On Violence and an Ethos of Place

I have a lot of love for my hometown, and a lot of that love originates, I think, in growing up attuned to the praises sung for it. The chorus of “it’s safe,” and “it’s lovely,” and “such good schools,” and “what a great place to grow up,” swells into a sweet song that compels me—dare I say evermore—back to it. Chapel Hill, like my home state’s prized dogwood, looks and feels benevolent; it is stately houses with sweeping porches that you pass en route downtown, but none so stately that you couldn’t ring the doorbell if lost. It is dewy grass cushioning bare feet in the springtime; it is progressive politics and well-educated folks, recuperating the South’s blemished history; it is a university that served, for me, as the paragon for what a university is, and how such an institution can live in its community.

The measures of my dissatisfaction from growing up in such a space don’t detract from its near-fictive qualities. The town’s praises that have buffered me are those that presume and promulgate its equal-footed geographies, its opportunities for all, its all-around good vibes.

Good vibes. “The sadness is inescapable,” a friend—a Duke student—recently wrote to me in an email. She and I were exchanging words about the murders in Chapel Hill last week. Writing “last week” reminds me that it was last week; the time since then has felt like a stalled short-circuit. The event feels more devastating with each new day, even as the tributes multiply in form and source: from the Triangle’s (and the nation’s, and the world’s) Muslim community, from the UNC School of Dentistry community, from local colleges and universities—and, importantly, from those unaffiliated with any of these spheres. As the stories of the “three winners” migrate, I imagine a supportive unaffiliated lot grows: a self-identified Christian from the Midwest contributes to Deah Barakat’s Syrian dental relief fund. Someone who identifies ambivalently as “from here”—from the piedmont, from North Carolina, from the South—says, “I’m here, with you.”

I’m having trouble placing myself. Last Tuesday evening, I was taking a nap less than five miles from the condominium complex where the murders took place. In conversation, I insist on this geography, on this shared space, but often the throughline stops there. I’m folded back into shock, alienated from my own grief, and in turn from the grief of others. My conversations about the tragedy differ markedly, even hostilely, from the official words issued about the origins of the violence: a turf war, a “dispute” over parking spaces. Such language could, in another context, be laughed away as an idiosyncracy of Chapel Hill’s peaceful neighborhoods, the sort of everyday messiness excused by the sense that we’re all buying into the same ethos of place.

But, now: to what extent are we willing to wage this peace, to claim this as idiosyncracy? What are the grounds on which a community constitutes itself? Can a community constitute itself through its own excavation?

The point of my writing this is not to remain at the level of think-piece mental gymnastics; it is not solely to amplify the discordance between a supposedly tolerant small town and an act of unfathomable violence that its residents initiated and continue to suffer from. This is a popular framing of this recent violence, as is its reaction of disbelief. Duke doctoral student Cynthia R. Greenlee—who, like me, has called the communities of both Chapel Hill and Durham home— wrote about this reaction last week in the American Prospect. What this tragedy requires us to do is wrest our own power and our own histories from the big-picture narrative swirl. It requires us to connect the dots, which means insisting on our shared geography. A dispute about space does not, and cannot, arise from the ether; its roots are in the asphalt, the air, the dewy grass we share. The towns—Chapel Hill, Durham, or elsewhere—in which we live and the communities we want to welcome us. As Greenlee writes,

Fights over space—whether in subways or suburban neighborhoods—are more often contests about privilege: Who gets to be in this space? Who dictates the use and control of the space? And what happens when people who aren’t like some pre-determined and overdetermined notion of what constitutes “us” gets in our space?

I ask again: Can a community constitute itself through its own excavation? Can the collective sorrow re-orient our relationship to the spaces we share, to the spaces claimed as home? Charlotte Fryar, a friend of mine and a doctoral student at UNC wrote, in charting a history of murder in Chapel Hill, that “placelessness can be an action.” Only, it seems, if we recognize the danger of placelessness—and the ways we’re complicit in its creation.


