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Philosophy

The poem is not, of course, in any way required to appear on the device. It may choose to appear in a more tactile medium – in the book, the magazine, the chapbook, the broadsheet – but the totalizing nature of the device means that this gesture is increasingly to choose irrelevance. Books and journals, magazines and newspapers, are more and more frequently available only in electronic formats. People demand that what they read appear on whatever screen they happen to be holding in their hands. In a culture where all eyes are on devices (rarely straying from them even long enough to cross the street, eat dinner, or make love), there is a real risk that the poem chooses irrelevance by not appearing through that medium.

Choosing not to have poetry appear as machine content also risks reinforcing more absolutely the division between a broader popular culture (for which poetry is at best a curiosity) and the narrow elitist culture of poets and their readers. This division has long been widening. Refusing to have poetry appear on the device threatens to make the distance untraversable. If poetry insists on being obscure, not only by way of form and sensibility but also by way of inaccessibility through popular media, there are few who will bother to go looking for it.

The choice that the device presents to the poem, therefore, is either to appear (and become content-image-data before poem) or not to appear (and risk irrelevance and elitism), and the choice is not without moral implication, because the purpose of content is to lead unreflexively from one swipe or click to the other (swipe, swipe, swipe – click, click, click). It is to facilitate rapid and effortless consumption, to put eyes on advertisement after advertisement. Its function is to distract and sedate so that its consumers can be analyzed and in this way better targeted.

In other words, it is no longer religion that opiates the masses. It hasn’t been since the television occupied the space formerly reserved for the household shrine. It certainly isn’t now that the handheld device occupies the space formerly reserved for prayer beads, each flick of the thumb counting another Instagram Hail Mary, another Facebook Our Father. We no longer need religion to sedate ourselves. We have pro sports and reality television, social media and augmented reality, all in the palms of our hands. Why should we rely on some future religious paradise to distract ourselves from our socio-political problems when the paradise of the present is available on our twitter feeds and our YouTube channels? Content is now the opiate of the masses.

To the extent that poetry subordinates itself to the logic of the device, therefore, to the extent that it becomes just another set of content to sedate and tranquilize users, something to flick through idly – neither active nor passive, merely idling, like a car with the engine running but the transmission in park – it ceases to perform the function of art. It ceases to provoke, to defamiliarize, to discomfort. It consents to serve an economic logic, not just of its own production (as art always does to one degree or another, whether serving the honour of a patron or the bottom line of a publisher), but also of the whole culture of the device, of content exchanged for advertizing and analytics. It becomes merely one more pill in the bottle of cultural sedatives that the device keeps ever close to hand.

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I’m not much for live radio, so I never heard any of David Cayley’s radio documentaries when they aired on CBC Radio’s Ideas, but the podcasts of those shows played a significant role in my post-university intellectual life. They introduced me to the work of Ivan Illich and Rene Girard, and they deepened my appreciation for a number of other thinkers, like Simone Weil, Charles Tayler, and Richard Kearney.

Cayley was also gracious enough to meet with me in person a few years ago, and though our conversation was unexpectedly shortened, I have always looked back with appreciation on his willingness to sit and talk with an absolute stranger about Ivan Illich and homeschooling. Our very brief interaction left me with the impression of a man characterized by what I call intellectual hospitality, by an openness to ideas as a place for people to share themselves, and there are few greater compliments that I can offer.

So I’m truly pleased to see that Cayley has launched a new website to host some of his radio shows that are no longer available elsewhere. The shows are free and include the the ones on Ivan Illich and Simone Weil that I enjoyed so much. There are also links to additional shows hosted by other sites, a blog of long-form essays, and information about Cayley’s books.  There is a lifetime of shared ideas here, and you could hardly spend your free time better this holiday than by sharing in those ideas yourself.

There is no perhaps in God.  God is and is not and is to come and may be and in every case surpasses our human categories of being and time, but there is no perhaps in God, because every perhaps is limited by happanstance.  There is perhaps only in the human.

I’ve been reading Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil again, and I was arrested this time by her idea of thickness, where what lies between us and God is the infinite thickness of time and space. 

In the section called The Cross, she writes, “God wears Himself out through the infinite thickness of time and space in order to reach the soul and to captivate it. […] It has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of Him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made towards it.” A little later she says, “We have to cross the infinite thickness of time and space — and God has to do it first, because he comes to us first,” and then again, “God crosses through the thickness of the world to come to us.”

