Fear and loathing in Atlanta

We are actively transforming people into means.

Andy Stec, Senior Columnist

It was about midnight in Chicago O’Hare when a wonderful, horribly underpaid professor walked up to a crowd of forty-some midwestern liberal arts students and let loose a stream-of-consciousness diatribe attacking the monolithic, faceless super-structure: “It’s all a crazy Kafka-esque machine turning us all into nothing. I’m not treating them like human beings, they’re not treating me like a human being, none of the people in this three-hour line are treating each other like human beings, and it’s all just commodified us and each other and humanity is dead.”

Joe Davidson put it more succinctly when we met eyes and he said, “What the fuck is happening.”

Marc Augé referred to ‘non-places’ as those transient spaces whose purpose is to get people from one place to another. People within them do not form connections, remain anonymous, and are often lonely. They are indistinguishable from one another: highways, shopping malls, hotel rooms, bus stops, and fucking airports. What differentiation there is is the degree to which we are advertised to. Airports have become mini-malls, buses are plastered with ads, and billboards line highways. It’s a sobering experience to see thousands of privileged university students all funnel their way through these non-places to arrive at a national conference with the veneer of caring about others’ work. Non-places have expanded. We presented with the hope of padding resumes – drawing the attention of employers, academies, and peers.

I still managed to watch a presentation where one such student spoke for fifteen minutes about how to quantify the dollar-value of an immigrant with a long string of equations that deconstructed persons into academic gibberish. It was polished, well-delivered, received positive feedback from faculty in the room, and had all the trappings of a proposal at the Wannsee Conference. Genocides aren’t led by dictators, but by young, giddy public economists.

It took a few years to realize that everything I’ve been writing about has been non-places. Specifically, their expansion and extension into places beyond the typical shopping malls, bus stations, fucking airports, etc. All institutions within this stage of capitalism – neoliberalism – are especially adept at transforming our spaces into non-places. And the minimalist, white, designer-branded realm of the non-place is the realm of genocide. Living in constant connection to the internet and all of human knowledge turns the non-digital reality into one giant non-place. Connections are fake. Relationships are built upon their utility: what’s to be gained? What’s to be produced? The 1960s student counterculture convinced itself that it was intellectually illuminated enough to overthrow capitalism, that the working class was one-dimensional and filled with dumb schmucks who didn’t know what was good for them.

The counterculture students of the 1960s are stock brokers and corporate lawyers now. I’ve sat in the gilded office of a private attorney in downtown Minneapolis and listened as he remembered how radical he once was, while touting pictures of himself with the Clintons and talking about how stupid people like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren were.

College students like me are deluded if they think they’re above this machine that generates non-places, that deconstructs people and relationships into their utility. A string of economic equations stretching into a pastel sunrise. The academic world – whether it be a private liberal arts school or a public research institution – is just another instrument. In pushing things like journal publications, research conferences, etc. it is engaging in a deplorable act of subterfuge. It is illuminating knowledge and then putting it behind a JSTOR paywall, hiding it behind complicated jargon and terminology so that even if the proles pay for it, they can’t understand it. I’m doing it right now.

I don’t have a solution to propose. Because I’m a deluded, self-inflated college student. All I can say for sure is what I try to live by: don’t be a schmuck. Don’t be that pompous gilded attorney who shits on any proposals for what a better world might look like. Don’t condescend to the people who didn’t win the lottery of attending university. They’re more than subjects to be observed through our liberal arts microscope. They live and breath and bathe and think and, believe it or not, have ideas of what a better world looks like. Tear down the structures that seek to push them out and put them down. Democratize and socialize your knowledge.

Be aware of the fact that we’re living in a world-system that actively encourages us to dehumanize each other – especially those below us. Be aware that we haven’t escaped it by securing a degree; we’ve cemented ourselves as active participants. The wide world beyond the academy is still one slowly descending into a giant non-place: physical reality itself becomes little more than a space of transience between ‘real’ cyberspaces.

You still have to make a living. Despite what the students of the ‘60s thought, revolutions still have to eat. They removed themselves from intersectional coalitions to such a degree that when they sold out, they sold out big. They perch in gold-and-steel towers and spit on the people beneath them as naïve idealists. They thought themselves above the huddled masses, and when it turns out they weren’t it broke them. Don’t let it break you.