In Search of the Real

While advancing age is no guarantee of advancing self-knowledge, I have found that growing up a bit can be enlightening. Looking back, it now seems pretty clear to me that I have always been temperamentally Arcadian – and I’m grateful to W. H. Auden for helping me come to this self-diagnosis. In the late 1940s, Auden wrote an essay distinguishing the Arcadian and Utopian personalities. The former looks instinctively to the past for truth, goodness, and beauty; the latter searches for those same things in the unrealized future.

Along with Auden, but in much less distinguished fashion, I am an Arcadian; there is little use denying it. When I was on the cusp of adolescence, I distinctly recall lamenting with my cousin the passing of what we called the “good old days.” Believe it; it is sadly true. The “good old days” incidentally were the summer vacations we enjoyed not more than two or three years earlier. If I am not careful, I risk writing the grocery list elegiacally. I believe, in fact, that my first word was a sigh. This last is not true, alas, but it would not have been out of character.

So you can see that this presents a problem of sorts for someone who writes about technology. The temptation to criticize is ever present and often difficult to resist. With so many Utopians about, one can hardly be blamed. In truth, though, there are plenty of Arcadians about as well. The Arcadian is the critic of technology, the one whose first instinct is to mourn what is lost rather than celebrate what is gained. It is with this crowd that I instinctively run. They are my kindred spirits.

But Auden knew enough to turn his critical powers upon his own Arcadianism. As Alan Jacobs put it in his Introduction to Auden’s “The Age of Anxiety,” “Arcadianism may have contributed much to Auden’s mirror, but he knew that it had its own way of warping reflections.” And so do I, at least in my better moments.

I acknowledge my Arcadianism by way of self-disclosure leading into a discussion of Nathan Jurgenson’s provocative essay in The New Inquiry, “The IRL Fetish.” IRL here stands for “in real life,” offline experience as opposed to the online or virtual, and Jurgenson takes aim at those who fetishize offline experience. I can’t be certain if he had Marx, Freud, or Lacan in view when he chose to describe the obsession with offline experience as a fetish. I suspect it was simply a rather suggestive term that connoted something of the irrational and esoteric. But it does seem clear that he views this obsession/fetish as woefully misguided at best and this because it is built on an erroneous conceptualization of the relationship between the online and the offline.

The first part of Jurgenson’s piece describes the state of affairs that has given rise to the IRL Fetish. It is an incisive diagnosis written with verve. He captures the degree to which the digital has penetrated our experience with clarity and vigor. Here is a sampling:

“Hanging out with friends and family increasingly means also hanging out with their technology. While eating, defecating, or resting in our beds, we are rubbing on our glowing rectangles, seemingly lost within the infostream.” [There is more than one potentially Freudian theme running through this piece.]

“The power of ‘social’ is not just a matter of the time we’re spending checking apps, nor is it the data that for-profit media companies are gathering; it’s also that the logic of the sites has burrowed far into our consciousness.”

“Twitter lips and Instagram eyes: Social media is part of ourselves; the Facebook source code becomes our own code.”

True. True. And, true.

From here Jurgenson sums up the “predictable” response from critics: “the masses have traded real connection for the virtual,” “human friends, for Facebook friends.” Laments are sounded for “the loss of a sense of disconnection,” “boredom,” and “sensory peace.” The equally predictable solution, then, is to log-off and re-engage the “real” world.

Now it does not seem to me that Jurgenson thinks this is necessarily bad counsel as far as it goes. He acknowledges that, “many of us, indeed, have been quite happy to occasionally log-off …” The real problem, according to Jurgenson, what is “new” in the voices of the chorus of critics is arrogant self-righteousness. Those are my words, but I think they do justice to Jurgenson’s evaluation. “Immense self-satisfaction,” “patting ourselves on the back,” boasting, “self-congratulatory consensus,” constructing “their own personal time-outs as more special” – these are his words.

This is a point I think some of Jurgenson’s critics have overlooked. At this juncture, his complaint is targeted rather precisely, at least as I read it, at the self-righteousness implicit in certain valorizations of the offline. Now, of course, deciding who is in fact guilty of self-righteous arrogance may involve making judgment calls that more often than not necessitate access to a person’s opaque intentions, and there is, as of yet, no app for that. (Please don’t tell me if there is.) But, insofar as we are able to reasonably identify the attitudes Jurgenson takes to task, then there is nothing particularly controversial about calling them out.

In the last third of the essay, Jurgenson pivots on the following question: “How have we come to make the error of collectively mourning the loss of that which is proliferating?” Response: “In great part, the reason is that we have been taught to mistakenly view online as meaning not offline.”

At this point, I do want to register a few reservations. Let me begin with the question above and the claim that “offline experience” is proliferating. What I suspect Jurgenson means here is that awareness of offline experience and a certain posture toward offline experience is proliferating. And this does seem to be the case. Semantically, it would have to be. The notion of the offline as “real” depends on the notion of the online; it would not have emerged apart from the advent of the online. The online and the offline are mutually constitutive as concepts; as one advances, the other follows.

