(Prefatory Note: The following post is more personal than is my natural mode of communicating on this website. I hope it causes no offense. It is confessional to the extent of acknowledging my own surroundings of digital devices that while liberating in some respects are repressive in others. To sustain our freedom under these ‘postmodern’ conditions requires the rechristening of meditative intelligence (as distinct from the instrumental rationality that acted as wet nurse of the ‘modern.’)
Living in the 21st Century
Ever since I read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen I have been haunted by the suggestive resonance of its opening line: “When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.” Of course, Rankine allows this quietness to evoke her anguishing memories of past subtle racist slights that are the hurtful daily experiences of embedded racism that has for centuries undermined the normative pretensions of ‘civilization,’ not only here in the United States, but globally. Recently, a series of police atrocities throughout America has reminded us ever so forcefully that the election of an African American as president did not mean the end of racism, but alarmingly, an ugly new beginning, an apt occasion for the emergence of Black Lives Matter.
It is the first part of Rankine’s sentence that speaks so simply, yet so responsively, to the circumstance of our 21st century reality, our struggles with loneliness while treasuring the self-discoveries that are uniquely dependent on reflective solitude. What Rankine is telling us is that digital modernity has diminished our capacity to be creatively alone and sufficiently sensitive to the arts of self-discovery. She is instructing us that we need to be so tired that we even refrain from turning on any of our devices, presumably a rare occasion given modern life styles. These devices, whether TV, I-Pad, smart phone, and others have often been our principal nurturing experience, fill our empty hours, usually with distractive and repetitive forms of emptiness. Accordingly, if we find ourselves alone and in bed, without electronic or human others, we should gratefully recognize the occasion as fit for self-exploration. That is, make the best possible use of this precious state of consciousness situated precariously between our devices and our need for sleep. The word ‘even’ in Rankine’s sentence is strategic here, suggesting the abnormality of this condition, yet the second part of the sentence promises rewards that follow from letting “yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.” Yet also because strong sleepiness is part of the scene, there is always the risk of losing wakefulness, losing oneself in sleep to avoid the often painful realizations of exploring what lies below the surface of our mindless immersion in the lifeworld of daily experience.
In effect, most of us, whether consciously or not, have bargained away most of our inner selves in exchange for the enjoyments, evasions, and mysteries of pervasive connectivity that brings us our favorite music, encourages our wildest phantasies through dating and social networks that merge potentialities with cravings, freely accesses information and people anywhere on the planet, lets virtual reality blur the boundaries between experience and imagination, sometime playfully, sometimes maliciously. And all the while, the drones do signature targeting and the war planners are busy beyond their wildest dreams relying on our taxes and passivity!
While digital connectivity simultaneously pacifies and activates, treacherous demonic forces are unwittingly devising the extinction of the species while pursuing their own deluded visions of ultimate deliverance. The restorative energies of normalcy and moderation have almost vanished, yet we go on with our work and play as if the future is not in severe jeopardy. Or if not entirely distracted by the immediacies of everyday life, we escape into one or another extremism, whether it be religious or anti-religious, new age or materialist. Lingering in our personal past may evoke memories we need to compose a better grasp on our private life, but to meet the public challenges that are threatening human destiny in pools of swirling dark waters, we need to learn quickly to master the rigors of long distance swimming against menacingly strong currents.
What most of us can no longer even imagine is life without our devices! I thank Claudia Rankine for this devastating insight into the perilous human condition of our time, whether private or public, individual or collective. Without it, we would be truly lost. With it, there are glimmers of hope, struggle, emancipation.