Those who can’t find anything to live for,
always invent something to die for.
Then they want the rest of us to
die for it, too.
I was going to title this “The Assault on ‘Reading.'” but that sounded to curmudgeonly. Here’s an example of what I mean by the redefinition of reading:
I go to a site online to read a brief article–a blog post. The site could be CNN or ESPN or a newspaper. I find my way to the piece. As I’m attempting to read it from top to bottom, as I have been taught, according to the old Gutenberg-print method, advertisements pop up in boxes, or maybe the piece is encased on all sides by advertisements, like an artifact packed in cotton. Anyway, these things distract my reading, at least according to the way I read. But maybe the common form of reading now is to be able to “read” (see, hear) many texts at once, or at least to place them in your reader’s field of vision.
What’s more common every day is the presences of videos, so going back to my example, above or below the article will be a small “screen” (box). I may have choice of clicking on an arrow–or I may not. The video might just start. Then, in another, smaller box elsewhere on my screen, another video will be cued and will probably start on its own. So before I start reading the article, I have to take note of and deal with one or two videos (and their noise).
The conservative in me–not politically conservative but, well, old fashioned–is tempted to say that the technological culture is doing away with conventional reading, which I’ll define simply as reading one thing at a time. The culture needs to hurry and harry us because it seeks attention, which–in theory–means more money coming in, for every distraction comes with another “opportunity” (temptation, baiting) to be confronted with a visual, textual, or aural pitch for a product or a service.
Obviously, the old way of reading is just that: a relic. At least online this is the case. I still read novels (printed on paper or “printed” on Kindle) the old way–more or less one word, phrase, clause, sentence, line, paragraph, page (etc.) at a time, although of course I have different speeds and techniques, including speed-reading ones (in the event I’m getting bored–but if I get too bored, I simply stop and go to another book).
I wonder what the effects of the new reading will have on people’s brains, their argument- or narrative-processing equipment, so to speak. What effect will the new reading have on logical analysis? On genre? That is, will a typical article/essay/piece/story become shorter and shorter, and more hastily slapped together to keep up with the speed of multiple virtual conveyor-belts?
At any rate, the new reading has to have multiple consequences related to Orwell’s classic essay, for Orwell focused in part on the extent to which we are lulled or distracted by bullshit. Orwell was over the top in concentrating on jargon, euphemism, and “long words,” but his overall point about being dulled, lulled, and distracted obtains. I think online we’re meant not to think with some degree of patience and discernment about units of expression–an article, a line of argument, a narrative unit, , etc.
Wither “close reading”? Wither concentration? (Wither words like “wither”?!) It all rather seems like a vast, ceaseless magic trick, with multiple levels of misdirection. Good luck to us.
In the following Youtube clip from a stand-up routine, George Carlin goes after “soft language,” and his critique mirrors Orwell’s, right down to the preference for short words over long words:
So, to recap, the American (and British?) name for the affliction whereby soldiers’ minds and nervous systems break down because of being in or near battle goes from “shell shock” (WWI) to “battle fatigue” (WWII) to “operational exhaustion” (Korean War) to “post-traumatic stress syndrome [PTSD]” (Viet Nam War and, so far, thereafter).
A more extensive review of the terms for the conditions–going back to early Greek civilization–may be bound on gizmodo.com:
Note that in the 17th century, a German doctor called the condition “nostalgia,” which seems bizarre until we learn that he was focusing on such symptoms as listlessness, apparent longing, sighing, and moaning. Still: nostalgia?
It’s difficult to disagree with Carlin about the softening of language. However, it’s easier to disagree with him on his final point, which is that if the language had not been softened, Viet Nam War veterans would have received more care for their condition, for the cynicism cites as one source of deliberate softening arguably obtains no matter what the condition is known as. States don’t treat returning soldiers as well as they should. States would rather “invest” the money in preparation for “the next war” (or the perpetual war for perpetual peace, which is what Gore Vidal called America’s military-industrial obsession) than in taking care of those who barely survived previous wars and who still suffer.
Of course, the treatment of African American veterans has tended to be even worse. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote an essay, “Returning Soldiers,” in which he noted that African American soldiers returning from WWI were being lynched, in uniform, in the South; that Black soldiers who had fought “for freedom” in Europe were being denied the right to vote (among other rights) in the South; and that, all over the country, employment and educational opportunities for Blacks, compared those for Whites, were still awful.
