The first nice day of spring—this past Friday, in New York City—always makes me feel suspicious and somewhat put upon, threatened. I’m supposed to be too overjoyed about it; instead I end up thinking about crowds and sweat and exposed skin I wish weren’t exposed and a general mindless air of following the orders of the sun. This may be the inevitable consequence of city life, or New York City life, where every palpable shift in the zeitgeist feels like a contrived trend to be resisted.
But here’s further evidence that people should feel lucky not to live in Manhattan. After work, I found myself in Union Square and happened to witness an event being staged there where a bunch of people wore their headphones and danced to music on their iPods in what was billed as a “silent rave.” I found this to be crushingly depressing, an all-too-perfect symbol of the way isolation and rote individualism is colonizing what is left of public space, and how even ostensibly group-oriented activities must be eviscerated from within by a self-regard that’s presumed to be primary. Let’s all get together and dance, but not to the same music—we’ll just all watch each other perform the writhing ritual of self-projection and serve as one another’s audience. That way we can reinforce that public space is just where you go to be under the microscope, where you can surveil and be surveilled as opposed to sharing any experiences or exchanging any ideas. The headphones preclude the expectation of social exchange, which can make civic participation so irritating. The “silent rave” lets you simulate community without the noisome bother of belonging to one.
Like “flash mobs,” that peculiar form of performance art where people just show up and clog the flows of commercial life with their mere being, the silent rave seemed to be a vague gesture toward participation in something by people who must lack the ingenuity to come up with something more rigorous for one another to do than simply showing up. It’s low-impact participation with a vague subversive intent that’s not directed at anything in particular. They are not protests, which must seem pretty strident and would require overt commitment to a particular political view. Instead, they feel like marketing stunts, they feel promotional. It all reminded me of the models who are hired to hang out in front fo Abercrombie and Fitch on 5th Avenue.
But I don’t know what the silent rave is promoting. iPods? A generation’s general commitment to gadgets? To mediating themselves through technology? To being apart together? Back in the old days, I imagine people sat together in parks without headphones and shared the same sensory environment. Now they can be “together” without cramping their style or compromising. That’s progress, I guess.