One week into my new job and daily commute into London and I can say two things with certainty: the job is really interesting and I will be surrounded by lovely people; and the railway service has deteriorated dramatically in the 15 years or so since I last had to commute regularly.
Perhaps a third certainty is that it will be difficult to not deplete my wallet when I have to pass by Waterstone’s Gower Street every day.
The reading time on my commute is a bonus, although it is not quite as long as I had envisaged. It is not uninterrupted time, as I have to change from train to Tube – and in the latter I am so squished, it is often impossible to find a bar to clutch on to and to take out a book. But even in the train, I have found myself using Wifi to check emails and Twitter rather than reading. If I were kind with myself, I would say it’s just to save time and not have to check on these things when I get home to my boys (and because I don’t check them during the day at work).
But the truth is somewhat more complex.
I wonder if all this frantic scrolling down the timeline for a joke, some wit, some precious gem of information is all about searching for something to fill a yearning abyss inside of me that I deny in my moments of strength and dare not measure in my moments of weakness.
Instead of abseiling down the abyss to explore further – too dangerous – or expressing its beautiful unknowability through poetry – too difficult, the chances of succeeding are too slender – I look away from it. I seek to distract myself, or look for someone else who might have expressed it for me. But I am far more likely to find that directly in books rather than mediated via social media. At its worst, I sometimes think Twitter is a lot of noise about art instead of that inner and outer quiet necessary for interacting with the art itself. [I almost said ‘communing with the art’, but that sounds terribly old-fashioned.]
What do you think? Do you feel that social media helps you avoid those complex, potentially unpleasant or dangerous thoughts?
I know I always pick on Facebook, but I really don’t like the showing-offiness of that platform. I haven’t completely abandoned it, because it did help me to reconnect with some long-lost school friends, but I visit it as little as possible.
Afright from a nightmare where my mother once more
waxes satirical about my weight,
I shake off the sludge of family binds and turn
to my friends in the blue glow of pre-dawn screens.
That’s the way we do it now: no calling, no comfort
The more the modern world surprises and worries me, the more I turn to the classics of sociology, who experienced their fair share of major social and cultural shifts. My two favourites are Max Weber with his stark warnings about politics and power and Emile Durkheim on anomie.
It was actually not Weber but Georg Simmel who coined the phrase ‘sterile excitation’ to describe what many of us feel at the moment: a tumult of anxiety and passionate feelings when watching the news, but feeling powerless to do much about it. However, Weber publicised the term and warned also of the dangers of so-called charismatic leaders who unleash a ‘following’ they cannot control. Gripped by a need to increase their ‘likes’ (as Weber would say nowadays, looking at social media), these leaders are willing to court controversy and deliberately incite hate-talk and violence from their followers (while denying any personal responsibility). These followers think they are romantic revolutionaries but they are in fact driven by the basest of motives (adventure, booty, power, spoils) and, after victory, usually degenerate into nothing more than looters of all descriptions, claims Weber. It’s this ‘adventure’ item which I see in the cult of celebrities nowadays: a fantasy that they are leading the life we would like to lead if only… Harmless when it’s merely wishful thinking and daydreaming, but it can be used for nefarious purposes too, just like Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympic gods were used to both inspire and divide German society in the 1930s.
Meanwhile, Emile Durkheim talked about the tension in any human between individual needs and our social roles.
There are in each of us two consciences: one which is common to our group in its entirety…the other represents that in us which is personal and distinct, that which makes us an individual
Contrary to most contemporary mantras of ‘be yourself’, ‘you owe it to yourself to develop to your full potential’, ‘follow your own path’ and so on, Durkheim actually thinks the social self contributes significantly to the development of an individual character:
Because society surpasses us, it obliges us to surpass ourselves, and to surpass itself, a being must, to some degree, depart from its nature—a departure that does not take place without causing more or less painful tensions.
He warns against the dangers of excessive individualism:
Our purely individual side seeks satisfaction of all wants and desires. It knows no boundaries. The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs. Instead of asking “is this moral?” or “does my family approve?” the individual is more likely to ask “does this action meet my needs?”
It’s when the gap between individual and social needs becomes too unbridgeable, or when one deliberately decides that one has had ‘enough’ of society and will only follow individual desires, that ‘anomie’ sets in.
What strikes me when perusing social media nowadays is this desire to overcome ‘anomie’ by connecting online.