What I find in this idea of thickness is a particularly apt description of how I myself experience the universe, time and space, being, or any of that whole constellation of ideas, how I experience the impossibility of self, of universe, and of self in the universe. It feels to me that there is a thickness to all of this, not just in the sense of breadth, but also in the sense of texture, the thickness of layers and complexity, the thickness of fog and cloud, of bog and mire, of wind and forest, a thickness of idea and description and experience.

What this thickness describes for me is the texture of the universe’s impossibility, not the impossibility itself, but how the impossibility feels as I make my way through it, as I run my hands over its surfaces. It describes how I experience the impossibility of everything, from roasting coffee, to loving my children, to sitting on the toilet, all of it too full of otherness and specificity and complexity and ambiguity, too full of thickness to be possible, and nevertheless here for me and in me.

Any approach to the universe, whether through the gods of religion or of atheism, must account for this thickness, because to cross it, or to make the attempt, is constitutively human, even and especially if the attempt is impossible, if the crossing must be made from whatever lies beyond the thickness of space and time, a whatever that comes to us, comes first, to reach and captivate us.

I am very slowly making my way through Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil, and I came across a quotation that I want to explore at some greater depth.  It occurs in an essay called, “Transsexuality”, a word that Baudrillard uses much more broadly than its usual sense.  As he draws his argument to a conclusion, he says, “Since it is no longer possible to base any claim on one’s own existence, there is nothing for it but to perform an appearing act without concerning oneself with being – or even with being seen.  So it is not:  I exist, I am here! but rather: I am visible, I am an image – look! look!  This is not even narcissism, merely an extraversion without depth, a sort of self-promoting ingenuousness whereby everyone becomes the manager of their own appearance.”

The book was originally published in 1990, well before the ubiquity of social media, but the phenomenon that Baudrillard describes has found a powerful expression in the ways that people present themselves online.  Social media are often described as a way for people to stay connected, but the kinds of connections that they provide are of the type that used to exist only between people and their media heroes – singers, actors, athletes, politicians, socialites – that is, connections between people and the images that some people are able to portray of themselves by means of media mediation.  We all know (or most of us do) that these connections are unreal, that they do not constitute relation in any real way.  We consume the images of these people.  We interest ourselves in them.  We do not know them.

The explosion of social media, however, allows us all to participate in that same mode of connection as well.  Now we too are able to use the media to create images of ourselves for the consumption of others.  Now we too consume the images that those we know create of themselves.  We appear to each other.  We manage our appearance for each other.  We do not even try to exist.  We only strive to be visible.  We emulate our media heroes, not by doing what they do, but by appearing as they appear, by being visible as they are visible.

Now, this appearing to each other is often (though perhaps less and less) complicated by the fact that we also know each other, not in our unmediated selves (which is always an impossibility), but in the selves that are not mediated by our social media — to use Baudrillard’s language, our appearing to be comes into conflict with our being seen.  This is an important distinction, at least to me, because it recognizes that although it is never possible for me to be to another, there is something worth striving for in allowing myself to be seen by others rather simply appearing for them.

I would say that on this distinction hangs the future of relation.

 

I have been reading Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil, not for any very good reason, just because my particular university education made me an addict to a certain kind of theoretical style, and I needed a fix.

At the end of the first essay, “After the Orgy”, Baudrillard says, “One day the image of a person watching a television screen voided by a technicians’ strike will be seen as the perfect epitome of the anthropological reality of the twentieth century,” and this reminded me of a curious incident in my own experience.

Once, during my MA, I walked into the University of Guelph’s McLaughlin Library, intending to study at my carrel on one of the upper floors (fourth or fifth, I can’t remember anymore). On my way I had to pass the computer pool on the main floor, a bank of computers set row by row, and I was met by the sight of seventy or eighty students all staring blankly, fixedly, at their screens, not typing, not working, just staring. It only took a glance to realize that there had been some sort of power outage or something, and that all of the computers were rebooting at once, but the effect was so eerie, so disconcerting that I decided to skip studying altogether and go find a beer instead.

My discomfort was with how the void on the screen seemed to have revealed a similar void in the people looking at them, as if they were only capable of activity when they were reflecting the activity of their monitors. Baudrillard describes this through the metaphor of an electrical circuit, where communication requires messages to circulate without interruption, and where silence breaks the circuit, revealing that it is only an “uninterrupted fiction designed to free us not only from the void of the television screen but equally from the void of our own mental screen.” In other words, our minds are now as void as our monitors when the electrical circuit of constant communication is broken, so that we now require this communication in order to maintain the illusion that we have any content at all, in order to keep us from staring blankly at our screens as they stare blankly in return.