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Month: February, 2013

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

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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

Politics and People

“H.G. Wells once said, coming out of a political meeting where they had been discussing social change, that this great towering city was a measure of the obstacle, of how much must be moved if there was to be any change. I have known this feeling, looking up at great buildings that are the centres of power, but I find I do not say ‘There is your city, your great bourgeois monument, your towering structure of this still precarious civilisation’ or I do not only say that; I say also ‘This is what men have built, so often magnificently, and is not everything then possible?'”

-Raymond Williams, The Country and the City

Ever since becoming a graduate student, I’ve slowly forgotten how to alchemize thoughts into an intriguing set of words. This is troubling given the nature of my obligations, and I’m grateful I can still submit crap to my professors that entails a deceptive gloss of accomplishment. But when it comes to my extracurricular scribbles, I’ve descended into a state of confusion. It’s as if my head has erupted in civil war, where all parties are desperate for an armistice or ceasefire, and yet the hostilities endure. I’m still not clear as to the cause of the conflict, but I have my suspicions. Consider this reportage from the wreckage — a kind of gonzo journalism as applied to a warring mind.

I.

I enter that grotesque simulacrum of society known as Facebook about four thousand clicks a day. This is largely due to my study routine, which involves hours on end cozying up to three to seven books a week. My laptop is my portal into the effects of reality, where reality is now defined by the anxious escape from reality, a virtual stage crowded with digitally cropped anthropoids performing various boasts, vents, and poses. I occasionally take part in the mad rush, because I’m just as implicated in the lonely sociability as everyone else, but my regular preference is just to sit still and watch. (Lately I’ve been participating beyond my comfort zone.) I have a hunch we’ve always been escaping reality, and the most updated medium for doing so only makes the point as sharp as a blade. After all, my reality of three to seven books a week can scarcely be deemed more real.

Since Sandy Hook, my feed has been bombarded with pro-gun propaganda, as well as a variety of other right-wing hysterics. About a third of my friends are Marines, most of whom I served with in Afghanistan. They’re not happy. President Obama is compared to Hitler and Mao. A few push a website that encourages active-duty personnel to stop obeying orders from a tyrannical regime. Proud visuals of personal arsenals come to the fore, along with tips on where to acquire the cheapest or most badass AR-15, presumably before the liberal junta rolls in with the tanks. One posts a link implying the shooting was a hoax, a government “false flag” operation intended to muster the emotions required in order to pass more aggressive gun laws. Someone “likes” it, and then someone else “shares” it. Comment threads are born, and fresh paranoia is exchanged.

While I normally avoid engaging in such fare, I feel a responsibility to talk it out with my erstwhile comrades. I really do like these guys, and I don’t want them to waste their energies aiming for red herrings, especially since most of them are working-class. I can’t stand seeing them obsess over modest gun-control regulations once supported by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, just as they buy into plutocratic lies blaming liberals, union members, and poor people for our nation’s dearth of employment and educational opportunity, not to mention their increasing sense of disempowerment. (Although the Democratic Party is no doubt complicit in the arrangement.) I so want to leap over the electronic canyon and share a pitcher with them on the other side. I want to shoot the shit like we did in the Helmand a couple years past. I want to complicate their prejudices while prodding them away from a politics of resentment to a politics of thoughtful resistance. I want them to recognize the inextricable link between economic power and political power, and the necessity in attacking (and claiming) both, not through a naive and escapist libertarianism but by way of the kind of workplace democracy and community autonomy put forth in Gar Alperovitz’s America Beyond Capitalism or David Schweickart’ s After Capitalism. In other words, I want them to read what I read, and I want them to think what I think.

Instead, I spend hours dissecting each and every claim made by a Sandy Hook “truther,” a young man who once served as one of my top sergeants. Every time I knock down an absurdity my interlocutor replaces it with another. Despite the effort, nothing is conceded. I remind him I’m a gun-owner, something I originally avowed in Afghanistan, before we set off on a mission. (My Marines always enjoyed hearing I owned a gun. Or rather I enjoyed telling them.) Since I’m a Connecticut native, I’m asked if I knew anyone involved in the massacre. I tell him my mother’s co-worker lost a son, and another acquaintance a niece. He proceeds without acknowledgment. My final words are conciliatory. “I get it,” I say. “It’s very hard to trust anyone these days. Everything is MASS — our government, our corporations, our media.” I go on to attribute the distrust more to technology, inhumane scales of social interaction, and anomie than to Hollywood-style villains. “But you’re right,” I say. “A lot of people in power get away with a lot of terrible things. I feel ya man.” He responds in kind, thanking me for a worthwhile debate. In the weeks ahead, he stops with the conspiracy theories. The fury persists.

II.

In late January 2011, I find myself back in California, after nearly a year’s duty in Afghanistan. That summer, I return to the northeast as civilian, for the first time in five years. I am disillusioned from the war and my service more broadly, but I’m also just beginning to recoil from an upper-middle-class milieu that strikes me as self-satisfied and clueless. I realize the self-importance in the reaction, but I can’t help it. I attend a high school reunion, and while I drink myself to a state of ostensible equilibrium, I’m pissed. There are a handful of confidantes who know what’s up, but the bulk of the young professionals saunter across the marble as if the world were as deep as their pockets and as wide as their gaze.

