Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Dreams of Red Havana

From an op-ed piece by Roger Cohen:

Since visiting Cuba a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about the visual assault on our lives. Climb in a New York taxi these days and a TV comes on with its bombardment of news and ads. It’s become passé to gaze out the window, watch the sunlight on a wall, a child’s smile, the city breathing.

In Havana, I’d spend long hours contemplating a single street. Nothing — not a brand, an advertisement or a neon sign — distracted me from the city’s sunlit surrender to time passing. At a colossal price, Fidel Castro’s pursuit of socialism has forged a unique aesthetic, freed from agitation, caught in a haunting equilibrium of stillness and decay.

Such empty spaces, away from the assault of marketing, beyond every form of message (e-mail, text, twitter), erode in the modern world, to the point that silence provokes a why-am-I-not-in-demand anxiety. Technology induces ever more subtle forms of addiction, to products, but also to agitation itself. The global mall reproduces itself, its bright and air-conditioned sterility extinguishing every distinctive germ.


Roger goes on to describe how Paris has succumbed to the modern spectacle, something that his visit to Havana made quite clear to him. I've often heard the same said about New York City, that since the 1980s it has become just facade of its former unique "city-ness", and now just another billboard for the same retail culture that dominates American suburbia.

Roger is also right in highlighting the addictive nature of what he calls agitation - whether it be in the form of computers, IM, cell phones, blackberries, iPods, television, radio, road-rage or what-have-you.

I think the agitation comes from the dual alienation these technologies, activites and public spaces foster, alienation from other humans as well as alienation from oneself. Though much modern technology, from the cell phone to automobiles and blogs, promise to bring people together and foster communication, they in fact cause a profound alienation between people. All communication becomes mediated communication, a non-physical, disconnected and ultimately unsatisfying communication that does little to reify our identity nor foster a true sense of connectedness or community with those around us.

This is what we want and need, it is a physical and emotional need intrinsic to the human condition. We become agitated because it is impossible to attain via these forms. Just as consuming products or eating fast-food does not "fill us up" - nor do these commiditized forms of communication fill us up. They promise to fill us up, but leave us empty, making us crave more, while at the same time making us afraid to forge real connections.

Ultimately we are left empty, afraid and alone; impotent to change because we are not even concious that another world is possible; until we see that one is, like Roger did.

No comments:

Post a Comment