Conjuring Sociality in American Space

by James Gallant

Michael Ventura once wrote of a characteristic gap in American experience between form and content–“not just form instead of content, but form opposed, often violently.” Where the idea (or hallucination) of “community” is concerned, there are some conspicuous examples of this.

I dealt with this gap some years back in what I pretended was an essay-review of a book by Morgan Ossian titled America, Land of Faeries. Neither the book nor Ossian existed. The spoof allowed me to say things I thought true in a language more flamboyant than I could have used speaking in my own voice. My fictitious author argued that a species of fairies (elves) populate the American scene. Unlike historic fairies of the British Isles who lured people beyond the village gates into exciting, dangerously pleasurable experiences, the American fairies drew people through make-believe village gates into let’s-pretend villages in illusions of relationship and common cause. The nation’s historical fragmentariness and drift more or less guaranteed that what would be repressed in American experience wouldn’t be the desire to escape from social limits and relationships, but into them, Ossian wrote. So the places to go fairy-hunting in America weren’t the wildwood and the heath, but places in which communal imagery compensated an acommunal reality: the public schools, football stadia, parades, reunions, the quaint-looking Main Streets and squares of old American towns, the media.  (Had the personal computer, the Blackberry, and the Smartphone been around when Ossian wrote, he would have had things to say about them.)

Working one summer between college terms as a reporter for the daily newspaper in my Ohio hometown, I became aware how often the term “community” cropped out in its pages, often in doubtful relationship to anything in the town’s actual life. Each day’s edition included a “Community Calendar.” There were articles on “community meetings,” and “community celebrations,” reports on baseball games at “Community Field.” Community-this, community-that. To call our town a “community” no doubt encouraged contributions to what was then called the “Community Chest” (later the “United Fund”), but the term seemed more invocative than descriptive.

Rousseau, in The Social Contract, spoke of a similar misuse of language in which people treated “city” and “town” as synonyms. But “city” was cognate with “citizenship” and “civility,” and “town” wasn’t. (“Houses make a town, but citizens a city.”) Similarly, a “community” isn’t just an agglomeration of houses and bodies in space, but people doing things together. What  people in my home “town” did for the most part was what Americans did, and do, anywhere else: They went to work, paid their bills, had hobbies and private circles of friends, sent their kids to school, sat in front of screens and speakers, and ignored politics and religion. If some emergency requiring cooperative effort arose, they would pitch in–maybe even relish the novelty of doing so—but that was not generally what life required of them. To describe our town as a “community” seemed euphemistic or magical.

At my desk in the newsroom one day I had just run across some reference to “the community” in copy I was reading when it occurred to me that maybe the newspaper was the community. Newsboys rolled the community into a tight little projectile they winged onto your porch every afternoon. A local commonplace was that there was “never anything in the paper”; but when this nothing didn’t arrive in a timely fashion there were people in town who became very agitated.

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The coherence of a modern “town” or  “city”–inasmuch as there is one–amounts largely to functional infrastructure: water and food supply, storehouses of goods, energy sources, viable transportation systems and distribution networks, communication systems, disposal of garbage and the dead.  I live now in Atlanta, a sprawling, amorphous, freeway-linked, Los Angeles-like conglomeration of humanity and buildings—but the local media bandy the term “community” the same way my hometown newspaper did.

People speak of a “sense of community,” a curious phrase, allowing as it does for the possibility that instead of a “community” there might be just the sense of one. What arouses this sense? The performances of local college and professional sports teams. Neighborhood cleanup projects. Television news concerning the most recent misdeeds of criminals and/or politicians.  Rock concerts. Marches intended to raise money for cancer research by women missing upper body parts. Publishing one’s view on this or that in print or online.

The familiarity of major streets, freeways, public buildings, chain stores, and monuments will arouse a “sense of community.”  In the nineteenth century, early American photographers produced cityscapes, and there were artists who specialized in drawing “bird’s-eye” pictures of cities from imaginary points in space. What explained the popularity of these works, urban historian Timothy Crimmins speculates, was that they enabled a vision of a city’s coherence as little in ordinary experience did.

