longing for the real

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Dreaming of Nirvana

It starts with a tapping black Chuck Taylor.
The scene is a high-school gym, shot in nostalgic sepia tones.
Kids sit on bleachers.
There are cheerleaders.
Right beneath the basketball hoop—the place of honor for athletes and visiting dignitaries—wobbles a dingy looking trio.
A few menacing power chords coming out of an amp that’s just slightly distorting.
The song is always slower than I remember—and that’s part of its pleasure: the singularity of the real.
You wait for something to happen, and it does. The drummer, all hair and arms and shins, beats out a savage pounding rhythm—snare-kick, snare-kick, snare-kick, snare-kick—while the high-school cheerleaders robotically pump and twirl their pom-poms in perfect mechanical time.
And then comes the roar.

*

Punk rock saved my life, I like to say, though it’s not really true, I suppose; but sometimes something comes along at a moment in your life when you feel like you’re desperate, or maybe dead, or maybe you’ve just been waiting for something to happen for what seems like a really long time, and then suddenly it does, something comes along and takes you by the hand and lets you know that you’re ok, it’s going to be ok, and it’s ok to be or feel whoever you are or whatever you feel: for me that was punk rock in seventh grade at a track meet when I first found the Sex Pistols.

*

In 2006 I discovered Youtube. I realize that might sound surprising in this digital age where everything—dating, reading, shopping, bullying, making friends, having sex—is mediated by a glowing screen; perhaps it’s stranger still that I’m a child of the nineties, iPad generation. But it’s true, I’m a late bloomer, and 2006, when I moved to Ithaca to start a graduate program in history at Cornell, was the first time since college that I had access to a fast internet connection; so, when I found myself burned out by academic reading and writing, I would navigate my way to Youtube and watch the music videos that I had missed as a teen.

Because I had grown up in the country—cable didn’t come up our road, and so I wasn’t raised on MTV like most of my peers. A college friend of mine credits the revolutionary 1986 video in which Run DMC and Aerosmith perform “Walk this Way” together with bringing down the Berlin Wall, but it wasn’t until grad school that I finally got to behold the thing for myself—and strange as it might seem, I can actually understand how that video showing somewhat over-the-hill hard-anthem-rockers and vitally fresh rappers happily collaborating, a sort of musical Détente, could have some sort of butterfly-wing-ripple-effect. Gimme a kiss, indeed.

But even us country kids couldn’t miss the digital revolution, and I did get to witness the explosion of the Internet: I remember clearly that fall day in 1995 when my family got its first computer and we all logged on for the first, fateful time. I remember the initial euphoria surrounding e-mail (no more stamps! It’s easy! And instant!) and instant messenger, (it’s more instant than e-mail! Easier, too!) cell phones (no more hassling with pay phones! instantly!) and, later iPods (massive amounts of low-quality mp3s easily available at your fingertips! instantly!), Facebook (stay in touch easily! instantly!), eBooks (no more cumbersome real books! Get instant access to thousand of titles, instantly!), on and on, a seemingly endless digitization and commodification of everything from writing to friendship. I’m of the age where I probably should be securely on this digital bandwagon, but I think it’s probably pretty clear that I’m not.

*

Nirvana was not a punk band, and they scared me, bad: songs with titles like “Rape Me”; lyrics that seemed like the very bleakness which punk promised to dispel; no, Nirvana was dangerous, not adventuresome dangerous, or vivacious dangerous, but deadly dangerous because they seemed to me to accept—though I’ve always loved their big song, the song of the 1990s, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song you could not avoid because it blanketed the radio waves, the schools halls, the back of the bus; you could not miss the way that butchered power chords thundered their shaky way out of every room in which a kid sat with a guitar, hoping; hell, you couldn’t even miss it when you stepped out of the shower: Teen Spirit was one of the most popular deodorants in the early nineties, at least in my school, and I loved it.

*

You won’t hear it if your volume is anything but really, really loud, dirty-looks-from-your-neighbor-loud, but if you can crank it high enough, then you will hear it, unmistakably.

With the music like this, the on-screen action seems perfectly choreographed: measured shots from a horizontally moving camera of leaping verticality:

piston-like cheerleaders’ arms, the jackhammering drummer’s head, the flailing guitarist. Everyone—bass, drums, guitar—is playing the same rhythm, pounding it out as hard as they can, as if every instrument is percussive.

It’s glorious, ecstatic angst.

And then it goes soft.

This is the band’s signature sound: play really loud, and then really quiet, and then really loud.

Dynamically, in other words.

A minimalist guitar part, two notes, C and F, rings out, barely, above a guttural bass and gunshot snare.

It works, and as the lead singer/guitarist—scraggly, insecure, scared—sings into the camera, we’re drawn in.

A janitor, with mop and broom, a motif that will reappear throughout the video, makes his appearance, polishing his broom handle. Head banging.

The lyrics are bleak, a dull relentless blade in this quiet part, filled with desperation that fits well with the overexposed face of the washed out guitarist/singer.

But there’s movement: the tension twists tautly. The guitar coughs into its louder, hoarser voice, the lyrics repeat a desperate “Hello” (a question? a greeting?). The band is almost never shot as such—a band—but individually, the singer’s voice doubled over itself, Ramones-style, giving it a huge thickness unto its isolated itself.

The singer/guitarist jumps.

A wall of distortion thunders from the screen.

The kids in the stands, owners of all those Chuck Taylors, jump and leap and thrash.
The janitor rocks out.

*

Perhaps one of the key things American cultural historians will write about, one hundred years from now, is a Panglossian cultural attitude, one that rushes to embrace communication technologies that tend to render communication superficial, even as we paradoxically seem to have a desperate longing for real, substantive contact. Cell phones that are used to text because that way you don’t have to be burdened by conversation. Facebook so you don’t have to actually call your friends on your cell phone. Twitter for…I’m still not sure, but whatever it is it’s simple enough to be conveyed in 140 characters. One of the things that immediately, bitterly struck me when I came to Cornell was the phenomenon of the unhappily frowning student, walking around campus with his or her eyes glued to the phone held out in front, a talisman to ward off the unfamiliar, iPod EarPods stuffed into the ears, completely isolated from the here and now, desperately awaiting the promise of connection signaled by a vibrating plastic phone. Or walking into a classroom whose tomb-like silence is broken only by the clatter of many thumbs scuttling over the tiny text-sending keys of many cell phones. Isolation amidst a crowd. I love the promise of communication technology—who doesn’t want to have a tighter bond with their friends, their books, their music?—but I can’t avoid the melancholic conclusion that our deeply collective longing for real community has been cynically exploited, that our Orwellian devices mostly enhance our isolation.

Maybe in making communication easy (at least for those who can afford it) we’ve made it trivial.

I remember an early advertisement for the iPod showing dancing silhouettes, each person alone, in his, her own tiny box, barely big enough to contain the digitally-rendered human movements.

*

The thing that I loved about punk rock is that it let you know that you didn’t have to take it, and even if you didn’t know what you wanted there was always action: you could scream at the sky, and that was something that was yours that couldn’t be taken away—I heard something hopeful in punk, something full of life, a positive refusal that resonated deeply…but Nirvana was bleak: there was irony though it wasn’t funny or studied or knowing, not snide or snotty; it seemed to me to be utterly genuine not in its acceptance but in its hopelessness in the face of a culture fixated only on the commodity, on increasing consumption, on passive entertainment, the sound of no future in a minor key wheezed out by a singer who would kill himself at age 27.

The janitor in my school wore a Sex Pistols shirt.

*

My (not so) knee-jerk techno-crankiness gained some much-needed analytical legs when I recently cracked the covers of Jaron Lanier’s 2010 manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget; and I found especially thoughtful the way that he details a circle of simplification. Everything digital is a sampled simplification of the real. Digital culture gets played on simplified devices invented, marketed, and distributed by folks who celebrate quantity over quality (I can’t hear the difference between analog vinyl records and CDs. I can hear the difference between CDs and mp3s, even over my laptop. Mp3s are inferior, but they’re cheap and plentiful). This utopian faith in quantity has nicely enhanced an American cultural value of conspicuous consumption. Along the way, though, we’ve tacitly agreed to settle; we’ve come to, in Lanier’s words, an “apocalypse of abdication,” a classic sort of alienation where we divorce the best, most human parts of ourselves from ourselves—creativity, personality, intelligence—and cede them to our machines, leaving ourselves less-than-human.

Lanier is not the sort of crunchy green Luddite who we expect to make criticisms like these—he’s one of the founders and promoters of Virtual Reality. He’s worked for Microsoft and a whole host of Silicon Valley startups. He reveres the iPhone. But he’s also a humanist—he’s watched in dismay as people refer to themselves in computer-esque terms (think of the ways that verbs like “plug in,” “download,” “power down,” “network,” stud our speech. Or “to google”; or “to friend.”). At the same time we grant digital stuff, those vastly simplified renderings of the real, human, living agency: blogs and digital magazines “go live.” Phones are “smart.” The Internet “answers” when we “ask” it something. There’s the “app”—time is too important in the new digital culture to spell or say “application”—that can “tell” us where our favorite corporate coffee shop (whose head office are, ironically, in Seattle) is. And there’s something called Siri—not “a Siri,” but just “Siri,” like a person—a digitally feminine voice, an “intelligent personal assistant” that helps you to get the things done that the apparently unintelligent personal assistant we all are assumed to have, can’t. Things like “Tell my wife I’m running late.” (I’ll leave it to the reader to level the obvious critiques of gender and class at Apple.) When we grant these simplistic devices all the complicated attributes of humanity, Lanier explains, we at the same time revise our expectations of ourselves downward. And the world becomes a duller. The circle of simplicity, of dehumanization, has completed a circuit.

To give his critique teeth, Lanier, who is also an accomplished musician, explores what the culture of digitization has done to music, which, he argues, has been rendered bland. “Whenever I’m around ‘Facebook generation’ people,” he writes, “I ask them a simple question: Can you tell me in what decade the music that is playing right now was made. Even listeners who are not particularly music oriented can do pretty well with this question—but only for certain decades.” It’s a provocative thought experiment: I’m betting you know what an eighties hair-band sounds like; a fifties rockabilly group, a forties swing act. “A decade gets you from the reign of big bands to the reign of rock and roll. Approximately a decade separated the last Beatles record from the first big-time hip-hop records,” Lanier writes. But what sound distinguishes the music of the 2000s? Smug irony, nostalgia, and campy mashups are not sounds.

*

The song continues on like this: quiet, loud, quiet, the bleakest lyrics matched by the most ferocious distortion.

Intensity builds throughout the guitar solo—melodically lyrical—while the kids from the stands, sidelined freaks, pour out of the bleachers and take over the gym, thrashing, tearing off their clothes; and the cheerleaders, finally liberated from uniformity, grind and gyrate wildly, humanly, the scarlet-letter anarchy signs stitched over their breasts (oh, bestill my beating 14-year-old punk rock heart!) telling us for whom they cheer, while the singer, with that straw-bleached hair almost, but not totally obscuring his fever-bright eyes, screams with everything he’s got into the camera: “A denial,” nine times.

This is how it ends.

We see kids carrying off the drummer’s high hat, the bassist’s bass, the division between audience and performer closed.

We see the guitarist smash his guitar to pieces.

It’s not joy, but it is a sort of solidarity in mutual denial. Connection, despite.

If there’s a nineties sound, it’s that heavy roaring distortion, so different from that of the sixties classic and psychedelic rockers, the meaty crunch of seventies hard-rock bands like AC/DC and Aerosmith, and the exquisitely sculpted eighties sound of heavy metal. The nineties distortion—Dinosaur Jr., Weezer, The Smashing Pumpkins—is looser, bigger, wilder. It sparkles.

