American Vignettes (II): The Spirit’s Agenda

Most of our day we are unaware of what we are thinking, but it is not our thoughtlessness that is disconcerting, it is our lack of awareness of our thoughtlessness.

It is rare to be in a space uncluttered by social messages, but you suddenly find even your modern sensibilities assaulted as you make your way through contemporary America. There are the expected advertisements, but they cover more of the physical surface of the world than you remember. There are the expected automated announcements, but they pierce the air and reverberate more loudly than you remember. You watch as everyone else moves through this cloud of demands, warnings, enticements, and you wonder: “does their head spin as mine does?”

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Advertisement on escalator railing.

The cab you take across Manhattan has a television screen constantly playing commercials – you can silence it but you cannot turn off the scrolling images. The roads you drive down in New York, Chicago and Denver have their negative space filled by an uncountable number of signs, billboards, words – every surface a text. Even tucked away from the public stream of communication, in your home or in your car, the words and pictures crash over you: television is ubiquitous and its light flashes on you wherever you go, the radio blares at you in the coffee shop and the eye doctor’s waiting room, the ads flash on your computer screen as you write emails to friends, and the messages and updates ding and chime on your phone as you sit down to eat a family meal.

The frenetic quality of the day only appears once you are lying in an unfamiliar bed, in a quiet dark room, when you can hear your parents breathing as they sleep down the hall from you, when you can hear the geese who have come south from Canada honking in the distance, when your mind stops receiving, blocking, dodging, collecting words and is able to put its own thoughts together. Being out of place and out of rhythm, you feel the importance of this moment. Slowness. Quiet. Rest.

Today, like everyday, your spirit’s agenda is set from the moment you wake by the stimulus of the world, which demands your reaction.

You start your day again surrounded by messages. The sink is branded by your toothpaste, your soap, your face cleanser. Each of these items also conjure memories and emotions, some your own, but mostly they are those placed there by advertising campaigns. This point seems banal, obvious. Your body demands care and sustenance. How important are these silent messages, silently received?

The quiet barrage continues at the breakfast table as you surround yourself with more brands, while checking your email and turning on the morning news. It will continue throughout the day. The hum of advertising, created by the constant cycle of sales pitch and brand recognition, is only the base layer.

You watch the news, hoping to be informed, finding yourself formed. The pretty faces repeat basic facts you already know on a 15-minute loop. You eat your cereal; you drink your coffee. Editing decisions decide not only the content of the day but your default emotional reaction to it. The newsreader expresses the resentment you’re expected to share. Resistance to this is futile because you only resist, and therefore confirm, the primacy of what they are giving you. Yelling at the television is impotency as ironic poetry.

Talkingheads in a decabox of commentary

Talkingheads in a decabox of commentary

You do not realise how easily the spirit’s agenda is set by external demands until something interrupts your own patterned behaviour. You find yourself out of sync in your former homeland – a moment of disruption like a tear in the skin on your index finger, a crack in the dermis brought on by dry weather, the moment of disruption is a mental siren. Each brush of your finger – against a bootlace, into your pocket, in the grasp of a new acquaintance – fires a signal through the nervous system to stop. To stop whatever you are doing because it is painful.

There are other experiences that disrupt our habit and awaken us to the quality of the rhythm of our thoughts and actions. The new acquaintance who becomes a new love, who fills your inbox, who calls at unexpected times, who asks you to present yourself and who in turn presents herself to you. Each interaction sends a complex wave of signals to refocus on this person because she is pleasurable. But these experiences of mindfulness are not normal, whether painful or pleasurable they are disruptions.

There is good reason for the mind to run on habit. We need mental fluidity to make our way in the world, but when you attend to the habitual you discover the constant intrusion of external demands that shape your consciousness in every minute of the day. It is as if a sliver has slipped beneath the skin, stuck fast – the agenda your spirit follows is not your own. This means that over the course of a day, a year, a life our spirit is not our own, it is also the quality and the character of the social environment we live in. The insight is not how to avoid this but what you can do with such a thought.

Any potential void in the day, in you spirit, is filled. Driving your car, thinking about the demands at work today, responding to texts – the mind is occupied. The spirit’s agenda, little by little, is set by everything around it. Even away from the demands of work or the stress of traffic you fill your ears and eyes like a glutton: magazine in one hand, phone in the other, headphones in your ears.

Everything human is made of thoughts that we must ourselves think in the act of receiving them – to understand those thoughts or respond to them requires action from us. To be surrounded by all these un-thought thoughts is by its nature oppressive. The fact that the spirit is directed by the inputs it receives, which are deeply social and always historically situated, is only to be noted – what is of concern is the content and ethos of the agenda we come to embody.