Writing Area 919

I didn’t make it to the opening party for Area 919 last weekend, but I like to imagine that if I had, I’d have imitated the movements of a small child, insofar as I’d be playful and hop around but I would not—definitely not—touch the art. I’d bend over to peer through the open circles of Casey Cook’s undulating sculpture Whoa, Nelly! Through the holes my eyes would settle upon a painting on the opposite wall, which would mean they’d fixate on the dark grain of Damian Stamer’s Requiem. What at first looks like a contained interior scene—an abandoned piano, an old chair—slowly begins to expand: objects composed of scraped paint uncover other objects, until, hey, is that a tree branch up there? Looks like it. The wall placard explains that Stamer “create[s] haunting environments borrowed from the rural landscape of north Durham County, where he grew up.” I’m reminded of a recent holiday drive through north Durham, and then through Oxford, and then through southwest Virginia. I remember the darkness under the eaves of stately Oxford houses, which made me think about the riots Tim Tyson writes about in Blood Done Sign My Name. But I also remember how the sunset gathered on the long flat lawns outside the downtown, lawns abutting forests that looked like they could go on forever. If I could tie all that together in a painting, maybe it’d look—or feel—something like how Stamer’s looks and feels to me now.

A snapshot of Area 919. Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum website.

In my opening remarks for this year’s Ethics Film Series, which began this week with The Visitor, I gave some background for the theme—“Sound Beliefs.” I’ve given this background before, in writing and in speech; I repeat it, like a mantra: I wanted to pick something, some things, that felt both tactile and complex. I use this phrase as if the two terms stand in opposition, but when I say it they always hang together. I felt the same urge as I stood between Cook’s sculpture and Stamer’s painting, and then again when I stood between Cook’s sculpture and Neill Prewitt and Yuxtapongo’s installation Exploded Hipster, whose contents—local band and record label shirts, a stray Converse shoe, all crowdsourced from the Triangle’s music community—snake outward on the white gallery wall. Tactile, yes; they’re t-shirts, once hugged by warm bodies, some of whom I probably know personally, many of whom I probably follow on Twitter. I imagine a landscape of friendship and artistry, idiosyncratic and colorful, abstract and necessarily unfamiliar, to a certain degree (i.e., who did that Merge t-shirt belong to? Ah, yes, we’ve once made eye contact). But I also see that landscape, in front of me. I almost want to stick my arm through, to try it on for a while.

Area 919 is powerful in its assertion of a creative world through the hanging together of multiple creative worlds. This is something that art, and its curation, do well. “All of [the artists of Area 919] contribute to a vibrant and innovative artist community, helping to establish the Triangle as a growing creative center,” the exhibition detail reads. In effect, that exhibition detail is writing the community into a space, just as its artists are writing, painting, molding, imaging their selves, and their works, into a space. I feel similarly when I read the words of the women featured in “A Food Sisterhood Flourishes in North Carolina,” and the words of the many commenters, insisting that the New York Times should have included another woman chef, another women-helmed restaurant, to more holistically honor the vibrancy of North Carolina’s food scene. That web would look different, yes—as it would look different, from the get-go, from any one chef’s, or artist’s, perspective. And so it would from yours or mine.

It’s possible, but not easy, to build community on the foundation of diversity; it’s possible, but even less easy, for that sense of community to be validated externally in a way that feels fair, representative, and holistic to those who did the work in the first place. And yet that is the work that remains: the getting up in the morning, the painting, the writing, the meeting people, the attending (or not attending). The pieces included in Area 919 honor that work by bringing different worlds together in one space: so tactile that you, and you, and you, can peer through the circles, too.


In Dublin and Exchanging Amnesia

By Michaela Dwyer

The night after I arrived in Ireland I went to the Irish Film Institute. Dizzy from jetlag and the surreality of being in a familiar space again after three years, I hardly knew what was “on” at the theaters. I decided to bank on the time my DukeEngage cohort spontaneously watched and enjoyed the Iranian film A Separation, though I think part of my excitement that time came from seeing my Iranian friend excited to connect with the film.

And maybe, subconsciously, I did the same last week when I bought a ticket, ate a rhubarb tart, and sat down alone in a theater full of Irish moviegoers for a very Irish film. Jimmy’s Hall—touted as the last feature by British director Ken Loach—is based on the story of James Gralton, an Irish communist leader who became the first and only “illegal alien” deported from Ireland. Throughout the early 1930s, Gralton helped lead the Revolutionary Workers’ Group in County Leitrim. Despite the inclusion of fiery glances and somewhat vague political intimations, Loach’s film focuses on Gralton’s passionate (co-)direction and defense of a community dance hall in the townland of Effrinagh. The collaboratively run, inclusive venue offered free classes in music, dance, literature, geography, history, and the visual arts, among other subjects. It served as a place for the town to congregate outside the influence of the church, which is portrayed in the film to almost humorous extremity.

Graffiti atop old Dublin, near St. Stephen’s Green.

