Friday, March 09, 2012

Textual Harassment

Chad Wellmon:

For Heinzmann, late eighteenth-century German readers suffered under a “reign of books” in which they were the unwitting pawns of ideas that were not their own. Giving this broad cultural anxiety a philosophical frame, and beating Carr to the punch by more than two centuries, Immanuel Kant complained that such an overabundance of books encouraged people to “read a lot” and “superficially." Extensive reading not only fostered bad reading habits, but also caused a more general pathological condition, Belesenheit [the quality of being well-read], because it exposed readers to the great “waste” [Verderb] of books. It cultivated uncritical thought.

...Carr’s recent and broadly well-received arguments wondering if Google makes us stupid, for example, rely on a historical parallel that he draws with print. He claims that the invention of printing “caused a more intensive” form of reading and, by extrapolation, print caused a more reflective form of thought—words on a page focused the reader.

...Even the form of intensive reading held up today as a dying practice, novel reading, was often derided in the eighteenth century as weakening the memory and leading to “habitual distraction,” as Kant put it. It was thought especially dangerous to women who, according to Kant, were already prone to such lesser forms of thought. In short, print did not cause one particular form of reading; instead, it facilitated a range of ever-newer technologies, methods, and innovations that were deeply interwoven with new forms of human life and new ways of experiencing the world.

Well, huh; I did not know that reading often and widely had ever been seen as anything less than a virtue. Learned something new today!

The widespread anxiety over the Internet age that people like Carr have profitably exploited is understandable. The pace of modern life does seem to be constantly accelerating. The robots and jetpacks we were promised have never materialized, and we work longer and harder for less reward. The basic principles of sustained concentration and deep thought that Carr seems to want to rescue are unobjectionable; I just think he's being ridiculous in acting as if they are fundamentally incompatible with being online. Perhaps he's even being a bit too generous in assuming that the majority of people who allow themselves to be easily distracted and overwhelmed while working on the computer were ever going to be sitting around composing sonnets and rondeaus, discussing science and listening to chamber music.

I value that sort of contemplation and reflection myself, of course. But I think I manage to engage in it fairly often despite being online many hours a day. I find plenty of arresting material online that captivates my attention and forces me to concentrate and contemplate, and I still manage to set aside a couple hours before sleep to read dead-tree books. Carr is almost determinist in his insistence that technology inevitably warps anyone who allows themselves to be contaminated by it. Yes, of course it requires time and effort that could be spent playing with our phones and checking our Facebook walls to sit down and write like this, but is it really the gadgets that eat up all of our time or is it the entire matrix of assumptions and purposes that accompany them?

In other words, without checking to see how much more eloquently Ellul and Mumford have already said this, the system that produces social media and smartphones is following a logic of its own, devoted to capital above all else, which has led us to this state where we work longer and harder than ever for less reward and security. If you're frazzled and stressed and can't sit still long enough to finish a long article, maybe your life is just too complicated and unbalanced. Maybe you're like countless other people who work too much to afford a bunch of shit they never have time to enjoy because they work all the time. Are you willing to make the sort of professional and social sacrifices it would take to have enough free time to read great books and write substantial letters to your friends? Are those Epicurean standards of refined, rarefied pleasure worth enough to you to become an underemployed hermit if need be, or are you fine with banal company and frivolous conversations? Yes, I'm afraid it's true -- people often want contradictory things, or they even profess to want one thing for the sake of respectability while secretly wanting another.

I mean, I agree that Twitter is like kudzu, but it's not like there's really a shortage of good long-form writing out there; someone's gotta provide the substantial content for all the twits to link to. I agree that it represents a fetishization of novelty above all else, a sea level of discourse, but in my experience, most people don't talk about much besides gossip and trivia in everyday life anyway. It's one of those unquestioned cultural understandings, that we should want to value contemplation and deep conversation while taking time to smell the flowers, but we're mostly content to just pay occasional lip service to it while continuing to live distractedly and suck the marrow out of a KFC Bucket Meal. But we don't ever ask ourselves if we really are the kind of people who value such things, and if not, whether that truly is some sort of moral failing. Blaming the nature of the Internet is itself just another way to procrastinate instead of pursuing that line of thought.

What annoys me about Carr's shtick is that it panders to the sort of educated suburbanites who like to flatter themselves as the sort of people who would write short stories and villanelles for pleasure but never seem to actually get around to doing it, the sort of people who have achieved the professional career, the nice house and family, but still have a nagging sense that they're missing out on something vital and a sense of guilt for finding themselves drawn to superficial entertainment in their free time. Instead of a more penetrating look at the necessity of our work and what we expect from it, or how far we're willing to go in sacrificing bourgeois respectability and success for the sake of personal contentment, we get this "Oh noes the Internet is eatin mah brainz" trendy neuropop.