You are told to be afraid. “We’re about to fall off a fiscal cliff?” You are told that you are inadequate. “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”  You are told that you need to be made safe. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with gun. You are told that things will make you happy. “Koke adds life where there isn’t any.”


Any single moment of input is benign, but like a sandstorm these moments begin to blind us.

In The Central Park Five, a documentary about the infamous rape of a jogger in Central Park in New York City in 1989, this sort of blindness is at the centre of the tragedy that unfolds. After the assault on the jogger, the New York Police Department arrested five boys from Harlem. The boys were lost in the grown up world of the police station, overwhelmed by the threats, promises, accusations and deprivation of interrogations that exceeded 24 hours. We can see the boys so overwhelmed that they admit to things they know they did not do – accepting the thoughts that have been hurled at them as children do, by believing authority and telling lies they do not themselves understand.

The Central Park Five

The film also shows the boys’ parents in the same situation – weakened by the threat against their children they do not demand lawyers for their boys, they do not ask obvious questions that would show that the police case does not stand up, they think the thoughts of the police as the police think them, and then try to escape the terrible consequences their families face by doing as they are told. Watching these poor, disempowered families go through this is harrowing – the miscarriage of justice goes deeper than locking away innocent boys because it also taught the families and the boys caught up in the case to doubt themselves, to succumb to the imperatives of the world. This is ideology being installed in real time, written into the helpless faces of scared boys from Harlem.

But of course the police and prosecutors are themselves acting out imperatives given to them not only by those they answer to – politicians worried about re-election, wealthy (and mostly white) New Yorkers tired of having the safety they feel entitled to eroded – but also the wider messages that young, poor, black and Latino boys are violent, predatory, dangerous – “wilding” as the newspaper headlines called out.

Central Park Five described as "Wolf Pack"

Central Park Five described as “Wolf Pack”

The film is valuable because it shows you the spirit of a city, a police force, a scared teenage boy set by the spirit of our social environment. It reminds you of how important it is to notice when one feels oneself being swallowed up by this mental sandstorm. But noticing that your spirit is being formed is not enough, you can survive in these conditions, but you will always be reacting.

It is difficult to open one’s self and senses in such an environment – to listen or touch or speak. Without that space it is nearly impossibly to act with care, with any semblance of true freedom and control. This lack of control is an important part of human consciousness, we are not free choosers most of the time, but this condition of dependence creates its own demand for a space in which we can reflect, choose and claim our freedom, which is – in essence – to claim some authority over your social environment, to have a place in setting the social spirit in which you find your own individual spirit unavoidably situated. 

You feel this insight as a moment of release, but wonder: is there hope beyond the power of pain and pleasure to interrupt the stream of experience, beyond our ability to become aware of our environment? Can we act with freedom and care?

You want very badly to say, “Yes!” And the space of resistance is surprisingly fertile once we realize that the agenda that dictates our spirit is not a singular imperative backed by any coherent or sinister social force, it is a milieu that is itself often unthought, unintentional, and messy, such that the challenge is to give attention and begin to think and act in a countervailing way. You start to hope change might be easier than we are taught to believe because in its smallness influencing and responding to the social environment is something that we all do everyday. The challenge is one of revaluation, pausing to judge which message, thought, impulse wins out in the clamor for our attention, and which messages we ourselves send out.

In the film Brief Encounters the photography of Gregory Crewdson is revealed as source of inspiration and also resistance to the imperatives of the world. His enormous photos are carefully staged moments that are designed to look perfectly real, and in this they reveal that the real itself is designed, staged and every bit the performance that Crewdson’s photographs are. In their detail, depth and scope, which are only made possible by the careful work of the artist and a massive team, the photos are in their way more real than the world because their artificiality and their perfection bring to the surface the intention, construction and meaning that the world of our experience is built from.

One of Crewdson's photos

One of Crewdson’s photos

Sitting in the dark theatre, Crewdson’s photos – projected on to the massive screen – provide you a moment in a world with a God, a figure in control, but that’s not why you feel comforted. Rather, in lingering on a scene and its construction, you feel comforted because you are able to respond, to talk back to God in that moment and in that world, you are able to respond to Crewdson’s world because it is still and because its intention is on the surface. Rushing back into the over-saturated world of daily experience you face the question: how do you pause and begin to alter the spirit of the world through your contribution to it? You worry in this moment that you are sounding mystical, and maybe even feeling religious – but perhaps that is the feeling that you need if you have world making on your agenda. And every democrat spirit must begin with the desire to remake the world in common each day, with a spirit of equality.

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