Despair, Hope, and the Built World

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.

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