longing for the real

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Month: December, 2012

Why Exult? Part III

Why is it that we—our hearts, anyway—become so set on loving not just other people but other particular people? Doesn’t a huge portion of our trouble in life come from this simple, but seemingly unavoidable reality? Why do our hearts have to be so discriminating? Who are they to know, anyway? Why is it not possible for our minds to play a simple trick and insert a different face into the frame of our affections?

After all, we are living in the “age of mechanical reproduction,” as Walter Benjamin wrote about art, but as now seems to apply to nearly everything. The whole concept of the Internet and allied technologies is that they can create a virtual world. If we can do that, what will be left to desire? And what desire will be left with which to desire it?

In huge swaths of our lives, the new technologies have insinuated themselves in mind-bending ways. As they change everything from how we conduct our personal lives to how we perform our work, they do so in very precise ways the merits of which we can pinpoint, analyze, and debate. Yet they also do so in more sweeping ways that are harder to assess. One of the underlying assumptions driving so much of the breathtaking innovation and many people’s open-armed embrace of what the new technologies have to offer is that more and more parts of life can be simulated. It is reminiscent of—and not unrelated to—the drive, in robotics, to simulate the human being. Tellingly, such efforts at mechanical cloning always falter when it comes to the replication of human emotion.

In the realm of the affections, there are concrete reasons why we might search for someone to stand in for someone else, yet it is this precise realm that seems to resist all such efforts. We might understandably wish to come up with a way to simulate the strong feelings that we feel for a particular individual so as not be so beholden to him or her. The reasons include the usual suspects, ones that have been with us long before the microchip: inaccessibility of the object of our affections; grief at the loss of a lover or companion through separation, death, or another twist of fate; or just the waning of passion caused by a mundane series of disappointments, mishaps, or misunderstandings. And the attempts to achieve such emotional simulation reveal a history of inventiveness that most likely maps directly onto the entire span of human history itself. But just as impressive as these efforts is the mountain of evidence we have accumulated for what they add up to: naught.

Unless we find a way to fool ourselves better, it is highly improbable that we can ever manage to disabuse our hearts of their true commitment to a particular person. And it is also questionable whether we should even try.

In this series of posts, I have been mulling over the completely moot question of why we should wish to desire at all, given all of the foreseeable and unforeseeable pain that inevitably causes. The pain I had in mind was the searing-cold-knife-blade-into-the-chest variety that can follow upon what is or is thought to be the permanent loss of the beloved; the kind that seems to empty one’s inner self of everything that fills life with joy and meaning; the kind that drove Puccini’s Tosca to leap to her death after she found out that her beloved Mario had been wrenched forever from her loving arms by a death squad. His staged execution, the intended act of simulation, turned out to be excruciatingly real.

But there are other painful emotions that fall far short of this extreme of tragic loss. The full experience of these other affective states can be extremely difficult and unpleasant and can also make desire seem undesirable. Our culture, while pretending to be all about desire, actually removes its possibility in the name of our supposed protection and therapeutic healing, making all strong emotions that are the basis of exclusive attachments suspect.

One of these painful emotions is jealousy, an emotion that would not exist if there were any chance of a kind of saving reproducibility of love. Jealousy is something that seems to have no place in today’s world of self-possession. At best it is a sign of immaturity and insecurity; at worst it goes against one of the shibboleths of today’s consumer culture, the commandment to smile for the camera and appear to be having fun at all times. It smacks of grasping, smothering, restricting, controlling, possessing. It seems unnatural, a sign that self-interest has taken over. Or it is pathetic, a sign of weakness, suggesting that one should get a life (presumably not this one).

