Despair, Hope, and the Built World

by Jason Peters on September 15, 2010 · 25 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Region & Place,Writers & Poets

Girlpickingbeans

Rock Island, IL

A description of the human condition: we are habituated to the world long before we become aware of it, and we are aware of it long before we are aware of our habituation to it.

This assumes, of course, that we ever become aware of our habituation. But, whatever our awareness, the fact of our habituation does not change. We are “at home.”

But it is difficult for me to believe that anyone aware of his habituation can remain “at home” in the world for long—I mean this scientized technological everything’s-for-sale world we’re habituated to. If the world isn’t exactly the dung heap (and we the maggots that crawl upon it) that Dulcinea pronounced it to be, it surely isn’t the sort of place we can look at and be particularly proud of or comfortable in. We may be at home, but we are at home only in a kind of somnambulant homelessness. Something needs remodeling, even if we aren’t exactly sure what it is.

But that “something” is precisely what’s at stake. So let us look about.

We are habituated to an immersive ugliness in architecture, civic design, and infrastructure. We are habituated, if not also addicted, to entertainment. (Am I alone in being flummoxed by this?) We are habituated to the alternating rhythms of news and commercial images, to packaging, to around-the-clock shopping, to readily-available gas, to a highly reticulated division of labor, to opinion and opinion polls, to standardized tests, to mobility, to abstract charity, to distraction, to billboards, to noise, to garbage service, to pills for everything from hangovers to hangnails, to sanitized tap water, to a yawning gap between the rich and the poor, to politicians whose main job is to get reelected, to five-cheese frozen pizzas meant to make our lives “better,” and (just to cut the list short) to the promiscuous unthinking use of the word “lifestyle.”

To these and to many other abominations, which time and space and reader patience prohibit my mentioning, we are comfortably habituated. The world and its trappings, its everyday features—indeed, its everydayness—are apparently as unproblematic as the air we breathe.

Which, quite frankly, given the air quality, is a problem.

It is a problem because we’re okay with it. It is a problem because we’re okay with way too much. It is a problem because we’re indifferent to the fact that (as Wordsworth said) “the world is too much with us.”

We could usefully turn this into a thought experiment, I suppose: what are we okay with that we ought to be throwing our shoes at?

I won’t presume to speak for anyone other than myself, but here goes: with something like the heat of a thousand stars I hate movie theaters, drive-thru restaurants, Lincoln Navigators, contemporary poetry, loud motorcycles, Hormel pork tenderloins, Time magazine, the NBA, travel plazas, committee meetings, Krustian bookstores, loose turtlenecks on shapely girls, televisions (especially those in cars and public spaces), bad preaching, lite (and light) beer, urban condescension, suburban “life,” the new definition of “green,” sociologists on Schwinn three-speeds with upright handlebars, the misuse of “like,” democrats in Burkenstocks, republicans in wingtips, and barefoot libertarians—to name only a few abominations that the late great Hayduke would surely have torched, sabotaged, or blown up were he among us still to see it all.

(Hayduke, come quickly!)

But—to return to the original point—we are habituated to the world long before we become aware of it. And as for our habituation: that is something of which, I think, we are only dimly aware, and only for brief moments. Then it’s right back to The World As I Found It, as if the world were a piece of daytime drama for floozy housewives in their Nike running suits shimmering under their chemical hair.

We should do better than this, shouldn’t we? Shouldn’t we apply something better than a penny wisdom to the built world, which, after all, needn’t be the built world? I can’t understand why we are reconciled to cell phones, shopping malls, and cleaning ladies. I don’t understand why we can’t talk less, chase less, and do our own work. I don’t understand why it is so difficult for us to see that the world we have is the world we’ve conjured—and also that other possibilities are there for the conjuring. (I mean this practically and also phenomenologically, but that is venom for another day.) I don’t understand why more people don’t go furiously monkeywrenching across this sorry despoiled land of ours.

What we’re doing is manifestly not okay. And in the end no amount of Prozac is going to convince us that it is. The built world is an offense to all the senses as well as to the imagination; it is generating massive amounts of despair and ennui.

