Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, July 2, 2016

the unbought grace of the human self

Returning to Edward Mendelson’s essay “In the Depths of the Digital Age”: an essay about technology, some might say, as this is a blog about technology. But we’re not talking today about “technology” tout court; we’re talking about digital technologies, and more specifically digital communications technologies, and more specifically yet internet-connected digital communications technologies, and even more specifically — let’s get to the heart of the matter — that very recent variety of internet-connected digital communications technology that offers free “services” purported to connect us with one another, services whose makers read, sift, and sell the data that we provide them when we use their software.

The question that Mendelson most forcefully presses on us is: What selves are made by submission to these technologies?

The explicit common theme of these books [under review] is the newly public world in which practically everyone’s lives are newly accessible and offered for display. The less explicit theme is a newly pervasive, permeable, and transient sense of self, in which much of the experience, feeling, and emotion that used to exist within the confines of the self, in intimate relations, and in tangible unchanging objects — what William James called the “material self” — has migrated to the phone, to the digital “cloud,” and to the shape-shifting judgments of the crowd.

Mendelson does not say that this shift is simply bad; he writes of gains and losses. And his essay does not have a thesis as such. But I think there is one not-directly-stated idea that dominates his reflections on these books: Neither users of nor commentators on these social-media technologies have an adequate intellectual or moral vocabulary to assess the massive changes in selfhood that we have opened ourselves to. The authors of the books Mendelson reviews either openly confess their confusion or try to hide that confusion with patently inadequate conceptual schemes.

But if even the (self-proclaimed) expert authorities are floundering in this brave new world, what can we do to think better about what’s happening to always-connected, always-surveilled, always-signalling, always-assessing selves? One possibility: read some fiction.

I have sometimes suggested — see here, here, and here — that Thomas Pynchon ought to be a central figure for anyone who wants to achieve some insight and clarity on these matters. And lo and behold, this from Mendelson:

In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), an engineer named Kurt Mondaugen enunciates a law of human existence: “Personal density … is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.” The narrator explains:

“Temporal bandwidth” is the width of your present, your now…. The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.

The genius of Mondaugen’s Law is its understanding that the unmeasurable moral aspects of life are as subject to necessity as are the measurable physical ones; that unmeasurable necessity, in Wittgenstein’s phrase about ethics, is “a condition of the world, like logic.” You cannot reduce your engagement with the past and future without diminishing yourself, without becoming “more tenuous.”


And Mendelson suggests that we use this notion of “temporal bandwidth” to think about how investments in social media alter our experience of time — and especially our relationship to the future.

Another example: Virginia Woolf is cited five times in this essay, perhaps surprisingly — what does Virginia Woolf have to do with technology? But — I’m not just a friend of Mendelson’s but also a pretty careful reader of his work — I have noticed that as we have gotten deeper into our current socially-digital age Woolf’s fiction has loomed larger and larger in Mendelson’s thinking. Mrs Dalloway is the subject of the wonderful final chapter of Mendelson’s The Things That Matter — a superb book I reviewed here — and that chapter would make a fine primer for the shaping of a model of selfhood adequate to the world, and able to stand up to models that are reductive and simplistic enough to be bought and sold in the marketplace.

One might not think that Pynchon and Woolf have much in common — but Mendelson thinks they do, and thinks that the visions and portrayals of selfhood they provide are profoundly useful correctives to the ones we’re being sold every day. I’ll close this post with a quotation from a brief essay by Mendelson in which he makes the link between the two writers explicit:

Like all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and, despite their misplaced reputation for high-tech cleverness, all of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, including his latest one, both books point toward the kind of knowledge of the inner life that only poems and novels can convey, a knowledge that eludes all other techniques of understanding, and that the bureaucratic and collective world disdains or ignores. Yet for anyone who has ever known, even in a crowded room, the solitude and darkness that Clarissa [Dalloway] and Oedipa [Maas] enter for a few moments, that experience, however brief and elusive, is “another mode of meaning behind the obvious” and, however obscured behind corruption, lies, and chatter, “a thing there was that mattered.”

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