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Lewis Hyde in The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, writes of primitive “gift societies” in which goods, rather than being privately owned, pass freely from one person to another. A gift economy tends naturally to strengthen communities, even as an economy valorizing personal acquisition and possessions like ours tends to weaken it. Repressed human possibilities are fascinating, though, and that is why in socio-economic circumstances like ours what smacks of a gift or favor can have uncanny, exploitable appeal. This is observable in what might seem the least likely of places, the retail emporium.

I once had work as a manufacturer’s representative which took me into department stores in Atlanta where I became aware of how insistently and variously these stores represented themselves as gift-givers–cornucopia of favors and freebies. A person who has just exited abstract freeways or the mean streets of a city to enter one of these establishments finds herself in a visual environment as charming as those of Depression-era movie palaces: finished wood, marble, chrome, neon, mirrors, foil, potted plants, polished glass, colorful displays. There are elevators and escalators, those gravity-defying treats for the lumbar; an omnipresent soothing Muzak–maybe even on occasion a real life café pianist in a tux rendering pop classics with a Liberacean density of ornamentation; scents of warmed cinnamon from the bakery shop; cosmetic counters staffed by manufacturers’ reps offering women free “makeovers” as inducements to purchase outrageously expensive creams and lotions.

Retail chains with their own credit card programs make every effort to conflate credit purchases with gifts by offering favors to card-users: advance notice of sales, special discounts during “pre-sale” periods, telephone-ordering and layaway privileges, etc. One store’s credit application form invited the applicant, to “reward yourself” with a card–as if borrowing money at an extravagant rate of interest were suitable recompense for being a self.

Walking out of a store with merchandise after merely signing one’s name to a slip of paper in a credit transaction bears a certain resemblance to receiving a gift from a distant benefactor. Of course no one thinks of a credit purchase in such terms, but what one thinks and what one feels are not necessarily identical; and it is rather obviously the feeling that accounts for people’s accumulating unmanageable credit card debts. There must at times be a fine psychological difference between buying something on credit, and the type of compulsive shoplifting familiar to store employees in which people pilfer goods, even items quite useless to them, as antidote to loneliness.

No aspect of retail marketing is more like gift-giving, and more powerfully magical, than the “sale” in which profiteering appears to have given way temporarily to munificence. In the stores I frequented, “sale” prices would usually have been described more accurately as “regular” prices store management had decided to advertise. The sale, real or spectral, bears a certain resemblance to gift-giving, and an act of generosity tends naturally to encourage reciprocal generosity–in this instance a loosening of the purse strings. The irresistibility of a putative “sale price” explains why there is a tendency in retail stores for everything to be on sale constantly. Large turnouts for advertised sales associated with holidays (Memorial Day, July 4, Thanksgiving, Christmas) provide opportunities for people-watching, hobnobbing, palaver, and flirting that augment the sale’s social magic.

The manager of a major shopping mall in Atlanta once remarked in a newspaper interview that that people went to the mall not just to shop, but for the “sense of community.” He compared mall-going in that respect with the earlier experience of “going downtown” pop songstress Petula Clark sang about in her ludicrous 1960s lyric, “Downtown”:  “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely. You can always go downtown….maybe I’ll see you there. We can forget all our troubles, forget all our cares. So go downtown.”

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The communal ambiance of the classic American downtown with its Main Street or square may explain as well as anything else why people in numbers have been moving from cities and suburbs back into the old towns lately.

Some years ago during a cross-country road trip, I played tour guide in my Ohio hometown for  a friend, a native of Queens, New York, and my teenage daughter who’d been raised in cities. It was a fine summer evening, and the town really did look quite “together” as we walked through a neighborhood of Federalist-style brick homes near downtown, around the courthouse square, past the Carnegie Library and the gingerbread-laden Victorian Gothic sheriff’s office and jail, and then up Main Street to the graceful small college campus on its elevation.

