backing down and turning left a little bit from my announced topic,
which was going to be called "The Protean Word,"
because I thought we would come to that anyway. It would be possibly
more useful and relevant for me to talk about things that actually
form the context, the societal envelope, within which all of these
that we're so interested in unfold. I'm very grateful to have
been able to come after Neil Postman, because aside from delivering
such wise and thoughtful observations, I think he sort of set
out the context for me. What I'm going to talk about is, in some
ways, an elaboration of, variation upon and continuation of the
same general topical concern. The one thing I'm going to do a
little differentlyI'm more a Plato than a Socrates when
it comes to thisis I'm going to read something, rather than
talk it. I envy people who can just come forward and confidently
go on for an hour, talking and extemporizing, but my main writerly
contract seems to be first to the page, then to the reader or
audience, sort of like the moon reflecting the light from the
sun. At the end, we can go absolutely anywhere with it. We don't
have to stay within the circumference drawn here; we can head
out toward other related issues.
lack a title, but I think it will become fairly self-evident where
I'm going. I scrawled down some things while I was listening to
Neil Postman: he talked a lot about the trivialization of symbols.
In a lot of ways, what I'm looking at in this piece, is also trying
to look at the cultural consequence of such trivialization. I
think that almost addresses the question that somebody posed earlier
about the losses or down side in the Faustian bargain. I hope
that the phrase I'm going to begin with is one that you know,
if not from the book, then the film of Milan Kundera, The Unbearable
Lightness of Being. I take that as my point of departure.
we suffer from anything just now in Americathat is, apart
from the sorrows and ailments that have always plagued all peopleit
is from what Milan Kundera so aptly called The unbearable lightness
of being. The phrase has become my thought mantra. Whenever
I feel I am losing my way and my sense of mission blurs, and I
teeter toward the consolations of relativism, I need only focus
on those five words. All comes clear again: the unbearable lightness
of being. I love the seemingly oxymoronic yoking of those two
words, unbearable and lightness. The way
we are forced to consider, if only for an instant, how something
as essentially pleasurable as lightness could be unbearable. It
is in that instant that I find my subject. How it is that our
culture-wide rush to quicken and connect, to bring experience
in line with the instantaneous shunting of impulses in our circuits,
may in the end betoken a crisis of human subjectivity. How did
lightness become unbearable? It is the question of questions.
sense of the phrase, lightness of being, possibly
differs from Kundera's, as it is bound up with an ideal of effortlessness
in living. Effortlessness, certainly, in terms of what were once
the universal constants and constraintslabor, time, and
distance. Lightness of being is to a degree what follows upon
the surmounting of the myriad forms of physical resistance. It
is the reaction in the psyche to the elimination or abridgment
of the physical process. Our understanding of the world, our relation
to it, has been significantly determined over millennia by the
pressure of these constraints. The concept of distance was tied
to the exertions of getting from here to there. Labor was defined
by the output of energy, and so on.
century's recent decades, in particular, have wreaked havoc with
laboriously acquired knowledge. We race everywhere in cars and
planes, more and more often using our appliances, our cell phones
and laptops, as we do so. We zap our supermarket meals in microwaves;
we gather and disperse electronic messages, many of the exchanges
taking place with people we have never met. It is an easy litany
to set down. What we need to acknowledge is that with the exhilarating
surmounting of former resistance comes a certain distance, as
well. The roadside driven past is not the landscape known; the
food ladled out of a prepared package is consumed for taste and
calories: it does not bind us in any way to the terrain we happen
to live on. Lightness of being is what we feel when the process
or encounter is mediated for us. It is what we feel living in
second --or third-hand, when ancient, conditioned reflexes are
not called upon, and when the impulse of a certain exertion simply
feel the lightness, too, in our so-called atomization, the dissolution
of physical community. We move about alone, or with the remnants
of our nuclear family, or with like-minded others we have found
to be with. But we no longer feel between body and soil the pull
that goes beyond mere ownership. The idea of history, collective
as well as familial, has begun to die for us. The modern conception
of freedom is to no longer feel the weight of traditional obligations
and the implicit responsibility to care for those living on every
side of us. This freedom, this liberation, is part of the lightness
and has something to do with how it is becoming unbearable.
we not remark this? Of course we do, privately. We wait at a traffic
light and feel unaccountably anxious. Crossing the parking lot
at the mall, we suddenly forget who we are, where we're going,
or what it is we're doing. But there's no public corroboration;
our society has pledged to conquer all difficulty, or else to
bury its traces. The same forces that have brought us our ease
and accelerationthe seamless living that we all imagine
we wantand that have undone much of the fabric of the local,
destroying the sovereign categories of time and space and rendering
our experience of them relative, have forced us to change our
relation to reality in other ways as well. Data glut, and that
elusive phenomenon that I call culture speed, the
sense we all have of being overwhelmed, have led us to fracture
our focus. We now distribute our energy in many different directions
at once. Our attention spans have attenuated alarmingly. Most
of us will recognize the sensation, once it is named. It is the
distraction we feel as we try, in one and the same moment, to
attend to a child, keep up our end of a phone conversation, pick
up and sort papers on the dining room table, and monitor the spaghetti
sauce cooking on the stove. The point is not that we do these
things all at onceit is possiblebut that we feel the
need to. The point is that given finite blocks of time and exponentially
expanded ranges of stimulus and stimulus responsibility, something
has to collapse. It is the focus that goes. This is part of the
lightness of being, too; for when the field of awareness is divided
thus and the mind is exerting itself to synchronize things and
keep balance, only the faintest sense of real being is able to
leak through. Simone Weil wrote that prayer is attention; in that
sense, so is being. We feel the shortfall, it nags at us, but
we reflexively postpone our reckonings: Next week, on Saturday,
when I finally settle in at the Cape, then I'll get back to being.
