Rootlessness and restlessness in white America

I’ve been thinking for a long time about my own sense of almost complete alienation from the white Protestant suburbanism I myself came from and that is often thought of as the neutral American identity against which all others are measured. For some time I’ve been thinking and sometimes acting on the question of how it is that I can figure my own deeply-felt need to find a time and place in which I might belong without engaging in the sort of cultural appropriation that makes the Other a source of commodified artifacts. Those artifacts are problematic for about a million reasons, and not least because they seem to signify “authenticity” but actually were ganked–sometimes with lethal force–out of context and stripped of the layers of interpretation that would surround them in their home cultures. It is that interpretation that makes them human, makes them “real” in the sense of having a kind of mass or gravitational pull of their own, and makes them appropriate only to the time and place and people who have done the work of interpretation and mythologizing that invests a sacred object with power. In other words, commodified cultural artifacts can never actually “be” what alienated white Americans need them to be, because they have already been made into replicas of themselves once introduced into the circuit of commerce and consumption.

This is not to posit an essential “authenticity” that is out of the reach of outsiders to a given culture, but rather to say that the very cultures which produce culture produce it in a way that is deeply discursive and therefore incapable of being understood deeply through mere consumption. Mythopoiesis is itself a nearly infinite layering of interpretation that never finds its origin in a particular sign, much less a particular object, but which creates a sort of palimpsest to which there is not a single key that can be printed on a cardboard insert that fits inside of shrinkwrap packaging. Thus the question I would put to cultural appropriation is whose interpretive work are you paying for, and–for not only is it troubling to figure out who gets the money–why do we think we can buy it at all? The question is complicated further when indigenous groups protest that their cultures simply are not for sale, and that anyone trying to sell it to you is not selling you the “real thing”–for “real thing” does not refer to an original object or even a single experience so much as it refers to the state of having been articulated out of a multifaceted, multilayered, and yet particularly localized experience that cannot be transferred to someone else no matter how much money is spent or how many pilgrimages to [insert your exotic location here] a person with the privilege to spend that kind of money might make.

In Alas, a Blog, Julie writes, of the search for authenticity that white America has made an obsession, that “[r]eally, at the core, it’s all about justice. I can’t go to a march and then celebrate holidays by buying things. That’s not justice – not for all the people these systems oppress, not for all the people whose histories are erased.” It is a complex and nuanced blog piece, worth reading apart from anything I have to say about it, but I want to address this idea of erased history in regard both to Euro-American conquest and colonization of, well, Everything–or the attempt to do so–and the way that history is taught in America, especially in white America, although I suspect that the way history is taught in white America is not much different from the way it is taught to Americans who don’t happen to be coded as “white,” either. I have not, however, had a great deal of experience with history as it is taught in primary and secondary American public schools today; my own experience with the teaching of American history to children ended some thirtymumble years ago.

But I get the distinct impression that not much has changed: from all reports, American history in public schools still reifies an ideal American mythology that stands in for what should be a nearly indigestible chunk of experiential data from voices long-silenced. And critical thinking is still suspended until one gets to college, and then is only instigated there if one is lucky enough to take a course that actually asks one to question one’s assumptions about something quite basic, like what literature is for, or what Christianity is, or why there are gendered restrooms everywhere you go. Unfortunately–and this I do have more recent experience with–the production of business-ready, employable labor units has for the most part replaced any sort of conversation about ideas in the academy; the latter is “reserved” for those who find business boring, uncompelling, or otherwise not worth pursuing. Although some universities give at least lip service to teaching critical thought, and require core courses that supposedly instill critical thinking skills, the fact is that it is impossible to teach, in one semester, the imperative to question even one’s most cherished assumptions, when those cherished assumptions have been swaddled and bathed and carefully tended for a good seventeen years by the time a student arrives in a classroom where they might be examined. What’s worse, what passes for “critical thinking” in many university classes has devolved into a kind of academic reactionary response–which although it may be understandable, given the generally hostile atmosphere towards intellectual life in the US, still does not do justice to the process of critical thinking–wherein one simply substitutes a so-called postmodern nihilism for actual criticism. Critical thought is not, contrary to popular belief, a simple refutation of Everything We Hold Dear. What it should be, though, is a minute examination of the limits of public discourse and, especially for Americans, the limits of the public mythologizing of history.

