The Furies Within

“By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.”

From Edward Mendelson’s recent essay, “The Secret Auden.” Read the rest for an elaboration of this point and much else worth your consideration.

In his closing paragraph, Mendelson cites a line from Montaigne which Auden once used as an epigraph. I leave you with it:

“We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.”

Promethean Shocks

Consider the image below. It was created in 1952 by Alexander Leydenfrost for the 50th anniversary issue of Popular Mechanics.

Alexander Leydenfrost - March of Science 3WifC

I thought of this image as I read Thomas Misa’s brief discussion of the wide-spread perception that the pace of technological change is ever-quickening. “At least since Alvin Toffler’s best-selling Future Shock (1970),” Misa writes, “pundits perennially declare that the pace of technology is somehow quickening and that technology is forcing cultural changes in its wake, that our plunge into the future is driven by technology gone out of control.”

Misa, a historian of technology, is not altogether certain that the pace of technological change has in fact quickened. He is certainly opposed to the “crude technological determinism” inherent in the idea that technology is forcing cultural changes. He does, however, give merit to the experience that is often described using this language. He attributes the perception of quickening to “a split between our normative expectations for technology and what we observe in the world around us.” “It is not so much that our technologies are changing especially quickly,” he explains, “but that our sense of what is ‘normal,’ about technology and society, cannot keep pace.”

According to Misa, developments in cloning, biotechnology, surveillance technologies, and nanotechnology are outstripping regulatory laws and ethical norms. This seems true enough. We might even describe the condition of modernity (and/or post-modernity, or hyper-modernity, or reflexive modernity, or whatever) as one of perpetual Promethean shock. This way of putting it seems more apt than “future shock.” One way of telling the story of modernity, after all, is to order it as a series of startling realizations of what we suddenly acquired the power to do. As Auden wrote of the modern Mind,

“Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.”

Clearly certain technological innovations yield this dizzying experience of Promethean shock more than others. The advent of human flight, the atomic bomb, and putting a man on the moon are just some of the more simultaneously startling, awe-inspiring, disconcerting examples. When these technologies arrived, in rather quick succession, they rattled and unsettled reigning cultural and moral frameworks, tacit as they may have been, for incorporating new technologies into existing society.

These normative cultural expectations for technology were set, Misa suggests, during the “longer-duration ‘eras'” of technology which he identifies in his history of the relationship between technology and culture. These eras included, for example, the age of the Renaissance, when the demands of Renaissance court culture set the agenda for technological change, and the age of imperialism, when the imperatives of empire dictated the dominant agenda. The former era, in Misa’s analysis, spanned nearly two centuries, and the latter the better part of one; but the 20th century is home to at least four different eras, which Misa labels the eras of systems, modernism, war, and global culture respectively.

Misa is on to something here, but he seems to push the question back rather than answering it directly. Why then are these eras, tentative and suggestive as he acknowledges them to be, getting progressively shorter? He is closer to the mark, I think, when he also suggests that the sense of quickening is linked to another “quickening” in  the “self-awareness of societies,” which he further defines as “our capacities to recognize and comprehend change.”

His brief illustration of this development is initially compelling. Two centuries elapsed before the Renaissance was named. Within 50 years of the appearance of factories in Manchester, the phrase industrial revolution was in usage. Just four years after the telephone arrived in Moscow, Chekhov published a short story, “On the Telephone,” about the travails of an early adopter trying to make a restaurant reservation over the phone (fodder for a Seinfeld plot, if you ask me). Most recently, William Gibson gives us the term cyberspace “almost before the fact of cyberspace.” This sequences suggests to Misa that Western society has become increasingly self-aware of technological change and its consequences.

I think this claim has merit. The Modern mind that, according to Auden “cannot understand/what it can clearly do” he described as the “self-observed, observing Mind.”  But, again, we might be tempted to ask why our “self-awareness” is accelerating in this way. Might it not be attributed, at least in part, to an increase in the rapidity of technological development? The two seem inseparable. I’m reminded of Walter Ong’s dictum about writing: “Writing heightens consciousness.” In a slightly different way, might we not argue that technological change heightens societal self-awareness?

Consider again that Leydenfrost image above. It captures an important aspect of how we’ve come to understand our world: we have aligned our reckoning of the passage of time with the development of technology. We have technologies that mark time, but in another sense the advent of new technologies mark time by their appearance, iteration, and obsolescence.

Human beings have long sought markers to organize the experience of time, of course. For a day sunrise and sunset served just fine. The seasons, too, helped order the experience of a year. For longer periods, however, cultural rather than natural markers were needed. Consider, for instance, the common practice in the ancient world of reckoning time by the reigns of monarchs. “In the x year of so-and-so’s reign” is a recurring temporal formula.

