Alienation

Came upon a post at Dave Pollard’s site that led me to this reflection about a conference called Northern Voice, a ‘personal blogging and social media conference’ in Canada, held a couple of weeks ago, which led me to this reflection at Jim Groom’s blog, bavatuesdays, about

‘intimate alienation,’ defined as

“when you are doing something alone and disconnected from others but simultaneously you are in a place that is ‘shared’ by others.”

I guess that place could be the big box Mall, school or college, or a public library as well as the Internet, or just in the house with your family.

In part, Groom says:

This idea of alienation might be understood as increasingly more relevant during our moment based on the growing number of people who seem cut-off from the ‘real world’ given the massive amounts of time spent physically alone in public while communing through a computer. A reality that has been woven into just about every facet of modern life from work and education to even more intimate relationships like family, friends, and one’s love life. They are all increasingly mediated by devices, i.e. a computer, the internet, mobile phones, applications, websites, social networks, etc., and what we have emerging is a kind of invisible, multi-layered constellation of things that bring people into real and intimate relationships, but are at the same time premised upon an irrepressible faith in objects: their perfection, increased performance, speed, mobility, ubiquity, etc. It might be understood as an almost religious Positivism …

This is where this idea of ‘intimate alienation’ seems to capture the real difficulty of our moment, because we are sharing our alienation, we have congregated around that fact in mass numbers.

Some of this seems accurate, especially relating to the Northern Voices post I’d read before it, in which Barbara Ganley post-mortems her recent experience presenting at the conference:

I struggled to express how feeling more ‘real’ in either off or online space wasn’t the point, but that in the spaces between, the spaces where, off-kilter, we can, as one person said, be conscious of what we’re doing in both, there we can weave together the best of both as we try to work towards better worlds. (See? Still struggling for clear expression.)

After reading Jim Groom’s post and the conversation that follows it in the comments, Ganley writes this:

Precisely because life offline is often ‘mediated bullshit,’ shouldn’t we work against that? Isn’t that what we mean by working towards better worlds? Are we giving up on our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our towns? Do we continue the flight from the broken down physical world — this time, not for the suburbs, but for the cyburbs where we find and build community in our own image, where it is easier, and more natural, often, to have much deeper conversations than when we meet in the grocery store, in the coffeeshop, on the playing field, in the office.

I don’t know if it’s my age (40s) or where I live that most offers me a different experience from what Ganley and Groom are talking about, but my experience is that though I spend a chunk of time online most days, and I like it, I also spend a chunk of time many days in the real-world community, sitting in the local coffee shop reading the paper, and going to bookgroup, taking walks on the town sidewalks, at church, in the library, at the farmer’s market, in restaurants, at wine tastings, volunteering at the Food Bank, at friends’ houses, etc., meeting people (and dogs!) I would not meet online, and having interactions that are satisfying to me.  I don’t think the conversations I have in those places are less important than the ones I have online, even if they are sometimes perfunctory, because they give me a strong sense of connection to the place where I live, to the world. So does being online.

When Groom talks about people congregating around the fact of our shared alienation, particularly via the online world, I wonder if alienation in the post-modern world is really of a different nature or depth than in the modern world, or Medieval times, or ancient times.  It seems a human trait to feel excluded and un-belonged, to compare oneself with others and to imagine one sees a vast gulf between the two.  We seem to both desire and fear being misunderstood. We fear it because if we’re not understood, then we feel we can’t be loved, and if we are loved, then we feel we’re loved for the wrong reasons; we desire it because if we’re understood, then we feel we aren’t exceptional, we’re just like everyone else.

Even in a culture where kinship is the ordering force, like the time of Ruth and Naomi in the Bible, or where feudalism ruled, as in the Middle Ages,  I can imagine that many people felt they didn’t belong, were misunderstood, weren’t able to fit in well; but in those places and times, (a) there was very little opportunity to find and band with others who felt the same way, and (b) the social mores of the times strongly oppressed a perception of difference within peer groups and strongly discouraged comparisons with those outside peer groups, and (c) the social structure strongly supported ‘fitting in’. Those who really didn’t were probably marginalised geographically — outskirts of town (e.g., ‘pagans’), insane asylum, hermits — and in other socially meaningful ways.

Now, with individualism and the autonomy of the human so sacred, so foundational to culture, a heightened sense of (and acceptance of ) alienation seems almost inevitable, and perhaps laudable.

Even in modern/post-modern life, pre-Internet (think 1960s), there was plenty of alienation to go around.  We don’t need an online world to make us feel lonely in a crowd. But maybe it helps.  And Groom’s point about our interactions being increasingly mediated by devices seems irrefutable. The telephone has been with us in the U.S. for 100 years, more or less, but the portability and ubiquity of devices for interactive communication — cellphones, PDAs, email and various internet platforms — has certainly proliferated in the last decade or two.

I like to imagine what Mayberry RFD would have been like with Andy (and his girlfriends Helen and Ellie), Barney (and girlfriend Thelma Lou), Opie, and Aunt Bea twittering, talking on cell phones all day long, gathered around a YouTube video.  Would Floyd have been an even more effective town gossip if he’d had a cellphone and Twitter access, or his own blog, or would he have been cut out of the loop because his customers would have sat silently in his barber chairs, texting their other friends?

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