Before I start laying out what would be a proposal for a thesis-length paper, let me just stop for a moment to say a couple of things about mythology and history. Some talking heads would have us believe that when history is exposed as mythology it is simultaneously dismissed as necessarily “untrue,” but that reflects only the most simplistic understanding of what mythology actually might be. “Myth” has come to be opposed to “truth” in our popular, hyper-scientific rationality (to the degree that we actually understand science, which we usually don’t, but that’s another topic altogether), but this denies the power of language and discourse in creating truth as truth. Here I will just say to see Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” and then Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions before getting back to me about the constructed nature of truth in every human discipline. For to say that truth is constructed is not simply to refute it as “untrue”; in fact, taken to its (il)logical (non)conclusion, such a view of truth ultimately questions the very ground upon which we base the distinction between truth and falsity. But I do not have room to explain this any further here. Let’s just say that myth is powerful, quite aside from questions as to whether it is true, and that power ultimately renders questions of truth moot, with mythology filling in for what we know as Real at almost every turn. Oh and I suppose that I should warn you that what I am saying is heresy.

History, then, is also a type of myth. This is not to question its verity, although I do intend fully to place into question the type of history most Americans are taught in elementary and secondary public schools–but not because it is mythical. The question to ask of history is whose experience is represented in any given narrative. This is why I quote Julie at Alas: justice can only begin to be served when the variety of experiences presented to us as the substance of American History is multiplied dramatically from its current rate of representation. I do not know how history is taught in K-12 education today, but I know that I learned basically the Disney version of American history: on Thanksgiving, we dressed as “Pilgrims” and “Indians,” as though that “First Thanksgiving” actually happened. In Georgia, where I was taught in one of the best public school systems of the Deep South, almost no mention was made of the people who lived in our region before the English and French got there; it was not until I was an adult that I even realized that the Trail of Tears started in the Deep South.

Much has been written on the lack of representation of indigenous experience in American history, and I’m not going to expand greatly on that topic here. The above Thanksgiving link leads to Oyate.org, where you can read opinions on this topic that are better informed than mine are. If you are a white American and not from an area of the US where indigenous people are recognized as still existing (even though they do continue to do so–everywhere), at the very least pick up a copy of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and read it, like, tomorrow. And by tomorrow, I mean Monday April 20, 2009, not “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

What I would actually like to talk about is what Julie at Alas talks about: the experience of white people whose ancestors are not uniformly composed of the original European colonists of North America. Well, actually I’d like to talk about anyone of Euro-American descent, and what it means to say that America has no culture, or a shallow culture, or nothing for people to hold onto as their own tradition, nothing that is rooted any more deeply than in the cartoons we were taught to believe in in our History classrooms. Because something quite profound is going on underneath this culture–or rather is not going on, but it seems that many white Americans would like it to, or need it to, or something. My sense is that if you are a white American who has been taught that our culture is neutral, natural, and without historical complication or narrative interruption but instead represents the unbroken line of all of human progress, that there is something deeply unsatisfying in that “tradition,” and that it is so because it lacks the mythological underpinnings of an actual diversity of experience, and replaces that thick mythos with a thin, idealized, ultimately unbelievable tale of exceptionalism and righteousness.

When I hear indigenous voices saying that white Americans need to rediscover their own traditions–and I have heard this from so many corners that I cannot begin to remember where all I have heard it, other than most recently during the Native American protest mounted at the famed (around here) attempted Burner’s “Go Native” party, where an unidentified Hopi woman is quoted as saying, “If you want to be spiritual–go be a Druid or something”–when I hear this, I ask myself exactly where in my own tradition I should look. The Christianity I was brought up with only left me with a raging case of Complex PTSD (and I do not hyperbolize here–it’s a real diagnosis in my long list of psychiatric maladies), my ancestors homesteaded on recently stolen Lakota land, and on one side of my family sexual abuse of children runs so rampant that no one knows of anyone in at least the last three generations who has gone through childhood untouched. No one.