Stand in the parking lot of the Target and tell me this is not so. Stand there and tell yourself it is not so. Tell it to Savannah, who just pulled up in her Yukon after dropping Reese and Colt and Hunter off at daycare. Facebook your findings to your “friends” (and don’t worry a nanosecond about using “facebook” as a verb.)

Ah! be still, my soul. And thou, reader, stay!

Of course there is hope. There is hope in the New Urbanists. There is hope in the odd DDAs across the country, in the bicycles, the clubs, the various movements, the Thoreauvians, the simplifiers, the small farmers, the farmers’ markets, and in the young people who aren’t going to school to bankroll “lifestyles.” There is hope in all the single spies, in all the battalions, in all the little armies of dissent.

Or, rather, there is hope in what’s being done by those who have managed to fend off the despair and the ennui.

For I would say a word in favor of hope—of hope not as an end but as a means. I say that there is hope in what’s being done because it seems to me that hope is always in the means. We are hopeful only when we behave, or see people behaving, hopefully. And hope has this distinctive quality: it increases in the very practice of it.

Go test this some Saturday morning. Walk between the purveyors of sweet corn and tomatoes and homemade soap and tell me hope is not alive. Stand amid the booths of the farmers’ market and tell me this is not so—even if Savannah and the Fertility Triplets are nowhere to be found. To Wal-mart with them!

Wordsworth worried that,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

Wordsworth’s preference—to be “a pagan suckled in a creed outworn” so that he might “have glimpses” that would make him “less forlorn”—may not be everyone’s preference, but I think we’re going to have to recover something of that romantic sensibility if we ever hope to unbuild the built world—the hideously ugly and soul-crushing world that needn’t be but is—and then habituate—nay, first conjure, then habituate—ourselves to something better.

And then do our own work and name our children appropriately.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Sam M September 15, 2010 at 6:06 am

Sanitized tap water is an abomination? I suppose you could easily remedy this problem by keeping a dropper of cholera on hand to spice things up a bit. Although I think it is better to be habituated to people named Savannah than people dying of water-born illness.

Agreed on the the loose turtlenecks, however. Savannah has her merits.

avatar Jordan Smith September 15, 2010 at 11:04 am

Mr. Peters:

You have an exceptionally high IQ, you are good looking, athletic, highly educated, married the woman you fell in love with (and seem happily married still), have a decent job, healthy family and probably didn’t grow up in a dysfunctional or abusive home and probably never had a leering uncle sit you on his knee in the basement when your parents were out for a walk. You are not daily reminded of what you can never be or confronted with what you can never become. You do not feel broken or worthless. In short, you are among a very, very small percentage of human beings. You are blessed.

If you are looking for the meaning of entertainment or any of the other blights you profess not to understand, they are as you suggested with the word “addicted”, drugs. And many, many people are in pain from being none of the things you are, or from not having the blessings you do, and feel deeply alone, unloved, alienated and lost in a culture that tells them they are worthless and offers few authentic values and little meaning. So they medicate with the many options provided by our Empire of Illusion.

In addition to wandering the corn rows and listening the sheep munch on grass, I also highly recommend spending some time listening to someone really hurting. And with your keen insight, help them understand something of their malady, and offer them this hope of which you speak. Who knows, you might gain some insight yourself, and answer some of the questions that seem to so vex you.

avatar Kyle September 15, 2010 at 11:43 am

I certainly won’t claim to speak on behalf of Mr Peters vis-a-vis bacterial infections, but I would say that it’s possible to think critically about the late modern world without also having something against chlorine. Or, for that matter, many of the achievements of medical science. Then again, the matter of scientific achievements tends to come up in these conversations. Do you also have to be on the side of frozen pizzas, ten-lane highways, and shopping malls to also be on the side of antibiotics?

But I may be derailing the conversation.

avatar D.W. Sabin September 15, 2010 at 11:44 am

Alright now dammit, exactly what is so WRONG with a 5 cheese pizza?

