What I Read This Week - 22nd April

On loneliness and performance, primarily. - Facebook as Rear Window: What Hitchcock and Gadamer Can Teach Us About Online Profiles (Michael Sacasas)

Leithart interprets Gadamer by reference to landscape painting. When a landscape is painted by Constable, its character has been altered, it is now a “landscape-that-inspires-painting.” When person maintains an online profile, they are now a person-with-a-profile. The landscape painting, Leithart continues, is an “event of being” because it is “an enhancement of the thing itself.” Likewise the online profile, although perhaps enhancement is not necessarily the best word to use here. Moreover Leithart concludes, “every encounter with the real landscape involves a moment of interpretation that is a ‘performance’ of the thing, and after Constable (even for many who are not directly aware of Constable) the interpretive performance is inflected by Constable’s work …” Translated: every encounter with a person-with-a-profile invites acts of interpretation that are inflected by Facebook

I love the comparison to Rear Window here. The passage above reminded me of this: “When we ‘see’ a landscape, we situate ourselves in it. If we ‘saw’ the art of the past, we would situate ourselves in history. When we are prevented from seeing it, we are being deprived of the history which belongs to us.” (John Berger, Ways of Seeing)

- Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? (Stephen Marche at the Atlantic)

And yet, despite its deleterious effect on health, loneliness is one of the first things ordinary Americans spend their money achieving. With money, you flee the cramped city to a house in the suburbs or, if you can afford it, a McMansion in the exurbs, inevitably spending more time in your car. Loneliness is at the American core, a by-product of a long-standing national appetite for independence: The Pilgrims who left Europe willingly abandoned the bonds and strictures of a society that could not accept their right to be different. They did not seek out loneliness, but they accepted it as the price of their autonomy. The cowboys who set off to explore a seemingly endless frontier likewise traded away personal ties in favor of pride and self-respect. The ultimate American icon is the astronaut: Who is more heroic, or more alone? The price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been loneliness. But Americans have always been willing to pay that price.

I didn't read this piece immediately; I thought it would probably annoy me, and I felt like I didn't have time to be annoyed, I didn't have the energy for it. But eventually I read it, and it didn't annoy me, not in the way I thought it might. There are aspects of it with which I disagree, of course - "using social media doesn’t create new social networks; it just transfers established networks from one platform to another," Marche writes, for instance, which seems to me utterly untrue (in fact, read Michael Sacasas' essay above for an exploration of the rather more complicated way(s) in which offline/online experiences, profiles, and relationships coexist). But the exploration of loneliness itself is interesting, and I think there's a sense in which what Marche writes here is true: "It’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear." And as long as we don't get too bogged down in how a "friend" is not a friend and how connection is killing conversation (ahem, Sherry Turkle), I think it's good to keep exploring.

- Is Bad Urban Design Making Us Lonely? (Nate Berg at the Atlantic Cities)

Bad urban design is one of the major causes of loneliness and asocial behavior in Australia, according to a new report [...] from the Grattan Institute, a think tank focused on public policy there. "Cities can help social connection, or hinder it," the report notes.

- A Room of Everyone’s Own: The Writer as Public Fixture (Matt Lombardi at the Millions)

Coffee-house culture was vital to European literature of the last century, Ernest Hemingway , perhaps the patron saint of cofficers, not only wrote in public, but wrote about how he wrote in public (maybe even as he was writing in public). Hemingway was a great talent, but also a showoff who required validation, and in his youth liked to execute his art before an audience between shots of “rum St. James” and eyeing a pretty girl “with a face fresh as a newly minted coin,” as he writes in the first chapter of A Moveable Feast (a text that no doubt helped fuel the trend of Americans writing in cafés).

I hadn't thought much about the performance of writing in public, really. But the truth is it makes me uncomfortable to write in certain public spaces (hipster-ridden coffee shops, say) because to do this is to invite interpretation. I have a fear of being labelled unfairly, which is aggravated by my general ambivalence about how, exactly, I would like to be labelled ("oh, she's a writer", someone might think, and I might want to say, "but not that kind of writer!", but it's hard to give the right impression when you're still not sure what the right impression would be). But sometimes, when the stillness of home is starting to make me seasick and the view out my window starts to look like a nightmare-tunnel, the kind from which you can only escape by waking up, I like to take my laptop down the road to our local pub, which, true to its hordes of young, middle-class customers, has free wifi and a swanky coffee machine in addition to a selection of real ales and a decent wine list. I have rules for working here: I need a seat where my back faces the wall, so that passers-by can't catch an inadvertent glimpse of what I'm doing (or, rather, not doing) on my screen. If I start to look too earnest, or spread too many books and papers out on the table, I need to offset the appearance of studiousness by ordering something stronger than coffee. But I'm only allowed a few beers before I have to call it quits: the window for productivity once you've begun your descent into evening laziness or loucheness is fairly small.

- You Say the Swimming Pool's Half Empty, I Say the Swimming Pool's Half Full (Geoff Nicholson at the Los Angeles Review of Books)

Is there nothing a swimming pool can't symbolize?