The seductive thing about Theory is that once you get a meme like hyperreality in your head, you can spend days (weeks, years, academic careers) viewing various unrelated bits of news through the filter of that particular theory.
For example, writing the headline … is it because I spent so many years in academia, or because I am submerged in the welter of culture that the phrase “creeps in” is automatically followed in my head by “on little cat feet.” I have to go look up that it’s Carl Sandburg, but it’s stuck there, just like so many other bits of info. Hyperreality, like Sandburg’s fog, is creeping up on me today … creeping up on me as I sign in from Montana to my virtual cubicle in the Big Corporation, as I call in and speak with voices located in Ireland, Seattle, San Jose, and Montana who “meet” in a web-based “meeting room.” Creeps in as I read this review in Slate of Joshua Ferris’ new novel, a novel written in the third person plural about a group of ad workers succumbing to or resisting the undertow of corporate life in the cubicles. The kind of corporate life to which I have this odd, tangenital relationship. I have a “real” job. I log in every morning and put in 8-10 hours just as if I was in my cube in San Jose. And yet, I’m not. I’m in Montana. My “cube” was once a bedroom, and although it’s about the size of most cubes, I’m connected to the “real” world a little more directly than I was when I went in to the actual office. I don’t go to a corporate campus. I don’t have to work in a cube. I don’t eat lunch in the corporate cafeteria. My actual life is less physically controlled by my employer than the lives of my co-workers who go to one of our many corporate campuses, but that’s not to say that my time is any less controlled. It’s a real job, like I said.
It was the search for a world a little lower on the simulation-scale that sent me to Montana in the first place. I didn’t do well in the land of malls and strip malls, the land where everthing looks the same and looks non-indigenous in the same way. So moving to a small town, an old, slightly run-down small town seemed to me like a move toward authenticity, but the insidious thing about memes like hyperreality is that even so, I can see the easy argument to be made that we’re all, especially us newcomers, simply performing a culturally-determined and hyperreal version of small town life. And I’m sure to a degree that’s true. We like our downtown because it’s old, because most of the brick storefronts survived. We like that because once the railroad pulled out there wasn’t any money, the old neon signs all survived, and weren’t modernized. But frankly, the idea that we’re all simply acting out some culturally determined simacula of small town life just makes me tired. While I understand that we’re all unlikely to live truly authentic lives, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try in whatever ways we can to get a little closer to something real. If that means moving to a small town and building a garden, even though it isn’t the first garden ever built, even if the design of the raised beds is influenced by the many photos of European kitchen gardens I saw while planning it that first winter, then so be it.
Because there is something more physically engaged about small town and rural life. Whether it’s my garden, or the number of animals around me, both domestic and wild who wind up on our plates, or the bear that stood up and woofed at us on our afternoon walk two years ago (and upon whose “plate” I was worried I’d wind up) there is something decidedly less hyperreal about living here. Is it simply that when you life in a more rural place you’re more in touch with how the food chain actually works? I found a piece this morning by Jessica McMurray Blaine about how as a kid she witnessed the killing and butchering of her family’s small herd of steers — and how after failing to simulate the horror her parents feared she’d feel about the event, she watched with fascination, concluding that “This had not been about pet names, or pastoral visions of farm life; it was bloody, and difficult, and real. And all right.”