Back to School Sale

The University of Michigan is officially starting the school year tomorrow, though on this Labor Day holiday, the cafe where I do most of my work is filled with students and academics. I spend most of my life in an isolated bubble, plodding through books, working on data projects, occasionally writing on this blog and, when time permits, slogging through the mass of trash and nonsense left to me by four generations of relatives, a endless, massive burden that crushes ever fiber of my soul.

When people die, they should take all their crap with them.

However, this closed and silent world I live in often keeps me from remembering that humans do exist in a non-virtual world, sometimes they connect with one another, sometimes they even have conversations, some of which I happen to overhear from the neighboring tables.

These kids at this University are incredible. Their English is characterized by a total lack of regional character, the spaces between the words punctuated to crush ambiguity, and to project an image of standardization that allows them to safely maneuver a maze of job and business prospects, waving a bleached white flag that says “I will not embarrass you when I have dinner with your colleagues/parents/friends/whatever.”

It’s an English I have yet to master. In 42 years I still haven’t managed to expel the wash of obscenity and regional taint that occupy the vast battery of cultural symbols that betray any attempts to conceal my low-class upbringing.

Mostly, what impresses me about students here is their incredible ability to project an image of themselves. What they lack in worldly awareness they make up for in the power of self-definition. They sell and market themselves unabashedly, dressing themselves as a commodity, though a self=-interested one, on the open market, available to the highest bidder. Though the University of Michigan flows deep in my blood, I am constantly amazed of people who possess this skill of the defining, packaging and selling of the self, simple because I don’t possess it. I live and have always lived an ambiguous existence, never sure quite who I am and what I’m supposed to project, in character, language, academics and expression.

The defining of the self always seemed overly restrictive to me. Once one labels something as what it “is,” then, by definition, one also isolates it from what is “is not.” To me, this seems a waste of possibilities, though the precise definition of what one “is” is absolutely necessary for success in today’s com-modified, consumerist culture.

What strikes me, though, is the sincerity to which these people sell themselves. They play the parts without question, as if it never occurs to them that these motions which they go through are defined and standardized by an even more self-interested set of social actors, those who define the nature of language, dress and social codes. In this case, they are akin to Sarte’s waiter who acts in bad faith, but who’s motions insure his success in maintaining his function in society.

I must, however, get back to work.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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