“You will surely make noise when I take you deep,” texted Representative Anthony Weiner, the great BlackBerry lover, to his virtual inamorata, Lisa Weiss, the famous dissident, aviatrix and Vegas blackjack dealer.
“Yes I will,” she texted back. “I will be sore for days.”
This past year took the world deep, and the world made noise, but unlike Ms. Weiss, it had, in its soreness, no luxury of bed rest. We started with Middle Eastern uprisings and a Japanese nuclear meltdown, either of which might have filled a whole decade in some simpler era but in ours soon became back-page news. And yet, for all its careering, history could seem to stand ominously still. Writing in Vanity Fair at year’s end, Kurt Andersen rightly described the moment as creatively stagnant, perhaps exhausted, a late imperial Gaga-ing of high empire forms.
But as algorithms make consciousness a built environment, perception itself becomes in some way designed, in which sense 2011 wasn’t totally stuck in the past—it offered a new sensation-of-being: Drudge’s report on Trump’s quest for Obama’s birth certificate sends you clicking Facebook pictures of a lost love’s fat children as prelude to a brief viewing of the Muammar el-Qaddafi snuff film, Tim Tebow chatting-up Yahweh on the 50-yard line or, attention span permitting, Fukushima’s “heroes” streaming across your iPhone in frog masks and body suits, their solemn death-trudge naturally interrupted by a billing reminder from Verizon Wireless.
“It’s nice to have moments that are real,” said Ashton Kutcher to the young girl, sharing a little postcoital wisdom.
The real and the unreal, the historic, the mundane—this year they all rushed together, passing through the absurd en route to the grotesque.
Europe’s debt crisis festered until, by November, Poland—Poland—was begging Germany for salvation. The uncertainty frustrated America’s recovery; we saw the true unemployment rate at 17 percent, reports of gun-hoarding and ammunition shortages, and a national debt that in November passed the $15 trillion mark—a number that defies fathoming by minds made for counting mastodon.
In simpler times you might dose up on Prozac and just ride the shit out, but even that escape was lost. Writing in The New York Review of Books this summer, Harvard Medical School’s Marcia Angell described how the life-tenderizing antidepressants required by more and more Americans to endure their lifestyle paradise—including an estimated 500,000 toddlers on antipsychotics—didn’t beat their placebos once studies were controlled for side-effects. The vast majority of contributors to the DSM, psychiatry’s gospel, were receiving money from pharmaceutical companies, making it at best a brochure, and at worst proof that the age of fraud had compromised even our own self-understanding.
We buried two business legends, Steve Jobs and Jon Corzine. Jobs died gaunt and hollow-eyed, uttering the final words “Oh wow, Oh wow, Oh wow,” suggesting that the magic he brought into this world saw him out of it. Corzine expired somewhat less gracefully: under his leadership MF Global used $700 million in clients’ money to cover its own losses, an act of shameless, vile theft. The former Goldman CEO then went before the once-mighty U.S. Senate, which he’d joined years before as a short-lived retirement gig. “Senator, unfortunately I do not know where the money is,” said the Wall Street lion-turned-hyena, searching for impunity within stupidity.
The God-death extended into celebrity: 2010 offered the prescription-killing of Michael Jackson, tabloid pictures of Gary Coleman’s morbid intubation—the end-stage of a demystification of celebrity that started in the 1990s, and in 2011 seemed to tire even of itself, offering Charlie Sheen as a toothless maniac, and Lindsay Lohan, once compared to Marilyn Monroe, sneaking cigarette breaks from her court-ordered real-death experience changing the blood- and fluid-stained cadaver sheets at the L.A. County morgue.
We made new idols, hastily, brutally: Rebecca Black became a new, demented form of celebrity when, in the space of a few days, her unwitting tribute to the nihilistic-mundane, Friday, registered 60 million hits on YouTube. There was no ideal here, no message, no skill, just the freak-appeal of a meme sputtering out of control along with everything else. Later in the year, Penn State, which has one of America’s most storied college football programs, was revealed as a self-aware child sex ring focusing on the unprivileged and disempowered.
People sought escape in near and distant pasts.