“This has to be the fourth time someone has brought up this movie to me this week.” This is Conor, one of the first people I interviewed as I attempt to document the abrupt closure and ensuing limbo of The Exchange, a collaborative arts-centered venue in downtown Dublin. Conor and his friend Philip, another Exchange volunteer, chuckled at the uncanny similarity between film and reality, past and present. Then they shook their heads and sighed, scratched their beards, and looked downward in unison.

Beyond talk of the typical romanticized-from-afar Irish regalia—shamrocks and green pastures, Guinness, et al—are the more complex things we think we know about the—or any—country. The Famine, the Troubles, the decades of emigration, the pervasive stronghold of the Catholic Church. The “800 babies.” (It’s worth mentioning that these issues barely break the surface of newer ones: immigration and multiculturalism, austerity and the banking crisis, Gen-Y ennui and frustration). And then there’s what many people I’ve talked to refer to as “the amnesia.” A collective forgetting—of the country’s history, of the past that continues to repeat itself in the way that forgotten pasts do. I meet another Exchange volunteer on the way to a community radio show on which I’m apparently guest-starring to talk about my research on their venue. He gestures to storefronts we pass and tells me his next project is finding a way to document Dublin’s abandoned buildings—spaces with histories that people seem not to know or care about. Apparently he’s discovered that The Exchange had a predecessor—another collectively run arts space whose façade still stands down by the River Liffey. It’s the amnesia again, he says. The city as palimpsest, Teju Cole says.

Being here this time has started to feel like an odd nesting-doll challenge in which I fold myself smaller and smaller into a network that becomes bigger and more expansive with each encounter, SMS text, radio show appearance. I see a narrative—of this project, of The Exchange or Gralton’s dance hall, of Irish history—ever so slightly taking shape; then it gets fuzzy, and all I see are people who, like me, care deeply about things. I see a buzzing livelihood around a scene that I’m not quite a part of and a history that, despite my heritage, I don’t necessarily share in an immediate sense. But I want to; in the same way I want to be in an Irish cinema seeing an Irish historical drama or in a hotel ballroom in Dublin 8 for the Africa Day Awards, celebrating the African community in Ireland. And in the same way that I keep asking myself why this project interests me so much. Is it because I would’ve sought out The Exchange had I lived here in its heyday? Because my understanding of strong community has always been through education and the arts?

Or is it that I want to work against the ways in which we may too-briskly position ourselves against an ‘other’—whether that be a group of young volunteers, the Dublin City Council, immigrants, emigrants, a country’s history? Because I want to challenge my own interests in the ‘story’ in the first place?

My response: yes, and. My greatest hope with the work I make, whether it be a blog post, an audio documentary, or choreography through a city street, is that I can open both myself and others to multiple ways of being. To claim spaces where we feel comfortable interrogating ourselves, and to see if those spaces connect us in turn. Is it all the Leslie Jamison I’m reading? Yes, and. Is it a challenge to collective amnesia? Yes, and.

Kenan Summer 2014: A Bear Fellow Abroad

By Michaela Dwyer

Dear readers,

Before the story and before the prose, the nitty-gritty.

(Note: the above is most certainly not an Irish proverb).

For the next few weeks on the Insider I’ll be sending you stories from Dublin, Ireland, where I’m stationed to assist with the DukeEngage Dublin program. You’ll also be hearing—through our Student Engagement Journals site—from the seven undergraduates participating in the program, with whom I’ll be working on their summer letters home as well as collaborating on documentary representations of the city and of their DukeEngage experiences.

Beyond the Insider, it’s a slightly different, though not disconnected, story. In reference to Ireland’s long history of emigration and new quandaries of immigration and multiculturalism, the DukeEngage Dublin program poses the question, What happens when a country of ‘senders’ becomes a country of ‘receivers’? I participated in DukeEngage during the summer of 2011, when the unemployment rate hovered around 14.7% and emigration of Irish nationals rose sharply to around 40,200, only slightly surpassed by the 42,300 immigrants entering Ireland that same year.


I return to Dublin this time around, three years later, with a documentary eye aimed at what has changed and what has sustained. Mostly, I’m interested in how life feels—for everyone living here, in tandem with the larger forces of migration, cultural integration, austerity, and national identity. Though “everyone” is hardly a feasible focus group, and “larger forces” can quickly become too abstract for the documentary medium. The medium, at least in my case, fuels itself from stories shared—which I’d, with great care, cluster and accumulate around general statements: I was here, it felt this way, it’s important to me because. And within the stories nestled within these statements, I’m interested in the unexpected, the digression, the spontaneous architecture of conversation and sharing. I seek ways to build this architecture into my documentary approach, to compose “a compass by which to get lost,” as Rebecca Solnit writes.