I think I was wrong, as a teenager, about Nirvana. They’re a bleak band, but I’m not so sure anymore that they were singing anthems of resignation. It’s that roaring distortion that has changed my mind, that sound that is the sound of someone desperately trying to avoid being sucked into the downward spiral, its abrasiveness paradoxically the thing that attracted many of us longing for our own real connection. There was something there, even if it was mediated through cassette, vinyl, or CD; there was something real and millions of us felt it.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been recently finding myself drawn to Youtube to watch “Smells Like Teen Spirit” every few weeks. Maybe in this age when we’re told that the world is at our fingertips, when convenience is king, when superficial flash is cherished over function and content—an age, it’s not doubt clear by now, that I feel profoundly isolated in—maybe now is when I need Nirvana more than ever.

But the band is gone, and all that’s left—as I quickly re-watch the Youtube clip, look up a small detail on Wikipedia, check my e-mail (ignoring for just a little bit longer all the old, yet-to-be-answered messages to see if there’s anything new, which I’ll no doubt put off responding to until tomorrow, maybe), and write these words for the blogosphere—all I’ve got left is the dying sound of angry guitars.

*

There’s the chorus from “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that repeated part that always cut the deepest; and I recognize now, in 2013, that the band feared it as much as I did:

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid, and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

and I recognize, now, in 2013, when entertainments-gone-viral are longed-for afflictions, I recognize and I fear that Nirvana, a band that still scares me, prophesied what our current digital culture would smell like.

-Daegan Miller, guest contributor

Longing, Being, Astonishing: Some Notes

In his wonderful book, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, John Durham Peters writes: “’Communication’ is a registry of modern longings.” Central to modern longings as I understand them is the longing for wonder—that is, for astonishment at an existence that we are privileged not only to witness but to inhabit; and not only to inhabit, but to explore; and by exploring, to enlarge.

Simply to be, and to be aware that I am, is about as wonderful as I can bear. All the more beautifully, you are also.

I suspect that I am real, therefore I am real enough to suspect. The suspicion is itself an astonishment. To feel reality billowing up is all the reality I need. But sharing reality—well, this is a kind of wonder that cannot be surpassed.

Somehow—I am not sure this makes sense—there are times when I feel that I have an easier time knowing that you, whoever you are, exist, than that I do.

I imagine that if I can achieve wonder, then I will exist. My consciousness will carry me across a chasm to a world that will be pleased to have me.

That world is real by being astonishing. Among its astonishments are that you and I, together, exist in this world that we did not make but are involved in remaking; remaking it and being remade by it.

Sometimes I feel that we only matter when we wonder, but this is mistaken. When we don’t wonder, we labor. Labor is striving. Wonder is being. Labor lives in absence—in the recognition of what is not yet, what needs to be. Wonder lives in presence—in the recognition of what is right here.

Wonder is the experience that the world exists; and is mysterious; and exists by virtue of being mysterious.

We need both labor and wonder.

I have been told that the key to Merleau-Ponty’s idea of how we exist is his notion of “intertwining.” “The visible about us seems to rest in itself,” is how he begins his chapter on this subject. But this is not how it seems to me. The visible is a vibration tying me to the world. If I were blind, the world and I would still be in each other.

Whatever Max Weber thought, the world is not “disenchanted.” It’s as enchanted as ever. Despite all our rituals, our harkings back, our nostalgia for the steady, rooted assurances that we think used to exist, it is impossible to say whether the world was ever more enchanted than it is now.

Today, a longing for wonder—for a reenchanted world—is the bad mood of intellectuals. But this is not to say that the longing for wonder is futile, or stupid, or beneath notice. To the contrary.

The world is already here. Which is miracle enough. It did not have to exist. It still does not have to. If it does not have to exist, there is no reason not to change it.

But it does have to exist.

I have spent much of my life looking to change the world; and why not? Looking to change it is a perfectly fine way of living in it. It has the virtue of being virtuous. It has the vice of being presumptuous. It is the place where virtue and vice coexist. Trying to change the world thoughtfully is better than trying to do it thoughtlessly. But it has this downside: It condemns me to an endless rediscovery of absence—the absence of the world that I strive for.

But hold on. If that world were here, would there really be nothing left to strive for? Ridiculous. Striving is the way of the biological world. The way we live is by finding a way to grow. The way we grow, our vitality, is our nature.

For some time, I felt I was missing something. I came to the conclusion that I craved an awareness of presence. I mean both my presence in the world and the world’s presence in me. The practice of this awareness would be, I think, what the Buddhists call “mindfulness.”

“Wanting presence” is an absurdity, of course. There is the wanting that suggests a lack, as in “Here in the desert, water is wanting.” There is the wanting that suggests striving, as in, “I want a drink of water.” Both these forms of wanting start with an absence. But presence in the sense I mean isn’t paired with absence. It should be. Awareness of presence arrives when the wanting stops.

Or rather, it is, once you know it. I think this is what Taoism means by the way. Not as in “finding the way,” as if it is something that already exists. More like being the way, making the way.

Awareness of presence must happen in time and space. For example, I am looking out the window at a forsythia. Between me and the forsythia lie a swathe of grass, a driveway, and a few pines shaking in the breeze. The breeze passes over my face. All in all, there is a stillness. It is a luxury. But the breeze is here whether we feel it or not. There is suffering in the world, and also, that suffering is also here whether we feel it or not. Still, there is this breeze and this stillness. My connection to this stillness is a collaboration between the stillness and myself.

Awareness of presence cannot be taken for granted, but neither can it be fought for. As soon as you fight for it, you guarantee you have lost it. You will never “have it” the way you have a candy bar, a job, or even that most elusive of modern grails, an identity. No sooner do you think you have it than you have lost it. You have to be it. You have to assume it.

When I write fiction, I play God. No wonder it’s so hard.
Of course, when I write nonfiction, I play God too, but in disguise.

-Todd Gitlin, guest contributor

Todd Gitlin’s most recent books are Undying, a novel, and Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

longing for the real, indeed

So after all this what does it mean to long for the real?

I came to a bench and decided to stop. I had biked from my house in the city through the crowded streets at rush hour, passed my university, and joined the solitary path that abuts the river. I intentionally left my smartphone at home, not wanting to be accosted by calls or my own pining to use it for this or that amazing purpose. No. Because I couldn’t access the fitness center I like to use at this time of day, I had set off on a bike ride that was meant to be a bike ride; and it was that, basically, except for the way in which it was also meant to be a workout, measured by the output of strenuousness divided by allotted time until my next scheduled task.

I saw the bench at a clearing where a large bridge lurches across the Genesee. It seemed perfectly situated there, but I did not see how perfect it was until I stopped my bike and kicked down my kickstand. This particular bench faces two other bridges that crisscross the Genesee and the Erie Canal in a majestic loop of interstices. Rowers on the girl’s team whooshed by as I sat down, and in the distance I could see a blue crane in the water that shined against the surrounding trees like a riverboat I once saw on the Mississippi. Hastily, I imagined it billowing steam.

“This is real,” I thought as I felt my shoulders loosen. But my immediate next thought was “wouldn’t it be nice to have a picture?” and “why didn’t I bring my smartphone?” Through my sunglasses the clouds above the crisscrossing bridges swirled with delicate hues of purple, pink-orange, and what I initially wanted to call bronze. Raising my glasses above my eyes for a moment I realized these were phantom colors; my unadulterated vision saw a spectrum barely broader than faded white to blue. I lowered my glasses back down and appreciated the illusion. It would have been a good picture if I’d brought my smartphone.

But I didn’t, and I wanted not to. I had been inspired at first when I read Paul Miller’s recent account of the year he spent unplugged from the Internet. He records his journey in an essay called “I’m Still Here: Back Online After a Year Without the Internet,” which theverge.com published on May 1, 2013. Miller’s experiment was motivated by a sense of unreality that many Millennials feel; just this past week Joel Stein of Time magazine called us the “Me, Me, Me Generation” (5/20/13) and diagnosed our angst as the product of too much abundance and too little common culture. (“It’s hard…to join the counterculture when there’s no culture,” is my favorite line from the article.) At 27, Miller, who writes about technology for The Verge, would appear to fit this bill to a T, and he starts by listing the woes that are the tasteless bread and butter of our perennially distracted, perennially full demographic: “I didn’t know myself apart from a sense of ubiquitous connection and endless information. I wondered what else there was to life. ‘Real life,’ perhaps, was waiting for me on the other side of the web browser.”

At 11:59PM on April 30th, 2012, Miller pulled the plug on his Ethernet cable. Initially he was beside himself with joy. “I did stop and smell the flowers,” he writes. “My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge.” It appeared that he had escaped his earlier self and the dismal sheen through which he felt his life had become less real. But alas, that was only the beginning of his odyssey through unreality. In prose that rings with the faint overtones of post-Shakespearean tragedy, Miller recounts his fall from Luddite splendor, which culminates in his recognition that it is he who is to blame for his bad habits, not, after all, the Internet. Consequently, he must come “Back to Reality,” as he puts it in one of the subheadings of his essay. “My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the ‘real’ Paul and get in touch with the ‘real’ world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet.” The Internet, it turns out, is only a means to an end; unhappiness, in all its shapes and generational sizes, is the product of human, all-too-human longing.

Amid much fanfare on The Verge, Miller came back online on the one-year anniversary of his big disconnect. The site had featured frequent updates while he was “away,” beginning with a live webcast of the night he left. But on May 1 it uploaded a 16-minute documentary called “Finding Paul Miller” to accompany his essay announcing he’s still here. In one especially heartfelt scene Miller tries to explain to his 5-year-old niece, Keziah, what the Internet is, and this crystallizes his epiphany:

She’d never heard of “the internet,” but she’s huge on Skype with the grandparent set. I asked her if she’d wondered why I never Skyped with her this year. She had.

“I thought it was because you didn’t want to,” she said.

With tears in my eyes, I drew her a picture of what the internet is. It was computers and phones and televisions, with little lines connecting them. Those lines are the internet. I showed her my computer, drew a line to it, and erased that line.

“I spent a year without using any internet,” I told her. “But now I’m coming back and I can Skype with you again.”

Miller longs for the real, indeed. And in this spirit he rejoins the online community for all our sakes, sacrificing himself for our collective digital sins: “When I return to the internet, I might not use it well. I might waste time, or get distracted, or click on all the wrong links. I won’t have as much time to read or introspect or write the great American sci-fi novel. But at least I’ll be connected.”

Back to reality, back to this bench.

Maybe in moments when the wind blows and I wonder if I should stop writing so I can experience reality more fully, I should thank someone or something I’m alive. Like the Internet, only not. Paul Miller knows. He’s wearing sunglasses, too.

-Michael Fisher

Thoreau: Child of the Mist

I am perched in Israel in a strange yet marvelous world, full of life, full of the real – yet I can wonder how it is that I can still long for the real. But how could it be otherwise? Reality does not hold still like a model at a photo shoot. It’s ever changing, carrying past into present, and present foretelling futures. Of course this can happen at a dizzying pace, making us quite sure we’ve lost contact with the real. But if the real, even at a slow living pace, is fated to pass, we are fated to be abandoned by it, or by essential parts of it, come what may.

I find it helps when I wonder about loss of the real, or what happened to the joy in existence, to turn to those writers who have been through it and know how to give me handles. Here is my take on Thoreau dealing with the loss of the real, wondering what it is to be alive, as he recoils from the loss first of his brother, who dies in his arms writhing in spasms from lockjaw, when Henry is in his early 20s; and just a few days later learns that Emerson’s son Waldo, whom he fathered while the elder Waldo was away on tours, has died of scarlatina at age five.