It remains the case, however, that “offline,” only recently constituted as a concept, describes an experience that paradoxically recedes as it comes into view. Consequently, Jurgenson’s later assertion – “There was and is no offline … it has always been a phantom.” – is only partially true. In the sense that there was no concept of the offline apart from the online and that the online, once it appears, always penetrates the offline, then yes, it is true enough. However, this does not negate the fact that while there was no concept of the offline prior to the appearance of the online, there did exist a form of life that we can retrospectively label as offline. There was, therefore, an offline (even if it wasn’t known as such) experience realized in the past against which present online/offline experience can be compared.

What the comparison reveals is that a form of consciousness, a mode of human experience is being lost. It is not unreasonable to mourn its passing, and perhaps even to resist it. It seems to me that Jurgenson would not necessarily be opposed to this sort of rear-guard action if it were carried out without an attendant self-righteousness or aura of smug superiority. But he does appear to be claiming that there is no need for such rear-guard actions because, in fact, offline experience is as prominent and vital as it ever was. Here is a representative passage:

“Nothing has contributed more to our collective appreciation for being logged off and technologically disconnected than the very technologies of connection. The ease of digital distraction has made us appreciate solitude with a new intensity. We savor being face-to-face with a small group of friends or family in one place and one time far more thanks to the digital sociality that so fluidly rearranges the rules of time and space. In short, we’ve never cherished being alone, valued introspection, and treasured information disconnection more than we do now.”

It is one thing, however, to value a kind of experience, and quite another to actually experience it. It seems to me, in fact, that one portion of Jurgenson’s argument may undercut the other. Here are his two central claims, as I understand them:

1. Offline experience is proliferating, we enjoy it more than ever before.

2. Online experience permeates offline experience, the distinction is untenable.

But if the online now permeates the offline – and I think Jurgenson is right about this – then it cannot also be the case that offline experience is proliferating. The confusion lies in failing to distinguish between “offline” as a concept that emerges only after the online appears, and “offline” as a mode of experience unrecognized as such that predates the online. Let us call the former the theoretical offline and the latter the absolute offline.

Given the validity of claim 2 above, then claim 1 only holds for the theoretical offline not the absolute offline. And it is the passing of the absolute offline that critics mourn. The theoretical offline makes for a poor substitute.

The real strength of Jurgenson’s piece lies in his description of the immense interpenetration of the digital and material (another binary that does not quite hold up, actually). According to Jurgenson, “Smartphones and their symbiotic social media give us a surfeit of options to tell the truth about who we are and what we are doing, and an audience for it all, reshaping norms around mass exhibitionism and voyeurism.” To put it this way is to mark the emergence of a ubiquitous, unavoidable self-consciousness.

I would not say as Jurgenson does at one point, “Facebook is real life.” The point, of course, is that every aspect of life is real. There is no non-being in being. Perhaps it is better to speak of the real not as the opposite of the virtual, but as that which is beyond our manipulation, what cannot be otherwise. In this sense, the pervasive self-consciousness that emerges alongside the socially keyed online is the real. It is like an incontrovertible law that cannot be broken. It is a law haunted by the loss its appearance announces, and it has no power to remedy that loss. It is a law without a gospel.

Once self-consciousness takes its place as the incontrovertibly real, it paradoxically generates a search for something other than itself, something more real. This is perhaps the source of what Jurgenson has called the IRL fetish, and in this sense it has something in common with the Marxian and Freudian fetish: it does not know what it seeks. The disconnection, the unplugging, the logging off are pursued as if they were the sought after object. But they are not. The true object of desire is a state of pre-digital innocence that, like all states of innocence, once lost can never be recovered.

Perhaps I spoke better than I knew when I was a child, of those pleasant summers. After all, I am of that generation for which the passing from childhood into adulthood roughly coincided with the passage into the Digital Age. There is a metaphor in that observation. To pass from childhood into adulthood is to come into self-awareness, it is to leave naivety and innocence behind. The passage into the Digital Age is also a coming into a pervasive form of self-awareness that now precludes the possibility of naïve experience.

All in all, it would seem that I have stumbled into my Arcadianism yet again.

18 thoughts on “In Search of the Real

  1. I think there is a third alternative to the Arcardian or Utopian outlook. (I hestitate to use “personalities” because it seems to suggest a nuance of determinism i want to avaoid). But I don’t have a name for it this third way – other than maybe “third way”. At any rate, what I’m referring to is an orientation to what both other outlooks seem to regard as lost – the present.

    An improtant component of training in this is countering what you point out driving the other 2 outlooks “Once self-consciousness takes its place as the incontrovertibly real”.

    Whether one finds this alternative attractive may depend on one’s outlook. But I do think it is something one can work on and have an real effect, if so inclined.

    1. “At any rate, what I’m referring to is an orientation to what both other outlooks seem to regard as lost – the present.”

