Day 137: outrageous stimulation

The morning after the election, my Mum wrote an email to various U.S. based family members with the subject heading “Commiserations!” Her tone, frankly, was more reproachful than commiserating.

“How could your people vote for this misogynistic, lying, dangerous madman?” she demanded.

Her message ended, as if to assure each of us that she was willing, just about, not to hold us personally responsible for the U.S.’s ignominy, “we still love you all.”

Thus began a family email thread in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.

Among the answers that various U.S. based family members gave in answer to my Mum’s question were “a lot of undereducated angry white people”; an emboldened alt right, and (above all), the “strange system” of the Electoral College.

Most of the family members on the thread were Muslim Bengali-Americans (though the person who commented on angry whites was white.) All who chimed in were unified in voicing shock and dismay at Trump’s victory. Yet alongside the shock and sorrow, there was also a perceptible and poignant (to me) strain of residual idealism about the U.S. “The beauty of American society is that the pendulum swings back and forth,” wrote one cousin. Even as another cousin lamented that in the wake of Trump’s election recent immigrants faced “a bleak future,” he referred to the U.S. unironically as “the land of opportunity.” Most striking, though, was the email message that another cousin forwarded from Apple CEO, Tim Cook, in the spirit of a pep talk, enjoining us all to “try to follow Tim Cook’s message now.” The following message was then pasted below:

Team,

I’ve heard from many of you today about the presidential election. In a political contest where the candidates were so different and each received a similar number of popular votes, it’s inevitable that the aftermath leaves many of you with strong feelings.

We have a very diverse team of employees, including supporters of each of the candidates. Regardless of which candidate each of us supported as individuals, the only way to move forward is to move forward together. I recall something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said 50 years ago: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” This advice is timeless, and a reminder that we only do great work and improve the world by moving forward.

While there is discussion today about uncertainties ahead, you can be confident that Apple’s North Star hasn’t changed. Our products connect people everywhere, and they provide the tools for our customers to do great things to improve their lives and the world at large. Our company is open to all, and we celebrate the diversity of our team here in the United States and around the world —regardless of what they look like, where they come from, how they worship or who they love.

I’ve always looked at Apple as one big family and I encourage you to reach out to your co-workers if they are feeling anxious.

Let’s move forward —together!

Best,

Tim

There was something about this smugness of Cook’s message that made me want to smash all of my Apple products immediately. I didn’t do that, because then how would the children play Minecraft and how would I do anything??? Instead I channeled all my iPad-smashing energy into composing a full throttle Professor-splainy email for the family email thread. This is what I wrote:

Hi everyone,

I actually find that message from Tim Cook extremely depressing. I read what he’s saying as, “let’s get back to being productive, team. Let’s not think any more about these very real and profound societal divisions. If we can’t have national unity, at least we can have corporate unity. Go Apple!” It underscores for me that Donald Trump’s ascent is not an isolated event but symptomatic of our (and I include myself in this “our,” myself probably much more than many of the people on this list!) deeper cultural susceptibility to the mesmerizing allure of surfaces, soundbites, and the never-ending cycle of stimulation and reward that is the Siren song of our beloved electronic devices.

The very qualities that make Donald Trump a terrifying prospect as the leader of the free world are what made him (in the election campaign) so appealing to a nation that is conditioned (by the very products that a company like Apple, among others, sells us) to respond reflexively to the unpredictable reward structures that new media (much like the casinos that Trump used to run) depends upon. In a context in which the news media both reflects and perpetuates this craving for stimulation, Trump’s volatility was not a liability but an asset.

I voted for Hillary; but, honestly, I feel complicit in the rise of Trump. He is the dark, ugly side of a culture I otherwise blithely consume and participate in.

I found myself this morning thinking about Wordsworth’s preface to his collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads in 1800. He reflected there on his worry that new communication technology (he’s thinking about rapid developments in print technology) was dulling the country’s capacity to think critically:

“For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.” He says that the uniformity of people’s occupations in the new industrialized economy “produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.” He concludes, “When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble effort with which I have endeavored to counteract it …”

His words express better than I can what I’m trying to say. I think Trump’s success is partly the result of our “thirst after outrageous stimulation”: we’d much rather, as a populace, choose someone who feeds our appetite for outrageous stimulation than be, God forbid, bored.

I’m no Luddite — this isn’t meant to be a rant against new technology. New technology can also be harnessed to produce activism and community and beauty. But I do want, speaking for myself, to go forward not in a spirit of togetherness but rather mindful of the way in which the rhetoric of togetherness—“Let’s move forward–together!”–can be manipulated to gloss over real divisions that need to be actively confronted, and the rhetoric of the civil rights movement can be somewhat grotesquely co-opted to encourage people to get back to the higher calling of selling iPads.

Love to all,

Sarah

Today I found myself feeling uncertain about what I wrote above. After all, I adore gothic novels, the very genre that Wordsworth excoriates as symptomatic of industrialization’s vitiating effects upon the modern mind. And I feel similarly smitten by much of today’s new media. Whether it’s alternate reality games, as I’ve written about here, or the Oculus Rift, which produces as close to an experience of the Burkean sublime as anything I’ve ever experienced, I’ve found myself dazzled by the sheer exuberance and creative potential of much new media.