Folks think about Thoreau because he longed for the real, had inklings of how to respond to that longing, and was not unacquainted with the traumas of loss.

But as I invite you to whatever guidance he can offer about loss and recovery of the real, who was this Thoreau? It doesn’t help that Thoreau may have called himself a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher. That doesn’t tell us what those labels meant to him – or what they can, or do, mean to us. Those labels are classic examples of linguistic instability: slippery titles, without effable centers.

I might agree with you, after discussion, that Thoreau was a mystic or otherwise, but everything depends on how I get there and on our mutual understanding of the paths there – paths to the real. Rather than start with these abstract banners – transcendentalist, natural philosopher – I want to start with a singular image: his invocation of ‘a child of the mist.’ He speaks of “a child of the mist” in a letter to Lucy Brown weeks after the catastrophe of John Thoreau’s death, and the death of the young child he cared for, Waldo, in the spring of 1842. After convalescence from an attack of John’s lockjaw symptoms, and having climbed out of the worst of his shock, he writes “As for Waldo, he died as the mist rises from the brook, which the sun will soon dart his rays through.” The suggestion is that the sun naturally burns off the allure of the mist, and just as its rays dissolve the mist, so nature dissolves the alluring presence of Waldo. The mist escapes back into nature’s dynamic invisibility, and so has Waldo.

Some two decades later, in his essay “Walking” he invokes the figure of “a child of the mist” as an exhortation to all of us. We are to be and to pass through the world and leave it as Waldo did: “Live free, child of the mist — and with respect to knowledge we are all children of the mist.” This suggests a way of being in the world that is beyond knowledge, a way of being like a child, unknowing and full of innocent wonder in the midst of the mist that veils our world. We’ll see whether that way of being in the world – being ‘a child of the mist’ – is also a way of being a mystic, transcendentalist, and natural philosopher. And these are in any case ways – good ways – of longing for the real.

II.

Thoreau’s response to Lucy Brown’s sympathetic inquiry can seem austere and remote, distant from the personal grief we’d expect. But his distance from lamentation does not show, in my view, a lack of feeling – as if he were coldly indifferent to his loss. After all, he was in complete spiritual collapse for two weeks, and he must have suffered even longer. His seeming remoteness reflects the outcome of a struggle for composure, for a balanced and not unhappy repose. Well before these deaths struck, he admired a kind of stoic serenity. Putting that serenity in play, however, can’t have been easy. His Journal goes mute. He succumbs to John’s symptoms, terrifying his family. In climbing out of the abyss he harnesses himself to an imperative that will bring joyful repose: “fall in love with nature and the world and all they contain.” He casts off devastation to track glimmers of light. He tends joyful signs ‘til they shine as spring buds and birdsong. Lucy Brown is the first to know.

He writes, almost ecstatically – uncannily, poignantly – that “nature [does not] manifest any sorrow at [Waldo’s] death, but soon the note of the lark will be heard down in the meadow, and fresh dandelions will spring from the old stocks where he plucked them last summer.” Thoreau finds a love of the lark, and of fresh dandelions. Such tender attachment marks therapeutic renewal.

III.

Falling in love means coming to see someone, or something, under a special light of wonder and plenitude. Everything has an extra quota of meaning – though others will be blind to it. We all see a grassy meadow. Only you and I, as lovers, know it as pool of waving grass that caressed our bare feet. For us, it tells a story of love. I get a rush just thinking of it. Thoreau is not remote from Waldo as the child disperses in the mist. He memorializes his love of Waldo in a reverie of the world both loved. Without disavowing death – even embracing it – Thoreau stages it as part of a larger love story. This staunches the wound. The memory of deaths evoked in reverie returns him to life.

Here is more of that reverie:

“As for Waldo, he died as the mist rises from the brook, which the sun will soon dart his rays through. Do not the flowers die every autumn? He had not even taken root here. I was not startled to hear that he was dead; it seemed the most natural event that could happen. His fine organization demanded it, and nature gently yielded its request. It would have been strange if he had lived. Neither will nature manifest any sorrow at his death, but soon the note of the lark will be heard down in the meadow, and fresh dandelions will spring from the old stocks where he plucked them last summer.”

Transcendental imagination drives reverie. Flying under the Kantian banner of ‘productive imagination,’ it is the key to German and English romanticism. In Thoreau’s hands, imaginative reverie opens a place beyond grief, a place of impersonal mourning. / Such mourning is impersonal because it avoids personal self-pity or selfish complaint – one’s person is not especially singled out for pain. Waldo’s loss is of a piece with larger cycles of loss. It does not single out Thoreau. Ice departs in spring thaw, mists die with sunrise, leaves expire as Winter paints them brown. These moments are mourned impersonally. Waldo’s loss is “the most natural event that could happen.”

Reverie casts every natural event as perfect — it is as it must be and will not be wished otherwise. “I was not startled to hear that he was dead; it seemed the most natural event that could happen. His fine organization demanded it, and nature gently yielded its request.” As in great art or romantic love, each detail is as it must be, and is totally affirmed. The organization is fine. Each detail demands its place in the wondrous whole. And if the focus of our attraction must fall out of view, that’s OK too. Waldo disperses in slanting light.

IV.

Reverie displaces devastation. It realigns perception, in this case, around the figure of a child. This is Thoreau abandoning despair, resentment, rage, or numbing indifference. This is heroic the way great poetry is heroic, showing courage, imagination, and skill in precarious circumstance. A heroic blindness takes hold (like a hero’s refusal to feel pain). In the face of nihilism, love’s blindness makes the world go round.

In writing or living for love of the world we deflate customary self-importance. We fail to see the world as our personal adversary or personal opportunity. In seeing our smallness in the scheme of things, as under the shock of death we are dropped down a peg. We ‘get out of the way,’ and grant to things their inestimable worth. Things now can take on new color, new garments. In reverie, sparkling details of the world arrive unbidden, not as deserved or earned. The presumption that freedom from suffering or happiness is our special right validates self-pity and resentment when these vanish. But without a right to happiness (and its presumption of self-importance), loss takes on new meaning. Letting the world’s shining particulars enter and leave our purview as they must, dissolves all inclination to claim rights to happiness.

Thoreau’s wanderings are again open to things worthy of praise and affirmation. Reverie is rebirth from catastrophe’s rubble. If it’s elegiac, it’s uplifting — only slightly tinged with melancholy. And if it’s lament, then it’s muted. An embraceable world is the place of his being.

V.

Roughly a decade after his letter to Lucy Brown, Thoreau finds himself a child in a marvelous, misted world. In Walden, he speaks of the “fabulous landscape of my infant dreams.” Fabulous landscape is a fabled land – not exactly a kind of storied land, but a mode of being. He shares this mode in reverie: “. . . a new growth is rising all around, preparing another aspect for new infant eyes. Almost the same johnswort springs from the same perennial root in this pasture, and even I have at length helped to clothe that fabulous landscape of my infant dreams.”

Reverie brings us to co-constructed space: the spring shoots of johnswort invite a reverie and the infant in reverie clothes them as marvelous. Each hand touches the other. The world is not just there as a lump, targeted by a hyperactive imagination. In the flow of our being in the world, a companionable partnership reigns. I am not primary, or in the world solo. And the world is not solo impinging on me. Reverie affords couples dances or duets. The child’s smile dances with ours, and we dance with it. Direction of fit is double (or irrelevant).

Two decades after writing Lucy Brown the motif of a child of the mist returns, now a sustaining talisman over the years. In “Walking,” we hear that when it comes to knowledge, “we are all children of the mist.” “Live free, child of the mist — and with respect to knowledge we are all children of the mist.” We see matters of life-and-death, joy-and-affliction, heaven-and-earth, only through mist. We are none of us better placed than Waldo. We come and go quite beyond knowledge, a child of the mist, like the ephemeral song of a lark.

VI.

Nietzsche’s child laughs by the sea when it comes of age. Nietzsche has us become a child – after being a camel first, and then a lion. We are born as apprentices, carrying heavy burdens, dull as a camel. Then, ideally, we break away roaringly from those burdens with the brio of a lion. Then we might become a child, all innocence, creativity, and play in the advance and retreat of breakers by the sea. Things come and go in the advance and retreat of the tide. Jesus has us become innocent as little children. Thoreau sees a child as an occasion for innocence and creative perception – reverie. He becomes a child, in the reverie of Spaulding’s Farm. Nietzsche, Jesus, and Thoreau beckon us back to childhood – or is it forward? They speak not of biological age, but a way of being opened by reverie, a timeless travel, back and ahead, like the tides.

I retrieve dreams and they grow into a new instant of experience. Retrieving dreams through reverie opens vaulting prospects of life-and-death. Reverie lets us pass through the gateway Thoreau calls “Sympathy with Intelligence.” Even as he died he sparkled with a child’s humor and wonder. He could see more than one thing at once — he had no need of a world to come.

Thoreau would gaze with John at the edge of the Merrimack and see sky on the river’s surface or see sky on the quiet muddy bottom. The gossamer surface held cloud and tree while transparent to bottom. As he put it, the eye had more than one intention, seeing heavens and muddy bottoms at once, just as I might be adult and child at once. I’m younger than I was at 30 or 40 wrestling career and family. Now, I can gather myself again by sleek rivers. Age is anomalous. When are we young? Or old? Why privilege public records? When Henry and John kneel by the waters, they see bottom and sky.

I can fall into reverie remembering the fall of a riverbank pine shattering the banks of the Charles on a windless afternoon, or innocently play by reservoirs of learning filling catch-buckets beside me, and offer generous portions, as I wish. “When I was young and easy under the apple boughs, time held me green, undying . . . and I sang through the mist like the sea . . .”

VII.

I wonder how to be with this figure of reverie, a child of the mist. I don’t want to do anything to it — pigeonhole it, or take it apart. I want to tarry with it, let its unassertive presence shadow me; or perhaps I will let myself shadow it. Is that how an image, a picture, a reverie teaches? If we’re captive, that’s good. What is it to be captive in a way that releases rather than binds us?

Letting myself be shadowed by misty imponderables, and sharing the experience of being shadowed, is an essential part of my learning in philosophy, literature, or song. To be shadowed by imponderables is not sensing a limit, a stop sign, “Clarity ends here, no admittance, stay out!” Nor is it the dismal imperative, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent!” To abide with a reverie of “a child of the mist” is not to shun clarity but to let a door open, to let eyes gaze through mist, through a darkling glass. Gazing as children we see more than before.

Should a professor, mother, friend, or pastor become as a child, dwell in mist, and invite others to share its dappled light? What of the inevitable burn off? In the mundane course of things, mist will burn off. But that needn’t poison our tarrying with imponderables. To tarry is to be with – undistracted by worries of darkness down the road. A mist’s dispersal may show us not the extraordinary but the banal – who knows? To tarry is to shadow the imponderables, not to master or disperse them.

At this present joined by two eternities, we are “children of the mist,” happy with wonder, with imponderables. Too bright a light will wash out the mystery of your face. You might think that in reverie we become shades who shadow the country, or descend to an underworld – insubstantial as mist. But Thoreau has us full-bodied children of mist.

VIII.

Thoreau’s walk by Spaulding’s Farm, related in the last pages of “Walking,” brings him to see the house “appear dimly still as through a mist.” Seeing through the mist reveals something through soft focus that would be lost using a harsh, sharp focus. What he finds looking up through the meadows comes out in reverie. He espies a “Great Hall” hovering among the pines on the ridge. It seems to overlay Spaulding’s simple barn. He hears laughter and song from within. This is a place of playful gods.

