Logically there is no real reason why the 21st century should be different from the 20th -- a calendar is just a system of numbers, no matter what the Mayan devotees think. At the same time, a calendar is a way of segmenting the flow of time and though the “end” didn’t come neatly on a certain date, things are clearly changing.
In the first place, they are changing because we see them differently now. What I might call “Harold Bloom-ism” -- a kind of idealism that depends upon canons, authorities, certain rules and a general Levitican Talibanic mindset -- is rotting out from under us. One more teetotaling senator arrested for drunk-driving, one more leader indicted for sexually victimizing the vulnerable, one more “penetrating” or “unmasking” analysis of financial or governing systems -- and this time none of it hidden by media. In fact, EXAGGERATED by media, repeated and sensationalized by media, along with whatever debris they can find. It’s different this time because we SEE it. The person says, “I never said that,” and then they roll the clips of him or her saying it. “I never had sex with that woman,” and then they show the semen on the dress with the DNA analysis.
This has had a vivid impact on our portrayals of ourselves: we see life and therefore theatre as more of a circus, less of an occasion for oratory. We have seen the movie stars age, then we sit up late to see them so very young. We have come up against the limitations of the rational. We have seen the planet from outer space and though we keep trying to make that into a marketable cliché, it never quite sticks -- next day it’s new again.
Greed is our besetting sin, but now it is formed by algorithms and a constant flow of data that we can manage so minutely as to make money (BIG money) from tiny gradients of value difference that would have been imperceptible, let alone manageable, just a year ago. And it turns out that changes and opportunities -- at first seeming such progress -- turn out to have a very dark side, even pork belly futures, a factual development that is so metaphorically suggestive. For every Bakken oil boom, there is an influx of violence, drugs, hangers-on, underculture. And then it turns out that the fracking boom has put so much oil and gas on the market, that even re-opening known underground deposits is not so profitable. All the people who were going to get rich from building instant “man-camps” are now subject to state inspection standards, newly passed.
Gain the internet -- lose the post office. Lose print -- gain images/music. Instead of books, we have YouTube -- a new kind of “literacy,” a new code, a new penetration into the consciousness of other people. Lose old-fashioned religion (goodbye Benedict) gain . . . well, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. It won’t be hierarchical. It won’t be pseudo-rational. Maybe Romantic -- in the philosophical sense.
A sense of planet. A new understanding. A new meaning. A new behavior. The issues won’t be Apollonian versus Dionysian anymore -- fewer binaries or rather binaries only to establish the spectrum along which reality arranges itself -- always moving, always intersecting with other spectrum. Emotion informing “facts”, facts always asking for evidence, propositions always investigating consequences instead of making “truth” or “virtue” claims. How do we know what we’re doing? We don’t. Never will.
I’m reading “The Felt Meanings of the World: A Metaphysics of Feeling” by Quentin Smith, partly because it had so much impact on Bruce Willshire’s books, which I haven’t finished reading yet. Most people read books because they are immersive; that is, they draw the reader in and so absorb him or her in virtual events that it becomes realer than real and time dissolves. Smith’s book is quite different: it’s resisting me. I have to shove myself into the sentences, rewrite them on a clipboard, scribble in the margins. It’s like some dry mathematician trying to explain the paintings of Frances Bacon. (In fact, he does mention both Bacon and Van Gogh in terms of their emotional impact.) But it’s as though he were discussing in terms of armatures and composition -- no, that’s not right; he’s not analytical in that way. Nor does he ever seem to realize that, for instance, color is the result of certain wavelengths of light hitting the human retina. The neuron studies are just beginning and haven’t reached the public yet.
So he’s trying to build a “FELT” meaning but without any way to describe “felt” except introspection, which forces him into metaphor. A meaning is spatial (high, horizontal, inside) or based on response (afterglow, importance) and he lets some things escape without meaning or importance and yet without the neuronal basis in the unconscious brain-editing of sensory information that worries me. Smith lets the “unimportant” fall but I’m always wondering what I’m missing. His ideas seem more aesthetic than moral, more aligned with pleasure than justice. That can’t be right.
So I must be missing something. That’s good to know, if only for a corrective to hubris, but how do I find out what I missed? Seems like that’s the problem of the whole global culture. What are we missing? How do we find out? I suspect it will come out of nowhere and blind-side us, maybe with pain and maybe with joy. A sudden access to an endless source of energy for all -- or a change in the atmosphere that cuts the population of the planet to one-tenth of what it is now. (I hope it’s quick and painless.) A new evolution in our own brains -- or dogs and dolphins that suddenly begin to talk. (Both already sing.)
Now I’m beginning a section in which Smith reflects on how we got the idea that “rational” thought is more “real” than anything “distorted” or “falsified” by emotion, which indicates the importance of realities to us. He doesn’t have to worry about how much the molecular recording of sensory inputs, “cooked” by our priorities down in the kitchen of the subconscious, separates us from as much as it connects body to world. But he does point out that the mathematical technology that convinces us of the realities of galaxies and photons cannot be proven by direct experience. Nor does math, rational and objective, account for our overwhelming awe at the existence of things we can only trace in particle cloud chambers or computer reconstructions. The cosmos, the quarks -- they’re so Romantic.