I'll figure my way around these assaults. Or else we rent
a video for distraction, possibly one that leaves us chagrined
by the passion and purpose scripted into the characters, and again,
we make our private vows.
mediation and fragmentation are the obvious culprits, there is
another, more elusive. Consider what happens when an individual
turns from the world, figuratively speaking, and fastens his or
her gaze upon him or herself, taking the I as the object of primary
attention. We call this narcissism; it is a familiar feature of
our age. Indeed, social theorists like Christopher Lasch have
gone so far as to tag our whole epoch, the culture of narcissism.
My interest just now is the individual, and it is less psychologicalwhy
it is that a person is driven to direct her energies thusand
centers more upon what happens in the course of that strange transaction.
This transaction is at once the channeling of awareness away from
its intended object and a short-circuiting of the self. The natural
flow of awareness, the sentience, is turned upon the self and
consciousness, that evolutionary triumph, has converted to self-consciousness.
All consciousness, reason the philosophers, is consciousness of
something. But what happens when that something is not out in
the world. It seems a transgression against the intended, a break
as grievous as the original break narrated in Genesis, when simple
being was set aside for the ever more divisive pursuit of knowledge.
There is something in our age and times that conduces to this
reversing the flow of the gaze, the redirecting of the contemplative
impulse from its customary exterior target. It's all guesswork,
of course; but I would say that part of the explanation has to
do with the removal of the world from us. The world reality long
ago stopped being the simple other of nature.
a long time, it was a place obviously connected to nature, with
habitations and enterprises still visibly bound up with the given.
But what we call the world now is, more likely than not, that
obscure, third thing, a gelid sort of extrusion. It is not so
much characterized by nature, or even by things, but rather by
electronic communications, media images and devices, in a vast
circulatory system of mass-produced goods, felt by a great many
of us to be indispensable. There is no clear other
now, no obvious not-I; the self, overwhelmed and frightened,
unable to get its bearings, circles the wagons and reroutes the
gaze. The ethos of the marketplace reinforces this, pitching itself
insistently to the self that takes itself as its central preoccupation.
You deserve a break today. Because I'm worth it.
the literal eye takes in the image of itself looking, the circuit
to the world is obviously broken. If you can think of looking
in the mirror, at your own eye, there's a strange sort of mirror-within-a-mirror
process. In fact, at that moment you have, oddly, by looking at
the thing that does the looking, broken the circuit that is, at
almost all other times, in place and governs our perceptual relation
to the world. When the literal eye takes in the image of itself
looking, the circuit to the world is obviously broken. When the
self takes itself as the primary object of its awareness, the
natural circulation of sympathy is violated. In the self-consciousness
that results, the once natural durational flow of time is broken.
This is a time awareness that we generate in our intense, experiential
engagement with the world. When the engagement is interrupted,
the relation to things is modified. The eye, watching itself,
no longer quite belongs to a participant; it has put a break,
a parenthesis, into the established way of things.
this same phenomenon be understood collectively? I want to propose
that our astonishing technological capabilities are increasingly
encouraging us to pursue a kind of looking that is something new
in the world. Consider, in this regard, vice-president Al Gore's
proposal, made in a speech given at MIT last year, that a continuous
live satellite image of the earth be posted on the Internet. It's
a staggering idea, one that bears some thinking about. This is
more than just another inventive use to which our new, technological
toyssophisticated satellite cameras and the Internetcan
be put. Subliminally, it marks a serious new step in our perceptual
evolution, never mind if it shortly comes to pass or not. What
matters is the idea and our perceived readiness for it. For this
perpetual, real-time image to be posted, it would subtly infiltrate
a new perspective into our collective myths. Henceforth, some
idea of being beheld, planetarily, would always be with us. It
is a symbolic business: where once it was the eye of God that
was believed to see everything, now, deeply secularized, we would
assign that vantage to an orbiting satellite. When the philosopher
Bishop Berkeley wrote, To be is to be perceived, he surely
meant something other than this. The idea is in the air; the time
has come; and we are readying ourselves for the lightness of being
the possibilities and implications are also troubling to us. Looking
to Hollywood, where the anxieties of our collective being are
thrown, as if in nerve patterns, upon a screenthe phrase
is T.S. Elliotswe see the signs. Last summer's big
movie, The Truman Show, was about a man whose entire life
was filmed and watched the world over, unbeknownst only to him.
Or think of The Game, another movie, where everything that
happens to the Michael Douglas character turns out to have been
scripted and performed by members of a top-secret agency, whose
business is to sell rich people extraordinary experiences. Douglas
character is oblivious, as are we, but in the final scenes, the
whole fabric of our assumptions was ripped asunder. Everything
was known, anticipated and planned for. In Wag the Dog,
a major global conflict is entirely simulated in television studios,
and the populace effectively believes it really happened. In each
case, differences notwithstanding, the impression is created that
organizations have the power to generate the entirely persuasive
illusion of reality. Along with this, there is the fear that we
may not understand the extent to which we are now seen or known
in our living.
is not far from this to the quasi-paranoid sense of a pervasive
there and an omnipresent they. Rationally
of course, we know that such an ultimate, superintending force
does not exist, at least not one that we have manufactured. But
subliminally, the situation is somewhat different: there
and they are felt to be on the other end of the electronic
circuit. We push the power button on the remote, and a world flowers
in front of us. It strikes us suddenly that here is a reality
not only shaped and comprehended, but that the same agency that
presents it for our pleasure is connected through a hundred thousand
tentacles to global reality. If anything important happens anywhere,
we will be apprised. We have no comparable powers. We know almost
nothing apart from what our various media digest and deliver to
us. The continuous Earth image, the god's eye view, would belong
to that world. Indeed, it would be the icon of omniscience. It
would split us once and for all from the gravity-bound condition
of isolated existence. Once beheld and known to us to be something
continuously beheld and consumed as image, the world would become
less entity and more idea. We would have pulled ourselves a notch
further toward lightness, the apotheosis of which is insubstantiality.
cave ancestors, veritable bears, bequeathed undivided weightedness
to their first heirs. Each generation since has sought to divide,
to lessen and to ease that burden. For so many centuries, living
was a kind of rude poking in ashes with a stick, or hefting a
bundle from here to there. Now it is the finger, still strangely
fleshy, launching signals and actions by way of codes.