As to the Shite-Show, one can look to the challenging rhetoric of Voegelin and come away knowing that this popular culture we have cobbled together is neither reality nor does one have to give it much stock….even though it is fertile territory for the preternaturally enflamed such as myself.

What is missing is not so much a “better way”, human culture has always been more than a tad carnivalesque….but what is missing is we have no good satirist right now. Someone who can pull back the curtain a bit and paint the sordid picture for what it is, in a grand pictorial manner. Thompson and Zappa died way too soon, one from Cancer and the other from the Cancer of cheap thrills in booze and pills.

Ole Ed was too laconic and xeric for this kind of attack. a Swift will come.

avatar David September 15, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Mr Peters this post has done the impossible. Just as I was tiring of hearing myself rant, for I had long grown bored of others, I am invigorated by yours.

If there were still a center it would not hold under the present pressures, but as hub is no longer present chaos will reign vigorously.

However, the hope you speak of comes to me directly through the recognition, the presence of mind, that no matter how imperfectly I realize my life or observe in the whirling cacophony around me the utter calamity of soul; that my prayers are still prayers, that my herb garden still grows, and that even the disjointed act of rooting as much as I am feebly able in my life’s condition (that previous sins are largely responsible for) is good.

In this sense, what I have learned from FPR and other worthy influences in my life over the last few years, is that there is no ideal conservative life. There is merely living conservatively. There is no golden age of tradition, there is merely receiving what has been given.

Thank you Mr Peters.

avatar David September 15, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Incidentally Jordan, I greatly sympathize with your criticisms here, however, it is precisely because I live with so many broken-addicts that I am so desirous to scourge the filth that poisons them from the cultural landscape.

It was my addictions that led me to the bottom multiple times in my own life. It is the rehabilitation process that is life-giving. When we talk about burying the old man in baptism this is the very one we speak of. Rising again to a new life that St Paul warns us we should not attempt to soil with our previous indulgences.

This is why it is so critical that we personally and collectively stand against such ravages even when most who are still ensnared will perceive our efforts to pull their narcotics from their grip as an assault on their person.

I know that I react forcefully when someone suggests that it is time to leave behind my old appetites which on the surface seem to assist me in “getting by in this screwed up world” but in fact are poison, both to that world and to me.

avatar Empedocles September 15, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I think peak oil will do away with all the things you (and I) hate.

Loved the reference to Hayduke. I have a very lefty friend who couldn’t understand how I could be opposed to Obamacare. I replied “Hayduke would be against it” and he, an Abbey fan, understood what I meant.

avatar Jordan Smith September 15, 2010 at 9:00 pm

David:

I am as much a fan of Peters as the next FPR’er, and I too detest and encourage resistance against many of the evils listed above. I just don’t find them hard to understand. And I suspect Peters writing would grow even more effective were he to develop a compassion and understanding for the people enslaved to the things that grieve him so.

Alas, too often compassion is bought with brokenness, and I don’t wish that on anyone.

avatar David September 15, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Jordan,

I am, myself, challenged by that very fact too often. To the extent that I have any virtue (and I claim very little) it has been hard bought with events and circumstances which I would not wish on my enemies.

If it is true that any FRPer lacks compassion I would pray that God grants it to the by some other means than I have known, but knowing that I am an ignorant man I also pray that His will be done. In the end that is better medicine than I could prescribe.

avatar D. Hall September 15, 2010 at 11:02 pm

What is a DDA? If it’s hopeful I want in.

avatar Fr. Mark September 16, 2010 at 8:28 am

What a chastening delight!

I’m curious about the author’s decision not to quote the first line of Wordsworth’s fine poem, inasmuch as it provides insight into the fundamental nature of the problem – “The world is too much with us…”

Alas, our problem is the world – understood in the traditional sense of the realm of disordered passions, deranged proclivities, the swirl of logismoi that tempt us to seek our salvation in the false comforts and destructive delusions so eloquently lamented.

The saints remind us, and I think the author would concur, that the unbuilding of the false world and the habituation into that which is truly new and life-giving is the ascetic life. Or in the words of some wonderfully cantankerous brethren, “death to the world.”

