synthetic zero

August 20th, 2010

Just got back from watching the new Todd Solondz film, Life During Wartime, an intense, brilliantly written, shot, and acted film, a meditation on the meaning of crime and forgiveness, a message to the audience, us, to wake up in our lives, to our lives, how we’re living right here and now, to face the grim reality that we are living in a time of war, even if that war seems far away and disconnected from our moment to moment existence. The characters exist in a world of crazy, caricatured extremes of psychosexual violence and fear, and yet the film isn’t so much about that as it is, in my view, about present awareness, appreciating the people and contexts and the hidden aspects of our lives. The film unfolds in a Tarantino-like fashion, beautifully crafted self-contained vignettes, though the violence isn’t physical but psychological, and each vignette is tightly written and directed with a moment to moment quiet power that is darkly hilarious, mildly disturbing, and viscerally thrilling.

But, strangely, one of the things which I started to think about, somewhat tangentially, after watching the film, while having a conversation with Kat and Susan about the film, was the old East Coast vs West Coast divergence; or really more the DC-New York Northeastern culture corridor, and how it diverges greatly from the culture of the West Coast, and by that I mean the entire West Coast, from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Portland to Seattle. And I was thinking about how, while there’s neurosis and depression and heartbreak and psychological abuse and horror in both regions of the country, there’s something just a bit less dark and entrenched and doomed-feeling about life in the West. Of course, at the same time there’s an artistic and intellectual culture in the Northeast which is vibrant and alive, but I’m not speaking so much about that as I am about the respective “success” cultures in these two regions of our country.

The totems of success in the two regions (again, not including the artistic/intellectual world) really are very different. In the West Coast, of course being a doctor or a lawyer or an MBA or an investment banker are certainly respectable careers, but in no way are they thought to be particularly glamorous or exciting; they’re seen, for the most part, as nice ways to make a decent living, the sort of ordinary, kind of boring life one might choose if you want to live in a place like Palos Verdes (a bland upper-middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles). Sure, it’s nice to live in Palos Verdes. Big houses. But it doesn’t have a hint of glamour or excitement. The desirable careers on the West Coast include being a filmmaker, a web developer, an entrepreneur, an actor, a producer, a writer; even being an engineer or a mountain climber or a yoga instructor or a restaurateur is in many ways seen to be far more exciting than being a corporate attorney or a banker. There’s just no “juice” in those careers, they are invisible, they’re not colorful or interesting, they’re not the things people on the West Coast really dream about becoming. There’s certainly nothing wrong with those careers, they’re perfectly fine, obviously you can make a good living doing them, but they just don’t have much cachet in the West.

But here in the Northeast, while artists and intellectuals are celebrated and admired, for good reason, there’s also considerable glam in any career that just makes a lot of money. Corporate law, investment banking, etc., are not the bland career choices they appear to be on the West Coast, they’re some of the ways one is supposed to be able to achieve true success, life satisfaction, and public validation. Yet it seems as though those achievements are primarily measured here in terms of how much money one makes doing them, more than whether the activity itself is either intrinsically satisfying or how much it contributes to society. It is as though the mere ability to consume is itself seen to be somehow a measure of the value of the activity, a notion which seems simply weird and quixotic to my West Coast sensibilities. This idea, it seems to me, diverts far too many people towards professions which aren’t that interesting (I mean, of course, for some people the law can be a satisfying and interesting profession, for those with a particular interest in it, but I’m speaking of the droves of people drawn to it primarily because it generates income) and which may really not be the best allocation of the brightest minds, so to speak. Valuing mere ability to consume as opposed to ability to produce is to my mind a backwards set of priorities, and generates both grossly inefficient allocation of resources and much less personal happiness all around (and please don’t tell me that investment bankers are actually producing as much value as they consume — maybe some who directly invest in companies do, to some degree, but the more abstract it gets, the less about creating it is. Casino owners don’t produce much value other than perhaps mildly amusing entertainment — investment bankers engaging in abstruse derivatives trades aren’t even creating that. Perhaps they’re providing a bit of value in terms of additional liquidity but this generated value is hardly in proportion to the amount of money they rake off the top of the economy.)

Yes, to some degree I’m being a snob here, and I realize that, naturally, there are some fantastic things to be said about Northeast culture. I live here, I went to school here, my parents lived in Greenwich Village in the 60’s, there’s tons I can say that is great about this place. But when it comes to this issue: the worshiping of the ability to consume, it strikes me as just as pointless and doomed as the competition on Easter Island to build bigger and bigger statues: the worshiping of something that is both meaningless and ultimately barren, leading to the weakening and the potential downfall of the civilization. It’s time to shift the culture to admiring things that actually make a difference, building things, making things, creating things. It is happening here, of course, already, and it is a trend I hope only accelerates (as I noted in another post).

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