Images have an unrivalled power to shape our experience of the world: They congeal our desires in palatable fragments, define our understandings of the past and present, and motivate our decisions for the future.
Since the quiet of summer we have witnessed a cacophonous chorus of hope and despair, but within this kaleidoscope of change we have yet to truly see the reality of its effects. With the ascent of a president of unprecedented promise and unrivalled stardom, we have watched the global market economy descend and wondered what to make of our historical moment, biting our nails in anticipation of a clear answer. Will our generation carry the flame of our parents in expecting and attaining a future of wealth and prosperity, or will our naïve hopes be shocked by the sting of a new age we were never taught to anticipate?
One wonders how best to imagine the road ahead. As money dries up and jobs disappear, those of us living on a borrowed future cannot grasp the present by the magnitude of employment figures or the margins of corporate income. What we need are lived images, glimpses of what it means to live in a country where the bottom has fallen out and the tenuous compromise between wealth and opportunity has eroded. What will America look like when the promise of progress—that “high tide of prosperity” celebrated in 1929 by Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon amid the crashing waves of Wall Street tumult—is no longer in our purview?
As we face the circumstances before us today, pundits are toting the surest analogue available, harking back to the Great Depression and to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Obama’s campaign jumped on New Deal rhetoric months ago, and conservatives have been equally earnest in trying to arrest the spread of a regulatory welfare state. But whatever the underlying similarities between the phenomena we faced and the possibilities we hold almost a century later, the imagination is stumped by the overwhelming anachronism of the comparison. Can we conceive of soup lines in our cities, foreclosed and forlorn farms in the countryside, dustbowl caravans? How ludicrous it would be to gather Americans together in magnificent public-works projects, to make professionals into service folk. Such a gloomy landscape seems improbable or impossible to us, but if forecasts come true, will our imaginations have prepared us or failed us?
It’s certainly difficult to conceive of America stepping backward over the terrain of its long advance, shrinking when it has grown for so long. But the signs of our nation’s creaky and unsightly underbelly have grown more prominent in the last year, and whatever the intransigent persistence of capitalist utopianists, the visible effects of our crisis are starting to be seen.
Stylish suburban neighborhoods are joining crusty city centers as monuments to the fickleness of human fortune. And last week the Society of American Engineers quantified and specified what everyone should have already known: The country’s infrastructure is falling to pieces. Collapsing bridges, levees breaking, antiquated telephone and electrical systems leaving Kentucky’s citizens in the cold and dark—all this is putting our country to shame and indicting the popular political ethic and way of life that sponsored it.
If major media networks weren’t falling bankrupt and local newsrooms closing down, we might see more of what the country’s economic forment really looks like. But for now there’s a crisis of imagination, a powerful dislocation between the fictions and flaws of our economy and the real effects that result from them.
Perhaps we don’t want a Jacob Riis to photograph and document the progress of our country’s throes. Perhaps the headlines are enough. Maybe the serene blue gloss of the new whitehouse.gov will put us at ease and prepare us to bear the reality. There will always be distant observers and cold ratiocinators working to keep us above and abreast of the flames, but I think we need to imagine the concrete possibilities ahead of us, and bear witness to the violent perturbations of this historic moment as they happen in real time, and affect real people.