June 28th, 2005


Why doesn't the world's richest nation have the world's richest texture?

I'm having this recurring thought, when I travel anywhere these days, that cultural software (by which I think I mean attitudes, accumulated down through history and operating by means of habit, largely unexamined by, and semi-invisible to, the people concerned) is all-determining. You can cut a slice out of America, Britain or Japan at any point and you'll basically get the same textures. It won't matter whether the area you choose is rich or poor, or whether the people are hipsters or Regular Joes. Many of the basic conditions and materials of life will be the same.

So what's the texture of America? Don't hate me if the news is bad. America is the richest nation in the world, but it doesn't have the richest textures. Far from it. You walk across sidewalks of poured concrete crudely demarcated by stick-drawn lines, leopard-speckled with blobs of blackened chewing gum. Look up at the buildings around and you'll see each window jammed with an ugly air conditioning unit, probably dripping on you. Jump into a taxi and you'll bounce on spongy suspension across pot-holed roads. Get out and the odour of rotting garbage rises to your nostrils from huge heaps of unsorted black bags waiting to be taken away and burned.

Enter a restaurant and, sure, you'll be able to get food which is cheap and plentiful. But it'll be notably lacking in subtlety, finesse and flavour. This will apply even to Thai or Japanese food. Somehow, in the transition to America, essential knowledge—and above all respect—seems to have been lost. Flavours are smeared carelessly together, too much sugar and salt and spice is added. Peek into the kitchen and you'll see that what you eat is prepared, whatever the purported nationality of the restaurant, by Mexican and Bangladeshi kitchen staff. The restaurant's advertised cuisine is just a kind of additional layer of branding, a level of illusory diversity; what you eat is always the same basic bland American ingredients, prepared by low-paid (and possibly illegal) immigrant kitchen workers. In a sense, every restaurant in America is a Mexican restaurant. Money makes it so. Money and the hidden yet omnipresent values of culture.

Go shopping in an American supermarket and you'll find that although the world's richest nation has a big selection of food and drink, it's all somewhat bland. Missing here are the truly smelly and tasty cheeses eaten in France and Germany, for instance, cheese that requires love and tradition and time to make (not to mention EU agri-subsidy). The American agricultural system is huge and industrialised, and its products are shiny and bland. I bought some cherry tomatoes, hummus, sushi and white beer in my local supermarket yesterday. When I got it home I found it was all what I'd call an "American interpretation" of these things. The tuna in the sushi tasted of, well, nothing much. The white beer was crude and lacked the cloudy, hoppy taste of German white beer. The tomatoes were sweet and watery. The hummus was sweet and gritty. The food had forgotten where it came from and why it existed.

I bought an ice cream from an ice cream van on West 24th Street. It tasted like plastic or toothpaste. Sound is texture too: New York is so noisy I get tinnitus. I'm writing this in a room with an incredibly noisy fan, a deafening garbage truck outside, and a police siren behind that. The examples could go on and on. Although there's a vast number of channels on American TV, everything has a cheap crummy video texture and is interrupted by commercials the whole time. Very little filmed material is visible as you zap through, and everything seems to take place either in a studio or in Southern California. So much for diversity, so much for a "window on the world". The impression you come away with is that, to the broadcasters who broadcast them, the actual substance of their television programs isn't really a very high priority. Despite the dizzying number of apparent options (hundreds of channels), there's really only one thing on offer here, one way of being, one texture, and it's a chopped-up, inconsequential, shoddy one.

But America is a huge, pluralistic culture, isn't it? Well, perhaps. In the last couple of days I've been twice to Williamsburg, one of the hippest places in CONUS. I've also witnessed a gay pride march on 5th Avenue. Now, I'm inclined to think of gay people and hip people as somehow different from the people around them. More "aesthetic" in their orientation to the world, perhaps, more colourful and adventurous, more inclined to value texture for its own sake, to focus on here and now rather than deferring gratification or sublimating. Yet the "peacocks" parading down 5th Avenue and along Bedford Avenue were mostly wearing the same boring jeans and sneakers, the same clumsy unsporting sportswear, as everyone else. Many wore vast T shirts over portly rotund bellies. (I'm just waiting for these vast T shirts to gain a couple of inches and become full-blown robes. That would be cool, American cities could become Nazareth or Samarkand overnight.)

Well, silly me. Gay Americans and hipster Americans are still, above all, Americans. The unconscious habitus that produces the poor textures of the world's richest nation is in their cultural software too. It's all tied up with convenience, with comfort, with puritan body horror or proactive Nietzschean body alteration (work out hard at the gym, your body is just a machine!), with putting money above quality of life and practicality above beauty. There is no Venice on the North American continent, although there may one day be a Jerusalem.

The 5th Avenue gays were, in fact, gay Christians, keen to emphasize that, although they were homosexuals, God still loved them. They wanted the same rights as anyone else, their placards declared, no more, no less. (No less, and no more.) I'd been picturing the scenes of carnage that would occur if these gay marchers ran into the crowds of evangelicals heading off to see Billy Graham's sermon at Flushing Meadows. Silly me again; the crowds would be pretty much indistinguishable. As with the ethnic cuisine, the top layer of identity here, the apparent diversity, is flimsy branding, easily stripped away to reveal a core of sameness. How ya doin' today? Doin' good.

As for the hipsters, well, I sat by the door of Beacon's Closet reading the free hipster community papers and watching the clientele, and it seemed like only the Japanese were really trying. Apart from a couple of Jesus/Serpico/Devendra types, Williamsburg was sadly bereft of inspiring figures. Bedford Avenue, so often condemned as a place of elitist fantasia and sequestered pretension and privilege, couldn't live up to the hype. If those things are hated in America, they'll be hated here too. It's in the cultural software. Williamsburg is, finally, just another part of America, another facet of the paradox which dictates that the world's richest nation should, for some reason, have some of the world's poorest textures.