Friday, May 20, 2011

The personal is political, and vice versa

Gary Greenberg reviews (“My Monster, My Self: On Nicholas Carr and William Powers”) two high-profile books which make the same argument: all that surfing, searching, friending, poking, tagging, tweeting, communicating, etc. on the internet is dehumanizing us. While Powers's argument is more philosophical, Carr describes a bilogical process – as our brains are relentlessly rewired by the countless hours we spend staring at flickering screens, we develop a kind of artificial intelligence marked by emotional numbing and jadedness.
Greenberg concludes, however, that Powers's and Carr's diatribes belong to the booming genre of self-help literature. In his view, their main mission is to reassure us; to suggest that if we understand the dangers lurking behind those bright screens and occasionally disconnect, we'll be able to preserve a degree of sanity and emotional responsiveness. And we can then use the online time we must allocate to delve more deeply into the vast sea of knowledge made searchable on the internet. Greenberg says “one of the first writers to cast discontent about modernity into the self-help mold was George Beard, who in 1881 offered American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences to a public that, in his view, was unduly burdened by the explosion of technologies—newspapers, telegraphs, intercity railroads—that had accelerated the pace of modern life.” Beard thought the “nervous exhaustion” he described was suffered mostly by a relatively small cohort of “brain workers.” He sought to reassure them that “relief was available in the countryside at the nearest spa, where one could take the rest cure and emerge restored and ready to face the demanding modern world.”

Greenberg initially hints this may be a somewhat narrow focus. He even seems to blame Powers and Carr for their unwillingness “to follow their arguments to their ends, to place their rhetoric at the service of a large-scale critique of the way we live now or the conditions that allow the medium to send the message it sends.” Greenberg even reaches a point where he exclaims: “I also recoil from the tyranny of Google and the iPhone zombies, and I feel a creeping revulsion and fury whenever my son disappears into his iPad.” But in the very next sentence he comes to his senses and pulls back from this dangerous diversion. He concludes that “disgust is the wellspring of bigotry, and it often brands as evil what is new and different, leading us to overlook the sublime hidden in the monstrous.” Our best hope, therefore, should be a new crop of self-help books which will, after all, allow us to adapt and face the new challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead.

So, let me think. The latest research says disgust is a potentially powerful social emotion which can greatly influence our moral outlook. It can feed, for example, a revulsion at the alleged exploitation and the maelstrom of “creative destruction” and the “rape of nature” sometimes associated with modern capitalism. Or it can inflame bigotry. Historically, leftist intellectuals were more likely to succumb to the first set of gut reactions. As a result, even many non-Marxists developed or embraced structural critiques of the “system.” Since the 1950s, the left, or what's left of it, have increasingly focused on the expansion of tolerance and the celebration of diversity (Greenberg's essay appeared in The Nation, so it's probably an apt example). With this cultural shift on the left, disgust has become politically incorrect (a trend well demonstrated by Martha Nussbaum's From Disgust to Humanity). And what if a degree of emotional desensitization (often associated with breakneck modernization and the latest technological revolution) results in weaker revulsion and non-judgmental tolerance toward some economic and social trends - for example, those monstrous salaries for the top brass in the financial sector and soaring inequality across society? I guess this should be seen as the necessary price to pay for the embrace of various once marginalized identities and lifestyles. Could this trade-off be at the heart of the disconnect Thomas Frank once sought to explain between the liberal intelligentsia and not just the Tea Party crowd, but also much of Main Street America? Or maybe not, and Fox News does deserve all the credit for spurring that wellspring of fundamentalist anger which so rapidly reversed the sea change in political attitudes which had ostensibly carried Barack Obama to the White House.