There are two very different uses of wealth. One use is as a way to show that one is succeeding in the market place; this is how wealth is displayed in Beverly Hills or Las Vegas. The other way is to use the wealth as a protective shield from the market place, so that the wealth itself functions as a way to keep away the feeling of capitalist forces; this is the point of wealth in well off college towns such as Cambridge and Berkeley.
I was aware of this second use of wealth as I was walking around the Princeton campus yesterday. As soon as I was on the campus, I could feel that distinctive feeling one gets at a rich university. I felt it walking around the grounds, taking in the beautiful architecture and the serene air of a life of the mind. But what is that feeling capturing exactly? At first I wasn’t sure; I walked around just taking it in, trying to understand it.
I was in Labyrinth Books in Princeton today, and I was checking out the philosophy section. It turns out there is no section simply called philosophy. There is one large section called “Western Philosophy”, which has the usual texts of a Leiterific department, though with more representation of continental philosophy.
Several aisles over, next to the spirituality and and Jewish studies and Islamic studies section, there is a smaller section on “Eastern Philosophy”. It mainly consists of Eastern religious texts and commentary on them. From a casual glance, much of it seems to have the vibe of self-help philosophy.
I am at a diner, and I just realized something. The lack of public philosophy in America is positively, physically dangerous.
What am I paying for in the diner? Certainly for the food and for the service. But also for being in a public space where I can experience a sense of togetherness with fellow human beings. In a society where public culture is bleached in order to be neutral, the main form of being-with others, beyond one’s family, friends and colleagues, is as fellow customers. You could be the poorest person in a village and be generally made fun of, and still, sitting in the public square you would experience a sense of shared, public culture. This is a form of culture and experience that is lost to us now. Like everything else, we have to buy such an experience. This is neither good nor bad in itself. It is just the reality.
I am sitting in the food court of a mall. I am surrounded by white, black, Asian and Latino families, each minding their own business, engaging with members of their family as if they are in little cultural islands. Every once in a while a group of middle or high school kids walk by, often with kids from different cultures in the group, seemingly laughing at the status quo and confident in their cosmopolitan togetherness. The elders in the Asian or Latino families stare blankly at the passing scene, as if there is nothing in the scene that is an affordance for them to act.
What a scene! How commonplace now and yet how bizarre!
What is holding everyone here in the food court, all of us, together? What do we have in common?
One thing in common is obvious: the market. We are in a public space which is defined by each of us being customers. Each cultural island around me holds a window into a more lush world, their home, where people of that island are able to express other parts of themselves, parts which they trace to their “culture”. But here, in this public space, that is set aside.