What could be more timeless than saying goodbye?
And what could be more proper to the present configuration of capitalism than the search for things timeless? Notions of love, family, gender, progress, and humanity are constantly presenting themselves as natural in the marketplace of ideas. Renegade intellectuals, dialecticians or postmodernists, make a game out of taking the eternal out of the timeless, such that everything is new.
Who knows what saying goodbye was like in the early days of capitalism, and earlier. What is certain now is that the very term “goodbye” conveys a sentimental finality that contradicts the lack of any finality in the physical movements built into the apparatuses of today.
The most common migrations of the past were those of primitive accumulation, modernization, and urbanization—the breaking up of communities, the massive reconfiguration mediated on the human scale with a great many goodbyes. It was a migration that necessitated permanence and prohibited the likelihood of reunion precisely because the place being left behind, the rural community, was ceasing to be, and if any individuals should cross paths again, in the city, in the New World, it was within a matrix of entirely changed social relationships.
This culture of departure inherited earlier notions of solitude that would fast become obsolete. The term of parting that is now so synonymous with finality, “goodbye,” is just a shortening, and probably a shameful, self-conscious one, of the metaphysical “God be with ye,” similar to the French “adieu,” the Spanish “adios,” and the German “grüß Gott.” What now connotes absence, a separation that multiplies loneliness, then was a giving over to another kind of accompaniment. The leave-taker, departing the protective graces of the community, was put in the hands of the supernatural, an earlier quality to solitude that made today’s loneliness impossible.
On the road, in travel, one fell into the jurisdiction of metaphysical connection to the world, as transcendence of the world. Goodbye holds its meanings equally well in the realm of death, in both the present and prior paradigms. Taking leave of the dead, before the rise of capitalism’s scientific worldview, was equal to welcoming them to a new world; afterwards, it is a final surrender to total loneliness.
In today’s world, saying goodbye to loved ones is never final unless meaningless chance invites a death that prevents any reunion. Insofar as capitalism is globalized, people do not move between communities but between labor markets, which continuously fluctuate. Most migration into the US since World War II has been temporary, for the purposes of often seasonal work, and only the construction of a giant wall and the institution of an unprecedented regime of raids and deportations has the chance of changing this fact.
North of the border, departing itself has become permanent. The commute, the real-estate market, the mortgage, the internet: increasingly few people are from anywhere, belong anywhere, and, in any given moment, fully are anywhere.
A person can never be authentic. They can only see authenticity in hindsight, because authenticity requires recognition by external authority, which, in the case of people, never recognizes, only impels into more exploitable modes. What might once have been becoming is now moving-away-from, and because of the relativity of perspective, what one is moving away from, as long as it travels along the same axis, appears to stay still. Thus becoming is mistaken for being. Authenticity is born where place is lost.
Benjamin notes that in works of art, authenticity only becomes a categorical possibility when reproduction of the work of art is possible (thus creating an original, which was created somewhere and is housed somewhere, and the copies, which could be sent anywhere), but as the technical means of reproduction advance, authenticity is destroyed by the subsumption of reproduction into the art form itself. One cannot talk about the authentic print of a photo, the way one can for a painting. What is ultimately lost is the aura of an artwork, defined by Benjamin as a function of distance, and of its fixedness to a place and time.
As for goodbyes, what one encounters in the depths of nostalgia is one’s own exiled aura.
There is a certain perverse truth to the fact that one discovers a great moment of freedom in driving down the highway at night. “A tank of gas is freedom, and a starry night and open road is hope,” according to a folk punk band of recent countercultural fame.
I am myself partial to the freedom one finds on a mountaintop, but I have to admit that certain external pressures constrict that moment. It is useful, because regardless of all plans or lack thereof time in wilderness is regenerative, and for all its potential subversive qualities also prepares the body for reentry into capitalist rhythms. And it is temporary, for all its efforts towards timelessness, because all wilderness is threatened by forces that cannot be blocked within its own realm.
On an empty highway, on the contrary, one is alone with the quintessential apparatus. The annoying imposition of other drivers is missing, as is the punctuality that weighs down on the commuter, and the pressure of impending work or the numbness of approaching dead-time. After hours, one can course through the hyper-controlled architecture with a certain tenderness. Even see the moon, perhaps, as yet beyond the touch of any apparatus, and equally too far to offer any real aid.
It is in this space, driving away, that saying goodbye can produce nostalgia of a tragic quality seemingly undeserved in this era of petty motivations. One has just left behind people who, in defiance of all the superficiality structured into our brief moments of collision, one has come to love, and does not know when one will see them again, but has little justification for fearing this goodbye to be permanent. After all, automobiles are increasingly safe, and why else would one die before 80?
The only real permanence we’re acquainted with is the permanent departure of hyper-mobilized consumer existence. But night-driving creates an unpermitted, unregulated space for fantasy that allows this nostalgia to imagine itself tragic forms that could justify the weight of its emotions.
One imagines death, or revisits sentimental movies and novels. Two of the most poignant goodbyes in English-language literature since World War II, in Return of the King and The Amber Spyglass, involve departing for other worlds, such that the goodbye is irrevocably permanent, but allows for both parties to continue existing and missing each other. What was had is not lost, but one can never go back.
The force that might accompany us beyond the pale of the community, when we take our leave and entrust ourselves to the warm embrace of solitude, is the metaphysical existence of the world. With the world gone, the community is gone, friendship is gone, we are gone.
The reason these trivial partings and moments alone can leap to such great heights of sentimentality is because we do encounter a permanent loss within these networks of unending animation in the silent moments when we’re not distracted by the more obvious misery of our contemporaries being run through the chutes.
What we find is our own suspended death, our auras that we’d long since lost. Friends without fixedness are missed as much because they might never really be known to us as because they are no longer here. None of us are here; there is no there there. Without something subversive—even subversive to the common patterns of subversion—to fix us together, and through this fixedness, creating for the first time in our lives a solid ground, resurrecting place, hinting at the possibility of a world of places: without this, all our intimate connections are threatened by the measured temporality that has us constantly moving away from ourselves, or all of ourselves that does not fit within these vacated bodies. Capitalism is an immensely powerful thing. How sad that friendship should appear weak if it is not strong enough to stand up against the greatest god ever built.
In this tragedy, saying goodbye is a ritual that preserves the obsolete forms of friendship, community, being somewhere, and that only reveals its hollowness if one finds the silence to hear an echo.
dedicated to I-5