Monday, August 26, 2013

“Which Self-Organizing Leviathan?” A: That One, the One on the Right.

By Kerry Mitchell

Do I wish to see the State?[1] Can I imagine what it would be like to see it? Does the State have a face and could I see its face and live? Or, like Moses and his vision of God, can I only hope to see the State’s backside?[2]

I have seen the State's backside.


I started with a question. Where is the State? I admit it’s a strange question. It asks for specificity and boundaries and promises description, even clarity. I asked it of a long walk through the city. Where, as I walked, could I see the State, locate it, describe it?

Streets: they wouldn’t be possible without the State. The State demands a certain quality of the streets. It builds, organizes, repairs, names.

Vehicles: they are licensed by the State, their physical qualities regulated -- seat belts, brakes, emissions.

Drivers: also licensed by the State. They are tested, monitored, evaluated, punished.

But none of these things is the State itself. The State is behind them, acts on them, conditions them.

I kept walking.  Long Island Rail Road. It’s an organ of the State, a unit within the Metropolitan Transit Authority, itself a corporation operating under the authority of the New York state legislature. It’s more State than the vehicles and the drivers (private corporations and individuals). It’s more State than the streets (which are more State than the vehicles and people). That helped. There were things that appeared to be more State than others. But they were still not the State.

I kept walking.

Eastern Parkway -- sidewalk, street, trees, walkway, trees, avenue, trees, walkway, trees, street, sidewalk. It's a nice design: long, thin layers with just enough thickness to make the tree-lined path a sanctuary from the city. This parkway, like the streets in general, was also a product of the State. It's a nice product. Designed to be nice, actually. Family nice. And families go there. It's not the State.

I walked down the Parkway. A Hasid approached me. "Are you Jewish?" He was definitely not the State. But if I had a problem with his interrogation (a series of questions about any possible Jewish association I might have), I would have had to appeal to the State for redress. And if he had a problem with my problem with him, he would have appealed to the State for redress. And this from a man who knew about God's backside and a face that cannot be seen.

I'm not Jewish. I kept walking.

Many Jews. A wedding couple posed for a picture with family. Their marriage would be certified by the State. Would it be sanctified as well?

I walked south. Blocks and blocks passed. A final sighting of a Jewish family in a yard at the end of a block. And then no more. The blocks were emptier now. They seemed longer. Larger buildings lined them, set further back.

I reached the corner of Albany and Winthrop and turned east. A tall fence enclosed a set of buildings to my right. Long, straight, spiked bars and a chain link fence doglegged inward and upward into the complex. Most fences in the city are remarkable for the fact that they would be so easy to climb. It's so reliably remarkable that it has ceased to be remarkable to me. But this fence was remarkable for failing to evoke that long-forgotten question of purpose. It would be quite difficult to climb. And it faced inwards.

What was this place? A correctional facility (the State would do the correcting)? I was looking at the backs of buildings. Dirty, blind windows. Silent AC units. An unkempt, overgrown verge between them and the fence. But no bars on the windows. Not a prison. I would look for an entrance and a sign.

I kept walking. No entrance. No sign. Just a long fence, budding jungle, and the neglected backs of buildings. What was this place? The real estate here would not be top end, but the north side of the street was vibrant enough. Who could afford such a massive property? Who could afford to let it lie dormant? I suspected the State, but so far I could only see its backside.

More walking. Finally, I heard among the field of blinded squares a single AC unit running. A room was occupied. And then more jungle.

“This is ridiculous,” I told myself. There had to be an entrance. Where was it?

Finally, behind the fence, the space opened up. There were roads inside. Here the lawn was kept. There were parked cars: property of the State of New York. So this was, indeed the State. But what part of the State? Yes, the backside, obviously. But the backside of which part? And why no entrance and no sign?

I knew the block had to come to an end at some point, and for some reason I thought that turning the corner would illuminate the nature of what I was seeing. The entrance must be on that side, I thought. And indeed, I did come to the end of the block and the massive State complex. It abutted the backside of a row of private buildings.

The massive, overgrown, unmarked backside of the State vanished into private property like a stream flowing into the earth. Rounding the corner brought me not to the face of the State, but instead back to myself. Or back to my familiar world, I should say: a regular city street. All my closeness, all my questions, all my desire to know the State whose backside I had literally caressed – all had been met by an unassuming disappearance. I was left on Utica Avenue.

I walked on, doggedly determined. I knew the State was somewhere to my right. Yes, of course, it was all around me as before: the matrix of regulation that infuses all activity. But there was a more concrete presence, a located existence, to my right behind the diner, autoshops and laundromat. I turned right onto Clarkson and the fence reappeared. 

This side looked more like a face: lawn and streets and buildings within the complex. There were even signs labeling the buildings. One read, “Community Services”. So inside this State complex was a building devoted to serving the community. Did that mean the other buildings did something else? Served others besides the community? I kept walking.

