The Question Regarding Authenticity

Since writing Friday’s post and benefiting from the subsequent exchange with Nathan Jurgenson I’ve come across a handful of items that have kept me thinking about identity and authenticity.

I’m still thinking, but I thought I’d gather some of these items here and, in Linda Richman fashion, invite you to “discuss among yourselves.”

In a blog post at The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz makes a number of an interesting observations:

“Genuinevintageauthentic: these are the words that signify spiritual value now for us, and constitute the tokens of our status competition. We hunger for the real to fill us up, and by the real we mean the old or the traditional: anything that isn’t us. The highest praise we can give that lamp or sideboard is that it looks like the kind of thing that’s been in someone’s family for generations, and that’s exactly the illusion that we pay for those objects to give us: the illusion of lineage, continuity, rootedness, memory. Modernity is constant movement, within lives and between generations, a constant shedding and forgetting. We value things that give us the sense of being embedded in space and time, even if we have to buy someone else’s memories, or visit other people’s histories, to get it.”

And …

“Buddy, if it’s a choice, it’s not an identity. Identity is not a suit of clothes you take on and off. It’s a skin; it sticks to you whether you like it or not. It’s what other people call you—people with the same identity, people with different ones—not what you decide to consider yourself. History gives it to you, not some kind of “search.” But identity now has become a matter not of belonging or community, both of which are gone, but of, precisely, authenticity.”

He concludes:

“So what’s the answer? Just assent to your life. You’re middle class? You’re white? You’re Western? So what? That’s just as real as anything else. ‘We seek other conditions,’ Montaigne said, ‘because we do not understand the use of our own.'”

Regarding community and tradition, consider the following observation by W. H. Auden:

“The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay.”

Is the question of authenticity correlated to the “deliberate effort” and conscious making Auden calls for?

Thanks to Alan Jacobs for both of those. And thanks to Rob Horning for the following from Simon Reynolds:

“You don’t have to be an antiquated Romantic or old-fashioned early 20th-century-style Modernist to find this input/output version of creativity unappealing. Surely the artist or writer is more than just a switch for the relay of information flows, the cross-referencing of sources and coordinates? What is missed out in the recreativity model is the body: the artist as a physical being, someone whose life and personal history has left them marked with a singular set of desires and aversions. There is also the little matter of will: bubbling up from within, that profoundly inegalitarian drive to stand out, to assert oneself in the face of anonymity and death. It’s this aspect of embodiment and ego that gets downgraded in digital culture, which tends to reduce us to the textual: a receiver/transmitter of data, a node in the network.”

Is the question of authenticity the revenge of the supposedly de-centered self?

Speaking of Romantics, or their near kin, here is Emerson:

“A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome.  He cumbers himself never about consequences, about  interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict.  You must court him: he does not court you.  But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this.”

Is authenticity just another word for the lost innocence of childhood?

Hawthorne Against the Techno-Utopians

I’ve had occasion to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing a time or two in previous posts. In his journal, he noted the manner in which the train whistle broke into the natural idyll he was enjoying — “But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive” — inaugurating a long-standing literary convention which persists to this day (see Sherry Turkle).

Elsewhere, Hawthorne anticipated de Chardin and McLuhan’s metaphorical rendering of the electric age: “Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?”

Hawthorne and his generation were grappling with the consequences of industrialization. We are grappling with the consequences of digitization. These two are not necessarily analogous, but they share one variable: human nature. Hawthorne in particular had a keen sense of our faults and foibles. While his stories did not always dwell on technology explicitly, they imaginatively explored the darker proclivities that human beings bring to the techno-scientific project.

In the opening paragraph of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne writes,

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

This is a grim observation, but it seems incontrovertible; and it applies with equal force to all techno-utopian projects and hopes. Wherever we go, there we are and our imperfections with us.

Pascal observed that the error of Stoicism lay in believing that what can be done once can be done always. I would offer an analogous framing of the techno-utopian error: Believing the wonderful use to which a technology can be put, will be the use to which it is always put.

Better, it would seem, to go forward with a hopeful skepticism that avoids the cycloptic vision of either the techno-utopians or the techno-cynics. And reading a little Hawthorne might be a good way of nurturing that disposition.