*

This morning, just as I was opening my eyes to the new day, I was flanked by my dog, who had taken advantage of my sleep state, as he does each morning, to settle in where it was warm and cozy in my arms rather than in his own dog bed. My daughter approached to wish me good morning and, seeing my canine companion, greeted him affectionately. At that point I greeted my daughter. As recurs in this situation with unbroken regularity, a loud and pained sound, half squeal of delight and half agonized moan, was emitted involuntarily from deep within my dog’s throat. The sound is as unpleasant as the proverbial fingernails on a chalkboard: at once irritatingly loud and ridiculous. Normally perfectly well-behaved and the model of true gentlemanliness, this animal’s closest brush with objectionable behavior is at these moments. It is obvious why he reacts to them the way he does. He’s jealous.

This is a member of one of the dog breeds most known for getting along with households with multiple members, for making a deep bond with each and every member of a family, from infants to octogenarians. There are other breeds that have a tendency not to get along as well with children than others but this is not one of them. And some breeds are notorious (or famous–this is part of the point I aim to make shortly) for developing a primary bond with only one person. He is not of that ilk either.

Yet, even when this little dog is ensconced in the very embrace of one member of his human pack, a moment of potentially divided affections can nearly rip out his heart from the sound of it. Only a major show of affection on the part of all of the parties involved in this sudden emotional crisis, this paroxysm of panic, can reassure him enough to get him to calm down. There’s no question of falling back into the trance state of unbroken connection. That will have to await another time. It’s as though we have to reassure him that he will still be loved if one of us shows affection for another.

Canine jealousy suggests that the constellation of emotions provoked by the feeling of possible or impending loss of the affections of the beloved to someone else are not, as so many communes and other reform movements in the nineteenth and twentieth-century U.S. have made them out to be, just another bourgeois claim to ownership stemming from our indoctrination into the wholesale system of private property. Dogs don’t own property, last I looked. Is it possible that those emotions–the fear and unease, the anxiety and panic–are part of the experience of loving and being loved when that love is at its most natural, not least?

*

This is not at all an endorsement of jealousy. It can and should provoke the emotions of fear and worry that lead toward prevention; we should be vigilant in keeping it from wreaking the total destruction of which it is capable. At its worst, it can be fatal, as our notions “jealous rage” and “crime of passion” suggest. At its best, even, it can make us look and feel ridiculous. My dog always looks a little sheepish when his panic subsides and he realizes the interloper that was out to snatch away his blissful connection was a phantom.

When jealousy is untrammeled by countervailing resources at our disposal, phantoms can be as destructive as real threats. Jealousy is as often as not unfounded. Foreshadowing of the terrible loss she was to sustain, an irrational jealousy concerning Mario had plagued Tosca. She continually harbored suspicions that he must be making love to other women yet, in fact, his love for Tosca was as ultimate—as inimitable—as her love for him.

But here is where we can glimpse the role jealousy can sometimes play in our most intense human attachments. It teaches us, in no uncertain terms, the answer to that adrenaline-pumping wolf howl of George Thorogood’s, “Who Do You Love?” Without being aware of that—without knowing, even at a deeply unconscious level, who it is we can’t bear to do without—we might live altogether differently. Tosca turned out to have all too short time on this earth with her beloved. Thus, her jealousy may have been what ensured that she sought out and treasured all moments of love and intimacy they were to know together. Her jealousy may have angered Mario, whose passion for Tosca did not deserve to be questioned, but maybe it also riveted his attention so that vital vocalizations and enactments took place and precious time was not wasted. Wasn’t it how he learned of the extreme vulnerability even this beautiful, beloved woman could experience when it came to a single, irreplaceable person—himself? When they both could see how unfounded her jealousy was and how his assurances of love dispensed with it, mirth resulted and their intimacy deepened. Giving a (limited) hearing to jealousy, an emotion that seems negative by definition, ended in something else entirely.

