A Man is Playing a Role

Ian Marcus Corbin writes in the Weekly Standard about the bizarre disjunction between how courteously his colleagues interact with those with different political or cultural views in real life and how nastily they attack them on social media. Some people are born with certain advantages, Corbin admits, and some people are unfairly treated based on how they look, dress or act. And yet…

It is possible to acknowledge all of this, however, and still be struck by the wild imbalance between our lived experience of one another and the verbal portrait of ourselves that we daily paint on social media. Perhaps I’m not treated like a ravening predator in my personal relationships because I’m “one of the good ones” in my identity category. Fine. Many chauvinistic group-ideologies are willing to make exceptions for exceptional individuals. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here; I don’t think that I get a special pass and all of the other white men in my acquaintances’ path are treated like monsters. Rather, for many of us, our public, impersonal lives contain a much higher percentage of status-seeking performance than our day-to-day interactions. We’re playing roles.

Last semester, I taught a class on television and culture (and again this upcoming semester). The sentence I bolded at the end of that quote strikes me as particularly relevant to that topic. One consequence of living so much of your life in front of a TV screen is that you start to believe that TV is reality and that your life is a shoddy illusion. Its in TV’s best interests to keep you watching, and the way to do that is to beat into your skull the fact that television is where life’s meaning truly lies. In his essay on TV, “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace describes it like this:

The modes of presentation that work best for TV—stuff like “action,” with shoot-outs and car wrecks, or the rapid-fire “collage” of commercials, news, and music videos, or the “hysteria” of prime-time soap and sitcom with broad gestures, high voices, too much laughter—are unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more… well, lively than contemporary life as Joe Briefcase knows and moves through it. This might seem benign until we consider that what average Joe Briefcase does more than almost anything else in contemporary life is watch television, an activity which anyone with an average brain can see does not make for a very dense and lively life. Since television must seek to compel attention by offering a dreamy promise of escape from daily life, and since stats confirm that so grossly much of ordinary U.S. life is watching TV, TV’s whispered promises must somehow undercut television-watching in theory (“Joe, Joe, there’s a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture”) while reinforcing television-watching in practice (“Joe, Joe, your best and only access to this world is TV”).

If anything has changed since Wallace wrote that essay, we’ve become more involved in these “modes of presentation.” Now, we don’t join in only in our minds, but in our actual lives. We are all living “presented” lives. We’re all playing roles.

A Man With Two Faces

Ah, January. Looking back and forward. One of those points in time when a man believes he can change. The past has no bearing on him now! It does feel like turning a corner, doesn’t it? Last year’s ugly road is out of sight and all the future’s open. Of course, we all find, soon enough, that we’re walking the same path as last year.

Rather than make resolutions, I like to set innumerable goals for myself and accomplish half of them. But goals are poor blog fodder. I’d much rather read about what someone has done than what they’d like to do. And since this blog is all about what I like, I’ll refrain from listing any goals here.

But a new year is still a good moment to step to one side and have a good look at time. So here are a few things that have occupied my online attention lately.

Alan Jacobs, Baylor professor, always provokes thought. His blog is here and he also posts on a micro.blog here.

Joshua Gibbs, high school teacher, posts regular articles about classical education and the pursuit of virtue on his blog at the Circe Institute site. I also have his book on my shelf, and you should, too. Josh’s bizarre, provocative status updates are one of the few things that make me sad to leave Facebook.

I have been tempted many times to bid Twitter sayonara, as well, but there are a couple people who still pass along interesting opinions and articles without dancing on the political fence every chance they get. Zack Stentz is one of those and Adam Roberts is another. The thing I appreciate about both of them is that they agree with me on almost nothing, ideologically, but are always thoughtful and willing to listen.

I’ve tried not to get sucked into the latest internet fad – newsletters – but despite my best efforts, I’m subscribed to a handful.

Micah Mattix has an almost-daily newsletter called Prufrock News, which I never have time to fully digest before the next one arrives in my inbox. He links to writing about literature and literary doings, along with the occasional political or cultural article. Almost every newsletter includes link to a photo and a poem and a brief summary of some new book that Micah is excited about.

Recomendo is a newsletter headed by Kevin Kelly, future-writer and co-founder of Wired. Every Sunday, he and two of his friends recommend two useful or interesting things apiece (for a total of six). I say things because their recommendations vary from books to websites to Youtube channels to scissors to keyboard shortcuts. Sometimes the reason for a recommendation makes me snicker, but every couple of weeks, they pass along something that makes me ask myself, “How did I not know about this?” (I have no idea why they spell the name of the newsletter with one M.)

I’ve been subscribed to Mark Athatakis‘s newsletter for a few months. It’s similar to Prufrock, with more commentary.

I signed up for Alan Jacobs‘s newsletter a few weeks ago. It’s mostly a recap of his latest blog posts, but since I’m addicted to all things Jacobs, I am subscribed. I’m having trouble finding the signup page online. When I do, you’ll be the first to know.

And, finally, just this morning, I signed up for a newsletter from a fella named James Wilson, who promises to send the very best freelance writing gigs to my inbox every Wednesday. We’ll see.

There are a few other people whose work I try to keep up with online as much as I can. I’ve let too many good blog posts slip by unnoticed. (It’s nothing personal, Michael Sacasas.) I’ll try to address that in the coming year. Oops! That sounds a lot like a goal or, worse, a resolution. Rewind, erase, etc. I may or may not address that in the coming year. What’s it to you?

Blessings on your 2019, friends and strangers.