That fall, Occupy erupts. I’m not an activist, but my sympathies have no doubt shifted to the left. The slide began at boot camp, when I learned what social inequality means. Its meaning is ugly and angry, and not the stuff of a sustainable republic. I’m already on amiable terms with left writers involved in the Wall Street protests, so I make my way to events in the city. I donate multicolored duct tape for the occupiers, at their request. I write a couple pieces online. I debate right-wing friends from college to the point of exhaustion. That’s the extent of my activism.

Now I’m too busy in school to do much of anything. I maintain a blog, just barely, and follow up on the latest from periodicals like Dissent, The Baffler, N + 1, The New Inquiry, and Jacobin. I even have a Twitter account, which I sometimes scroll when Facebook’s procrastinatory utility is expended. I follow a handful of radicals. They’re brilliant, and there’s a contingent that’s serious about reaching larger audiences. But a greater part of the tweets make me nervous. There’s a 140-character limit, and a recklessness of cool pervades every syllable, replicating the capitalist status anxiety they’re so intent on subverting. Though I agree with eighty percent of what they have to say, they’re not saying it to America. They’re saying it to themselves. And if they say it to America the way they say it to themselves, they might as well not say anything at all.

III.

There’s a small town an hour south of Atlanta. I know it well. My grandmother had twin sisters who slunk below the Mason Dixon after World War Two. They fell in love with returning sailors in Manhattan, both of whom were southerners. The twins exchanged their Jewish tenements for the Bible Belt, and never looked back. One of the two couples ended up in Williamson, Georgia, and one of the daughters from that marriage stayed in the area, married a soldier, and raised two sons of her own. She also reconnected with her relatives up north. When I went to college at Emory University, I savored weekends and holidays with her family. I fished with the neighbors, partied with the young adults, and frequented events at the local church. I even got invited to the “Caboose Club,” comprised of a group of older men (including the mayor) who meet once a week in the abandoned car of a freight train, to nibble on eggs and sip on coffee at the break of dawn. A confederate flag presides across one wall, and an elk head obtrudes from the other.

This past visit I go horseback riding with a gentleman who recently lost his wife from cancer. The two of them, close friends of my family in Williamson, attended my boot camp graduation at Parris Island back in 2006. They greeted me with photographs of the husband as a recruit on the same island, right when Vietnam was trudging along. He won the company’s highest shooter award then. I hardly passed the minimum requirement, and the three of us chuckled about the disparity. In the pickup truck, on the way to the campground and park, with the horse trailer rumbling behind, I nervously deliver my condolences. “I know she always wanted to teach me how to ride,” I say. “I’m just grateful you’re going out of your way to fulfill the promise, especially at such a difficult time.” He nods his head. There’s a moment of silence. “No,” he says. “This is exactly where I want to be.”

About an hour later, on the trail, after a good forty-five minutes of traipsing through rolling woods, he turns back to me. “Hey young man, you ready to run?” “Yes, sir,” I say. “All right, hold fast to the bridle with one hand and grip the back of the saddle with the other.” “Got it, Sir.” “And watch your head.” And then we’re off, cutting sharp turns and ducking hanging limbs. (On Facebook, later that day, I’m quick to brag about it as my CLINT EASTWOOD MOMENT.) We stop at a burger place on the drive home. “Sleepless in Seattle” booms from the television. Plaques adorn the restaurant, mostly replete with religious aphorisms. My elder reads off one of them. “Love is the key to happiness.” He grunts. I take it as a cue. “I tend to think life is about something more complicated than happiness,” I say. “If I’m forced to say what that is, I guess I’d say it’s about struggle.” He seems to agree. We finish our burgers.

That evening, I attend a birthday party at the church. It’s for another one of my dear friends in Williamson, an 87-year-old man who taught me to fish my very first stay. The space is packed with over 170 people. I’m situated across a garrulous schoolteacher who discovers I’m a PhD candidate. He asks me what I study, and I tell him American history. He lights up. He says American history is his favorite subject, and we Christians ought to cherish our national heritage, especially now that it’s under attack by a Marxist president. I try to meet him halfway by waxing romantic about community. Meanwhile, dozens of lively personalities ascend to the stage to reminisce about the honored guest. They speak in thick drawls, stringing one charming colloquialism to the next. I’m overwhelmed by their ease of speech and theatrical force, as if they were all studied actors or comics. On the other hand, there’s a sincere flood of emotion.

When I climb up to the platform with my cousin, she’s already in tears. She had it rough through the years, with dysfunctional parents and drug addicts as brothers. The birthday boy served as one of her great ballasts as she established a glowing clan of her own, like an angel dispatched from the heavens. This is a running theme with a number of the speakers. I follow her moving words with Jewish self-deprecation, which half the room seems to appreciate. I talk about the city versus the country, and how Williamson taught me about the virtues of the latter. I tell the audience I love my family down south and that I love their town. I tell the celebrated octogenarian, just a few feet below me, that I love him too. I almost cry. He beams. Everyone claps. I return to my seat.

-Lyle Jeremy Rubin, guest contributor