Afterward, my Northeastern friend expatiated on the misrepresentations of these sweet Midwestern towns in the works of dyspeptic authors like Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. My daughter said she hoped one day to settle in a place like that where people stayed put and relationships endured. These were understandable responses to what the two had witnessed that evening. Two centuries of architectural development, and growth of trees that arched protectively over residential streets, had transformed what had been not so long ago a rural county seat with dirt streets into a little gem of a college town.

That the typical American small town center looks the way it does is no accident. That look was often a result of its being structured by “village improvement associations” that abounded after the Civil War as what architectural historians call a tout ensemble. Dressing up downtowns was one aspect of programs for curtailing the ramshackle add-on and sprawl characteristic of earlier American real estate development. Richard Francaviglia in his Main Street Revisited (1996) writes of streetscapes in American towns having taken on “a very stylized and highly standardized appearance by the 1880s.” Both new construction and the remodeling of older buildings subserved designs commonly inspired by the European folk-village or the postcard-pretty New England town in its prime. As the associations’ appropriation of the nostalgic European word “village” suggested, there was always a theatrical element in their downtown renovations. (Nineteenth century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted recalled late in life a “simple, unsophisticated, respectable” village of his American boyhood that probably would have acquired by then, he imagined, a soldier’s monument, a fountain, a park and parklet, and a reading room for the literary periodicals, and become so quaint-looking as to be “no longer a village at all.”)

Local merchants, usually leaders in the improvement associations, may have understood, as developers of the shopping malls decorated with fountains and pedestal clocks, and names like “Town Center” and “Market Square” did later, that communal ambiance can help move merchandise. Remarkably, this persuasion survives to this day in small towns whose merchants, hoping to counteract the allurements of Walmart and other big box retailers at the edge of town, champion programs for dolling up town centers with new sidewalks, plazas, bandstands, plantings, and historical markers.

Driving north from Atlanta to Ohio one summer, I discovered at rest stops along the freeway a strange tourist literature produced by towns obviously trying to market their communal quaintness. Sevierville, Tennessee, “the hometown most people can only dream of,” touted its eighteenth century courthouse “surrounded by a shaded lawn and quaint 1950ish shops and restaurants.” (Visitors were not to be surprised if locals shouted, “Howdy! Welcome to Sevierville!”) “Mainstrasse Village,” a restored German neighborhood in Covington, Kentucky, advertised its forty-three bell carillon tower whose melodies accompanied lively reenactments of “The Pied Piper of Hamlin” by “village people” said to be “proud of their heritage.”

Townhouse and condo “communities” of recent vintage sometimes include in their designs shopping areas reminiscent of the old American downtowns. David Guterson has written of housing developments of this type near Las Vegas that seem to be “as much verb as noun.” I.e., their looks are intended to conjure a communal reality. An Utne Reader article some years ago described a “community” under development near Oakland, California in which work, housing, schools, shopping and child care were to be concentrated in spaces accessible on foot or by bicycle. The new town would provide, the author wrote, “the friendly common ground of a village.” He envisioned people in the streets “mixing familiarly while trading stories about the weather, the traffic, the high school hockey team, or maybe…the birth of a great-grandson.” If limited mobility, and friendly chitchat in the streets, cannot be equated with the life of a community, they might at least evoke a “sense” of one.

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Associationism in eighteenth century philosophy and psychology that had worked its way into aesthetic and moral discourse supported the nineteenth century belief that natural or artificial environments encouraged the development of sensibilities and behaviors of one kind or another. Wordsworth thought the “associations” of rural scenery ennobled country-dwellers. Thomas Jefferson envisioned an American Greek Revival architecture of the kind he incorporated in his Virginia home, Monticello, that would sustain a memory Grecian democratic values in America. Hence all those older American public buildings and homes with pillars and entablatures reminiscent of Greek temples.

