Should we seek to shape our lives into coherent narratives?
I come across bits of pieces of this and that while I spent hours at my desk not-working-but-thinking, and I have come to find that I often have a different-in-approach view of many chunks of light social theory than your usual comment leaving individual. The above line is paraphrased from a comment left concerning a blip that ran on The Awl last night by Choire Sicha.
Before moving on to actually discuss the question, I want to ruminate over my recent spat of actually caring about internet comments. I mean, on one hand they’re absolutely vile, poor excuses for discourse. On the other, they may be the best examples of actual discourse that we have available, adjusted for audience and such. I know that the comments left on a story at ThinkProgress is going to have a leftist skew (barring the inevitable trolls who come by for a shouting match) and that comments on Jezebel will skew more toward the liberal-feminist demographic. In any case, more than the content, I find the sheer lack of content to be amazingly telling.
But that’s not the point here. Continue reading
Systems were made for men, and not men for systems, and the interest of man which is self-development, is above all systems, whether theological, political or economic.
C.H. Douglas, Economic Democracy.
Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of the New York Times, recently posted a short editorial that has absolutely provoked the most horrifying response from the general population of the internet. In his short piece, entitled “The Twitter Trap”, Keller shares his own insecurities concerning the current direction and development of communication in the age of Facebook and Google (and everything else). Of course, he has provoked more ire than I have seen directed at a writer in some time. Of course, from where I sit, the irony is that the exact sort of dismissive, content-less communication that makes Keller uneasy (and, to an extent and in my opinion, rightfully so) has come forth in a flash flood, drowning out any meaningful discussion and leaving us with our crowd-sourced consensus of superiority. I’ll get back to that in a bit.
I wanted to make clear that this isn’t really about “taking a side”, but about examining why such a successful, media-driven individual would feel uneasy in our current sea of communication. It’s far too easy to knock Keller down as a “Luddite” or to call him a “troll” and ridicule him into submission. It takes a far more honorable person to actually examine the concerns and problems raised while maintaining a distance allowing for as much objectivity as possible. I have found the response to the article to be simple mind-boggling, if not completely expected. Keller attacked us. He threw a bit of pudding at his classmates at lunchtime, and now we have an epic food-fight on our hands. The metaphor hardly ends there, as, just like a grade-school food-fight, it quickly becomes not about individuals, but about how much tomato sauce you can pour on as many people as you can. In the glory of current trends of conceptual-personhood on the internet, we are neither singular nor easily-bound defined as a personality. To quickly explain, I can say that I am any multitude of persons in my life as a citizen of the ‘tubes. My Facebook shows my casual, friendship side; on LinkedIn I’m all professional and quick to the point; Twitter is an internal monologue brought to public space; my Google searches are a cache of my inquisitive mind and my desire to continue expanding beyond the borders of my own self.
In the end, we’re becoming “more than a person” in any classical sense. We’re becoming the very technologies we employ to represent us. And this isn’t something that can be argued to be either inherently good or bad.
Now, the point that I would like to get across is that I believe Keller’s premise to be somewhat solid. At least the premise is as solid as a short bit of editorializing can be without a full-backing of sociological support. The issue comes with not being able to see the trees for the forest. We can peer out into our extremely convoluted communications and see just that: a messy tangle of information that both obscures coherency and makes available a wide range of immensely different points of view. There is nothing inherently bad about any of this.
But what an author doesn’t speak of is almost always what the problem becomes. Some members of the internet community have snapped-back at Keller for being a “troll” or for not understanding modern communication. They are able to exhibit a certain smug, completely consequence-free chance to tell the Executive Editor of the New York Times that he’s a moron and that he must be stupid, himself. This is the first problem: the tautological concept of the self. You see, in our current cultural trends, we accept that I equals I (I=I). There is nothing to characterize ourselves except that we characterize ourselves. We are all unique and no one is the same (though we have similarities) and no one is different (but we do have differences). We are all “I”. This concept, immensely Western, is at the heart of our social media. And it isn’t freeing.
Secondly, Keller disappoints in that he declines to discuss the motivations for such trends.
And this is where everything gets messy. I’ll take a subject that individuals reading here should care about: poetry. I am always struck by the contradiction that 1) our culture doesn’t value poetry, and 2) that our culture now produces more poetry-for-consumption than ever before. Through social media and the instant communication of the internet, we have more access to more poetry than ever before. Gone are the days when poets were a professional rarity. Anyone can get a blog and pass around work on Facebook or read the entirety of the “classics” from the instant-comfort of their home. We are drowning in poetry. Yet the strange part is that no one seems to care aside from poets. When I was back in undergrad studying with Carolyn Forche, we would sometimes come upon the too-often repeated joke that “only poets read poetry”, and this is both a ludicrous statement and a very astute observation all packed into one. The concept that both producer and consumer of a poem are, in some quantum-esque relationship of the self (remember that I=I), the same thing is devilishly telling of the disregard our culture holds for poetic verse. Practically speaking, it hints not at the reduction of poetry-consumers to a small, static group of poets, but that it expands the entire field of verse to include as “poet” any individual who enjoys poetry and therefore, they themselves become poets. Let’s face it: poetry holds the lowest bar of minimum skill for entry. Any individual with a half-decent education in the English language can produce something. In comparison, to “be a painter” requires a barrage of special, specific technical skills which bar many from entering into even the lowest rungs of the ladder. Anyone can get a hold of a notepad, pen and basic instruction in language. Putting together a studio or darkroom or recording setup takes money, and often a lot of money.
