Friday, January 09, 2015

Random, Unfocused, Blathering... Blame the Internet

I’ve never been a fan of primitivism, folk art, any of that “Look at the noble savages!” stuff.  The concept that we are too far gone in our mechanized society and need the simple healing of the true-to-the-earth people of the third world or wherever (rural Mississippi will suffice if you can’t find your passport) has always struck me as condescending.  This is not to say that I do not respond at all to simpler, slower, and less technologically innovative means of existence.  I do collect and read books, after all.  But I see no reason why I ought to ignore the digital or extol the wooden.  Both have a place.  Of course, for the over-stimulated and ironically bored teen with too much Monster energy drink in their veins and too much content to navigate, there’s perhaps a need for some slowing down.  But that’s your problem, parents, not mine.

All this comes to me today as I read an article in The New York Times about Humanism and Technologism, which I assume is close to Techno Solutionism, of which I’ve been a critic.  The article, which I’ll go ahead and provide a link to (right here), discusses, among many other things, the importance of the humanities in this tech-saturated era of ours.  An important concern, though not what interests me in this here blog post.  I’m thinking instead about the ways in which people look for escape from their complicated lives. 

This comes off of a recent trip to New Orleans, a city that (for me) is all about eating food and drinking and walking around and doing very little else.  Of course, if one lives in the city it can be assumed that one would see it as being a place of work and struggle as well as fun and frivolity.  I mean, you can’t eat beignets everyday.  But I saw (see) it as a place where I might escape my life, get away from thoughts of curriculum and grading papers and all the writing I’m not doing.  I wanted nothing more than a simple, relaxed vacation rife with seafood and whiskey and charmingly goofy street performers.  This being my third trip to NOLA, I was confident that this would be my experience.  And indeed it was!  Oh, the grilled oysters at Acme and the $3 Makers Mark cocktails during happy hour at Bombay Club, and yes, of course, late night beignets and coffee at Café du Monde… such simple pleasures! 

What a fucking tourist.

You see, for all my disdain of primitivism, I am as guilty as any other first world jerk of seeking refuge from my allegedly hectic life.  Except it is not so hectic.  I have a job whereas not long ago I had five at once.  I laughingly aspire to be a writer of poems, which means I make my own deadlines (and they are easily pushed back).  I have no children.  So why am I so stressed?  Ignoring the many very substantial reasons why I do indeed need solace from my busy life, I have it pretty easy.  Sure, my job is demanding, but that is like saying, “I have five fingers on each hand,” or, “I come from a dysfunctional family.”  We’re all busy, and busy is relative.  That being stated, I still feel a bit more at ease in my life than my friends with children.  And people wonder why I don’t want kids?

So why the need for escape?  Some might posit that this is a Modernist idea, that the industrialization of the landscape and the horrors of world war have planted within us this notion of our complex, overly technological society in need of relief.  I’m not sure this is a wrong idea, but considering Modernism’s roots in late the 19th-early 20th century, it is easy to accept the (let’s call it) timelessness of escape.  So when people talk and write and gripe about the tech-mad 21st century, I recall how other examples of generations felt alienated from society and sought respite in foreign culture.  And I do not criticize this in and of itself—why not learn more about other cultures?—but I still feel uncomfortable with the notion of being saved by primitives.  This is why the study of anthropology, while useful and often quite interesting and certainly more nuanced than my simple understanding, offends me on principal. 

Thinking back to the New York Times’ article, I can’t help but see the argument for study of the humanities absent materialist concerns (though I agree whole heartedly with it) as born of the same Modernism/Primitivism binary.  And I hate binaries.  Yes, the humanities will become more useful than ever in a tech-saturated world where people are really good at hunting for information but too distracted to do much with it.  So by all means, get an English degree.  (I did!)  But keep in mind the reductive thinking that often accompanies these us/them discussions (and, to be clear, Weiseltier does not engage in such a logical fallacy in his very good article—have you read it yet?).  The technology that has overtaken so much of our lives, speeding it up as much as it keeps us moored, requires a high level of discipline to be truly useful.  Such dedication and patience are not bred by materialist pursuits, but that hardly means a digital life is a sure path to slovenly ruin.  Instead of seeking healing from an earthy source, perhaps it might be in our best interests to find daily balance.  Which is what I’ve decided to seek, though frankly, it sucks.  I’d prefer coffee and whiskey fueled binge watching on Netflix for months on end and a quick curative visit to some voodoo shack in the bayou, but that lifestyle will surely prevent me from seeing fifty.