The hermeneutics-of-suspicion version of the connection I draw above between Trump and new media would be that gothic novels or Candy Crush (substitute your own favorite debased cultural form) condition us to be docile subjects … under the cover of fun and games they smuggle in mind-forg’d manacles. But that’s actually not the point I want to make. For my purposes the content is really beside the point. And the point is not, either, that we need critique to come to the rescue of the deluded masses and teach them how to read properly, that is, critically. No, really my point is that I think that my own brain has fundamentally changedthat starting in 2007 or thereabouts, my brain became accustomed to experiencing micro dopamine spikes with every “like” or notification or other electronic alert and that as a result I can only tolerate content that refreshes itself every minute.

I don’t think that my mind has changed, necessarily, any more than advances in print media production changed people’s brains in earlier centuries. The way it has changed is different, yes. Wordsworth’s contemporaries experienced their political lives as gothified: witness Eleanor Tilney and Catherine Morland’s misunderstanding in Northanger Abbey about whether “something shocking” coming “out in London” refers to political unrest or a gothic thriller. Or think of an anonymous review of Frankenstein in an 1818 edition of the Edinburgh Review, which notes that recent “events which have actually passed before our eyes” (most notably the raising of “a private adventurer to the greatest of European thrones”–sound familiar?) “have made the atmosphere of miracles that in which we most readily breathe.”

By contrast, perhaps the way we experience ourselves as political subjects in twenty-first century America is gamified rather than gothified. The atmosphere in which we most readily breathe thrums with the hum of a thousand twangling instruments; their constant murmurings keep us apprised of our progress, while their whisperings—sometimes coy, sometimes urgent—deliver tidings to our ready ears.

Brave new world, indeed.

This vision sounds deterministic—we are stuck in a game we didn’t choose to play—but there are contingencies. Even as media shapes us, the very materiality of media exerts its own agency, throwing new shapes in our path. Take paper, for example. Gothic fiction was not the only new print media form that Horace Walpole had a hand in; Walpole’s home Strawberry Hill boasted architectural innovations that famously relied upon papier-mâché, a craft that reached a height of popularity in the mid-eighteenth century, possibly because of the vast increase in paper production encouraged by the book industry.[1] “My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole quipped, “and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead.” [2] Both predictions, of course, turned out to be wrong.

In a glorious convergence of yesterday’s and today’s new media, this week the elder has been painstakingly creating a replica of Strawberry Hill in Minecraft. Paper castles, pixel castles: all are baseless fabrics, but no less compelling to the beholder for that. I truly don’t know how we go forward from this grim place, but building castles in the air is a way up, if not forward. The art of castle-building, Christopher Smart wrote, is “the craft of erecting baseless fabricks in the air, and peopling them with proper notional inhabitants for the employment and improvement of the understanding” (from Smart’s A New System of Castle-Building[3]. Fiction; political theory; Minecraft; paper crafts: none of these activities necessarily do anything productive; and maybe that’s the point; in a world that is so committed to measuring value based on output and feedback and data, a commitment to making something for the sake of making it: to having a vision, however modest, and executing it, feels like a small, good thing.

Notes

[1] Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi, Strawberry Hill: Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle (London: Frances Lincoln, 2011). 77.

[2] Horace Walpole, “Letter 768. To the Hon. Henry Seymour Conway,” in The Letters of Horace Walpole Fourth Earl of Orford, ed. Paget Toynbee (Oxford: Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1904), 95.

[3] I’ve only just noticed, writing this blog post, that he’s referencing The Tempest with the phrase “baseless fabricks”! Worth it alone for that!

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5 thoughts on “Day 137: outrageous stimulation

  1. Paul K. Anonymous says:

    A nice essay. Not that it makes me feel any better about the election. But it draws from that horror an otherwise comforting moral that ought to be more widely understood (maybe even, honorable mom, in merry old England as well as here in the crude colonies): that a commitment to making something for the sake of making it: to having a vision, however modest, and executing it, feels like a small good thing. Not art for art’s sake, but making for the sake of making as a source of solace for much more than elections. To the question what have YOU ever made that leads to such quick agreement? (I thought you’d never ask) I’d say: well, five books about literary history, even though I’m still waiting to hear from Stockholm ( but now setting choice sentences to music for a singing tour . . .); a Flemish style harpsichord (that I have no talent for playing but that Ellen is now learning to play–making lovely music for the sake of making it); many ship models (send stamped, self-addressed envelope for list & history of each ship); and more airplane models than any adult ought to confess to . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • A Flemish style harpsichord!!! As always, you are an impossible act to follow, P. K. A. My own modest list of things I have made would include ONE book about literary history, some essays (which I’ve thought of as crafted objects ever since one of my undergrad advisors (James!) passed out a series of essay tips, which included the following, parenthetical, remark: “(Maybe don’t think of them as expressions of one’s innermost soul, but rather as artifacts which demand a kind of pleasurable shaping in themselves)”, innumerable cakes, and, most immediately, yesterday, a giant vat of mashed potatoes.

      Like

  2. Susan Carlile says:

    This has given me some solace, and reminded me how happy I am to know you. (And how much I’d love to spend time with you soon, face to face) I can’t remember the level of public you would like your blog to be. Would you mind if I shared this post with a wider group? And will you be around at the end of December and January?

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

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