We have emerged, over the last twenty years, from a culture of limitations to expression to a culture of limitless expression.
But it goes even further. We exist in a sort of willful blindness to the fact that our social media and instant communication does come with a price. That price is that while we become more and more enamored of our place as “self-important individuals” we look past the limitations on our own persons placed by the very tools of social interaction we now laud and claim accolades for their innovation. It doesn’t matter if it is Facebook or Twitter or Google, our social interactions exist within a specific form at a specific space and in specific ways. This is, again, not an inherently bad thing, but if there’s anything to be gained from this understanding it’s that we’re far, far less in control of ourselves and our culture than we would like to believe. Facebook, the be-all-end-all for individual branding, still doesn’t recognize things like polyamorous relationships. It mines and sells (or leaks) our data to advertisers and other companies. We’re beginning to see the most recent contradiction of our limitless expression in the form of targeted advertising: Google and Facebook, for two, are working very, very hard to be able to advertise and solicit for you and only you. While the concept itself is interesting and quite exciting, the theoretical point remains that we have a symbiotic relationship between ourselves and social media. They need us to create their content and populate their advertising space by creating expressions and representations of ourselves as concrete-individuals, and in return they reinforce our social construction of the self in ultimate tautology of I=I. In a way it is the greatest act of alienation we have yet to see. We are all individuals with an immense connection to unthinkable other individuals. We’re also, concurrently, becoming islands of self which set the stage for hubris of immense proportions.
So, we’re left with a world where so many voices scream that it becomes difficult to find any sort of guiding trend in our cultural philosophy. Everyone is right (or entitled to their opinions) and everyone is wrong. We have transcended not morality or ethics, but personal responsibility. Keller harps on about the intellectual damage we’re doing to ourselves, and I’ll admit that our entire concept of knowledge has shifted drastically (more severe than in any other time, truly). Yet that is example of the good that crowd-sourcing can and will bring. Wikipedia is now bigger, better and faster than any print encyclopedia. Yet when it comes to philosophic and “guiding” movement (i.e. the ability of a small group to influence the development of a field or mode of thought), we have handed our communal and social development to the hands of bodies which do not care about philosophic or theoretical development.
It becomes and remains a question without decent answers. Is Twitter making us stupider? yes and no. Does the barrage of raw information create a decidedly low playing field for intellectual pursuit and common-person discourse? absolutely. We have aggregators who protect us from the drivel, and we have Facebook to tell us how we structure ourselves and who take copyright for any activity we partake in over their structure. We have Twitter to limit our thought into concise 140-character blurbs. We have all of this, while the providers of these services do little to improve the quality because quantity is far more important to any company’s bottom line.
And the most damaging of all isn’t any of this: it’s that these conditions necessarily have created a distrust for, and disinterest in, exploring our ever-changing concept of truth. Perhaps most importantly, Keller’s painfully short bit of writing betrays the problem that our “limitless expression and freedom of information” is on a long-leash, but a leash none the less, in the hands of corporations which care not for the advancement of communication or human ideas, but their own bottom line. Not the past, present or future has any sort of idealized perfection, and we would do well to heed some caution over our communally greatest asset: our ability to cooperate, communicate and create.
Back when I was younger I would routinely produce 10+ pages of work each day. Looking back, I find that just mind boggling. Though at the time it would be common that every one of those pages would be tossed, the idea of producing so much work is something I struggle with, now. Over the last five or six years I have seen my productivity come down to creating perhaps two to three pages each month, though now those two to three pages nearly always get kept and rewritten and end up here where all the rest of my “passes the bar” work ends up.
One of the reasons for this drop in production has always been my inability to find a proper space to sit down to read and write. Coffee shops used to do it for me: the semi-public but segregated private of a few specific seats in the Starbucks where I grew up were perfect for having both the social atmosphere as well as the solitude necessary for me to really get my head into my work. For a long time I searched for similar spaces. There were a number of spots on the Skidmore campus I loved and that treated me well, but in the past few years I have found coffee shops to have not enough privacy, and more secluded areas lacked the social atmosphere that I have always found necessary.
But I found something the other day which has, so far, been my best experience in receiving both the solitude and the social atmosphere that really kicks me into a headspace that is conducive to writing.
