Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday diversions: Is that the best we can do?

I am not familiar with Catherine Lacey or David Shields. I have not read Shields' books even though How Literature Saved My Life and Reality Hunger figure heavily in an interview Lacey did with Shields for the site HTMLGiant. I read that interview this morning, and I am troubled.

First there was the intro, which read a bit like a Saturday Night Live skit and was formatted like this:


-David Shields = highly self-conscious lab rat; David Shields = Canada

-Will the internet ever save anyone’s life?

-Bret Easton Ellis’s twitter feed

Following that, the piece begins promisingly enough, with Lacey touching on a self-imposed two week break from the internet during which she only answered a few emails on her phone and read Shields' How Literature Saved My Life. I was hoping for some worthy follow-up on that from both Lacey and Shields but that was not the case. While there are some important ideas running through the interview, too much of it is peppered with strange and bizarrely dramatic proclamations like Shields' stating "I use the internet as a tool to figure out where the war is being waged that day on our individual and collective minds."

(An aside here. Again, this kind of thinking seems so prevalent, and so constantly ignorant of the role that privilege and class play. How many in this country and others do not have steady or reliable access to the internet and technology in general? It is depressing to see the digital divide continuing to grow to the point where those who do not have this access are no longer even derided, they are simply non-existent. What fundamentally undermines so much of what Shields' is saying, rightly or wrongly, is summed up when he says "...when I am online I’m thinking as hard as I can about what this water is in which we’re all swimming." No. Really, no. We're not "all swimming" in that same water. A lot of people are "swimming" in the water of just trying to earn enough money at the job to put food on the table and in the kids' mouths.)

Near the end of the piece, things really unraveled for me. Shields' says "Steven Soderbergh is looking for 'a new grammar'; he’s weary of narrative prison of films. He’s seeking a new language by which to express himself. Hey, join the fucking club. How do we get there? You just know it’s out there, don’t you? Someone is going to make of a million Facebook posts or Twitter feeds an astonishing collage. See Christian Marclay’s The Clock. If that isn’t a model, I don’t know what is." He goes on to offer readers other "models" which include Danger Mouse's The Grey Album (I hope he is referring to Grey Tuesday and the collective online lashing out against corporate control of intellectual property and not just the album itself which, at best, is merely clever and entertaining) and, astonishingly, Bret Easton Ellis' Twitter feed. Yes. His Twitter feed, according to Shields, is actually saving either his or someone else's life. It's not entirely clear which. In Ellis' Twitter feed, Shields says "He is actively trying to figure out how to live, how to think, how to feel, post-Empire. He’s on it. He gets it, completely. He gets how to push back, how to be part of the culture and how to push back against ferociously it at the same time, to ignore it and transform it. He is a hugely catalyzing force for me." Obviously, I needed to investigate this for myself since, if these claims were true, I would certainly need to be following this feed on a daily basis. I followed the link and found, on the first page...

--four references to the band The Eagles and / or their album Hotel California

--a link to the new video from the band The Passion Pit

--a Tweet proclaiming "The band I am listening to the most right now is Tame Impala and their great record "Lonerism"

--six references to the HBO show Girls including "the almost unbearable pathos and honesty of the last two episodes makes everything else on TV seem like something we need to forget."

That is a model? Where is the "trying to figure out how to live, how to think, how to feel, post-Empire"? To me, it all looked an awful lot like masturbatory pop culture namedropping. Maybe it is unfair and grossly inaccurate to make any kind of assessment of Ellis' Twitter feed simply from the first page of Tweets, but you know what they say about first impressions.

So again, I am depressed. Deeply depressed. I would have thought that in order to turn off the internet, to rediscover literature and the life of the mind, to "figure out how to live, how to think, how to feel" I would want to do something like read the works of Heidegger and Kant, Franz Kafka and John Steinbeck, Chinua Achebe and bell hooks, and Neil Postman and Judith Butler to start. I didn't realize all I needed to do was follow someone's Twitter feed and watch Girls obsessively.

Look, I don't have a problem with television or enjoying it or Tweeting about it. None at all. That's actually the kind of thing that I would expect from a Twitter feed. Honestly, if you're going to Twitter looking for anything more than an entertaining link or a clever phrase, you're searching in the wrong place. And my own aesthetic life is absolutely full of similarly enjoyable but shallow pleasures. As dearly as I love the magazine, I would never pretend to elevate Heavy Metal and the comics of Moebius and Druillet above Herman Melville or Gloria Anzaldua or Mary Wollstonecraft. What depresses me so much is the way that things like Ellis' Twitter feed are propelled to level of Important Thinking. That this (Girls and the Eagles and namedropping other bands) is "how to live" at the expense of, well, everything else. Is it possible that we could ever look out at anything more complex and broader than what is immediately in front of our faces, or motivating our genitals, or stimulating that part of our mind that is addicted to clever snappy dialogue like it's cocaine? I found it almost paradoxical that in an interview which at some points alludes to "the slowness of books" in a positive light eventually devolves into a worship of the quick fix, the instantaneous world of "new media" and the never-ending worship of pop culture personalities.

Is this really the best we can do?

