Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Torched, or, Social Media is a Symptom of Existential Boredom, Not its Cure.

Jonathan Franzen wrote  an article about the Internet last week (on the Internet, oh the hypocrisy, it's like Noam Chomsky owning stocks!) and the Internet is furious ab- no wait, actually, the Internet is rather dismissive of it.  Actually, they focus on the fact that he dislikes Twitter and then reply that other people, even famous authors like Jonathan Franzen, like and use Twitter.

But dear readers, you are sitting there, at your computer (or perhaps you print off everyone of my blog posts to savour them the way they were intended to be read, on paper) and waiting to read my opinion of Jonathan Franzen's opinion of the Internet, by way of an introduction to his translations of Karl Kraus with respect to Kraus' views on Heinrich Heine.

Well, I had intended to reserve judgement, in part because it just so happens that Heine is the subject of my PhD dissertation!  Moreover, I think Kraus' piece on Heine, which had a tremendous (and negative) influence on the subsequent reception on Heine, is a deeply flawed piece, and I suppose I want to give Franzen the benefit of the doubt to see what he takes from Kraus' essay.  And I intended to talk about it later on, when the book is out, if it's worthwhile.

I say if it's worthwhile because, having subscribed to the digitized archive of Kraus' die Fackel years ago and also having read quite a bit of him, I have to say that I don't really get Karl Kraus.  I get that he's angry, and I get how he feels about language, but what he writes does not resonate with me.  So when I read Franzen's piece, beyond the fact that there's a major American author attempting to do something relentlessly uh, highbrow, (an Austrian?) I was genuinely interested to see where he would take this.

But what didn't really occur to me was that the overwhelming response to his taking a dead Austrian misanthrope and bringing him to a wider audience was to dismiss everything he says because he doesn't really like what Twitter or the Internet are doing to us, and that all the people criticizing him are doing so because they like to tweet and use Facebook.  And because he isn't as popular as Norman Mailer.

In fact, it seems that his audience is incredibly hostile to the very idea that Franzen (or Kraus) could have anything of value to say about the Internet, or perhaps anything at all.  I woke up at the start of the week, and looked around the Internet, and Franzen is everywhere on social media. In other words, watching how people are reacting to this on Twitter, or elsewhere, is a case study in exactly what he's getting at.

It's not good.

Some people seem to hate the essay because it's long, as in more than 140 characters (gotcha!), but what's really perverse is just how desperately so many people (as in half the people who write for the New Inquiry) seem to focus on defending the Internet, as though the Internet needs defending.

It reminds me of all the times I've dealt with people who like non-classical music criticize my love of classical music because they reflexively see Beethoven as a kind of existential threat to popular music's existence.  But this fits right into that - note how many articles about this quickly point out that Franzen is an old white dude, who likes old white German dudes!  You cannot get any more elitist than liking old Germans!

But need I remind all of you, the war is over, Rock and the Internet won, young people are our future and they love technology and so you should never listen to old men who have spent 20-30 years reading and thinking about someone and who then use that to criticize your anxious, incessant electronic emissions, except that he's not criticizing your emissions, he's criticizing why everyone finds those emissions so essential to the functioning of modern life.

Or that the Twitter account is modern life, that yes, it's true, it's really true, your tweet is the final word on all that he wrote, 140 characters and a smartphone is all anyone needs to respond to a 5000 word essay.

I think what really bothers (even angers!) Jonathan Franzen is that the latest iteration of modernity (I mean the one since maybe 2006?) is accelerating the replacement of knowledge with reaction which has been a long-standing feature of modernity (I'm thinking of modernity as something invented in 1797 in Jena by some young German dudes).  It's the whole Enlightenment vs. Romanticism thing, again.

I cannot help but agree with him.


I have to confess, I have thought about getting a Twitter account again.  I had one years ago for work reasons, but deleted it because it freaked me out.  Why the hell would these random people want to read my text messages?  But then I have to admit that I really enjoy Teju Cole's twitter feed.

But then, as someone who worked in an environment during the transition from letter mail to e-mail, and watched as people's concerns about political issues moved from having to take the time to write out a letter, and then put a stamp on it, and send it along, to simply sitting down in front of a computer (as I am now) and typing out the first things that come to you when you read/see/hear something, is it really, really crazy to think that there was something better about the long hand-written or typed letter?  That my free blog is perhaps not the best possible way to conduct conversations in the public sphere?

Lately, Franzen (and I) are not alone.  The publisher of Harper's, John R. MacArthur, writes in this month's issue a jeremiad against the publishing industry's race to the bottom, they who, in the spirit of competition, hoped that giving everything away for free would magically produce profits, when all really did was impoverish writers and create the expectation that everything online, including well-written and well-researched writing, should be free.

And recently, Rebecca Solnit had a piece on how our feeling of time changed in the 90's with the advent of e-mail how the acceleration of social media has transformed (not always for the better) our lives in ways that only someone like her, a writer, could meaningfully and cogently articulate.

Is it terribly uncharitable of Franzen to dislike much of what the Internet has simply because lots of other people have Stockholm Syndrome from spending so much time online that they no longer distinguish reflecting on the Internet from being on the Internet?

I quit Facebook about 3 years ago, mainly because, I didn't really like it.  And for the most part, leaving has had no impact on my life.

But it's telling what people say when you tell them you're not on Facebook.  They tell you about how much I am missing out on because I'm not on Facebook, including actual parties.  All I can think to myself is that if people aren't inviting me to parties because I'm not on Facebook, that's probably not a problem, because they probably didn't really want me there anyway.  People who want to see me, or invite me somewhere, have a wide assortment of tools at their disposal with which to communicate with me and invite me to things.

But at the same time, while so many explain to me the necessity of social media, I know very few people who actually like Facebook, or Twitter, as in, they love nothing more than sitting down and using these things.  Rather, it often strikes me as though everyone is consuming some low-protein gruel that they cannot stop eating, but that never fills them up.

All of these technologies are so hungry, for our reactions, for our thoughts, for our time.  And for what?

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