Of course this doesn’t always happen. When it does turn out that true love is equally shared, the discomfort and piercing pain and dread of jealousy is still something that people who have experienced it would no doubt prefer to avoid. When it does not turn out that the love is equally shared, of course, it can be the precursor to even greater agony. In either case, such a feeling can also remind us of the sheer fragility of what it is to have experienced in the past another person in such a way that he or she becomes inextricably lodged in our very psyche for the present and foreseeable future. It is understandable why we might try to dodge or deny the whole range of emotional states that can arise when a particular person stands out from all the rest as unique, irreplaceable, and all too real.

*

Jealousy’s critics, its main detractors, like all those who would simply have us do away with inconvenient or complicated emotions by not feeling them, seem to me to be spokespeople from the party of reproducibility, and it is that party that is in the ascendancy. It is much easier to let someone recede from vision if we never felt that powerful force that is human desire at its apogee. The party of uniqueness, after all, knows that if we lose someone, the splendor that is that person can never find a substitute, just as we don’t have a prayer of simulating the very particular love he or she inspires in us.

This is another reason why it might seem sometimes to be a mistake to desire and exult in the ways only possible in a world in which people—and our experiences with them and of them—are not interchangeable. We can be “cool” and “chill” now in the glorious age of “whatever.” In the calculus so often regnant today, no particular individual counts too much.

Just try telling that to my dog.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

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Texting

I don’t remember when my mom and I first started sending text messages.  Like all communications revolutions, it was probably out of utility at first.  We might have started exchanging basic information like when we could schedule a time to talk, or when my flight was supposed to arrive.  They never had much valence of emotion.  As I imagine that early period now, text messages were a minor appendage to our actually-existing-relationship in person or on the phone.  But then something changed.  Slowly but surely texting assumed the status of a new autonomous sphere of relations between us.  It became a way of communicating without actually talking, and now its charms are hard to deny.

I like to think that I have mixed feelings about this development because I have mixed feelings about all revolutions in communications technology.  Any new medium that allows us to flatten our interactions into bits of digitized data necessarily reduces the scope and complexity of our relationships.  I’m well aware that there is an obvious rejoinder to this argument, and it’s true that few technologies (just how many is a worthwhile thought experiment) exercise total influence over our behavior.  But the important point still stands: at the very least, a medium like text messaging permits a process of reduction that can lead to flatter, ultimately less recognizable human relationships.  In every case, the tool is the problem.

I’ve been making this argument for as long as I can remember (roughly since I’ve identified as the sort of person who says things like “for as long as I can remember.”)  But since I purchased a smart phone last summer I’ve noticed my techno-hypocrisy deepening.  If I’m to be honest, a slow slide has been ongoing for years.  Until June 2009 I resisted joining Facebook because I thought my private boycott represented a laudable example of cultural conservatism.  When I finally gave in, I planned to enter this new online world the way I imagined an anthropologist entered a foreign culture.  I started an essay called “Re-Entering A World of Text,” in which I justified my project (and my secret political agenda) in grossly highfalutin terms.  Looking back at that essay now, it’s clear that I was suffering from more than a few illusions:

My experiment is to make my participation based solely on expressions of authentic conscience.  From what I can tell, this is an uncommon use of the medium, but it may be one best suited to democratic ends.  If people are disturbed or off put by my comments and declarations, they can ignore them—but they remain changed by the contact I have initiated.  Slowly, these sorts of dynamic interactions will filter through the community of users (the body of citizens), and what is persuasive will have lasting effect…. Facebook opens up manifold possibilities for democracy, culture, and human community, but such advancement can only begin when new cultural influences encourage a discussion about right use of the new medium.

I could quote more, but it would be too painful knowing how my experiment ended.

For the next two years I recorded nearly every interaction I had on Facebook.  No matter how interesting or mundane, I copied and pasted what transpired on my wall into two word documents, one called “Facebook logs,” and a later version called “Toward a theory of right use.”  During my first few days on the ground I chose the profile picture (of me attentively reading Richard Yates’ “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness”) that still graces my page and began posting status updates that I hoped would spur intellectual debate.  Intermittently, I worried whether people thought I was making a fool of myself.

