The Unsettledness at the Heart of our Experience

Unsettled — I’m beginning to think that is a helpful word to capture what it feels like to be alive at present.

[Okay, fair warning, what follows is more speculative and exploratory than what I usually feel comfortable writing on here.  Thoughts and criticism welcome.]

Unsettled is usually used in conversation to mean something like troubled or worried or disconcerted.  More literally it suggests being unanchored, untethered, without grounding, deracinated, adrift, without center.  To view it another way, it is to speak of alienation.

Is it legitimate to speak of alienation in the context of ubiquitous social networks and communication?  Might it be that our connectedness veils a deeper alienation that bubbles up to the surface of consciousness as a pervasive unsettledness?  This is my hypothesis for the moment.

We have known for a long time that as moderns we are no longer connected to place in any significant sense.  Mobility and the autonomy that it purchases come at a cost.  We hardly expect to die in the place we were born.  Most of us will move many times, from city to city, or state to state, or even country to country, before we finally move to Florida or Arizona.  Each move uproots us.  With each move we start over again to some degree.  Many of us are hard pressed to name our home in any traditional sense, so home is simply where we happen to be.  We are, then, spatially or geographically unsettled.

Is there a sense in which we are also temporally unsettled?  Is there an alienation at the heart of our experience of time as well as place?  Here I am thinking again of our mediated experience of the present.  Consider what we might call simply lived experience as a kind of baseline.  Life carried on with a certain immediacy, life lived as a subject interacting with the world beyond our skin.  Now consider what I’m going to call, perhaps problematically*, mediated experience.  This is life lived with a view to its own (re)presentation, life as conscious performance — for the camera, for Facebook, for our blog, etc.  At such times it seems we have inserted a layer of mediation between the present and our experience of it.  If so, might we then speak of a temporal alienation, a temporal unsettledness? Are we not only untethered from place, but also from time?

When we experience life with a view to its future presentation, with what Nathan Jurgenson has aptly called “documentary vision”, we are no longer in the moment as subject.  We are, so to speak, no longer acting in our own life, we are directing; we have become spectators of our own lives.  In a sense we have objectified ourselves; we are looking at our selves. In my memories of events, I often see only the image of pictures I am in.  The memory is not my own first person memory, it is an image that stands in for my own lived experience of the event in which I am an object and not the subject — perhaps because I was not, properly speaking, experiencing the event as a lived experience.

If there is, in fact, a vague unsettled quality to our experience, perhaps it is because we have managed to uproot ourselves not only from place and the stability it brings, but also from the flow of time, from the lived present, in such a way that there is something like an oddly disjointed quality to our sense of self — as if we were watching a film with a time lag between the image and the sound.

While not exactly what T. S. Eliot had in mind, we might say that this begins to answer his poetic query, “Where is the Life we have lost in living?”


* I say “problematically” because at some level, in some sense all experience is mediated even if only by our own use of language in our minds.

4 thoughts on “The Unsettledness at the Heart of our Experience

  1. “Experience” is just catalogued sensory information translated by our frame of reference. We build circles of existence to “ground” ourselves in routine and then find these circles empty of experience in their sameness. True grounding, I feel, is within, where we can find a fundamental oneness with all people, places and things. I feel.

    1. Tom,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that there is an important inner dimension to our sense of groundedness. I do think that the internal frame and external realities are both significant and in reciprocal relation to one another … the influence flows both ways I tend to think.


  2. Interesting post. It makes me think of one of your previous posts (I think…either that, or something else I’ve read in the past month), about how a person’s friendships now, partially due to technology like Facebook, are more like a spiderweb, like a lateral network. So, in social experience, even though we are able to be, hypothetically, in contact with hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, in reality we only interact on a superficial level, meaning we have hundreds of acquaintances and very few actual friends who we would feel comfortable interacting with on a deeper, more meaningful level.

    I wonder, though, if the postmodern conception of time also plays into what you’re talking about here. Descartes may have posited that “I think, therefore I am,” but Lacan, in one of the few bits of his writing that doesn’t seem like garbage to me, posits “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think” (which relates to your footnote, about how the structure of language, even in thought, mediates experience). Even in the act of thinking, we are constructing, and therefore thoughts are neither now nor self. Now that we know that time is a human construct, another construct we use to understand the world around us, that makes it that much harder, I think, for us to feel fundamentally connected to the world. How can we, as so many Eastern religions seem to ask us to do, live in the present, when the present seems to be the one of the three temporal spaces where we do not exist, due to its fleeting nature? Even in being present in the moment, we are controlling our behavior, mediating our reactions, and therefore are not truly present.

    I also wonder what impact the advent of film and television, and the mass popularity of both, have on this phenomenon of “directing” our own lives. Are we spectators, or are we actively working to create our own realities, our own “home movies”? Do films and television mirror our realities or do we shape our realities based on what we see in film and on television? Of course, both are true, but if so, there seems a danger of an endless cycle of shaping reality from representation (films draw from reality but create a representation that often differs in significant ways [think of the gender roles in ANY romantic comedy], then people watch those films and shape their own realities, their expectations and behaviors, based on what they’ve seen, &tc.). Of course, that wouldn’t have been limited to the rise of film, as I know a similar phenomenon was argued about novels in the late 1700s. Still, the rise of mass literacy is fairly recent, and that could fit in with the modern alienation you’re talking about here.

    1. You’re definitely on to something on both counts. I think I would argue that postmodern theorizing about time and experience is an effort to cope with what the material/technological conditions of modernity have wrought — film included. I’d not come across that line from Lacan, definitely among the more intelligible bits of his work I’ve read …

      I’m thinking though that there is a sense in which I would want to say that time is partially a human construct, or at least our experience of time is a human construct, but there is another sense in which it is there ontologically independent of us. But I feel my philosophical feet sinking as I write. Perhaps I’ll just say that I think there may be modes of experiencing time that are more attuned to the human condition than others (I know, the human condition, how quaint right!).

      Also, let me suggest Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated. I read it probably six years ago now, and I’m surprised it doesn’t get more attention. It’s a more popular work in style, and probably the better for it, and it does get a little repetitive at points, but he does an excellent job dissecting the mediated nature of our experience and the hyper-self-awareness that it generates. Give it a look if you’ve never come across.

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