I can only speak for myself, of course, but when I look to “white” traditions, all I see is brutality, intolerance, and rationalized child abuse; thievery and a puritanical zeal that left many of my own family members to seek relief in suicide. Where do I come from? And why would I want to go back there?

I do not have an answer for any of this yet and in fact am somewhat frantically casting about for at least a few possible ways out. I think, though, that there has been, in both European and American historiography, a massive erasure of experience that does not uphold hyper-rationalized consumption and production at all costs, and of that which contravenes the perception that we are the chosen people and must lead the entire world towards the only logically possible future–when in fact our own excess and greed has impoverished millions and has led to unprecedented environmental degradation. But I think that other experiences do exist, somewhere, signs of them, within the European tradition itself. Lately I have been studying the Neolithic Revolution in Europe, which happened around 9000 years ago, and it seems that no one yet can tell whether Europe was conquered by farmers from Western Asia or whether indigenous Europeans adopted farming themselves. Genetic studies have been construed to support either argument, but few have put forth anything more complex than these two alternatives. I do not know exactly what I am looking for, but it seems to me that sometime from the Neolithic revolution to the conversion of the continent to Christianity, European tradition lost, or purposely forgot or was driven to forget, its affiliation with the rest of what is, or what appears–and I make that distinction as a distinction between “being” as a noun and “appearing” as a verb. Monotheistic traditions are unique in placing humanity apart from nature, and Western philosophy and science in particular have treated our surroundings, apart from which we could not survive, as a manipulable, saleable, disposable object to which we ourselves bear no relation.

This, I think, is our greatest error, and has produced an alienation so deep that during the era of colonization Europe was prepared to sacrifice the entire globe to find a place to call home–this willingness to violence seems to have been passed on to the US and takes as its fuel our continued alienation from nearly everything and everyone, ultimately embodied in a vague but widespread belief that as Christians, we are not of this world. No, I am not Christian anymore. Why would I be? I want to live my life now, rather than in some static heaven where nothing ever changes, develops, grows, matures, deepens or otherwise becomes more beautiful.

The objectification of “nature” has also led to some of our greatest innovations, but would it have been possible to produce the kind of technology we enjoy without abstracting ourselves out of the landscape upon which we operate? What would a technological society look like if it recognized its relationship with the Earth especially, but also with the vast, heterogeneous, unpredictable universe as it is, as we are, not simply products of that universe but one small stream of consciousness that is, at least partially, the universe observing itself? Life is the consequence of a great melée, an orderly, chaotic riot of elemental forces that themselves are orderly and chaotic. In severing our connection with what we cannot remember but which nonetheless holds us in proximity to the phenomenal–that which appears to be–we have actually amputated our own divinity. Which may be why, at a popular level, monotheism projects god as a person from whom we have been divorced through our own imperfections. Because this god is not divinity; divinity is precisely the vulnerability of matter and energy to imperfection, entropy, and decay. It is not only our own ability to suffer, but that of all that surrounds us as well. Somewhere, during one overturning of worldview and belief or another, what turned out to be Christian Europe forgot this.

And so where does that leave the dislocated, alienated, spiritually thirsty, postmodern WASPish American? Well, maybe we need to do some archaeological work and uncover our own forgotten past, which was local, particular, and made of experiences that number near infinity–because that is what experience always does. It is a multidisciplinary sort of work, because the texts that exist to be read as encoded experience in anyone’s tradition are of a multitude of genres, objects, traces, and sometimes even documents–although rarely, as it turns out. I do not mean by any of this that romanticization of some Golden Age is going to save us, for nothing is going to save us, and that is precisely the point. We are not here to save anyone; nor are we here to be saved. If we gave that up, our own Messiah complex, and started reading those texts which have been cast aside, forgotten, suppressed even here in the land of supposed complete freedom where each of us gets to sort of choose how it is we will scramble to pay the rent, I think that maybe we could begin to understand what cutural complexity is, what it means to belong to an imperfect world rather than to have been cast out of paradise in a cosmic game of one-upmanship, and actually to begin to figure different ways of being, of doing, of acting, that do not require the sacrifice of so many lives.

