Et in Facebook ego

In Nicolas Poussin’s mid-seventeenth century painting, Et in Arcadia ego, shepherds have stumbled upon an ancient tomb on which the titular words are inscribed. Understood to be the voice of death, the Latin phrase may be roughly translated, “Even in Arcadia there am I.” Because Arcadia had come to symbolize a mythic pastoral paradise, the painting suggested the ubiquity of death. To the shepherds, the tomb was a momento mori: a reminder of the inescapability of death.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38
Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Poussin was not alone among artists of the period in addressing the certainty of death. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, vanitas art flourished. The designation stems from the Latin phrase vanitas vanitatum omni vanitas, a recurring refrain throughout the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:  “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Paintings in the genre were still lifes depicting an assortment of objects which represented all of that we might pursue in this life. In their midst, however, one would also find a skull and an hour glass:  symbols of death and the brevity of life. The idea, of course, was to encourage people to make the most of their living years.

Edwart Collier, 1690
Edwart Collier, 1690

For the most part, we don’t go in for this sort of thing anymore. Few people, if any, operate under the delusion that we might escape death (excepting the Singularity folks I guess), but we do a pretty good job of forgetting what we know about death. We keep death out of sight and, hence, out of mind. We’re certainly not going out of our way to remind ourselves of death’s inevitability. And, who knows, maybe that’s for the better. Maybe all of those skulls and hourglasses were morbidly unhealthy. I honestly don’t know.

But while vanitas art has gone out of fashion, a new class of memento mori has emerged: the social media profile.

I’m one of those on again, off again Facebook users. Lately, I’ve been on again, and recently I noticed one of those birthday reminders Facebook places in the left hand column where it puts all of the things Facebook would like you to do and click on. It was for a high school friend whom I had not spoken to in over eight years. It was in that respect a very typical Facebook friendship:  the sort that probably wouldn’t exist at all any longer were it not for Facebook. And that’s not necessarily a knock on the platform. I appreciate being able to maintain at least a minimal connection with people I’d once been quite close to. In this case, though, it demonstrated just how weak those ties can be.

Upon clicking over to their profile, I read a few odd birthday notes, and very quickly it became obvious that my high school friend had died over a year ago. It was a shock, of course. It had happened while I was off of Facebook and news had not reached me by any other channel. But there it was. Out of nowhere and without warning my browser was haunted by the very real presence of death. Momento mori.

Just a few days prior I logged on to Facebook and was greeted by the tragic news that a former student had unexpectedly passed away. Because we had several mutual connections, photographs of the young man found their way into my news feed for several days. It was odd and disconcerting and terribly sad all at once. I don’t know what I think of social media mourning. It makes me uneasy, but I won’t criticize what might bring others solace. In any case, it is, like death itself, an unavoidable reality of our social media experience. Death is no digital dualist.

Facebook sometimes feels like a modern-day Arcadia. It is a carefully cultivated space in which life appears Edenic. The pictures are beautiful, the events exciting, the face are always smiling, the children always amusing, the couples always adoring. Certain studies even suggest that comparing our own experience to these immaculately curated slices of life leads to envy, discontent, and unhappiness. Naturally … if we assume that these slices of life are comprehensive representations of the lives people lead. Of course, they are not.

But there, alongside the pets and witty status updates and wedding pictures and birth announcements, we will increasingly find our social media platforms haunted by the digital, disembodied presence of the dead.

In that dreary opening chapter of The Scarlett Letter, Hawthorne wrote, “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.”

And so it is with our digital utopias, our virtual Arcadias.

Et in Facebook ego.

Resisting the Tyranny of Productivity

Briefly, an additional thought on the Programmable World (in which ubiquitous wireless sensors make objects and machines “smart”): The envisioned Programmable World, as Bill Wasik has called it, is a tremendously sophisticated time- and labor-saving technology. Just think of all that we will not have to worry about or do when machines “talking” to each other will automatically do it for us.

But … the promise of time- and labor-saving technology is rarely fulfilled. See Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave for a book-length validation of that claim.