We see this wonder with him, provided only that we’re friendly with his child-like reverie, with his readiness for the fabulous. Then we are privy to the wonders of the Farm, its Hall and divinities within. We needn’t deny others who don’t see this, nor have we made up something artificial to paint over the Farm. I see what others see, and my eye has a ‘second intention’ that you lack. I see the river bottom and also the sky laid over that bottom; or see the barn, and also the Great Hall – as if superimposed on it. Neither intention of the eye – Great Hall or simple barn – refutes the other.

Looking at the bottom in doubled concentration we see the sky there. Less wondrously, we see the sky at the expense of the bottom. Heads raised, eyes drift to the top of the pines, and the river is lost. Seeing one is not to see the other. But if our eye has a second intention, we have doubled vision, sky and river-bottom, simultaneously, one overlaying the other. Thoreau wants sky and muddy bottom united in the medium of the river that affords double vision. He wants life overlaid on death, and death overlaid on life, age overlaid on childhood, and innocent wonder overlaid on age. Looking at the Spaulding’s Farm with blinkered vision is easy enough. Seeing it through an eye’s double intention is more difficult. Through reverie we have the Great Hall and the gods – and Spaulding’s Farm, each overlaid on the other. Only reverie lets this happen.

As he kneels by the river with John there is indeed separate access to unmuddied sky – access less wondrous because less encompassing and less eternal in passing – time stops though it moves. But if the access is holy – if the scene is holy – there is no separate access to the gods or their singing or laughter. They are here-and-now – or nowhere. For Thoreau, paradise is here and now. We attain the land of our reverie not by stripping down to disembodied spirit, or by rising like angels to heaven. We kneel by the waters as a child – see through its mist. Neither ghosts, angels, nor toilers, we lilt vulnerable and full-bodied, tarrying, wondering, through dappled majesty.

*

In submission to reverie we are three faces at once. Being a ‘child of the mist’ is being a mystic, transcendentalist, and natural philosopher at once.

We are natural philosophers, in so far as we philosophize closely attentive to river and sky and early birdsong.

We are transcendentalists insofar as we let poetic imagination clothe the meadows of our youth.

And we are mystics insofar as we live beyond knowledge, meld in a happy union of earth-and-heaven, death-and-life, self-and-nature, all in passing cycles of eternity, all in a timeless flux.

-Edward F. Mooney, guest contributor

NOTES

1. This self-characterization is found in his Journal, March 5, 1853.
2. Letter to Lucy Brown dated March 2, 1842; see The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode, New York University Press,1958, p. 62. John dies on Jan 11, 1842; Waldo dies, Jan 27. Remarkably, within a month of his brother’s death, he could write that he was simultaneously old (in fact, buried with his brother) — and young (ready to start life anew, as if a youth): “ I am as old as old as the Alleghanies — but [age] excites a youthful feeling – as I were but too happy to be so young.” Journal, 9 Feb 1851 or Feb 27 (– I’ve seen both dates cited.) Thoreau links sanity and freedom with youth. Thoreau’s late essay “Walking” ends with the youthful affirmation of “the newer testament of the present moment.” See The Portable Thoreau, ed Jeffry Cramer, Penguin 2012 p. 587 .
3. “Walking,” p. 583
4. Branka Arsic reports discovery of incoherent notes, so far unpublished, from this period of nearly insane disorientation.
5. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant’s productive imaginative mediates between understanding and sensibility to create (roughly speaking) a world.
6. Hear Branka Arsic unraveling the ontology of impersonal mourning: http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2012/05/branka-arsic-memorial-life-thoreau-and-benjamin-on-nature-in-mourning/
7. The most important lesson that transcendentalists, and romantic poets, take from Kant’s transcendental philosophy Kant’s highlighting the role of productive imagination as a force above and beyond reception of mere sensory impressions or the application of hard categories (like causality).
8. See Lucy Brown, op cit
9. “Falling in love with the world,” a phrase I borrow from Cavell, is to cherish the things in a mood of pure attention that sets questions of self-importance and justice aside. The haunting story from Eli Wiesel, has a cluster of rabbis debate from the midst of their concentration camp God’s permission of evil. They put God on trail and find Him unforgivably guilty — and then pray: pray, because prayer sets one’s affliction aside, lets it drain, and gives affirmation a toehold. In The Book of Job, Job averts his eyes from his suffering as he finally affirms the world. To bury a too-piercing sight allows us “to fall in love with the world.” See Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason, Oxford, 1979, p. 431. And see my “Acknowledgement, Suffering and Praise: Stanley Cavell as Religious Continental Thinker,” Soundings, an Interdisciplinary Journal, Summer, 2005, pp. 393-411, reprinted in Lost Intimacy in American Thought, Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2007.
10. Walden (Princeton UP, 2004), 155-56.
11. “Walking”, 583-4.
12. Zarathustra, “Zarathustra’s Speeches,” ‘On the Three Metamorphoses,” many editions.
13. For “Sympathy with Intelligence,” see “Walking,” 583
14. Apologies to Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill.
15. Final sentence in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.
16. See ‘Walking’: “I do not know that Knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel & grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we had called knowledge before — a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun.” 583 .

Longing to Hear I Love You?

Don’t many people at some point in their lives long for that certain person, someone they have already met or someone they imagine meeting someday, to look directly into their eyes–the window to the soul, Shakespeare called them–and say “I love you”?

If so, why? What would be so great about that eventuality? Isn’t it at least in part because we think it will give us some satisfaction of our longing for the real? And, from the other side, isn’t one of the things we long for, when we long for the real, some kind of ultimate connection with another person, which the words “I love you” seem to signify?

If so, what does it mean to be real? Is being real solo different from being real in company or relation with another human being? Does the real have anything to do with the quality, texture, and value of human connection?

From the sound of things these days, it surely seems so. In modern times, people in this neck of the woods, anyway, seem to assume they prefer people with whom they can really be themselves. We talk as though we like best those who allow us to be our real selves and who seem to be their real selves with us. These friends and loved ones allow us to take off our public faces, to reveal our private and unadorned selves, to express our innermost thoughts and feelings. We seem to consider our most intimate relationships the most real ones we ever experience. Doesn’t the extent to which a particular friendship, marriage, or other love relationship is real in this sense (of allowing both people involved to take down the façade they might need in public, at school or work, and with other people) speak to its significance? Isn’t realness the very scale on which we measure how intimate it is?

If this quality of realness is how we judge the worth of our connections with other people, we might need a working definition of the real. This line of inquiry would lead us onto to vast terrains: of epistemology; of metaphysics; of empirical science; of theology; and much more. After all, there is a long-standing debate about whether there really is an authentic self, or even a self at all. Some say we do have a self that is true, real, and  authentic. Given that we are known to act differently in different settings, they say there are times when are we at our most authentic, and times when our authentic inner core is hidden, even sometimes from ourselves. Then there are those who say the real self does not exist. Removing veil after veil after veil, in their view, merely takes us to another veil.

This is a complex and fascinating question. Here I only gesture to it as part of an attempt to ponder what seems to be riding on the utterance, “I love you.”

*

What is that elusive quality that makes some relations between two people feel more real than others? And isn’t that real quality just an illusion?

Let me–let us–not keep beating around the bush. When people fall in love with each other, they relish the thought of being together more than anything. When they are together, everything seems right with the world. They stare into each other’s eyes, caress each other’s hair, hang on each other’s every word. Every sense is awakened, every nerve alive. Isn’t this the very definition of real?

Others say even this is just an illusion or better yet a delusion. In their dim view, that heightened state of mind and body is a function of infatuation, the self-deception of romantic love, hormones, biology. This is supposedly the “honeymoon” stage, which is destined to end–sooner rather than later. Sages like C.S. Lewis counsel us against mistaking this feeling for the long-lasting, deeper love of friendship or marriage. There are all kinds of love….

Right. Tell that to someone looking for that connection that brings one into contact with another in a way that feels–no, that is–ultimate.

*

What is ultimate? Isn’t that what we mean by the most real when it comes to a human’s relation to another human: something that feels like something ultimate?

Let’s take some small measure of human experience, the equivalent of one-trillionth of a given day in a life, like a fleeting moment in which my fingers touch a piece of paper, feeling the rough-smoothness of it. Is that humble, visceral experience where we are closest to the real? In physical encounter with the world of objects? In the small everyday moments of the day at its longest? Is that the ultimate? Or is the ultimate to be found in those parts of the day that make it seem short, in moments and experiences more exceptional than this, as in moments of our deepest connection with another human being (to say nothing here of the divine, though it is everywhere implicated), when we intuit and intimate the existence of someone else’s soul?

If it is the latter, the question becomes: what is the ultimate between two people? In practice, we know this can take a vast number of forms. In life as we live it, is there such a thing as a unifying of two, whatever form that might take, whether a fleeting overlapping or a permanent merging, when it is no longer possible to delineate a boundary? In “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” seventeenth-century poet Anne Bradstreet, presents one of the most affirmative responses of all time to this in her words, “If ever two were one, then surely we.” Here’s the whole poem:

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.

I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

From: The Complete Works of Anne Bradstreet (1981)

Yet even here, in this statement of one person’s certain love for another, the first word we read, not once leading a line but thrice, is “if.” It’s an interesting way to phrase it. Perhaps it’s the true way, the only way.

*

The words most of us want to hear when in love are “I love you.” Would we be content with something, à la Bradstreet, like, “If it is indeed possible to love you, I love you”? I don’t think so. Would we really be satisfied with hearing the qualified version?

The statement, “I love you,” seems to stand alone, apart from other things we might choose to express in words, even things that also suggest happiness, like “Spring is on its way.” “Spring is on its way” has connotations of the hope and promise of a beautiful future opening, but “I love you” has those and much more.

When conviviality hums along, as in a close friendship, one might enjoy a person’s company, deriving pleasure from the interaction. But the realization that one loves the person can come as a bolt of lightening. It changes everything.

Under these circumstances, it is tempting to put this into the words, “I love you.” Aren’t these the right words? Aren’t they beautiful–and accurate? Don’t they best capture and convey the reality of the situation, the experience of the ultimate in one human being’s feelings for another?

If the declaration does suggest the ultimate, maybe saying those words is something we should absolutely not do.

Many would immediately point to the most mundane reasons, which are readily apparent, all coming down to the revelation that they might be a lie: we might think it’s love but it’s not; we might “love” at that time but later we might not; we might love, yes, but our love might prove not to be of the ultimate kind. Something else trumps it or gets in the way. Is loyalty an essential part of love? Longevity? Exclusivity?

But even beyond this practical line of reasoning, there could be cause for reserve.

Some situations make saying the words easier than others. When one can readily speak of the ultimate in human affection, the ultimate might already be receding beyond our ken. But when one must hold back, for whatever reason, it is possible that the ultimate remains ever present. If one can say anything at any time, with minimal difficulty, there is no greater guarantee that a certain necessary disposition–something like the most careful and deliberate stewardship, as of a garden unseen–will be cultivated by means of speech than there is with an eternity of expressive silence. In an episode of “Roseanne,” she and her husband are sitting under the covers, both lazy by disposition and genuinely exhausted from a day of work and parenthood; rather than make love, they agree to something like, “Let’s not and say we did,” then turn out the lights. This gets a laugh as a statement on a kind of mundane comfort of long-enduring relationships, in which the sublime is revealed to be unreachable. But reaching for the stars by saying so rather than doing so is not reaching for the stars. It is not the same as leaving open the endless possibility of doing so even if it sometimes means refraining from saying so. Instead, let’s do and not say we did.

