My soul, a stringed instrument,
sang to itself, invisibly touched,
a secret gondola song,
quivering with iridescent happiness.
And he asks, Did anyone listen to it? In this way the philosopher is asking, is not anyone else "tuned in" to this mood of Venice?
I think it is obvious to most people that cities or places have moods. And that arriving in a new city, the mood of the place will be felt to us if we are attuned to it. Venice-- like water and velvet; Vietnam like the sound of a flower blossoming-- we can feel the underlying values of being, time, and place in part through mood. Indeed, this is how Heidegger said we experience our being in the world as existing in place and in time (da sein= being there; being in).
What happens, then, to our ability to be attuned to mood when we go online? (An important question as more and more us are inevitably interacting with the world via our software.)
As I have mentioned here again and again, he is a man who lectures on Heidegger like he is composing Persian love poetry. And, it is to this man's work that I have remained devoted to for some 20 years.
Almost everything Dreyfus says somehow rings true to me. Yet, reading and thinking about his take on this question about meaning in the age of the internet, I think I perhaps dis-agree with him. It must be a first. In fact, though, I felt a mild intuitive doubt reading his earlier essay, Kierkegaard on the Internet, but it was with his more recent article Faking it, that I finally figured out what was bothering me.
In the article, Dreyfus starts off with Pascal's famous expression of existentialist anxiety:
The drawbacks of our own world are obvious. We are bounded by fallible individual and group perspectives, experience physical and mental suffering, and sense the vulnerability of all we care about. We can try heroically to confront the world we are thrown into, face up to our situation, and struggle to live in a way that accepts and incorporates our vulnerability without despair. But as the 17th-century existential philosopher Blaise Pascal pointed out: "Men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, [so] they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all." Pascal calls this escapist approach "diversion" and gives as examples of diversions billiards, tennis, gambling, and hunting.
According to Dreyfus-- and I agree-- rather than face the risks and anxiety head on, in general people prefer to divert their attention. That is, they placate themselves with what German philosopher Wolfang Welsch calls our contemporary endless parade of amusements.
Fundamentally concerned about living a real and meaningful life-- and as my friend Paul insists, the two are connected-- Dreyfus is uncomfortable with a virtual 2nd life because it is at base a pleasurable diversion; that is, it lacks any real risk or deep commitment. In the essay about Kierkegaard, he is even more persuasive when he discusses the way that online, people are much more apt to cut and run when things take on risk. Or when in the cost benefit analysis, things seem inefficient. Online interactions,therefore, almost by definition lack the commitment of real life one's. And that is why they can be said to lack reality and meaning.
His second issue is concerning the issue of collectively felt moods-- again, see part 1. Here is Dreyfus:
Heidegger would point out that a minimally meaningful life requires sensitivity to the power of shared moods that give mattering to our world and unity and meaning to events. Indeed, focal occasions require a shared mood, as well as the sense of all who are present that they are sharing and contributing to that mood. This sharing creates a sense of a self-contained world.
The thing is, while I wholeheartedly agree with Dreyfus' worries, I am just not sure that mood depends as much on embodied know-how as Dreyfus believes. The Readers of These Pages will not be surprised to learn that I feel that mood (both personal and collective) is experienced fundamentally on the level of imagination.
As Robert Harrison suggested:
"mood is a form of attunement between nature and spirit; between habitat and inhabitant"
In this way, borrowing Nietzsche's image, if mood reverberates within us, like sound reverberating within the interior of a violin after it is bowed, it becomes embodied-- for as Sepp Gumbrecht suggests, in the same way that a violin will internally reverberate when bowed, mood is internalized in the sense that it becomes almost impossible to really differentiate between outer environment and inner self. Indeed, the two are inter-dependent.
For example, I have talked at great length in these pages about the way the mood of place can have such a tremendously deep and indelible impression on a person. But for me, so tied is this feeling of being moved by place to the workings of my inner world that some of these imaginable landscapes I have never actually traveled to; they are, nonetheless, no less significant to me. That is to say, some of the places that have most moved me are places I have never been to-- some are places I have only dreamt of. I mean, just thinking of Venice, the mood I feel about the place probably has more to do with Mann's Death in Venice then it does to my actual embodied experience there. Reading, for example, can serve in this way to light up our focal practices-- so why not dreaming or virtual experiencing?
Another way to approach this is to ask, when people change languages or cultural context, does their online behavior change? That is, to what extent do we bring our understanding of being with us online?
Is it that virtual interactions, because they inherently lack commitment or risk, that they fail or is it rather that due to the technology that those who already exist in an ontology where people are thought of as resources or that amusement is given a central place in life, that this will only be intensified? In other words, would the people spending time amusing themeselves on 2nd life otherwise be living deep and committed lives? Or would those who are seeking amusement, seek amusement online or off; and those who seek a risk-free environment be prone to that offline as well?
Just speaking from my own online experience--which is long and very extensive (since I work online as well as spend so much time interacting online) as well as is bilingual, I think I have found-- at least in my own case that ontological moods and approaches are carried straight along online so that:
For example, those who live in a technological understanding of beingwhere everything is viewed in terms of cost/benefit and efficiency, will manifest this even more intensely online. To say this another way, those who will not commit or cut ties online, in all probablty are just those kinds of people, I think, given their worldview and the technology and anonymity-- rather than causing this, only accentuates it.
Also, for example, in my very long and extensive Japanese online experience, I have never felt this same will to delete in Japanese. I am not on Jpse facebook, however, so I cannot say whether those in a Japanese envrionment would be quite so apt to say, "just un-friend him." But my Japanese virtual experience is very much characterized by trust and commitment; as well as sensibility or high responsiveness to mood. Hierarchical language too is carried over online so that if the commitment to formal hierarchical forms is avoided in real life, this is carried online and vice versa for those who use these forms, they continue to use them online.
It is not as if the technology someone frees us from moods that surround us.
Every online group or association has a kind of culture and mood, and that a mood can be experienced collectively online is very much in the realm of possibility-- because of course we are using language or images-- all things which have long transmitted human experience.
The boundless human proclivity and capacity to imagine-- I know, Our Man in Beijing and Our Man in Stanford would neither one of them approve to life online (in fact, I think persuading Dreyfus would be far easier). And yet, there you have it, because I do believe (based on my embodied and imagined experience) that true committed friendship, romance and meaning can and is found online as well as off.
Namit, I know what you're thinking!!!!!!!
Stay tuned for Part 3 on mood and the rain
Artwork at the top by MW Nolden-- isn't it incredible?
L'Age d'Or, 1985