The Edge of the Real: Our Fragmented World

Big Hole Battefield 1

I have been arguing that in order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative discrimination, of the incomparably higher. Now we see that this sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story. But this is to state another basic condition of making sense of ourselves, that we grasp our lives in a narrative. This has been much discussed recently, and very insightfully. It has often been remarked that making sense of one's life as a story is also, like orientation to the good, not an optional extra; that our lives exist also in this space of questions, which only a coherent narrative can answer. In order to have a sense of who we are we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going.

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

Charles Taylor

We all exist in time. We know that yesterday we went to the market, and tomorrow, we'll visit with friends over dinner or spend our days at work. We look back in remembrance and forward in time with anticipation. We understand the cycle of time as a part of life.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes wrote a very long time ago,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
  a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
  a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
  a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
  a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
  a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
  a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

While we may acknowledge this to be true, we also desire for time to stand still. We desire stability and continuity, to keep the good and avoid the bad. This is a response to a world that is more fragmented than whole.

Look to the conditions of our external world. It is a world of change that is often disruptive, random and unwelcome. Yet, it is this very fragmented world that we ask to be consistent, stable and compatible enough to make us feel good about ourselves and provide a ground for a personal identity that can withstand the change we experience. This fragmentation is primarily between our inner selves and the world that is separate from us.

The challenge to be a whole and complete as a real person becomes more urgent as our world fragments into hyper-realities.  Of course, to see this, understand it, and live into it requires us  to understand how our inner and outer lives have become so fragmented, how the world is and is not a mirror of our inner state, and how we can establish a path to personal wholeness.

The Hyper-reality of the External World

The hyper-real social world that I describe in The Spectacle of the Real is a world of random experiences that are presented to us as daily events of significance intended to define who we are as people.

Look at your Twitter or Facebook feed, or, watch the news scroll across the bottom of the screen of your favorite news channel, and you'll see events, causes, ideas and personalities that are promoted as information that is important for us to engage. These status updates are not descriptions of all that is taking place, but rather a filtering of what is important and what is not. The selection of what is included and not included is commentary on the news, not the news itself.

ALL media content is mediated content, not raw data for our own critical mind to determine whether it is news or not.

The early promise of social media was as a more or less unfiltered reservoir of people and information to connect and engage.  Social media sites have evolved into clever, highly sophisticated advertising platforms, promoting not just products for sale, but perspectives and social philosophies intended to guide our understanding of the future and our place in it. The more they know about us through our social media postings, website selections and online purchases, the tighter and more closed the sources of information that are provided to us.

The hyper-reality of social media fragments the narrative sense of our lives, that Charles Taylor describes. For our lives to be understood as a continuous, unfolding story, we need to be able to see our life experience as a whole in two ways. First, as having continuity and connection over the entire length of our lives, and second, as being open to what is new, different and unpredictable.

Hyper-real contexts always place us on the outside of the screen, looking in at those who are doing the real living. We are meant to see a reality that is larger and more important than our own existence, filled with the fascinating people we must follow, and never, ever, involving us as direct participants in their lives. The result is that our inner lives take on a stunted, not flourishing life, disconnected from an outside world that can fully engage us

I have often heard people say in response to my daily change of my Facebook cover picture, how much they would like to go to the places that I have been. There is nothing unusual about those places. Many are within minutes of where I live. Or, the number of times the thought has crossed our minds about how much we would like to do what those crazy guys in a YouTube video did or say what they said. Social media sharing is a vicarious experience, not a direct one, as it is not quite as real as the one we create when we act upon some desire to go see a concert or hike to a beautiful mountain waterfall.

The reality is that the attraction of the screen is always random, momentary and intermitant, never whole or complete. Our lived lives, on the other hand can be filled with meaning, friendship and a real sense of accomplishment and contribution.

As Umberto Eco wrote in Travels in Hyperreality"the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake." This is the hyper-real, social media context in which we seek to understand who we are as persons. The more deeply engaged in this hyper-real world we become, the more disconnected we become from our inner selves.

The Numbed Self, or, The Hyper-Real Inner Life

Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 1960s, was one of the first to recognize the social impact of images on a screen. His most famous epigram is the medium is the message. In McLuhan's most important book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man there is a chapter entitled The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis. In this essay, he uses the Greek story of Narcissus as a way of seeing the effect that electronic technology has upon us a persons.

"The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions ...

