The Polis in Post-Modernity (I): Migration and New Media

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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22 Responses

  1. Anderson says:

    This strikes me as a very astute observation. A small example that I noticed the other day: One can order pizza, Jimmy Johns, etc via iPhone now, without any need to actually call and carry out the brief conversation. You just type in what you want, your address, and, voila, it shows up in 30 minutes. No need to speak to anybody, even if it is only an inpersonal, mindless transaction in the first place. Another minor example would be always having GPS to rely on, rather than asking someone for directions. And access to this kind of technology is spread across classes of wealth, so it’s not just a matter of the odd rich kid with his iPhone. This trend can only continue to grow. Even as someone who grew up in the Facebook generation, it strikes me as sad that it would be uncomfortable to call somebody for a pizza or ask a stranger for directions. Those precious “middle man” interactions, however short-lived and trite, add a certain flavor to a humane existence… But, then again, who am I to say what should determine a true “humane existence”? People made these same complaints about the telegraph and Model T, amongst myriad other technological advances that changed social interactions.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Anderson says:

      Yes — there’s a fine line between wanting history to stop and keeping an eye on the changes, to see what we’re at risk of losing that we might not want to.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Anderson says:

      “One can order pizza, Jimmy Johns, etc via iPhone now, without any need to actually call and carry out the brief conversation. You just type in what you want, your address, and, voila, it shows up in 30 minutes. No need to speak to anybody, even if it is only an inpersonal, mindless transaction in the first place.”

      You say that like sitting on hold for five minutes than then repeating my order four times was a meaningful personal interaction that should be cherished as an example of human connection.Report

  2. James Vonder Haar says:

    Perhaps it’s because I’m a product of this very social change you describe, but I really can’t lament this shift, much less the loss of the banal social interactions that Anderson details. Those “middle” relationships always struck me as the worst of both worlds- bereft of meaningful social interaction, as with your true friends, but close enough that they could exercise coercive social power on you; their clearest manifestation, as far as I can tell, were the masses of people in my middle and high schools outside my social circle. I quickly learned that I was much happier disregarding the social jockeying that epitomized interactions with these sorts.

    Perhaps I’m missing out on the positive aspects of this, the ways in which interactions with that middle sort can be enriching and not coercive. But I also think that the shift in the social fabric can have a positive impact on diversity, in the ability of people who are different to break free of the geographically defined middle class and into their own network of close friends and loose acquaintances based on interest. If I was ahead of the curve on this transition as compared to my peers, keeping my primary social interactions to a close group of friends in real life and broader links with online communities, it probably had something to do with my status as the only out of the closet queer in a catholic high school in Texas. Avoiding contact with my geographically bound middle sort spared me some of the bigotry I would have otherwise had to deal with. Of course, it’s not as if only minorities in their strictest sense benefit from this- I’m sure the conservative in the middle of Portland benefits as much from this change as I did.

    In the end, I think this change allows individuals to create communities that will nurture their self-actualization rather than being beaten into a mold by their communities. While concerns about splintering, particularly in the political arena, are well-founded, I think it’s a change that is a net benefit.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to James Vonder Haar says:

      I agree that it’s not entirely a bad thing. What Dunkelman doesn’t really consider is the way in which some of these formerly “tertiary” relationships are become the new middle-ground — and, as a you say, a more fulfilling one at that. We clearly aren’t on the verge of turning into the machine-pampered babies (who only interact with machines) that humanity has become in WALL-E, for example.

      I do, however, think that there’s always something to lament in a change — though my lament in this case isn’t necessarily for the middle-ground (though I do have an affection for place, for being from somewhere, and so, I suppose, for those place-contingent relationships). But your post has made me realize that there’s a way in which that could slip into a kind of nostalgia that calls for a condescending tokenism.Report

  3. Art Deco says:

    A factual point (from an analysis I was compelled to do of 1990 census data some years ago):

    1. About 21% of the population change their state of residence in a five year period.

    2. About 65% of the population (at any one time) live in their native state.

    Mobility is not so novel. I know of an unpublished study done of some townships in Upstate New York comparing lists of residents in 1825 and 1835. It discovered about a 70% turnover in population over that decade.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Art Deco says:

      Good points; though I think the 1990 data is recent enough to not necessarily oppose what I’m saying. I’m going to address this at greater length in my next post (probably later today), but I do think that there’s something novel — not in the fact of mobility — but in the means, the ease, the scale, and the confluence of technology/media.Report

  4. Chris says:

    I don’t have anything insightful to say about the thesis of your post, other than to say that it’s interesting and I’d have to think about it. I would say that it contrasts with Europe, where there are still many towns with squares where everyone hangs out in the evening, which definitely helps to promote a sense of community. This, however, has been a difference between the U.S. and Europe for a long time now.