We are no longer afraid of sharing our most intimate moments or thoughts, sometimes carefully curated, it’s true, but sometimes deliberately self-flagellating, as if in a competition who can hit rock-bottom first. I’m not criticising others for it: I have done it myself. I used to keep a diary to wrestle with my thought processes and feelings, but now I frequently find myself musing out loud online. Perhaps I get more feedback and support from my online friends, with whom I interact nearly daily, rather than from my real-life friends, whom we don’t really get to see all that frequently. Sad but true!
This sharing of stories has enabled us to not feel alone with our anxieties, sorrows or troubles. Others have felt alone, have experienced depression or oppression, ill-health or bereavement, have advice or comfort for us. This is the positive side of the internet and I love it.
However (aside from the more obvious dangers of trolls and shouting at each other over an ever-widening abyss) the plethora of discourses has also resulted in a state of permanent sterile excitation. At least in my case it has. And it’s keeping me from producing worthwhile work, because I see the futility of it all…
If awareness of the situation is the first step towards improvement, may the next steps be close behind, please!
I’ve written before about my distaste for a life lived online or even in front of a TV screen. Of course, I do both, but only when my friends and family are not around. I much prefer genuine conversation. Except sometimes, it has to be said, the more interesting and honest conversation does take place online, when we dare not voice our real thoughts or interests to those around us. The emphasis, however, is on the term conversation, rather than shouting over each other, jeering, trolling. I lived long enough in my childhood in a place where I was told what to think and saw the darker side of herd mentality. I now want to listen to all points of view and engage in informed, considerate debate, like proper grown-ups, instead of a media circus.
Would it be fair to say that about one in four books being published today constitutes a memorable read? Judging by my current crop of crime reads, I’d say that proportion is roughly right. It may seem ungracious to say that, especially when I have yet to finish my own novel! (So they are all clearly better than me for a start.) So let me qualify this somewhat.
None of them were bad enough to make me want to stop reading them. In fact, they were entertaining and quite accomplished for debut novels. However, after just a few days, I can barely remember the storyline or the characters. I am sure they will all do well in terms of sales, however, probably better so than the last one, which I liked and remembered most. Is that because publishers or the reading public think of crime fiction as a ‘disposable genre’ – easily read, all about a puzzle and a twist and a quick entertainment, and then forgotten? Or am I being too harsh? Many of my fellow bloggers enjoyed them a lot, so why do I always need a ‘bigger theme’, an exotic location or a social context to keep me happy?
Renée Knight: Disclaimer
Quick and easy to read, but failed to rise above the run-of-the-mill for me. Another middle-aged woman with a secret alternating with chapters from the POV of an older man who has suffered loss and is seeking revenge. A set-up which is intriguing – what would you do if you found the worst moments of your life story displayed in a novel? – but the execution doesn’t quite live up to it.
T. R. Richmond: What She Left
An interesting concept of reconstituting a person and their last few days through all the documents and detritus of life that they have left behind. You’ll find a good variety of voices, from lecherous middle-aged professor to wide-eyed naivety. However, overall, the story strained belief – so many gathered by the river’s edge on a winter’s night! – and did not quite live up to the premise.
Angela Clarke: Follow Me
Once you manage to suspend your disbelief that the police would be so unfamiliar with Twitter and would depend on a 23-year-old freelance journalist to be their social media consultant, this is quite an entertaining and fast-paced read, although the end is a trifle predictable. It raises some interesting issues about online privacy, but I felt that the issue of what Nas and Freddie had done in their teens was deliberately obfuscated and hidden just to create some artificial suspense.
Margie Orford: Water Music
This is the fifth novel in the series featuring social worker Clare Hart, working with abused and missing minors in Cape Town. So yes, I jumped midway into the story arc about Clare and her boyfriend, the cop Riedwaan Faizal, but I was still captivated by the interactions between the characters and the storyline. South Africa is a place where life is not easy for poor young women and children, and the author reflects that in this emotional story about an abandoned child and a missing young cellist. This is not the touristy Cape Town we like to imagine, although the natural setting is very beautiful, but a gritty story about violence against women and the consequences of poverty. Corruption at the highest levels and the conflict between police and unions in a post-apartheid South Africa are also tangentially addressed. My first Margie Orford, but most certainly not my last.