The Town Center Ritual


You sit down by the fire to warm your tired bones. The cardboard crates, old pallets, pine straw, shreds of paper, and other debris fueling the fire crackle beneath the glowing flames, gently whispering soothing sounds against the silence of the long, dark night. It has been another interminably long day, as always this time of year, choring around the camp and roving the scattered junk atop the earthen mounds searching for supplies to stockpile against the coming winter. It won’t be long now, winter. You’ve felt it in the air for a few weeks. Soon the days will grow shorter, and the long cold nights will follow. That is still a way off in the future, however. For now, the night is warm. The insects who made it through the extinction quietly chirr and click in the browning trees. The rest of the group is there too, murmuring and drinking while they wait for the storyteller to take her place on the old recliner at the head of the group. 

A moment later, she arrives, settles in. She removes her spectacles–the purple ones you found in the pile last spring, you note with a surge of joy–and wipes them on the underside of her shirt, a little smile twinkling in her eyes and upturning the corners of her mouth as she rubs clockwise patterns on the glasses. She pauses occasionally to peer through them at the fire until, satisfied at last, she places the spectacles back on her kindly old face, waits a moment for the chatter to die off, and clears her throat. 

The group buzzes with anticipation for a tale of the Old Ones. “They called this place once,” she begins, “a Town Center.” Puzzled murmurs ring the fire. “People traveled hundreds of miles to visit the Town Center,” she continues. “It was a place of power and riches, beautiful things, terrible desires.”

“Before the bad times, this land was part of a great city. Everything you see was ruled by a council, who represented the wealthiest and most powerful people in the city. The council’s masters were elite for a reason, the stories say, the hardest-working, wisest, and most intelligent of all the people in the city. That’s why the council did what these brilliant and dedicated masters told them to do. Well, one day, they decided that the city needed a great palace of magic and ritual, a place for all the most powerful wizards and shamans, warriors, philosophers, and chiefs to come and serve the people. Recognizing the wisdom of this plan, the people set out to build the palace, the Town Center. 

“It took many years to build, summers and winters of clearing, sawing, chopping, lashing. People gave their lives to the project. Workers moved their homes closer to the worksite–this place, right here–so they could work longer and harder, just like the wise masters who dreamed up the palace. For their part, the masters watched from a distance, waiting for the people to gain honor through hard work.”

“Finally, at long last, the palace was complete. The people rejoiced. Just like the masters predicted, the Great Ones came. We remember the names of those wizards and shamans, warriors, philosophers, and chiefs. Harken now to the fragments they have left us, and honor them with me!”

Here the storyteller’s voice descends into a lower register, an intoned ritual from the depths of memory.  

“Harken now to Mayors Jewelry,” she says: “For more than a century, MAYORS has been defining luxury by bringing the world’s most exclusive selection of iconic brands to connoisseurs of fine jewelry and timepieces.”

“Hark!,” the group responds. “Honor!”  

“Harken now to Tiffany & Co.: In 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany arrived in New York with a vision of spectacular beauty that went on to redefine glamour and style around the world.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Psycho Bunny: Over the years, the brand has developed a cult following for men who don’t have to sacrifice irreverence for style. Psycho Bunny is about contradictions; it is mischievous, yet refined; timeless, yet contemporary.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Louis Vuitton: Founded in Paris in 1854, Louis Vuitton is synonymous with the art of travel. Its iconic trunks, luggage and bags have accompanied journeys throughout time.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to LoveSac: Sactionals are the most adaptable, adjustable, reconfigurable, forgivable, livable, lovable furniture on earth.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Tommy Bahama: Inspired by the relaxed sophistication of coastal living, Tommy Bahama is dedicated to the good life. Stylish, upscale offerings include island apparel for men and women, footwear, jewelry, accessories and home décor, all designed to help you relax in style.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to lululemon: lululemon is a yoga-inspired, technical athletic apparel company for yoga, running, training and most other sweaty pursuits. While Vancouver, Canada is where you can trace the company’s beginnings, the global community is where you’ll find lululemon’s soul.”

“Hark! Honor!” 

On and on she continues, each name, each ancient text ringing into the night like an incantation. The fire grows to a roar as the group listens to the old storyteller in wonder, harkening, honoring, spellbound by the strange words stripped of their meaning and power by the ravages of time. Onward she continues, a hundred names more, a hundred and fifty.

“Harken now to Lane Bryant: As the leading fashion brand for curvy women, Lane Bryant continually strives not only to be first in fashion and fit, but to be everywhere, be everything you expect us to be. From clothing and accessories to our Cacique line of intimates, look to Lane Bryant for the latest looks.”

