What We're Reading
Lee Siegel's most recent book, Against the Machine, is a pointed exploration of themes MARS HILL AUDIO addresses frequently: the centrality of the sovereign self in modern culture (and the dehumanizing effects of that sovereignty), the way technologies rearrange social relationships without our noticing the changes (or their consequences), and the erosion of forms of cultural authority. These are concerns that have emerged in other essays by Siegel, who has contributed regularly for the last decade to The New Republic, The Nation, and Slate. In this book, subtitled Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, Siegel's concerns about the consequences of cultural carelessness seem more closely defined, if sometimes overstated.
Siegel's range of cultural criticism is broad; his 2006 book, Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination, included pieces about J. K. Rowling, Saul Bellow, Jack Nicholson, Jane Austen, The Sopranos, and Dante. That same year, he wrote a cover story for The New Republic about Oprah Winfrey, Thank You for Sharing, a brilliant analysis of how Oprah had become such a powerful public figure by showcasing themes that resonate with certain dominant cultural vibrations. Having acquired cultural influence by reflecting certain values, her public presence further reinforces those vibrations, which snowballs her to remarkable social influence.
In the Oprah article, Siegel discussed two interrelated cultural patterns: the narcissistic preoccupations encouraged by the modern elevation of the self at the center of the moral universe, and the erasing of objective hierarchies of significance that accompanies that enthroned self. In Siegel's analysis, a large proportion of Oprah's diverse range of guests are united by their stories of struggle and survival, of suffering and growth—stories that serve a therapeutic purpose for viewers anxious about navigating the shoals of their own experience. While stories of growth through suffering sound redemptive, Siegel suggests that Oprah's paradigmatic stories encourage personal growth on terms established autonomously by each person. In other words, each of us sets out to become the self we choose to be, on our own terms. Our actions are meaningful not in the context of some overarching moral framework, but as episodes in the construction of that self-authenticating self. And we can find encouragement for negotiating obstacles in our way by empathizing with the plucky and resourceful guests on one of Oprah's comfy chairs.
But Siegel worried that a crucial capacity for moral reflection and evaluation was undermined by the empathy marathon in Oprahworld, which seems to be
a kingdom of mere sensations, in which no experience has a higher—or different—value than any other experience. We weep and empathize with the self-destructive mother, we weep and empathize with Sidney Poitier, we weep and empathize with the young woman dying of anorexia, we weep and empathize with Teri Hatcher, we weep and empathize with the girl with the disfigured face, we weep and empathize with the grateful recipients of Oprah's gift of a new car to every member of one lucky audience, we weep and empathize with the woman burned beyond recognition by her vicious husband. In the end, like the melting vision of tearing eyes, the situations blur into each other without distinction. They are all relative to your own experience of watching them. The fungibility of feeling is really a reduction of all experience to the effect it has on your own quality of feeling.
The implication here is that all powerful feelings are self-authenticating. According to the cultural ethos exploited and sustained by Oprah (and countless others), no one need regard any feelings as disproportionate, misdirected, or disordered.
The socially destructive effects of narcissism (and of the idea that the self is a project we create autonomously) are also examined throughout Against the Machine. In a chapter called The Me Is the Message, Siegel recalls Christopher Lasch's 1978 The Culture of Narcissism, and Lasch's concern about a rising tide of confessional writing evident in American culture. As Siegel notes, Lasch was worried that such self-preoccupation would create an inner sense of emptiness by exalting the self and cutting it off from reality. Such isolated self-scrutiny, packed with psychiatric clichés, made people so self-conscious that they felt as though they were performing their existence rather than living it. Siegel believes that what Lasch saw was the initial edge of a social revolution, and argues that the way Internet technologies have developed has enabled the advent of the first social environment to serve the needs of the isolated, elevated, asocial individual.
In Siegel's view, the connections made possible by this technology do not compensate for the disconnections it encourages:
[T]he Internet creates a vast illusion that the physical, social world of interacting minds and hearts does not exist. In this new situation, the screen is all that is the case, along with the illusion that the screen projects of a world tamed, digested, abbreviated, rationalized, and ordered into a trillion connected units, called sites. This new world turns the most consequential fact of human life—other people—into seemingly manipulable half presences wholly available to our fantasies. . . . What kind of idea do we have of the world when, day after day, we sit in front of our screens and enter further and further into the illusion that we ourselves are actually creating our own external reality out of our own internal desires? We become impatient with realities that don't gratify our impulses or satisfy our picture of reality. We find it harder to accept the immutable limitations imposed by identity, talent, personality. We start to behave in public as if we were acting in private, and we begin to fill our private world with gargantuan public appetites. In other words, we find it hard to bear simply being human.
