A Withering Light

I read a tweet the other day from a writer, a very good writer, introducing a thread with links to their work throughout the year. The tweet was all irony and self-deprecation, and I thought to myself this is how the world ends.

More precisely, this is how a world keeps from coming into being. I don’t know when or where I first encountered the line from Gramsci about how the old is dying and the new cannot be born, but it has remained with me ever since as one those fragments that somehow manages to illuminate the present. I think of it often.

The old is dying. The new cannot be born. The morbid symptoms are all around us. The new cannot be born because there is no darkness within which it can take shape and grow. As Arendt observed, “Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.”

There is no darkness within which a world can come into being. All is bathed in the light of reflexive self-consciousness. “If you tell people how they can sublimate,” the psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan once observed, “they can’t sublimate.” “Life needs the protection of nonawareness,” Guardini writes, “There is no path to take us outside of ourselves.” “Our action is constantly interrupted by reflection on it,” he adds. “Thus all our life bears the distinctive character of what is interrupted, broken. It does not have the great line that is sure of itself, the confident movement deriving from the self.”

But of what are we conscious when our self-consciousness is mediated by the internet? The knowledge we gain is not knowledge of the self, which has always been elusive. “I have become a question to myself,” St. Augustine declares. It is rather knowledge of the self playing itself to an audience of indeterminate size and presence. Or, to put it another way, we do not become aware of ourselves, we become aware of the relation of the self to itself. Our piety does not consist, as Socrates and Euthyphro contemplated, of a therapy of the gods but rather of a therapy of the self, and this piety is sustained by some of our most sophisticated tools.

Paradoxically, the self is, in some important respect, a gift of the other before whom it appears; it is received rather than made. We come to know ourselves as we become aware of who we are not through our attentiveness to others. Moreover, insofar as the self is constituted by its desires, it is, like our desires, an intersubjective reality. When the other before whom we appear is the amorphous audience mediated to us by tools designed to induce the self into its own self-management, then the self is positioned in such a way that it cannot receive itself as gift.

The trajectory is long—writing heightens consciousness Ong observed—but the internet has brought us through a critical threshold. It has been, among much else, a machine for the generation of obsessive self-documentation and self-awareness at both a global and personal scale. It brings a withering light to bear upon our inner lives and suffuses all our public acts with doubt, half-heartedness, and hesitation. How can it be otherwise, the self cannot sustain itself. Or else it fuels our public acts with a petty or violent rage as if the only way we could prove to ourselves that we are real is by the measure of the suffering we inflict upon ourselves or others (this is the lesson of the Underground Man). Or, as Yeats put it, “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” He speaks as well, interestingly enough, of belated birth, of the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.

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4 thoughts on “A Withering Light

  1. Sir! Beautifully written as always! I am assuming your quote in the center of this post is from Gaurdini? Do you perhaps know the work it originates from?

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