High-speed internet response, millions of Google responses to our searches, a growing number of colorful Apps on our phones and an amazing computer memory capacity may support buying and selling, but it may not advance human self-development, not only in regard to a critical understanding but also in regard to a social moral sense, says Joseph Natoli.
“[I]t is foolish presumption to go around disdaining and condemning as false whatever does not seem likely to us.” – Montaigne, 1572
“In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” – Oscar Wilde, A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated, 1894
Published on http://truth-out.org
As a New York Times front page article explains it, Facebook can afford to pay as much as 19 million dollars for WhatsApp, a messaging service for smartphones, because it “can’t afford to lose mind share and time share to competitors.” (February 21, 2014) WhatsApp’s daily record is 27 billion messages. At the same time I am reading this news, I am reading Richard Howard’s introduction to the Modern Library edition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a seven-volume novel containing the longest sentence in the history of literature. You could call this sort of writing the antithesis of the tweet. In this intro, Howard pretends to be introducing Proust to the readers of today: “But the real trouble new readers have with your book . . . is the length. . . . Well, American readers are likely to be in a hurry – they haven’t time, they often say.”
The concurrence of all this leads me to wonder about “mind share and time share” and whether the whole new game we are in regarding both readers and writers, reading and writing, gives us a greater or lesser share of our own minds. Proust struggles to own his own life by owning his own memories, by taking full possession of their import, and inspires every reader, as Howard puts it, “to redeem his own past, to regain the time.” This to me seems radically different from the effort of huge technology companies to own “mind share.”
As a writer and a reader, I need to find time to pursue this.
One of the questions I was asked in the course of editing the SUNY Press book series Postmodern Culture from 1991-2009 had to do with the demotion of truth to truth stories and whether the world would then be awash in opinions. Chaos would come again. I suggested that we have always been living in a truth story world, one in which stories/opinions formed “ignorant armies which clashed by night,” in Matthew Arnold’s words. Our army of course has The Truth on its side and theirs does not. No politician, professor or preacher will append to their truth the words “Of course this is a story I’m telling which seems to fit now, but it may change down the road or from a different perspective.” No societal order of things survives long if it makes such an admission of cultural relativism, though any scan of history will show that societies try on and discard truth stories like avid shoppers trying on shoes.
In a post-truth world we pretend not to be relativists, but practice relativism; we pretend to respect empirical evidence and rational argument, but hold our own opinions as superior; we acknowledge a hierarchy of gatekeepers of truth but at the same time do not. We ourselves are the Final Gatekeeper.
An opposing story would point out that empirical evidence adhering to a scientific method would, if not able to find The Truth, as least discard what is false, the bullshit. Let us call this “The Truth is Out There” story. Argument for what is the case needs to be validated by facts and those facts presented as evidence validating a hypothesis. What begins as a postulation, an opinion, is cemented by such fact and evidence as truth. What was a story must now rise to a higher level based on its rational grounding. This story then of a secure road to truth is not a story but itself a reliable method of universal applicability. The gatekeepers of this reliable method are recognized in a societal order of things. They deny admittance to those who claim the truth only because they “like” something or because they “personally prefer” or deny something because it’s “whatever” to them or “just your opinion.” There is an authorized foundation to truth that these gatekeepers of truth defend. They can winnow the germ of truth from the chaff of bullshit, bullshit being an aggressive form of opinion trumpeted loudly and often, which is yet another workable definition of politics.
So within which story do writers write and readers read? What are the expectations of each? We need to find out what’s up by assuming a “boots-on-the-ground” approach, by which I mean witness how we in the United States are thinking and behaving. We can then decide which of these two views more closely represents that thinking and behaving.
What we see is a “reality” in which text has been sidelined by “texting,” essays are always personal opinion blogs or op-ed pieces, questions you haven’t asked yourself are uninteresting and therefore personally meaningless, your recognition of opinions as yours or different than yours has to be almost immediate, and socially effective writing sends a message and does not wander in search of one. We also see a reality in which attempts to trump your opinion are being made by authorizing a “truer” story than your own, attempts to own “mind share” and place it at the service of profit making, attempts to “monetize” that share of your mind. “The Truth is Out There” story meshes with a pandering to the sovereignty of your personal opinion to fashion a very effective branding approach.