The Tea Party longed for the moral purity of Eisenhower’s America, when gays responsibly took electroshock therapy, the military vaporized Pacific atolls as light recreation, and little black girls showed respect for German shepherds. Pot-bellied in nylon powdered wigs, they blamed Barack Hussein Obama—the obvious product of a Kenyan-Indonesian-Hawaiian-Ivy League conspiracy to do exactly what was never clear—for everyone’s troubles, demanding a return to a “pure” capitalism that had never existed, and which, as the they pushed America toward default, felt increasingly like Hobbes’s state of nature.
Occupy Wall Street evoked 1960s protest culture while failing to learn its lessons—that the police always win because they have the guns, and that the Flower Children became the Manson Family.
A tent city can be made to disappear, but Occupy’s unanswered questions won’t: How is no one in jail for the mortgage catastrophe? How can anyone preach “pure” capitalist gospel after the 2009 bailouts? How does a society that claims exceptionalism tolerate such staggering income inequality, and the awful loss of promise that is its greatest cost?
Filling the silence was a primal howl that had been building in America even during the boom. By 2006 reality shows like Top Chef and Project Runway, which promised to make you a better consumer, shared cultural space with Man vs. Wild, which taught you how to trap and eat lizards in primordial jungles, offering the fantasy of the stronger, more capable and fulfilled person you might become if magically delivered from everything around you that was making you miserable.
This year we went deeper into antisocial dreams. In 2010 The Colony succeeded as apocalyptic reality show simulating viral apocalypse. In its finale, one contestant, an increasingly paranoid carpenter, hid in a patch of tall weeds when simulated government agents offered help, assuming that their incompetence had been translated into the story line. It drew 2.3 million to the Discovery Channel at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night, only to be outdone this year by The Walking Dead, whose pilot drew 5.7 million to AMC with a vision of apocalypse as pure cliché—the Sheriff, the Rich Elitist, the Crotchety Old Man, the Token Black Guy—all bickering before a legion of hopelessly dehumanized zombies in stunning anticipation of the Republican debates.
There were biological rites. Bin Laden’s assassination was pure death ritual, Delta Force-like spider monkeys on a primal raid. The web demanded pictures of a corpse, and when none were released people simply Photoshopped their own, mutilating an eye here, bruising flesh there, mouse clicks crushing human skull. They went viral—not exactly real or unreal, more the feeling of the one thing rubbing against the other.
The Royal Wedding was a fantasy-fertility spectacle in which Kate Middleton, the gifted AIDS researcher, finally succeeded in her long struggle to escape the upper middle class. Twenty-four million people watched, ratings so good that Kim Kardashian pretended her own marriage six months later. She drew 4.4 million viewers, made $17 million, then filed for separation, at which point a minor miracle occurred: after a decade of abuses and betrayals by elites, there was still, somehow, enough American capacity for belief that people claimed outrage at Ms. Kardashian’s disregard for the sanctity of marriage. But she was soon forgiven. And why not? With Kim’s Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event, she’d let people abandon themselves for a two-part, four-hour E! stupor, and that was worth something, because in 2011, mainly, there was no escaping the present: there was way too much of it coming way too fast, conning, pleading, plotting, perverting even alpha into omega.
Wild monkeys will soon be joining the ranks of Fukushima’s heroes. The monkeys will be unleashed to test radiation in the site’s forbidden areas. One assumes they’ll be strapped with Chinese-made HD cameras, in the spirit of the day. The footage will be shaky, but that will let us know it’s real. We’ll watch as they go yapping, loping, hooting, meeting modern horror with primal awe. And maybe a few will pause in their heroism to find each other in the isotopic wreck, to mount and caress and conceive in naked assertion of life over death—
They’re up to the 92nd floor of One World Trade Center, which will replace the twin towers, whose destruction a decade ago began this whole regrettable era. They added 40 new stories this year, almost one a week. What everyone knows but won’t say is that we loved the old buildings only in the negative, as shafts of light on summer nights. They were violent in their homogeneity, in their Bauhaus rejection of history, “a pair of fangs” at the end of Manhattan, as Norman Mailer put it when arguing against them ever being built, rightly predicting that if they did go up, they’d be working for the devil.
But the new structure keeps surprising with its beauty. You’ll be downtown at night and you’ll look south and see its light-dotted form, fragile but determined—like a flower coming up through the snow.