(I was asked to write another piece on the Internet, on the virtue of blogging, &c. It is forthcoming, in a venue I won't yet identify. True to form, I itch to post it here and be done with it. But that is not permitted, so I will just post some snippets that I believe stand on their own, and direct you to the published version when it is available.)
In a fine introduction to a recent edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), William Gass writes that what he admires most about Robert Burton's life-work is “the width of the world that can be seen from one college window…; what a love of all can be felt by one who has lived it sitting in a chair.” Burton’s Anatomy, indeed, often gives the impression that its author set out to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art whose aim was nothing less than to reproduce the world.
As with the Internet, the result is clumsy and chaotic, and Burton recognizes as much; and yet, in this way, both haphazard and cloistered, he manages to create, over the course of a life, a thousand-page mirror of the world:
I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries, with small profit for want of art, order, memory, judgment. I never travelled but in map or card, in which my unconfined thoughts have freely expatiated, as having ever been especially delighted with the study of cosmography… A mere spectator of other men’s fortunes and adventures, and how they act their parts, which methinks are diversely presented unto me, as from a common theatre or scene.
Burton loved the world, though he knew it almost entirely through the books he kept in his cell. While at nearly the same moment in European history, Burton’s contemporaries, such as René Descartes, were denouncing ‘book learning’ as inauthentic, as an impediment to true knowledge, Burton reminds us, as Gass so well understands of his predecessor, that whether out in the world or locked in our cell, it is the human mind that is doing most of the work of experience anyway; a rich, full life may be led with only the most two-dimensional of stimuli to carry it along. The Anatomy of Melancholy is proof of this.
Today, too, the Internet can seem an impediment to many of what are thought to be our more authentic experiences. But it may also be facilitating the sort of experience we have always had, qua human beings, experience based in love, which can be had just as intensely in virtual form (letters from friends, books about nature, the Internet), as in ‘reality’ (seeing friends face-to-face, going camping). Sometimes I imagine I am feeling a love of the world as strong as Burton’s when I click, say, on a link from the Wikipedia entry on the Finno-Ugric languages to the entry on the Samoyed people of the Russian Arctic, and from there to the entry, written in Samoyed, on reindeer. There is so much out there, and it’s all in here!
True enough, in here, in this hyperlinked, screen-shaped reproduction of the world, what we find for the most part is a great mess “of barbarism, Doric dialect, extemporanean style, tautologies, apish imitation, a rhapsody of rags gathered together from several dung-hills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out, wihout art, invention, judgment, wit, learning, harsh, indigested, vain, scurrile, idle, dull, and dry.” But this is nothing new, and as Burton shows, it is the variety stacked upon variety, and the detail squeezed between details, the inexhaustible proliferation of adjectives, that makes this whole mess a mirror of human ingenium.
The French anthropologist and sociologist Marcel Mauss identified the category of ‘the person’ (la personne) with that of ‘the self’ (le moi). He maintained, like Taylor and many others after him, that this category is a recent development, emerging contemporaneously with modernity, which also witnessed the rise of bourgeois individualism, new concepts of authorship, property, individual rights, and so on. Mauss contrasts this conception of self with several other, premodern forms. The Pueblo Indians of the Southwestern United States, for example, do indeed conceive their clans as “being made up of a certain number of persons,” yet, on the other hand, “the role of all of them is really to act out… the prefigured totality of the life of the clan.”
It is well known that the Latin term ‘persona’ has its origin in theater and is associated first and foremost with the mask. So a ‘person’ in the most original sense is a role taken up or assumed, and it is only in the modern period that personhood becomes, Mauss maintains, something stable and enduring, something rigidly attached to the individual over the course of a life; or, better, something by reference to which the notion of a single life with a single and unified course can make sense in the first place Mauss attributes to the philosopher J. G. Fichte, as late as the early 19th century, the final responsibility for consolidating personhood as “the condition of consciousness and of science.” But we have no need for such precision here. In fact, the sort of personhood that interests us most is the one that may be put on or taken off as a mask, for it is this sort that, as we will see, helps us to identify certain emerging practices that transpire on the Internet --performances, you might say-- in a light that is continuous with the pre-digital, indeed pre-modern, human past.
Persons were in premodernity attached to particular social roles, Mauss wants to say, rather than being seen as irreducible metaphysical subjects. But this could not mean for him that in premodernity there was no conception of enduring individuals; indeed, heroes and kings and other exceptional figures could endure beyond death and achieve immortality. Burial monuments are generally monuments to such exceptional figures, with great stone pyramids being a limit-case of this sort of monumental expression of a hope for endurance. Being king or emperor or pharaoh is not a role that is taken on in passing, it is not a fleeting persona, but rather a permanent status that endures beyond the grave.
We may in this connection think of the proliferation of funeral parlors in the modern period, with the ideal of a shining marble monument for every mortal, as a corollary of the general individualizing trend of modernity that has transformed us all (at least in our imaginations) into little kings and queens. In this respect, what Mauss describes as the emergence of our conception of person as a stable, enduring self might better be thought of as a democratization of personhood. These days, we all merit memorialization.