Let us acknowledge that a globalized techno-capitalist world is a very complex world, not only because national complexity is now saturated with global complexity, but also because cybertech has actually given us an alternative world, a parallel world – and for many, an alternative reality that they prefer. At the same time, how we proceed to separate bullshit from truth, fiction from fact, story from reality has been both drastically simplified and astoundingly expanded. I mean that part of our sense of personal freedom is tied to our belief that what the truth of anything may be stands now before The High Court of Personal Opinion. That is indeed a drastic simplification of how to know the world. Astoundingly expanded because everyone now stands on equal footing in this pursuit of truth and reality because everyone has his or her own opinion, or at least believes they do. In the final analysis, whether we like or dislike something has the most to do with how individuals demonstrate and defend their individualism. This has an exceedingly welcome ring to it for Americans. And the idea that an individual opinion is not to be shoved aside within some hierarchy that offends our sense of democracy has the ring of true democracy to it.
The deeply embedded American story of individual freedom linked to our own free choices, opinions and preferences is also linked to market interests and the need to own “mind share.” A meshing of branding techniques with personal preferences is for us now a path to choosing our own identities. This unfortunately results in hostility toward what does not oblige our preferences. If knowledge growth depends on encountering what may contest such preferences, we are in a vicious circle of no growth, one designed by the implanted story that we assume we are self-designing.
All of this has been a story answering the question “What’s up?” An interpretive descriptive story of what reality we are in, of how we think and behave. But it is also, regardless of the aspirations, a story, a truth story that can be countered with another story of how we presently think and behave. Every writer now faces the complexities in both acknowledging a truth story world or in telling a story denying a truth story world, both claiming impeccable Truth credentials. Once a quandary like this hits the stage, and it has in our millennial post-truth world, there is no exit. A writer who wants to reach his audience has not a public audience adhering to shared stories; a reader has no frame of reference beyond their own “Like” and “Whatever.”
Before the advent of worldwide internet connectivity, writers had to be “published” to be read – which meant publishers, as well as agents and critics, acted as gatekeepers. Readers grew up reading what was taken to be writing, fiction or non-fiction, which was authorized in some critical fashion. So both the writer and the reader were, in the-not-too-distant past, say before the 1990s, in a tighter and more identifiable relationship than what exists now. Readers incline now to be unimpressed by a writer’s authority of subject (because they themselves are the final authority), and writers have zero idea of their readership, unless of course they are writing for a diminishing number of academic journals, or, of course, on WhatsApp and associates. A reader who self-authorizes an opinion that cannot be proven false can be a self-published writer in cyberspace. Writers swell and advance like a locust plague, themselves also readers inundated by an infinite flow of writing.
Writers, whether “old school” and once upon a time refereed or self-authorized in cyberspace, direct their writing now to an audience in the same fashion a rock star crowd-surfs: you have no idea who’s there to receive you or what the reception will be. And because no writing in such a situation can properly restrict or target an audience, responses span the depth and breadth of human nature itself. Not a small part of Shakespeare’s genius was to write something for every segment of his audience.
The cyberspace answer has been a restriction of audience to social media “friends,” and more confined, to even fewer friends, as in WhatsApp, Viber, Line, WeChat, AIM, Skype and GTalk. Writing for a public audience is now displaced with writing for a private audience. There are obvious difficulties writing pro bono publico when public always means private or something archaic easily replaced by a Facebook post or a blog rant or screed. And so new problems loom. Essentially privatizing public/social communication with the disingenuous tag “social media” generates an “information/knowledge” world that is fractal, private and diverging rather than cohesive, public and unifying. Unhappily ironic then the democratization that we see in regard to reading and writing can actually create private enclaves of thought and expression, a sort of 21st century return to Babel, in which there is no public understanding, but only countless tribes of private understanding. Media forces stroke the flames of their own cohorts or go on as if there existed a lingua franca;that all disputants could speak and understand, a voice of Universal Reason. You need to watch the PBS Newshour to get a good view of this latter approach, or review President Obama’s tenure thus far. We need to resurrect Philip K. Dick in order to fully imagine a world in which, say, the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address would go viral in some places while Charlie Bit My Finger would go viral elsewhere, and neither would be comprehensible to the other.
A writer also now has a very pronounced problem regarding “frame of reference,” which James Wolcott believes has undergone acute shrinkage in our Digital Age. (Critical Mass, Random, 2013) Will there be an historical memory of tweets and texts? And before we get to that, will it be possible for a writer to reference beyond the criteria of “Like” and “Whatever”? What sort of historical memory will a reader have that will enable that reader to read outside an enclosed space of friends? Much depends on whether memory vanishes as quickly as yesterday’s Twitter and Facebook postings. One of the tips Richard Howard gives Proust regarding his audience is that “for new American readers in the twenty-first century, the time you keep referring to as lost . . . is over and done with, of no account.” Any search for the past, he tells Proust, “is an unlikely, even an unlikeable enterprise.” If the past is a storehouse of what may challenge the stories of reality we live in, even our own personal stories, it seems vital to human growth, though it may frustrate profit making.