... the wisdom of the Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with anything he regarded as himself. Obviously he would have had very different feelings about the image had he known it was an extension or repetition of himself. It is, perhaps, indicative of the bias of our intensely technological and, therefore, narcotic culture that we have long interpreted the Narcissus story to mean that he fell in love with himself, that he imagined the reflection to be Narcissus!"

Narcissus was unaware that the image was of him. His inner self-awareness was disconnected from the external reality of the pool. His sense of self or identity was broken.  His awareness of who he was had been severed from his awareness of the world beyond his perception. The wholeness of life was lost on him. He had no way to tell a complete or whole story of seeing his reflection in the water, because his perception of the image in the water and his self-perception were disconnected. He was a fragmented man captivated by a hyper-real image in the water.

McLuhan was one of the first media critics to see electrical technology as a tool for replacing our sense of identity with an artificial image. The computer screen, the iPad, the Smart Phone are objects which are now extensions of our identities, representing our inner selves in the outer world. This is why it is do difficult to let go of them. To let go is to lose our identity.  Whatever is on the screen is not who we are, but, rather, a substitute representation, a hyper-real presence.

Sherry Turkle two decades ago began to speak about how Life on the Screen provides us multiple identities. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other  she has similar insights as McLuhan's.

Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run.

... we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.

But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes. And with constant connection comes new anxieties of disconnection, ...

This is a fragmented relational world lived through the hyper-space of the screen.

At The Edge

Charles Taylor in his book, A Secular Age, draws a distinction between the self of the modern age and that of the premodern one. He speaks of the modern self as being "buffered" against the intrusion of the outside world, and the pre-modern self as being "porous" so as to allow what is in the outside world to take on meanings that intrude into our sense of who we are.

By definition for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the "mind"; or better put, the very notion that there is a clear boundary, allowing us to define an inner base area, grounded in which we can disengage from the rest, has no sense.

As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don't need to "get to me", to use the contemporary expression. That's the sense to my use of the term "buffered" here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.

... the porous self is vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear.

... the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but seen as an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.

As Taylor's description shows, the separation between our inner selves, or "minds"  and the world at large is much more complex than simply identifying either a connection or a detachment between our inner and outer worlds.

The point I wish to draw here is that the extremes of either a "buffered" or "porous" self are products of the fragmentation of the world in which we live. Wholeness is discovered, lived out, at the boundary between them, which I'm calling The Edge of the Real.

Two Questions

There are two questions that I wish to raise that I will pick up in part two of this essay.

1. Is the fragmentation between our inner selves and the outside world neutral, neither good nor bad, just the way things are, and therefore, just something to adjust and adapt to each day?

I am asking whether what I have said thus far has any merit. Am I just creating an issue where this is none?

I ask this because Taylor in his A Secular Age clearly shows that there are benefits to living a bounded, buffered life, creating a safe space between my inner self and the outer world.

2. If this fragmentation is unhealthy, then what does it mean to be a whole person, and how does one bridge, cross over, heal the gap between our inner lives and the outer world?

I ask this question because of what I observe in people who are broken and people who are whole. I see a pattern or a collection of patterns that point to how the boundary between the world of our minds can engage in the world apart can become a place where life is made whole.

The Edge of the Real is a place of discovery. In part two, I'll explore what I see as the source of wholeness, and part three how to create wholeness in our lives and work.


Hope that is Real

JamesStockdalePOW 

Over twenty five years ago, I first encountered the writings of Admiral James Stockdale (second from left in above picture). They were writings about philosophy and life as a prisoner of war.

Stockdale was the highest ranking US officer imprisoned by the North Vietnamese. His story is one of strength and resilience in the face of torture. His attitude and behavior, during the eight years that he was in the Hanoi Hilton prison, provided the leadership that made it possible for other POWs to survive the ordeal.

Jim Collins did the world a favor by bringing Admiral Stockdale's story to a wider audience. In his book, Good To Great, Collins presents the leadership principle, The Stockdale Paradox.

The Stockdale Paradox is two practices, that when joined together, provide a strength of character that is hard to match. Collins describes it as the capacity to,

"Retain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND AT THE SAME TIME have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

This is a way that people can maintain a clear connection to reality, even in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances.

Loss of Hope

Hope and optimism have always been part of the public face of leadership. Yet,  I know many people in positions of leadership who are filled with doubt, disillusionment and lacking in hope for the future.

One of the reasons is the effect that living in a world of images and hyperreality has upon us. I call it, The Spectacle of the Real. In this culture, our sense of self, our self-perception and awareness, is established by our outward appearance. This is more than whether we are young, handsome and pretty. It is seen in the products we buy, the causes we join, the celebrity figures we follow and the way we spend our off-time.