I'm not quite done with this matter of self-seeing and being seen.
I seem to see traces of transformation wherever I look. There
is, for example, the widely publicized example of the computer-cam,
also known as the Jenny-cam, after the young woman who started
the on-line fad of nonstop, documentary projection of her apartment
life. Imitators have been legions; many people appear to find
the idea of uninterrupted self-display irresistible. Or is it
more the idea of being, always, potentially seen? This impulse
to electronically breach the walls of privacy is related, if only
on an inverse level, to the epidemic erosion of privacy through
the myriad forms of electronic databanks and public surveillance.
Whether desired or unwanted, either way you cut it, the wall between
the private self and the world at large are growing thinner and
other day driving, I heard a radio segment about a new project.
A group would climb Mount Everest, filming the whole trek, and
posting it in real time on the Internet. Interesting and informative,
yes; but also another blow to the idea of otherness. When the
austere remoteness of Everest becomes a feature accessed digitally,
then another quantum of reality will have been leached away.
this way, the ancient and once ultimate tyrannies of time and
space are being broken down and reconstituted. Not just by speed
and electronic simultaneitythe instant transfer of impulses
between Singapore and Cheyennebut also by the incessant
generation and consumption of images. Images broker between ourselves
and the other; they stand in between. Consume enough images, and
the world seems less absolutely set before us. Moreover, the kind
of looking we carry out here, whether we're gazing at someone
flossing into their webcam or driving a piton into an Everest
rock face, is not really a looking outward. It partakes, rather,
of a new sort of collective self-gazing, for what is important
is not so much the content of what we're looking at as the mutually
held awareness of the process. Here we are in the moment, making
this extraordinary leap of connection via the wonders of technology.
Something happens when we have as part of our consciousness, individually
and collectively, the ongoing idea of ourselves watching and being
watched. We cannot be said to be living according to the old terms
am reminded of Jorge Luis Borges's disquieting little story, called
The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero; in which, after
the manner of a Swiss public pageantthe festspiel where
a whole village would essentially enact an episode of its historya
whole town lives a portion of its history as an act, a self-conscious
performance. There's a little quotation here from Borges: The
condemned man entered Dublin, argued, worked, prayed, reprehended,
spoke words of pathos, and each one of those acts, destined to
shine forth in glory, had been choreographed by Nolan. Hundreds
of actors collaborated with the protagonist. The role of some
was complex; the role of others a matter of moments on the stage.
The things they did and said endure in Ireland's history books
and in its impassioned memory. Here it is: The Truman Show
with a twist.
image of our planet, Gaia, recalled by some as the emblem of 60s
communal consciousness, the cover of the original Whole Earth
catalog, only now seen continually via live feed from space, would
signal a huge departure from the former mode of consciousness.
Indeed, I wonder how, before our recent technological baptism,
we could even speak, really, of collectivity, except in the sense
of underlying human universals and shared blood impulses. In former
times, before our electronic age, we lived in small groups of
isolated selves. The comprehension and world vision of most people
ended at the horizon. Only by bringing large numbers of people
physically togetherthis is Charles Baudelaire's and Edgar
Allan Poe's sense of the city, which is very strong in the 19th
centurycould that sense of local limitation be vanquished
for a time. The city, of course, became a magnet: not only was
there work to be had, there was lightness. Now we live always
in potential collectivity. Our instruments and the impulses that
they pass along have woven us together. The center of perceived
power is no longer the President or any symbolic power figure;
it is whatever agency gathers and disseminates the most data and
imagery. No longer can we sustain the unbroken and undivided view.
We live in the midst of constant fragmentation, and the signature
mode of our condition is irony. Not irony as pointed sarcasm,
necessarily, but irony as in distance and knowing, as in being
savvy, as in balancing of different views, as in relativism. Anything
not thus self-divided and self-reflexive, anything dating from
before the era of fragmentation, automatically becomes an object
of ironic contemplation or nostalgia. We smile now at the unfragmented,
credulous world-view of the simple person. The simple person is
our ancestor: Forrest Gump, Gomer Pyle, Jed Clampett. Action unbroken
by self-consciousness belongs to a prior world, when all actions
were undertaken, necessarily, with an immersion and seriousness
that now looks quaint. More than most anything, possibly more
than the overt pressures of geopolitical change, this shift in
sensibility marks us off from our past, from history, and no viewing
of public television specials will change that. The fact is that
anything from before is faintly comical, equivalent to the jerky
renditions of events in black and white newsreel footage. Of course
we long for it, too; we celebrate the tokens of the past, fetishize
objects and make heroes of the players. We crave those defining
intensities, but we cannot have them.
world of fashion photography has pledged to give us images that
accord with our desire, as if by buying the ensemble, we may recover
inner unity. Alas, intensity combined with physical beauty and
tailored clothing also looks a lot like complete narcissistic
is a new kind of collective consciousness in the world. I would
define collective consciousness as that component
in an individual consciousness that grasps its actions, reactions
and thoughts as partaking in the actions, reactions and thoughts
of a portion of the larger society as well. Normallythat
is, before everything changedliving in isolation, we would
not be aware of ourselves as collective entities. It is the consequence
of the medianewspapers, radio and especially televisionnot
only directing the same data stream at the multitude, but also
premising themselves, their entire delivery, on the idea of a
collectivity. They helped create the collective individual by
positing her and pitching their wares accordingly. Everyone shares
not just the same data but also the reinforcing subliminal impression
of an audience of similarly constituted individuals. Workplace
and other interactions solidify this. They unfold by way of collective
reference and establish the dominance of that implicit understanding.
