About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Sunday, February 08, 2009
The end of solitude
Deresiewicz starts out with a three-way comparison among Romanticism, Modernism and Postmodernism (broadly intended as cultural eras), and it’s clear that the current “postmodern” climate isn’t his favorite: “if the property that grounded the self, in romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.” Well, maybe, but this seems much too sweeping a statement, and I for one certainly do not consider myself a postmodernist in any sense of the word! Still, Deresiewicz continues: “Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. … a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month.” Hmm, yes, that teenager does need her parents to restrain her a bit by buying a phone plan with a limited number of text messages allowed each month, but similar obsessive behaviors are easy to find among teenagers of any era, postmodernist or not, and usually these things gradually disappear as they enter into adulthood. I don’t know how much time teenagers of the romantic era spent writing poems to impossible lovers, but that can’t be that good for your health either, if it eats up most of your active time.
The following bit is perhaps the one where I disagree with Deresiewicz the most: “the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few … You cannot hear God when people are chattering at you.” Actually, if you can hear god at all, I suggest you need serious psychiatric treatment, and at any rate, if being alone is a spiritual experience reserved for few elected souls, then we don’t need to worry about the fact that modern technology is making it (allegedly) impossible for the masses.
Deresiewicz’s essay, as I said, is nuanced, and he does appreciate the advantages of modern technology, not just in terms of practical things, but also as far as social and personal psychological welfare are concerned. He mentions with approval the ability of minorities (say, gays) to connect with like minded people, or the ease with which we can keep in touch with friends and family who live thousands of miles away, but he still complains that the goal seems to be to just become known, to turn oneself into a “miniature celebrity” as he puts it. That is certainly one way to understand things, but perhaps what most people want is simply to communicate with others, to reach out to a larger swath of humanity, to feel like someone else is paying attention to them. Hardly the stuff that social commentators and mental health professionals should be worried about.
The really interesting part of the essay comes when Deresiewicz draws a parallel between the solitude-loneliness distinction and what he sees as the analogous idleness-boredom pair. Let’s start with the latter. Idleness is a state in which human beings can find themselves at times, say if they have the luxury of not working, or perhaps -- at the opposite extreme -- because they have been laid off from work. Deresiewicz sees idleness in romantic terms, and considers it a positive thing, a refuge from always having to be doing something. Boredom, by contrast, is a mental state that may overcome someone who is forced to be idle, and has an obviously negative connotation. The point is that idleness does not necessarily entail boredom; it can generate positive or negative emotions, depending on the circumstances and on one’s state of mind. (Full disclosure: I find myself always bored when I am idle, so I avoid the condition as if it were pestilence.)
The situation is analogous, for Deresiewicz, in the case of solitude and loneliness. He thinks that solitude is something that human beings should cherish, and that the modern equating of solitude with loneliness confuses a state of being that can be blissful with a negative emotion that it does not entail. If you spend a lot of time blogging, FaceBook-ing, texting, emailing, and so forth, then, you may be confusing loneliness with solitude, and put yourself in the situation of not being able to enjoy the latter for fear of the former.
This is, I think, a very good point, though it requires some further unpacking. I find myself in solitude for most of my day, for instance, closed in my office on campus or at home, writing papers, grant proposals, essays and books. I like it that way. I emerge during the day mostly to talk to my students and teach classes (and less productively, to go to faculty meetings and similar academic time sinks…). I do not feel lonely in the least, so I agree with Deresiewicz that there is a profound distinction between solitude and loneliness. That said, one of the reasons I don’t feel lonely is precisely because from time to time I can text my wife, skype my daughter, respond to a colleague’s email, or see what my friends in Italy or Tennessee are doing by checking their FaceBook pages. In this sense, then, a moderate use of technology is precisely what allows me to keep that distinction that Deresiewicz fears is getting lost as a result of technology.
Deresiewicz complains that “MySpace page, with its shrieking typography and clamorous imagery, has replaced the journal and the letter as a way of creating and communicating one's sense of self.” Well, yes, but I doubt that’s a bad thing. While I also find MySpace too “loud” and hence prefer FaceBook, these are simply new tools to do precisely what the romantics used to do while writing journals and letters. The difference is that today many more people can do it, and do it in real time. Which means -- if one is inclined toward cultural optimism -- that current technology enables more people to engage in the very introspection that romantics like Deresiewicz keep lamenting as lost. By the way, I can't help noting the delicious irony that I found out about Deresiewicz’s essay because one of my “friends” posted it on FaceBook. So go ahead, blog away, and especially keep reading this blog, I’d like to get a few more hits than I did last week...