Whether a writer or a reader “Likes” a post-truth world or the democratization of writing, or the disappearance of “old school” eminence in the chaos of cyberspace, or the loss of publisher and critic gatekeepers, or the disappearance of the public intellectual as a face in the crowd, or the art of the essay collapsed into a tweet, or a public communication devolved into myriad private texts is immaterial and unproductive. The same holds true if one bemoans the post-truth/My Opinion world and yearns for universally accepted rules of judgment, for a Golden Road to The Truth we were all on, but, in truth, were never on. Whether I like Skype best, hate email, prefer an Android to an iPhone, need more characters for my tweets, or have a favorite App and so on is indeed a personal matter rather like preferring apples to oranges.
Preferences themselves have not changed the present dilemmas writers and readers face. Proust could have been a WhatsApp user at the same time he was writing the longest sentence in literature. Our difficulties have to do with the Pandora’s Box of countless voices that now seek our attention, the obstinacy of our own opinion formed without critical interpretation, the dangers of assuming bundles of information coming very fast give us the peace and wisdom we may seek, the collapse of social discourse into private conversation, and the ways in which a Market Rule now operating in the dual realities of the real and virtual worlds pushes us toward pursuing only what leads to profit. And writers and readers are linked to these difficulties, namely, communication overload, the disappearance of any respected critical interpretation, the linking of instantly accessible information in cyberspace to knowledge and human development, the privatization of both writing and reading, and a Market Rule determination of meaning and value.
Given this state of affairs, we, as reader and writers, first ought to deny ourselves the trump card of personal opinion and preference and engage texts antithetical to both. A kind of cultural solipsism has developed in which we think we are the Gatekeepers of Truth and that Truth need never be more than what we want to be true. We already know that what may be “whatever” to us may be vital to the well being of others but the politics emerging from this societal concern rather than our own has not been the dominant politics in the United States since Reagan.
We need to more openly admit what we already know, that at some point high-speed internet response, millions of Google responses to our searches, a growing number of colorful Apps on our phones, and an amazing computer memory capacity may support buying and selling but may have little to do with human self-development, not only in regard to a critical understanding but also in regard to a social moral sense. An infinite amount of available information on a smartphone in your hand has yet an unknown relationship with the judgment that is shaped by experience and the ability to interpret toward greater understanding.
If you accept the story that we tell stories of the world and ourselves and live within those stories, you recognize that imagination is crucial, that imagining beyond a present reality frame is a needed faculty. And though Market Rule represents the verb “to innovate” as synonymous with “to imagine,” the former is tied to technology and profit while the latter, in Samuel Coleridge’s view, shapes a new reality by synthesizing parts into whole, reconciling opposites and forging a unity from disparateness.
Whether or not the growing complexity of the world can best be interpreted meaningfully by privatizing discourse in the form of “hashtag” declarations, Smartphone texting, and Facebook posts is yet to be decided. Given the present asymmetrical arrangement of wealth and power in the US today, it seems wiser for writers and readers not to assume that their quest for meaning and understanding possesses the innocence of a disinterested rationality. An effective interpretation under present circumstances compels us, as Gilles Deleuze reminded us, to determine the force that gives sense to anything, including ideas, events, and behaviors. The forces that have led to a present plutocracy are not conspiratorial but axiomatic within the logistics of Market Rule that proceeds algorithmically, all algorithms aimed at maximization of profit.
In the end, we would all be better off if we develop a sustained attentiveness to engage those interpretations, not our own, which seek to disclose what gives or denies sense to our stories. A co-operative interpretive effort rising above “Like” and “Whatever” may wind up doing a better job of meeting the challenges of our global techno-capitalist world than a retreat to solipsistic digital spaces. Such cooperation implies that readers are willing to reach for meanings that do not immediately accommodate their own preferences and prejudices. Writers in turn recognize only a long path of reading toward understanding and learning through social experiences lead to meaningful writing. Both situations would lead to greater silence than is current in our post-truth age.
We can, of course, like Rumi, imagine a world that always exceeds our storymaking and enjoy its fullness in silence:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and right doing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
– Rumi 13th century