To live in the collective, to go to a ball game, to go see Titanic,
is to feel the lightness of being, though not necessarily as something
unbearable. To the contrary: it can feel desirable and even necessary.
It is only unbearable when held against the idea of the differentiated
individual, an idea that is fast losing texture and viability
in our culture. Many find lightness liberating and seek it out,
because lightness cuts against the gravity and pain of selfhood.
shift, now, to consider a specific and representative instance:
the cinematic image and the difference between movies and film,
between entertainment and art. Movies are entertainment; entertainment
is a collective phenomenon. Entertainment is lightness. Films
are art; art is an individual experience, a singling out of the
self from the mass. Films are often spoken of as heavy,
as are many serious works of art. Movies feed the great distractedness.
Governed by the consensus logic of the bottom line, they are made
with an eye upon the collective, upon the viewer who is a self
fragmented between private and public claims. (The word collective,
I realize, comes to us laden with overtones from Marxism and from
Jung, but I could not find a better word for this.) Movies are
self-conscious in this way, and they come perilously closeat
times crossing overto winking at themselves. They are not
about the real comprehension of their subject matter; they are
focused entirely upon calculating the impression to be made. The
right impression equals box office: the largest collective immersion,
producing the greatest collective lightness, also generates the
greatest revenue. Capital goes in search, not of the largest number
of individuals, but of the spirit of the collective. Finding that,
it finds the individual viewers. Though they are both on the big
screen, nothing could be more different than a film like Babette's
Feast and the latest blockbuster. The difference is simply
not artistic quality, however we choose to define that. It is
the assumption that underlies the very joining together of the
becomes a definition of art, as well, though I will not push the
point here. Writing about the difference between science and art,
the late Walker Percy insisted that science can only deal with
the general phenomenon or malaise, that it can never tell us what
it is like to be an individual, to be born, live and die in the
20th century. The same distinction applies, I would say, to entertainment
versus art. Art is never pitched to the collective part of the
self, but to the distinct, unique self, the self that stands not
just apart from, but fundamentally against, the collective.
we must ask, what is the difference between the collective and
the universal? A great many individuals can be joined together
in a response to elements in a work of art that are understood
to be universal. But their response is not coming from the collective
part of the self, as I have characterized it. The universal resonates
the individual, the self, bringing a recognition of commonality
within a context of essential difference. Experiencing the collective
immersion, one feels lightness. Experiencing the universal, one
feels neither heaviness nor lightness, but the proper balance
issue in all that I'm saying here is not so much changes in world,
for these proceed unabated, but rather changes in the sphere of
human subjectivity: what it feels like and what it seems to mean,
person to person, to live in the world now. The final question
then: why unbearable? What is wrong with lightness? How have we
failed ourselves by stepping into lightness?
recall the absolute terror that I felt as a child watching the
old Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The terror was at least
twofold, deriving in part from the fact that the afflicted were
outwardly unidentifiable, looking just like the unafflicted, and
in part from the fact that the affliction was essentially the
absence of soul. What was it that so frightened me? It was the
loss of everything that gave pleasure and definition to life.
The outer form of existence stripped of its animating energies
was worse than no existence at all. If that ever happened, I thought,
I would kill myself; it would be unbearable. I wonder how far
to extend the analogy. Much of the lightness I describe feels
benign: we know it, we enjoy it. But were it to spread and become
the dominant experiential mode, it is very likely the world would
not seem a nightmarish place, but merely a dull, tranquilized
place. It would be a place where any true artistic expression
would resonate like a shout in a silent hall.
stop there. I know I was unloading a lot of aphoristic observations
about culture, media, image and seeing, all one on top of the
other. I can try to get behind and explain it from my point of
view, or go elsewhere. That's up to you.
I'd like to return to the primary metaphor that you used,
which was the mirror gazing. I like that way you described it.
There's two sides of it: when you're looking in the mirror, it's
like looking at something that makes yourself absolutely real,
in a sense, and at the same time, it makes you absolutely unreal.
In order to realize yourself, you're looking through this image
which is always outside of you. To extend that metaphor the way
you did into the notion of the self and the collective, the collective
functions as the mirror. Which of these sides of the mirror would
it be possible to perform an intervention in this process?
said a mouthful. First of all, when I took on that image as the
governing metaphor, it was not so much looking in the mirror to
see yourself represented as to try to pinpoint what happens when
you're looking in your own eyes, into the very mechanism of looking.
In fact, your body is a kind of a blur; you're directing your
own gaze at the thing that produces the gaze and setting up a
kind of endless reverberation. As I was working on all this, I
was looking for an analogy that would convey this thing that I
do feel is very new in the world. For the first time ever, we
have the technological competence to make it happen. We have placed
between ourselves and the world a very elaborate, ramified process
of reproduction, looking, multiplying, transmitting. It, in a
way, almost displaces the very apparatus that is between ourselves
and what used to be the simple transaction with the world. What
we are looking at in our collective looking is largely about the
process of looking itself. That is what's happening with electronic
media: it's not that we care very much about whatever little thing
that is flickering on the screen. What we are enthralled by is
the fact of the flickering. We have situated ourselves within
the network so that as we are using it we are very aware that
we are partaking in something brand new in the world, which is
a simultaneous rush of the image, the impulse, the datum. We care
for that, right now, much more than we care about whatever it
is that we're actually finding out. This seems to me to have suddenly
been injected into our culture on many fronts. The first place
I looked, as I often do, is to the world of popular entertainment,
to see the messages that are coming from that quarter. It seemed
intriguing to me that so many films were about that. I'm referring
to the instances I named before, like The Truman Show and
Wag the Dog. The looking itself was what was being looked
at. This was never quite possible before.
asked what can one do as an intervention. I think
that was your word. First off, to have an intervention, one first
has to recognize there's a problem. An intervention in psychiatric
terms often involves confronting the person with the problem.