    Really, though, I just wanted to commented to say that it’s very clear that Helen Rittelmeyer has never actually read Buber, or that if she has, she didn’t understand a word she read. Don’t get me wrong, Buber has issues (better to read Levinas on the subject, if you want something more than nice to read, maybe even inspiring, mental ejaculation), but Rittelmeyer doesn’t know them.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Chris says:

      I agree, re: Levinas over Buber — I picked Helen’s comment in part because that objection, for whatever reason, has stuck in my memory for the last few years, and also because I couldn’t for the life of me find a passage I read on TUESDAY that made, in better terms, the point that, “Sometimes we have relationships that will be ‘You’ rather than ‘Thou,’ and that’s a necessary failure of mankind.” It’s somewhere in Richard Rubenstein’s AFTER AUSCHWITZ, and I know it’s there because it’s one of a very few paragraphs I actually didn’t strongly disagree with.Report

      • Chris in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        Interestingly, in his intro to the first edition of his translation of Ich und Du (the German for a reason, here), Kaufmann argues that the Du should be translated as “You,” and that it was the overly and in this case misleadingly stuffy English-language translators who made it “I and Thou.” The relationship that Buber has in mind, Kaufmann says, is precisely the “you” rather than the “thou”. I suppose for Buber, then, there is I-It and I-You, so that I-Thou would probably be much closer to I-It than what he wants out of human and spiritual connections.Report

        • Mr. Prosser in reply to Chris says:

          Are you sure about the Du translation? If I remember my high school German, “du” is the familiar and “Sie” is the formal. The intimate relationship Buber referred to would require the du, not Sie just as the old intimate English required “thou” not “you” which is why Quakers used the “thou” when talking to all humans who they considered were all their intimate brothrs and sisters.Report

          • Chris in reply to Mr. Prosser says:

            Right, that’s what I mean, or at least what Kaufmann meant. The first English translators of Ich und Du translated it as I and Thou. Kaufmann kept the translation of the title, but used “you” in the book, and gave as his explanation that Buber meant the informal, as evidenced not just by his use of the word “du,” but also by his description of the relationship.Report

            • J.L. Wall in reply to Chris says:

              I actually thought about whether to use “You” or “Thou,” but figured that most people HADN’T read Kaufmann’s introduction … and that “Thou” is TECHNICALLY the correct form (if not practically). And it would let people who just knew the title and/or gist to follow.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to J.L. Wall says:

                If you call a cop a pig with “Du” in Germany, the fine is 500 euros. The formal “Sie” is only 200. Dunno how that fits into Buber, tho.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                What if you tell him to “ess scheiss” vs. “fress scheiss”?Report

              • J.L. Wall in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                I think Buber would say it fits in because it shows they haven’t read and don’t care a whit about him. Part of the radicalness of I AND THOU was that Buber was, in one way, calling for humanity to relate to God not as “our Father, our King” or any variant of that, but as “my friend.” Anyway, one man’s intimacy is another man’s disrespect. (And if I get pulled over for speeding, I’m not thinking about Buber — “Yes, Sir; no, Sir,” etc.)Report

        • J.L. Wall in reply to Chris says:

          I know that I read one of Kaufmann’s notes on the translation — and that the one I read was one that used “You” everywhere but the title — but I thought (at the time I read it) that it had to do less with the grammar of the translation than the fact that, in contemporary English, “You” is, in practice, more familiar than “Thou.” But I could be wrong — and that could have just been how I took what he said. Anyway, I don’t think that it matters so much whether one uses “You” or “Thou” in the English, so long as we can agree that they’re being used to distinguish between a familiar and a formal (civil?) second-person address.Report

          • Chris in reply to J.L. Wall says:

            Yeah, I believe Kaufmann means it to be the informal by using “you.” It’s been a good 7 or 8 years since I read the book, though, so I could have it backwards. I know “thou” is etymologically the informal, but in modern English where we don’t tend to use formal-informal distinctions in pronouns, particularly second person pronouns, it feels stuffy and more formal.Report

          • Mr. Prosser in reply to J.L. Wall says:

            True, J.L. and I didn’t want to distract from the original point of this post. I’m curious whether Dunkelman thinks there was a time in America when the middle associations were really that important. I’m in my sixties and I know even in the 50s and early 60s the “middle” in highschool was already eroding as were rush weeks in college and service club memberships. Modern technology may assist in disassociating but I don’t think it caused it. Bellow may lament the loss but other writers, Hellerman, in my opinion, praised it.Report

  5. Mr. Prosser says:

    I’ve been reading mind candy all summer, not Hellerman, Heller, as in Joseph.Report