The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Science   /   Fall 2016   /    Signifiers

Based In

Matthew Schmitz

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

The new courtier class has its own particular linguistic habits.

As we climb the staircase of a newly constructed Brooklyn apartment building, my friend explains that our hostess is a curator—or did she say choreographer? We open the door and join a crowd dressed in black and white. I push toward the bar, past men with just the right amount of scruff and women with expensive hair. This is a Bushwick party. As I reach for a Rolling Rock, one of the men extends a hand—and with it, the inevitable question: “What do you do?”

I’d rather not go into it. So I improvise.

“I’m in finance.”

“Ah. What sort?”

“I’m, uh, on the sell side.”

“Where are you based?”

When I go to parties in Brooklyn, meet people at bars in Midtown, or visit Washington, the people I meet invariably ask what I do. Their second question is always “Where are you based?” Not “Where do you live?” (too creepy, perhaps) or “Where are you from?” (what is this, the census of Tiberius?), but “Where are you based?”

It is an odd question. I am not part of a bomber squadron deployed over the Pacific or a British colonial officer mixing bitters and gin. I do not hop globes. I hardly ever leave the few blocks around my workplace and home. When I do, I meet people who politely assume that anyone they meet would disdain anything so pedestrian as having a settled home. After all, aren’t peasants the only people tied to the land?

It makes sense for people with houses on three continents to speak of being “based” somewhere. They are the people who have benefited most fabulously from globalization, and who embody its ethic. They are committed not to a place or a nation but to transnational ideals that align with their own self-interest. Like the royals of old, they may be identified with one country or another, but they are bound to each other by shared habits and manners. They mix among themselves and intermarry.

The people at this party are only notionally of that class, occupying, at best, its bottom rung. Bushwick is a hipster milieu—and while its denizens exhibit many elite affectations, they are distinct from the businessmen, upper-echelon professionals, and nonprofit heads who jet from Davos to Aspen. These young professionals affect a cosmopolitanism they do not really possess. They work in just a few fields (publishing, television, the arts) and are tied to certain cities (New York, Washington). They profess universal values of human rights and decorate their apartments in International Style knockoffs.

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