Every other time I go out to eat with a group, be it family, friends, or acquaintances of whatever age, conversation routinely plunges into a discussion of when it is appropriate to pull out a phone. People boast about their self-control over not checking their device, and the table usually reaches a self-congratulatory consensus that we should all just keep it in our pants. The pinnacle of such abstinence-only smartphone education is a game that is popular to talk about (though I’ve never actually seen it played) wherein the first person at the dinner table to pull out their device has to pay the tab. Everyone usually agrees this is awesome.
What a ridiculous state of affairs this is. To obsess over the offline and deny all the ways we routinely remain disconnected is to fetishize this disconnection. Author after author pretends to be a lone voice, taking a courageous stand in support of the offline in precisely the moment it has proliferated and become over-valorized. For many, maintaining the fiction of the collective loss of the offline for everyone else is merely an attempt to construct their own personal time-outs as more special, as allowing them to rise above those social forces of distraction that have ensnared the masses. “I am real. I am the thoughtful human. You are the automaton.” I am reminded of a line from a recent essay by Sarah Nicole Prickett: that we are “so obsessed with the real that it’s unrealistic, atavistic, and just silly.” How have we come to make the error of collectively mourning the loss of that which is proliferating?
In all of these cases, the hashtag is nothing more than an emoticon of sorts, says UC Berkeley Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. And this explicit See what I did here? hashtag use is plain “stupid,” Nunberg laments, because any trace of irony is neutralized once you point to it with a big honking #. Why write something excitedly when you can lazily throw in #excited? Why not just say “I miss you” instead of #missingyou? Why put a sentence through this kaleidoscope of formatting horse shit instead of just saying something? Say anything. The bar is set so head-imploding-ly low—just write a statement that doesn’t require me to retroactively apply a hashtag to get the gist of what you’re saying. Once the hashtag has been applied so sloppily, killed as a form of interesting metacommentary, “it’s not doing what it’s meant to,” says Nunberg. It’s broken and gratuitous.
“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”
“Is Pinterest Making Us Blind?”
“Is the Kindle Making Us Illiterate?”
“Are Houses Making Us Homeless?”
“Is This Dress Making Us Look Fat?”
“Are Paperweights Making Our Papers Fly Away?”
“Is Mom Making Us Dinner Tonight?”
“Are Inner Tubes Making Us Sink?”
“Is Artisanal Coffee Making Us Douchebags?”
Opponents of the law have endlessly invoked “socialism.” Nothing in the Affordable Care Act or any part of President Obama’s challenges the basic dynamics of market capitalism. All sides accept that some of us should continue to enjoy vastly greater comforts and pleasures than others. If you don’t work as hard as Mitt Romney has, or were born less smart, or to worse parents, or enjoyed worse schools, or invested your skills in an industry that collapsed, or suffered any other misfortune, then you will be punished for this. Your television may be low-definition, or you might not be able to heat or cool your home as comfortably as you would like; you may clothe your children in discarded garments from the Salvation Army.
This is not in dispute. What is being disputed is whether the punishments to the losers in the market system should include, in addition to these other things, a denial of access to non-emergency medical treatment. The Republican position is that it should. They may not want a woman to have to suffer an untreated broken ankle for lack of affordable treatment. Likewise, I don’t want people to be denied nice televisions or other luxuries. I just don’t think high-definition television or nice clothing are goods that society owes to one and all. That is how Republicans think about health care.
The danger of “destructive tolerance” (Baudelaire), of “benevolent neutrality” toward art has been recognized: the market, which absorbs equally well (although with often quite sudden fluctuations) art, anti-art, and non-art, all possible conflicting styles, schools, forms, provides a “complacent receptacle, a friendly abyss” (Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy (New York: Knopf, 1964) p. 101) in which the radical impact of art, the protest of art against the established reality is swallowed up. However, censorship of art and literature is regressive under all circumstances. The authentic oeuvre is not and cannot be a prop of oppression, and pseudo-art (which can be such a prop) is not art. Art stands against history, withstands history which been the history of oppression, for art subjects reality to laws other than the established ones: to laws of the Form which creates a different reality–negation of the established one even where art depicts the established reality. But in the long struggle with history, art subjects itself to history: history enters the definition of art and enters into the distinction between art and pseudo-art. Thus it happens that what was once art becomes pseud0-art. Previous forms, styles, and qualities, previous modes of protest and refusal cannot be recaptured in or against a different society. There are cases where an authentic oeuvre carries a regressive political message–Dostoevski is a case in point. But then, the message is canceled by the oeuvre itself: the regressive political content is absorbed, aufgehoben in the artistic form: in the work as literature.