Idle Chatter and Cheap Identification
July 12, 2010

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...
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So at the end of yesterday’s post, I was going to explain why I think that a lot of new media tools—Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, and, of course, Tumblr—are the latest, weirdest, and in some ways most seductive form of what Kierkegaard called idle chatter.

While the problem is by no means limited to the New York City new media scene, I’m going to focus there for the purposes of this post because I’d wager it’s pretty resonant to a lot of my readers. And even for those who aren’t embedded in that ecosphere, it’s pretty instructive.

The problem is that all these social media tools offer something I like to call cheap identification as a convincing substitute for the sort of deep soul-searching that Kierkegaard considered our mind’s real nourishment. Think of it this way: Cheap identification is to introspection as cotton candy is to real food. It’s sweet and delicious, but it won’t assuage your hunger. If you try to use it for those ends, you’ll end up just feeling kind of ill.

Cheap identification works like this: Subject A feels sad. Subject A posts something about feeling sad on the social media venue of his choice. Subject B, who is also sad, reads Subject A’s post about how Subject A feels sad and thinks, “Wow! Subject A’s problems are just like my problems!”

Superficially, it feels like a meaningful exchange of some kind has taken place. Subject B feels a little less lonely, and might even reciprocate by leaving a supportive comment that will, in turn, make Subject A feel less lonely as well. More to the point, if Subject A is in New York and even loosely plugged into the various new media goings-on there, then this is a savvy career movie. After all, exposing your personal pain to the world is how Emily Gould snagged herself a book deal. People—especially relatively well-off, also plugged-in, educated cool kids like yourself—eat this stuff up.

And so there’s pressure not just to produce autobiographical navel-gazing, but to produce it consistently. And pretty soon there’s a big surplus of all these sad young literary people talking about their problems with each other and identifying over it.

The problem—and this is why I hasten to call it cheap identification—is that at some point you have to ask yourself: To what end? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writers using themselves as subjects. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with “oversharing.” But self-expression or identification without insight is hollow, even when the direct, personal level on which it is performed disguises that fact. It’s not a way of confronting  and surmounting despair, but of anesthetizing it through these self-indulgent rituals.

Everyone needs a little sugar to some extent. But when identification becomes its own end, it’s just a form of mutual, narcissistic self-confirmation. Subject A writes about Subject A’s problems because that’s what Subject A is monomaniacally obsessed with, to the point where there’s no broader, universal point. Subject B continues to eagerly identify with Subject A because it validates Subject B’s own deeply ingrained self-interest.

That’s my objection to Emily Gould, to the vast proliferation of more or less redundant memoirs in American publishing, and to stuff like the Awl’s Diary of an Unemployed Class of ‘10 Philosophy Major. With regards to the latter, this is a guy who spent four years studying philosophy, and he seems to think the most interesting thing he has to offer us are glum, shallow bon mots about what it feels like to not do a whole lot. It’s a horrible waste of a soapbox.

If I’ve mostly shied away from revealing any details about my past or personal life, that’s why. I’m talking about a really easy trap for anyone to fall into, and nobody can be blamed for it. Hell, I’m not even exempting myself from this sort of behavior, not by a long shot.

But it’s choking the life out of us as a group. It’s numbing us, and it’s hobbling our ability to confront what are very real problems in a responsible, meaningful way. We’re too distracted, and we’re too busy staring in the mirror.

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Emoting Versus Insight Online
July 11, 2010

Sketch for Twitter. See also the author's desc...
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When I wrote about Kierkegaard and despair just under a week ago, it was intended to setup a longer discussion on the related concept of “idle chatter.” Circumstances—most notably CPNC—got in the way of an immediate followthrough, but now I’m glad I waited, since it gave my thoughts some time to gestate. Plus, in the mean time, my friend Cody Brown pointed me towards an excellent lecture delivered at West Point earlier this year. The name of it: Solitude and Leadership.

Today I want to write about the “Solitude” part of that equation, and how it relates to idle chatter. Here is how Clare Carlisle characterized idle chatter in a column for the Guardian:

He suggested that one symptom of this mass evasiveness is “idle chatter” – a phenomenon that he thought was institutionalised in the press. Whether frivolous or pretentious, tabloid or broadsheet, idle chatter is fuelled by “curiosity” and a nihilistic thirst for novelty. This superficial kind of interest can be contrasted with the existential passion that Kierkegaard identified with our spiritual life. One can only wonder what he would have made of the media in the 21st century, where “news”, “opinion” and “comment” proliferate more than ever before. Should we regard this as a sign of flourishing culture, or of spiritlessness?