In nineteenth century America there was a lot of talk about the morally uplifting associations of decorous homes and quasi-rural suburban environments. Frederick Law Olmsted, whose firm designed some of the early American suburbs like Riverside in Chicago, and Druid Hills in Atlanta, spoke of a suburban neighborhoods that would promote “the harmonious association and cooperation of men in a community, and the intimate relationship and constant intercourse and interdependence of families.” David R. Contosta in his Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia 1850-1990 quotes from an 1851 article in a Germantown, Pennsylvania newspaper that referred to the “fresh air and natural beauty” available in the Philadelphia suburbs of Chestnut Hill and Germantown as “exercising a moral as well as a physical influence over its inmates, and making the members of the family peaceful and considerate of the feelings and happiness of others.”

Gwendolyn Wright in Moralism and the Model Home observes that in the 1830s, teachers, ministers, physicians, jurists and poets were all discoursing on the power of a gracious home to inspire, as one writer at the time put it “a feeling, a spirit, an atmosphere…indefinable and indescribable.” Timothy Dwight, the Yale theologian and poet, spoke of the family home that has “not a little influence on the mode of living, and the mode of living sensibly affects the taste, manners, and even the morals of the inhabitants.” Andrew Jackson Downing, whose model home books were influential in the mid-nineteenth century, described a comely house as begetting “the sentiment of home with its thousand associations.” That, conversely, ugly living quarters could degrade was the  point made by a nineteenth century illustrator in contrasted drawings of a foursquare, gracious looking home whose sober residents disported themselves innocently at lawn croquet; and a squalid tenement scene populated by feral-looking wretches evidently up to no good.

My middle-class parents born in the first decade of the twentieth century had almost certainly imbibed the associationist aesthetic. For them, what did not “look right” in domestic surroundings–wallpaper coming loose, tattered furniture, defunct automobiles in driveways, untrimmed hedges–was not right. These offenses to the eye suggested moral degradation–or were perhaps themselves that degradation from which people who behaved themselves in a socially approved manner, and had thus achieved access to picture-perfect surroundings, were preserved.

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Cultural anthropologists Robert and Helen Lynd in Middletown (1929) described the transformation of Muncie, Indiana between 1890 and 1920 from a sleepy rural village to a mid-sized industrial town after the discovery of abundant gas reserves nearby.

During that same period there had emerged the new communications technologies that enabled movie-going, radio-listening, and magazine-reading. The privatizing effects of these amusements, coupled with the socio-economic developments in the new industrial Muncie, had undermined what the Lynds saw as the more authentic village sociability of an earlier time: “dropping in on” friends, church potluck suppers, pickup ball games, neighborly porch-sitting on summer evenings, impromptu musical evenings at home, caroling at Christmas time. In compensation for the attenuation of social life in the new Muncie there were not only the new essentially private amusements, but also what the Lynds called “organized leisure”: men’s service clubs’ with weekly luncheon meetings, fraternal lodges like the Elks and Moose, women’s clubs, organized athletic teams and leagues, the country club social calendar, public dances on holidays. Organized leisure, which involved “programs” and “activities” dissociated from the home and neighborhood, was compatible with varying degrees of personal involvement—or none—and might amount to little more than communal symbolism compensatory for an actual communal thinness. It was, in short, an attempt to sustain a “sense of community” in circumstances tending naturally to undermine it. The Lynds’ vision of a pastoral “village” life before urbanization and industrialization reared their ugly heads was undoubtedly nostalgic, but they were certainly right in supposing that the thrust of all that American organizing and joining was to generate a “sense of community.”