Late in the book, Siegel describes the quasi-gnostic effect of Internet communications, observing that when you are online,
you don't have to be communicating with anyone in particular. Just being online means that you are communicating with everyone in general. . . . There are no physical reminders of where the other presences online begin and end. There are no concrete inhibitors. And because you are alone, without bounded people, or a definite environment, or delineated circumstances—because there is nothing to remind you that you yourself have limits—you can 'express' yourself out of the infinite conceptions you have of yourself. . . . Such absolute liberation from constraints is why anonymity is so widespread on the Internet, and why everything on the Internet tends toward anonymity: the hidden solitude of sitting before the screen, the spectral half-person presence of being online, the sense of yourself and of other people as having no boundaries. After expertise, authority, and merit have fallen away as obstacles, identity remains the last barrier to the vicarious, acquisitive, totally accessing, fully participating Internet will. Anonymity, you might say, is the Internet's ultimate identity. If you are not who you say you are, you can be anyone you wish to be.
Boundaries are a central idea in Siegel's book; not only the boundedness of identity and personal experience, but the proper boundedness of ideas. Early in the book, he observes that the Internet ideal of giving everyone a voice begs the question of whether everyone deserves—in every setting—the same hearing. The digital mechanisms and social structures that give everyone a voice can also be a way to keep the most creative, intelligent, and original voices from being heard.
Boundaries (along with hierarchies) are also implicitly in play when Siegel discusses the difference between being knowledgeable and being well-informed.
[K]nowledge means you understand a subject, its causes and consequence, its history and development, its relationship to some fundamental aspect of life. But you can possess a lot of information about something without understanding it. An excess of information can even disable knowledge; it can unmoor the mind from its surroundings by breaking up its surroundings into meaningless data.
In Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver observed that many modern people wish to know the truth, but they have been taught a perversion which makes their chance of obtaining it less every day. This perversion is that in a just society there are no distinctions. A just society—the conventional wisdom has it—will tolerate no elites, let alone honor them. This egalitarianism and its repudiation of cultural authority is the consequence of the blogosphere Siegel finds most repulsive. The Internet, Siegel claims, has created a universal impatience with authority, with any kind of superiority conferred by excellence of expertise. Created is an unwarranted verb: Weaver saw this impatience in the 1940s. But the Internet has certainly aided and abetted this tendency; its economic, social, and technical capacities make it ever easier for sheer popularity to replace excellence as the sole criterion of cultural value.
Siegel's greatest sin in the eyes of his critics is his insistence that culture should not be democratic. When he asserts that Not everyone has something meaningful to say, he is dismissed as undemocratic, an enemy of equality. But, as Richard Weaver warned, an undefined equalitarianism is the most insidious idea employed to break down society. . . . Thomas Jefferson, after his long apostleship to radicalism, made it the labor of his old age to create an educational system which would be a means of sorting out according to gifts and attainments.
One other observation of Weaver's seems to resonate with Lee Siegel's critique of bloggers, especially those who proudly dismiss the dinosaur of mainstream media as antiquated and enemies of universal access. Weaver noted I would mention here the fact, obvious to any candid observer, that 'equality' is found most often in the mouths of those engaged in artful self-promotion. These secretly cherish the ladder to high designs but find that they can mount the lower runs more easily by making use of the catchword. We do not necessarily grudge them their rise, but the concept they foster is fatal to the harmony of the world.
Posted by Ken Myers on 4/14/09
For some time now, I have been growing in my understanding of how many cultural disorders are related to hatred of limits. The aspiration to limitlessness was embedded in the first temptation and the original sin, it informed the earliest docetic and Gnostic heresies, and it inspired the founding intellects of modernity. . . .