I am quite happy with this location. The bench is nestled about fifty feet from Davis Station in Somerville, and as such there is always a constant stream of individuals walking by but not lingering. The drift of conversation and the pounding of feet provides the sort of pseudo-social setting that keeps me connected to the world, while the transitory nature of the location means that no one really sticks around too long to create the feeling of encroachment or invasion which has kept me out of the coffee shops and similar establishments (and I don’t have to buy a coffee, if I don’t want to). The statues are wonderful company, providing the illusion of close human contact without that whole “being alive” nonsense. I have, so far, produced an astonishing amount of work at that bench.
I came across, this morning, an interesting work of theory surrounding the idea that our culture has gone so far as to consider polling to be an impetus for political action. Leonard Pitts Jr. over at the Miami Herald writes in regard to the recent Washington Post/ABC News polling on public support for marriage equality:
But lurking at the edge of celebration there is, for me, at least, a nagging, impatient vexation. That vexation is based in what is arguably an esoteric question: In extolling the fact that the majority now approves same sex marriage, do we not also tacitly accept the notion that the majority has the right to judge?
It’s a pretty simple question, really, and one that gets lost in our greater drive toward… well, something.
I’m no big fan of American Democracy, and this sort of observation makes my brain turn on. It seems very, very clear that after ten years of a 50/50 public opinion split between two moderate political parties we now see justification of a majority as some sort of policy decision. Indeed, when the GOP recaptured the house last cycle they spoke of their “mandate”. Gov. Walker is now “losing” because polling numbers show a binary split with his approval rating on the lower-side. Numbers numbers numbers, and always binary.
Pitts goes on to look, shallowly, at the issue,
But still, one draws up short at the idea that human rights are subject to a popularity contest. One shudders to think what sort of nation this would be if Lyndon Johnson, before signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, had first taken a poll of the American people.
I think that the article, itself, misses the point.
It isn’t that our rights are “inherent” or even that we’re born with them. It’s the fact that we have elevated the surface, jerk-reactions of the american populous and created a system of governance where we have two choice put forth by a poll or other concept of “public opinion”. This is circular. Political agenda is set by politicians, who then craft careful messages and rhetoric to bolster their position. The two parties create their own binary solutions and then bring that to the public, who are polled, in order to further justify the political agenda.
What’s missing is courage and change. We could ensure the safety and fitness of every needy family if we wished. If we were to do so it would inherently shift the binary questions. The base culture and actual environment shapes the framework. This is bullshit.
Compassion isn’t popular. Neither is helping out minorities. Really, I wish we would just do the right thing and then allow the public to smolder with some sort of entitlement that they know best. Frankly, I’m scared of our system now that we’re cutting more and more funding from education. Of course, an uneducated public would just play further into the hands of the pollsters and parties who are so generous that they give us the impression of participation.
So it seems there’s been some hubbub around the world recently surrounding a sixteen year old Australian student who, in the face of bullying, stood up for himself and fought back.
Good for him. I know.
Up until the age of about sixteen I dealt with a slew of “bullying”. Mostly this came from a group of pretty hateful skinhead-types who were all planning on entering the military (this was before 9/11, even). I spent the greater part of my freshman year of high school getting teased for my silly desire to dress “punk rock” and be far-left politically active. Of course, I went to a very good suburban high school which, like all schools, had a zero-tolerance policy concerning violence.
One day I couldn’t take it anymore. I was being followed by two of my tormentors in the hall, walking past other kids and even a few adults who seemed to want to just look right through the whole thing. This was after months and months of torment and bullying. I lost it. It wasn’t really a choice. I turned, quickly, caught one of the kids off guard and punched him in the face.
I was given an in-school suspension for a day.
That event was also the turning point toward what would eventually find me as one of the “alternate-but-popular” kids at school.
You see, I’ve run that event through my head so many times now that “bullying” is at the forefront of national discourse. I’m glad I did it, because after that I was afforded a sneering sort of half-respect from the kids who tormented me, and while I spent my suspension writing, reading Kant and doing token amounts of schoolwork, I also reflected upon my own self and self-presentation.
Casey Haynes got so fed up with being harassed that he bodyslammed his tormentor onto the concrete sidewalk. Way to go, Casey.
I’m sure some of you are looking at me with disgust, right now, but I think that should be evidence for the double-standard our culture provokes on issues such as this. You see, I’m not exactly a supporter of non-violence. I certainly believe that rational, face-to-face conversation and understanding are more effective and useful, but I also believe that you can’t simply ignore the fact that humans are animals of violence. Now, I want to be clear that when I use the term “violence” I’m not speaking strictly of physical violence, and that this is an immensely important distinction to make.
We are violent in that we employ force to coerce, shame, hurt or otherwise reinforce our position in a polemic. Every time you raise your voice, you’re employing violence via attempting to overwhelm and scare. Every time you steal your co-worker’s pen, your acting in violence to deprive them of resources. When our government cuts assistance to the poor, it’s an act of violence.
Physical violence is the tip of the iceberg, so we concern ourselves with it. When you chop off that tip the rest of the ice still sinks the Titanic, and this time it’s even harder to see coming.
In any case, this post has been sitting in my draft folder for too many days, now. Time to publish.