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Over the past couple of years, the folks at The New Atlantis have been publishing a series of reflections on a handful of Hawthorne’s short stories as they bear on Science, Progress, and Human Nature. These are each thoughtful and engaging essays.  

Mindfulness Is Not Merely Subtraction

Mindfulness is not merely negation, subtraction, or reduction.

This was the thought that occurred to me as I read Miranda Ward’s reflections on her inadvertent break from the Internet, which concluded with the following observation:

“Why can’t we at least acknowledge that, with or without the internet, we still have to work hard, fight distraction, fight depression, and succumb, every once in awhile, to paralysing self-doubt? So it was nice, while I was on holiday, not to have any mobile phone reception. It’s also nice to be able to video chat with my 86-year-old grandmother in California. Disconnected, connected, whatever: I’m still fallible.”

Indeed, we are all fallible. If we assume that merely withdrawing from certain facets of digital life will by itself render us supremely attentive and mindful individuals, then we are certainly in for a rather disheartening disappointment.

That said, I do think the little word merely is essential. Mindfulness is more, not less than what I’ve called attentional austerity. To put it otherwise, attentional austerity is a necessary, but not sufficient cause of mindfulness. It’s not a matter of starving attention, but training and directing it.

Ordinarily, mindfulness is a habituated response, not a spontaneous reaction. Habituated responses arise out of our practices. If our online practices undermine mindfulness, then moderating these practices becomes part of the solution.

Learning to establish and abide by certain limits is, after all, an indispensable discipline. But imposing limits for their own sake is at best unhelpful and at worst destructive. Limits, as Wendell Berry has written, are best understood as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.” They are for something. 

Mindfulness must be for something. It is about fostering a certain kind of attention and learning to deploy it toward certain ends and not others. 

While doing whatever we call the Twitter equivalent of eavesdropping on an exchange centered on David Foster Wallace and the idea of mindfulness, I was reminded of Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address in which he makes the following observation:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the ‘rat race’ — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Mindfulness, in Wallace’s view, is about redirecting our attention toward others; and not only toward others, but toward others as ends in themselves (to put a Kantian spin on it). This latter qualification is necessary because we very often direct our attention upon others, but only for the sake of having ourselves reflected back to us.

There are, of course, other legitimate ends toward which mindfulness may aspire. The point is this: We ought not to be for or against the Internet in itself. We ought to be for the kind of loving mindfulness Wallace advocates — to take one example — and then we ought to measure our practices, all of them, online or off, by how well they support such loving mindfulness.

The Smart Phone in the Garden, Part Two

In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx chronicled how the American literary tradition responded to the advent of Industrial Age machinery throughout the nineteenth century. The reaction was ambiguous. The arrival of the machine was framed by the pastoral ideal that represented America as a garden positioned precariously between the wilderness and civilization. For some, the appearance of the machine heralded the dissolution of the garden. For others, the machine was to be assimilated into the garden. Most, however, seem to have cared little for the garden.

In “The Celestial Railroad,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s revisiting of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the pilgrims rode a railroad in ease foregoing the travails of Christian’s journey. To their dismay they discover in the end that the railroad brought them not to the gates of the Celestial City, but to its infernal opposite instead. More likely than not, Hawthorne’s readers would have taken a more sanguine, if not downright utopian view of the railroad. A view not unlike that depicted in John Gast’s “American Progress” in which the railroad appears as an emblem of progress and empire.

John Gast, “American Progress” (1872)

These conflicting perspectives on technology and its place in American society run straight through the nineteenth century, across the twentieth, and into the twenty-first. Enthusiasts have consistently carried the day, but the critical counterpoints have never been insignificant. The contrapuntal tradition in Marx’s account was animated by an ancient literary convention that assumed real-world significance in the American context. This tradition of pastoral or Arcadian criticism sought to mitigate the perceived ills occasioned by the unbridled advance of civilization without advocating a return to the wilderness. The garden was thus positioned as a middle way between two poles.

