Saturday, November 21, 2009

bearded coffee loving bicyclists in the roman empire

i am spartacus, come from the dead, come back to tell you all; i shall tell you all.

i do not believe we are doomed to repeat history again and again. similar events may happen repeatedly, but are similar only generally. history is too complex to follow even one trajectory: it is inevitably multiple, heteroglossic. yet it seems that for americans, the histories of rome and our nation spell our the same syllables of hubris and failure. we are the new roman empire.

my new friend rob invited me to watch stanley kubrick's spartacus with him and his friend ean the other night. a very long film, at three and a half hours it wasn't as painful to sit through as i feared it would be. the most striking scene to me had been originally edited out, though restored in the version we viewed. a roman general looks out at the countryside, down at a contingent of the army marching paswt, and proclaims to the slave he's just had bathe him that the scene below is rome herself. when the general turns around, his slave has vanished, having run off with the slave rebellion. the scene depicts roman opulence with homosexual undertones; it features a certain remove from the situation. the general speaks coolly: as ean pointed out, he describes rome animalistically, as if it is a collective, a society or culture, yet always separate from the individual, uncontrollable, with a will of its own.

if america is like rome, then the story of spatacus represents the last throes of nationalism in america during the 20th century. the slaves of the movie, foreigners to rome, rise up in an attempt to escape the empire. not just to be free and claim equal rights; they want to flee the gravity and corrupt hegemony of roman culture and society. yet in the end, the only slave that gains freedom, spatacus's wife, is granted roman citizenship and must assimilate to survive.

america has seen the cruelty of slavery, the hegemony of american culture, the dominance of corporate marketing. control becomes more subtle, more unconcious, and in some ways, perhaps more complete. but there are sites of resistance of course, places and groups of people which deny the dominant culture. in many ways, i thinkthe city of portland is one of these sites. portland has a very particular elan, a particular way of operating, a particular culture not completely separate from and against american society but distinct and divergent. this is apparent in the city's draw to local small business, its dislike of wal-mart, its embrace of cooperatives and trade. its also evidenced by its love of bicycling (6% of the city commutes daily by bike, more than any other city in the united states), its music scene, its love of film, its high regard for food, beer, and wine, as well as its fashion. its that strange mixture of fashion and attitude and interest that only this city can claim. one friend once commented to me that portland lacks any sense of fashion, to which i responded that i though portland just had its own, unique sense of fashion. another friend told me that portland is always two years ahead of san francisco. but really i just want portland to have its own agenda, its own aesthetic.

i want to live in a city unlike any other in the united states. a city that shares my goals and interests. i believe micro-communities become increasingly important at the beginning of the twenty-first century. more that fringe movements, communities that share very particular values and interests will become a structural element in american society. this will be aided by the growth of the middle class and thus greater wealth and spending on an individual level. inherent in this will be a greater amount of free time, allowing for the garnering of specific interests. on top of this, the capability for movement and relocation granted by free time, technology, and wealth. greater, more widespread education will also be a feature of this movement. all these developments were actually witnessed during the late 19th and 20th centuries as a result of mercantilism, manufacturing, and the rise of a bourgeois middle class. these development will continue throughout the 21st, becoming pronounced as technology, education, and wealth/free-time allows for individuals to become involved and interested in various and divergent hobbies, lifestyles, movements, cities, et cetera. i believe slowly, slowly, slowly cities, perhaps neighborhoods in a city, will align more closely with certain cultures or micro-communities. i believe corporate america understands this, and through use of recent technology, now scrambles to tailor marketing and sales at the urban and individual level (read: google).

as with spartacus, the stuggles american society faces are similar to, but as i argue, intrinsically different from those of the roman empire. i want to read more hope into our futures, show that history has changed, that history changes our cultural trajectory, the possibilities for freedom and agency.

No comments: