Monday, May 28, 2012

Notes on Technology

Heidegger was an optimist. His adherence to dialectical form in the face of technology's challenge marks him, in fact, as a utopian idealist. The H-man is so enfolded in the forms of dialectical thought that technology (as he defines it) simply must contain, at the core of its essence, a dialectical reversal of the order of technology... But what if it doesn't? What if the core of technology's essence is a mass-anesthetizing black hole from which nothing emerges except profit?

The only question concerning technology asked by the present generation is, "What's next from Apple?" They seek not a mystical 'saving' force but a slimmer, faster iPad.

Wikipedia is positively medieval, a vast Gothic cathedral of information constructed by anonymous artisans. It departs from the medieval model only in this: the stonemasons of the Middle Ages did not permit village idiots to carve their capitals.

The real problem concerning technology is not that it alienates us from the transcendental good/god of Heideggerian Being, but that it alienates us from the mundane reality of ourselves and others.

"What the hell are you taking about?" the techno-utopian asks. "My computer doesn't alienate me; it connects me to the entire world." The fallacy here lies in the idea that communication and alienation are necessarily mutually exclusive. Your computer connects you to the entire wired and wireless world, but this 'connection' is, upon examination, a sentimental illusion generated to mask a purely electronic reality. Computers connect only to other computers, and the communication they enable is so radically disembodied that we can never be certain we are interacting with a human being at the connection's other end.

Maybe the other end of that chatroom heart-to-heart was a computer statistically programmed to give you the answers you desired, the digi-tech equivalent of the old Magic 8-Ball.

Time spent with a computer is time lost with an actually present human being.

If Derrida had not already existed to demonize the "metaphysics of presence," Mark Zuckerberg would've been forced to pay someone to invent him.

If you don't suspect that your computer is impoverishing your life, that life has probably never been rich enough for the difference to be noticeable.

The vast virtual world of online pornography throws the problem of technology into sharp relief. Every time we masturbate to online porn (and don't even try to pretend you don't), we give a corporation the keys to our psyches, we let the multinational that owns our internet service provider know exactly what gets us off, the exact image that produces the most intense pleasure of our physical lives. Now ask yourself: How much would an advertising firm pay for that database?

Online porn is the ultimate commercialization of jouissance.

Every improvement in communications technology is also a further refinement of totalitarianism. The Nazis burned books and distributed radios.

Just as the fatal weakness of student movements lies in the fundamental fact that they are student movements, drawing their membership from a temporary and transient population, the fatal weakness of online protest lies in its virtual quality. Real protest can only happen in the streets, where it will eventually be met with batons, pepper spray and bullets.

The problem with Occupy Wall Street was that they brought a computer to a gunfight. The next Occupation must prepare to defend its encampments the way those Egyptians in Tahrir Square defended theirs: militarily.

But there will probably be no "next Occupation." Occupy already appears destined for a small corkboard display in the Museum of Leftist Nostalgia.

The technological death of privacy is a disaster for the imagination. Those human mysteries that once teased us into imaginative thought are now posted on Facebook for the world to read. In our unmysterious interpersonal world, Tolstoy would be an engineer.

Where is the space for original sexual fantasy--the most imaginative exercise most human beings ever engage in--in a world where internet pornography is but a keystroke away, offering an encyclopedic array of fetishistic satisfactions?

Few things in our technowelt are more ridiculous than online arguments: impassioned, heated, but ludicrously slow-motion exchanges between strangers who exist for each other only as caricatures abstracted from their previous statements, as though the entire situation occurs only to confirm the postmodernist concept of the individual as a discourse construction. Safe behind fortress walls of mediation, the anonymous arguers hurl insults and frame bons mots they would never have had the courage or quickness to create in the heat of genuine human interaction (the face-to-face kind).

Online conversation is to real conversation what internet sex is to bareback fucking.

Rest assured, I fully appreciate the savage irony of writing these anti-technological notes on a blog.

The internet today is an ideal model of an absolutely corporatist world in which governments have withered away and corporations control everything (even access to the world) and dissenting voices are given relative freedom to rant and ramble only because this is still a model and not the real world... How long will this distinction hold?

The mass media discourse of American political culture, separating our political life into a manichean Liberal vs. Conservative opposition, serves the media corporations' ideological goal of concealing the truly dominant ideology of our time, corporate capitalism or, more concisely, corporatism. Corporations distract us with political circuses while they steal all of our bread.

The generation of Americans now coming to adulthood has never known a non-digital life. They are a generation so thoroughly technologized that they see technology not as a threat but as a basic fact of existence, an unproblematic condition. Like the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen in the air or the presence of salt in seawater, technology seems a natural thing that cannot be 'thought' as a problem. This is the true legacy of Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg.

Does technology make us dumber? Socrates thought so (see the Phaedrus and beware its bottomless ironies) and the case can still be made. Information that can be immediately accessed online need not be learned, need not be internalized, need not become authentic knowledge, something deeply known. Just as the corporatization of the university is transforming it from a site of education to a place of vocational training, so the technologization of thought transforms knowledge into information, a distinction best understood thus: information is something we use; knowledge is something we are. Knowledge is the brick and mortar of our subjectivity; information always remains an object outside us, something used for a specific purpose and quickly discarded. The triumph of information is the death of human subjectivity.

What is to be done? I have yet to hear an answer to that question that does not strike me as hollow, sentimental, nostalgic, utopian. So here's my hollow, sentimental, nostalgic, utopian answer: I believe that in works of the imagination, works of art, we can find a privileged space for opposition to the hegemonic ideology of our time, a kind of Archimedes point from which that ideology might be shaken, moved, even--at a utopian vanishing point I dare not gaze at for fear of blindness--overthrown. I believe that art not only can but must be more than mood music for power (a phrase I steal from Robert Hughes's Shock of the New, betraying my Modernist bias). I believe that art can pierce us more deeply than intellectual argument because it directly attacks our senses. I believe that any artist who does not work toward this end is asleep at the wheel. I believe that both Nietzsche and Picasso, both Rilke and Freud, both Proust and Sartre, are great philosophers because they are first and foremost great artists. And I believe that any artist who works authentically will ineluctably create oppositional art, for authenticity is everything that corporatism comes to crush.

The liberation of the imagination. That old Romantic avantgardish song and dance. This, strangely enough, is what is to be done.

But for now, turn off your computer and love the one you're with.

P.S.: My opinions may be crankier than a Model T engine, but that doesn't make them wrong.

A Metaphor for our Time

"Reality is a cliche from which we escape by metaphor." -- Wallace Stevens, Adagia

And metaphor, as Stevens also knew, is the anti-cliche in which we capture reality. Metaphor brings together two disparate electrodes until meaning arcs between them with a light that burns and brightens.

A metaphor for the present crisis: Corporate capitalism has run off its rails, plowed across an open field and smashed into a suburban housing development, demolishing a swath of middle-class homes, but capitalism's ideologues stand idly by and insist, like good Brezhnev-era commissars, that the system is fundamentally sound. "What rails, comrade?" the CNBC apparatchik insists in his thick Boris Badinov accent, "Train is supposed to run on ground."

Some Supposedly Great Books I Haven't Read (yet)

To begin, allow me a brief orgy of lit-geek bragging: I've read Infinite Jest (every jot, tittle, and footnote), and liked it enough to title this post with a DFW allusion; I've read Ulysses (so many times I've lost count--8 or 9, I think, over the course of 20 years, and I've read individual chapters more often); I've read Finnegans Wake (once end oundly ounced; eat teaks aleavetime to ride its wheel [pardon my truly awful mock-Wakish]); I've read In Search of Lost Time (once complete in Moncreiff's English, and parts of Swann's Way in French while sardined into the coach cabin of a flight from Paris to Detroit); I've read The Magic Mountain, The Recognitions, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Gravity's Rainbow (twice), Against the Day, Underworld, You Bright and Risen Angels, An American Tragedy, and many, many other books that ill-read philistines like to think no one really reads. (And chances are, if you're reading this, so have you.) If you've ever wandered into the literary fiction or criticism aisles of a Barnes and Noble and picked up a wristbreaking volume and asked, "Who reads this shit?" I'm probably the answer to your question.

But enough literary dick-measuring. This post is about the widely acknowledged great books that, for one reason or another, I haven't gotten around to reading (yet), the canonical books that remain closed to me. Since I can't say anything of interest about them, a bare list must suffice:

  • The Aeneid by Virgil
  • The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
  • Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
  • The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
  • The Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle
  • The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill
  • Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  • The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  • Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes
  • JR by William Gaddis
  • A by Louis Zukofsky
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I know, I know...that last one raises your eyebrows, doesn't it? "He hasn't read Jane Eyre?! What the fuck?!!?" People are always surprised when I tell them that. It's my sleeved ace in games of 'Humiliation.' I still don't understand how I was able to acquire a B.A. in English without being forced to read Jane Eyre at some point by a Victoriana-enthralled feminist prof. My only answer is: Without god, all things are possible. (To paraphrase a character in another of these books I haven't read.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Francoise Gilot and John Richardson on "Charlie Rose"

Charlie Rose justified his existence last night with a marvelous (as Mitt Romney might describe it) conversation about Picasso with John Richardson and Francoise Gilot. The entire episode can be viewed online at the show's website.Television this excellent is so rare on our American air that its infrequent appearances deserve praise in overplus. Of the artworks shown and discussed (currently on display at the Gagosian Gallery in NYC), the most interesting to me was a little-known oil from the early 1950s of Francoise wringing water from her hair: a loose, wet, drippy, contorted, Picassoan transformation of a Degas bather. If I had a fraction of Mitt Romney's money, I'd buy it off the Gagosian wall and repeat "Marvelous, marvelous" all the way home. Here it is: