Sebastian Smee doesn’t feel like an algorithm. He feels more like a character in one of Chekhov’s short stories, or a quality of attention in a painting by Cézanne, or even, at moments of digital overload, like the electric hum that passes between the unhinged and sinister occupants of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s surreal post-internet art-films. As corporate entities vie for our attention and collapse human existence into data, Smee accesses his inner life via these works of art. Inner life is hard to pin down, though. It’s to do with meaning, Smee asserts. It is imaginative, quiet and particular. It’s not about production, though it can be creative. It’s an undervalued part of our identities right now, as we scramble to broadcast our “selves” out into the white noise of culture. Critically, Smee demonstrates that inner life can be framed as a space of refuge and even resistance in late capitalism.
I’m sceptical of claims to authenticity – intimations of a real you behind the stage-lit scrim – but Smee’s melancholy over neglected inner life suggests he thinks this realm is muscular, requiring discipline to strengthen rather than existing a priori in the manner of a Catholic soul. I can certainly get behind this and I suspect the higher-ups at Facebook and Twitter would too. They want us to work this muscle in a particular way. They are helping us to train. How long was Facebook in action before we started thinking in status updates? What impact does trimming our ideas and opinions to 140 characters have on their content and scope? Ruminating on art and literature seems like a sensible strategy to counter this training. But although developing our inner life seems unambiguously worthwhile, I don’t hold with Smee’s hope that it will protect us from corporate incursions into our privacy. Inner life is not hermetically sealed. It’s a catchment into which the flows of everyday life swirl and bubble. This produces a particularly heady mix at present, but hasn’t it always, at least to some extent?
If art communicates the richness of human experience, the diaries and notebooks of artists show lives simultaneously riddled with anxiety and superficiality, even before the internet. On a Friday morning in June 1938, before sitting down to work on The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote in his journal, “I had wanted to hear some music but the washing machine is going and I’ll have a fairly hard time. I would do it tonight but I must go to the dentist and my jaws will be battered. My whole nervous system is battered. Don’t know why. I hope I am not heading for a nervous breakdown.” The next day, he begins an entry with “My traffic fine was $2.50. Thought it might be twenty-five. But now to work.”
Susan Sontag, who helped us read the dangerous metaphors of the twentieth century, had other things on her mind too. In 1960, she realised how bad her posture was: “It’s not that my shoulders and back are round but that my head is thrust forward,” and four years later, a list of her faults includes a special note: “NB: My ostentatious appetite – real need – to eat exotic and ‘disgusting’ foods.”
Tennessee Williams, a playwright whose characters are often destroyed by a violent dissonance between their inner lives and the social structures they’re embedded in, kept obsessive notebooks full of tweet-worthy confessions. “I have a periodically painful tooth that worries me,” he wrote in 1936. “It is surprising that all of us don’t go mad in this world.”
For every hour Cézanne and Chekhov spent pondering nature and human interaction, and every hour we have been enriched in turn, there have been billions collectively whiled away in worry, distraction, ambition, pettiness, hypochondria, narcissism, lust over a maiden’s ankles, or coveting the neighbour’s goat. Is the internet making this worse? Certainly. The internet is sculpted in the image of present-day capitalism. Today, many of us have more time for leisure, but we feel more pressured to produce, consume and perfect. In the future, we may feel less pressured but will also likely have less time and energy, due to the realities of surviving in new climates, both political and environmental.
I was reminded, while reading Smee’s essay, of the Spike Jonze film Her, in which lonely, perpetually networked characters in a not-so-distant future convene and even fall in love with artificial intelligences. For protagonist Theodore (who works appropriating the emotional lives of others by writing their love letters), the emergence of Sam, his AI “girlfriend,” inspires him to relate to the world in profound new ways. In the end, though, the film reveals that human consciousness is too limited to access the infinite possibilities of existence, and Sam leaves to hang out with some more open-minded entities. Poor humans, we can only think one thought at a time, are limited in our communication by language, and are utterly unable to see beyond our selves. It is our tragedy and also our gift, as these limitations provide the conditions for art, and for love.
Writing about digital technologies tends to reproduce a ubiquitous contemporary conflict. We benefit from the internet, can see possibilities for further benefit, while also encountering negative effects. We are reluctant to unplug, even if this means disconnection from other, more meaningful aspects of life. Smee doesn’t want to be a snob proclaiming high and low forms of experience, yet he can’t help it and neither can we. We don’t want to be nostalgic, but we ache for the imagined simplicity of lost worlds. We don’t want to be alone, but we mourn the death of solitude. We grapple, we are conflicted, and then, sometimes mercifully, we are distracted.
Briohny Doyle is the author of The Island Will Sink and Adult Fantasy. She is a lecturer in writing and literature at Deakin University.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 73, Australia Fair.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY