Monday, April 4, 2011

all by yourself

Duchamp, as captured by Man Ray
In his wonderful book Birth of the Cool, Lewis MacAdams writes, "Marcel Duchamp was spare, brilliant, detached, ascetic, easygoing, incorruptible, and great looking." In Duchamp, artistic genius, remarkable self-possession, and almost impossible personal style came together. If you admire the things that Duchamp stood for-- values before possessions, aesthetics before economics, the avant garde, nonconformity, detachment from material success, the rejection of the traditional, play as the heart of the artistic impulse, and in the words of MacAdams, the "studied indifference to the vagaries of fate"-- he seems tailor made for aesthetic heroism.

It's there that I look, to the past for heroes, because I take it and have always taken it as self-evident that I have and will find no community. I have plenty of friends, but politically, I am an orphan.

I can't imagine what it would be like to not feel that everything is wrong. I can't imagine what it would be like to not feel alienated from the great mass of the human race. I can't imagine what it would be like to spend a day reading online and to not feel, again and again, that nearly everyone is mistaken about nearly everything. I'm not looking for sympathy, at all. I'm just saying that this is my condition, and it's a condition necessarily shared not by a large percentage of all people but still by a lot of people.

This is a world that is not of my making and one which reminds me, every day, of this fact. Of the innumerable myths that the Internet tells about itself, perhaps the biggest is that the Internet brings people together and in so doing cures loneliness. The Internet is a profoundly lonely place. Human beings cure loneliness; their ideas cause it. I find something almost tragic about how we interact online. I have met and connected with so many great people. Occasionally those connections deepen. Often they don't, but are perfect as they are. I have also often run aground on the inability of electronic media to convey the emotional reality that is necessary to understand others and to be understood. There doesn't appear to be much rhyme or reason to when you get one or the other. I often long for the corporeal reality of person to person conversation when I'm arguing online. I don't think that we'll agree to everything, if we meet in real life, but I sometimes think "if I could only speak to this person, at least we could understand each other." There is such potential in physicality and presence. Physical interaction is not necessary in human contact, often not even desirable, but the opportunity for it-- for sex, for a fistfight, for casually laying your hand on a shoulder as you pass by on the way to the bar-- the opportunity is everything. Perhaps you see what I mean.

Paradoxically, what I find more and more is that the Internet is a place for people to affirm and support each other. It's as if the understanding of the fundamental weakness of these electronic proxies to represent human connection causes people to push for it more and more. And this could be beautiful. But it can also be dangerous. Because of the depth of the loneliness, I blame no one for how they interact and connect with others online. I just worry. I worry about the urge towards conformity. I worry about Twitter. I worry that all of those retweets and all of those "right on"s contribute to a kind of coarse postmodernism, where what the truth becomes what is most agreed on. I worry that dissent is confused with a lack of etiquette. And I particularly worry about the echo chamber effect, and the way that small groups of people who are just like each other can come to think of themselves as representing the opinions of everyone. On the Internet, we all make the world in our own image.

Duchamp, of course, had genius. I have only Duchamp, and Dorothy Day, and Eugene Debs, and Rainer Maria Rilke, and Simone de Beauvoir, and D. Boon.

Pushing people away should never be an end, but sometimes it is a necessary means to the end of being independent. Friendship is great, and I would never argue against it. I'm not saying be alone to be alone. I'm saying be prepared to stand alone, and to recognize that standing against everyone can be a position of righteousness. Make friends whenever you can, but when you need to, stand alone. Friends will understand. They'll probably dig it. And even being wrong isn't the worst thing in the world.

You can't be scared of being alone; you've got to view consensus as the possibility of corruption and ridicule as evidence that you're on to something. You've got to match the weight of the agreement of affinity groups with the power of your belief in yourself. You must respond to the bullying of crowds with the studied rejection of needing a crowd. You've got to be singular, you've got to be irresolute, and when necessary, you've got to be defiant.

