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.