Sunday, September 22, 2013

Weekend Reading (Heavy Division)

This, by Jonathan Franzen in Saturday week's Grauniad review, is the best essay I have read for several months.  Based on his translation and exegesis of the writings of an Austrian I'd never heard of - Karl 'The Great Hater' Kraus (1874-1936), a kind of proto-blogger - the piece is hard to summarise.  (The Graun's sub-editor has failed hopelessly in this task, so don't be offput by the rubric.)

So I've assembled a little set of extracts.  If you like them you'll read it ... 
"... rather live among the Germans. For although they've strapped art into the Procrustean Folding Bed of their commerce, they've also made life sober, and this is a blessing: fantasy thrives, and every man can put his own light in the barren windowframes. Just spare me the pretty ribbons! "
"Believe me, you color-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads." You're not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it 2 billion now?) "individualised" Facebook pages may make you want to say them. 
Vienna in 1910 was, thus, a special case. And yet you could argue that America in 2013 is a similarly special case: another weakened empire telling itself stories of its exceptionalism while it drifts towards apocalypse of some sort, fiscal or epidemiological, climatic-environmental or thermonuclear. 
For Kraus, the infernal thing about newspapers was their fraudulent coupling of Enlightenment ideals with a relentless pursuit of profit and power. With technoconsumerism, a humanist rhetoric of "empowerment" and "creativity" and "freedom" and "connection" and "democracy" abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it's far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people's worst impulses, than newspapers ever were. 
"An invention for shattering the Koh-i-noor to make its light accessible to everyone who doesn't have it. For fifty years now it's been running, the machine into which the Mind is put in the front to emerge at the rear as print, diluting, distributing, destroying. The giver loses, the recipients are impoverished, and the middlemen make a living"
Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses 
... the next thing you know, you're translating The Last Days of Mankind as The Last Days of Privileging the Things I Personally Find Beautiful. And maybe this is not such a bad thing. Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. 
Kraus's signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past ... something that has become a fixture of modernity. The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity. 

You get the picture ...

This post first appeared on the Capitalists@Work blog

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Sackerson said...

Yet Buddhism stresses focus on the here and now. Perhaps the individual is largely defined in relation to others, and when sufficiently centred in one's immediate experience, one loses both self and others. So the problem with techno-individualism is that for commercial reasons, you are not encouraged to go all the way and off-grid.

Sackerson said...

BTW didn't Vienna turn Red and isn't the Guardian Red?

Nick Drew said...

right brain = focus on here and now including inter-relationships of self with rest-of-imminent-world

(risk = losing perspective / global 'understanding')

left brain = focus on (or via) theoretical construct 'explaining' the world

(risk = losing contact with reality & richness thereof, over-simplifying)

individual is defined in relation to ... well, certainly inter-relationships with rest-of-imminent-world (RB), but also the individual's world-view (LB)

deep waters