American moments

Musings

During a recent visit to Ramapo College, a liberal arts institution in New Jersey, I discussed Tagore’s essay, “The City and Village,” alongside an essay on urban sustainability by Wendell Berry, the American writer.  Writing seventy years apart, both ask that the city and the village cultivate ties of mutual aid.  Since Berry’s essay is relentless in its demand that we live in ways that make the local economy self-sufficient, I asked students what the word “local” meant for them. Their answers: “natural,” “fresh,” “organic” and “vegetable produce.”  

The awakening to the value of healthy food has spread wide in the US. The horrors of junk food and chemical-laden farm produce are out in the open.  Farmers’ Markets, where local farmers sell their produce directly to consumers, have become popular. Totaling over 8000 at present, their number has more than doubled over the last decade. On separate occasions, two Ramapo professors had taken out apples grown in their backyard from their lunch bags.  Like in other liberal campuses in the US, students at Ramapo had demanded that their cafeterias buy vegetable and fruits only from local farms. (Since only one farm survived in the local county, the nearest local farm was in the neighboring state of New York.)  Posters on cafeteria walls joyfully declared that their kitchens served food made with local produce and offered brief notes on the meaning of sustainability. The local food movement is more than a pursuit of healthy diet:  it wishes to make small farmers more secure, refuse fertilizers and pesticides, and burn less fuel by not moving food across long distances.  It has opened up an alibi space for discussing what Americans tend to avoid: politics. 

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Art museums officiate between high and low art; they serve less-than-ideal social and political aims; they are committed to linear time.  Still, I find them quietly nourishing.  With over 17,500 museums, owing in large part to its incredible wealth and the complex facts of local philanthropy, the US probably has more museums than any other country. An exhibit on Soviet nonconformist art between 1956 and 1986 (“from Gulag to Glasnost”) at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick aroused curiosity.  I was among half a dozen Sunday visitors at this museum, which boasts the largest collection of nonconformist art from the former Soviet Union.  Bright Soviet propaganda posters lined the walls of the corridor leading to the exhibit: a sinewy farmer smiling next to a tractor (“Mechanizers! Fulfill the Party’s Resolutions”); Lenin engrossed in writing; Stalin looking determined in a uniform, among others.  Many of the exhibit’s paintings and installations were works of urgent irony against the official Soviet vision. The artists’ concerns were as monumental and wide ranging as the state’s brutal obsessions with achieving political compliance and economic modernity.  The painters and sculptors, many of whom eventually sought exile in the West, had struggled to make art at a time when the state mandated only socialist realism and forbade abstract and experimental art. Whatever the motivation behind this art collection at Zimmerli, it was moving to see the works of artistic idealism created amidst a utopian catastrophe.  As I walked out, a perverse thought came to mind: could freedom have seemed a clearer affair for these artists than in our own times of global surveillance?  

*****
Whatever might have happened during “the government shut down” – a phrase of American exaggeration, no doubt – everyday routines stayed on course: schools, universities, hospitals, public transport, local markets, all worked as usual.  When a close relative offered a ride to an outlet mall in New Jersey at this time, I went along. Malls are large. Outlet malls are extra, extra-large.  Bright and shiny clean, the vast corridors and ceilings had a disquieting grandeur about them. Shoppers were very many for a weekday.  Within an hour, I had seen dozens of shoppers walk by with big suitcases. I discovered that they were transit passengers at the nearby Newark International Airport, who had used a convenient shuttle service to reach here and shop between flights.  While the stores of familiar brands had shoppers, many others, including some with more than an acre of floor space and fully stocked with merchandise, did not have any.
  
*****
I dropped in at a bowling alley in North Brunswick on a Friday night.  The “cosmic bowling” nights during the weekend, when the lanes are neon-lit, can be great fun. The beer, the bright bowling pins, the waxed hardwood lanes and the funky scoreboard, all join in to work up the senses in ways I find somewhat pleasing.  Only a third of the eighty-odd bowling lanes were taken. A working class pastime which the automatic pinsetters helped standardize for mass consumption in post-War America, bowling’s popularity is fast waning due to economic hardship and shifting sporting tastes of the newer generations.  Although I have stayed a novice at this game, I find it fun to just get a strike now and then. It is fun, too, to watch seasoned bowlers spinning the heavy balls along the lanes. On occasion, I would see the bowler figure from Nietzsche’s aphorism: “Some people throw a bit of their personality after their bad arguments, as if that might straighten their paths and turn them into right and good arguments- just as a man in a bowling alley, after he has let go of the ball, still tries to direct it with gestures.” 
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Chandan Gowda is Professor of Sociology, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

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