Lord have mercy!

avatar Russell Arben Fox September 16, 2010 at 9:48 am

…with something like the heat of a thousand stars I hate…sociologists on Schwinn three-speeds with upright handlebars

Ouch. That cuts close to home. You’re a harsh one, Mr. Peters.

avatar Sam M September 16, 2010 at 10:25 am

“…Schwinn three-speeds with upright handlebars…”

I also wondered about this. is Mr. Peters a fan of sleaker bikes with curved handlebars? Dirt bikes? Does he just happen to dislike Schwinnn as a company?

I ask because of what I mentioned above. In countries where biking is truly a part of everyday life, the bikes of choice are very much like Schwinn three-speeds, and very much unlike $2500 Cannondale racing bikes.

And here-in lies the cultura disconnect. If “biking” is known as something only for the super-fit, only for the elite, only for the rich, you are never going to have a vibrant biking culture in which people bike to get places. You end up, instead, with a culture of recreational/hobbyist biking.

I think one reason people don’t engage in this activity or that activity is the snootiness that descends from enthusiasts of certain cultures. Generally, I think it’s why people take up bait fishing but not fly fishing, bowling but not golf, beer drinking but not “micro” beer drinking.

Some people aren’t always interested in “artisan bread” and a three hour discussion about how to capture natural yeast from a cabbage leaf. They just want a sandwich.

So… long live the Schwinn three-speed, and any other bike people want to ride. A cardiologist on a Huffy BMX? Fine by me. Coal miner on a Mongoose? Carry on, sir.

avatar David September 16, 2010 at 11:23 am

Shouldn’t we be buying locally made bikes with tires made from oil drawn up from local wells and appreciating the steel frame as a representative of local limited resources because there is no aluminium deposits nearby?

I’d love to have a set of handlebars actually made by a local blacksmith. And a seat tanned by my uncle from the hide of my grandmother’s cow.

avatar Sam M September 16, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Great article about bike styles here:

http://bikecommutetips.blogspot.com/2008/08/dutch-bicycles-finding-market-in-us.html

That is, if you really want people to commute on bikes, you want something even slower and less manly that a three-speed Schwinn. You want a Dutch bike.

I think more than zoning laws will need to change for these to catch on in the US, where we buy “gear” rather than “tools,” and where we “signal” rather than “use.”

What say, Mr. Peters? Will you be adding a super-practical Dutch bike to the family fleet anytime soon?

avatar John Médaille September 16, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Well, If you don’t like Time Magazine, this might help:
http://www.theonion.com/video/time-announces-new-version-of-magazine-aimed-at-ad,17950/

avatar TDD September 17, 2010 at 6:02 am

Romans 12:2
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Jeremiah 29:7
Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you, for in its shalom, you will find your shalom.

avatar D.W. Sabin September 17, 2010 at 8:43 am

Peters, aside from being a shameless sybarite of the braggart’s kitchen is now exposed as a Bike Bigot of the lowest order. I suppose now that we shall soon hear some Fatwa against Itralian Swiss Colony Wine.In case you do not know of it Mr. Peters, it is a desert wine, taken with twinkies, deep fried if initiative allows.

As to architecture however, I cannot agree more, the great majority of the publicly built civic and commercial architecture of the last 50 years is , to be blunt, merde. Hopefully, in demolition and salvage something good will come of it. It’s not as though it does not exist, It’s that it is, by and large, hidden away in a luxury ghetto that rarely extends to acts of benevolence for the little people. The street is flipped the bird by petulant modernity, like everything else in its’ gluttonous insensate path.

But shame on you for bullying those Sociologist upright riders, comporting themselves to campus in the manner of that mean old lady in the Wizard of Oz.

avatar Rob G September 17, 2010 at 1:29 pm

I am declaring this essay my manifesto. I am printing it, enlarging it and hanging it on my wall, to be read as often as necessary. It is my Desiderata.