It becomes finally seen as a real problem and not just something
you made up. I don't think we're close to that point, culturally.
I think we are bewitched and starstruck by the whole thing. It's
going to take a long time before it comes clear in a striking
sense, not that it's all bad, but that it's a bargain. It's a
very real concept to me: You don't just get something. You get
something and you lose something. You get extraordinary access
in terms of space, and you lose the ability to be absorbed in
your immediate space. At some point, I think it will possibly
be revealed as more of a trade-off than we now see it as. That
would be the point where some idea of intervention might arise.
If I were true to the logic of my metaphor, the first thing you
would do is to break the circuit of self looking at self. Perhaps
it would be a kind of abstinence from all the things that force
you to look at the collective and personal self. Maybe it means
Outward Bound, to go into the woods and sit there for a week,
on a stump, until the world comes trickling back. It has to be
something that disrupts the seamless flow of data and imagery.
This is one of those reality-testing questions. I feel like we
are simply surrounded by it, as in an elastic cocoon. There's
almost very little I can do in my daily life, and I'm not someone
who is particularly embedded in technology. I feel it around me
at all times, and I worry about that. Maybe it's an age thing:
I'm just old enough to have somewhere in my memory banks a memory
of the other. I was a kid, up until ten years old, in a world
that didn't feel like this. It wasn't better or worse, just different.
Now, inexorably, it has begun to feel another way. We just have
to figure out how to live in it in a way that sustains, if we
value it, a subjective selfhood, an articulated self as opposed
to a self that is just an extension of all the other selves.
talked about lightness of being as one of the problems
with all technology. What do you think about the possible connections
between new technology and the recent phenomena of violence in
this country? There have been suggestions that instances such
as the Columbine killings could not have occurred without the
Internet. Could you comment on this?
didn't really want to bring up Columbine, but it seems to me the
very apotheosis of lightness of being, precisely because those
people went in and did the actual shooting. There was a murderous
impulse there, but the impulse was, to my mind, inseparable from
the fact that they had lost all sense of the gravity and substantiality
of a human life. That was no longer a viable concept for these
people. People have always killed, but killing was often an act
undertaken with a grave sense of consequence. When you killed,
you knew what you were doing. This was, to me, killing that knew
it was killing. It was killing that was happening in a kind of
other place, which is what allowed them to do it. They weren't
seeing what they were shooting at. I know it's a cliché,
but it had about the same reality quotient as the screen image
on the Gameboy. I see it as, in some way, bearing out a little
of what I'm saying. You wonder if it's just a consequence of it
or something more: on some obscure level of the soul, is it the
desire to feel something? You go out and do that much damage in
order to feel something, anything. It takes that much to get your
talk about the need for self-looking, and that the first step
is recognizing the problem. I was wondering when you think self-looking
yields knowledge. Do you think it's necessary to look within?
glad you asked that question, because it allows me to clarify
that. I think there is self-looking in the oldest, most venerable,
Socratic aspect. That Socratic know thyself is the
essential motto of what it means to be human and humane. It's
what you strive for. I feel that self-knowledge and
self-gazing are almost antithetical terms. The kind
of looking where you look at yourself and take yourself as an
object of inspection and interest is, to me, narcissism. That's
the guy leaning over the pool, enchanted with his own image. It
has nothing to do with self-knowledge, self-seeking, in the good
sense rather than the bad sense. I don't think the process of
looking, unless it's done with hyper-criticism, can ever begin
to yield any kind of knowledge, whatsoever. I can only see it
as enforcing and widening a rift between the self and the actual
world. I think it's possible for people to begin to live in a
kind of dreamy bubble, until something happens to shock them out
of it. The biggest problem we're going to face culturally is death
and the fear of it. I think that's the one place where the whole
game keeps breaking down. You can almost script a life for yourself
which is safely cocooned. It almost can be lived in a pleasurable
dream, except that you know somewhere behind it all is the off
switch, and all of this will stop someday. That's the other thing
that Socrates did, was link knowledge to death. He said, To
philosophize is to learn how to die. You address yourself
not just as something that wondrously exists, but as something
that wondrously exists but for inexplicable reasons is going to
stop existing and stop being wondrous. That's the beginning of
the thought process that instigates philosophy. You keep wondering,
is there a way around this? Is there a way that I can come to
think of things that will allow death to happen to me and not
be the most wrenching and horrible thing? Is there a wisdom that
I can acquire?
think if we move in this cultural direction that I'm theorizing
here, we will make every attempt to suppress, deny, and concealas
we're so good atdeath. It will be even more of a mystery
event, for the average person. Death is a private event. We don't
hear about it much, and I think we'll hear about it less.
want to respond to your presentation from a cross-cultural perspective.
Descartes said, I think, therefore I am. There's an African
proverb that says, We are, therefore I am. It is a very
interesting troping on thinking. I suspect that the self-entrancement
accompanying this embodiment that we find in Western technological
culture has a lot to do with a lack of community, a lack of thinking
of one in multitudes or an extended system. A driving power is
the kind of heavy hammering we get from capitalism: how we can
be comfortable, how we can make it alone, how we can become individual
humans. These things override the spiritual concerns that make
communality possible or attainable. My question is this: I come
from a culture where I've experienced communality and how much
that can be a strong, supporting instrument for the self in moments
of crisis. For young people growing up in a place like London,
New York or San Francisco, who aren't used to an extended familial
or societal network, what can we do to suggest alternatives that
can both inform their real lives and their attitudes toward art?
There is the example of August Wilson, when he started writing
plays. Because he was articulate in the communal experience, people
said that wasn't the way to write plays. The individual is supposed
to the hero. But Wilson said that the community can also be the
said some really good things there. When you are talking about
coming out of a communal culture, I want to make sure that it's
clear that when I am talking about the collective,
I'm talking about an abstract process. It's the act when you feel
that by virtue of some message or image you are being joined to
a whole host of your brothers. It is the exact opposite of what
the communal experience really is. It's the modern bastardization
of the communal experience, which we have largely given up and
lost in the way we move around geographically, because of all
these disruptions. That's why we are drawn in this way to reconstitute
it electronically. That's a very new kind of constitution of community.