      There was a line in the original post that didn’t sit right with me: “The Arcardian is the critic of technology, the one whose first instinct is to mourn what is lost rather than celebrate what is gained.”

      I think the “third way” that you talk about is a critic of technology but not an “Arcadian critic” as described here. Don Ihde wrote an essay called “Why not science critics?” that compares technoscience critics to art/literary critics. Technology critics are often labeled Luddites or “anti-technology” or in this case Arcardian but Ihde points out that critics are generally very passionate about the objects of their criticism (e.g., it would be strange to call Roger Ebert “anti-film”). So I would suggest that a “third way critic” of this sort has the sort of outlook you are thinking of. This critic doesn’t “mourn what is lost” but rather seeks an understanding of how the present arrived from the past and what it means for the future.

        1. He used to have it on his website, but the link I had to it is broken. I believe it is also in his book “Expanding Hermeneutics.”

    2. This is well put. The Arcadian/Utopian tendencies, are just that as I seem them. Tendencies that can be, and perhaps ought to be moderated as Auden sought to moderate his Arcadianism. Taken by themselves they would represent a disorder relationship to time. Ideally we ought to live in the present with proper regard for both past and present. Thanks for this.

  2. Michael, thanks for the stimulating response! An honor, as yours is one of my favorite blogs around. You’ve done a terrific job capturing the motivation, spirit and argument of the essay.

    Your core critique deserves the most immediate attention. My two arguments that you point out only “undercut” each other through the assumption of digital dualism; from the augmented perspective they are complimentary.
    Basically, I am arguing that Turkle and Co. are wrong on two counts: (1) that thing they think people don’t do anymore (stroll on Cape Cod with no phone) is still happening, it is the fuel for social media, and we appreciate it more than ever; (2) that thing they want us to do (that same stroll) isn’t even “offline” at all, it is always interpenetrated by information/the online.

    So I am squarely in the realm of the “theoretical offline,” as you say. The current crop of critics are asking us to log off in 2012, and there is no “absolute offline” in 2012. I disagree that the critics (and everyday folks) are spending much time on total internet avoidance forever or life pre-Web, but instead almost always are discussing short bursts of offline (which is ‘theoretical offline’).

    However, I still would like to take on those that might lament for a pre-internet past who think of, say, 1950’s (or 1650’s) society as being “offline.” First, obviously, this wasn’t offline because there was no line to be off of, but to play along: even these were realities always mediated by information technologies. The flavors of augmentation were different, but there was never reality separate from information. Reality is always augmented by technology, be it the Web or text or architecture or language. Show me a critic who, say, likes language, architecture and books but not radio and tv and the web, admits that they opine for a technologically-mediated reality, but just a different flavor of mediation, and I would at least agree they have their ontology in order. I’m making no value claims that any flavor of augmentation is good or bad. Rather, critics almost exclusively mourn the loss of unmediated experience in general, and that was always an illusion. But we’ve fallen far from the point of the original essay – maybe this is the seed of Part 2.

    1. Nathan, I’m glad to hear that I’ve done justice to your piece in your estimation. It’s important to me to honor the author, so to speak, by making sure I generously understand what is intended before offering any of my own thoughts in response. Your two point summary also confirms my initial reading. Not speaking for all of these critics, in fact, just speaking for myself, I would still maintain that given point 2, point 1 needs to be tweaked some. I would say that while those types of things may still be happening (the strolls, etc.), and that we may indeed be more conscious of them, those things are forever changed (for all the reasons you stated) … they are no loner the same sort of experience. Consequently, there has been a loss of some kind.

      I would agree though that experience has always been mediated by information in some form. I’m not sure I would therefore say that reality has always been “online,” preferring to reserve that term for the mediation that accompanies digital technology. But yes, certainly information and mediation always have been a part of the human experience. But precisely because of this the most important thing critics can do is register the degrees and varieties of mediation. Incidentally, I’ve not read it yet, but I have a book by Albert Borgmann, “Holding On to Reality,” that examines the history of information in this sense. It’s from 2000 and so a bit dated, but I think it should still have something to offer. In any case, I’ll look forward to part 2!

      1. while it is technically true there has been a “loss” of sorts, i think it might be better to say at this juncture there has been a “change”; a change in how our reality has been augmented over time via various information technologies. once we are at the point where this is a given, we might argue for what flavor of augmentation is “best”, 1612 augmentation is better than 2012 but not as good as 1912, or something like that. have at it! haha

        but my goal here is to engage with the 2012 debate around people prescribing what we should do with social media, smartphones, etc; where the notion of a complete log-off is impossible.

        1. “Change” is certainly a more value-neutral way of putting it than “loss,” and depending on rhetorical context it certainly has its strengths. Sorting better and worse, of course, entails a normative framework of some sort, etc. But it also requires clear understanding and careful analysis of the phenomenon. I think we can agree on the need to vigorously move forward with that work so that the debates about value and ethics can be better grounded.

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