A friend recently recommended to me a book by a popular business consultant. He did so because he felt that the author and I where addressing leadership issues in the contemporary world in very similar ways. I will not name her or her book out of respect for her past work that I have found innovative and useful. This book is a personal cri de coeur. It crosses a boundary of expression that is not simply an author demonstrating her change of mind, but rather raises questions about the perspective that she has presented for the past two decades. She reveals her own loss of faith in the ability of people to change the world. Is this a way of grabbing her audience's attention, or is she really a person who has lost hope?

My reading of the book left me with the uneasy feeling that her loss of hope has led her, not to self-reflection, but to blaming the public for not recognizing the genius of her ideas.

Here's how she frames her loss of hope.

Many of us – certainly I’d describe myself in these terms – were anxiously engaged in “the ceremony of innocence.” We didn’t think we were innocents, but we were. We thought we could change the world. We even believed that, with sufficient will and passion, we could “create a world,” one that embodied our aspirations for justice, equality, opportunity, peace ... This vision, this hope, this possibility motivated me for most of my life. It still occasionally seduces me into contemplating what might be the next project, the next collaboration, the next big idea that could turn this world around. But I’m learning to resist the temptation.

This is not a book that contemplates what we might do next, what we’ve learned from all our efforts, where we might put our energy and experience in order to create positive change. I no longer believe that we can save the world.  Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion that cannot be stopped. We’re on a disastrous course with each other and with the planet. We’ve lost track of our best human qualities and forgotten the real source of satisfaction, meaning and joy. ...

But now, for many reasons, hope is hard to find and the good people who have created successful projects and built effective non-government organizations (NGOs) are exhausted and demoralized. They keep doing their work, but it’s now a constant struggle.  They struggle for funds, they struggle with inept, corrupt bureaucracy, they struggle with the loss of community and the rise of self-interest, they struggle with the indifference of the newly affluent. The dream of a new nation of possibility, equality, and justice has fallen victim to the self-serving behaviors of those with power.

Yet I have not set out to write a book that increases our despair. Quite the contrary. My intention is that we do our work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, even as we understand that it won’t turn the world around. Our work is essential; we just have to hold it differently. ...

How do we find this deep confidence that, independent of results, our work is the right work for us to be doing? How do we give up needing hope to be our primary motivator? How do we replace hope of creating change with confidence that we’re doing the right work?

Hope is such a dangerous source of motivation. It’s an ambush, because what lies in wait is hope’s ever-present companion, fear: the fear of failing, the despair of disappointment, the bitterness and exhaustion that can overtake us when our best, most promising efforts are rebuked, undone, ignored, destroyed. As someone commented, “Expectation is pre-meditated disappointment.”

The author, with respect to her, is a victim of The Spectacle of the Real. She considers herself one of the experts who has the answers for solving the world's problems. She is so confident about the work she and her colleagues have been engaged in, that she cannot imagine, how on earth the world has not embraced the relevancy of their message. Her loss of hope is essentially a loss of faith in herself. She is a victim of her own celebrity and the followers who tell leaders just how important they are.  There is more that I could say in critique about her book, but that is not, ultimately the point of this post.

The Stockdale Paradox

To stay connected to reality, and remain hopeful about the future, requires resilience and circumspection.  Hope must be held within the context of the way the world actually is. Not the way we'd wish it would be.  In other words, if we can embrace reality and maintain hope, then we are more than likely to find a way to achieve our life and work goals that we would otherwise abandon.

In his book Good To Great, Jim Collins describes his first encounter with Admiral Stockdale as they walked across the campus of Stanford University.

"I never lost faith in the end of the story ... I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade."

Collins, after few minutes of reflection asked,

"Who didn't make it out?"

"Oh, that's easy," he said. "The optimists."

"The optimists? I don't understand," I said, now completely confused, given what he's said a hundred meters earlier.

"The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart."

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, "This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists, "We're not getting out by Christmas, deal with it."

Reading Stockdale's account of his imprisonment, In Love and War: The story of a family's ordeal and sacrifice during the Vietnam years (co-written with his wife, Sybil, a national leader of POW wives, who brought public attention to the plight of POWs and their families), provides the backstory that illustrates the principles he described to Jim Collins.

