18 May 2006

I'm Finally Reading Walden

I downloaded a copy from www.gutenberg.org. Thoreau didn't live during a time when mobility was much of an option, but he's certainly interested in simplicity and perspective.

Some of my favorite quotes so far:

"When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turnout to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields ...

... Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me ...

... Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology! -- I know of no reading of another's experience so startling and informing as this would be ...

... I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do ...

... So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant."


When I went to visit my family this summer, I bought a book at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.

It's called, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live In It by Thomas de Zengotita.

It caught my eye because of my desire for seeing the real world instead of cocooning at home and watching the world through TV.

He says, "We are most free of mediation, we are most real, when we are at the disposal of accident and necessity." p. 14

It also caught my eye because he talks about the post-modern idea that we have all these 'options'. It's a nice contrast to Thoreau's time-period and concept.

De Zengotita says,
"But mediated people everywhere know that identity and lifestyle are constructs, something to have.

The objects and places and mannerisms that constitute our life-world are intentionally representational.

What cultures traditionally provided was taken-for-granted custom, a form of necessity -- hence of reality.

Options are profoundly, if subtly, different, and so are the people who live among and through them.

And this holds even if you never exercise those options, even if you cling to some tradition.

You know you could be different, and so, perhaps, you cling more desperately.

Fanaticisms flourish in an atmosphere of unlimited choice.

But most people are cool with it. At least in the blue states. And Europe.

The slang expression 'whatever' distills the essential situation into a single gesture.

It arose and caught on because it captures so precisely, yet so flexibly, the Janus-faced attitude we assume as we negotiate the field of options that so incessantly solicit our attention and allegiance.

On the one hand, it's a party, a feast, an array of possible experiences more fabulous than monarchs of the past could even dream of -- it's 'whatever,' as in yippee!, as in whatever you want, whatever you can imagine; you can eat whatever, see whatever, hear whatever, read whatever, even be whatever.

'No limits,' as the SUV and the Internet ads all promise.

On the other hand, an environment of representations yields an aura of surface -- as in 'surf.'

It is a world of effects.

This is another existential consequence of the fact that representations address us by design.

We are at the center of all the attention, but there is a thinness to things, a smoothness, a muffled quality -- it's all insulational, as if the deities of Dreamworks were laboring invisibly around us, touching up the canvas of reality with digital airbrushes.

Everything has the edgeless flowing feel of computer graphics, like the lobby of a high-end Marriott/Ramada/Sheraton -- the sculptured flower arrangements, that glowy, woody, marbly, purply, cushioned-air quality.

Every gadget aspires to that iPod look -- even automobiles.

The feel of the virtual is over-flowing the screens, as if the plasma were leaking into the physical world.

Whole neighborhoods feel like that now, even when you're standing in the street.

Especially 'historic neighborhoods.'

It's as if the famous ones -- like Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Quincy Market, parts of York and Canterbury -- have all been subjected to the renovating ministrations of the same giant company with one idea, the Red Brick, Gray Stone, and Iron Filigree Restoration Corporation.

And as for little towns and villages with some claim -- any claim -- on our attention, well, I wish I had the copyright for those signs, painted in Ralph Lauren green or blue with the gold trim and the gold inlay of Gothic script.

I mean, how did so many people in so many places decide to hang those out at the same time?

Was that Martha Stewart's fault too?

Even what's left of the wilderness can have this virtual feel (see chapter 6).

It's as if nature was succumbing to all the times it has been depicted in travel tales and adventure movies and nature shows, to all the times it has been toured and photographed and otherwise used -- not, in this case, for raw material, but to provide an experience.

Here's a measure of how far into the natural realm virtualization has penetrated -- one of my favorites, cross-indexed under Subtle.

At the little zoo in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, one building is given over to a sequence of exhibits that illustrate the concept of an ecological niche -- you know, flora and fauna from a rain forest, an Alpine meadow, a desert, a wetland, etc.

Very educational. Perfect place for bio students on a field trip.

And guess what the Prospect Park Zoo calls the building that houses this exhibit?

'The Hall of Animal Lifestyles.'

I just love that one. Options everywhere -- even animals have options.

And that's why, like so many expressions of mediation, the 'whatever' gesture is a dialectic.

As reality and representation fuse into a field of options, opposing tendencies arise like shadows.

Haunting the moment of 'I can experience whatever I want' is the moment of 'What difference does it make,' because this moment, the moment of the shrug, is essential to our mobility among the options.

We need mobility among the options because they are only representations.

And that means they are no more than they appear to be.

And so they are never enough.

And that's why more is on the way. Always.

That's why trailers are better than movies.

That's why you are always already ready for the next show, even before this one is over.

That's why, in the midst of a fabulous array of historically unprecedented and utterly mind-boggling stimuli -- whatever.

So mobility among the options in a virtualized environment gives to human freedom a new ironic character.

You are completely free to choose because it doesn't matter what you choose.

That's why you are so free.

Because it doesn't matter.

How cool is that?" pp.14-17
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