For some time now, I have been growing in my understanding of how many cultural disorders are related to hatred of limits. The aspiration to limitlessness was embedded in the first temptation and the original sin, it informed the earliest docetic and Gnostic heresies, and it inspired the founding intellects of modernity. Many sincere Christians still have some sense that being limited is an effect of sin, rather than a condition of the Creation. Both Genesis accounts of Creation (in chapters 1 and 2) resound with the establishment of boundaries—in time, in space, in ontology, and in vocation. God created all things (including his image-bearers) to thrive within limits, and he then asserted that this circumstance of Creation is very good. After delivering the mandate to serve as his regents and stewards over all Creation, God reminds Adam and Eve that they are creatures who are bounded. They do not exist independently, but must turn to the earth (from which they came and to which will return) for food, for the stuff of life. But not all the food in the Garden was on the menu. Man was limited and needy in his created state, and his continued fellowship with God required the recognition of boundaries.
Almost all human cultures have pursued the task of defining and governing boundaries in human behavior. Philip Rieff argued (in The Triumph of the Therapeutic) that every culture survives "by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood." The story of modern Western culture, however—a culture built around the ideal of the sovereign self—is a story of the abandonment of restrictions and restraints in the name of human freedom. Our institutions have increasingly been defined in terms of encouraging liberation from limits rather than cultivating a conscientious honoring of limits.
It was in light of this understanding that I read Wendell Berry's essay in the May issue of Harper's with great appreciation. In "Faustian Economics," (subtitled "Hell Hath No Limits"), Berry argues that "we have founded our present society upon delusional assumptions of limitlessness," that "the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt." This quest for unbounded possibility has, in Berry's view, led to a coarse and dehumanized society. "The minimization of neighborliness, respect, reverence, responsibility, accountability, and self-subordination—this is the culture of which our present leaders and heroes are the spoiled children."
With echoes of numerous theologians who have related the imago dei to our essential relationality, Berry questions the understanding of freedom that dominates modern culture. "In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define 'freedom' for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom of Words, 'free' is etymologically related to 'friend.' These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of 'dear' or 'beloved.' We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. All this suggests that our 'identity' is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections."
The title of the essay foreshadows Berry's discovery in Marlowe's telling of the Faust myth of the idea that the desire for limitlessness is devilish. Milton's Paradise Lost is also cited in the article, as it offers angelic testimony (from Raphael) that limits apply not only to what we ought to do, but to what we ought to strive to know, that (in Berry's summary) "knowledge without measure, knowledge that the human mind cannot appropriately use, is mortally dangerous."
Berry anticipates criticism for bringing "the language of religion" into a discussion of economics—a discussion that should, it is assumed, remain disinterestedly scientific. But he suggests that such detachment from transcendent concerns may be what got us into this mess—a mess that has become much more evident since he wrote the article. "I doubt that we can define our present problems adequately, let alone solve them, without some recourse to our cultural heritage. We are, after all, trying now to deal with the failure of scientists, technicians, and politicians to 'think up' a version of human continuance that is economically probable and ecologically responsible, or perhaps even imaginable. If we go back into our tradition, we are going to find a concern with religion, which at a minimum shatters the selfish context of the individual life, and thus forces a consideration of what human beings are and ought to be."
The text of the entire article is online at the Harper's website.
Posted by Ken Myers on 10/7/08
On his blog, Patrick Deneen identifies himself as a political theorist. Not a political scientist or a political philosopher, but a theorist. This self-designation reflects Deneen's attention to political history and to the life of language. . . .
On his blog, Patrick Deneen identifies himself as a political theorist. Not a political scientist or a political philosopher, but a theorist. This self-designation reflects Deneen's attention to political history and to the life of language. To be associated with scientia, derived from the Latin verb meaning "to know," would be an honorable situation for any thoughtful academic, even if "political science" has an air of mechanistic wonkishness about it. "Philosopher" might be a more attractive label for someone with Deneen's commitments, the etymological echoes of the word accurately suggesting his evident belief that thinking well about politics is a matter properly linked with the orientation of the soul.
"Theory" comes from a Greek verb meaning "to see." The English word "theater," denoting a place where scenes from human life are enacted to be seen (and to promote greater vision about life), comes from the same root. As Deneen himself explained in a 2002 essay on the nature of patriotism, the word "theory" came over time to designate a particular kind of seeing in the Greek world. "Certain designated city officials—theoroi—were charged with the task of visiting other cities, to 'see' events such as religious or theatrical or athletic festivals, and to return to their home city, where they would then give an account of what they had seen. To 'theorize' was to take part in a sacred journey, an encounter with the 'other' in which the theorist would attempt to comprehend, assess, compare, and then, in [the] idiom of his own city, explain what had been seen to his fellow citizens." Theorists in the best tradition are people who enable us to become "other-wise," encouraging us to realize that the way we live life isn't the only way it could be lived, and may not be the best way we could live.
