What Shapes Us


It’s one of those times, late at night, early in the morning.  I start thinking about the Dream, and being drawn back to a time I didn’t live through, a time I can only glean through a screen darkly.  The period of my interest- my passion- my strange fascination- runs from about 1950 to the present day, its geographic boundaries Los Angeles and New York, Seattle and Santa Fe.  I realize that the unique set of images, sounds, motifs, aspirations, military actions, political upheavals, demographic shifts, idols and false idols, successes and failures, seen and unseen coups d’etat both artistic and pragmatic, bear no unifying strand save the one my mind affords them.  They hang together under a sloppy, overused, unsatisfying & unspecific term: culture.

The images and sounds that run through my head make the hairs on my arms stand up.  Grey men sitting around a table in 1945, plotting the future, a picture of me as a child on a beach wearing tiny green plastic sunglasses between my sunburnt parents, Johnny Cash telling me how he walks the line, a man and a woman telling me they’d rather fight than switch- Tareyton! George Carlin shouting genius profanity in a Brooklyn accent, the celebrities we feel we know yet will never meet, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the lonely villages he writes of, Aldous Huxley and his Brave New World, a housewife in a plaid apron, Gordon Gecko in red suspenders, Marilyn Monroe in a bikini holding a Coke, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian, me eight years old in my room, building a tower out of K’Nex while some long-dead crowd of country clubbers shouts “Pennsylvania six-five-thousand!” the textures and smells of a dozen plastic toys manufactured by Chinese migrants- and it flows on.  My life flashes before my eyes- my life, and the lives of millions of other Americans, and the market forces, propaganda, and consumer goods that tie our lives together.

I am haunted by childhood memories: roaming the aisles of long-defunct retail outlets- Best Catalog Showroom, Boscov’s, Funcoland Games and Electronics- banal and yet otherworldly.  I return to them again and again in dreams, baffled, too young for nostalgia, yet old enough to know change.


“The less we say about it the better; make it up as we go along.  Feet in the air, head in the ground, it’s alright, I know nothing’s wrong.”  -The Talking Heads, “This Must Be the Place”

Unlike any people before in history, we- even more deeply than the rest of the world who have done their best to emulate us- live in a perpetual, ahistorical present- on the edge of our seats, leaning forward for the next commercial, the next new product, the next news story, the next twist in the Hollywood plot some man behind the curtain’s written for us- basking in the warm sun of the In, the It, the Now; never straying-  for a weekend, for a lifetime.

There’s this unspoken and largely unconscious sense that you really can be eternal by buying the New Things; and it’s shocking the extent to which -when everyone is having the same delusion as you- that idea comes true.  I remember recently seeing a hawk-eyed septuagenarian wearing a pair of D&G frames, and clothes that were obviously in vogue.  I was struck- intimidated.  The feeling was barely conscious, but if articulated would probably have come out, ‘O! She’s newer than me!’

Perhaps all this is overdone, a tired-out point, a horse beaten beyond death.  But despite all the blather about American Consumerism, I think we’ve missed just how deeply this runs in us- how our aspirations, our wants, our jealousies, our way of organizing the world around us- has been shaped by a 60-year-long stream of images flowing from electrified boxes in the identical living rooms of our mass-produced houses into our overstimulated brains under our shampooed hair.

Perhaps that last paragraph made me sound like either a culture warrior or some fiat rebel trolling for a cause, but I don’t disapprove of any of this.  Nay- I am in awe of it.

Seeing the grand design of the Ad Men play out in movies, shows, news reports over a half century, becoming more sophisticated and efficient, seeing this machine envelop, synthesize, and reconfigure in its own image every human group and idea and impulse, seeing the stamp of the makers in myself and everyone around me, tracing the causal chain from market forces, through countless threads of musical and artistic movements, to the shining eyes of my baby boomer mentors as they relate to me their memories of a fairyland youth, peppered of course with jingles, pop-culture references, and product names, deconstructing the personalities of my contemporaries into their constituent parts- characters from defunct sitcoms, seeing even the vision of my own future for what it is- half Fitzgerald novel, half 1980s Calvin Klein ad- a failed yuppie fantasy conjured decades ago by an empty suit peddling his wares.

We define our past by memories- and if we are less than eighty years old, the sights, smells, textures, and tastes accompanying those memories were largely centrally planned.  Likewise, we cannot help but model our fates on what we see in the crystal ball of the Screen- the future has also been provided.  The present?  If you’re reading this, it’s courtesy of our omniscient, omnipresent benefactors: Apple, Comcast, Microsoft, Verizon.

Before this strange era, we were largely determined by our naturally selected predispositions, the practices and mores of our ancestors, and the mandates of our priests and chiefs.  Now, in order to see the face of God, one must dig deeper.  One must watch the commercials.