Impotence in the Age of Distraction
Jonathan Franzen’s recent article on Karl Kraus and modernity makes one of those arguments whose real proof comes inevitably not from anything he himself offers, but rather from the flurry of responses it so hastily elicits, ranging in this case from wounded hostility to feigned disinterest. Vulture’s overview of the more than 6,000 word piece provides a useful demonstration of this phenomenon, claiming to document the essay’s trolliest paragraphs in such a way as to unintentionally reaffirm many of the melancholic reservations Franzen has toward modernity.
Start with the title, “Jonathan Franzen Still Doesn’t Like the Internet,” which both invites clicks while also conveying helpfully to the reader that what follows will necessarily be a shallow treatment of the topic at hand; a commentary on the person in question rather than the apparently scandalous position they hold. Then there’s the body of Caroline Bankoff’s post, which veers from attempting to reveal something about Franzen by concisely juxtaposing excerpt and quip, to righteous admonishment—surely Franzen has better things to do than “coming down on everybody else for liking their computers,” even if Bankoff has nothing better to do than aggregate it.
Franzen accuses modernity of having submerged America in a sea of techno-capitalist inspired, existential “restlessness,” the only escape from which is distraction and forgetfulness. Inequality grows and the earth warms and generations are severed from one another by the increasing rapidity of cultural change. What better way to greet Franzen’s apocalypticism than by meme-ifying the messenger and clinging oh so defensively to that shiny new iPhone, all while chanting through gritted teeth, “Same as it ever was. Same-as-it-ever-was?” If only Old Man Franzen would lighten up a bit. Take a selfie maybe and bask in the life-affirming after-glow of Instagram’s flattering “Rise” filter, or at least L-O-L at some cats!
Perhaps the Vulture piece, and others, chose to snark around the edges of Franzen’s essay because, as Maria Bustillos points out, so much at the heart of it is almost inarguable, either because it’s about Kraus, or Franzen, or the problems which plague America (and those countries globalized in its image). His digs at Twitter, Apple, and the ever more ubiquitous Internet are, she rightly notes, “little infelicities” which “shrink to nothing beside the incontrovertibility and importance of Franzen’s principal arguments.”
Another strain of discontent among Fanzen’s critics can be traced to the sickly level of attachment many of us have to our personalized, market-branded instruments of technological progress. This set of hostile reactions resembles the overblown protests of addicts in denial, responding to “I think we’re developing an unhealthy dependence on new information technology” with “Screw you, boorish old white man!”
Jennifer Schuessler at The New York Times responded to the piece by comparing the number of times Franzen’s name appears in the whole of Google Books to the likes of Toni Morrison and John Updike. This shouldn’t be surprising though, since two things Internet writing is often great at are telling us nothing about anything and sly takedowns. Surely Schuessler meant to do something other than insinuate that Franzen’s discontent stems simply from the impoverished number of times his books and name are cited in a digital database.
After all, she couldn’t actually think that was the case after reading the following, right?
“Our far left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our far right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that markets have gone global, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction.”
Shuffle past the hyperbole for a moment and you get to one of the real questions posed by Franzen’s article: when progress is measured in chamfered edges and the ability to watch cat videos in higher resolution, where has modernity left us?
The essence of Americans’ fantasies about ourselves can be, for the moment at least, reduced to Steve Jobs –THE designer and THE entrepreneur whose product was nevertheless expensive and manufactured by wage slaves, whose business model is environmentally unsustainable and predicated on rapid obsolescence.
“To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker,” writes Franzen, “may be how early and clearly he recognized the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress.” Acknowledging this divergence is the difference between allowing that certain technologies make a better life possible, and falling into the trap of thinking that new technology is necessarily a part of that better life. Does Facebook become a tool for meeting up with people or a substitute for doing so? Does the twitterverse and blogosphere make civic dialogue more likely, or simply prevent people from actually organizing? Franzen is even willing to admit of his own prejudicial role in all of this,
“But a judgment like this obviously depends on what you mean by ‘humanity’. Whether I like it or not, the world being created by the infernal machine of technoconsumerism is still a world made by human beings. As I write this, it seems like half the advertisements on network television are featuring people bending over smartphones; there’s a particularly noxious/great one in which all the twentysomethings at a wedding reception are doing nothing but taking smartphone photos and texting them to one another. To describe this dismal spectacle in apocalyptic terms, as a ‘dehumanisation’ of a wedding, is to advance a particular moral conception of humanity; and if you follow Nietzsche and reject the moral judgment in favour of an aesthetic one, you’re immediately confronted by Bourdieu’s persuasive connection of asethetics with class and privilege; and, 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.”
While this is certainly an indictment of Franzen’s critique, it’s also an indictment of those who so easily reduced the rest of the piece to “Franzen hates Internet.” Their infatuation is simply the inverse of Franzen’s own fatalism, grounded almost always in what they love about the techno-information age, and little if at all in how it has made the lives of various other people measurably better off. Some of them want to hitch WiFi hotspots to homeless people, but how many of them have devoted a #slatepitch or Wired cover story to what that homeless person thinks of making faster Internet speeds the cornerstone of the Great Society 2.0?
Franzen is even willing to take his self-criticism to its logical conclusion, admitting that he’s just like every well-off old white man who feels betrayed by the world when it turns out to be different from the one he’d always believed he would eventually inherit,
“Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse. Naturally, because he was the first, the changes felt particular and unique to him, but in fact he was registering 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.”
It’s here that Franzen gets lost in his own conceit, playing up the cyclical nature of personal (generational?) apocalypse without giving due deference to the fact that in only the last century were the “last days of humanity” actually made possible. Nuclear war could destroy the world, or global warming could make it eventually uninhabitable for humanity as we now understand it, outcomes that were not even conceivable during the height of Kraus’ disaffection.
And while America’s jobless, under-employed, and impoverished working class continue to struggle, in a country whose infrastructure is literally falling apart, and where equality of opportunity remains a distant mirage, who is helped by the fact that it’s easier than ever for Senators to play poker online during oversight hearings, and for Congressmen to disseminate pictures of their members?
Franzen is dismayed by literature’s impotence to affect these events, or stir readers to change them. You don’t have to like his books, or his pompous disposition, to see an urgency to the issues that motivate them.