Ghetto tourists

This excellent column by one of my PopMatters colleagues, Michael Stephens, argues that American culture seems saturated by violence because middle-class car culture isolates so many consumers from the kind of friction-filled encounters that produce actual violence and instill a wariness and contempt for it. As Stephens writes, “the middle classes almost never intermingle socially with people outside their own race and economic class. The middle class and the poor often live within a few miles of each other, but their social separation is so complete that they might as well occupy parallel universes.” The result is that middle-class consumers, hungry for the thrills of confrontation but socially isolated from it and constitutionally averse to it in reality, become ghetto tourists in simulacrums of dangerous environments — created by MTV, video games such as Grand Theft Auto, hip-hop anthems, TV shows like The Wire, the Internet’s dark underbelly of violent porn and execution videos, etc. Stephens claims that “the DVD player, the IPod and the video game console” are “technologies that maintain the middle class voyeur’s distance from the ‘press and danger’ of life in ghettos and prisons, while displaying a digitized version of those worlds, a ‘hell for eyes and ears’, for entertainment purposes.”

Middle class atomization in America certainly acts as a buffer from experience, and your point that it abstracts Americans from violence and makes them more keen to fetishize it opens up many possible lines of thought. Stephens trace it back to slumming in the 19th century — I thought of insane asylum tours in the 18th century during the ascendency of the “cult of sensibility.” Those slummers sought to affirm their moral superiority to the deranged and insane while proving to themselves their magnaminous capacity to feel. Cultural commodities generally serve that function: they stimulate feeling and flatter us for feeling it — these commodities are harbingers of commercialized, reified feeling, held to be available on demand. Immediacy vanishes in a commercial society as spontaneous feeling becomes a contrived product. We pursue immediacy, “real experience” in ways that contradict the essence of such experiences. We try to buy them, but the price tag always obviates the authentic spontaniety, the realness of experience.

As feeling can be subsumed, metastasized into a product, so can another person’s identity. As other people’s lives become consummables, made into cultural commodities themselves, those people are saddled with an even more acute concern with authenticity. The wigger is never worried about authenticity; he comes from a position of entitlement which makes his identity ultimately an assured thing, a thing he has the social capital to play with. So even though he is the obvious phony, he is sublimely unconcerned — like those fashionistas who wear Che T-shirts with no thought of who he is or what he means to people, thereby reducing Che to a cool icon — the wigger’s appropriation of black identity has the effect of engendering an identity crisis for blacks, which seems to be endlessly played out in black culture in debates over “realness.” Then these discussions of authenticity are simply appropriate whole-cloth by wiggers, for whom authenticty is an applique, exacerbating the situation further, setting the spiral in motion.

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