Bought on the Fourth of July

Missing Persons: The Death of Diana Vreeland

Did we believe that the 9/11 condition would linger forever?

Things certainly seem better now, a decade on. Bin Laden is dead, taken out as much by a clear and structured management of intelligence as by the SEAL team deployed to interdict the ongoing threat he presented. We’ve had at least two years of austerity programs following on from the 2008 financial collapse, but we’ve also had two years of ‘green shoots’ recovery. With withdrawal from Afghanistan on the cards, the “war on two fronts” scenario seems to be convincingly at a close.

Who could have predicted that it would be Enron, somehow metastasized into a full-blown financial meltdown, that would set a more convincing thru-narrative for the past decade? Perhaps that quirky, witty publication, the New York Observer, in their now decade-old ‘obit’ to Diana Vreeland? (It’s actually an article from early winter 2000 not 2001, I discover when I check; Where Have You Gone, Diana Vreeland?).

In writing about the publication Lucky, NYO journalist Alexandra Jacobs doesn’t offer an actual obituary of the Grand Dame of fashion magazine editors (whose stewardship of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue set the terms for generations that followed). Rather Jacobs remarks on a cultural shift underway, even then. The phenotype of the “domineering, matriarchal presence; as ‘editrix’ that Vreeland helped usher in was shutting down. And in the process, was being replaced by a wholly new form. A form suggested by Kim France, editor of Lucky, a publication in Jacobs’ words more a “200-page telephone book filled with merchandise and baldly showcased” than a magazine.

“Since editors can’t possibly compete with the ready-made narratives celebrities provide,” Jacobs muses, “they have slowly begun to erase themselves. The new model of the women’s magazine editor is not a dictator, not a queen, but a girlish and conspiratorial chum. (How can you dictate, after all, in a world of eBay and casual Friday? How elite can you be when most socialites have day jobs?).”

Jacobs observes a very different kind of problem; the emergence of new role for the press. One that recasts the editor as pilot, rather than decider. Editorial is no longer the subtle kingmaker of public opinion, rather simply a confidant with mildly greater insight. Almost directly responsible for this (Jacobs herself writes at a time when the dot-com bubble was just ready to burst) is the flourishing is newly evolving contestation. This contest is the result of the flourishing of not only objects but concepts, their increased mobility (through memes) and the evolution of the cultural bastions we rely on to help navigate them. The real conflict here is that having things (concepts, opinions) may not prove the wealth we once imagined.

The coevolution of people by objects through culture has been discussed at length recently, particularly in Timothy Taylor’s The Artificial Ape. But what if Jacobs’ insight is right on the money? What if the real trauma here is that of missing persons? What if in a world where editors have begun to erase themselves, we just want our Diana Vreeland back, whomsoever our Dianas Vreeland might be.

The high drama of Robert Venditti’s new Original Graphic Novel The Homeland Directive, is exactly themed to this new world of built (and building) complexity that opens the possibility of the simple deletion of persons. Or perhaps even deletion of the concept of personhood.

In the face of the what some commentators have identified as the looming de-professionalization of journalism (the death of the newspaper business model and the rise of social media and bloggers), Venditti’s unreserved genius argues that perhaps the real tension is instead the imminent threat of de-personalization. That the terms of the debate are not entirely professional journalist versus non-professional blogger, but rather more akin to personhood versus accumulated ‘stuff’ (objects, opinions and concepts alike).

Are we more than merely the metadata contrails we leave in the act of leading our lives? Is there more to us than what commercial choices we make? Jacobs wrestles with the question at the level of its media outputs; charting the changes from Diana Vreeland to Kim France.

With The Homeland Directive, Venditti poses the question even more directly: would the deletion of personhood as a concept interfere with our essential liberties? Or is the pursuit of happiness only properly evidenced in the act of accumulation? Is there something essentially broken in the idea of a Diana Vreeland?

Venditti’s Homeland Directive stands as deep and meditative response not only to the last decade but to the role of an emerging generation. It transcends the political thriller genre to ably confront questions of American identity at the scale of world history. It’s scope is outwards-facing, assaying American-ness on a global stage by crafting a narrative that focuses exclusively on a national threat.