Maybe. It is not that I am afraid of commitment–although I am but it is beside the point–but rather that the world we inhabit is made out of maybe: potential, the promise of something probably unexpected.

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5 thoughts on “Rootlessness and restlessness in white America

  1. I really enjoying reading this. You laid out a broad range of ideas to consider. My mind will enjoy contemplating the various points you’ve written about. Thank you!

  2. And critical thinking is still suspended until one gets to college, and then is only instigated there if one is lucky enough to take a course that actually asks one to question one’s assumptions about something quite basic, like what literature is for, or what Christianity is, or why there are gendered restrooms everywhere you go. . . .Critical thought is not, contrary to popular belief, a simple refutation of Everything We Hold Dear. What it should be, though, is a minute examination of the limits of public discourse and, especially for Americans, the limits of the public mythologizing of history.

    I guess I don’t completely understand your conception of critical thinking skills. It seems to be that is a very limited understanding of critical thinking whose sole purpose is to critique our most highly cherished beliefs and assumptions. I realize you modify this in the last sentence of the paragraph I quoted, but the purpose of critical thinking even then still seems to be one of critique.

    But I always thought of critical thinking as the ability to extrapolate and interpret, which is a bit different than what I think you’re putting forward.

  3. Hi Eric,

    I don’t mean to, in this short piece, characterize critical thinking fully; it can do a number of things, but I do believe that it is called “critical” because it must include “critique.” But critique is not an automatic reaction against whatever one conceives of as the Status Quo. Rather, it is an examination of its subject–be it the status quo or something else–for its logical limits and/or consequences, and to do that, one must be able to extrapolate, interpret, analyze rhetorical maneuvers, and of course apply some sort of logic (which need not be binary logic, but should probably be grounded in some sort of reasonable first principles, which themselves can vary widely, even until they almost don’t look like first principles any more. But that’s another topic).

    So “critique” is not necessarily “criticism” in the popular sense: criticism as always being some sort of negative judgment regarding something, like a listing of its shortcomings or inconsistencies. It can be that, but it need not always be, and in fact when I encounter “critical thought” that only knows how to say “no” to any proposition you put in front of it I assume I am on the receiving end of something like knee-jerk nihilism, which critique most definitely is not. Critique can be constructive, and not just in that bitter-pill sense of “constructive criticism”: it can actually be creative, and build new things rather than tear old ones down. It should, though, be critiquing itself as it goes–according to whatever its own terms are, at the very least, and possibly according to outside concerns as well.

    Critique changes with context, but I think that without critique, “critical” thought is no longer critical thought. I also believe that critique does not always look like what one might assume critique should look like. Poetry can be critique, without ever even saying “if..then..so..therefore” etc. But a performative critique like that can be difficult to spot. It’s kind of fun, though.

  4. Thanks. I think I understand more what you mean now.

    I think one other lingering question in my mind is:

    from all reports, American history in public schools still reifies an ideal American mythology that stands in for what should be a nearly indigestible chunk of experiential data from voices long-silenced.

    This may be true, but if it is an “indigestible chunk of experiential data” how could we incorporate such material in a logical organization that would make sense to a high school student? Doesn’t a student need basic factual information in order to effectively engage in high-order critical thinking skills?

  5. I would say that that sentence would probably be better written as two sentences, with the latter saying something like history should begin by reconsidering said experiential data, and reconstruct a more critical narrative to be taught in public schools. As-is, it would be difficult to teach; it would be like teaching historiography instead of history itself, and that’s more of a college-level or even graduate-level discipline.

    Although I think, honestly, if we tried to teach a more inclusive, critical history from the earliest grades onward, high school students would be more prepared to deal with the thornier questions of whose experiences necessarily get left out of history. There are many complicated extenuating circumstances that American public education has to deal with–most immediately pressing is the huge differential between funding of rich school districts and poor ones, for instance–but overall, I think we could challenge American students to think more complexly than we currently do.

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