Thursday, June 02, 2011

On Birds, Love, and the Technological Erotic

This Sunday, The New York Times published Jonathan Franzen's commencement address to Kenyon University. I don't know why this piece bothers me so much. Several friends have posted it to Facebook and, of course, I respect them, I think they're very smart, but this piece is so bad—infuriatingly bad—and I can't put my finger on why. I read it three times the day it was posted getting angrier each time.
Franzen opens by relating his one-sided love affair with his new Blackberry and how we describe much of new technology in terms of the erotic. Indeed, this is part of branding. Marketing seeks to inspire an emotional connection between us and the things we buy because the difference between competing products is so often vanishingly small. Consumer goods, as Franzen says, are "designed to be immensely likable."
He goes on to assert that the desire to be liked is ultimately pathetic and the reality of living lies in loving—something personal, real, and involving the risk of rejection. To go through life "liking" things in the distant and simulated way offered by Facebook is to never engage with the world and, thus, to never engage with the reality of yourself. He uses the example of how, in his youth, he liked the environment, but could not become passionate about it, could not rise to the level of trying to solve the problems facing it until he fell in love with birds. Only when he truly loved a part of the environment could he engage with the inseparable beauty and despair of the environment and the broader world.
All of which sounds good, at first, but I've given it more of a through-line and cohesion than he did. The note about marketing and its goals is absent from his speech. He puts the desire to be liked upon consumer goods themselves never speaking of the ad, the campaign, the concerted effort to induce an emotional response. Instead, he places the emotional, nay, erotic response to our technology in ourselves as though it's a natural response to what we use.
What is stunning about the speech is that it presents itself as a clarion call against the corrupting forces of narcissism while being unrelentingly narcissistic. He holds his own life up as the example of what love means and can do—he becomes the one we must emulate—and the best he can come up with is birds. What risk lies in loving birds? How can they reject you? I love my dog, am willing to suffer for her well-being, and will wreak a terrifying vengeance upon any who threaten her, but this is not poetic love, not a love that ennobles me or awakens me to the person I truly am—the very definition of love that Franzen presents in his speech. I treasure my dog, but I also bought her. While she is an essential part of my life, she's a lifestyle accessory.
If we're going to describe love as transformative and troubling, why not present an example of love that's truly harrowing? Why not turn to a great love from literature or popular culture or even from artists' personal lives? Why not cite Mary Allen driving herself to madness thinking she's in contact with her lover after his suicide in The Rooms of Heaven? Jo Ann Beard in "The Fourth State of Matter," imagining her "mother float[ing] past in a hospital gown, trailing tubes" after her friends and co-workers have been murdered by someone she thought she knew? The Mountain Goats' "Love, Love, Love" from The Sunset Tree, an album about Darnielle's step-father beating him near to death, again and again? If the majesty of love lies in its terribleness—both the terror of loss and rejection, and "terrible" in the sense of grandeur and scope—why is Franzen's example of love so small, so pathetic?
I have loved and losing those that I've loved rent me, tore from me the space I had unknowingly made for them, and while that is the kind of love Franzen talks about when he raises the issue of love, it is not the same as the love he feels for fucking birds!
Franzen consistently approaches an interesting, potentially unique idea and unfailingly steers it to the banal and cliché. Yes, there is something linguistically curious in our use of erotic terms when speaking of technology, a very real displacement of sexual energy previously utilized exclusively by the church and state—the perverse redirection of passion from your lover and family to your nation and god (thus the constant demonization/criminalization of the body and desire), but so what? What does it mean? Why does it matter? He asserts that technology seeks to be liked, not loved, so "the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn." Lovely thought, but how does it manifest in the speech? I'm sorry, but ads on TV do not demonstrate his point, neither does the Facebook Like button.
What he offers, ultimately, is that trying to be liked is "sort of lame, you know?"* Taking this piece seriously—and I have tried because of the esteem I have for the people who have posted it, because I assume I must be missing that kernel of worth buried in this self-important college-entry-level essay, because surely the problem lies in my lacking the key to unlock why this hasn't been posted to Reddit under the headline "Parody of Jonathan Franzen Posted to New York Times, No One Notices Difference." Here is what I saw when I read this speech:
My new Blackberry gave me a hard-on and, as I masturbated to my students' Facebook profiles, inevitably climaxed, experienced le petit mort, if I may, I realized that, despite its water-resistant and non-streak screen, this was not love. Love is something larger, something bigger than the self, bigger than a certain syndicated talk-show host, something that makes you discover the irreducible truth of yourself and expose that truth to the potential for rejection. That's why I love birds!
This is more than just bad writing, this is bad thinking, displayed and lionized for nothing, for, ironically, people to "Like" on Facebook so they can demonstrate to their friends that they themselves are profound and that they read important writers' important thoughts on important topics. Posted so that people will hopefully like them more. I think there was something in the Times about that this weekend.

*The hipster aesthetic of being cool by rejecting the cool and embracing the uncool which makes me cool suffuses the piece as well, but to try to document and criticize Franzen's self-important navel-gazing is to prompt a piece dramatically longer than this. Besides, someone already did.


Kelly said...

THIS is amazing. Why don't you start submitting op-ed pieces? You'd be fantastic!

Jonathan Gagas said...

Yes, Franzen's reasoning is awfully poor. It's possible to make the argument that too much immersion in social media and constant texting from a young age reduces many kids' inclinations to take emotional risks, but that's not the argument that Franzen makes. His is much more totalizing, without warrant. The article felt like it was missing self-consciousness of its own irony, i.e., 'I regard you, the audience, and myself, as so emotionally attenuated that the most Profound and Earnest Statement that I, Important Novelist, can make is... Become invested in a hobby that you care about.' The irony is similar to that of the recent Onion article, "Economists Gently Suggest American Manufacturing Maybe Start Again With Something Simple Like A Ball." Upon my first reading of Franzen's piece, I now realize, I inserted the irony for him by sheer force of habit and didn't realize that it wasn't present in the article itself. A more self-conscious and weighty alternative is Wallace's story, "Good Old Neon," in Oblivion. The narrator, a Romantic ironist seeking a way out of his cynical detachment loop, is constantly thrown back on the fact that every obvious way out --- i.e., 'getting back to nature' and reducing the damage that a first-world lifestyle does to the environment by some tokenistic measure (Franzen's panacea), or pop versions of extreme asceticism and extreme hedonism --- turns into a Lifestyle Choice, and thus dissolves, throwing the narrator back into the aforementioned cynical detachment loop. And then you find out that... Well, I'll let you read the story, if you haven't already. Franzen is forgetting his Sartre: If human beings can't help each other out of genuine fellow-feeling (phileo if not agape), if we can't look beyond our individual self-interests, then we might as well be ants, or termites. Charity is the least that we can do, rather than something that should send us into spasms of self-congratulation. In this regard, you are right that Franzen's ethics seem more like a return to Victorian values than anything that merits adding another 'post' to whatever period we are currently spinning our politico-ethical wheels in. Thanks for a thoughtful and tightly argued piece!