that the culture of the book is dead; that the solitude of the mind is dead.

by Arran James

Originally written as a response to noirrealism, so forgive the odd reference to MMOs that might seem a propo of nothing.

I’m not convinced of this claim. Books sell. They sell well. It simply isn’t the McLuhan’s and the D&Gs that are selling. It is the JK Rowlings and whoever it was that wrote 50 Shades of Grey. In my workplace, I saw 50 Shades passed around, passed around from woman to woman, and even to a few men (not the demographic…but why not?). The solitude of the mind that the book was about gives way to the connectivity of the internet, sure, this is Bifo’s move from the conjunctive to the connective. I’m not so convinced it’s a completed project. The culture of the book is not a monoculture, it doesn’t sit alone and never did. While I do agree a transformation is taking place, has taken place, I also think that we need to be aware that such a transformation is one that is immanent to the book, refits and redeploys it. What is the book today? A holiday read? For the bus to work? Well, isn’t that also to do with how the new technologies have transformed the pattern of labour? There is no time for a book today, unless it is undemanding, titillating and, perhaps, reflective of masochistic desire.

Sherry Turkle, as the title of one of her books has it, suggests that we are ‘Alone Together in here’. he problem for me with Turkle is that she poses some kind of true self to some digital self and sets them apart: here is the virtual world and here is the real world; what Virilio calls “stereo-reality”. Well, I have known many people in meatspace that I originally met online (this distinction speaks to the poverty of the stereo-real). A couple of my closest friends were internet friends who became permanent features of my meatspace life. And now,, now that I have moved to another city, 600 miles from home, I keep in touch with many of my closests friends (some I’ve had since infancy) through the internet. I am not alone on the internet. But maybe it is because, as you say, I am with the readerly classes. I do remember speaking to counselling students that I know about the internet, about etiquette with clients who contact you on facebook and how complex a problem it is, and I thought…but why? It is a social relationship… and social relationships are declare off the table by the counselling contract. This isn’t difficult; or rather, it is as difficult as any other mode of what might be called “impression management” (cf. Goffman) is. So it seems that, yes, there is a disorientation. But it is not a “Second Life”, a splitting of reality into these two domains, which can be further subdivided, of course, and which compete for our time and attention. But they integrate and disintegrate in movements. Is augmented reality internet culture or material culture?

The disembodiment that digital culture invokes is one I take seriously. Very seriously. I think that this is a lot of this is symptomatic of the disempathic society in which, as Houellebecq puts it, it is impossible to love. Social solipsism is out there, it surrounds us, and yes, MMOs can’t be neglected, or the so-called psychopathy of Second Life griefers who campaigned for rape/torture and so on to be allowed in that space, and who, with a very articulate manifesto that drew on McLuhan and Ballard, spoke of these places as the last places where imagination could operate, where new sexual subjectivations could be undergone…and in the safety of no bodily harm. I don’t know how far I agree with that, I don’t know if it is for me to agree…it’s an empirical question in the end…but it speaks to the complexity of these problems. I guess it is possible that these are ways that the ‘sites of passion’ are already being undergone. The internet has always been a way of organising as much as it has of distraction; of communication as much as noise; as much to do with bodies as it has to do with the disappearance of bodies.

We may well be alone in here, but I also wonder if that isn’t therapeutic at times. Out there (or ‘over there’ in Will Self’s words for the Australian-Iraqi nightmare interzone of ‘The Butt’) we are too upclose at times, too forced together, in these pockets of affective manipulation, enforced happiness (cf. Houellebecq and democracy), of the psychopolitical normalisation of unhappy subjects, the regulation of unhealthy bodies, and so on. Sometimes alone is good. At the same time, an excessive alone-togetherness, an arrangement of disembodied minds in cyber-seriality, is no good, can lead to the emergence of psychopathologies, of anti-social behaviours and psychologies, distorted logics, and utopian flights from fantasy. This means things are dangerous, these technologies are dangerous, it doesn’t mean that they necessarily give rise to these things, ex nihilo, from nowhere: the question of supply and demand is a question of desire; of its inculcation, its habituation, its naturalisation; all processes that can come undone, be interfered with, disrupted. Then, as a psychiatric worker, I have this question about psychopathology and anti-sociality: do we mean distressing, desubjectivating, crippling, or do we mean different, bad, not normal. The question is one that strikes throughout the history of psychiatry, and is best expressed today in the neurodiversity movement. Autism is a form of neurodiversity! they cry, as if difference were the sole consideration, the only factor that can be made to count. What kind of diversity? What are the effects? What is adaptive and maladaptive, in what ways does it help you cope and in what ways does it prevent coping?

If the problem is that the new accelerative technologies burn us out then its not luddism we need, it’s a way to distance ourselves from those technologies, to cultivate spaces of deceleration and destimulation, but also to foster a kind of techno-literacy- rather like the campaigns of the old working class for the right to read- and ‘perceptual training’. Maybe this sounds a lot like Turkle and Virilio, and I am, in fact, only repeating them with a different emphasis? I suppose my approach is to see these technologies- social media, smart phones, ipods, kindles- and view them as coping ”mechanisms”, and as commodities on a market, a semio-physiological attention market as much as a traditional one; what are we trying to cope with? Sometimes, I suspect, one device is a tool to cope with another; and sometimes, I wonder, is our disembodied society, with its dearth, rather than death, of affect really something to do with the biopolitical regulation of bodies? Do we disconnect because we’ve become hyperreflexive? These are the questions to ask.

The solitude of the mind may well be dead, if by that we’re talking about the practice of being alone that Montaigne advocated. Yet, aside from an intellectual elite, how many people were afforded the practice of such solitude in Montaigne’s day? Looking further back, this kind of solitude is the same advocated by Seneca and by Epictetus before him. How many industrial workers, Roman Imperial servants, and Greek slaves were afforded the opportunity to partake of the culture of the solitude of the mind? Of course, as I’ve alluded to above, universal literacy was a political demand of the Chartists. In our own day, maybe we need to resurrect such a demand; a demand for a digital literacy that is not simply being an adept at semioproduction. It would be a reminder of the embodied in the disembodied, the material in the immaterial. In one respect, returning to Montaigne and Epictetus, the point was that the solitude of the mind could be had anywhere, if one wanted it, and knew how to want it. I would suggest a great deal of people want it, and this is why the culture of the book is far from dead. So the publishing industry is in turmoil? Could that be because the book is no longer the publisher’s material object, that the virtual world of the book has digitised itself? The culture of the book, a culture that took time and deliberation, engagement and care, is under threat but it is not dead.