The Trail of the Human Serpent

I want to share this passage lovely in both content and form from Louis Menand’s essay “Laurie Anderson’s United States” in his collection of essays American Studies.

. . . most of the songs and stand-up routines Anderson delivered in United States were wan ironic tales about daily life in postindustrial–what we now call the digital–age, with repeated references to airplanes, televisions, petrochemicals, missiles, and outer space. The gadgets and the spaceships may have given people the idea that United States enacted a disaffection with creeping dehumanization, that it was a cri de coeur against the disenchantment But its effect on me was exactly the opposite. I took the point to be that the world can’t be disenchanted, because enchantment is the mode in which human beings experience it. The trail of the human serpent (said William James) is over everything, even answering-machine beeps and aircraft safety instructions. Our electronics is no less an expression of ourselves than our poetry is.

I don’t like Laurie Anderson, but I’m glad Menand does.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center