More important than saying “I love you” is keeping alive that delicate, ineffable, soul-quickening spirit that is needed for something that holds every promise of being the ultimate actually to become and keep becoming the ultimate; to become and keep becoming the real. For the cosmic promise of a real love to be fulfilled, there perhaps needs to be a continual reminder that it might never be, for by nature, love cannot be taken for granted and remain itself. The ultimate in love brings with it the ultimate in loss, the every-present “if.” The only true fulfillment might be one that has to struggle constantly–that has to find a way to endure–with the agony of longing.

These, the most magical words in any language, when arrayed just so: like so many others before me, and so many to come, I too long to hear them from the right person.

But for it to have even the slightest chance of meaning what it says, we need to be aware that the declaration of love, precisely in parading as the be all and end all, risks being just that, the end all. It is not to say the words aren’t beautiful and meaningful; sheer music to the ears. They can be. But only when they nurture the reality they claim to represent. And they can only do this when they are a beginning, not an end; when they bring with them an ever-renewing return to the possibility of their unreality.

One might refrain out of the fear that the words could compromise the very love of which they speak. The words could bring a loss of mystery, of the visceral reality of the unspoken, of the unfolding of an infinity in every moment. Words can capture, in the sense of represent, sum up, or signify. But words can also capture, as in imprison.

And that just might make things less real.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

At the End of Men, an Obama Man

What does it mean to be a man? I don’t pose this question in the old sense, where “man” stands in for human being. I mean it in the contemporary, gendered sense. What does it mean at this moment, in American culture right now, to be a man?

There has been much discussion lately of the “end of men.” Hannah Rosin’s 2010 Atlantic cover article on the topic, followed by her 2012 book The End of Men and the Rise of Women, did much to spark that conversation. But Rosin’s efforts were not alone. After the recent Academy Awards broadcast, Slate’s Dana Stevens proclaimed: “Forget Seth MacFarlane’s sexist jokes. This was the End of Men Oscars.” At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the American women performed considerably better than their male counterparts, winning 29 gold medals to the American men’s 17, and 58 overall medals to the men’s 45. In fact, only one country, China, won more gold than the American women. In my beloved home city of Rochester, NY, the local sports hero and favorite daughter is Abby Wambach, an amazing soccer player who led our American women’s squad to dramatic triumphs in the 2004 Athens Olympics and, you may have guessed it, the 2012 London games.

Here in Rochester our political leaders are women as well. The powerful congresswoman who has represented Rochester since 1987 is Louise Slaughter, former chair of the House Rules Committee. Our present Monroe County Executive is a woman too, and she exhibits a potent mix of conservatism, cronyism, and charm that has humbled her male opponents. Her only defeat came when she ran for Congress against, you may have guessed it, Louise Slaughter.

Women are ascending. And if their ascent means that men are descending, must we mourn their fall? I think we should. If we are consigning a masculinity associated with bellicosity, pomposity, misogyny, homophobia, and sheer unwarranted and unexamined self-satisfaction to the dustbin of history, well— can’t we crack open a beer and bid farewell to all that? Yes. But what if a masculinity of fidelity, durability, and courage—moral as well as physical—is flushed away too? After all, we seem to find ourselves neither at the “end of assholes,” the “end of dirtbags,” nor the “end of Rush Limbaughs”; we find ourselves at the “end of men.” The bad and the good, the whole package (no pun intended) is circling the drain. Whether we applaud this development or bemoan it, we can all agree upon one thing: it will leave males without a roadmap. It will mean a loss of bearings. In other words, how does one go about living as a male after the “end of men”?

I don’t believe that we can afford to lose a sense of what masculinity is without thinking anew about what masculinity ought to be. The “end of men” can be the beginning of a new masculinity—one that is worth having now.

I was surprised to find these issues becoming prominent in my thoughts amid the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election. Since December of 2007, I have been a strong supporter of Barack Obama. I rang doorbells for him in the snowy hills of New Hampshire before the 2008 primary, I helped organize grassroots groups and a large rally in support of him here in Rochester, I have defended him with what I hope is humility and honesty against critics both right and left, and in 2012 I applauded him from the audience in Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention. In short, I have been for several years an Obama man—I just didn’t realize the full significance of that identity until a few days after the last election was over.

On November 8, 2012, two days after the election, I received an email from Jim Messina of the Obama team. I shouldn’t say that “I” received the email, because it was one of the countless oddly personal mass emails that arrived in supporters’ inboxes several times a day from the campaign. “Michael,” the message began, “President Obama made a surprise visit to the campaign office in Chicago yesterday to give a heartfelt thank-you to staff and volunteers. I wanted to pass this video along, because it’s a message every single person who helped build this campaign deserves to see.” As strong an Obama supporter as I am, I usually delete such emails. Even when I read them, I usually don’t follow the links. But this time, for some reason (which the Obama team’s social media gurus no doubt understand at the level of my neurotransmitters) I clicked on this one.

The video takes place in what looks to be a typical, if rather spare, office occupying the entire floor of some center-city skyscraper. There are desks. There are laptops. There are Obama posters. And there are lots of people my age (and younger) in jeans and t-shirts. Obama is in a dress shirt with his sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened. He looks tired—really tired. “I try to picture myself when I was your age,” he tells the young volunteers. “I first moved to Chicago at the age of 25, and I had this vague inkling about making a difference.” But he didn’t know what to do with his awareness “that somehow I wanted to make sure that my life attached itself to helping kids get a great education or helping people living in poverty to get decent jobs and be able to work and have dignity.” At this point, the cheerful buzz in the room has faded away, and there is a silence punctuated only by the clicking of cameras:

I ended up being a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. A group of churches were willing to hire me. And I didn’t know at all what I was doing. And you know the work that I did in those communities changed me much more than I changed the communities, because it taught me the hopes and aspirations and the grit and the resilience of ordinary people. And it taught me the fact that under the surface differences, we all have common hopes and we all have common dreams. And it taught me something about how I handle disappointment and what it meant to work hard on a common endeavor. And I grew up. I became a man during that process.

Obama then turns from his past to the present, which he sees in the faces of the young volunteers. They don’t remind him of himself when he was young, he says. Rather, they call to mind how much more advanced they are then he was, how much more capable they are of making a difference. “I’m absolutely confident that all of you are gonna do just amazing things in your lives. And, you know, what Bobby Kennedy called the ripples of hope that come out when you throw a stone in a lake—that’s gonna be you…. And that’s why, even before last night’s results, I felt that the work that I had done in running for office had come full circle.” Here Obama’s voice breaks, and tears form in his eyes. “Because what you guys have done means that the work I’m doing is important. And I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of all of you.” Obama looks down at his feet and wipes a tear from his cheek with a finger. It is a public moment that somehow still feels like a private one.

There was a lot to digest in what I had seen. At the end of a long, grueling campaign here was a moment of exhaustion, victory, and release. And here was the sitting President of the United States, a man engaged in some of the most difficult political battles in living memory, a man who ordered Seal Team Six to kill Osama Bin Laden, with tears cascading down his cheeks. It was raw; it was real; it was breathtaking. Amid it all, the one line I kept hearing over and over again in my mind was: “I became a man during that process.

Obama has been called “the first female president.” Bill Clinton notwithstanding, he is also the first black president. What I have come to believe, after reflecting upon this speech and others facets of Obama’s identity, is that he is also the first new man president—the first, that is, to point beyond this moment of the “end of men.”

Consider the two men Obama defeated for the presidency. John McCain might say that he became a man in the skies over Vietnam, at the controls of a warplane that could deal destruction and that carried on its wings the possibility of McCain’s own violent end. Mitt Romney might say that he became a man during his first hostile corporate takeover, when his company caught another company in a chokehold, squeezing out its wealth. These are two well-established modes of becoming an American man. In business and in war, amid violence physical and financial, Romney and McCain earned their bona fides.

But here is Barack Obama saying that he became a man in the process of identifying with poor people, working with them, and attaching his fate to theirs. His defining moment of masculinity is not a triumph over; it is a joining with. It is not a struggle against; it is a struggle alongside.

Might we not say, however, that this process that Obama calls “becoming a man” is actually not about masculinity at all? To the extent that it involves creating a deep investment in relationships with others, might we not even say that it is feminine, that it lends credence not to the idea of Obama as new man but to the notion of Obama as woman, as “the first female president”? Obama’s remark itself seems to suggest otherwise. He does not say “in this process I became an adult.” He says: “in this process I became a man.” There may well be something feminine in the picture here, but it is not the whole picture.

Might we not also say that this process of “becoming a man” had more to do with Obama’s racial consciousness than his gender awareness, that he was, more precisely, becoming an African-American man? After all, his years on Chicago’s Far South Side (1985-1988) were a period of new and intensive immersion in African-American life. This was the period during which he met Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ, and it was also the period when he traveled to Kenya to encounter his paternal family for the first time. Clearly, Obama not only grew up in these years, but also grew into his identity as a black man.

I do not assume essentialized conceptions of race and gender, and the fact that I see this as a potentially transformative moment when masculinity may be open to reassessment and reinvention is founded upon my belief that we are not dealing here with fixed categories. But I do believe that people who have been gendered and racialized in similar ways share a set of historical experiences that inform their lives. While those histories have often been the source of pain and oppression, they have also left a legacy of rich personal resources, strengths and perspectives that can be used today—in an era when our very awareness of essentialized conceptions of gender propels us beyond them—as building blocks for stronger selves.

What makes Obama a new man, I think, is that he fashions a new masculinity from the experiences and sensibilities that accrue to him as a black man and as a man raised, like so many of us, by a single mom and a grandmother. In other words, it’s not the case that the feminine or African-American aspects of Obama’s identity trump or displace his masculinity; it’s the case that they are the sources of his masculinity. When we say that gender is a construct, we usually mean that it is a construct imposed upon us by social structures. But what if gender could be not so much a construct as something that we construct? We might then fashion our masculinity using the materials at hand, and Obama shows us how this can be done, for he has created a new masculinity that incorporates inheritances from African-American and women’s history for itself.

These legacies prepared Obama to find his place as a man amid the presence of others; they gave him a vantage point from which he could see the bonds of human relations as the fibers of his own being. Here is why, in that moment of victory in Chicago, the tears only came when he got to thinking of his life’s work as embodied in the people in that room; not in a legislative record, an executive action, or even a memorable speech—but in the capacity and promise of other people. Obama points in the direction of a deepened masculinity, one for which a fundamental identification with others—empathy—is not a threat to manhood but a source of it. This new masculinity takes the compelling idea of brotherhood and expands it into something more capacious and humane: solidarity.

As an Obama supporter, I am accused of having too much hope. So let me hope for this: that we can fashion a new manhood that moves from triumph of the self toward attachment to that which is greater than the self, not in a metaphysical sense, but in the very literal sense in which selves are greater than a self. Let us find our strength as men in fellowship with others. As I look upon Steubenville and now Halifax with extraordinary sadness and anger, I feel the fierce urgency of pointing men toward a different mode of being with others, others who too often seem to lack status as fellow human beings in men’s eyes. The time for a masculinity rooted in a powerful sense of solidarity is here.

But I offer this as only one hope for the future of men. If the “end of men” is a moment of closure, the Obama era can be a moment of opening, of beginning to ponder a new set of prospects for what it might mean to build a masculinity worth having now.

-Michael J. Brown, guest contributor

Adventures in Luddism, part II

Next week I’ll be driving to Amherst, Massachusetts to participate in a conference on “Citizenship and Its Discontents: Belonging in a Global World.” As soon as I saw the call for papers three months ago I jumped at the opportunity. It seemed like the perfect forum to voice some of my ideas about the cultural consequences of the Internet, particularly as they are likely to affect the shape of global citizenship in the twenty-first century. But now I’m faced with the challenge of actually putting these ideas into some meaningful configuration. Part of the point of the conference is to speculate about the future, so naturally I feel a certain amount of pressure to speculate accurately (convincingly? within reason?), right?