“Hark! Honor!”

Finally, some time later, exhausted by the effort of intonation and memory, the storyteller rasps, “Harken now to Tesla: Forget everything you know about the automobile. The Tesla electric drivetrain offers a radically different experience. The driver, the car, and the environment connect in ways they’ve never connected before.” She slumps in the old recliner, head hanging heavily, breathing softly.

“Hark,” we whisper. “Honor.”  

The fire is dying now, its embers glowing deep orange and golden yellow as the storyteller regains her composure. The group is silent and tense, worn by the ritual of honor, ready for the storyteller to open the circle. A cool wind stirs the trees and she lifts her face to meet the gaze of the expectant circle. Her eyes are tired and sad, brimming with pain for the loss of it all.  “O Great Ones!,” she says, “We can only imagine the mighty things you might have done, if only the bad times had not come to punish us all.”

“Let us be worthy,” the group says. The usual ending. 

With this, the group relaxes. A young man across the dying fire laughs awkwardly, relieved to mark the end of the ritual. From a cloth sack next to the recliner the old storyteller removes a bottle. Clear liquid sloshes against the glass as she removes the cap, upends the bottle, takes a long swallow. Wincing, she passes the bottle down to the woman on her left. You see the woman’s face through the liquor and the glass, distorted in the soft firelight. The cool wind tousles your hair. A sympathetic burn streaks your throat and warns your stomach as you watch the bottle pass from hand to hand. 

“Let us be worthy,” you say. 

Art and Culture and Hegemony and Stuff

Hegemony is a fifty-cent word, borrowed in its current context from Gramsci, that sits right up there at the top of the academic vocabulary vending machine alongside translated French philosophical words and phrases like “the ways in which,” or “discourse” and “practice.” But sometimes it’s useful. Here’s a tiny example of how the dismal hegemonic logic of buying and selling commodities warps our understanding of culture. Pardon the sarcastic quotations.


In “A blunt conversation about life online,” Huck writer Steven T. Hanley asks Bret Easton Ellis whether it is “overly cynical” to be concerned about “a generation with surface interests and surface knowledge” of “culture” because they don’t have to “take two buses to the only video store that [stocks] art-house titles” anymore. Ellis says, no, “it’s not cynicism.” Failure to “invest,” he continues, “equates to a lack of passion when everything comes so easily.” “If everything is at your fingertips in a matter of pushing a button,” Ellis asks, “then what does it really mean to you? What are you investing in it?”

Let’s ignore the vapid generational stereotype, because what’s one more soundless drop in the deep blue nothing of “millennial” stereotypes, and ask the real question here: what the hell is “culture?” And how in the world can one “invest” in it? Hanley and Ellis assume here (in this teeny, tiny part of an otherwise illuminating interview that you should definitely read) that culture is a sum of materialized aesthetics: that people think artistic things and transcribe their thoughts into some physical form, which, when placed alongside all of the other materialized thoughts, amounts to culture (1). In this view, culture is art. But if this is true, they miss the point. We can debate whether it is better to hold some material artifact of the idea we’re reading, watching, listening to, or whatever, but this is a fundamentally commercial question—which product is better?—that tells us very little about art. Far from “surface knowledge,” push-button aesthetics complete the sum for every viewer, reader, and listener.

Discussions of art frequently turn into conversations about things. Language reflects this tendency. Works of art have been called pieces since at least the sixteenth century, for instance. Artists have worked in a medium—materials facilitating the transformation of ideas into things—since the nineteenth century. Music, video, and digital visual art still rely on things in order to be reproduced. It is not surprising, then, that Hanley and Ellis should find themselves talking about stuff when they mean to discuss art. A little more surprising, perhaps, is that they combine the two and call it culture. This is the commodities warp: reduce and represent certain forms of cultural expression as material objects, first, and then substitute the objects in place of the vast and dynamic culture they dimly reflect.

A final thought that might be better developed elsewhere: the internet does not break the art commodities cycle, as Hanley suggests, by eliminating scarcity. It just modifies the variables. Where before both time and media were scarce, now it is only time. Hanley is doubtlessly correct in arguing that our relationship to media is changed, but as anyone who played Second Life years ago or spends real money to buy downloadable content in video games now can tell you, commodities need not be material to possess meaning. This is the real meaning of culture: the sets of rules, definitions, and sleights that allow us to ascribe meaning to everything there is, from art-house films on VHS and the buses we used to ride to find them, to interviews in digital magazines and novels from the 1980s.

(1) Well, Hanley more than Ellis. Later in the interview Ellis claims, “I think people respond to the content itself and not necessarily the medium, whether it’s films, vinyl or a hardcover book.”