The Human Bazaar

June 1, 2012
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Marc Tracy

Every night in New York, before going to sleep, I read tomorrow’s news in Israel. Occasionally, I admit, I imagine an old man in a sunlit Tel Aviv breakfast nook cracking open his Haaretz over hot coffee and fresh orange juice at the exact same time that I sit in my apartment, looking out onto the dark street, yawning as I scroll through Websites on my laptop. When I wake up in the morning, I turn over and groggily check Twitter on my phone — yes, people like me really do exist; be afraid and/or pray for me — where I see the past few hours’ tweets from people in Beijing, Doha, Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Paris, and also from insomniacs in San Francisco and New York. I email to myself whichever tweets catch my eye so that I can read them again on my computer a few minutes and one push on the snooze button later. A friend has emailed me overnight from Berlin; another Gchats me from D.C. a few minutes after I log on. All of these voices are with me — they are all, effectively, in the same place, on my small, filthy screen.

But it’s my screen in my apartment in my city: Physical, geographical location — place — still matters. All of the writers, thinkers, celebrities, politicians, and philosophers, armchair and tenured, around the world whose thoughts I rapidly inhale are themselves greatly influenced by where they do their thinking — something that I happen to know for a fact because I know I am influenced by where I do my thinking. My particular circumstances allow me to understand that my counterparts have their own particular circumstances. And because I know where I’m coming from, I know that other people are coming from someplace else. To take myself as an example: I can viscerally feel this loud, crammed island I live on imbuing my thinking on subjects such as the Middle East, literature, and sports with an urgency and intensity — a sense that everything matters, even things that shouldn’t. The East Village, once one of the world’s great bohemias, makes me feel as though I should be sacrificing for my writing, lending my prose and ideas a sense of desperateness they wouldn’t have if I lived elsewhere.

So what’s changed over the past ten or fifteen years, other than the preponderance of luxury condominiums on Avenue B? It’s the striking immediacy with which we are able to access the perspectives of people from different places — the different places’ perspectives themselves. This immediacy, if left unchecked, could cheapen everything, and so what has happened is that trust and credibility have become more important than ever before. You don’t want to know what they are thinking in Chicago or Mumbai; you want to know what a particular person who lives in Chicago and a particular person who lives in Mumbai are thinking. One could do this the old-fashioned way, by consulting traditional networks of family and friends, and working outward from that nucleus. Or, we can follow people through social media, whom we’ve learned to trust because of our friends’ and families’ endorsements. Historically, Jews have provided the model par excellence for far-flung networks multiplying their knowledge and therefore, their power at geometric rates by establishing connections based on the brokering of information.

And yet, the center of displacement is still “place.” We remain intellectual creatures of our physical habitats. The Internet has helped us comprehend the places of others, knitting us all ever closer together. But there is still a filter, and it is us. It is a humming bazaar, but I am an autonomous merchant. So after I have my first cup of tea, I think harder about all the voices I have read from around the world — or around the city — and I assimilate what they say with where they are coming from. Then, I choose what to believe and what not to believe; what to buy, what to bargain down for, and what, ultimately, to sell. And then, I quit listening to the voices and begin to write.

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