Really, the effect of such technologies is to instill in us the ideals of efficiency and productivity. And that just gets tiresome. In an earlier post I wrote that the Programmable World would enable us to sleepwalk through life. Allow me to take that back. The Programmable World will encourage us to speed-walk through life. But really, the two are not so different – sleep walking and speed walking. In both cases, you’ve taken leave of the present.

So here, free of charge, is your inoculation, for today, against the tyranny of efficiency and productivity.

Pieter Brueghel, The Harvesters (1565)
Pieter Brueghel, The Harvesters (1565)

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.


“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.


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.


(More to come.)

Knowledge, Love, and Criticism

What does the critic love? I keep asking this because I keep getting stimulating feedback. In one instance it was suggested that the critic loves knowledge; in another, soul-searching. There is, no doubt, something to both, and, in fact, to both together. The critic is definitely driven to know and to understand. That much seems clear. And it is certainly true that knowledge in itself can be remarkably rewarding. I’m not sure that I would defend it to the death, but there is something that resonates with me in Housman’s line, “All human knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” For some critics, then, the answer may be as simple as this, the love of knowledge or the love of knowing.

But those last two phrases are not quite synonymous are they (… I ask the audience that cannot hear me as I type the question)? The love of knowledge and the love of knowing — the former loves the object, the latter loves the state of possessing the object. Consider it the difference between the person who loves to contemplate the work of art, and the one who loves to point guests to the work of art on their wall. The love of knowledge would seem less instrumental, more disinterested. The love of knowing suggests to me the spirit of the pedant. That said, I believe both are recognizable dispositions and we know the difference when we encounter each case.

Setting aside the pedant, I’d readily grant that love of knowledge drives the critic. But more distinctions: what does love of knowledge for the music critic, to take one example, mean? It probably does not only mean loving knowledge about the music. Surely, it involves knowledge as a form of intimate participation with the music. (Save the Leslie Nielsen/Airplane crack.) The love of knowledge is multifaceted, it’s not simply a matter of loving information. This holds, I suspect, for critics not only of music, but also of art, literature, food, film, etc. In each of these cases, the knowledge the critic loves is in part experiential. I’m tempted to say that it is finally not a love of knowledge as we normally think of knowledge, but a love of the thing itself. The critic accumulates knowledge about the object of criticism in order to heighten and deepen the experience of the object.

But all of these instances of criticism strike me as something apart from what we might call social or cultural criticism. The critic who takes society or aspects of society as their object of criticism may also be motivated by a love of knowledge, but of what sort? The knowledge the social critic cultivates seems different than the knowledge cultivated by the music critic. It seems to lack the element of contemplative participation that music or an object of art invite. Perhaps, it is better to say that the knowledge of the social critic does not culminate in an act of contemplation.

With that last phrase I think I’ve brought into view the distinction I was struggling to articulate. For the critic of art, the accumulation of knowledge culminates in an act of contemplation. That is, it has as its goal the enjoyment of beauty. The social critic’s knowledge does not culminate in anything comparable. The culmination of the social critic’s work would seem to be action not contemplation, transformation rather than participation. Perhaps we might say that the social critic aims at goodness enacted while the artistic critic aims at beauty contemplated, and the pursuit of truth is undertaken in the service of both aims.

But there is one more consideration that may draw these two forms of criticism together. Perhaps we might also say that the critic is driven by love of self. There are two ways of construing this that track with the distinction above. The critic might be driven by self-love in the sense that they love nothing more than to see their own values and desires reflected by society. This critic loves nothing so much as their image reflected back to them. Whatever does this is praised, whatever does not is held in contempt. This critic pursues knowledge with contemplation as its aim and it is the contemplation of their own image.

Self-love, however, may also drive the critic who seeks not to contemplate their own image, but to transform themselves, to move toward some higher ideal. In this case, we may speak of a self-love that is animated by the love of something greater than the self and that loves the self in the sense of wanting what is best for the self in light of this higher ideal. Their criticism is aimed at self-knowledge for the sake of self-transformation. Their criticism is, in fact, an act of soul-searching.