Nowhere To Go But Down

The water table rises.

You said that you were born here/but you haven’t found it yet: Graham Parker sang it in 2007 on a song called “I Discovered America.” He was describing the confusion of millions of people whose encounters with national identity have always been vexed and incomplete. Everybody must discover America, Parker (an Englishman who now lives in Upstate New York) told us; it’s a great big powerful thing, and you’re going to run into it one way or another, so you’d better keep your eyes open and take notes. Ray Davies is up to something similar on “Americana”, his new participant-observer album: his narrators wander around the States and look for poetry in the convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. It’s got to be there somewhere, right? We wouldn’t have designed an apparatus this big and left it without a soul, would we?

Today’s song is set in Orlando, but I was on the National Mall when I came up with the line “got to discover America/before America discovers me” and decided I ought to build a song around it. There was a protest outside the Capitol and a modern art show in the Hirshhorn and a little kid crying on the merry-go-round. I recall I thought I’d hit on something concise and epigrammatic, maybe a neat little signature for the whole Almanac project. I was thinking a bit about artistic discovery, and the stories of so many of the artists I’d seen in the museum exhibit who’d grappled with the nation for years before public perception of their work caused them to become self-conscious about their styles. And that seemed like the ideal way to do it: scour the land incognito, cook something up, and then let the country in on it once you’d figured out a way to present what you’d learned.

But I’m not sure that happens anymore, if it ever did. And since my own preoccupations are anxious ones — if not outright paranoid — I was really thinking about the kind of discovery that occurs when the cops bust in on a hideout. Because there are forces in America that are trying very hard to discover the vast territory that is you: law enforcement, for instance; the government and its partners in the private sector who are drawing up a map of your tastes and proclivities and target marketing their products and services based on what they’ve found.

Which brings us back to the central question that has motivated all the writing in this Almanac: what happens when the mechanisms of surveillance and forecasting get so sophisticated and encompassing that the authorities know you better than you know yourself? What happens when the algorithm leaves you with no place to hide?  Is it even possible to have a country under those conditions? Or is citizenship now simply submission to the wagging finger that tells you not merely what to do and where to be, but who to be as well?

According to the old songs, the search for America was an analogue to the quest to understand the self: hence Paul Simon hitchhiking to Saginaw, etc. ¬†That dream of the 1960s hasn’t survived the encounter with the Internet. Today, wherever you go, America is right there on your heels. Search ye may, but know that you’ve probably already been found (caught). It must have been nice to imagine that America was a vast plain open to exploration by a subject only partially governed by its rules. In 2017 we know better. The tables have turned. You can’t get lost here. You can’t even wander. Turns out you’re the discovery, and nobody’s letting you in on it.