Forum | Contact
Search the Web:

A Bit More on Kunkel

I want to pick up on my post over at Conversational Reading about Benjamin Kunkel's essay on the Internet. There were a few things that I left out because it was already much too long and a few things that have clarified (I hope) because of the excellent comments that Richard and LML have made.

My reading of Kunkel's argument centered around trying to define his idea of experience as it was made clear by the claims he made against the Internet (or, more broadly, a distracted life mediated by technology). I feel that his claim that the "sensuous poverty" of Internet content should be a "reminder" of the more harmful effects of the Internet is not in itself very significant, but is indicative of the way he wishes to conceptualize experience, particularly when it is coupled with the magnetism he attributes to the Internet. His setting off the physically impoverished but nevertheless alluring Internet against the self-discipline-demanding physical beauty of non-Internet content is an example, I believe, of a broader conceptualization of experience as a sequence of alternatives, structured in the form of repeated micro-tests of discipline, taste, and/or will. This particular ethic is not aesthetic; it reveals an ethic originating in a very different organization of human life and experience: "distributing our attention" is Kunkel's term for these micro-tests, and that is surely an economic phrase, and more specifically, a capitalist one, as it means, basically, "investment."

I'm not going to hide that I'm grabbing the next part straight from Weber; although The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has many historiographical faults, it also has significant successes. And among these is, I think, Weber's success in tying the particular world-view of Puritanical testing to the bourgeois sensibility of accumulation as a sort of proof of inner virtue: accumulation is evidence that you have passed numerous tests, each one bestowing upon you a small trophy. This is what I was trying to describe as Kunkel's ethic of experience, only I feel that Kunkel (as reflected in his novel, Indecision and, I think, demonstrated by some of the language used in his essay) has heroized this ethic further (in Weber, it is already somewhat heroic) by grafting it into the Bildungsroman structure. It's not just the accumulation of correct (self-disciplined) choices—Proust over YouTube—that is necessary (and threatened) but also the activation of something internal ("whatever it is in me") that can only be accomplished by encounters with the beauty proper to "poetry, philosophy, history," a beauty which Kunkel asserts is alien to the Internet. The need for this activation reinforces the need for self-discipline, which is eroded by the Internet (according to him). In other words, the Internet is an existential clusterfuck for the Bildungsroman hero/bourgeois intellectual.

My objections to this ethic don't really require much elaboration: it comes down to the privilege necessary to achieve and then maintain it. That privilege is written all through the n+1 pamphlet What We Should Have Known, of which Kunkel played a part. I have written about that pamphlet on this blog before, in an entry more broadly addressing the role of regret in one's reading life. Regret, which is effectively the subject of that n+1 pamphlet, is the preeminent expression of this ethic: it structures one's past choices as good or bad investments ("why did I spend so much of my adolescence reading Star Wars books?"), as time managed well or poorly, as tests of will and self-discipline passed or failed. It is also, conversely, a way of reinforcing the idea that your ability to reflect and to understand that you have, at times failed, is a promise of future success: you know enough to correct your mistakes and make better investments in the future. You know enough to bring yourself in line with the Bildung curve that one can derive from Joyce, from Stendhal, from Flaubert, from Goethe, et al.

At the end of that post, I noted how the contributors to the pamphlet all disparaged their undergraduate years and their "short twenties"—the period between college graduation and the thirtieth birthday. Referring to college as "summer camp" and effectively bragging about how their various grad programs were either useless or at best stopgaps in trying to figure out what they wanted to do or be, I (despite a fairly shameless infatuation with n+1) was basically appalled. Yes, I too didn't read all the right things in college, and yes, I too am not reading the right things right now, still pretty much at the beginning of my short twenties. But goddamn if I am going to write either off in the manner they did or blind myself to the privileges that allow me to be where I am and study literature as I do. Access to books is hardly universal, much less the kind of access to any book that is so often taken for granted (greatly facilitated, I hardly need to add, by the Internet), much less the funds to buy them or the time to read them. "Distraction" is an incomparably class-based complaint. And while I took far too many words to get to this point, that time—the time that you have spent (dare I say invested) reading this and the time I have spent writing it—is a terribly dark underlining of this simple assertion. You may have been distracted in the reading of this, or in the reading of my earlier posts, checking your e-mail or Twitter or browsing something else, but the ability to be distracted in this manner is simply not a universal experience. And that's all, I guess, I really wanted to say.

A related point: in his comment on the original post, Richard contested whether I wasn't treating technology as if it were neutral. I don't think I made a very good answer to him, or to LML, regarding the very different experience of reading on the internet as opposed to sitting with a book. While they aren't making the same point, I'm hoping my answer covers both their points somewhat satisfactorily. LML says in a second comment:
Reading online is often a positive experience. It's sometimes better than the old model. But often, good or bad, it's dizzying--not only is there no "bildung-formation," there's no evident connection to the motives that I sat down in front of my computer to satisfy. This dizzying effect is very powerful, much more powerful than the distractions (flies buzzing, lights flickering, eyelids lowering) that assail me with book in hand, and the effect is so powerfully built into the system that even those of us with the concentration to read Proust find ourselves unequal to the task of using the web in a disciplined manner. I don't find Kunkel's attempt to sort this out laughable--neither do I think it's the final word on the subject--and I think you're overselling the extremity of his point of view. His essay appeared in a web-only book review, no?
I don't find Kunkel's attempt laughable, just fairly class-blind. But what I meant to do (and I'm hoping this speaks to the question of whether technology is neutral or not) is to shift the focus on what this particular form of distraction actually is. While I do think that the experience of being distracted by technology is not class- or education-dependent, I think that this bourgeois/Bildung formation of distraction quite obviously is. The technology which seems to create it is simply integrating (extremely well, I should add) with older patterns of distinction and class/education-enabled consumption. Basically, I'm saying that YouTube isn't rotting your brain by keeping you from reading Proust; it's the privileged position you occupy that allows you to conceive of your experience with culture as existing along this kind of distinction.