I want to use the Stockdale story as a mirror to reveal that the unnamed author of lost hope is one of Stockdale's optimists. She lives with the resignation that " I no longer believe that we can save the world."   Her statement is not a judgment about the world, but, in truth, about herself. She believed, naively, in my estimation, that the power of her ideas, and her approach to leading are self-evidently the way the world must go. All we must do is follow her lead. Her disillusionment came in seeing that "Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion that cannot be stopped."

Sadly, and most importantly, she does not believe that she and her colleagues will prevail in the end. Instead, "that we do our work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, even as we understand that it won’t turn the world around. Our work is essential; we just have to hold it differently."

This is an odd denial of reality and loss of vision for how we can adapt to the realities of the world as it exists. On the one hand, she believes that the world cannot be saved. Yet on the other, she still believes that her work is essential. What is missing is reflection, circumspection, and positive self-criticism. She needs the capacity to look at her own reality, at the brutal facts of her situation, assess and recognize her own failings or limitations, and then to understand how to work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, to prevail in the end. Her problem is not her ideas for change, but a lack of grounding in reality.

The line between idealism and defeatism is thin.  What this unnamed author of lost hope needs is the inner strength of resilience to the face of obstacles that stand in the way of changing the world. Embedded within her philosophy is a deterministic perspective that sees the world as a system of emergent forces that are outside of our control. If she is correct, then her loss of hope makes sense, and we should join her. If, on the other hand, there is freedom to affect these impersonal forces, to foster change in the world that makes a difference, then her loss of hope is not grounded in reality, but in her own fear or loss of faith in herself. 

To embrace reality in this way requires a capacity for self-learning that is more than philosophical, but at the practical level of character development.

Hope in the Midst of Torture

NVA Rope Torture
North Vietnamese Rope Torture

In a speech that Stockdale gave following his return, he speaks about the US military's Code of Conduct that was the ground upon which POWs lived under torture.

"I am not aware that any POW was able, in the face of severe punishment and torture to adhere strictly to name, rank, and serial number, as the heroes always did in the old-fashioned war movies, but I saw a lot of Americans do better. I saw men scoff at the threats and return to torture ten and fifteen times. I saw men perform in ways no one would have ever thought to put in a movie, and because they did perform that way, we were able to establish communication, organization, a chain of command and an effective combat unit. ...

Unless you have been there, it is difficult to imagine the grievous insult to the spirit that comes from breaking under torture and saying something the torturer wants you to say. ... But I and many others were tortured in ropes ... The reason it was important to take torture ... was to establish the credibility of our defiance - for personal credibility ...

In short, what I am saying is that we communicated. Most of the time most of us knew what was happening to those Americans around us. POWs risked military interrogation, pain, and public humiliation to stay in touch with each other, to maintain group integrity, to retain combat effectiveness.

We built a successful military organization and in doing so created a counterculture. It was a society of intense loyalty - loyalty of men one to another ..."

To live in this kind of life situation requires circumspection paired with an indomitable commitment to prevail over the brutal facts. This is not egotism plus stubbornness. Rather, it is self-awareness and resilience.

In his memoir, following a torture session where he surprised his torturers with an outburst of anger, Stockdale writes, 

"Anyway, I'd committed myself to another course now. Live and learn, live and learn. The rules of this ball game would change as we went along. But for now I was spinning the web, and I like it better on this side of the fence. Time would tell."

This is the attitude of prevailing.

Hope in Hard Times

Many people I know have experienced hard times. They have lost their businesses to economic collapse. They have lost children to suicide or drug and alcohol abuse. They have seen their marriages end, or lose their spouses to cancer or other diseases. These people have every reason to have lost hope in the future. It is out of these relationships that I developed my Transitions in Life & Work program.

What I've learned from these friends and colleagues, as well as from my own experience of change, is that hope is not blind. Hoping against hope is not hope. It is the loss of hope.

Hope is visionary. It is something we can see, something we can imagine that is worth holding to, worth sacrificing for to gain a greater good in the future. In the case of Admiral Stockdale, he could see making it through, and going home. What does the unnamed author of lost hope see? Hard work and commitment without hope of success.

Hope that is Real.

Hope - to believe in a better future - in the midst of an embrace of reality - confronting the brutal facts - requires us to live in the real world. Real as in the opposite of fake. Umberto Eco wrote in his Travels in Hyperreality,

"... the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake. ... the frantic desire for the Almost Real arises only as a neurotic reaction to the vacuum of memories; the Absolute Fake is offspring of the unhappy awareness of a present without depth."