 Now here is William Deresiewicz in “Solitude and Leadership”:

It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like dutyhonor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

This is idle chatter by another name. And whereas Deresiewicz frames the seeking of solitude and reflection as something necessary to be a good leader, I’m inclined to make the stronger argument: that by failing to do this, all of us can at times inflict great psychological deficits upon ourselves.

Anyone who has access to this post is capable of doing tremendous self-harm. And it’s not overt, immediately recognizable self-harm, but something more akin to abusing prescription medication. And while, as Deresiewicz himself is quick to point out, this hunger for distraction is nothing new, I do think some of the new social media tools he singles out—and any number of other ones, up to and including Tumblr—is that they have gotten remarkably good at offering the illusion of something deeper. Rather than simple diversion, they offer a form of identification that less interactive mediums were never capable of. There are staggering benefits to that, sure—but some of the philosophical implications are deeply unsettling.

Before I get into that, though, I’m going to bow to the medium’s demand for concision. So more on this later.

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July 5, 2010

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch...
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I’ve been meaning to write about Kierkegaard on this blog for awhile, both because he’s a direct predecessor to a lot of the people I’ve mentioned here—Sartre, Beauvoir, Heidegger and Camus, to name a few—and because I find the structure of his existentialist philosophy really prescient, if not necessarily all of the content (more on that later).

Kierkegaard believed that to be a conscious person is to be in despair. This despair comes from the inability to reconcile two opposing forces in your consciousness; he would say, in The Sickness Unto Death, that there exists an irreconcilable tension between necessity and finitude on one side, and possibility and infinitude on the other. Or, to put it another way: you are torn between your inescapable corporeal, biological nature, and your desperate hunger to ascend to a higher spiritual plane and unite with God.

Long-time readers can probably anticipate where I would take issue with some of the theological elements of that philosophy. But the concept of a dialectical struggle within each and every one of us appeals to me, and it’s an obvious antecedent to some more palatable (i.e. secular) existentialist concepts like Heidegger’s anxiety and Sartre’s views on facticity and nothingness.

But what interests me most about Kierkegaard’s despair is how he suggests with deal with it: through direct confrontation. By scrutinizing, confronting, and coming to understand our despair, he says, we ascend through higher levels of it. These heightened states of despair may be more painful, but they are also a higher level of existence, as someone in the upper echelons of despair is that much closer to achieving some kind of synthesis between the opposing forces with him him, and (according to Kierkegaard, anyway) establishing a personal relationship with God.

What interests me here is the idea that we must directly confront the things about ourselves and the questions about the universe that trouble us the most, even if doing so might be excruciating. Kierkegaard’s observations on how to try to avoid doing just that are even more astute—I’ll get to those soon.

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Parsing the Philosophy of Infinite Jest
June 13, 2010

RIP David Foster Wallace
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Back, guys. And since before the weekend I wrote a little bit about David Foster Wallace and alluded obliquely to his influence on my own thought, I figured I should begin by clarifying a little bit.

As I’ve said before, literary criticism and philosophy are two great tastes that don’t necessarily always go great together—a philosopher can only critically analyze explicit arguments, and any work of literature that explicitly spells out some kind of unified thesis probably isn’t very good. This causes problems when trying to engage with literature from the perspective of academic philosophy.

Nonetheless, I think we can parse some philosophical ideas out of Infinite Jest, especially when it’s viewed in the context of Wallace’s other work.

Infinite Jest is about entertainment, and the ways in which we use it to try and satisfy a spiritual need which it can’t possibly fulfill. Kierkegaard talks about “idle chatter” as the thing which we use to distract ourselves from our own feelings of existential despair, and I think Wallace believes that the modern toys of distraction (which can mean anything from television to hard drugs) exist to do the same. The only problem is that these things don’t offer anything approaching a stable, permanent balm for that feeling of suffering and loneliness, but instead raise the threshold required to alleviate it next time around. That’s why you don’t see a great deal of correlation between material wealth and overall happiness.

What makes things significantly more complicated is that the cure, in many respects, can seem worse than the disease. Identification with various religions, philosophies, political ideologies and so on can be spiritually fulfilling in a way that mere entertainment isn’t, but they that effect is often only accomplished through a surrender of one’s critical faculties and individual identity. And while the 12th century Crusader hacking his way through Jerusalem may feel an enviable sense of serenity and certainty, there’s no getting around the fact that these things come attached to a values system that is brutish, cruel, myopic, and, well, Medieval.

I read Infinite Jest as Wallace’s attempt to strike some kind of balance between these forces, or at least interrogate what that would look like.

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