Three summers ago, my DukeEngage cohort devised a public survey project that set itself up, comfy chairs and all, in various spots throughout the city. We asked Dublin residents to tell us how they felt about cultural integration in the city, about race and ethnic relations. One of those spots was The Exchange, which describes itself on Twitter as the following: “Volunteer-run all-ages non-profit arts-cultural-social over-hyphenated open space in Dublin – currently in Limbo…” When I visited The Exchange in 2011, I noticed its demographic diversity; its volunteers eagerly chatting with one another; its literal and metaphorical openness: rooms cascaded into more rooms, large glass windows opened to the streets of Temple Bar. Galleries also served as performance spaces, hangout areas were spaces for discussion, workshopping, advocacy. Since its inception in 2009, the consensus-based, inclusive venue has been known as a vibrant community space in Dublin. It’s also committed to connection and learning through the arts, offering classes and exhibition space for the creatively inclined.

The Exchange made news recently when the Dublin City Council—also The Exchange’s funder and landlord—suspended the venue for a three-month “review” period due to claims of “anti-social behaviour” in The Exchange’s vicinity. Supporters of the venue argue back: isn’t closing a community arts center an act of anti-social behaviour? They point toward larger social issues: the perceived lack of safe and productive social spaces in Dublin for especially young people, the presence and direction of arts funding in times of austerity, the odd urban plan of Temple Bar, which joins at the hip progressive arts venues and tourist bars (and which I wrote about for Recess in 2011). If “anti-social behaviour” exists, the supporters say, it does elsewhere, and for other reasons that won’t be solved, let alone addressed, by closing The Exchange.

But still, the venue is closed for the time being, under “suspended inanimation,” The Exchange’s Change.org petition terms it. I’m hoping to unpack some of that inanimation and hear from members of the Exchange community about how that inanimation feels. What has changed? What has sustained? But also: What brought you to this space? What does it give you that other spaces do not? I want to hear from community members elsewhere: City Council members, neighbors, young people in the creative industries. What function do creative community spaces serve? How do we ensure our citizens’ access to productive, meaningful lives? What do changing demographics mean for urban organization? Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posing these questions. Over the next few months, I’ll be producing a series of audio documentary portraits from these interviews, as well as writing a longform nonfiction piece about my time here—both over the years and in the present-tense. I continue to grapple with what it means to participate in and identify with a community; for me, this community typically intersects with the arts in some form, and thus I find myself here, with lots of questions.

I invite you to join me as I myself reflect, over the next few weeks, about what it feels like to be here.

Play It Again, Llewyn

By Michaela Dwyer

It plays over and over in my head, like a nugget of a lyric of a broken record: “it’s a little careerist, and a little square, and a little sad.” A heavy New Yawk accent possessed by a fictional character named Llewyn Davis. “Saa-hd.” Llewyn is admonishing his sometimes-friend and sometimes-lover Jean, who blinks at him across a café table through her stringy brown bangs and steadily increasing rancor. She, like Llewyn, is a folk musician. She, unlike Llewyn, is in love and wants a family. These visions, for Llewyn, are incommensurate.

Jean and Llewyn argue. Photocourtesy of blackfilm.com.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a folk tale about a folk singer. This singer ambles around NYC in the early 1960s pre-Dylan folk heyday, after Appalachian ballads and African diasporic melodies and European shanties and the aura of Woody Guthrie had mixed and migrated up north into the ears and instruments of largely young white hipsters decamped to Greenwich Village. Everyone was trying to make it, to be the next big musical thing. In the Coen Brothers’s new film we spend almost two hours witnessing Llewyn Davis fumble about as a fictional slice of that everyone. He carries around a guitar. He argues with his record label. He argues with his sister, who he claims doesn’t understand the “music business.” And, of course, he argues with Jean. Most of all, he struggles to make it as a solo act after his singing partner commits suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. It’s not hard to place him within the general cultural narrative we’ve developed for musicians, artists, athletes, politicians, or “famous people” generally. They struggle, and then they make it! How fabulous. How tragic their tragedy, and how sweet their success.

Fictional folk musicians at the Gaslight Cafe. Photo courtesy of moviepilot.com.

