The tidal changes that are massively disrupting politics--as seen in the recent Brexit vote and the American presidential campaign--speak of forces that haven’t been adequately named yet. We are monkeys in a wind machine of change: But where's it coming from?
Much is now being written in the attempt to ken that breeze. In his superb essay, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?" (July 11/18 issue of The New Yorker), George Saunders asserts that divisions have grown so great between the political Left and the Right that it is impossible for either side to empathize, much less understand, the Other to any productive avail:
Where is all this anger coming from? It's viral, and Trump is Typhoid Mary. Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two subcountries reason differently; they draw upon non-interesecting data sets and access different mythological systems.
So true—but there are so many other ways to read this wind, aren’t there? Think of the other data sets: race and guns; religion and modernity; old and young; wired and tired; have and have not; Wordpress and Blogger ... Visualizing this amorphous reality is like getting a new pair of glasses at the optometrist’s: first we have to go through many lenses as the view sharpens focus and aligns depth to periphery. Similarly, getting a bead on what's happening in the culture means fitting one lens then another to this eye than that, then together, aiming closer to focus. Elite or mass? Black Lives Matter or Police Lives Matter? Tweet or Feed? To and fro goes a fray which already feels swept far to sea.
I sense a lot of it stems from the disruptions of the digital age. The tech revolution which has made corporate giants of Google and Facebook to the point that traditional media like newspapers are crumbling to dust. (Traditional culture has faded fast, too.) Our alien overlords rule us through smart phones attached to our eyes by invisible chains.
What makes disruption so hard to understand and see is that very little of the "real" world changes. Walk outside: it’s the same damned day or night, unchanged for the past 20 million years even though the online spike in your head has all but defeated time and space zooming toward infinite reach and access. The digital replica of that world is as insubstantial as the consciousness which lurks about our physical brains, the ghost not of reality but an oracle meaningful only to algorithms.
in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes that our brains themselves have been disrupted by digital media, our neural wiring re-routed, so that we now think fleetingly, distractedly, widely but without depth, without concentration or meditation. "What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation," he writes. "Whether I'm online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
If that's the case, then maybe the great surge of dark phenomena (ISIS, Facebook, Pulse, Brexit, Trump, Black and Blue Lives Matter) looks increasingly strange to us because we aren't conceiving of them with the same brains anymore. Perhaps our world is becoming too complex because our conceptions are hairbraining out.
Of course, there still a Resistance at work against such things—am I right, O my bruthas and sistas of the Pond? Thank our varied gods and beer bawdesses that we float over an immense shared verbal depth. Still lots to find down there. According to some studies, "deep reading"—exhibited most voluminously by reading poems— fires the brain up by immersing it in a rich bath of sensory detail and emotional, moral and intellectual complexity. It's slow going, savoring the heft and taste of words, allowing the allusions and metaphors to light up regions of the brain conducive to analysis, reflection, even empathy: But it’s a pretty good defense from becoming an empty reflection of shallows.
For your challenge today, let's show there still be dragons below and within and around us. Find something deep in a shallow world.
And to make this somewhat true to a Mini Challenge, write deeply in a shallow space—use little, say much. (5 lines? 20? that's between you and The Succinct Muse.)
And if you’re wondering how to cover both bases at once—to go deep sparingly--consider these lines from a poem Rilke wrote shortly before he died in 1925:
… Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions … For the god
wants to know himself in you.
(Transl. Stephen Mitchell)
Maybe whatever the world is turning into will feel greeted, accepted—perhaps even magnified— by what we share.
Onward to deeper shallows!