Things I hate:

Escalades, especially the ones that look like faux pickup trucks
The Bluetooth or any other flippin’ cellphone you wear in your ear
Cellphones
Interstate highways
Children’s play-yards made of plastic
Robb Report Christianity
Robb Report anything else
Pink fake-ripe tomatoes
Texting
McMansions
Venerable old houses “updated” to look like McMansions
Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, etc. etc. etc.
Hummers
“New and Improved!” anything
Rap and hip-hop
“Diversity and tolerance”
Hollywood Leftists
Corporate Cheerleading Rightists
High-fructose corn syrup

avatar D.W. Sabin September 18, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Ho Ho Ho, Rob G….”Venerable old houses “updated’ to look like McMansions”. this appears to be one of the more advanced dystopian skills of the age. One really has to work hard and spend much to make an antique house look like a repro. But it is done frequently these days.

Some people should not be given money, it makes them dangerous.

avatar Sam M September 18, 2010 at 12:54 pm

I think these kinds of lists are a little too easy, and offer too low a bar. They make us feel good about ourselves. I think the bigger challenge, and the more useful, would be to offer lists of things about the modern American consumer-driven society that we love. Because in a way, they are all integrated in some way. So along these lines, here’s ly list of guilty pleasures… things I admire and scraf and otherwise enjoy despite my wider claims to aesthetic superiority, and despite the fact that they would be impossible in a truly traditional or otherwise “local” world. I love:

Showers. (Hot, and daily.)
Arby’s, basically anything on the menu.
Muscle cars.
Fresh produce in all seasons. Including strawberries in winter.
Coffee.
Chocolate.
American standards of hair removal.
Casual day.
Paper.
Bananas.
Citrus.
Interstate highways.
European cheeses of various sorts.
Beer.
Wine.
Shakira.

avatar Rob G September 18, 2010 at 1:10 pm

“I think these kinds of lists are a little too easy, and offer too low a bar.”

I disagree. These are things that modern society tells us we’re supposed to love, or at very least accept without complaint. Well, guess what? Modern society can go scrub its collective arse — this white boy is complainin.

“They make us feel good about ourselves”

Standard complaint of the comfortable against the ascetic. Thing is, if one is taking an ascetic approach to these things, he knows already that there is the temptation to condescension and self-righteousness, and will seek to avoid it. That doing the right thing may make you feel good about yourself should be no impediment to doing it anyways. It’s the patting oneself on the back that’s objectionable, not the thing you’re doing the patting for.

avatar Sam M September 20, 2010 at 8:18 am

“These are things that modern society tells us we’re supposed to love, or at very least accept without complaint.”

I hardly think so. Many of the things consumerism sells us are things that we INSTINCTIVELY want. Bigger houses? A mechanical device that can get us to a destination at 80 miles per hour? Remember: coffee and tobacco were not invented on Madison Avenue. They are things that various cultures have elevated to spiritual significance for thousands of years. Consumer culture just made them easier to get in more places. Not everything we “buy” is a useless teenage mutant ninja turtle or some such. So the REAL challenge is to strike a balanace between engaging with this culture enough to benefit from it, but not so much that you become a slave to it. Even the Amish, for instance, do not swear off all technology. They consider each advance, accepting some and denying others.

As such, I think that any “list” of horrible deplorables is almost by nature “snooty” unless it comes with some kind of admission of “guilt,” or countervailing list of “stuff I like.” I just LOVE it when I am in a liquor store and I see someone with a “buy local” t-shirt on, with all the right gear and the right car and the kids with the right kind of everything, buying a bottle of Australian shiraz. Goood for him, I guess, but spare me the moralizing.

For the vast majority of people, the real guiding principle is “buy local, unless the local version of what I want is not up my standards, in which case I will have it trucked in from the Port of Baltimore. But those other people who buy X from Y? They are destroying the culture. And the plannet.”

I am just as guilty as anyone. I look down my nose at people who buy fruit from South America. But go look at the wine in my cabinet right now. You’ll see a lot of “California” on the labels, despite the fact that there’s all kinds of grapes growing here. In fact, I could grow them in my yard. I don’t, though.

avatar Marion Miner September 20, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Hahaha… “Shakira.”

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