I went on a run today—something I mean to do more often than I actually do, it seems—and my feet took me down a familiar route to Oakwood Cemetery. On my way down the looping paths, I saw a crumpled piece of red and white fabric on the side of the trail. It was a tiny, tattered American flag, the type mourners like to put by the gravestones of loved ones who have served.
I stopped and picked it up, turning the torn, cheap fabric in my hands over and over again. The object struck a strange chord with me, and I ended up sitting on the steps of a mausoleum and just staring at it until my phone battery drained down to 10%. The entire time, I didn’t notice a single person walk by.
A lot was going through my head then, and still more is going through it now. It got me thinking about space, place, and what it means to be home—“affective spatiality”, as one might translate the thought into an academic paper. The idea might loosely be defined as how spaces tell stories, convey emotion, and allow for meaningful interactions within them regardless of whether they are material or virtual. As such, these posts could conveniently be swept up in the dizzying amounts of ongoing “turns” within humanities discourse—the spatial turn, the affective turn, the turn towards digital technologies—all of which will be explained in good time. But right now, I’m not interested in the vertigo that can come from navigating the shifting sands of academic trends. Right now, I’m interested in a flag.
I am not the type who usually wears patriotism on my sleeve, but I’ve only ever identified as an American. Branches of my family have been here since at least the Civil War, sluffing off our Anglo-European identities somewhere during our trek across the Midwest. Myself, I grew up in the suburbs of Eagle River, Alaska, a conservative state with a relatively high proportion of national parks and military bases scattered across its landscape. Perhaps it was these facts that fueled my reaction to the flag on the ground. There is something tragic about it. Forget the fact that this particular flag was a one of a million identical facsimiles, the fact it was probably mechanically mass-produced overseas; forget the fact that the Stars and Stripes have been emblazoned on everything from party trays to boxer shorts—that flag stands for a place I have called my home, and it didn’t feel right to see it dusty and torn.
But what kind of place is America? In one sense it is very material, as tangible as the dirt caking the edges of that flag. Haven’t we taken pride in those “amber waves of grain”, those “purple mountain majesties” that adorn our anthems and postcards? Don’t we take a similar pride in our great cities—Chicago, New York, Boston, LA—those behemoths that have been raised out of the earth by paid and unpaid labor in order to feed and clothe and house the human form? And yet, to see only the material was to see the object before me as cheap fabric and inexpensive dyes. From Florida to Alaska, from Puerto Rico to Guam, “America” is a name we give to acres and acres of material things which in and of themselves have no concept of ownership at all, despite our insistence to the contrary.
No, the America I am more interested in (both as a bumbling pop-culture/new media scholar and bumbling human being) is the immaterial “placeness” of America, the virtual America. In one sense, “virtual” means constructed and mediated. The South, the Midwest, the Northeast, the West Coast, Red States and Blue States, even the concept of States all together—America is a patchwork of these virtual places, each of which carries meanings and connotations that go beyond the geographic and into the human. Our identities are formed by these arbitrary distinctions, whether they are made by us or for us, and through us they are given actual, material form. That is why it bothers me to see a discarded flag; interwoven with those cheap threads are the virtual expressions of nationhood, and a tear in one seems to suggest a tear in the other.
But there is also an older sense of the virtual in which I am interested. As new media theorist Marie-Laure Ryan describes the concept in her book Narrative as Virtual Reality 2, “the virtual is not that which is deprived of existence but that which possesses the potential, or force, of developing into actual existence” (18). The virtual is the oak that lies dormant within the acorn; in other words, the virtual is about what could be rather than what is, the openness of multiple futures rather than the closed conception of one truth.
When I look around at Black Lives Matter Protesters and police officers, First Peoples and ambitious industrialists, ideologues from both sides of the aisle and the spaces in between, I see people who have put their faith into their own virtual America, an America not yet (nor ever) complete, but one moving ever closer to new potentialities. That is, to me, the core of American optimism.
Does that make us unique? No, or at least I’m not qualified to say. But I think that does make us American.
To be clear, I do not agree with all of these visions or the ones who try to weave them into our flag—my virtual America is one that will fight to keep particularly hateful virtualities from ever becoming actual—but I know that all of these people are my People. I cannot see them as otherwise. Regardless of how they constructed their virtual America—whether on an idealized version of a forgotten past or new understandings of the principles on which this nation was founded—they are all still fighting for a vision of the same material land on which we stand. As for me, my virtual United States depends upon a state of unity, at least on a human level of civility. That is the place and people that come to mind whenever I see a flag, no matter how superficial or gale-torn it may be.
John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.