Deneen's blog is called "What I Saw in America," an homage to G. K. Chesterton, and is subtitled "The Political Theory of Daily Life." Like the ancient theoroi, Deneen has traveled to distant places, distant in time if not space—Tocqueville's America, Aristotle's Athens, Wendell Berry's Port William, Descartes's utopia—and returned to explain aspects of our daily lives in light of what he has seen there.
In the past few weeks, Deneen's posts have placed the Wall Street meltdown in a larger cultural perspective that is absent from most media diagnoses and from the comments of politicians, whose handlers and PR experts forbid them from ever saying anything critical of the dominant trends of our cultural moment. In mid-September, in a piece called "Abstraction," Deneen argued that "at nearly every level this financial collapse was precipitated by transforming reality into abstraction, unmooring grounded commitments and obligations and fostering new patterns of fantastical behavior throughout the populace." That essay was followed by "Political Philosophy in the Details," in which Deneen questioned one of the fundamental assumptions of classic liberalism, which is that "unleashed self-interest is a predictable driver of human behavior and can be harnessed to ensure stable political institutions and dynamic economic activity." This assumption contradicts the wisdom of premodern political thinkers from Aristotle on, who "argued against unleashed self-interest inasmuch as its free rein led to the deformation of the human soul—a form of enslavement to the desires." While liberalism claims to be a procedural order in which competing claims about the good—whether religious, philosophical, or practical—all compete freely in an open "marketplace of ideas," in actuality what liberalism "seeks above all is the promotion of economic growth and material pursuits as the main activity" of human societies. "It can afford to be neutral about ends because by emphasizing that one end—growth and material gain—it effectively demotes all other ends. . . . Correspondingly, no party of government will call for virtue and restraint as a possible solution [to our economic woes], since that would contradict the fundamental wellspring of human behavior necessary for increase and dominion."
Deneen followed up this piece with a post entitled "Whack a Mole," in which he insisted that the failure of political leaders to call for self-restraint is "an indication of our enslavement to appetites over which we have no control. This latter condition was defined by the ancients as a condition of servitude, not liberty."
In an entry dated October 2, 2008 called "Democracy in America," Deneen raises questions about the viability of democracy in a culture that eschews limits and self-control. Citing Tocqueville's insight that democracy was a collection of mores as much as it was a system of government, he reviews Tocqueville's warning about how the very success of democracy could lead to its undoing. "The very dynamism of modern democracy that allowed it to defang resentments [by enabling social and economic mobility] also simultaneously contributed to profound short-term thinking that devolved into forms of self-serving individualism. Increasingly unable to discern how our liberated actions impacted others—neither recognizing our debts to the past nor our obligations to the future—we see ourselves as wholly free agents shorn of history or future." Deneen also cites Montesquieu's belief that democracy could only survive if it was internally enabled by virtuous citizens, people with the habit of the heart to eschew luxurious living and temper their appetities. "Without the virtue of moderation, thrift, and self-governance [that is, the willingness of each citizen to govern himself], democracy was an ideal whose reality was always in question."
Reading Deneen over the past few weeks has prompted me to go back and review some of Daniel Bell's observations in his 1976 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. In that profound study, Bell raised questions about "the end of the bourgeois idea," the unravelling of social and political order in a society in which the bourgeois virtues of self-control and delayed gratification necessarily collide with the modernist values of limitless acquisition and boundless self-expression, values promoted by a capitalism centered on consumption rather than production. Bell's examination of the symbiotic relationship between economic practices and structures on the one hand and cultural beliefs and assumptions on the other is worth extended reflection. Looking at the current financial chaos with his analysis in mind, one is struck—as one is in reading Patrick Deneen—by how the trajectory of this crisis predates the regulatory changes of the past three decades. "American capitalism changed its nature in the 1920s," Bell wrote, "by heavily encouraging the consumers to go into debt, and to live with debt as a way of life. In the 1960s, the basic financial structure of the economy became transformed when sharp individuals began to realize that considerable fortunes could be created through 'leverage,' that is, by going heavily into debt and using that borrowed money to underwrite finance companies, create real estate investment trusts, and increase the debt/equity ratio of corporations, rather than expand out of internal financing or by equity capital." Bell goes on to describe possible economic and political scenarios when an economy built on a "mountain of debt" encounters reality. What I find more interesting is his description in the first half of the book of how so many features of our cultural life—our notion of identity, the centrality of fun and entertainment in social life, our need for constant distraction and stimulation, the institutionalization of "transgressive" behavior—have imprinted a characteristic mentality that makes recognizing the nature of our cultural and economic disorder so difficult. That's all the more reason to be grateful for insightful theorists such as Patrick Deneen.