When Greil Marcus writes in Mystery Train (quoting his erstwhile editor Marvin Garson), “This is when we find out if there are still open spaces out there”, he describes the full scope of Venditti’s project in The Homeland Directive. This is the test of what it means to be American. Not simply in the quiet serenity of the homestead, but Out There, in public.

The Map Is Not the Territory: “I Swear I Never Meant to Take Those Things Away”

Is Bruce Springsteen’s ballad “Independence Day”, crooned out in throaty gusto on his 1981 album The River, cheapened by its obvious association with the Fourth? Or worse still, does that association diminish the holiday by somehow trivializing it? Most likely not at all. Springsteen’s “Independence Day” is the thin, gaunt folk saga of a generation trapped in amber. In wanting the psychological and intellectual independence that comes with an increase in material possessions, Springsteen’s narrator discovers that he has wanted too much all along.

The ideal of A Better Life is, simply put, too much to ask for. The song charts one of those gathering points in the shared human psyche. The old story that life is hard, and cruel, and will ultimately punish you for the simple act of asking for that little bit more. We’ve heard this story as it wends its way through Tom Waits in such songs “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, Bob Dylan with “Changing of the Guard”, Muddy Waters with “Train Fare Blues”, Mariah Carey with “All I Want for Christmas”, and most of all 50 Cent with Get Rich Or Die Trying. We’ve read the amazing John Reed weaponize this idea for his magnificent Snowball’s Chance and its thematic successor Tales of Woe.

But among these, Springsteen’s genius lies in shaping this tale as an intergenerational conflict. It’s the cognitive dissonance between the needing to provide and the staving off of impoverishment that attends fatherhood, and the crusade for improvement that attends son-ness. Springsteen’s “Independence Day” is not the simple “lost time” of relationships tattooed in by an easy dynamic. It’s nothing like the Mike & the Mechanics song “The Living Years”. Rather “Independence Day” is a conceptual battleground. It describes the measurable quantities (things more than opinions or concepts) that connect both father and son to the immeasurable rejuvenation of the psyche coming from material possessions.

With the Springsteen track, this struggle to define the role of ownership in the family’s collective life is encoded in the son’s struggle for a day when he will finally be independent of the father. What’s more this struggle is echoed in the nation’s struggle to be born as shriven from the ideals of empire. “Give me liberty, or give me death,” Springsteen always seems one step short of claiming, invariably leads to “Show me the money.”

Venditti treads the same ground only to elevate our level of thinking about the problem. The core of Venditti’s story is the fictive agency Boca, the Bureau of Consumer Advocacy. And their skirmishes with Dr. Laura Regan who doesn’t yet realize that she already knows too much. Boca is an agency tasked with interrogating the various and sundry wakes of ownership we make while living our daily lives. Bought a book from Amazon rather than Borders? Boca not only already knows, but is busily creating a psych profile of you based on those choices.

Dictator or queen though she may have been, the Editrix’s role was at least one we could rely on to buffer us against a life of public scrutiny. The Editrix’s celebrity was at times a comforting shield. With her in play, our private lives remained private. Or at least, this is the conclusion we’d have to draw by the end of Springsteen’s “Independence Day”.

If Venditti’s Homeland Directive effects any change at all to this Manichaean paradigm, it’s that the formulation of privacy-versus-publicity is an entirely false one. And that the most devastating terror attack would target directly our psychology of ownership, rather than the symbols of our culture.

John Reed, William Gibson, Jonathan Franzen; Venditti stands well inside the threshold of a very select group of writers currently chipping away at the irrelevant edifices that have built up over years. There’s something rejuvenating about Venditti’s his refusal to edit the complexity he encounters. Instead, these latent opportunities are ceded to the reader.

So, did Diamond Distributors miss an opportunity not shipping in the week of the Fourth? Maybe so. What insights could have been gleaned from reading The Homeland Directive amid burgers and ribs and later fireworks? Reading it now feels very much like having wandered too late onto the stage, having missed my cues, stumbled over my lines.

But these feelings are just swept away in an instant. The Homeland Directive is a brush with a better kind of tomorrow; where the self is tested in full public view, and the homeland is tested on the public stage.

RATING 10 / 10