But then the movie begins and ends (sorta) the same way: With Llewyn onstage, solo, singing the macabre tune “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the same old café where he’ll win the cash bucket one night and heckle frumpy performers the next. He never—or at least never in the space of the film—“makes it” on his own terms. “Hang Me” is an ambivalent plea to some higher power, to someone not-Llewyn, watching him from another space and place as Llewyn lives out his follies and failures in a cruel Sisyphean cycle. And it’s certainly more than a little “saa-hd.”


In a similar way I keep turning this movie over in my mind. I’ve seen it twice and puzzled over it with friends and family. Why do I think it’s important? Why do I think it matters beyond the woes of a romanticized cultural era and one of its [fictional] tragic heroes? All reviews of the film seem united in their distaste for Llewyn, whose understanding of his life and his artistry are one and the same and inescapably narrow. He leaves no space for commitment to people, to love, to a fraction of bare-bones sympathy for anyone but himself.

My mom asked me the other day if I liked Llewyn more or less by the end of the film. I said I wasn’t sure. I asked her if Llewyn more bears the brunt of bad circumstances or creates them himself. She said she wasn’t sure. Llewyn’s failure to work things out and my repeated failure to make sense of his journey feel like the apotheosis of the film itself: the couple-days’ life-cycle of a hapless protagonist unwilling to compromise in a world governed by compromise.

At the Gaslight, real folk musicians, including Dave Van Ronk, who partially inspired the character of Llewyn. Photo courtesy of theaustralian.com.


A few weeks ago I went to Raleigh for a show featuring two local bands. It was cheap ($7) and brought in a jovial crowd. As is typical of concerts in the Triangle music community, the performers seemed genuinely appreciative of the support. In the crowd and on the stage, these people play with each other, hang out together, share disciplines and ideas and recording studios. One of my former professors once compared the Triangle’s art scene to New York’s: comparable in talent, but here people “do things without so much of the angst.” They (we) create the kind of atmosphere that ennobles performers, like one that night, to, as he said, “do something really weird,” which turned out to be a simple ditty—punctuated by some accomplished guitar licks—that he wrote as a wake-up song for his two-year-old son. He smiled the entire time, and so did I, and so did most people in the crowd. When I go to shows I like feeling the connections between people. I like feeling like I like the performer, like he or she is a “good person.” I appreciate the art even more.

I crossed the room for a drink and almost ran into a well-known indie folk musician, gone incognito in a black hoodie. I tried, and failed, to capture him via Snapchat. I retreated, sat back down, and re-oriented. And the music was still going on, and it was still great, and the people were still smiling.


Late in the film, Llewyn plays a big-name record producer and club owner a song in an empty venue. The producer’s immediate response: “I don’t see the money here.” He sees the money in other solo acts, though: “He’s a good boy,” he says about an on-the-rise clean-cut soldier-singer who Llewyn despises. “He connects with people.”

To Llewyn, people who are not all-or-nothing striving artists merely “exist.” He believes their “enough” is too simple, too easily satisfied, settled, compromised. And yet, ironically, it’s these stories he peddles in his quest to succeed, tales plucked from the everyday, passed down in oral tradition from parent to child and on and back again. These stories tell of the way people have chosen to live their lives in the face of struggle, in tandem with love, in the interests of those who are not them. In hard times and less-hard times. You could also call this folklore, folktale, folk music.

If I could give Llewyn a loving, back-album-cover tribute, it would go something like this: We all exist. Life exists outside of, but not apart from, art, sport, event. This is all an ecosystem of give and receive, of micro-compromises and reconstructions of what, for us, is “enough.” And, dear Llewyn, you’re having a hard time, and for specific reasons. You’re fictional, so I’m not sure what, if anything, happens to you in the long run. But I’ll write about you here and talk about you there, and we’ll play this record until it wears out.

What We Talk About When We Talk About the State Fair

By Michaela Dwyer

“…Also, we’re getting a bucket of fries.”

This is my younger sister reminding me of my promise (conscription?) to attend the North Carolina State Fair with her. The Fair and I have always had a complicated relationship. I haven’t been since middle school, and I have distinct visual memories from that period—a sort of “Michaela vs. the Fair” image: Me, dizzily walking through flashing lights and numbing electronica and everyone else chomping on inexplicably large turkey legs. I wore a Patagonia jacket freshly decorated with “Kerry/Edwards” campaign stickers—I was convinced my family and I were the only happily expressive Democrats at the Fair—and pecked at a funnel cake. I was overwhelmed by the crowd and responded in my default way: judgment. I picture myself standing in the middle of the Midway, brow furrowed as I gazed upon the panoply of squalor and splendor and spectacle. An image, my mother recently reminded me, that she remembers I assumed even as a five-year-old State Fairgoer who was only interested in the petting zoo. “You just don’t really like being surrounded by a lot of…things,” she said, gesticulating in the air surrounding her head.