It's not community in any of the old, viable senses.
don't knowbecause there is so much rara, boosterism, glitz
and attractiveness to these new technologies, those people who
feel the impulse to question or criticize it begin to, after a
while, feel like they're raining on the parade. I feel like everything
I'm saying is kind of dour and negative. But, here we go. This
both adds to what I'm saying and tries to address what you were
asking. One of the consequences of the arrival of the electronic
bubble and the general societal atomization that we're all experiencing
on many levels is that we are losing an authentic sense of history
and of where we hail from beyond one generation back. That has
never been true before, because history and community have always
been intimately bound. If you leave community, you leave history,
in many ways. There's a certain countering impulse: whenever something
seems to be disappearing, we go back and look for it in other
forms. So you'll see, for instance, articles about the genealogy
boom. Suddenly everyone in America is interested in knowing where
they came from, and this is all brought to you by the Internet.
The very process that alienated you, or was part of what alienated
you, is now bringing about a kind of solution. You can go chasing
through history, via the databanks, to rebuild the family tree
and find out who was where. They're strangely linked phenomena.
do we do to counter this malaise? I think one of the many functions
of art, across many forms and genres, is to create and reinforce
a compelling reminder of history, what it really is, and how historical
connections pass through generationssins of fathers are
visited upon sons, etc. We need to be constantly reminded that
we are just skating across the very thin contemporary surface.
Underneath and behind are long millennia of our ancestors living
in very different circumstances, generation after generation.
Only in the last two or three generations have we seen this emancipation
or pollination effect. I think without that history, we feel inwardly
bereft and light. Part of what makes you feel heavy is to realize
the extent to which you carry the actual burden of your family
and who they were and what they did. In too many cases, we have
liberated ourselves from that. How do we get it back? It has to
come back by way of art. I don't think we're going to reconstitute
those towns or villages except through the intense experience
of authentic imagination.
hear more and more a certain amount of fear and negative feeling
in people, that we are losing the mechanism of looking. People
are scared that we are losing our subjectivity and sense of who
we are. I sometimes feel, though, that it's good not to put too
much emphasis on subjectivity, since that's the way history has
been bent. There are a lot of things that we don't understand
right now, but, when you think about it, there are always concepts
that we don't understand. No one understood what Nietszche said
when he was around, but now we are beginning to truly grasp it.
Do you think we have to know right now? People are so afraid of
being in a chaotic situation, but perhaps if we just accept it,
it will begin to make sense. A lot of people in cyberspace are
beginning to find a logic in the chaos, and find it easier to
function within that.
you asking if, in dealing with all this chaos and change, the
best way might not be through it? Perhaps the answer lies by going
through it and discovering in the furthest reaches new patterns,
which will then become our basis, rather than rejecting it and
trying to turn back or build upon old understandings. To subject
ourselves to it as a kind of challenge or discipline and move
forward: is that something like what you're asking?
think pessimism has to be part of the recipe, because it would
be a dangerous situation if some of us didn't go around being
skeptical. It's one of those dubious honors one takes on sometimes.
It doesn't mean that I'm sure I'm right, but just that I'm sure
the questions need to be asked. I had a question for Neil Postman
about the trivialization of our symbols and the leaking of a legitimate
secret life out of some of the cornerstones of our culture. I
wondered whether he saw it as a process of continual decline and
erosion, or as a part of a cycle. If we've taken all of our sacred
symbols and emblems, emptied them out and turned them into the
stuff of advertising, are we really going to go along as a culture
with nothing? Or will we do something more like a Freudian return
of the repressed and find new ones or reinvest old ones with new
life? It seems to me a very crucial question of where we think
we are going, historically. When we get rid of something, have
we really gotten rid of it, or have we already begun to create
the hunger for it?
always been this nostalgia, as well as a yearning for the future.
It just doesn't seem like we're all headed that way.
it's a simultaneous thing that goes on. The frightening thing
about that nostalgia is that it's a legitimate, powerful and explanatory
human emotion, and one that has been cruelly co-opted. Nostalgia
is one of the places where the advertising mind has really moved
in, taken a legitimate thing and found that it really pays. Half
of the things that are being sold to us are being sold under the
umbrella of nostalgia, using the language of nostalgia. Advertising
feeds our sense of disorientation, confusion and loss, and it
feeds us images of coherence and attainment. It often hearkens
back to a slightly earlier time, as if to suggest that the company
hasn't really gone anywhere, that it's still there in Pepperidge
Farm. What it does is negative in the sense that it defuses and
channels away a legitimate feeling that people have about the
loss or destruction of the familiar. It expresses and expunges
it in a way so that we aren't able to register as deeply as we
might the sense that a lot of things truly are no more, and are
going away at a faster rate than they have before.
you think it might have something to do with the need to destroy
the sacred? The sacred has always had a tremendous amount of power.
We don't ever want anything to get so sacred to the point that
it controls us entirely, in the way that the church and the state
did in the 50s and early 60s.
think that's very true, and I wonder what we can think of that
can still fit the bill. Have any of you read Dom DeLillo's novel,
Underworld? It's very much a book of our pre-millennial
moment. It's big and somewhat demanding, but if you're interested
in the image culture and the implications of it, the novel takes
those things on in many ways. What I'm trying to get at, is that
this novel spans the last fifty years, and it does so in a particular
way. It moves backward in time, and at the end is an epilogue
that glances forward into the era of cyber-connectedness. The
further you move backwards through various decades in American
history, following a sketchy cast of characters, the more palpable
things seem to become. It's almost as if gravity begins taking
over. By the time you're back in the world of the 50s in the Bronx,
with the communal life there, you feel you've stepped way back
into another kind of time. Then he stops and there's an epilogue,
where he suddenly breaks back into the present. There's a little
narrative that features someone being reconstituted in cyberspace
after death. It's extremely jarring, but he seems to be getting
to the crux of a lot of these issues. He is at once nostalgic
in his embodiments of all the things we seem to be shedding as
we move forward in time, but he's also a savvy, watchful and self-critical
writer, so it's not indulgent nostalgia. It's very hyper-aware.
and Postman both seem to be posing one set of iconic value to
what was sacred. I feel that it goes back to what Yoko was saying
earlier, that there's only one selfhood being discussed here.