When I was in high school, two men who ran a retail photo supply business in my hometown organized a camera club, the Shutterbugs. A teenage photography geek, I became a “charter member.” The first meeting of the group was in a classroom at the high school.  Arriving a bit late, I found the classroom door shut. When I opened it, the scene inside was a surprise: The overhead lights were off, and candles burned on a table in the center of the room. The Shutterbugs gathered in a circle around the table were holding hands while Earlene Babcock intoned a solemn mumbo-jumbo bearing on high purposes being a Shutterbug was evidently to entail. After that came a “responsive reading”–something right out of church litany. Earlene would read a portentous statement, and then the Shutterbugs, reading from mimeographed handouts as best they could in the dim light, mumbled portentous replies. Earlene had evidently cribbed an initiation ritual from the rigmaroles of the Elks or the Daughters of the Eastern Star. Deeply shadowed faces of several male Shutterbugs, lit by candlelight from below, revealed losing battles against levity.

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Michael Ventura, who had worked as a screenwriter, wrote in Shadow Dancing in the USA (1985) that he never once heard a movie producer or studio executive say that a film should lie. What they did say often enough was that audiences were to leave theaters with the feeling “it’s all right.” To assure that response, a simplification of emotions and events that would amount to lying was often necessary, to be sure. Ventura regarded people’s willingness to pay what they had to for theater tickets, in order to feel “it’s all right,” was an indication of just how deeply they felt that it’s not all right. What was true of films was true of the media more generally. Conflicts in the lives of characters in television sitcoms and soap operas bore some resemblance to those of real life, but characters on the small screen were “always hopeful, always cheery, never questioning the fundamental premise that…all the harassments are but temporary inconveniences of a basically beneficent society.” (Apropos, a Ford Foundation study once concluded that racial injustice on television always tended to be reduced, misleadingly, to “individual conflict” fomented by nuts-in-sheets, or other dubious human specimens. The effect of such entertainment was to deny the role of “oppressive social structures” in racial injustice. Television tends to treat all social dilemmas in that way. Evil, on television, is the work of child molesters, terrorists, drug dealers, and mass murderers. Except for those monsters, “it’s all right,” and when these meanies are put down in dramas that amount to scapegoat rituals, sanity and decency prevail.)

Some more recent developments in popular entertainment —e.g. disaster and zombie films, and “reality” tv—seem to acknowledge openly that all is not well in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  However, one need only think of situation comedies like Seinfeld in the Nineties or the current Modern Family, the reassuring domestic wisdom of Dr. Phil, or what a friend of mine describes as the “reassuring nightly news,” to realize that Ventura’s remarks retain much of their pertinence.

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The American romance with formal education, conceived as resistance to the amoral, acommunal tendencies of actual life, existed well before the groundswell of enthusiasm for tax-supported public education in the later nineteenth century. The poet Wordsworth told Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1833 that he thought Americans much too inclined to substitute “tuition” (formal education) for “moral culture,” “social ties,” and “education of circumstances”—i.e. embodied communal life.

Josiah Holbrook, a leader of the American School Society in the 1830s, was thinking along similar lines in declaring that it would be “of little consequence to have our country studded with colleges and churches of the most costly and splendid architecture…except as they produce intelligence, virtue, and religion.” But there seems to be an inverse ratio of social substance to social illusion, and it was the very fact that “moral culture” and “social ties” were so commonly thin to non-existent in American circumstances, as a matter of fact, that encouraged superstitions about what formal education might accomplish. It would be just when the actual capacity of colleges (or churches) to “produce” intelligence, virtue, and religion was most questionable that the magic of “splendid architecture” in churches and on college campuses and would be most powerful.

In the mid-twentieth century Paul Goodman was saying essentially the same thing Wordsworth had when, responding to the perennial criticism of American schools for failing of their high purposes, he argued that what American youth needed desperately weren’t better schools and schooling, but better opportunities for experience beyond the schools; and Goodman also had things to say about school building. He would get to his feet at public meetings convened in New York to discuss new school construction, and suggest that the need for new classrooms could be reduced if pupils were to spend some time with their teachers away from classrooms in the city streets where they could study what went on in cafeterias, movie theaters, stores, museums, parks, and factories. This would not only reduce the need for new schools, but divert attention from the abstraction of subject matter as “curriculum.” That would be a good thing, as far as he was concerned. (There would be polite silence after he spoke. Then discussion about building new schools would resume. Goodman felt himself confronted by a mass superstition with a solid architectural foundation.)