Subscribers to the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal will have heard my interview with Patrick Deneen on volume 91. If you missed that interview, you can hear a portion of it here or purchase the whole issue here.
Posted by Ken Myers on 10/7/08
Lately, a lot of what I'm reading has been concerned with how I'm reading, with whether other people are reading, and with how reading influences our inner lives, both our brains and our souls. Nicholas Carr's Atlantic essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (July/August 2008) is an elegant exploration of some of the themes explored by media ecologists. Carr has the feeling, he confesses, that the way he thinks has been changing. It's increasingly hard for him to concentrate on extended arguments presented in books for any sustained period. "I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text." He reports that many friends and colleagues report the same sensation, and he's convinced that the cause behind this effect is all the time he spends online.
As Carr describes it, the way knowledge is organized and acquired online encourages certain mental habits while discouraging others. And it reinforces a specific model of human knowing, "a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google's world, the world we enter when we go online, there's little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed."
Carr's article is worth reading (and re-reading, does anybody re-read anything anymore?) in its entirety, which one may do--ironically--online (though an actual printed copy of the magazine is much more pleasant to spend some time with). The essay has a nicely allusive shape to it that resists neat summary as it weaves together references to Nietzsche's first typewriter, the invention of the mechanical clock, Frederick Winslow Taylor's advocacy of industrial efficiency, and ruminations about HAL, the spooky computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (which, we all know, was really a mind odyssey). Hovering over all this is Carr's recognition of one of Marshall McLuhan's great insights, that media "supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
There's some science behind Carr's troubling sensation. Among other experts, he cites Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, who "worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts 'efficiency' and 'immediacy' above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace." Note that the printing press didn't make such works (and the interior experience they enable) possible, just more widely available.
Carr insists that "The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds." There is a quality of thought encouraged by working through extended arguments and ruminations that is not engendered by the kind of reading encouraged by the Internet. Carr observes that deep reading--reading that is more like prayer than basketball--is deliberately discouraged by the structure of the Web and in the business models of the Web's reigning powers. "The faster we surf across the Web--the more links we click and pages we view--the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to deed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link--the more crumbs, the better. The last things these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It's in their economic interest to drive us to distraction."
Carr's article reminded me of observations by two writers whose books (repeatedly re-read) have had a formative effect on my thought. One of these writers is principally concerned with philosophical and historical matters, the other with spiritual life. Richard Weaver, in Ideas Have Consequences, commented (in 1948!) on the "astonishing vogue of factual information." Weaver correlates this lust for facts--often acquired with no context or connections--to modern skepticism. "Having been told by the relativists that he cannot have truth, he now has 'facts.' . . . And the public is being taught systematically to make this fatal confusion of factual particulars with wisdom."
Writing in 1957, Catholic theologian Romano Guardini (in Prayer in Practice) warned of the threat to spiritual health in a life characterized by flitting and restless distractedness. Guardini counseled that the only way to enter into the spirit of prayer was to learn to concentrate. "Above all, we must prepare ourselves for prayer. The same applies also to all worldly matters. No one with a serious task before him will approach it unprepared, but will concentrate on the demands he has to face. If we appreciate good music we shall not arrive at the performance at the last minute, allowing for no transition between the noise and unrest of the street and the opening bars of the concert. We shall be there in good time and hold ourselves ready for the beautiful experience before us. Anyone who has the right feeling for things which are great and important will, before tackling them, banish distraction and collect himself inwardly."
Guardini notes that "distraction" is historically described by "spiritual teachers" as a "state in which man lacks poise and unity, that state in which thoughts flit from object to object, in which feelings are vague and unfocused and the will ineffective. Man in this state is not really a person who speaks or who can be spoken to, but merely an uncoordinated bundle of thoughts, feelings and sensations." Collectedness, by contrast, is a condition in which the person aspires to be a "unified whole. This is the state in which he may, when the call comes to him, answer in the words of Moses, 'Here am I.'"