A present without depth is a future without hope. It is the loss of the past as a living reality, the loss of reality as a context for understanding and, the loss of an embodied presence that gives a clear sense of who we are.  The hyperreal present is one without a past, a future or hope.

Admiral Stockdale's POW war experience is analogous to our present culture of simulation and hyperreality. His captors created a fake world of isolation built around the false charge of criminality. The entire context of the prison was intended to break down the body in order to reach the mind and heart. Reach the mind with doubt. Reach the heart with lost hope. 

It was a game of propaganda. The intended audience for the fruits of torture was the American public who would view this artificial hyperreality through the screens of televised news and their morning newspapers. The aim of the North Vietnamese was to create a hyperreality where the POWs looked like they were healthy and well-cared for, and had come to see the rightness of the North Vietnamese Communist cause. In effect, the war on the minds of the POWs was also a war on the minds and hearts of Americans in their homes across the country.

The Spectacle of the Real is a similar form of propaganda. It's methods are not physical torture. Its aim is the same. Isolate the individual into a present that has no past, nor future. This is a culture of alienation and lost hope. The Spectacle of the Real is an emotional vacuum that creates a longing for the real that can only be met through the emotional attachment to consumer products, celebrity entertainers, politicians and, the 24/7 broadcast of opinions and adviced by authorized experts.  The is not an artificial reality, but a fake one, an unreal one that seeks to end individual thought and initiative.

One could describe this system of the spectacular in the words of the unnamed author of lost hope,

"Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion that cannot be stopped. We’re on a disastrous course with each other and with the planet. We’ve lost track of our best human qualities and forgotten the real source of satisfaction, meaning and joy."

Admiral Stockdale challenged a similar system in the Hanoi Hilton prison by creating a communication system that connected the POWs together. It was essential to their survival and their ability to resist the propaganda efforts of the North Vietnamese.

At one point during the POWs' resistance to be used for propaganda, Stockdale issued a general order not to volunteer for a bomb-debris cleanup in Hanoi. He writes in his memoir,

"... it was a trap - that for every prisoner, every shovel, there would be two cameramen snapping propaganda shots continually, and there we would be in the world press: 'American prisoners of war go to the aid of North Vietnamese patriots as Yank bombs rain on the city of Hanoi.' ... we made up another general order ... 'No repent; no repay; do not work in town.'"

The result of this defiance was that Stockdale was handcuffed in manacles, both feet and arms, and place outside in a open courtyard exposed to the South East Asian sun.  After three days, they came to take him to interrogation.  He writes,

"I sensed I was going over toward Heartbreak (an isolated section of the prison), and my anxiety was high enough, with the cuffs still at full ratchet, that I called out my name: 'Stockdale, heading for Heartbreak!' In the midst of the noon-hour quiet, I knew some prisoner would pick it up. Position reports become an obsession when you realize how close you are to permanent isolation or even death."

Hope that is real amounts to a belief in one's capacity for adaptation and resilience. In our culture of hyperreality, the loss of hope is the loss of belief that one can prevail. This loss at the inner core of lives requires us to create change in ourselves that builds character for face to face confrontation with reality.

Ultimately, what I've learned, and Admiral Stockdale's story confirms it, is that prevailing in the face of the brutal facts cannot be done alone. We need others in our lives who believe in us so that we may believe in ourselves.

The reason I did not name the unnamed author of loss hope so as not to isolate her any more emotionally than she already is. For to lose hope is to accept emotional isolation. 

Finally, how do we have hope that is real. Three suggestions.

Follow The Stockdale Paradox. Be absolutely convinced that you will prevail in the end, and at the same time, face up to and deal with the brutal facts of reality. The more you practice them, the greater confidence you have to stand on your own and be less subject to the hyperreality of modern day consumer and political propaganda.

Establish relationships where Admiral Stockdale's two principles live. We need people in our lives who believe in us. We need to believe in ourselves, but also in others as well. Where those relationships are strong, we can face the brutal facts of our world, with resilience and hope. These relationships require honesty, transperancy, integrity and mutual caring.

Learn to see how hyperreality is a fake reality. The whole point of this series of essays on Reclaiming the Real is to recover a belief that we can make a difference that matters.  It is so people like the unnamed author of lost hope, the men who shared prison life with Admiral Stockdale, and the people you and I live and work with everyday, may not lose hope, and find ways to live lives of meaning and impact.

May it be so for us all.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Map of Memory

ParkerHomesteadThreeForks

Parker Homestead near Three Forks, Montana

                                         

                                         Time past and time future

    Allow but a little consciousness.

