U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Inarticulate by Choice and the Future of the American Past, Part Six

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
My posts in this series have so far centered on the particular qualities of letter-writing that make it so rewarding and that indefinable quality that potentially renders it irreplaceable. I have been arguing that some things just might be falling through the cracks with the wholesale shift from pen and paper, or typewritten correspondence, to electronic communications, things too valuable to desert without a backward glance. In the case of all things bright and beautiful, should we really be so quick to let go? (On being hopelessly beholden to moments of past excellence, see my longingforthereal.com post “Why Exult?”)
The qualities–and quality–to which I’ve been paying homage here pertain to the actual letter itself and to the state of mind of both sender and recipient. My question, as one commenter beautifully summed it up for me better than I had, has everything to do with form. I am merely joining those who have made the humble, common-sense observation that form matters greatly to a particular message that is being conveyed or expressed.
Of course, we are not alone. Artisans from every walk of life work hard to select and perfect their form. (I use the word perfect here advisedly, and only in verb form, as an aspiration not an attainment.) Musicians and masons, thinkers and tailors, barbers and bakers, painters and poets: the list is as long as the list of human activities itself. Does it not include those who attempt at some point to describe or explain something to someone else by means of the written word?
We have the excuse that the e-Revolution is very new and took us by surprise. Had that excuse. Now we should be able to start to get our sea legs and decide where this ship is taking us and whether we’re ok with that. Unless you prefer letting the captain continue to navigate alone and unimpeded–a captain that might be three parts corporate capitalism and one part pure chaos.
For myself, I think it’s time for a mutiny. 
The ersatz Revolution–I’m talking about the the newest one, don’t you know–has been upon us now for a couple of decades, enough time so that in looking back to recent history and reflecting on the current moment, we can discern patterns in how this latest shift in form is affecting content, message, quality, and the like–the very things that might foster, or alternatively, might interfere with meaningful communication. Are the ways we use electronics today making us better or worse able to get across to another person what we are thinking and feeling? Or doesn’t that matter? Are these even relevant questions any more? Perhaps we have better things to do.
Many others, scholars and laypeople alike, have articulated since antiquity how entwined form can be with substance. As James Livingston rightly reminds us, in a welcome response to my posts, still others have asked this precisely in the context of modern and post-modern life, and even in reference to our new technologies. And we can never forget, man, that “The medium is the message”!
I simply wonder whether such abstractions should be so separate from our real-time, real-world behaviors and practices, the decisions we make and take within the everyday world of the senses, the manner in which we live–the reasons why we can, when we can, and do (live). Right now, that everyday world seems to me rather clearly and alarmingly demarcated, as if by those chain-link fences built on each belligerent nation’s side where its own territory leaves off and no man’s land begins. At the top a gnarled chaos of barbed wire spirals out of control, ugly testimony to our worst, most intractable divides: hostility unredeemed. Yet the division is now more subtle, stealthier than those glaring scars upon the landscape. In its virtual existence, it is akin to the invisible fencing used to train a dog to stay in a suburban yard, right down to the electric shocks. Because we don’t see it doesn’t mean we don’t feel it, the canines among us.
I am not suggesting this no man’s land has been created by our transposing of so much of our daily human interaction from real-world settings to virtual ones or that this fencing is at all new. For one thing, the telephone already displaced letter-writing for many, as the ease of picking up the receiver and conversing across the miles no doubt scattered to the winds pieces of conversation that would once have left a more tangible record, one that could be revisited later with greater accuracy than memory alone allows. Ditto for the modern means of travel, as the ease of in-person visits might sometimes have mitigated the need for extensive written communications.
Granted, we might now be experiencing an actual upsurge in communication. After all, email doesn’t stand alone, nor do electronic communications more broadly. They exist in a larger system in which other forms might make up for what each does not singly provide. Perhaps there is another space now, another form of communication in which the deep reflection and close connection occasioned by letter-writing has survived or emerged. Pray tell. Or as a way to stay connected between in-person conversations, to invite a real engagement, or initiate a beneficial entanglement–rather than to shrink from one–maybe electronic communications help sustain relationships that would be at risk, be less than what they are, or not even exist otherwise. If so, the task becomes ensuring that the mode of communication actually does sustain what is most valuable; that it doesn’t distort, deform, or destroy what is being communicated. The means must not eclipse the meaning–or the meaningful.
