Haunted peripheries OUR SOCIAL CONTRACTS IN RUIN. by SHASTI O’LEARY SOUDANT
orders can be arbitrary and fluid things, the results of convention and accretion, subject to the shifting personal geologies of custom, belief, loyalty and circumstance. Symboldependent creatures that we are, the line encapsulates a linkage of points past which we are unable to move without consequence. When a map takes shape, it becomes as much a contract as a guide. Intentional or not, just or not, and whether we like it or not, its clauses define us. We have little choice as to where and how most distinctions are drawn, and we spend our lives, both as individuals and as a species, failing to transcend them. In truth, we have such little understanding of the domains our maps represent that we get lost all the time, even in our own backyards. Alfred Korzybski, a scholar who initiated the field of General Semantics, and theorized that humans are limited by what we know through our nervous systems and our languages, made the now-famous assertion that “The map is not the territory,” indicting the continuous mistake of confusing our models of reality with reality itself. For instance, longitude and latitude, those critical components that comprise our “system of the world,” are not intrinsic to the Earth, but manufactured guides that make sense of our passing. We mark time and distance with abstraction to orient ourselves, laying down hopeful breadcrumbs to help us find our ways through the chaos, back into the safe, welcoming arms of our tribes. While we depend on tribal affinities for safety, they also set limits on our capacities to love, trust and feel empathy. The lines we cross from one social status to another, one neighborhood to another, one culture to another, are rarely literal marks drawn in bold colors onto solid surfaces for our benefit. Often, we have no way of knowing where a line is until we find ourselves on the other side of it, suddenly alone and afraid. In the Age of Information, negotiating social terrain has become the apotheosis of human navigation, and mistakes 24 BCM 37
have proved dangerous. Unintentional transgressions occur often in these liminal spaces, and the punishments inflicted on trespassers fall far outside the purviews of proportional response. Witness the rise in online bullying and its heartbreaking results. It appears that the private meridians we carry within ourselves, the demarcations of our personal space and internal territories are proving the trickiest to patrol and maintain. Disastrous consequences await the unwary traveler. Sometimes, we find ourselves cruelly and abruptly deported out of our comfort zones, due to factors beyond our control. Small twists of fate have a nasty way of turning into full-blown twisters, and their capricious winds can lay waste to the most deliberately laid foundations. Maps are of little use when your world has turned upside down. For instance, many Americans have found themselves torn from their moorings in the last decade. A sudden descent into poverty is devastating, but consider those who have lived with it their entire lives. The abyss takes all comers, but those of us who are new to it lack a very basic understanding, and find it difficult to ask for help from those who speak poverty fluently. We, the newest victims of an increasingly violated social contract, point to our rightful places on the map with despair: “There! There is where I am supposed to be! I could have been a contender!” Within the iconic perimeter of these United States, the map has indeed become the territory, a powerful fiction superimposed upon the land, involving us all in its plot. In a depression, or a recession, we are not citizens, but characters, thrust helpless upon a gigantic stage, tasked to conquer adversity with the most American of qualities: our legendary rugged individualism and indomitable gumption. If our bootstraps should tear from the pulling, and we fail to triumph, may we no longer call ourselves “Real Americans”? Relegated to the shadows behind the scenery, are we then made to do nothing but turn the cranks and pull the chains and run the spotlights to make the stars of the America Show glow bright, front and center? The relentless competition for that rarefied island of light is throwing us all into darkness. To paupers in an Economy of Attention, the injustice of anonymity and powerlessness endemic to a life lived on the margins of poverty and racial inequality can give rise to a certain type of anger that is partially appeased by schadenfreude: How we love to watch the stars fall from the sky, for we are lit briefly by the flares of their glorious wakes, our dignities rekindled. What makes us jostle so for supremacy? Why the persistent push for expanded turf by coloring our maps outside
The latest issue looks at the lines that separate us, and the ways in which we are defined.