Saturday, April 24, 2010

Half a Real Good Time (Together)

"We are born crying, live complaining, and die disappointed." -- Thomas Fuller.
Fuller's statement is one of my favorite aphorisms. It's one of those great efforts at summing up the human experience in terms vague enough that no one can disagree and pointed enough that no one can repeat the statement without being in the author's own mood. In fact, Fuller's statement suffered reiteration in the 1980's as, "Life sucks, and then you die." That, however, misses the power and nuance, and so I offer up the following:
For immediate release
Order to printing press for vinyl bumper sticker run
Distribution: all truck stops and Affiliated convenience shops:

"Life sucks, and then you die, and you never got what you asked for on your birthday."
Well, be that as it may, there are umbrellas people walk around with -- little devices they have that offer shade and dry, where they can believe that what is inside in aspiration is outside in reality, where they can know that the other people -- the very ones most often known as "Them" -- are exactly the same. It's a vital piece of equipment in a post-imperial age. When you are a member of a group that reaps the benefits of the whirlwind of trade, when the colossus of your state plants its boots on the peoples of the world, when you are secure and know what it means to be a proud member of your national group, then you are most in need of reassurance, most nervous, most afraid, most jealous, most impoverished, most a twitch, and sun struck.

Speaking of which, I have some bad news and some good news about the near future for you all. First, the bad news:
1. Someone is writing, right now, a Twitter novel.That person is writing a novel where Twitter is a character or setting or metaphor or theme, and the magic of Twitter will be the motivation behind the largely bankrupt author, if not the complete thoughts.
The good-bad news:
2. That novel will fail on artistic and commercial grounds and will not last.
Samuel Johnson famously showed himself a blockhead who allowed his personal distaste for an author to overshadow an appreciation for what was in a book on more than one occasion. One was dismissing Gulliver's Travels as just requiring imagining big people and little people. The other was saying, "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." However, there was, perhaps, a deeper truth in his crankiness. No one could, after all, really imitate Sterne -- even Sterne. The structural complexity of Gulliver's Travels is far less spectacular than A Tale of a Tub, even if the satire is sharper and more philosophically interesting and developed from a position of simple defiance. Thus, any person who attempts to celebrate the lightning's flash and write an ode to it while it is yet splitting the sky is ... well ... a fool.
Don't worry, though: I have no praise for the Tweeties. I have no interest in explaining why, in particular, your great Twitter novel is going to flop, or why your deep fantasy novel about Wikipedia is an abortion, or why your novel comprised of faux Facebook pages is a wreck in ruin. If you don't understand why already, then I place my muddy mitt on your head and give you my nicotinic blessings. Instead, in my fey way (Fey Wray?), I want to wander around the subject of why people, despite never being inclined to read anyone else's celebration of new sensations, still think to themselves, "You know what? This... this right here... this is great! This is the new Woodstock, or Eden. I need to write about it, sing about it, paint it, sculpt it, and bore the stuff out of everyone talking about it, and then I must convert them."

Answer the following question:
When more than ten people gather together, they will behave:
A) Like apes in a small cage
B) Like ladies and gentlemen
C) Like a community
D) Like people on an elevator: striving to get away from one another as quickly as possible.

When more than a thousand people gather together, they will behave:
A) Like a small town
B) Like a club that needs to black ball members
C) Like a tribe at war
D) Like independent individuals cooperating as little as possible.

That, friends, will explain all. If, to the first question, you answered A or D, then you are probably incorrect, depending on case. Presume that the people "are gathered." Some thing has provided an access point for convergence. The greater the power the individuals have over the access and collection, the less coercively they will behave.

Right now, the mania is Twitter. I say "right now," but I could, of course, be out of touch. After all, Marx argued that any superstructural artifact is ideologically meaningful only so long as it is not reified and objective. (What? You're surprised to find Grundrisse here?) In other words, by the time someone can say, "Hey, there is a great music scene in Athens/ Austin/ Chapel Hill/ Seattle," the scene is dead. It was active only so long as it was so puzzling that no one had a name for it. The moment it has a name, it has borders, and when it has borders, it has a place in the cultural lexicon. The Twits are a little different, but I'll come back to that.

See, when people gather and begin to subvert or play -- and play is subversive by its nature -- and when people gather together and cooperate (and cooperation is subversive, because it is also offering up a goal that is in miniature or distinction or separation from the ideological), they get a big rush. The thing is happening, and, while it is happening the people stumble along. As soon as they stop stumbling, as soon as they meet a threat, they have to defensively come up with a name for what they're doing. They have to have a "vision" that the threat is not.

While a thing is underway, the activity attracts society. However, there is an irreducible Bozo percentage (sometimes including the Zoso percentage, which is made up of people who believe that they're on a vision trip). Marx never discussed this, and neither did Freud, but there is a percentage of humanity that is a dick. Sometimes these are participants who fail, sometimes "outsiders" who want the energy for their own, sometimes "enemies" who oppose what they believe to be the ideology served by the activity. It doesn't matter. They are attracted to joy as surely as a flea is attracted to blood.

The music scene gets flooded with immigrants "just like REM/ Windbreakers/ Superchunk/ Pearl Jam." Trolls show up at the Usenet group. They then show up in web forums, as soon as they're invented. "Jimy issogay" articles appear at Wikipedia. SecondLife gets filled with porn. The various user-generated dictionaries fill up with private, elementary school physical impossibilities and slander. YouTube gets evil troll raters and "memes" of derision. The original activity, whatever it was, might attempt to fight back by adopting power or regimentation -- both of which being the white flag of defeat. When it's all over, the corpse in the grave, the grave paved over by a super highway, Hollywood will make a movie about the hot new scene.

Twitter is Citizen's Band Radio, in other words. CB was Ham radio. In each case, these were "fun" and "addictive," and the remarkable thing was that "everyone is nice." There were no evil people there, and "experts were shocked" that humanity was nice. CB radio was, for me at fifteen, what Twitter is now. "It allows the People to be free," the mantra went. "Look at the oppressed expressing themselves," the voices said. Ubi sunt?

The difference between a music scene, an art scene, a film project, or a theater project and Twitter or Wikipedia or CB Radio is not in what makes us go. We go because something contra-ideological is taking place. The difference is in the precondition of the technology. CB needed the radio, and Wikipedia and Twitter demand the servers. Each has a ticket price and a location, and therefore each attracts the inevitable irreducible dick percentage that will make it unpleasant and force the community into staleness, and each also has a magnet for the equivalent of that Hollywood movie. Each dangles a lure for investors, states, power trippers, and owners of thought, claimants of benefit. (Listen to Jimbo Wales take credit for Wikipedia some time. The Twitterers haven't done that, yet. Give them time: venality is a disease.)

We will jump at Twitter, and the next thing, because ideology is one of those rooms in a horror movie where the ceiling and floor move toward each other, crushing us.


Anonymous said...

Another great read - you are sorely missed at WP Geogre. Take Care, Joopers

The Geogre said...

Thanks. I just re-read this, and there are some lapses into private association, but, a year after writing it, I have to say... it's actually good, and true.

The Twitter novel hasn't happened yet, but the Twitter book has. ("Tweets from the revolution," I think it's called, tries to put the Egyptian revolution into book form.)