It's lacking the idea of many different selfhoods or an idea of
pluralism. For instance, I believe the net does provide a sense
of community, albeit of a different sort. When I'm clicking away
with some information that's coming at me, I'm thinking, I'm
thankful that this person put this out. There's another sense
of community coming through this media that is not being talked
I think that when Postman talks about the positive side, which
does not lack for boosters, would include what you're talking
about. There is a huge availability of data, and also contacts
and perspectives. The question for me is, granting that, is there
anything that is dangerous or worrisome about allowing that to
displace the actual face to face? Does inhabiting, more and more,
a realm where things are virtual in their essence change you in
the here and now, or does it just add something to your repertoire
that not go back to the question of the books? If we all have
the same book our professors have, why do we still come to NYU
for classes? Doesn't it still go back to that question?
in a very real sense it does. The question is hardly dead. I think
it will be the big question in education over the next twenty-five
years as it becomes overwhelmingly clear to more and more people
that they're paying a whole lot of money simply to occupy a physical
space. They're paying for things that are now available on tape
or on a downloaded package, so what is the point of real time
and real space in education? It already is being debated fairly
intensely. It ends up, if you push the question far enough, in
something that feels almost primitive, which is an argument about
presence. What is it that just sheer presence in space adds to
communication? Why is it different to sit and listen to Neil Postman
talk, see him address questions and make gestures in front of
you, than to sit at home where it's much cooler and run the tape?
Is there a difference? What is that x factor that you gain by
sitting in a room with somebody?
to pick up on what the past two people have said, I'd like to
offer a more positive approach to this confrontation with technology.
When I asked you about intervention earlier, you said at some
point perhaps we needed to sever this link. I believe that this
link, this looking, is exactly where knowledge of self, or any
kind of knowledge, any kind of culture, emerges. To me, the crucial
thing would be to maintain the link, because in this link is precisely
where the notion of self and collectivity are defined. Let's take
a person like Donna Harrawaylike most feminist cyber-critics,
she sees this space in cyber-technology opening up the very re-definitions
of woman, nature, and so on. She's seeing the age that we're entering
into opening up the possibility of redefining those things, those
identities and collectivities. It's a space of opportunity, which
is of course not a pessimistic view. How do you view those views?
in the affirmative, in terms of how you just described it. But
I would still come back to that distinction between looking at
yourself to look and looking at yourself to know. I think they
are different. I'm only critiquing the narcissistic gaze at the
self, not the gaze at the self. One learns more about oneself
not by looking at oneself but by looking intently at the person
standing next to them. The circuit of your own self-awareness
doesn't bring in anything new, ultimately. We fall in danger of
losing the world, losing it as an incredible, real, three-dimensional,
hard thing. We need to know the world in its former physicality;
we need to understand distance, cultures and nationhoods. That's
what I'm afraid we will cut ourselves off from if we enter the
realm of the mediated image, where everything is essentially equal,
if we forget where the anchor to everything is.
is the terrible thing about the technology of the creation, reproduction
and dissemination of images. It's not that any of the images are
bad, it's not even that being able to send and view an image is
bad, but there's something that happens, almost quantitatively.
The image begins to erode that which it is an image of. When you
are bathing yourself in a steady diet of images of the world,
there is a wearing away of the idea of world. That's
sort of what I mean. I'm certainly not against anything that is
to be gained, in terms of understanding human difference and having
the kind of perspectives that an enlightened, comparative view
might extract from cyber-culture. I just think there's a fine
line there, and it's very tricky. You can quickly cross from where
it adds, augments and feeds you to where it begins to deplete.
The image is not untethered; it has basis. It has its value based
on what it refers to, the existence of that. We can't forget that,
and it's easy to. It's easy to walk around and realize that your
whole day, week or month has essentially been spent looking at
clips of the world, at second and third hand projections of the
world. That begins to then define your subliminal sense of metaphysics.
The world begins to feel light and easy, because it's image. It's
a vague, elusive, hard to pin down thing.
would like to respond to the point you brought up earlier, about
the implications for education, in terms of physical presence.
I think it goes back to some of the stuff Postman brought up earlier,
about the initial impact of writing and how that changed education
to a student following a discussion, rather than participating
in it. I see electronic media taking over that, removing the student
one step further from the participation in the educational process.
If it's electronic, and there's no interaction, then the student
becomes a passive consumer of information. This discussion couldn't
be going on if electronic media took over in the academic realm.
There could be substitutes for it but I don't think it would be
pretend that we're still here, but it's being taped and disseminated
elsewhere. When you write something down, you do it to remember
it later, but you also listen to it differently because you know
you've got it down on paper. If you're listening to a tape of
a lecture, you're another step removed, because you have it on
tape. Your tape is your prosthesis, your mental adjunct. If you
live, essentially, in a context where it's all there and available,
you start to think along the lines of, Hmm, do I have any ideas
about liberalism? Let me see if I do. Oh yes, this is what I learned.
You haven't even inscribed it in a particular root, etymological
sense, you haven't written it into your memory bank because you
haven't had to.
You just become awash in electronic information, the same
way you do in consumer information.
know that it's all out there...
so you never really have to integrate it into your knowledge.