The pressure, online, will always be to tack towards the crowd, and people will look endlessly towards their peers-- not intending to undermine the individual voice, but getting there, often, anyway. Don't get judgmental about it, but keep saying your piece. In the tenor of the single voice, you can find strength, and if you keep saying what you think is true, in spite of it all, you will find what is incorruptible in yourself.


Anonymous said...

D. Boone?

Do you mean D. Boon, the doomed and rotund front man for the Minutemen?

Or do you mean D. Boone, the legendary peckerwood American frontiersman?

What's funny to me, if not necessarily very important, is that deBoer's admired cultural figures, like DuChamp and Boon, we fun, joyous, and insouciant, and funny in their anger. Freddie's not like that at all. He's characterized by a sort of snuffly agonized glumness.

Not that I don't like his blog. Just saying.

Anonymous said...

This is a nice piece. It's a shame dissenters are by their nature dissenters in all things, since it makes dissenting in groups impossible. So I guess I'm unsurprised that you feel solitary in your pursuit. There are plenty others out there; it's just that forming a club is antithetical to the ideological temperament.

And, btw, you have the benefit of being paradoxically right: everyone on the internet is wrong to one degree or another.

Freddie said...

D. Boon, yeah, I'll fix it.

A big part of the point is that you don't really know what I'm like, right. You can feel any way about this blog you'd prefer to. But if you knew me in real reality, I think you'd feel differently.

Freddie said...

And I don't mean that in a way intended to scold you at all.

Griffin said...

Great list, esp. D. Boon

Afshin said...

How does one have an impossible personal style? Doesn't everyone who's a non-conformist have a personal style?

Freddie said...

I suppose I mean that I find something almost impossible about how stylish he was.

thRett said...

i enjoyed this piece, freddy. it is ironic that i found your blog from a friends repost on FB...haha
i too am an 'outsider' by nature and not by circumstance. i have had every reason to feel a part of, but never quite do.
i tend to think that we have what thom hartman calls "the edison gene".
we were born to be hunters and leaders, that's why we don't settle and always question.
your comments about the internet 'culture' echo many of the themes in two books that i just finished reading, You are not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier and Program or be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff.
you should check them out, i think you might like them.

Anonymous said...

If you seek wisdom, surround yourself with others. If you seek enlightenment, surround yourself with quiet.

Miriam said...

Is it so hard to find people who agree with you politically? I live in Berlin, where you would find widespread agreement with your sentiments on foreign policy. As for domestic policy, the Europeans think Americans are just plain sociopathic. I do check out Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias to get a sense of what is going on in the mainstream "liberal" blogosphere, but their views are merely symptoms of the CW cancer that has metastasized through the Democratic ranks. Thanks for offering a tonic. Some us appreciate it. You are not alone, you are just on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

Jeff M. said...

"Human beings cure loneliness; their ideas cause it." Nice turn of phrase.

Anonymous said...

So... you're a non-conformist just like everyone else?

Jesse M said...

Your feelings of solitude resonate with me; I've often wondered how my life would be different if I had found myself in some sort of artsy, avant-garde community, a supportive "echo chamber." You'd think that in NYC, I could find such a group, but it always seems like there are entry requirements and cliquish behavior and a lack of access, just as with any enclosed community.

And then I wonder if that kind of community-of-the-like-minded is just a fantasy I've generated, and that the standard state of modern man is either lonely, or contained and protected within a loving family or a community of faith.

Your understanding of the Internet as fostering a herd mentality is an interesting one, because in a certain sense, I agree... the Internet allows us to create isolated ideological cells, and these cells become incredibly, dangerously isolated. On the other hand, I see the opposite tendency at times, as well, especially within the discourse on culture: the Internet seems to encourage contrarianism and self-righteousness as a way of differentiating oneself from the masses. This, I think, is why so many ongoing online conversations lead into counter-productive flame wars and rude interpersonal bickering.

Maybe it's the type of content (political versus cultural), or the presence or absence of a hierarchy (responses to a blog versus ongoing forum conversation).

At any rate, yes, it's very different from the kind of presence and understanding you get in person, often almost immediately. And electronic communication will never replace its analog counterpart.