This process has not occurred everywhere in the same way, though the rapid globalization of Western practices rightly causes us to fear that it will sooner or later. Among the Kaulong of Papua New Guinea, there are terms for both what might be translated as ‘self’ (enu), as well as for ‘human’ (potunus). As Jane Goodale explains, the status of potunus is one that must be achieved, that is not given at the outset, but rather accrues through the proper dealings with what Goodale has identified as “the key symbols of Kaulong humanity: pigs, teeth, bones, fire, sex, and song.” Consider her description of what matters most to a Kaulong man as he approaches the end of his life:
Men’s fear that they will die without anyone to bury them is a fear that they will not be replaced in the hamlet. If not replaced, there will be no song and the fire will die, the forest will overtake the abandoned place, and the man’s name will be forgotten. Burial and replacement ensure a degree of immortality since pigs will be sacrificed and their blood will wash over a man’s bones and he will be remembered by name.
Such a fear does not meet Mauss’s count as fear for one’s self, or for one’s person in the distinctly modern sense, to the extent that the Kaulong man wishes only for immortality through the memory of his name; whereas modern self-hood is said to involve a belief in a metaphysical core of one’s individual being, which is unchanging through all the transformations of the life-cycle, and presumably also imperishable (whether it is remembered by friends and family or not).
But the more we consider the richness of the ethnographic record, the more implausible the Maussian distinction between the modern self and the ‘primitive’ self comes to seem. Do we really want our own handsome gravestones because of a prior theory of our individual enduring selfhood? Or do we want them because, in some limited way, we are able to imagine people being prompted, in seeing our names engraved in marble, to recall us fondly? The details of the commemoration are different in different cultural contexts –ours involve no pig’s blood— but the anxiety the commemmoration is expected to resolve (whether it in fact does so or not) seems to be based on a sort of universal human conception of selfhood, a conception that causes all of us to be preoccupied with our own death, and not just with the death of kings.
Culture, as Clifford Geertz said, is the web on which we human animals live, and increasingly that web is, for many of us, also the Web. One of the things culture does is to mediate, through ritual and mystification, those parts of life that are too potent or terrible to face directly, particularly sex and death. Sex, or something having to do with sex, has already certainly made its presence felt on the Internet. Commemoration of the dead is just beginning, in turn, to take place online. Though I have said already that it is most foolhardy to make predictions of this sort, I anticipate that soon the Internet will become the primary site of such commemoration, that pixels will replace marble in conferring whatever bit of immortality there is to be had.
This shift could be more significant than it first appears. As I’ve said, the Internet is absorbing everything (in fact I used the word ‘destroying’, but we may permit a bit of softening at this point): books, music, telephony, etc. With respect to what has interested us in the previous section, it is worth conjecturing that the Internet will also, similarly, absorb both personae as well as their commemmoration, both masks and gravestones.
Perhaps I should clarify this last point. Philosophers have debated whether death is a suitable preoccupation for human beings at all. The Stoics famously thought it could not be, since insofar as I am dead, I am not; and insofar as I am, I am not dead. More recently Thomas Nagel has argued that death can indeed be plausibly construed as a misfortune, since, whether there is an afterlife or not, quite evidently death deprives us of the things we value in this life.
I often find that the idea of my own death is simply too hard to grasp. It may be that I am more Stoic than Nagelian: what concern is the world of mine, if the world will no longer have me? I expect my loved ones will absorb the loss; I have no large estate that will need worrying about, no mythology of transmitting my legacy through a healthy son weighing upon me; I am more than content to transfer my teaching load to someone else; and so on. I think I can even imagine my own body decaying in its coffin without being too troubled (I shiver a bit, but this is more a titillation arising from a taste for the macabre than it is a horror). But here is the thought that makes death formidable again: it is the moment after which I will never post to my blog again, after which I will never write another Facebook status update, I will never again tweet. My soul cries out: “But I can’t live without doing these things!” And death answers back: “No. But you can die.”
This is to say that my life is wrapped up with an activity from which I will have to leave off at death. But it is also the activity, I am increasingly coming to think, of actively constructing my self, and this activity, when it leaves off in death, will leave an accurate and vivid trace of a life. My online activity is, as I already put it, both mask and gravestone at once.
This may not be an entirely different experience than the one Robert Burton had when he brought out the fourth and fifth and sixth editions of The Anatomy of Melancholy. But the immediacy of blogging, and its lack of finality, make it much more like life itself than a book ever could be, with the backlogged publishers who promise it and the slow-churning presses that produce it. There is no publisher to blame if my blog is not sufficiently far along in its perfection at the moment of my death, no editorial wrangling or grinding production process. There is only me, and what I hope might be a mirror of me, diffused then through the Web of my culture by means I don’t understand: a mirror of me mirroring the world by sitting in a chair and looking at a screen and, every now and again, out the window.
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