EDIT: One more addendum, mostly on Girls. Here's the thing. Ultimately, Girls seems to be a show with a fairly narrow focus. A narrative on the coming-of-age experiences of a group of privileged white girls in Brooklyn. Not for me, but no big deal there. But here's my issue. One of the most effective critiques leveled against fantasy literature, comic books, science fiction, videogames, and so on is that these things are childish. They appeal to us in ways that we should have apparently outgrown as we become mature adults. I don't agree with that much, but it at least does occupy some solid logical ground and can be a useful point of discussion. So if we can batter fantasy and science fiction with that critique, why is it acceptable for people in their mid-40s to be so obsessed with show like Girls which focus entirely on the experiences of 20-somethings? Should we as adults in our 30s, 40s, 50s and so on not have put those things aside and grown up? The hypocrisy is astounding.


  1. Love your last, the edit. People DO compartmentalise, they DO hold conflicting feelings simultaneously. As illogical and unreasonable as that may be, it may be the thing that separates us from machines.

    I don't watch much TV but for some reason what you just wrote really resonated with me.

  2. Damn right! Your addendum sums up many feelings I've been trying to express.

  3. Matt, it is a huge relief to read your aside, the one that talks about the fact that "A lot of people are 'swimming' in the water of just trying to earn enough money at the job to put food on the table and in the kids' mouths.)"

    I don't have my own kids, but, as an educator, I work with other peoples'. I take that responsibility seriously, which means that my world becomes very small when school is in session.

    I long to delve into my own drawing and writing, and I frequently click on links to this blog or that, hoping to read something which will liberate me from the bind in which I find myself: between commuting and working, I'm out of the house 12 hours a day; when I get home, I'm beat, but healthy living requires cooking and cleaning; and, having the presence of mind to show up for my students in productive and nourishing ways demands that I get something that approximates a sufficient quantity of sleep. I rest on the weekend, see my partner, fit in a friend, and do the chores that will prepare me for the week ahead.

    The message that I frequently encounter when I read blogs is that a person just needs to get up earlier or discipline themselves. I'm already doing all of that just so that I can do my job well and have a modicum of order in my life. Breaks are often spent just catching up on all that has had to go undone.

    And I'm one of the lucky ones. There are many people who work longer and harder and earn less than I do.

    I know that this response doesn't address the central theme of your post, but I was just so darn grateful to hear someone talk about how all-consuming it can be to simply earn a living--and to do so as if they care.

  4. I think that it's so easy to tap into others' day-to-day experience of living that we forget that what feels like a hive mind is still limited.

    (I say this as an avid lover of Twitter....I don't think anyone is curing disease or saving our souls there, though! It's just a tool for conversations. It's like a loud room full of some terrific folks, and it's easy to make that room smaller and invite more interesting voices in). While it might feel like everyone is on Twitter, definitely not everyone is on Twitter.

    I don't think your assessment of GIRLS is off in any way, necessarily--have you seen it? It is so painfully funny and's Woody Allen-ish, actually. It's like Annie Hall. There is something very smart and self-effacing about Lena Dunham's humor--that's what I always hope is seen in the show (that she is not holding her characters up as models of good behavior, but as highly-flawed young women with neurotic selves in flux).

  5. I had not expected such thoughtful responses. I will try to address each one.

    BUCK and RYAN, thank you. It is reassuring to know I am not the only one who has wrestled with these feelings and ideas.

    LAURIE, I found your comment very touching. Thank you for sharing that. I work in a public library, in a large urban area in Ohio. We serve an incredibly diverse group of patrons, from rural families to wealthy suburbanites to inner city poor. Some have homes full of smart phones and iPads, some desperately need our libraries just to be able to check their Hotmail accounts. Public libraries are in a volatile time. As some collections move toward becoming all-digital, we have to constantly question whether we are doing the greatest good. There are a lot of opposing voices and no clear way forward, but it troubles me that some of those voices seem to only follow the beat of technology forgetting that there are still so many that don't have that. I guess in a strangely symmetrical way, this comment of mine may not have addressed your central ideas, but I think we are very much on the same page here, in similar fields (both publicly supported, both dedicated to public service) and both equally troubled by what we see.

  6. And HANNAH...don't get me wrong. On a strictly personal level, I am still a bit baffled by and put off by Twitter, but not in such a way that I want to critique it out of existence. Twitter is like party conversation. We don't go to a kegger to get involved in conversations about the role of the camera frame and how that impacts the flow of time in Tarkovsky's films, we go to hang out and have a good time with friends. I agree with you that Twitter is for a specific kind of communication. I don't have any problems with that. But I am mystified when some, like Shields, point to Twitter feeds as if they were essential for something. That's where I begin to disconnect.

    As for Girls, no, I have not seen it at all and again I realize that it is simply not for me. I'm really not even the intended audience, but that is okay. I am happy Girls exists, I am happy that people like it. But again, what mystifies me is the elevation of the show (admittedly, by some of those writing ABOUT Girls and not necessarily those writing Girls) into something approaching Western canon.

    I feel like there is a real lack of balance in our consumption of pop culture. It's good to laugh, good to watch funny shows that poke fun at our own failings and show us the idiocy of all those late night hook-ups we fumbled through in our youth. But it's also good to read poetry. Real, challenging poetry. It's good to spend a few weeks with a book that really causes one to think about things beyond who might be going out that weekend. It's good to look up sometimes and wonder what's out there in space, or Heaven, or whatever. I don't see a lot of that in our books and films and shows anymore. I see a lot of Jersey Shore and Teen Moms and Girls and not much to balance the scales. It's balance I miss.


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