Monday, February 16, 2009


In this week's NYT Book Review, Jennifer Schuessler brings up a really interesting point made by Greil Marcus twenty years ago. Apparently I missed it the first time around, but it seems more true today than ever: the word "surviving" has come to mean the same thing as "living."
In his 1989 cult hit “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century,” Greil Marcus uncorked a memorable riff about the obsession with surviving in ’70s pop hits like “I Will Survive,” “Soul Survivor” and “Staying Alive”: “Through the magic of ordinary language, ‘survival’ and its twin, ‘survivor,’ wrote the 1960s out of history as a mistake and translated the 1970s performance of any act of personal or professional stability (holding a job, remaining married, staying out of a mental hospital or simply not dying) into heroism. First corrupted as a reference to those ‘survivors’ of ‘the Sixties’ who were now engaged in ‘real life,’ the word contained an implacable equation: survival was real life.”
Schuessler goes on to note that the NYT archives show 134 occurrences of the word "survivor" in 1980 and 652 in 2008. She does not make any suggestions as to why this has happened, and since I haven't read Marcus, I can only venture what is probably a platitude about post-war generations who feel guilty about being too comfortable. With few exceptions, the privileged classes in this country have not been called upon to do much of anything, other than hold a job and--if it suits us, or is allowed to us in the first place--remain married.

It's one reason Bush's admonition to the nation after 9/11--Go shopping!--was profoundly disappointing to the point of ruin. We aren't capable of anything else, he seemed to be telling us; and worse, he said it with no sense of how little we'd all come to expect of ourselves. Again, I think it started with Reagan, who, with great rhetorical skill, turned selfishness into patriotism. Want to help your country? Call your congressman, he told us, and tell him you want lower taxes. Don't help the poor; don't volunteer for the Peace Corps or the military (it's the poor's job to get killed, and we'll be sure to praise them to the heavens for doing so). Don't plant those damn polluting trees. All these things are counterproductive. But sit on your growing ass and gloat about not toppling over--you're a patriot!

For a generation, we, the relatively well-off,* have had no expectations placed on us as citizens. So many of us have turned to asking things of ourselves for ourselves--overcoming addictions, real or perceived, for instance. As the flip side of what we now call survival, self-improvement is certainly not a bad thing. But it has become an end in itself. With no larger implications, all one's personal struggles and triumphs become magnified to epic scale.

People do want something to be asked of them. They want to struggle with inertia, to translate their personal success into lasting significance. It's clear that part of Obama's appeal is that he promised to ask us to sacrifice, though what that entails, none of us really knows yet. In any case, with this economic collapse, we will suffer more, whether we want to or not. I really hope Obama and our other leaders use this opportunity to reframe our self-image as Americans. What we ultimately must overcome is the stultifying mindset brought on by decades of globalized consumer capitalism.

*UPDATE: By "relatively well-off" I mean the various, always shifting levels of middle class and higher.** This brings to mind another point about "surviving," inherent in the original Marcus quote. Being a "survivor of the sixties" means, in general, crossing the gulf from dirty fucking hippie (DFH, a phrase I think Atrios coined) to Nixon's Silent Majority. Not that the former DFHs believe what the Silent Majority believed, exactly, but they started to resemble them for all intents and purposes, and that caused no end of anxiety.

I've been dipping into Rick Pearlstein's fascinating book Nixonland, which explains in great detail how Nixon, aided by Agnew, Saffire, and others, created the Silent (White) Majority specifically in contrast to the DFHs and Angry Scary Blacks. Those who played by society's rules--an act which by definition entailed silence--were explicitly elevated to hero status. So it seems like two strains of "survivors" actually come from this. The first, as Marcus suggests, is the former DFHs who may repudiate their former actions, while at the same time wishing they were still doing them, or at least hoping those acts had some value. The second is those who bought Nixon's line that ordinary life, i.e. compliance with the status quo, is heroic. Obviously these two strains are not mutually exclusive by any means. I'm sure I've taken comfort from time to time in the thought that I'm a good person for doing what I've been told--and it's an easy hop from "good" to "heroic." One needs such compensation especially when compliance does not seem to lead to any very compelling rewards. One gets to keep one's job and one's health insurance a little while longer, is all.

**Of course, the financial crisis also reveals that the "well off" are not so "well off" after all. Built on absurd mortages and credit-card debt, much of this well-off-ness was quite literally fiction. We can certainly expect a spate of memoirs about surviving foreclosure and so forth. But is it heroism or just regression to the mean?

I'll leave for another time my thoughts on this even-more-wonderful-than-usual Slacktivist post, detailing the shift from progressive optimism to apocalyptic vengefulness in American evangelical Christianity. But it definitely has something to do with this inwardly focused concept of surviving, and the idea that trying to improve life on earth (as opposed to one's own soul) is a waste of time. I'll just say that in sympathizing with this view, Reagan, that supposed relentless optimist, was a pessimist.

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