Then again, we might not now be experiencing an actual upsurge in genuine communication. If not, shouldn’t the next question be about how to change this, instead of how to move to an even more impressive form of robotic, computerized technology? Shouldn’t we be on guard against any possible accoutrements or implements of dehumanization, so that we are certain to humanize them, in the only way that is ever at our disposal, through some hybrid of old and new forms?
I ask precisely because those forbidding fences are nothing new, nor is the no man’s land between us. Recently, we saw this perennial problem vividly displayed by the hero of “War Horse” (Dir: Stephen Spielberg, DreamWorks, 2011), who found himself within the fence itself, thrashing around in the barbed wire for his very life. That glorious symbol of courage and potency, brought to his knees by an industrial war machine no equine ever had a role in erecting.
Somehow, by some miracle, some almost imperceptible twist of fate, he found his way out. My only question is, will we?
Our communications to one another are not trivial, but can very easily become so. Perhaps they are already for many people, yet to satisfying effect. For them, it might be understandable why the same mode of instant gratification that dominates so many other aspects of life today would be deemed adequate to the task of getting across thoughts and feelings. Maybe there is not all that much to get across.
And perhaps, as enthusiasts of our age imply, easy, quick, and cryptic messages can coexist happily with the qualities and quality of more timeworn practices. Deep reflection and connectedness might be alive and well. If so, it would hardly be a painful concession for me, and others worried about what we might be losing, to make. It truly is possible that email is helping us get even more closely in touch than was common immediately before it emerged as the primary form of written communication. Was there a period after the growing affordability of the long-distance telephone call and the widespread use of email in which the peculiar late-twentieth-century version of our perennial isolation and loneliness took hold? Are we actually seeing a lifting, as on some kind of temporary ban? That would explain some of the exuberance with which many seem to have embraced the new. Others before them might already have thrown out the old.  Compared to the non-communicative fin-de-millennium decades, this rocks.
Nice scenario, if you can keep it. As Dylan said in a memorable line: “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.”
The only problem is that signs seem everywhere to suggest a wholesale devaluing of that indefinable quality that can transform the soul-shriveling desert that is our inherited and self-created no man’s land into an oasis. Is there such a wilderness park, criss-crossed everywhere by paths of mutual understanding, a rich and mysterious garden of substance and sustenance, a paradise where that rarity, a once-in-lifetime meeting of minds, might really be possible? Or, even if not, where one is hoped for or imagined with such intensity that all efforts at understanding are infused by luminosity, and heights unattainable otherwise are suddenly inhabitable? 
How hopelessly naive. What is so wrong, anyway, with the omnipresent corporate “meet and greet” event, email, and other allied practices, undoubtedly all much more conducive to efficient self-advancement in these times than elaborate, meandering conversations and complicated communications by which we can become so waylaid, even for life, should we accidentally become invested in them?
Letter-writing and its attendant practices–keeping a diary, open-ended conversation, and others you may suggest–might be mere relics of the past. But that past included elements that promise a depth and richness of connection that will no longer be an option in the future unless new generations choose to breathe new life into old ways, keeping alive counter-traditions already proven capable of keeping us alive. And that past included works of great insight that stand as a challenge and an invitation to studies to be written in the future. Will the latter be able to partake in the conversation sustained by the former, without some gentle, daily, saving acts of stewardship in the present?
I don’t think so.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Dear Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn:

    I am most appreciative that you responded to my mention of the word form and found it valuable enough to repeat here in your latest entry. You seemed to understand innately what I suggested by that word. The deepest question is whether our entire lives are to be reduced to mere utility and information. When an artist uses a form they are in effect expressing the inexpressible, that is, making things appear “slant”, to use Emily Dickinson’s formulation, so that the individual and human perspective can shine through. When that personal element is lost we have just information free from context. Thus, I have to join you in your project and agree that our wholesale acceptance of uniform and enforced systems of expression is a naive acceptance and that we should not lose things of inestimable value without at least discussing it honestly as you do so well on here.

Comments are closed.