Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Outsourcing Inwardness

Recently, I've been committing some Keats to memory- particularly the Ode to a Grecian Urn, which I especially like. It's an odd habit we have in the humanities, committing verse to memory. It's hard to find anyone who does it anymore. Aside from the fact that few people actually read poetry anymore, there are certainly more "productive" things that you can do with your time. Or, at least, so I'm told.

It's hard to define what we do in the humanities, odd in that we're constantly being asked by impatient people; but I rather like Philip Rieff's use of the term "remembrancers" (although I generally find him to be too gloomy by half). The cleverities of scholars are good and well, when they need to sing for their suppers, but the real duty we have is to remember the things worth remembering and pass them along to the next generation in line. We are part of a transmission chain and really nothing more. While this is frustrating to those cleverer scholars and those administrators who wish we'd be more "productive", some of us believe that the slow, patient transmission of things worth knowing is a sacred duty. When hearing debates about the "inefficiency" and "waste" of the humanities, realize that we are- at least, traditionally- more akin to the clergy than the department of civil engineering.

In this, I believe that we remembrancers are both "cultural conservatives", in that we devote our lives to literally conserving the culture, and a genuine counter-culture in regards to a society that often feels the past to be a burden worth shedding- more timber to clear-cut. What society in its right mind pays people to memorize poetry? That depends on how you define its right mind.

So, one asks about "outsourcing the brain" to the Internet... Well, when you put it that way, I'd say we professional remembrancers should respond to the Internet with the same animosity that layed-off workers respond to the maquiladoras. Perhaps I'm sleeping with the enemy by writing online- a "scab", so to speak.

I remember (there I go again!) in the heady early days of the Net, those days of Internet Speakeasies and bath-tub bandwidth, when every single teacher I had- and every single adult I knew- was convinced that the Internet was going to create a generation of geniuses. After all, every one of us would have something like the world's largest library at our fingertips; a world of information at our fingertips; the greatest minds at our fingertips. Our fingertips were quite important in those days! However, it occurred to me that I can easily have a weight set at my fingertips; but I'm not going to get any more fit until I actually pick one up. I could have free access to the world's greatest gym, but if I don't do any work, I'll still have a fat ass.

Now, people are telling us that the Internet is a wonder because we all know where information is, our brains are "indexes" to things we don't and needn't know. We've passed from knowing where libraries were, but seldom actually using them, to knowing where digital libraries are, but seldom actually using them. Step with me now, into the future!

What I picked up on early in the Utopian visions of the Internet was their implicit anti-intellectualism. The subtext was that we'd soon reach a glorious future in which we no longer had to learn anything at all- why spend the time memorizing and absorbing old texts when they're right there at your fingertips, should you ever need them? Indeed, a number of people now have the mental equivalent of a fat ass. They see no reason to actually work on learning things at all. These people have always existed, of course; but there's an argument I now hear constantly from them- if I really need to know, I can just google it.

Part of this is the instrumentalization of knowledge- turning truths into factoids- that schools have been pushing for at least three decades. Learn the key bits for the exam and move on! The excuse for the constant testing- we need to quantify learning! We need to quantify their thoughtfulness- make the students jump through more and more hoops, propped up by one damned fad after another! It's like watching a train go by, and leaving most of the passengers at the station, I might add. There's an unwillingness in education to just slow the hell down. My dream is teaching a seminar that deals with one text for the full sixteen weeks. Thinking is slow- this is why it's not reacting. It's inefficient, that all-purpose insult these days- second only to "boring". Indeed, schools have pressured kids for decades to not be thoughtful at all, but instead to pass exams. The parrot says what he knows, but doesn't know what he says.

Where does this leave Keats, that remembrancer par excellence?

Ira once commented here that having a flight manual at your fingertips is no help if you're a pilot having trouble flying a plane. I suppose I see the knowledge worth earning as constituting a flight manual for living. For instance, I certainly can imagine a situation in which I was trying to understand for myself the enduring beauty of art from an ancient culture that I do not belong to. In such a situation, this might come in handy: "When old age shall this generation waste/ Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st/ Truth is beauty, beauty truth,- that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Not 'handy' in the sense of being an instrument that is right at hand, of course. But having a certain use in fumbling through inwardness.

These people, who I remember, have helped me map out a bit of that inward empire that the humanities help us to colonize for ourselves. Perhaps the real reason to resist outsourcing inwardness is that it's the basis for all genuine freedom.

But, I can't quantify that.

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