I think we can safely assume that were he alive today, Guardini would regard the institutionalization of distraction through our dominant communications medium as a great evil, the fact that we read fewer books is a symptom of a deeper problem. Two years before Prayer in Practice, Guardini addressed the idea of "collectedness" even more thoroughly, in Meditations before Mass,, he used a synonym for that unified state: composure. "What then do we mean by composure? As a rule, a man's attention is broken into a thousand fragments by the variety of things and persons about him. His mind is restless, his feelings seek objects that are constantly changing, his desires reach out for one thing after another, his will is captured by a thousand intentions, often conflicting. He is harried, torn, self-contradictory. Composure works in the opposite direction, rescuing man's attention from the sundry objects holding it captive and restoring unity to his spirit. It frees his mind from its many tempting claims and focuses it on one, the all-important. It calls the soul that is dispersed over myriad thoughts and desires, plans and intentions back to itself, re-establishing its depth.
"All things seem to disquiet man. The phenomena of nature intrigue him, they attract and bind. But because they are natural they have a calming, collecting influence as well. It is much the same with those realities that make up human existence: encounter and destiny, work and pleasure, sickness and accident, life and death. All make their demands on man, crowding him in and overwhelming him, but they also give him earnestness and weight. What is genuinely disastrous is the disorder and artificiality of present-day existence. We are constantly stormed by violent and chaotic impressions. At once powerful and superficial, they are soon exhausted, only to be replaced by others. They are immoderate and disconnected, the one contradicting, disturbing, and obstructing the other. At every step we find ourselves in the claws of purposes and cross-purposes that inveigle and trick us. Everywhere we are confronted by advertising that attempts to force upon us things we neither want nor really need. We are constantly lured from the important and profound to the distracting, 'interesting,' piquant. This state of affairs exists not only around but within us. To a large extent man lives without depth, without a center, in superficiality and chance. No longer finding the essential within himself, he grabs at all sorts of stimulants and sensations, he enjoys them briefly, tires of them, recalls his own emptiness and demands new distractions. He touches everything brought within easy reach of his mind by the constantly increasing means of transportation, information, education, and amusement, but he doesn't really absorb anything. He contents himself with having 'heard about it', he labels it with some current catchword, and shoves it aside for the next. He is a hollow man and tries to fill his emptiness with constant, reckless activity. He is happiest when in the thick of things, in the rush and noise and stimulus of quick results and successes. The moment quiet surrounds him, he is lost."
I read Nicholas Carr's article several weeks ago when it first appeared, and then saw--within a few days--a number of bloggers and online pundits make reference to it. There was a flurry of musing about his assertions, and then his concerns disappeared to make room for a new round of issues. I thought about writing something about the article right away, to stay in synch with the blogosphere, but then thought that it might be better to live with the article for a while--re-reading it a few times, reading some related essays and passages from long-treasured books--in order to gain a better stance from which to make some fruitful comments. Carr's observations are not the makings of a story that needs to "break" in a rush of competitive information pushing. They form a piece of evidence for understanding a pattern according to which the fashions of our cultural disorder often reinforce our spiritual disorder, a reminder that spiritual struggle is never simply spiritual.
Among the other things I read while living with Nicholas Carr's article was an article in the Spring 2008 issue of The New Atlantis by Christine Rosen called "The Myth of Multitasking." It reinforced ideas in Walter Kirn's "The Autumn of the Multitaskers" (Atlantic, November 2007), both articles suggesting that it is ultimately inefficient to try to achieve efficiency by doing three or four things at once. I was also reading Eugene Peterson's Eat This Book, which contains Peterson's reflections on the art of "spiritual reading." The metaphor of eating a book (a biblical metaphor) has echoes of Cranmer's prayer that we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture. That requires the cultivation of disciplines and habits of attentiveness, practices which are robustly discouraged in the conventional experiences of everyday life in what is increasingly Google's world.
Posted by Ken Myers on 8/13/08
University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has a keen eye for cultural ecosystems. He has written perceptively about how changes in the texture of the everyday lives of his students affects the orientation of their souls. In a 1997 article in Harper's, "On the Uses of a Liberal Education," he described how the conditioning of his students by consumer/entertainment culture (and their desire to be cool) made it hard for them to acquire a passion for learning. . . .