It occurs to me (sitting in this coffee shop, arguably procrastinating) that I am in the eye of the storm that is writing social criticism, or trying to write social criticism well. In order to say something useful about the likely portents of present developments, I have to try to take into account all the relevant factors and possibilities. I have to try to be both imaginative and fair. And this is hard.

The paper I proposed is loosely based on the research I did for the first chapter of my dissertation. For the purposes of the conference I called it “Citizenship as ‘Facebookization’: Consumer Selfhood on the Internet.” Actually, the initial title was “Citizenship as Aesthetic Paradox,” but I decided to reign myself in after I heard they’d accepted it. Perhaps I had taken certain liberties in the abstract, I thought in retrospect.

“In the era of digital revolution,” I wrote one January morning after a strong cup of coffee, “the idea of belonging is undergoing major revision. Bereft of the stability furnished by heritage, national boundaries, and strong local loyalties, citizens of the world are uniting in new ways, but within singular formats. Thanks to the marvelous possibilities of the Internet, individuals are connecting across vast swaths of geographic space and time. Yet in an important aesthetic sense the world is getting smaller. One of the most successful engines of aesthetic uniformity at present is Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking site Facebook…” And so on.

“Facebookization” is Time magazine’s phrase, and I still think it’s an accurate one for describing what’s happening to American culture, if not global culture, through the influence of this ubiquitous website. Time named Zuckerberg Person of the Year in 2010 when the site had about 550 million users worldwide. Today it has over a billion, and by all indications this number will continue to grow. The question is what Facebook’s popularity tells us. What ideas of citizenship are likely to emerge under its influence, and how will its model of sociability continue to affect the shape of culture worldwide?

The main features of Facebook’s “model of sociability” are familiar enough: users around the globe upload around 1 billion new pieces of data each day, which includes friending, status updates, photo sharing, tagging and commenting. According to Zuckerberg, all this activity testifies to a basic human predisposition, which Facebook merely sets in rapid motion through the power of the Internet: “It’s like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what’s going on with the people around you,” he told The New Yorker shortly before he was named Person of the Year. Openness, connectivity, and social trust are universal values. Facebook just happened to bring them together under one format.

In all the public interviews he’s given since 2007, Zuckerberg often speaks of Facebook in quasi-utopian terms, as if his company is building a new kind of socialism for the twenty-first century. Yet to a significant extent, his social network boils down to a sophisticated marketing apparatus. Facebook makes sharing consumer preferences an integral part of “friendship” and its main source of revenue, a feat company executives consider one of their greatest achievements. “What marketers have always been looking for is trying to get you to sell things to your friends,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, explained to Time. “And that’s what you do on Facebook.”

Along with news articles, restaurants, bands, and nonprofit organizations, Facebook encourages its users to click the “like” button for products that might automatically generate advertisements on the pages of their friends. During the 2010 World Cup, for instance, Nike ran an ad and 6 million people clicked on it. Few Facebook users seem to mind the role of advertising on the site. In fact, as Time summed up, “plenty of people are willing, even eager, to make their social lives part of an advertising pageant staged by a major corporation.”

The monetization of social life clearly predates Facebook. But whatever its sources, this circumstance bodes well for what Chris Cox, the company’s Vice President, calls “Mark’s vision” of the future: “Literally everything you use could be a conduit between you and people around you. The television could. The GPS on your car could. Your phone could. iTunes could.” Once the Facebookization of the Web is complete, no consumer choice will have to exist in isolation. Everyone will have the benefit of knowing where their friends are and what they like first.

Given these possibilities, I want to say that the precise contours of Facebook-style socialism come into sharp relief, and that we should want to contest Mark’s vision of the future as an abomination against true individuality and genuine free choice (whatever those mean). But Zuckerberg is a tricky utopian theorist; he consistently tries to charm you with his good intentions: “The thing that I really care about,” he told Time, “is making the world more open and connected. What that stands for is something that I have believed in for a really long time. Open means having access to more information, right? More transparency, being able to share things and have a voice in the world. And connected is helping people stay in touch and maintain empathy for each other, and bandwidth.”

It’s possible that these airy assertions form the intellectual-technological blueprint for a better world. Perhaps the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions are evidence of this. But Zuckerberg’s ideological blind spots are hard to overlook. That he could so easily conflate the words “open” and “connected” with their concrete manifestations on Facebook testifies to the looseness of his definitions and the restricted sense in which they apply within the abundant consumer culture he takes for granted. Facebook’s CEO rarely speaks of ethical terms like empathy outside of a business and marketing context, and this is telling. Here, for instance, is how he explains Facebook’s near-term goals: “I think the next five years are going to be about building out this social platform…It’s about the idea that most applications are going to become social, and most industries are going to be rethought in a way where social design and doing things with your friends is at the core of how these things work.”

*

Is it some absurd neurosis that makes me chafe at Mark’s vision of the future? Is it some pronounced (also absurdly hopeless) anti-capitalist bias? What is fair to say about Zuckerberg and Facebook? Is it enough to say that I for one do not want to live in his version of a socialist consumer-republic?

They put me on a panel called “Making it Compute: Possibilities and Limitations of Digital Spheres.” Hopefully when I begin to speak they’ll know my heart is in the right place.

-Michael Fisher

Love in the Time of Email

He tells me that he loves me, but he never says it to my face. I return the favor in the same back channel fashion. We do this through emails and emails alone.

Lest I suggest that the delivery has sapped the invocation of all meaning, I hasten to note that I am delighted that he and I have crossed this particular emotional Rubicon. It thrills me to no end that, through the dim unraveling of time and the gradual lowering of defenses, he and I have arrived in a place of extremely close friendship where we, as two grown men, can convey love for one another. But this place exists only online, in the internal world of seven years’ worth of accumulated email, and has never been expressed outwardly, never in-person. The ambivalence about this bounded form of companionship is something I’ve been thinking about recently, but have never before tried to articulate at length. Until now.

Love isn’t a word I bandy about causally, mostly because it makes me uncomfortable. From the moment the word passes through my lips, until it receives a response, I have surrendered complete control to another. It can be terrifying. Professing love opens you to vulnerability like nothing else. What if the other person doesn’t say it back? Even if the odds are slim, the chance of non-reciprocity exists, looming in the background with the promise of pain. It’s happened to me before, and it’s always been devastating. On the other hand, being wanted, being loved, is validating. It affirms and it uplifts. As I wrote, searchingly and maybe a little too romantically, on my dissertation prospectus almost four years ago: “‘flesh-and-blood love’ means developing attachments to specific people and specific places… to forming the connections that make life worth living and work worth doing.” This is a precept I badly want to incorporate in my life, something to build around.

I tell my wife that I love her. I do the same with my mother, grandparents, a circle of close friends that I’ve made at the University of Rochester, and, recently, my father– usually after a holiday visit, when we embrace in the driveway of my boyhood home, both of us knowing that we probably won’t meet again for six months or longer. There’s a comforting ritual to this exchange of love proclamations which doesn’t make the experience any less poignant. Except in the case of my wife, with whom the words are relayed with joyful spontaneity, “I love you” is almost always uttered at the last possible second of farewell. Spoken softly as we begin to withdraw from a hug, the words are mutual assurance that both parties share the deepest of all bonds, and (at least for me, and especially with my grandparents) they guard against the chance that this will be the last thing I ever say to this person. Let it be love.

But it is different with him. It has always been different with him.

And not because he has a reputation for standoffishness. It is an accurate reputation, I might add, one he purposefully cultivated over the years as a defense mechanism. Like me, he was tormented by bullies throughout his school years, and like me, he built up elaborate walls of personality to protect himself, and to cope. (My own learned defense is a certain deflective sense of humor, designed for conflict avoidance). These fortifications, erected to shield against vulnerability, make the inherent risks involved in love professions all the more daunting.

He is also my best friend– the whole youthful habit of claiming and keeping a best friend is one I’ve never been able to break; I honestly don’t know why so many people seem eager to do so. We met over ten years ago, paired together by the whimsical calculus of an office of student life, at the small, backwater liberal arts college that we’d each stumbled into for our own peculiar reasons. Establishing an instant rapport over a shared seriousness for our studies, we dreamt of pursuing the life of the mind in greener academic pastures, and made a pact to keep living together after graduation.

This we did. Leaving a small-town Pennsylvania campus behind us, we climbed upward, in our estimation, to the city of Philadelphia. He started a graduate program in physics; I entered one in history. Our meager stipends barely kept ahead of the rent due dates in our shabby, rundown apartment. More than once our bank cards were declined at the grocery store. We had fun– a pair of early twenty-somethings playacting the role of adults in as far as being a graduate student (which suspends certain college-era tendencies and lifestyles) constitutes adulthood. But nothing we did suggested the closeness we later attained. When not in the library, we played video games, took walks about the city, threw a baseball around in the park. Maybe we would talk about girls and matters of the heart if we stopped at a bar and indulged in a few, but we never had much deep emotional contact. We only rarely even attempted it. Ours was essentially a friendship between boys, and we observed all the customary inhibitions expected of us. The code of conduct of masculinity, to which we both subscribed, kept us trading in artificialities when it came to feelings; the prospect of sharing them made us squeamish, and so we simply suppressed.

This pattern continued for two years. Then, in 2006, I was admitted into the PhD program at the University of Rochester, and I moved north, to be exact, 332 miles away.

*

We grew much closer in separation than we’d ever been as roommates. Maybe it was because as we grew older and faced an unkind world, we pined for the less complicated sphere we imagined having once inhabited together– the more innocent shared past of our boyish friendship. Maybe it was because we had very compatible tastes in books, movies, music, and television. Maybe it was because, early in my historical training, I proudly unearthed a gem on friendship from Henry Adams, and forced him to listen as I shared it: “Accident counts for much in companionship as in marriage. Life offers perhaps only a score of possible companions, and it is mere chance whether they meet as early as school or college…” Maybe that resonated. Perhaps the accidents of fate had thrust us into common company. Following this suggestive logic further, since we were not likely to be dealt many more such congenial pairings, we felt we’d better safeguard this one. As in so many aspects of the earlier days of our friendship, the motivation to protect ours went for the longest time unspoken.

Regardless of reasons, we bridged the geographical distance through emails, slowly at first and then to the point where daily correspondence emerged as the prevailing norm. Over the same span of time, and through this forum, we also bridged the emotional distance that had kept us at arm’s length apart as roommates. The email messages grew in size and significance apace, paralleling a transformation in our friendship, the unacknowledged resolution to remain in each other’s lives despite such inconvenient hurdles as time and space. While so many other college friendships evaporated, we became determined to hold on to ours. (Was it because of the Adams passage?) I like to think that we ultimately took refuge in each other’s company rather than face the world alone, a decision articulated only through the gradually changing tenor of our emails. Without either of us seeming to notice, the emails evolved from a buffet of expository updates and perfunctory pleasantries to something more. They increasingly reflected a yearning for a deeper connection lived in the semi-open. We grew closer as a result of an epistolary friendship.

I don’t recall there being a breakthrough moment, a day when I woke up and realized that something fundamental had shifted in the nature our friendship. I do know that it happened as a result of our emails.