What would bother me about that would be the loss of intellectual
community in the educational process. We'd be giving up one more
community that we are physically a part of.
a big one. The metaphor for that, to me, is Amazon.com versus
your neighborhood bookstore. On one hand, you have so much more
availability and access, but you lose the real time sense that
there are actually others like you, who you see standing next
to you in the same section of the aisle. Those impressions, subliminally,
are what begin to add up to your sense of living in a culture.
It's a strange culture where you can type in anything and have
it at your door in two daysI mean, who's going to go against
thatbut something has been removed. It is the sense of the
context of the mattering, which has to do with living as a cultivated
or philosophical person in an environment where that is a part
of the process of life. That has been leached away, little by
little. It is, once again, a trade -off.
about if you're in a classroom but the interaction becomes just
as much so that it seems like everything is actually happening?
You talked about aura in your writing; what does that really offer?
Well, I won't stray too far from the bookstore/Amazon analogy.
It is elusive. How can I say this? If you turn a vacuum cleaner
either backwards or forwards, you can't see the moving air, you
see the difference in the particles moving one direction or another.
It's something invisible that, once you remove it, you don't see
any immediate change, but everything is different. We're talking
about that sense of going around in the world in a physical community,
and literally seeing others and feeling yourself in the same volume
of space with them. Ultimately, if you pick at it away enough,
this represents an entirely different set of assumptions and feelings
of living in the world than having all those same sensations,
only once removed via screen, sound or whatever. It's the it,
right? There's a story that I was very struck by in its cautionary
metaphoric allegory. It's by E.M. Forster; the collection is called
The Eternal Moment, although I can't remember the name
of the story now. Basically, it's a futuristic scenario, where
people are essentially living in self-contained cell units. Every
need is met; it's a hyper-sophisticated, neural, electronic information
web, so you can find out anything, contact anyone, but you're
encased in your hexagonal cell. Obviously, I don't think it's
going to come to that, but the story articulated the furthest
extreme of that fear. It is the fear that you can have everything
given to you and still end up with nothing, if it's not given
to you in the context of what all those things finally mean and
represent. What good is it to get a whole world of information,
history and philosophy, all of which refers to a world in which
people walk around and see each other, but be getting that in
your private chamber, via screen, modem and so on? The knowledge
is of a world that you've absented yourself from, in some implicit
way. So it changes.
there is a velocity and momentum to technology, and I think it's
driven a lot by the interests of corporate capitalism. It ensures
that, no matter what we think or whether we're comfortable with
it, there's a forward moving consumer logic to it, to the development
of these technologies. It's not going to go away; it's going to
come at us, packaged in ever more attractive and sexy guises.
All of us are going to have this struggle, this inner thing between
the world as our basic, evolved, bodily senses tell us it is,
and the world as the emergence of virtuality. There's a real disconnect
there, between those two worlds.
I have a comment, and I wanted your opinion of it. You talked
of these new technologies as distancing us more from the world
and other people. In a world where people spend more and more
time in the spaces where they're trying to make a living rather
than with the people they love, I think that some of these technologies
offer the possibility of people working at home. It can offer
a flexibility to people that might allow them to be less distanced
from actual experiences with other people.
agree, that's clearly another tendency, and there's a value to
that, up to a point. The point at which the value breaks down
is when work life and private life are not only brought more closely
together but begin to interpenetrate. Then it changes again. It's
not where you pause at your computer and play with your kid for
a half hour and then go back, but instead, Mommy's busy now,
Mommy's on-line, you're right there but you need to busy yourself.
That's where the lines get drawn and redrawn.
mean, a lot of people that I talk to really do worry about the
tyranny of this permeability. The same thing that gives you a
whole set of wonderful new options, like having a pager and a
cell phone in your car it frees you up in a lot of ways
but to the same extent, it chains you down. Your boss can reach
you, and has to be able to reach you. Psychologically, the possibility
that your boss might reach you begins to cut into your pleasure.
It's like being a medical resident, and having to be ready at
any second to have what you're doing interrupted.
certainly have to, in order not to seem like a mono-maniac, allow
that there are a whole number of positive uses, variations and
inflections to all of this.
seems like the impression I'm getting from you and from Neil Postman
is that there is a dualistic attitude towards what's happening:
either you blindly go along with it or you look back on the glorious
past with nostalgia. I don't necessarily agree with that. Like
you said, it's happening no matter what and it's not going to
go away. So, to me, the question or challenge to consider is what
to do with that, as artists or intellectuals? This change is happening
so rapidly that people are getting drowned in it. Instead of resisting
the change and looking back on the past with nostalgia, maybe
the challenge is to find a way to use the new technology but still
retain, contain or continue to seek humanity in other ways. What
do you think about that?
think that's exactly right. I think there's no other way to pose
it to ourselves, as thinking, artistic or expressive people, what
it is that we ought to be doing, given that it's really here.
Contrary to what Postman said about it all already being done
withit's done in the sense that, once the wheel was invented
out of a rock, that was done with, but the automotive age still
had to follow. I do think that it's done with in the sense that
now we can get everything to everyone, but now it's really beginning
because of the implications and inevitability of that. It's not
going to go backwards. That's what we look at, that's what we
face. You're exactly right: one would be foolish to strenuously
insist that we dismantle it, or just indulge in all sorts of cultural
nostalgia and look back at the glory days. I just don't want those
things to fade entirely and be seen as unnecessary foot-dragging
on the part of a few disgruntled skeptics. When we give something
up, we should mourn it, and mourn it significantly. If we really
are leaving behind a whole way of living in the world, pre-electronic,
which we are, then I don't think we can just turn the corner and
keep walking. I think we need to go through a complex interior
reckoning with that. That's where I come in. But I see what you're
saying and I agree with that. That is the challenge, to take whatever
is the best, most viable and most humane of the old understanding
and find a new way to put it into yet another formation, another
feels like a good place to stop. Thank you for coming and asking
such good questions.