7/5/09: “Democratic nations will therefore cultivate the arts that serve to render life easy in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.”- Tocqueville

7/9/09: “Life is made of marble and mud. And, without all the deeper trust in a comprehensive sympathy above us, we might hence be led to suspect the insult of a sneer, as well as an immitigable frown, on the iron countenance of fate.”-Hawthorne

“Soooo dreamy,” a friend posted after that last one.  To which I responded,

“Yeah?  Well allow me to continue: ‘What is called poetic insight is the gift of discerning, in this sphere of strangely mingled elements, the beauty and the majesty which are compelled to assume a garb so sordid.’  Also, don’t you think it’s time someone forged an archetype on Facebook that involves foisting such quotations on one’s friends?”

I did succeed at provoking some discussion.  But over the succeeding months and years I also felt myself adjusting to the limits of the medium.  I experienced all the advantages of a world of text.  It felt good to make new friends and connect with old ones in new ways;  and it became clear that Facebook could, and often did, enhance real-world relationships.  If I was testing a hypothesis, it appeared that I had my answer.  Slowly but surely, using Facebook became ordinary, and I lost interest in my ambitious project around the same time my love life began to improve.

It was a long road from the Facebook logs to the purchase of my Samsung Galaxy SIII.  But now that I’ve caved in on the smart phone front too, certain patterns have revealed themselves.  Before each great leap forward toward greater investment in the technological habits and habitats that clog our world, I seem to need to voice some misgiving, some social critique of existing cultural practices lest I succumb to “the disease of modern times” (Paul Goodman).  I don’t know where this need comes from, or whose criteria I’m trying to satisfy.  But the plain fact is that I’m trying to avoid complicity.

Complicity in what exactly I can’t say.  The problem is difficult to pinpoint.  I feel its contours every time I notice myself gazing covetously at my friends’ iPhones, wishing I’d done more comparison-shopping before I renewed my contract with T-Mobile and bought the Samsung.  (No matter what anyone says, I’m convinced that iPhones are better than Androids; I just don’t have the courage to post this on Facebook.)  I talk about symptoms constantly; I’m even teaching a class this academic year called “Digital Culture and Counterculture.”  Still, the cycle continues.

At 12:38 am on 11/24/12, I sent my mom a photo of my sister and her boyfriend sitting by the fire in my living room.

Mom: Sweet pic really looking

           forward to meeting him

           i thought you guys would

           be too tired to stay up

           ps is it cold in your house?

           krista looks all bundled up

 

Me: We’re all tired.  We made

       a fire and now they’re

       going to bed.

 

Mom: Sounds like yall [she’s from Louisiana] are

           having a great time

           connecting

           can we talk in afternoon/

           eve tomorrow?

           When does a [my girlfriend] return?

Me: We’re having dinner with

       her tomorrow.  Let’s see

       how the day goes.

 

Mom: K g night

 

Me: By the way, I’m not happy

       to see you adopting this

       abbreviated text speak,

       Mom.  The people who

       are fighting for that side in

       the battle over the future

       shape of culture deserve

       to lose.  Make us read

       more.  Even if it takes

       longer.

Mom: Sorry for not responding

           last night

           i fell asleep reading your

           text tome elevating

           cellphone language to the

           heights of great literature

           Usually im more careful

           but I didnt want to take

           too much of your time

           Were headed to valley of

           Fire now [in northern AZ]

           Lots! Of rock 🙂

           Love your maternal

           ancestor of the first

           degree

6/26/13: I’m in Cupertino again talking to Apple about how to incorporate some of my wryer protestations into one or two of their web commercials.  This time we managed to come up with a few lines for a jingle and an interesting graphic.  On the elevator ride back down to the lobby I send my mom a snide text about corporate complacency via my new iPhone 6.  She gets the joke, but she isn’t surprised or all that impressed.  I’m lucky she knows I’m a little slow.

-Michael Fisher