Sunday, July 8, 2007

the awkwardness of intersections

Today I went to Guilford to buy a bike lock. As the store’s computer was down, I had to find an ATM machine to pay cash for it. The intersection next to where Lupone’s Drugstore used to be was backed up with cars. Drivers were extremely cautious about the movements of pedestrians – standing with one foot on the pedestrian crossing prompted hesitation, braking, uncertainty. There is a sense that drivers of cars are holding back their superior power in the face of the rights of pedestrians, whose rights are granted due to their inherent weakness vis a vis the drivers of cars.

This situation makes me very self-conscious as a pedestrian. In China, I would push to the middle of the road, waiting for the car to zip by without veering or braking, so I could cross. Drivers of cars are not afraid or self-conscious of their superior size, which makes them obnoxiously pushy in crowded lanes, honking with no shame at all. But on larger streets, they had the right of way. In this situation, as a pedestrian one could predict their trajectory easily and then proceed to maneuver around them. In Guilford this sunny day, however, there was a polite and somewhat tense and awkward negotiation between strangers, each looking at the other for clues. If a pedestrian steps confidently onto the crossing, a car will stop short. They have taken charge. But if the pedestrian is self-conscious of fouling up the flow of cars, or of making four cars wait for his slow steps, he or she may pause. And if the driver is also afflicted with a guilty sense of politeness or power, he may pause as well, fearing offending the pedestrian. What if he suddenly decides to cross, the driver worries. What if my proceeding elicits a dirty look? What if I am rude? So he pauses. The pedestrian gestures, Go ahead; the driver brakes: no, you go, is the exasperated nod of the head.

One car was half way through the intersection when a pedestrian appeared in a separate crossing. The pedestrian looked surprised, stopped short, for the car to continue by. But the car stopped also. Embarrassed, the tall lanky guy jogged across. He felt the pressure of holding things up, of his legal rights causing problems for the majority. He would not have minded the car just slipping by: but this act of generosity by the driver put the spotlight on him. He had to accept it, in order to get things moving again. For him to have stood still and insisted on the car moving first would have elicited the annoyance of a gift turned down. He would be seen as ungrateful. So the yielding on the part of cars is a passive-aggressive gift. I don’t really like to stop, the thinking goes, but I had better, or else I risk making a pedestrian angry and myself look bad. This act of stopping is not an easy going, take it or leave it act of charity. It is “hurry and go so I can keep moving,” a legal-procedural rule masquerading as a favor born of free choice or generosity.

Sometimes if a pedestrian insists on staying put even after “offered” a crossing, a driver will stomp on the gas in aggravation, shaking his head after the polite stop-and-go. The machinery of polite procedure stumbled, caught, jammed for a moment. When the powerful deliberately restrict their own strength to “help” a weaker person, ill will always leaks out, especially if the transaction is done inefficiently. The pedestrian, on the other hand, feels guilty or ill at ease for slowing down the car’s speedy movement, even if he is entitled legally to this priority.

Across the intersection six or seven people stood holding signs reading, “US out of Iraq,” and “Witness for Peace.” One difficulty with dissent is that, regardless of how logically persuasive one’s positions, one feels a twinge of self-consciousness at asking the machine of war to turn back. One feels unimportant, despite an abstract guarantee that one is just as American and shares the same rights of speech as the president, one feels the presence of group momentum and scrutiny, far greater than that of the pedestrian, who at least officially has a right to call a halt to cars. The state is a mechanism much like a road: there is the apparatus, meaning the structure, the departments and officials and budgets. And more importantly, there are the mass of people who cling to the apparatus as they would cling to a life raft: as a power in its own right, existing beyond its own value, beyond questions of logic and morality. The state is an apparatus loved merely for its regularity, its momentum.

The mystery to me is how so many people get themselves so emotionally attached to pure momentum, whether on a road or in a state, without thought or reason, just movement that has and will and must keep occurring. But even dissidents feel that aggressive, implicit pressure keenly. Otherwise, why does most dissent occur so politely, a reminder from the side of the road? “We disagree, just so you know it and our consciences are clean, -- but please continue!” it is only when dissent is angry enough to stride boldly into the intersection and demand an end to fictional politeness that we know dissent means business. A dissent which does not disrupt the flow of the machine is obedient, above all, to that feeling of awkward obligation to the whole – to that unwillingness, which I fully share, to call the bridled aggression of the powers that be into the open – and down on my head!

For their power is bridled, held in check, on the secret condition that we not take our rights too seriously – that we not do anything to slow down the flow of the machine too much (see Zizek’s “false offer”). You have your freedom of speech, goes the logic, and it is “granted” by us to you, on condition that you behave yourselves and not “go too far.” In effect, it s a hidden “responsibility test” that comes out in the public outcry every time the ACLU publicly defends the rights of people accused of terrorism. Those “rights” are not really meant for all – just for good Americans who know how to behave and not “go too far.” They want too destroy us. And these liberal lawyers wanna split hairs about rights?? There won’t be any more rights to worry about after the mushroom cloud! argues the lover of the system. In the public mind, rights are “given” conditionally. But this conditionality won’t be brought up as long as the (weaker, submissive) recipient knows how to behave.

So I respect those people for taking their symbolic stand against the momentum of the apparatus of war. Even such useless, symbolic stands raises the hackles of the war-hungry, proving once more how close beneath the polite social surface lies the fangs of American fascism and its demand of obedience to the true nation. But very few, so far, are ready to disrupt the flow of the machine, for it is only at that moment when one feels the full force of violence at the heart of every modern society. It is a violence roused only when the beloved routine of daily life is upset. It is a violence born of the romance with the machine, whose flow and momentum are the empty, contentless ideology of the system. The idea of the “true nation,” in my opinion, is merely garnish on this essential emptiness, this love of efficient operation, divorced from all questions of any operation’s end.

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