                                    But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

                          The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

                              The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

                           Be remembered; involved with past and future,

          Only through time time is conquered.

Burnt Norton

Four Quartets

T.S. Eliot

Time is the nemesis of progress. Time is change. Yet, not all change is progress. Instead, change is the natural state of all things. Things grow and decline simultaneously. To see this reality requires perspective, the perspective of memory.

To remember is to see the past as integral to the present and instructive for the future. But memory is difficult in a time of images and spectacle.

William Faulkner wrote in his novel Light in August,

"Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders."

Our memories are a presence that lives in, some say haunts, time. History is not just collections of the facts of time, place, person and institution. History is memory. Representations of the reality of our lives: of our past successes and failures, of love, rejection, boredom and abandonment, of joy and suffering, of life and death. Memory is the record of life lived.

Living in a time where images and spectacle dominate and dissimulate, we distance ourselves from the reality of the past as it lives in the present. There is an unfortunate prejudice against the past as less progressive, modern, forward and complete. The result is the lost of a context for perspective for knowing who we are, and why our lives, and our world is as it is. In remembering, we reclaim time as the past is present for us.

Remembering in Context.

Anyone who has a shared past with others realizes that our perception of the past is highly individualized. It is personal. Listen to a group of friends who have shared a concert, and they each remember something unique to their own experience, even as they stood and clapped and cheered together. The richness of the experience is both shared and individual.

Our memory is a patchwork quilt of recollections that help us to see the past. We don't remember facts, but the connections that link what we call facts into a picture that helps us to remember the past as present. As that recollection lives, it changes, becomes clearer, and its value grows.

I don't remember every meal I've ever eaten. I do remember the ones where there was a significant human encounter with another person or persons. I remember Thanksgiving at my mother's parent's home; how the cousins ate in the foyer of the house; how we played football in the front yard, and roamed the woods surrounding the house. These moments in time remain with me, and form the bond that I have with my sisters and my cousins. Time remembered and cherished.

In The Spectacle of the Real, the past is not history as it happened last week or a century ago.  It is a platform for the sensationalization of the current moment. This past no longer represents the past, but rather a simulacrum, a replacement of what happened to serve the moment of attraction. The past becomes a Disney-like hyper-reality, pristine and sanitized for consumer consumption. 

In this way, our memories are valid only if they fit a narrative structure that is contrived and hidden. The spectacle nature of hyper-reality makes it difficult for the real of the past to live in the real of the present. There is no connection, no relation that allows for this blending of time past and time present to make sense.  As a result, memories, instead of serving us by connecting us to meaning, are treated as illusions.

Is it any wonder, then, why life in the modern world feels so disconnected and unstable. These are not just feelings, but recollections of our embodied memories telling us that something is awry, not quite right. We must listen to reclaim the real.

Our memories, therefore, are the ligaments and tendons of time that tie together the events of the past into a body of remembrance that gives us perspective and meaning. The more we remember, the better able we are to discern the real from the hyper-real, the true from the false, the good from the meaningless.

Memory in a Lockbox

Memory in modern thought has been treated as if it was a container for objects of remembrance. We retrieve the past as snippets of data that are contained in a book or an encyclopedia, sealed in a bank lockbox or in a computer harddrive to be shared on Twitter, Pinterest or Tumblr. David Farrell Krell describes this perspective.

"'Memory,' says John Locke, ' is as it were the Store-house of our Ideas.' ... Memory is a storehouse whose stores are nothing stored nowhere. ... Call it then a power to revive perceptions of 'Ideas' once perceived, along with the assurance that one has perceived them before; a power of the mind to paint its 'ideas' afresh on itself, though with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude? To what should memories approximate? Whence the assurance that one has perceived this or that before? Apparently memory is a storehouse?"

The Wikipedia entry on memory provides a similar description.

"In "Psychology", memory is the process by which information is encoded, stored, and retrieved. Encoding allows information that is from the outside world to reach our senses in the forms of chemical and physical stimuli."

I find this not only an inadequate perspective, but misleading about human experience. It suggests that memory is a fixed object of information that can be isolated from our experience. Maybe, in a laboratory, a memory can be isolated in such an pristine manner.

However, we don't live in research labs, but in the real world, where our memories, good or bad, live with us. We don't have the option, if we desire to live healthy lives, to isolate parts of our lives, like the past, our memories, as if they don't matter. We are whole beings, not mechanical thinking contraptions that can simply shut down one function so others may continue unhindered by remembrance.