The emphasis in public education from the very beginning had been on developing “the social sense of the child,” “the social disposition,” and “the sympathetic emotions.” Public support for tax-supported public education had grown in response to barbarism on the frontier, and the appearance of gangs of immigrant “street Arabs” roaming Eastern cities. “The school room was where these young hoodlums belonged….They needed to be civilized and Americanized,” Henry Perkinson wrote in a charmingly ironic little study of the American school, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 1865-1965. During the century Perkinson studies, formal education in America had been represented at one time or another as the key to solving virtually any social problem that arose, whether it was street gangs, racial injustice, poverty, or bad manners.

The schools that John Dewey envisioned in his widely influential instrumentalist educational philosophy would be able to engender moral culture. In a society increasingly urban and industrial, schools should enable young people to understand the contribution every person’s work made to a common good, an understanding that had been obtainable more naturally, Dewey thought, in his compact boyhood village, Burlington, Vermont.

Apropos, Maxine Green wrote in The Public School and the Private Vision wrote that early champions of public education in America had been intent on shaping “an almost visible edifice of recommendations” for the social behavior of the young. In public education, “man and his society must be conceived in such a way that the value of perpetuation [of that conception] is assumed….What is believed must be communicated to the communities concerned, made part of ‘conventional wisdom,’ an aspect of what is taken to be ‘real’.”

So conceived, public education was magic. Geza Roheim, in the theory of magic he developed out of his studies of Freud and anthropology, and  his clinical work with psychotics, conceived the magical mentality as “counterphobic”; and as the bizarre rituals of schizophrenics had suggested to him, the more there is to fear, the greater the sense of powerlessness and confusion, the more potent magical practices become. If one dwells compulsively enough on certain ideas or images, regardless how strange they may be, they become reality in and for consciousness. The force of consciousness may extend to the delusion of consciousness. (As Green wrote, in public education what is believed about “man and his society” must become “an aspect of what is taken to be ‘real’.”)

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In Judeo-Christian-Islamic understanding, a religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, but a way of life. However, literary critic Terry Eagleton remarks in an interview with the Social Science Research Council, the failure to understand this is no less common among atheists who equate religious belief with theological doctrines, than among the great majority of believers “conned…into a positivist or dogmatic theology, into believing that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions.” Eagleton is saying something like what American philosopher Josiah Royce did when he suggested in The Problem of Christianity (1913) that the Incarnation, a tenet of dogmatic theology, was best understood as an expression of the embodied life of the moral, loving community “that possesses a more than human significance [italics mine],” rather than the dogma of Christ’s divinity.

However, just as formal schooling, and urban and residential design that conjure communal value, may have greatest psychological significance when the reality of community is the thinnest, so may abstract religious beliefs and doctrines. In such circumstances, religious myths and imagery are also likely to acquire exaggerated value.  Kenneth Rexroth in an essay, “The Hasidism of Martin Buber,” (1958) dubs “Romantic Traditionalism” various twentieth century spiritualties influenced by the psychology of Carl Jung that have represented the contemplation of archaic religious symbols and myths as a source of “greater spiritual insight into reality, better interpersonal relations, and…true realization of the self.” As far as Rexroth could see there wasn’t the slightest evidence that what was basically just “compulsive poetry” could yield such benefits. Forms of religiosity so based were just “cults of desperation in a time of human self-alienation and social disintegration,” l’art pour l’art compensating the absence of human substance in the same way that urban and residential design, the electronic media, “organized leisure,” and formal education can.

One thinks of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s remark that “we [today] live with images as much as facts, and the images seem to impart more life than facts precisely because they are so capable of…transcendence.”


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