Perhaps the medium was inevitable. As early Millennials, he and I came of age during the transition between the age of paper mail and its electronic successor, a moment when letters were already showing the unmistakable signs of quaintness and obsolescence– something one got from one’s grandmother on a birthday, but not the way modern people communicated in the new century. We entered college after the non-crisis of Y2K, and took quickly to the climate of emails, instant messaging systems, and social networks beckoning us into their orbit. The technology encouraged an increasing openness with an unseen online community of surrogate peers: create a carefully-tailored profile, “tell us about yourself,” upload pictures, post an away message or status update, “check-in” at your current location. We were invited to always share more, to broadcast intimate details from life for consumption by an amorphous crowd (or one of icons and avatars), and we accepted. With every digital upgrade, it became easier to give more and withhold less.

Just as easily, when I left for Rochester our Gmail accounts became extensions of ourselves and, eventually, vital lifelines to each other. For he and I, they became a conduit of complete openness. Our emails are diluted by no limitations or constraints. In the cocoon of our Gmail discourses exist two people who can, and do, talk about anything and everything. There are no taboos, no restrictions, no lines to worry about crossing. I have revealed more of myself in them than I would have ever thought possible; as apparently is true with writing a guest post for this blog, I find the invitation to wax openly wonderfully liberating. Closeted away alone in my attic office, I suddenly possess the confidence to write things that I would never say aloud for fear of reproach or of appearing foolish. In emails to him I feel charming, witty, and sagacious– characteristics he inspires by the reassurance of his replies. I like who I am on those pages, even if that self is trapped in the cold light of a computer monitor. For all the criticisms that can be leveled against electronic communications– and I have scornfully heaped several onto the pile myself– they have served me well in this instance. And so I find myself strangely torn: though there’s much I loathe about the culture of Facebook and its many intrusions, I feel obliged to defend the larger apparatus of the internet for delivering a love and friendship that might not exist without it.

*

A question I routinely ask myself when contemplating my online-driven friendship with him: Are we emotionally stunted? Perhaps. Yet writing like we do, freely and (in no small sense) selfishly, is therapeutic. In emails, he becomes my de facto therapist; he becomes the journal I don’t keep. And vice-versa. Without fail, I race to my computer every evening when I get home from school or work to read what he might have shared with me today. If I see an unread message from him in my inbox, still bolded in the promise of dark black font, I shut out the rest of the world and devour the note. Then I savor it over a slower second and third read.

In the abstract realm of email, there is virtually (pun intended) nothing about me that he does not know: from how the meeting with my advisor went last month to the darkest chapter of my life when I nearly suffered a nervous breakdown. Consequentially, when either of us have been on the verge of a major life decision, for instance when I bought an engagement ring three years ago, I wrote him a thousand word essay about it rather than broaching the subject in person.

It suits us well, this relationship through the typed word. Via emails, I’ve come to know the person behind his defense mechanisms, and he the person behind mine. We’ve taken to using the metaphor of climbing or breaking down walls to describe the process, one in which we’ve found we’re still capable of surprising the other. Several months ago, for instance, he surprised me by revealing the depths of his previously-undisclosed dissatisfaction with the solitary life he had deliberately created for himself. As I confessed to him then:

It occurred to me that there are times when the act you perform is so damned good that even I occasionally forget that it is in many ways an act. Your aloofness, your celebrated life of bachelor independence, has been repeated and distilled into a projection for the world to see. I accept as truth, too often, that you are blissfully happy behind the walls you’ve built all around yourself, and I take a measure of selfish pride in knowing that I’m one of the rare few permitted to scale these walls– through emails, the odd email-inspired conversation, and other approved tours– and gain a gander beyond them.

Beyond overcoming psychological walls, or as a result of it, in the interstices of our emails we’ve built up a nurturing kind of love. We dispense advice, offer opinions about situations facing the other, empathize with the other’s daily challenges, and provide self-esteem boosts on demand. It’s a system of mutual support as well as affection, one which we’re both grateful to have. With his kind permission, I quote from an email he sent me last month:

Your customary outpouring of support comforts me but, more than that, it energizes me. It’s callous, but I sort of take my family’s support for granted. We are a close-knit, liberal house hold. If I got caught making a meth lab in the back yard, my mother’s first reaction would be to accuse the police of planting it there. You don’t have to love me. That you do anyway, in spite of, and perhaps in some cases because of my various foibles hits much closer to proverbial home for me. Made doubly true because I resisted this kind of relationship with others for my whole life. Even the most hard boiled men of my acquaintance would use their girlfriends to express their emotions, even if reluctantly.

It’s an emblematic email for a number of reasons– the online expression of love, the admission of the difficulty of forging these kinds of relationships (particularly, he implies, in the “real world”), the recognition of our reinforced support system, the difficulties imposed by gendered expectations.

The latter point is one we’ve covered thoroughly together since my move to Rochester. Tight-knit, platonic male friendships are fraught with baggage from the outset. More keenly than I, he has explored the implications of jettisoning the weight of our previous masculine standards of emotional detachment. He commented not long ago that

We could take the tact that most men pursue and speak only in sub-vocalized grunts during football game commercial breaks…But we do not. We are so lucky that we both love to write and are good at it. Having the freedom to have an outlet of any kind to talk specifically and directly is a luxury that few others on this Earth can appreciate. More to the point, at least for me, this lets me formulate ideas completely and lay them down concisely – whereas in the course of normal conversation I get distracted, lose my train of thought, forget details and, most importantly, suffer embarrassment at my own silly escapades. As we have grown as friends, these emails have similarly grown, not just in scope, but in maturity and openness.

Leaving behind forever our “sub-vocalized grunts,” he is telling me, we are carving out a relationship with undefined parameters. But, as of this writing, we have, with one exception (see below) only ever explored these confines electronically. Can email be a medium that sustains us indefinitely? Is it enough? Is this comfort zone where we want to live out a loving friendship?

*

Of course, our friendship does not exist solely online. We visit often. It is then that we adopt the personas of our bizarre alter egos: real-world friends still engaging in public performance and abiding by the decorum of masculine propriety. We might shake hands upon arrival, but don’t embrace. As far as I can recall, we haven’t hugged once in ten years. We have long conversations, but they are pale imitations of our emails; we give less, we hold back more, we certainly don’t profess love. Until the visit is over, that is, and we draft emails about it to each other. It is a curious disconnect, and one, atypically for us, that we often ignore.

This brings us to an interesting tension: the splintering of friendship into two halves. There are, in essence, two sets of friends here: the ones who exist online and the ones whose lives intersect outside of Gmail. Maybe someday they’ll meet, but at the moment they occupy different planes of being. It’s not painfully awkward to spend time together, but it is painful to witness that something is lost in translation from the page to personal interaction, and it’s painful to flail helplessly against the last measure of remaining distance between us. The last and tallest wall.

Herein lies the outer-most limit, and perhaps the inherent shortcoming, of a friendship grown in such large order though an online filtration system. Absent the degree of separation provided by computers, we fall back into old habits and resemble the two Philadelphia roommates skittering around the edges of a substantive friendship. We have proven ourselves consistently incapable of surmounting the divide. Worse, I suppose, we have given up all pretense of even trying. There are times– a thought I bury whenever it surfaces– when I think we could carry on perfectly well even if we never saw each other again. But neither of us wants to surrender to this impulse, to dwell entirely within the simulated reality hosted by internet servers.

I am reminded of something my dissertation subject, the social critic Christopher Lasch, observed in the autobiographical introduction of his 1991 book, The True and Only Heaven. “In a world dominated by suspicion and mistrust, a renewal of the capacity for loyalty and devotion had to begin, it seemed, at the most elementary level, with family and friends,” Lasch wrote. “My generation invested personal relations with an intensity they could hardly support, as it turned out; but our passionate interest in each other’s lives cannot very well be described as a form of emotional retreat. We tried to re-create in the circle of our friends the intensity of a common purpose, which can no longer be found in politics or the workplace.” He and I have invested a similar intensity into our friendship, to enrich our lives and restore a common purpose otherwise lacking in the atomized, impersonal world. And we seem to have found a way around Lasch’s sense of the inability of relationships to bear this burden by relying upon emails as a safety valve to relieve the pressure of our colossal expectations for the elasticity of friendship.

But in diverting and rerouting pressure, our email exchanges appear to have robbed us of some basic humanness. We never have to address the failings of our friendship when it is overloaded with unsupportable intensity, because in its online state it never will be. Existing in two halves, it approaches friendship “as a form of emotional retreat.”

It is left to us to decide whether this is enough, whether the disparate friendship halves can be joined. So far we have stalled.

*

One of us makes the five-and-a-half hour drive to see the other every eight weeks or so, a tradition we started as soon as I left for Rochester. Even though he’s a scientist by training, he’s read every chapter of my dissertation, and responded with pages of detailed comments. His family accepts me at their table– they feed, shelter, and nourish me whenever I’m around. After a rocky start between them, my wife treats him like family, a person with an open invitation to treat our residence as an extension of his home. He does likewise for her.

Two years ago he served as best man in my wedding. In that capacity, he floored all the guests in attendance with a rousing, heartfelt toast that nobody saw coming in light of the going public perception of him as unflappably taciturn– the curious college friend that I continue to drag into my orbit, an outsider to my Rochester friends. Now everybody knew better; for the first time, they perceived a previously hidden new side, a dynamic, engaging personality. Bobbing jovially on the heels of his feet, all reticence shed away, he momentarily manifested into the person he is in our emails. “Jeffrey,” he said in my favorite line of the toast, “you’re my dearest friend, and a lifetime of happiness for you is a lifetime of happiness for me.” Moved by the spirit of the occasion, he went on like this for five incredible minutes. He became his email self. When it was over, and champagne glasses clinked, the entranced crowd sat briefly in stunned silence before breaking into enthusiastic applause.

I was touched, if not as staggered as the guests seated around us. After all, through email, I had been privy to this secret self of “the real” him for years. It is a closeness I prize, and one that can be exported to wherever this path through a historical profession might take me. As long as there’s wireless internet.

Yet the limits will persist. You can’t hug an email. Carefully chosen words and images– as with a Facebook profile– can be manipulated to tell any story about us that we want. But is that who we really are? The best man who occupied the stage and warmed me with his words disappeared after the magic of the wedding reception faded away. This incarnation had been but a fleeting outward glimpse of the friend I knew from emails. Normalcy was restored immediately afterwards. The friendship resumed its dichotomy of undiluted honesty on the page and restraint in person.

He tells me that he loves me, but he never says it to my face. I love him back, though I’ve never told him so directly. Do the words mean less when they are read instead of spoken? I wonder what he thinks. I’ve already sent him a rough draft of this post. Maybe I should check my email…

-Jeffrey Ludwig, guest contributor

Looking for You in My Inbox

I see that you wrote me an email, from the return address on the list of messages in my inbox.

My heart begins to beat faster, a smile dawns on my inner self. My facial muscles remain stationary as my fingers go through the motions as they have done so many times. They could do it in the dark, in their sleep.

I click on your name and open up the email. My hopes continue to soar, upward, ever upward. Then, suddenly, there is a new, unpredictable gust from the cold North wind that catches them up, wrenching them from their heavenward trajectory, and soon they are falling, falling, falling. Really falling. No, catapulting. They plummet even more rapidly than they rose–for they didn’t dare to become themselves for so long–like a balloon deflating. This balloon is on the opposite course from the one my friend–a seventy-something little boy–lets loose once a week outside of Wegman’s, which offers free balloons for “children” if you get there early enough on Saturday or Sunday mornings. My friend’s balloon rises up into the ether. Between shopping for the food he will cook into a meal for his wife of some four or more decades, as though for a first dinner to woo her, and returning to their home a grown-up man, he takes a moment for himself and his balloon, never tiring of the activity. He stands and watches it go, feet planted until it is out of sight. And I stand, feet planted, watching him, until he no longer sees it. He turns to me, remnants of an enchanted, transported state fading in his smile, and we say goodbye.