Our memories function within our intellectual, emotional and spiritual selves. We are not separate from our memories. They live with us. We can choose to embrace them or deny their presence, and that is where the challenge of recovering the real in our lives exists.

Memory in Context

Our memory exists in a context of space and time, and in relation to the people who were present then, and who are present now.

I remember many events as a child. I remember being lost at the county fair, fearful of never seeing my parents again, and then standing at the gate, relieved to see them approach. I see and feel it as if it was yesterday.

I remember the days that I spent as a refugee worker during the summer spent in Pakistan in 1981. I remember how those eight weeks were a progression of days of travel, on foot, by jeep, van and plane, every day, to a new corner of the mountains of northern Pakistan, engaging new and different people every day. I remember those days as if they were one long epic story that occurred yesterday. The pictures that I took, the map that I carried, and the journal I wrote in that summer, all contribute to memories remaining vivid to this very day.

As a result, my memory of Pakistan, is not that which we see on the evening news. My memory is not the televised spectacle of the war on terror taking place on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, I see a country divided by terror, no different than ours. I see mothers and fathers, and their children suffering because of wars, both internal and external, that have been their constant experience for centuries.

Is memory just data, like a commodity, stored and retrieved at will? Or is our memory a context of living history that influences how we live, relate to others, and find direction in life?

This is the question that we must answer to find reality for our lives today.

The Map of Memory

A better analogy for our memories is that of the map, an interactive map of connections, personal, physical and cultural. There are points on the map, the "facts" of history, like a birthday date, the name of your 4th grade teacher or that song from your first junior high school dance. Our recollection moves between these kind of facts to create a landscape of memory that we remember as a story.  Tied together they create a landscape of recollection that places us back in the moment of time.

When I was five or six years old, I swiped a pack of gum from the drug store that my parents patronized. As we drove home, my father asked where I got the gum that I was chewing. I said at the store. He turned the car around, and took me back to the store, where I apologized, and my father paid the clerk. That early childhood moment, I remember vividly, the layout of the store, the moment in the car, the place on the route home when my petty theft was discovered. But the central memory of that moment in my childhood isn't the fact of my thievery, but rather the shame I felt.

In this sense, the map of memory cannot be just facts, but rather the connections between those facts. These connections are paths that link the parts of our experiences into a whole picture, like a map, which guides us through our memories. The more complete the map, the more complete our memories.

Our memory is part of the moral context of our lives. We access meaning and purpose for our lives through our embodied sensory experience.  To remember is to be ever present in that memory. With that memory, we remember what matters and why.

Where do those connections come from? Our memories are not created out of nothing. They don't originate with themselves. They are not like the false memories of the Spectacle. They are representative perceptions of the world that we experienced at the time, that remain with us as memories.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in Phenomenology of Perception,

"... in order to fill out perception, memories need to have been made possible by the physiognomic character of the data. Before any contribution by memory, what is seen must at the present moment so organize itself as to present a picture to me in which I can recognize my former experiences. ... ."

We are embodied persons, not memory containers, or mechanical thinking machines. Our memories are links to past perceptions that are recollected in the context of current ones. This linking creates a map of memory that is constantly being evaluated and reformed in the blink of an eye. Merleau-Ponty writes,

"No sooner is the recollection of memories made possible than it becomes superfluous, since the work it is being asked to do is already done."

Living memories, therefore, no longer live in the past, but in the present, and become part of the moment itself. This is the unfolding character of time and history. It is not linear, but whole, opening itself up to new "maps" or landscapes of understanding.

A Map of a Moment in Time

I see it in my minds eye. I see the precise moment, the place in my fifth-grade classroom, the angle of my head as I looked at the speaker on the wall, as the principal of my elementary school announced to us that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.

That memory is a map of a whole series of moments all linked together like a network of pathways that will forever remain with me.

I remember vividly what happened from that moment on Friday afternoon through Sunday morning in late November 1963. The Friday afternoon in the classroom. The Saturday I spent at my friend Steve's house where every channel on the television was about the assassination. The Sunday morning as our family watched coverage on the television, then seeing Lee Harvey Oswald being escorted out of the Dallas police station only to be shot dead by Jack Ruby. 

All those recollections of moments within that three day time frame serve as a map through those days. It is not the linear record of the clock, but rather a map of the landscape of time. Landscape as in a panorama of images and emotions all connected together to create a whole, embodied memory though my own personal, quite selective recollection. What is remembered is the connections that link the various parts of those days. This is how memory works. It is a landscape canvas that captures a moment in time that continues to live, past and present together.

