looking in.

I was used to criticism of American culture. Through high school I was a fan of the Beat writers, American Transcendentalists, Fight Club’s Palahniuk, and Robinson Jeffers. I had a punk rock, Adbusters attitude of cutting through bullshit and focusing on who really benefits from any given cultural form.

These authors offered an alternative to the bland consumerist conformity that forms the background of middle-American life, and I embraced them. My choice to study in New Zealand was an attempt to take “the road less traveled” as the famous poem goes.

The Kiwi professor and TAs approached America as a foreign culture and from the outside they were able to thoughtfully criticize problems with the American dream with a clarity I had never heard before. The arguments were familiar but the perspective was new, and it rattled me.

I had never considered myself a nationalist but I found myself reflexively defending cultural values I didn’t realize I’d internalized.

Goals ARE achievable, “where there is a will, there is a way.” Social mobility IS REAL. People grow up poor and work hard and send their children to college. That happened in MY family so I know it’s true. Cars and driving, road trips, moving across country, these things have a psychological effect, there is freedom in that. I’ve experienced it! These ideas weren’t manufactured in me, they are real!

But looking into American literature from another cultural perspective, I saw that these are not universal truths, they are American ideas local to a place and a part of a system of myth-making, national brand building. From this perspective even rebellious American authors questioning of the status quo became status quo and are absorbed into the brand. A snake biting it’s own tail.

There was some business man in the 80s-90s trying to decide whether to take a job at Apple Computer or at Coca-cola. Steve Jobs asked him, “do you want to put sugar into water or do you want to change the world?” The guy started working for Apple.

But think, he could have changed the world.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

That’s the last bit of The Great Gatsby. The urging, the stretching-out-for, the pretension, reaching toward a goal, but inevitably reaffirming the place they started from. (There are big resonances here in the 20-movements and neutrality work: seeking neutrality of movement we discover the clown.)

So what? Do you give up and quit? Do you cynically sit back, criticizing the efforts of others? Do you say, “Fuck it all! This is who I am now?” These questions were right in the middle of all the texts I was reading back then how couldn’t I have heard them?