Finally, an entrance. It was only a few feet wide: a turnstiled gate next to a guard house. I couldn’t see anyone inside the guardhouse, but there must have been someone. I suppose I could have approached and asked what this facility was, but I demurred. This entrance, this face of the state, was not one to be approached with casual curiosity. I imagined the guard would not have taken kindly to being asked what s/he was doing there. Such a question belonged to the State, in a sense. It was to be asked of, not by me. I kept walking.

Finally I reached the vehicular entrance and, for the first time, the sign, the one that named the State responsible for this monstrosity, this “showing” that hid what it showed: Kingsborough Psychiatric Center.

Ah. I guess that explained the inward-leaning fence, the lack of signs and the few entrances. Signs often aim for walk-in traffic, and I imagined that they got little of that (No “You’re almost there! Kingsboro Psychiatric Center is just around the corner J”). This leviathan of the State bore private businesses as barnacles: I had passed establishments offering diagnostics, home care, nursing, and other medical/therapeutic services. There was a Motel 6 for those who would accompany the psyches come for healing at the hands of the State. But the largest symbiote was, by far, safeguard self storage on Utica. The “self” is short for “self-service,” but it also serves as storage of the self, or at least its material counterpart. I imagined the institutionalized in green-dimmed rooms, wrestling with demons in the belly of that massive beast, while their worldly attachments sat in boxes within boxes in the dark across the street.[3]

This face of the State was narrow, guarded, and plain. It spoke, however, unlike the silent signs, the marks that did not mark the State’s backside. And in its speech (its naming, self recognition, self proclamation) that face (was it the sign? The entrance? Was there a mouth? Eyes?) provided its own kind of entrance: an entrance into discourse. Stories erupted in the mind – images, issues, arguments, fears. It was its own world, this world of discourse, one that lives in space like a raucous tenant occupies a room in a building of whose history s/he is only dimly aware. 

I passed the entrance – both of them. The face was small, its entrance uninviting. But the body was big. The proportions drew my attention.

Only a few feet down the street, the fence continued and enclosed another, very different aspect of the State (another face? Another backside?).

This was still part of the same complex I had just circumambulated. It was a meadow and forest. A few cars looked like they were parked on the grass. A lone building jutted above the trees, marking the horizon. I pressed my face against the bars, the skin of the State, peering inside.

So far away, that building. And so green, the State. I had been walking for so long. Miles of building and street surround me in all directions. From the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, one finds unimpeded views of a distant horizon, all filled with brick, concrete, steel, glass, and asphalt. Here in the middle of Brooklyn, in the middle of that expanse of humanity in its immense and inhuman shell, the State had taken up residence, had made a house for itself. It was a house adorned with creeping vines, a house that housed dead houses, blind windows, long-silent machinery. 

The State’s capacity for enduring death, for holding death within itself without itself dying, mark it as a very different kind of house than the ones that surrounded this one. But the life-adorned corpse has a long and familiar history. I was drawn to this death just as so many of my forebears were drawn to ruins. But this view of the State -- not of its face, not of its backside, but of its inside -- struck me more than the mysterious marks and walls that had led me to circle the State like an animal investigating an unfamiliar presence, like a lover seeking to know the beloved. This inside held its own outside; not the outside of walls and fence, but of Nature -- wildflowers, grasses, gnarled branch and distant horizon. The State was so large, so powerful, that it could contain its outside within itself -- a conquest perhaps more powerful than that of death.

So gentle, this view. The distant building sat peaceful and small. The cars nestled into the grass. I inhaled, gripping the bars lightly, restfully. I leaned my head against the iron like a daughter on her Father’s chest.   e


[1] John Lardas Modern, freaking out about David Brooks: “Pay no attention, I hear him whisper, to the internal dynamics of this self-organizing, massively mediated Leviathan, these gears of the choice-machine that artists and writers seek to witness, the intricate workings of self-organization and feats of self-deception to which scholars respond with vague conspiracies and desperately constructed missives such as this.” William Shakestaffe, freaking out about John Lardas Modern: “What? Which self-organizing Leviathan? Mediated by what? Self-organized in what sense? Which gears? The ‘choice-machine’? ‘Such as this’? Help me out here: try to use ‘this’ or ‘these’ only when you're referring to something specifically referenced in the previous sentence or clause, because I don't have any clue what you're trying to say here.’”

[2]18 Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ 19 And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ 21 And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’” Exodus 33:18-23 (NRSV). The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery writes of this passage, “God’s ‘back side’ is here a veiling image, distancing the full glory of God from human view, but paradoxically revealing a very full sense of God’s glory even as it is partly concealed.” 

[3] The Self Storage Association states that the total rentable self storage space stands at 2.3 billion square feet or 78 square miles, “well more than three times the size of Manhattan;” a leviathan indeed, but also one amenable to the more modest measure of the self. With 7.3 square feet of space “for every man, woman and child in the nation… it is physically possible that every American could stand – all at the same time – under the total canopy of self storage roofing.

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