Being Local

“As we move into a connection economy, where the tool that matters most is the one that we can carry with us, the idea of geography fades very quickly. How do we juxtapose that post-geography with the post- industrial to create actual value?”

Thus spake Seth Godin, in conversation with Jedediah Jenkins in the 2016 issue of Wilderness Magazine. Godin is proclaimed in the article’s title as The True Master of Intentional Living. In reality, he is an accomplished marketing huckster – selling books, courses and seminars on “relativity, productivity and ideation”. He has found his niche within the world of the gig-economy where participants surf the planet seeking the next wave in an endless summer of rootless short term employment opportunities, buoyed only by the relational networks built on past performances and where one’s self-belief is supported by a variety of psychological, spiritual and physical routines conflated into ‘life-styles’. He is, in short, the product of end-of-days capitalism and the reductio ad absurdum of Rationalism. He, and others of his ilk, pursue their trade in the slop of spent waves, where broken dreams meet disillusionment and deracination: where the tool that matters most, your brain, is almost entirely disconnected from the body’s physical setting – where uprootedness is endemic.

This condition of anomie can be traced back to the 60’s and 70’s when a grassroots youth-driven movement (pioneered by the Hippies) that demanded greater personal authenticity, creativity and empowerment within a hierarchical and sexist corporate employment sphere was taken by those ossified corporations as an opportunity to increase employment flexibility (as a sop to those demands) and simultaneously to reduce job security and benefits. Thus ended what the French call Les Trente Glorieuses,the thirty post war years when income disparities diminished, a functioning social safety net existed in most western economies and, in America, the dreams of a burgeoning middle class were largely realized.

This process confirmed, particularly amongst young wage earners, the rootlessness already well established in America, by privileging those willing to relocate to secure employment. Home town allegiances were increasing usurped by placelessness and the beginnings of Godin’s post-geography world. Employers and entrepreneurs responded to the attacks on corporate capitalism for its bureaucracy, inflexibility and uniformity by presenting new justifications based on self-actualization, freedom and authentic community for young people to buy-in to the capitalist system in the post-industrial world. Thus Godin both expresses and propogates the values that Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello describe in their book, The New Spirit of Capitalism, 2005, by which the prevailing system of oppressive consumption and production successfully coopts new generations of willing victims.

Values of craft, artisanal production, third world travel and organic agriculture are now being added to the inducements by which twenty-first century hipsters are drawn into the capitalist maw. Wilderness Magazineis complicit in this process; and now, Collective Quarterly has published their Topa Topa issue, focused on the triangle between Santa Barbara to the west, Ojai to the east, and Ventura to the south, in an almost perfect celebration of local centers of this new, artisanal spirit of capitalism. Marketed across the United States (the copy I saw was purchased in Brooklyn), it promotes localism as practiced (in the first seven issues) in Marfa, Texas; the Absaroka Mountains, in the Montana Wyoming borderlands; Topa Topa, Ventura County, California; Mad River Valley, Vermont; Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina; Penobscot, Maine; and the Mojave Desert, California. It represents a movable feast of intense regional hipster-lifestyle irruptions often consumed, I would guess, by the haute bourgeoisie of urban, coastal enclaves as place porn.

Committed to placelessness by the demands of a global economy, where one place provides the same divertissements and services as another, there is, nevertheless, an intense interest in the mystique of rootedness, but very little commitment to the slow aggregation of geographic connection that results from staying put. As Godin will tell you, the establishment of networks is necessary for the securing one’s next gig and demands both social and spatial fluidity: the establishment of deep, enduring local roots will likely lead to exclusion from the ranks of peripatetic, successful network builders. It is thus that the power of place has been usurped by the power of real and virtual linkages spread across the world’s array of urban nodes bound within an electronic web. Weekend voyeurism or, at a remove, printed or electronic simulacra of particularly charismatic places, is the necessary antidote to a world where material reward lies in movement not stasis, in temporary residence not deep connection.

Building those profound connections is a necessarily slow process and is rewarded with nothing much more than the intellectual and perhaps spiritual frisson that comes from an understanding of the relationship between time and place. The uncovering of the natural, cultural and geologic layers that constitute the genius loci, or spirit of a place, may take years: but it is an endeavor to which I am currently committed here in Upper Ojai, the furthest, easternmost point of the Topa Topa triangle celebrated in Collective Quarterly.  It involves the re-engagement of “the tool that matters most” with the physical substance of the world so that identity is no longer confined to personhood but extends outward to the material and spiritual expressions of the natural world.

Over time, we can fully inhabit our immediate world and that world may insinuate itself into our being. Our network begins to consist not of professional referrals and potential creative collaborators but of local rocks, trees, animals and earth-forms which provide conduits not to future material enrichment but to potential etheric energies – to a primitive spiritual power not pecuniary profit.

So it is that I resent time spent away from my exo-environment. It represents time spent away from who I am becoming; from time in which my authentic identity is incrementally extending beyond my physical body. Urie Bronfenbrenner, the Russian American developmental psychologist (1917-2005), founded a social ecological model which takes account of a child’s development within the context of the systems of relationship that form his or her environment. My continuing development, it seems to me, is dependent on the uncovering of the layers of the natural world that immediately surround me. It is a reversion to my experience as a child growing up in a small English village where walking, playing and going to the village school was intensely bound to the hedgerows, fields, ponds, woods and common-lands that insinuated themselves into our young lives.

We all interact with our environment at a variety of scales – and gain information from it from the global to the granular, yet we remain time bound, operating within a finite life cycle: a close engagement with the natural world presents opportunities to live outside of time, to understand the larger, universal cycles and to gain information at a cosmic scale. Ironically, this can only be achieved, it seems, by focusing at the smallest level on that which immediately envelops us. Additionally, this focus can most usefully occur over long spans of time where it results in the wisdom that accrues to locals – those who choose to live their lives with a deep and constant attachment to a place. It is a choice that is increasingly becoming a luxury.

It is unlikely that the benefits of such a commitment will accrue to those who consume artisanal, craft, organic agriculture and permaculture products and the journals that promote them without dedicating themselves, at some level, in some place, to being local.

The neo-liberal project which seeks to expand markets through globalization – essentially by ‘flattening’ difference through the homogenization of culture and consumption militates against the permanent inhabitation of particular places. It promotes global cities that enshrine its values and is complicit in the withering away of small towns and rural communities – the exigencies of the market having decided that their erstwhile economic functions can be better performed in low wage, emerging economies which themselves have abandoned local, sustainable markets for the globalized export trade.

Staying put and cherishing ones immediate neighborhood is a political act and may be economically disadvantageous: the experience of being local, however, fully transcends the denial of geography  – a price now demanded of capitalism.

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at