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I'm late to Chris Hayes' New Yorker essay, "On the Internet, We're Always Famous," but it is important and insightful. Hayes walks us through earlier iterations of online life, when it looked like more vibrant and perhaps healthier discourse was emerging. But then came the meme, and not unrelated to the meme was the true power of the tools composing the Internet. Consider: Why does a meme work? It reaches a targeted audience. How did that audience come to be?
Our lives online really aren't about publishing or communicating. Rather, all of us possess tools for mass surveillance. The fame of others and being famous ourselves is a product of this surveillance. A natural desire for recognition twists into an unnatural being, a felt necessity and opportunity, as it preys on us.
Below, I've written on "Plus Mine," a poem by John Wieners shared by Tom Snarsky on Twitter. I have to believe that trying to be thoughtful on here matters for the sake of my own sanity. Truth be told, I do learn from many of you on Twitter. When I saw this poem, I thought it a modern love poem, about our inability to articulate boundaries or deal with the discomfort of being loved. I thought it was worth contrasting with a more stylized, traditional love poem. My notes follow.
John Wieners, "Plus Mine" & Robert Frost, "Meeting and Passing"
Nowadays, love poetry scares me. I'll encounter a magnificent work such as Frost's "Meeting and Passing" and be completely intimidated:
Meeting and Passing (from poets.org) Robert Frost As I went down the hill along the wall There was a gate I had leaned at for the view And had just turned from when I first saw you As you came up the hill. We met. But all We did that day was mingle great and small Footprints in summer dust as if we drew The figure of our being less than two But more than one as yet. Your parasol Pointed the decimal off with one deep thrust. And all the time we talked you seemed to see Something down there to smile at in the dust. (Oh, it was without prejudice to me!) Afterward I went past what you had passed Before we met, and you what I had passed.
Frost merely taking a walk sounds more purposeful than my entire life to this moment. He introduces himself by strolling down a hill he may have climbed earlier. —Right now, I'm too lazy to close any of these 15 browser tabs.— Then he leans on a gate for the view, surveying a landscape as if to relax after an accomplishment. —I assume, unlike me, he did more than than level Illusion to 100 in Skyrim.— When he says "We met," he declares a relationship with finality.
Frost owes a a tonal debt to Dante. Ascending to heaven in The Divine Comedy occurs by means of climbing the spiraling Mount Purgatory. The person with the parasol, smiling at "something down there," combines playfulness and gravity. Implicit is a figure like Beatrice, a sense of beatific love. The effect of this tone does more than cultivate attention for grand themes. At stake, as corny as it might sound, is a specific classical ideal, that of nobility.
I concede my academic skillset pushes me to see "the noble" everywhere. I know it as an idea about how to conduct one's life which we do not speak about despite its ubiquity. An example: plenty of rich people want to be known for public service, as they don't want to squander their family name. E.g. Mitt Romney's political career and Kim Kardashian's legal studies. However, this is only a beginning for understanding how it operates in our world. Nobility applies to more than political phenomena. It concerns what is thought higher, what is worth sacrificing for. Noble youth of one generation flocked to Socrates, and another generation saw in beauty and innocence signs of a cosmic order.
The precise nobility of "Meeting and Passing" resides in a combination of the big themes, e.g. love and related otherworldly callings, and a theme that is more relatable. "Afterward, I went past what you had passed / Before we met, and you what I had passed." These final lines make it, for all intents and purposes, a breakup poem. Frost sounds like he's dealing with a broken relationship well. He remembers what was delightful with fondness and moves on, without further comment on any other happenings.
My academic training, to be sure, isn't wholly useless. In my work, I list a number of moments where Socrates is at pains to explain to ambitious young men that nobility isn't real.
John Wieners' "Plus Mine" is more my style of love poem nowadays. How do we navigate the messiness of relationships with tools forged in the service of capital?
Plus Mine (h/t Tom Snarsky) John Wieners Just sit there. If you do the thing I will charge you for it. I have never subjected you to one thing
"Just sit there" got a cackle out of me, but it does speak to a dark reality. So many times as a kid I was subject to adults who did not want me around. "Just sit there" I couldn't take personally, as it was obvious they had all the social skills of an onion. Years have informed me that this was not an isolated experience of mine. If we are taught to value others by the standard of immediate, quantifiable utility, then there is no room for anyone who makes mistakes or the poor. No room for those with special needs, no room for the future themselves. The future becomes an endless source of panic, as no genuine source of investing in their development is conceivable.
I wonder about the 11 year old kid brought to the White House to mow the lawn while Trump yelled at him. Some will say it was just a joke, intentional or otherwise. I've seen enough of parenting in America to know better. "Just sit there"—don't bother me, unless you are exactly what I approve—I recognize anywhere. What happens later, when someone might, say, love you, and you're confused how to react? How to show appreciation or love back? I've known those who tell others to "Just sit there" their whole lives.
A warped recognition of boundaries accompanies this. "If you do the thing / I will charge you for it. I have / never subjected you to one thing". "I will charge you for it" especially echoes in my brain. It's a warning, a threat, and a lot of sputtering all at once. I want someone to back off; I'm terribly confused; I shout "I'll charge you!"
It's the only thing some know. "I have never subjected you to one thing." A lot of people believe freedom is leaving others alone and being left alone. They dismiss how complicated freedom actually is. That they could want what they don't themselves want, that they wouldn't want to hurt someone else offering so many possibilities. The depth and difficult reality of Aristotle's "talking animal" lies neglected, treated as mere verbiage, sitting there.