Another way to complicate the Orwell/Carlin critique of soft language and euphemism is to note that, in spite of the changing terminology, the medical understanding and treatment of PTSD has improved, even if the resources for treating remain insufficient. But Orwell and Carlin choose to focus entirely on the virtues of blunt talk (and writing) and vice of “making murder sound respectable” (Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”).
I noticed that, on an MSNBC program, writer Ibram X. Kendi argued that Americans (white Americans especially) should be “anti-racists.” The idea opens an avenue different from the one opened by the question “are you racist”? For it suggests active behavior rather than simply a state of mind, which may remain passive and, well, useless.
Kendi’s suggestion made me realize more clearly what has often bothered me about many white American academics: while they may not be racist, per se, they often don’t actively oppose racism on campus. They let others handle it; they behave as if that work is someone else’s job. Of course, the same applies in other professions and trades. “Am I anti-racist?” is not a bad question to ask oneself. If the answer is “No,” then a follow-up “Why not?” is in order. If the answer is “Yes,” then a follow-up “prove it” is in order.
I would add only that anti-racist behavior need not be dramatically activist or attention grabbing. For instance, an academic might take the time to learn about some basic things a professor might do in the classroom to handle implicit racist questions or to avoid common errors, such as the “native informant” move, in which a professor asks the only Black student in a class her/his opinion about what Black folks think about a certain topic or issue. Think of how insulting that move is, as it puts the student on the spot much more so than a routine discussion question and as it assumes Black folks all think alike.
On a predominantly white campus, it can be helpful simply ask how a new African American colleague is faring–without necessarily raising the topic of racism. In other words, being polite and supportive is, arguably, a (small) anti-racist action.
It’s important to avoid the white-liberal “savior” or “messiah” syndrome, whereby a white person rushes in to protect and “save” a Black colleague or student, just as it is important to avoid the “it’s someone else’s responsibility” attitude. Somewhere in the middle of the fairway is the more productive, more basically responsible and (one hopes) effective play.
The most serviceable definition of “culture” I’ve encountered came from an art history professor, Fritz Blodgett. He defined it as “the sum of learned behavioral traits.” From this viewpoint, “culture” isn’t just high art like opera or low opera like professional wrestling, and it includes how or whether you use a fork to eat, for example. Professor Blodgett encouraged us to see visual art in the context of the whole culture, not as a sequestered thing.
I find myself ever more alienated from “my” culture, chiefly because of aging but also because of temperament. The extent to which most people seem attached to their phones seems alien to me, but of course it is now mainstream behavior. For instance, I will see someone walking her/his dog and almost never losing contact with the phone. S/he’s either listening to it or texting on it. The immediate reality around her–trees, grass, traffic, sky, birds, etc.–is secondary. She must ignore it to live life as she wants to.
I’m also alienated from America’s gun culture, even though, having grown up in the rural Sierra Nevada, I was around guns a lot. But they were treated as tools to be used as needed–almost exclusively for hunting. When not needed, they were put away, and they weren’t discussed, and they weren’t linked to one’s sense of self or politics. Now, of course, guns are everywhere, people display them, take them with them shopping, use them as a political symbol, and use them in massacres. Apparently a massacre-by-gun now occurs every 47 days in the U.S. When I make an infrequent trip to the mall, I always wonder if this will be the day I get shot by a disturbed person further disturbed by online frenzy. America.
Also, death-by-police-shooting is now the sixth leading cause of death of young men–mid teens to mid-twenties. And this is all men, not just Black men, who of course have grown up in a culture that thinks they are expendable. (Alienation is nothing new for Black folks, obviously.)
The bad news is also the good news with my increasing alienation. I used to think I might have some role to play in changing things through activism. Not a chance, as I see now. The culture will go along on its merry way, a way that seems increasingly irrational and lethal to me, and I’m just one of 8 billion people. I assume Trump will be re-elected, and an essentially White Supremacist order of elites will continue to be ascendant, at least as far as power is concerned. The necessary critical mass of white folks doesn’t seem to be materializing to rip the guts out of White Supremacy once and for all. There are simply too many white women and men who require a myth of whiteness to go on. They cling to it as the dog-walker clings to the phone. Accessories include enormous pickup trucks (their enormity not linked to job-requirements in trades) and guns and gun-decals on the mega trucks.
As I become more alienated every day, however, I’m blessed to be able to do things that are part of my personal version of culture: raising vegetables and flowers, watching this or that TV show from Europe, reading, writing, cooking. Occasionally I will look at my phone, but I do not view it as a friend. This is all good news to me. I rarely text with it or even answer calls, most of which seem to be scam-related (another feature of our culture). I find I don’t need a gun on my hip to pull weeds. Crazy, I know.