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Monday, June 5, 2006 - Editor: Gloria Lee
The only reason a great many American families don t own an
elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for
a dollar down and easy weekly payments.
A Brief Digression Into
In his book The Globalization of Nothing, sociologist George
Ritzer argues that we live in a world increasingly shaped by
"nothing," which he defines as "centrally conceived and controlled
social forms that are comparatively devoid of distinctive
substantive content." In other words,"nothing" is anything
without a personality and life of its own -- a demented mirror
image of the Zen concept of nothing, which is just as real and
present as something. In Zen we turn nothing into something;
in modern, corporate American life, we turn something into
Ritzer describes four types of nothing: nonthings, nonpeople,
nonservices, and nonplaces. Nonthings are Old Navy
T-shirts, Arizona-brand bluejeans, and Nike athletic shoes.
They are exactly the same no matter what mall you buy them
in, in a red state or a blue, and you always pay the same price.
(From a corporate perspective, that is about all there is to say
about the red-blue difference.) Nonpeople are counter workers
at Burger King, or telemarketers who call at dinnertime.
These are real people who become nonpeople when they enact
scripted encounters with customers (or potential customers),
who in turn become nonpeople by participating in the script.
Corporations created these nonpeople when they created
the nonjobs they occupy. ATMs and websites are examples
of nonservices. And finally there are nonplaces, best represented
by shopping malls and Las Vegas casinos. Of them we
can say, as Gertrude Stein said of her hometown of Oakland,
California, "There's no there there." (No offense to Oakland,
which is no more or less a nonplace than any other contemporary
Imagine a hypothetical casino built on the Wind River
Reservation in Wyoming. This casino, if built, would have a
real presence: It would be a building. It would sit atop dry sage
grasslands at the foot of the Wind River Mountains, on land
saturated with the history of the Arapaho and Shoshones, and
later the bloody arrival of the Europeans and their drive to
eradicate the native people. The ghosts of 60 million buffaloes
paw at this earth, making the dust rise. In distant boarding
schools, chalk dust hovers in the air above the desks where Indian
children sit mute, forbidden to speak their own languages.
Scraps of paper -- torn-up treaties or lost food-stamp coupons
-- blow in the wind. A white rancher who owns a chunk of the
reservation drives by the casino in a late-model pickup. In the
distance a dust devil blows across the sun-dance site, where
native men honor forces larger than themselves by swinging
on the ends of tethers hooked into their chests until the hooks
pull out, taking small chunks of flesh with them.
Then there's the casino itself, which would be like any
other casino in Las Vegas or Reno or Monte Carlo. Even if the
cocktail waitresses were tribal members dressed in beaded
moccasins with their hair braided into shining black strands,
it would not be Indian. When casino workers punch out, do
they return to being real people? Do we all live a portion of
our lives as real people and another portion as nonpeople? Do
we spend more time as nonpeople in 2006 than our ancestors
did in 1906 or 1806?
In our private lives, we spend relatively little time as nonpeople.
Yet, even in private, I know what it means to have a
scripted encounter with another person. I've caught myself
playing a part -- saying and doing only what my institutional
The nonthing is distant and abstract. It shies away from
human feeling and connection. We live in a world where we
are made into nonpeople so we can be manipulated by the advocates
of global uniformity. In this nonworld we are apt to
end up with our heads bowed in a church whose appearance
is eerily similar to that of a corporate headquarters or a state
prison. These are the universal features of the society in which
we live, equally common in red and blue states.
When I first started working with my father-in-law on his
windmills, I'd often bring the wrong part for a repair, or forget
an essential tool. We'd end up having to go back to the barn,
or even into town, to get what we needed. My father-in-law, a
lifelong Republican, would come with me, both because there
was little work he could do on the mills alone and because he
liked to talk. I loved listening to him tell the history of the ranch
and the early Basque settlers in northern Wyoming. One day
when we had to go to town, my father-in-law did something I'd
seen him do many times before, though I'd never said anything
about it: he parked his pickup and got out, leaving the doors
unlocked, the windows down, and the keys in the ignition. This
time I spoke up. "Don't you want to take the keys?" I asked.
"No. What if somebody has an emergency and needs to
get to the hospital or something? This way, they can take the
pickup if they need to." I have thought many times of his answer:
What if somebody needed the pickup? This way, they could use it
in an emergency.
The last car I bought was a Volkswagen Beetle with a
diesel engine. For the first few months I had it, the battery
kept going dead. The local mechanics couldn't find anything
wrong and recharged the battery a number of times, but it kept
dying. Finally I went back to the dealer, 165 miles away, where
I learned that when you turn the car off, you have to lock it or
the electrical system will keep running and the battery will
go dead. No amount of explanation by the congenial VW service
representatives could make me understand why it was to
my advantage to have to lock my car whenever I got out of it.
Every time I go to the garage to get something out of the car
or put something in it, I forget to bring the keys, and back to
the house I go. What kind of society won't allow the owner of
a car to decide whether or not to lock it?
(end of excerpt)
to read more of this excerpt from beginning:
Wildness and silence disappeared from the countryside, sweetness
fell from the air, not because anyone wished them to vanish
or fall but because throughways had to floor the meadows with
cement to carry the automobiles which advancing technology
produced. . . . Tropical beaches turned into high-priced slums
where thousand-room hotels elbowed each other for glimpses
of once-famous surf not because those who loved the beaches
wanted them there but because enormous jets could bring a
million tourists every year and therefore did.
Its a popular fact that 90 percent of the brain is not used and,
like most popular facts, it is wrong. . . . It is used. One of its
functions is to make the miraculous seem ordinary, to turn
the unusual into the usual. Otherwise, human beings, faced
with the daily wondrousness of everything, would go around
wearing a stupid grin, saying, Wow, a lot. Part of the brain
exists to stop this from happening. It is very efficient, and can
make people experience boredom in the middle of marvels.
When seeing a new place, I often think: I am going to come back
here later when I am rich, or when I have more time, or when
I have a purpose, or when I am with someone I love and do this
right. But it is a self-deception. More often than not, my feet lead
me somewhere new rather than somewhere I have already been.
And as I sat at that window watching the train bore through
the heart of China, I had a different, more probable thought: Id
better remember what this place looks like. I will never be back.
Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is to stay home, so we
can learn the names of the plants and animals around us; so that
we can begin to know what tradition were part of.
--Terry Tempest Williams
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world than the breathing
respect that you carry wherever you go right now?
We still do not know one-thousandth of one percent of what
nature has revealed to us.
photos by Alan Larus: http://www.ferryfee.com/bluesky/islands/after_the_rain.htm
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