As such, the garden was dependent on the two poles for its identity, in particular it was constituted by an evolving conception of “wilderness” that has itself been shown to depend on the advance of civilization. Tracing the evolution of the concept of “wilderness” in American thought is the aim of William Cronon’s 1995 chapter, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”

In the opening paragraphs, Cronon makes the following provocative, counter-intuitive claim: “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.” A little later on he adds, “As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.”

Of course, Cronon is not making a claim about the facticity of the natural world. It is there with or without us. He is making a claim about the idea or concept of the wilderness in American culture. It is a concept with a history and, as Cronon notes, early on the wilderness carried very different connotations than those it picked up during the nineteenth century. It was first the howling wilderness, a liminal and inhospitable place that could evoke holy dread. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, Thoreau could declare, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” A massive transformation had been effected in the symbolic value of the wilderness.

Cronon attributes this transformation to sources that he groups under the heading of the sublime and the frontier. Regarding the former, Cronon writes, “In the theories of Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, William Gilpin, and others, sublime landscapes were those rare places on earth where one had more chance than elsewhere to glimpse the face of God.” Consequently, it was both a majestic and inspiring place as well as a site of trepidation and dread. By the latter part of the 19th century, “the terrible awe that Wordsworth and Thoreau regarded as the appropriately pious stance to adopt in the presence of their mountaintop God was giving way to a much more comfortable, almost sentimental demeanor.” The sublime landscape was domesticated; it was, we might say, merely beautiful, picturesque. Cronon traces the evolution through the mountaintop experiences recorded by Wordsworth, Thoreau, and John Muir. Their moods differ, but for each the experience evokes a worshipful response – the mountaintop as cathedral.

The frontier and everything that it came to represent for Americans supplies the second set of associations that transformed the cultural value of the wilderness. In Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous formulation, the frontier was the crucible of American character. “Seen in this way,” Cronon explains, “wild country became a place not just of religious redemption but of national renewal, the quintessential location for experiencing what it meant to be an American.” Of course, Turner produced his thesis just as the frontier was closing and so the frontier myth possessed a nostalgic and elegiac tone from the start: “Those who have celebrated the frontier have almost always looked backward as they did so, mourning an older, simpler, truer world that is about to disappear, forever.”

The wilderness then was freighted with religious and national symbolism and it was constituted as that which was receding and withdrawing before the incursions of civilization. It was at this time that, according to Cronon, “ Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists.” These tourists

“brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled. For them, wild land was not a site for productive labor and not a permanent home; rather, it was a place of recreation. One went to the wilderness not as a producer but as a consumer …”

Cronon sagely goes on to observe,

“Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal. In contrast, elite urban tourists and wealthy sportsmen projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and so created wilderness in their own image.”

“Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated,” Cronon concludes further on, “could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land.” The binary of wilderness and civilization, in other words, abandons the garden ideal altogether.

Consequently,

“To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.”

As I read him, Cronon’s discussion anticipates more recent debates about the relationship between offline and online experience. It would seem, for instance, that wilderness dualism presaged digital dualism. Moreover, his critique of the early wilderness tourists raises important questions for those who would today advocate greater degrees of disconnection. See, for example, Alexis Madrigal’s sensible point in “Are We Addicted to Gadgets or Indentured to Work?” and compare it to Cronon’s own question:

“Why, for instance, is the ‘wilderness experience’ so often conceived as a form of recreation best enjoyed by those whose class privileges give them the time and resources to leave their jobs behind and ‘get away from it all?'”

The remainder of Cronon’s essay raises further suggestive parallels and in the next post in the series I’ll take those up.

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My thanks to Eric E. for pointing me to Cronon’s article.

Previous post.

The Smartphone in the Garden

[Update: If you are seeing this older post in your RSS feed, it is because I updated the post to correct a glaring factual error and the post inadvertently re-published.]

Following an extended stay in Europe, Henry James returned to America in 1904.  Shortly after landing in New York, he made his way to New Hampshire. There he was struck by how the landscape impressed itself upon him. It was full of “the sweetness of belated recognition, that of the sense of some bedimmed summer of the distant prime flushing back into life and asking to give again as much as possible of what it had given before.” James wondered what it was that triggered this reaction, “shamelessly ‘subjective’” as it may have been, but he interrupted his own introspection: “When you wander about in Arcadia, you ask as few questions as possible.” Recounting this experience in The American Scene, however, he could not help but return to the questions: “Why was the whole connotation so delicately Arcadian, like that of the Arcadia of an old tapestry, an old legend, an old love-story in fifteen volumes …?”