Ideas, we are frequently told, have consequences. We are less often encouraged to reflect on the equally significant if more elusive relationship of ideas to their antecedents. Ideas come from somewhere, and they are able to take up residence in our lives because they find friendly surroundings. So if bad ideas are plaguing our society (and having bad consequences), we ought to ask about their origins. And we need to ask what it is about the shape of our lives that make bad ideas seem plausible.
Ideas and cultural moods or sensibilities often live together in a kind of harmony. Sometimes ideas evoke cultural moods (think, for example, of the quality of music written during the Enlightenment), but surely the influence can flow in the other direction as well. Cultural moods, established by nothing more than changing conditions in the quality of everyday life, can render certain beliefs more plausible. C. S. Lewis once observed that the increasing presence of machines in the lives of nineteenth-century Europeans, and the rapid rate of change introduced by those machines, encouraged the rise of a positive attitude toward novelty. Belief in the inevitability of progress in all things may have been a consequence of relatively mundane improvements in things mechanical.
University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has a keen eye for cultural ecosystems. He has written perceptively about how changes in the texture of the everyday lives of his students affects the orientation of their souls. In a 1997 article in Harper's, "On the Uses of a Liberal Education," he described how the conditioning of his students by consumer/entertainment culture (and their desire to be cool) made it hard for them to acquire a passion for learning. He followed this up in 2000 with a wry, sly article in The Hedgehog Review called "A Word to the New Humanities Professor." ("Students should be assured continually that by virtue of living later in time than the author, they naturally know a great deal more than she possibly could. . . . The professor should continually make self-mocking references to her authority and her stock of learning. . . . But, of course, answers are not really the point. The point is learning to work together and to get along.") Now Mark Edmundson has again taken stock of the mood of his students in an article called "Dwelling in Possibilities," published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, he portrays his students as energetic anti-slackers, eager "to study, travel, make friends, make more friends, read everything (superfast), take in all the movies, listen to every hot band, keep up with everyone they've ever known. . . . They live to multiply possibilities. They're enemies of closure. For as much as they want to do and actually manage to do, they always strive to keep their options open, never to shut possibilities down before they have to."
Edmundson believes that this voracious omnitasking makes the lives of his students both highly promising and radically vulnerable to living lives that leave no room for reflection and self-knowledge. "Our students rarely get a chance to stop. They're always in motion, always spitting out what comes first to mind, never challenging, checking, revising." In Edmundson's view, the tyrants most responsible for this condition are not rigorous professors or even parents with unrealistic expectations. The tyranny is exercised in a mood of possibility enabled by web browsers and cell phones. These technologies are less about communication and more about enlarging desire. "Skate fast over the surfaces of life and cover all the extended space you can, says the new ethos," which is why the drugs of choice on campuses are increasingly ADD pharmaceuticals, which are "on sale in every dorm at prices that rise exponentially as the week of final exams approaches."
Edmundson's article explores the ways in which this pattern of velocity is evident in sports, music, and sexual habits of students. Underlying the entire essay is Edmundson's conviction that "life is more than spontaneity and whim," and that a college classroom is one of the best places to learn how to stop, think, and reflect on the task of living deliberately.
If Edmundson's diagnosis of the ethos of our culture is accurate, there are at least two avenues of response available to parents, teachers, clergy, and others in positions of Church and cultural leadership. One is to try to figure out how to go with the flow (although "flow" may not be the best word/semi what about "rampage" or "tsunami"?). But if the absence of thickness, depth, and commitment encouraged by fast skating is really not in keeping with the shape of human flourishing, if there is something truly unnatural about this mentality, something in it that is not consistent with our nature, then we need to attend to the maintenance of counter-cultural institutions and practices. Reading and re-reading books, slowly, keeping personal and private journals (not public blogs) which invite true introspection without the distraction of self-presentation, face-to-face conversations that linger and dwell, conversations that achieve some contrapuntal pleasure, attentive listening to musical works that require us to slow down and perceive subtle resonances and formal nuance: these are monotasking practices of closure, commitment, and contemplation. Their loss is one of the ways our contemporaries are becoming figurative widows and orphans (see James 1:27). The pursuit of actuality rather than infinite possibility will not come easily, and will require repudiation of the ways of life that characterize our moment. Those Christian leaders who discourage such repudiation in the name of "cultural engagement" need to be able to explain to people like Mark Edmundson why the Church is indifferent to the plight of students who cannot stop and think.
Posted by Ken Myers on 3/17/08