Without achieving that sort of verbal formality or precision, I’d suggest that the development of technology–the reign, if you will, of certain technologies and artifacts–now does similar work for modern societies. Records, 8-tracks, tapes, CDs, MP3s. Desktops, laptops, tablets. Landline, portable landline, cellphone, smartphone. Black and white TV, color TV, projection TV, flatscreen TV. Pre-Internet/post-Internet. Dial-up/broadband/wireless. I suspect you can supply similar artifactual chronologies that have structured our recollection of the past. We seem to have synchronized our perception and experience of time to the cycles of technological innovation.

The Leydenfrost image also reminds us that insofar as the notion of progress exists at all today, it is clearly bound up with the advance of technology. All other forms of progress that we might imagine  or aspire to– moral, economic, social–these are subsumed under the notion of technological progress. For that reason, rumors or suggestions that technological innovation might be slowing down unnerve us. We need the next big thing  to keep coming on schedule, however trivial that next big thing might be, to distract us from our economic, political, and personal woes.

This was illustrated nicely by the minor tech-media freakout occasioned recently by a Christopher Mims’ piece at Quartz arguing that 2013 was a lost year for tech. It was received as a heretical claim, and it was promptly and roundly condemned. “I, too, constantly yearn for mind-blowing new tech,” Farhad Manjoo tells us in his reply to Mims before re-assuring us: “I think we’re witnessing the dawn of a new paradigm in machine-human cooperation: Combining machine intelligence with biological intelligence will always trump one or the other. Machines make us better, and we make machines better. There’s still hope for us. Welcome to the bionic future.”

The world may be falling apart around us, but we can bear it so long as we can project our hopes on the amorphous promise of technological advance. The prospect of a host of Promethean shocks that we seemed poised to receive–from drones, robotics, AI, bioengineer, geo-engineering, nanotechnology–makes us nervous, they unsettle our moral frameworks; but their absence would worry us more, I suspect.



“Terce,” the second of seven poems constituting WH Auden’s “Horae Canonicae: Immolatus vicerit”:

After shaking paws with his dog
(Whose bark would tell the world that he is always kind),
The hangman sets off briskly over the heath;
He does not know yet who will be provided
To do the high works of Justice with:
Gently closing the door of his wife’s bedroom
(Today she has one of her headaches),
With a sigh the judge descends his marble stair;
He does not know by what sentence
He will apply on earth the Law that rules the stars:
And the poet, taking a breather
Round his garden before starting his eclogue,
Does not know whose Truth he will tell.

Sprites of hearth and store-room, godlings
Of professional mysteries, the Big Ones
Who can annihilate a city,
Cannot be bothered with this moment: we are left,
Each to his secret cult, now each of us
Prays to an image of his image of himself:
‘Let me get through this coming day
Without a dressing down from a superior,
Being worsted in a repartee,
Or behaving like an ass in front of the girls;
Let something exciting happen,
Let me find a lucky coin on a sidewalk.
Let me hear a new funny story.’

At this hour we all might be anyone:
It is only our victim who is without a wish,
Who knows already (that is what
We can never forgive. If he knows the answers,
Then why are we here, why is there even dust?),
Knows already that, in fact, our prayers are heard,
That not one of us will slip up,
That the machinery of our world will function
Without a hitch, that today, for once,
There will be no squabbling on Mount Olympus,
No Chthonian mutters of unrest,
But no other miracle, knows that by sundown
We shall have had a good Friday.

(October 1953)

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?

Richard Wilbur on W. H. Auden

“The soul shrinks from all that it is about to remember.”

“… but for that look of rigorous content.”

“… the fountain-quieted square …”

“… gust of grace …”

” … having taught hell’s fire a singing way to burn …”

These are just a few of the many delightful and haunting lines from the poetry of Richard Wilbur, a former national poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer Prize  winner who turned 91 last month.

Those of you who have been reading for a while will have gathered that W. H. Auden is a poet I hold in high esteem. In light of that, here is Richard Wilbur’s “For W. H. Auden” which first appeared in The Atlantic in 1979:

   Now I am surer where they were going.
The brakie loping the tops of the moving freight,
The beautiful girls in their outboard, waving to someone
As the stern dug in and the wake pleated the water.

   The uniformed children led by a nun
Through the terminal’s uproar, the clew-drawn scholar descending
The cast-iron stair of the stacks, shuffling his papers,
The Indians, two to a blanket, passing in darkness,

   Also the German prisoner switching
His dusty neck as the truck backfired and started—
Of all these noted in stride and detained in memory
I now know better that they were going to die,

   Since you, who sustained the civil tongue
In a scattering time, and were poet of all our cities,
Have for all your clever difference quietly left us,
As we might have known that you would, by that common door.