The 2012 N.C. State Fair. Courtesy of the News and Observer.

A few days ago, I declared the following to a friend: “I love the State Fair, which also means that I hate it.” We were discussing the annual gathering in Raleigh, ending this weekend (conveniently, just in time for me to go, and to both love and hate it!). On the one hand, I was striking a stupid conversational dichotomy, but on the other, I think I was teasing at something deeper: a conflicted attachment to a statewide gathering that most people I know describe as “kitschy” and “campy.” Now I can’t erase the feeling—and I don’t think this is unrelated to my being a college graduate—that when I go I must go as ethnographer. David Foster Wallace conveys a similar anxiety at the outset of his 1994 nonfiction account of the Illinois State Fair: “I’m fresh in from the East Coast, for an East Coast magazine. Why exactly they’re interested in the Illinois State Fair remains unclear to me. I suspect that every so often editors at East Coast magazines slap their foreheads and remember that about 90 percent of the United States lies between the coasts, and figure they’ll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heartlandish.”

Foster Wallace goes on for approximately 19 more pages, detailing various aspects of the Fair. There is the physical: “The fairgrounds are a Saint Vitus’ dance of blacktop footpaths, the axons and dendrites of mass spectation, connecting buildings and barns and corporate tents.” And then the metaphysical: “the state fair’s animating thesis involves some kind of structured, decorated interval of communion with both neighbor and space—the sheer fact of the land is to be celebrated here, its yields ogled and its stock groomed and paraded. A special vacation from alienation.” Of course, Foster Wallace is writing about what he later determines is a singularly Midwestern experience: a State Fair serving as just the right annual activity for a culture living in relative rural isolation. An escapist event, though communal at the core.

Food vendors at the N.C. State Fair. Courtesy of ourexcursions.com

I’m wondering how our State Fair fits in. After all, North Carolina is a state of both rural and urban sustenance, and the Fair intentionally reflects that spread, from agricultural showcases to the Village of Yesteryear’s artisanal crafts to promotional materials from UNC-TV and political groups to the Midway itself—which may be the Fair’s great equalizer, uniting all Fairgoers under the commercial pursuit of deep-fried goodies and gifted goldfish. In my State Fair-avoidance-ambivalence I was unaware that the event has recently begun to adopt themes. This year’s is “North Carolina’s Homecoming.” The rhetoric is a bit heartlandish: “The great thing about the fair is that it draws people of all walks of life and from all over North Carolina. For 11 days, we’re one big melting pot for the state…And that’s what the fair is to us. A big family reunion.” Radical inclusiveness, as savory as a deep-fried Oreo (I can only imagine; I’ve never had one).

I’m eager to explain my resistance to the Fair as a resistance to its political or moral agenda. But this is complicated by my increasing sense that it doesn’t actually have one, other than an eleven-day stint of radical inclusiveness. Besides, how do you create policy, let alone a mission statement, for an event so celebratory of human diversity? The State Fair will probably always exist this way, as a “slice of life” (how my mother has always characterized it) in North Carolina, inviting us to exist with it, and with each other, for one or two or eleven days every fall. As Foster Wallace concludes in his piece, at the State Fair, “the real spectacle that draws us here is us.”

But this connective impulse, all caramel-apple-melting-pot joy, obscures the weirdness and difference of individual experience. Each of my past visits to the fair hold the same imagery of Foster Wallace’s press tour, circling the fairgrounds and waving sardonically to vendors on a tractor going 4 mph. Cultural tourism for the college-townie customer, able to extract the camp and kitsch of the State Fair when I want it. Assuming the participant-observer ethnographical approach at the Fair runs the risk of too much observation, too little participation—even as, with my $8 ticket and bucket of fries, I’m participating just the same as anyone else. The Fair is a unique and powerful event in its ability to both highlight and sublimate cultural difference, all in the space of an October day. Then we leave, and for 374 more days we don’t see the folks we almost too conveniently brush up against in line for the Himalaya ride or Buncombe County’s Best Cakes. This is an unusual community model, but is it necessarily a bad one? As the Insider, maybe I’m supposed to tell you. But as you already know, I consider myself a State Fair outsider. Ask me next week, but my response might be influenced by prolonged heartburn from a blooming onion. For now, I’d rather have my onion (or bucket of fries) and eat it, too.