Rochelle Gurstein captures in lovely prose a handful of thoughts I have attempted, with less eloquent results, to express myself. “The Perils of Progress”, a brief essay appearing in The New Republic, opens with a story about “a lecture by an exquisitely sensitive, painfully alert poet friend of ours about how we live today” which elicits tired labels contemptuously applied. As Gurstein puts it:
These days, even a few well-considered, measured reservations about digital gadgetry apparently cannot be tolerated, and our poet friend was informed by forward-looking members of the audience that she was fearful of change, nostalgic, in short, reactionary with all its nasty political connotations.
And this presumably from a learned and sophisticated audience.
Gurstein goes on to challenge the same NY Times editorial by Steven Pinker which drew some of my own comments some time ago. She observes that in …
… disputes about the consequences of innovation, those on the side of progress habitually see only gains. They have no awareness that there are also losses—equally as real as the gains (even if the gain is as paltry as “keeping us smart”)—and that no form of bookkeeping can ever reconcile the two.
Gurstein concludes with some poignant reflections on the materiality of the book and the difference it makes to the experience of reading and the reader’s relationship to the author. The essay truly is worth a few minutes of your time to read. Also reading the few comments posted in response to Gurstein’s essay tends to reinforce her concerns.
At one point in the essay Gurstein spoke of Pinker’s “stacking the deck against” her sensibility. That word, sensibility, struck me. This is I think near to the heart of matter. What Gurstein and others like her attempt to defend and preserve is not merely a point of view or a particular truth. It is more subjective than that, but is not merely preference. It is not at all like a preference, which, I suspect, is precisely what those who do not understand it will try to label it. It is, well, a sensibility — a certain disposition or way of being in the world. It is an openness and a sensitivity to certain kinds of experience and to certain dimensions of reality. Because of this it resists description and facile reduction to the terms of a cost/benefit analysis. Consequently, it can be difficult to convincingly defend a sensibility to those who know nothing of it. Maybe it is best described as a “seeing the world as” or, perhaps better still, a “feeling the world as.” A sensibility is a posture toward life, a way of inhabiting the world.
What all of this groping for words may have at its center is the experiential quality of a sensibility, and experience is, after all, incommunicable. Unless, that is, two people share the sensibility and then words may even seem superfluous. In this sense, those who share a sensibility, share the world. Those who lack or fail to appreciate the sensibility Gurnstein articulates know only to shake their heads in condescending bemusement. What those, like Gurnstein and her poet friend, who grieve the passing of a culture that nurtured their sensibility fear may be the onset of a long loneliness.
Nota bene: This post was first published in early July of 2010. I re-publish it today because the Gurnstein essay had been on my mind, because I think it makes a point that bears repeating, and because I imagine that my audience is now quite different than it was nearly a year and a half ago. I have edited some of the temporal references accordingly.