James’ reflections were noted by Leo Marx in the closing chapter of his classic, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. First published in 1964, The Machine in the Garden is a rich, absorbing study of the tension between the pastoral ideal and the intrusion of machine technology throughout American history. In the first part of the work, Marx explains how, soon after the European discovery of the New World, the pastoral ideal was seized upon to describe America. Thomas Jefferson in particular translated what had been a literary construct into “a guide to social policy.” America was to be a society wherein the opposition between nature and civilization was resolved in favor of a delicately balanced, harmonious relationship; it was not a wilderness, but a garden.

America’s quasi-mythic self-understanding, then, included a vision of idyllic beauty and fecundity. But this vision would be imperiled by the appearance of the industrial machine, and the very moment of its first appearance would be a recurring trope in American literature. It would seem, in fact, that “Where were you when you first heard a train whistle?” was something akin to “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” The former question was never articulated in the same manner, but the event was recorded over and over again.

In Marx’s view, the recurring vignette describing the startled recognition of the machine’s intrusion into the pastoral ideal was an American adaptation of the traditional “pastoral design.” The pastoral design was a literary convention with roots in classical antiquity. Within the pastoral design, the pastoral ideal of the harmony between man and nature, positioned between civilization on the one side and wilderness on the other, is troubled by the intrusion of some “counterforce” which signals the larger reality within which the pastoral ideal is played out. The gesture is made visible in the landscape paintings of the 17th century that introduced some momento mori into the idealized scenery. It is, for example, spelled out by Poussin when his shepherds stumble upon a grave with the inscription, “Et in Arcadia Ego.” Within the pastoral design, impinging disruptive forces always trouble the pastoral ideal.

The train whistle became, for a certain generation of American writers, a memento mori signaling death’s presence within the pastoral ideal of America. This ideal, however, was not eradicated by the industrial revolution. It was still alive in the imagination of Henry Adams, even if it appears more self-consciously quaint unto itself. Well into the 20th century, the artistic conventions of the genre are still visible, even in the technocratic vision of Charles Sheeler.

Sheeler’s “American Landscape” (1930) adopted the formal conventions of the landscape painting, down to the solitary human form provided to indicate the scale of all else, but, of course, the striking feature of Sheeler’s landscape is the total absence of land. The entire environment has been “mechanized.” Marx does not make this point, but I’m tempted to read the ladder in the lower right corner, the only archaic element in view, as a memento mori. A return to pre-industrial technology is the death that threatens. But, Marx notes, “this bleak vista conveys a strangely soft, tender feeling.” As is characteristic of Sheeler’s technological paintings, movement has been stilled. Sheeler, according to Marx, has “imposed order, peace, and harmony upon our modern chaos.”

It is useful to contrast Sheeler’s painting with an older attempt to harmoniously represent a new order which encompasses the machine into the ideal.

In “The Lackawanna Valley” (1855), George Innes depicts a more traditional landscape, but he has incorporated the machine into the scene, both by the presence of the train winding its way toward the foreground and the smoke rising from the mills or factories further in the background. Setting Innes and Sheeler side by side, creates a suggestive illustration of the evolution of the machine’s place within the pastoral ideal of American society. What was for Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau and others of their generation a potentially destructive intrusion into the pastoral ideal, is first assimilated into the ideal and then transfigures the ideal into its own image.

Sheeler’s painting is characteristic of a trend, but it should not be taken to suggest the death of the pastoral ideal for American society. Like all deeply rooted cultural ideals, it has a way of reinventing itself and reemerging. Marx’s history, in fact, can be usefully understood as context for our present debates about the Internet and society. Seen in this light, Sherry Turkle’s Cape Cod narrative can be understood as an elaboration of a genre that goes back at least as far as Hawthorne’s “train whistle” notes. Here is Turkle writing in the NY Times:

“I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices.”

It is no longer the industrial machine that has entered the garden, it is now the smartphone.

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(More to come.)