My balloon, the one that seemed, like his, destined for celestial climes, took a serious nosedive. Why? Because of email.

My eyes took in the opened message. There were letters there. And words. And those words formed themselves into sentences, and those sentences into a message.

But where were you?

You claimed to be there. There was your name in my inbox. There is your name signing off after the message.

But were you really there?

If you were, the words hurt me deeply. If you weren’t, or only part of you was there, they don’t need to hurt so much, if at all.

So as you see, quite a lot was at stake for me. My balloon could have been a contender: it could have continued skyward as in my friend’s weekly reverie. But it popped.

*

Email can be–is–a scourge. Elsewhere I have tried, joining those other braver souls, to look at the bright side. May I leave that activity for another post, by me or my friend and fellow blogger Michael, whose eloquent posts give me new hope?

For today I feel bereft and wish to capture this moment, in all of its damaging splendor. After all, if hope is to become itself, it must know what it is hoping for, and we usually (maybe always) find that from grasping fully the world we have lost, the one we lack, the one we mourn.

Is email a replacement of letters or use of the human voice (as over the phone or in person)? If we are to give ourselves over to a whole new technology, shouldn’t we have some clarity on that? I am using email to refer to all of the (fairly) new electronic communications technologies our society, and a growing portion of the rest of the world, has embraced. Do we not owe it to ourselves to hold it up against traditions, customs, practices, genres, forms we employed in the past, and sometimes still do today? Are we so hell-bent on the new that we don’t have the time or patience to honor the way things have been done before, and done well? Our very existence might be rather clear evidence of their worth. They worked. They sustained life. We are here.

Now we throw off all we have inherited without a thought. Will electronic connections sustain us? Or are we seeing human bonds dissolving before our eyes?

*

Back to your email.

My mind puts all of the pieces together and tries to take in the message as a whole, as one. Imagine how complicated the process is, how many microscopic body parts were recruited to pass on how many fragmentary bits of information. How many tributaries were traveled, bridges crossed, rivers forded? How many filaments were thrown out? How many caught? How many tried but found no place to catch, like Whitman’s “noiseless, patient spider” throwing out filament after filament? How many didn’t even dare try, languishing in the absence of hope?

All that in the past, the message coalesced. Is this what we call understanding? If so, isn’t that glorifying it a bit? Can a process that involves so many hits, and so many misses, really be considered anything like communication? Do we really believe that one idea or feeling can be conveyed from one person to another and arrive in a form that is anything like what was intended? From place of origin to destination, so much gets lost, never to be seen again. And if that isn’t bad enough, on the receiving end, our minds not only grasp hold of all kinds of filaments that weren’t even coming from the sender in question, but they are capable of imagining all manner of new threads, verily calling them into existence. We make them up. While many voices have rightly praised human invention, one must admit there is a darker side to this uncanny ability we have. Just think how much trouble it gets us in.

That complicated process having taken place, I am now brought to my knees by your–if indeed it was from you–message. I “cry me a river.” Why?

(1) It wasn’t what I expected? No, not that. I tried to guess, but we can never entirely predict the mind and heart of another. Besides, we can adjust to pleasant surprises in a split second. Something unexpected isn’t always a bad thing.

(2) It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Yes, that. Adding to the difficulty of the whole endeavor, not just communicating but attempting any relation in the first place, we put in the vacant space that should be awaiting the message another pre-formed message that the new message must then try to unseat. Sometimes we even have multiple messages already cramming that room, as if an entire Roman legion were taking its refreshment within our four little walls, an army against which one foot soldier has hardly a chance of being heard.

What exactly did I want to read in that email? The details change but the particulars of one fade into the next, don’t they? Something suggesting that we are connected, closely, intimately, uniquely, even ultimately. Something to stave off the cosmic loneliness. Something implying you had understood my own messages I had relayed in the past with such care for you, for how you might experience it; every such message a request for connection, for closeness, for that human warmth that alone makes life worth living. That most humbling of requests: for love.

*

If it had been a letter, there would have been other real-world signs that might have assisted me in gleaning what you were thinking or feeling. If it had been a phone call, you might have heard the catch in my voice upon your first couple of sentences and you might have immediately disabused me of any false understandings, any negative reading of a positive intention. Best of all, if you had told me in person what you had to say, there might have been a look in your eye, a touch on the arm, a gentle, sacred embrace.

With email, all is leveled, made uniform.

*

I feel my balloon rising an almost imperceptible measure. It could have been anyone’s message. Email is just cold plastic and metal conduits of virtual filaments conveyed by digitization running by the tapping and clicking of our unthinking digits.

The message might not have been from you after all. After all, you weren’t anywhere to be found. Maybe you will communicate something further another way. Maybe then, with one less obstacle in the way of my gleaning the content of your message, we might have a chance.

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
                          –Walt Whitman

-By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Adventures in Luddism: Part I

I teach a freshman writing class called Digital Culture and Counterculture, part of the purpose of which you might call “consciousness raising.” This meant something once, and I’d like to think it can mean something still. But lately I find that my students don’t quite fit my agenda. The agenda, that is, of teaching subversion.

We start the semester out with Wendell Berry’s “Why I am not going to buy a computer,” penned (literally) in 1987. Berry despises what he calls “technological fundamentalism,” the tendency to assume by virtue of unconscious indoctrination that everything innovative is good. We hear the voices of this fundamentalism everywhere, Berry charges. And it leads to a sickening superciliousness whereby everything old appears outdated and subject to revision. What about sunlight, pen and paper, and the standard model Royal typewriter he bought in 1956! Berry cries out. What about the sanctity of existing human relationships (his wife served as his editor) and the glorious tradition of writing by hand? At the end of his essay, Berry offers that “when somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante’s, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of a computer, then I will speak of computer with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not buy one.”

All to no avail. When his essay was published in Harper’s, it generated several heated responses which the magazine printed perhaps to highlight the fury of computer proponents even then. Berry is a hypocrite, most charged. Berry should recognize the wonderful new possibilities of digital technologies and stop wasting everyone’s time with his crusty, quasi-Luddite critiques. To the magazine’s great delight, Berry responded and put his finger on the dike. He knows he is a hypocrite. The problem of being “a person of this century,” to use his elegant phrase, is that there is no way not to be a hypocrite. We are all plugged into the energy corporations, Berry admits, and most of us guzzle petroleum products in our homes and on the roads outside them like there’s no tomorrow. (Eventually, perhaps, there won’t be one.) All we can do is choose where to draw the line and stick to it.

Berry drew the line at buying a computer. Yet many of Harper’s readers found this attempt at setting a principled example unsatisfactory. They saw his moral scrupulousness as self-indulgent, and his critique of wanton consumption as out of touch. To this last charge, Berry took special issue. The root of technological fundamentalism, he argued, lay in his respondents’ passionate, almost fanatical, defense of the status quo:

At the slightest hint of a threat to their complacency, they repeat, like a chorus of toads, the notes sounded by their leaders in industry. The past was gloomy, drudgery-ridden, servile, meaningless, and slow. The present, thanks only to purchasable products, is meaningful, bright, lively, centralized, and fast. The future, thanks only to more purchasable products, is going to be even better. Thus consumers become salesmen, and the world is made safer for corporations.

When we read this passage in class I like to look around the room and notice my students’ responses. Do they identify with Berry’s critics? Are they moved by the ire that animates his eloquent rebuttal? Typically they seem unmoved, gazing forward at me as if I’m giving a Ted Talk. Judging by the papers I receive a few weeks after this opening discussion they find Berry’s argument unconvincing, partly for good reason. Berry was writing before the Internet and had no idea how significant computers would soon become. On a certain reading, his critique is myopic, unimaginative, and flat out wrong in light of recent history.

One glaring error students often point to is Berry’s insistence that computers lack any political utility. “I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.” Naturally, college freshmen evaluating this claim in 2013 have plenty of ammunition with which to gun it down. They seem to take great relish in highlighting Berry’s inaccuracies, as if invalidating him validates some unknown voice in the back of their heads which they know must be right.

Very few students take issue with technology in the terms Berry provides; instead they prefer the more up-to-date Douglas Adams and his 1999 essay “How to stop worrying and learn to love the Internet.” Adams himself is great at highlighting the unsightly myopia that tends to affect writers like Wendell Berry. But his argument essentially turns on lauding all innovations as if they’re equal:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

Yes, isn’t that cute. We’re all indebted to the prejudices of our time. Perfectly natural that our parents and grandparents distrust the Internet and still worry about “privacy concerns.” They’ll be dead soon, anyway.

It would be nice if my students could synthesize Berry’s moralism with Adams’ pragmatism and come up with something more durable than either of them did. But most side with the pragmatists’ argument. After all, what choice do they have? None of them could get their schoolwork done without computers. And social life would be unimaginable without all their friends on Facebook. To preserve their sense of self—to preserve their sense of how the world works and how it should work—they have to argue against Wendell Berry; they have to resist his old-fashioned moralism even as they sense him breathing down their necks.

We came to a possible turning point last week when we discussed online dating. I assigned a 2011 New Yorker article by Nick Paumgarten called “Looking for someone: sex, love, and loneliness on the Internet,” thinking it would spur a good conversation. At first they were reticent as usual. We talked about the positives and negatives of this quintessential hallmark of digital culture, and the big sociological shifts that enabled its formation. According to Paumgarten and biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, the rise of Internet dating rests on three major turning points: 1) the massive influx of women into the workforce, 2) introduction of the Pill, and 3) rising divorce rates, all of which came to a head in the U.S. after 1945. As Fisher puts it, “Our social and sexual patterns have changed more in the last fifty years than in the last ten thousand.” Consequently, “our courtship rituals are rapidly changing, and we don’t know what to do.”

I hoped the existential implications of this dilemma would be manifest as we surveyed the contemporary dating scene. Match, OK Cupid, Plentyoffish, Jdate, Eharmony, Chemistry (Fisher started this one under the auspices, and on the payroll, of Match’s parent company, InterActivCorp), Howaboutwe, ScientificMatch…the list is nearly endless. All of these sites use different algorithms and presumably cater to different market niches. But the underlying principle is the same. According to Paumgarten, ScientificMatch “attempts to pair people according to their DNA, and claims that this approach leads to a higher rate of female orgasms.” Yet this only takes the approach of tamer (less ambitious?) sites to its outer limits.

What online dating is all about, I implore my students, is the principle of scientific management. We are all familiar with how this works in practice. When we find ourselves on the toothpaste aisle at the grocery store (likely a supermarket), we know that the available brands and accompanying brushes have all been vetted by multiple experts. This same knowledge applies to every consumer product: to cars, televisions, and of course, our personal computers. To live in the modern world, it seems we have to learn to depend on experts and the principle of scientific management. Otherwise we’ll be left behind in a fog of bad smells and other inefficiencies.

But where do we draw the line? At what point do we stop turning our lives over to scientists and their unimpeachably useful index of algorithms?

To dramatize the stakes I like to pose the following scenario (I’ve used it twice now, this semester and last). Imagine that some time in the not-too-distant future a new online service has been developed. If you choose to use it, this service guarantees you a detailed account of how and when you will meet each of your romantic partners for the rest of your life. Names, dates, descriptions of physical proportions and breakups—everything is there, and upon reading it your fate is sealed. It is up to you whether or not to use this service. But the technology is available. The algorithm has been perfected. Instead of the messy, haphazard process of sorting your way through lived experience, going down this path blindly with this person, going down that path blindly with another, you can have complete and total certainty. There is no longer any margin of error.

After presenting this scenario in the eeriest tone I can muster, I ask my students by a show of hands how many of them would choose to use such a service. Their answer, at least as late as February 2013, always depends.

-Michael Fisher

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