Memory as a Living, Ever Present Story

History, in its simplest form, is a story in the context of a specific time and place.  It provides perspective for understanding how we got here, and, possibly, where we are going. The map of memory helps us decide today what is true or real within the culture of the spectacle because it reveals the embodied relationship we have to the past.This is what a well-told story does for us. Places us into a context of meaning that helps us to know ourselves within the larger scope of history.

History, as a living narrative, is accessed through memory and recollection. Seeing history as the facts of chronological time, retrieved as lists of dates, events and personalities is to fail to see that the meaning of the past has meaning for today.

This is why the novels of William Faulkner have had such a powerful influence upon people in the South. We are brought into a world of living memory that resonates as true and real, even though we live in a different time and place. Few of us alive today, lived in the culture of the Deep South in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Faulkner's stories are narrative histories of human imagination that place us in a time remembered that is as contemporary as it is historic.

Lee Anne Fennell describes Faulkner's literary world as,

"... a 'land haunted by memory' ... too little attention has been given to memory's overarching role in elucidating such distinctively Faulknerian elements as disordered time, preoccupation with the past, the influence of the dead, and, most importantly, determinism. It is memory ... that pulls pieces of the past into the present, resurrects the dead and remakes family history. ... Time collapses for Faulkner's people: the past is conflated with the present, the dead share narrative space with the living, and childhood traumas lie just beneath the skin of the present moment."

This is not the container view of memory, but rather a living context, a living presence, that is more spiritual than informational.

Faulkner's intentional disordering of time brings the past into the present as a living reality that is not just personal, but a shared experience of human community, at its best and worst.

French novelist Jean-Paul Sartre in his essay about about Faulkner's use of time in The Sound and The Fury, writes,

"In the classical novel, the action has a focus ... It would be futile to look for this kind of focus in The Sound and The Fury: is it Benjy's castration? Caddy's unfortunate love affair? Quentin's suicide? Jason's hatred for his niece? Each episode, once it has been grasped, invokes others - in fact, all the other episodes connected with it. Nothing happens, the story does not progress; rather, we discover it behind each word as an oppressive and hateful presence, varying in intensity with each situation. ...

It is man's misfortune to be confined in time. '... a man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you'd think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune. ...'  This is the true subject of the novel. And if the technique adopted by Faulkner seems at first to be a negation of time, that is because we confuse time with chronology. Dates and clocks were invented by man: ' ... constant speculation regarding the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial which is a symptom of mind-function. Excrement Father said like sweating. To reach real time, we must abandon these devices, which measure nothing: '... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.' Quenton's breaking his watch has, therefore, a symbolic value; it forces us to see time without the aid of clocks. The time of the idiot, Benjy, is also unmeasured by clocks, for he does not understand them." (emphasis in the original)

Faulkner's treatment of time, as Sartre describes, is quite similar to what I see as the map of memory. It is landscape of recollection that travels with us.

Faulkner is famously remembered for the quote from Requiem for a Nun, "The past is not dead. It is not even past."  I find this to be true. It is a living presence that fills in the gaps of perspective so we can better see the world as it is. This is not just an alternative to the Spectacle, but its opposite.

Mapping Our Memories

In order to regain our sense of the past as a living reality, we need to make one important shift in the way we perceive the world.

We need to see that the world is not a collection of parts, of time and history as simply a linear list of dates, names and events, and that our lives are lived in a meaningless succession of discrete moments in time. We need to see life as whole, as integral and complete when the linkages of time and space are recognized and recalled.

"The past is not dead. It is not even past."

To recognize this to be true requires us to be skeptical of all claims to authority by those who produce The Spectacle of the Real. They must earn their credibility and our trust by demonstrating a respect for the past as meaningful in itself for making sense of the present.

It is, therefore, not enough to simply understand that history is the map of memory. We must understand how to use the map of memory to reclaim the real that has been lost. I'll address this in my next post, The Lost Maps of Reality.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Platform of Desire, Part 4

The Platform of Hyper-reality

The world of social media is very far removed from our premodern ancestors' experience. Our experience is not one of a constant awareness of the physical danger of the natural world or of life on a farm. We live in a world mediated through sophisticated technology that, for many people, has removed them from any direct exposure to the world of nature.

We live in an immersive world of an always-on information feed directed at our sub-rational desires. And the worst of these onslaughts focus on our fears, not our ambitions.

As Marshall McLuhan wrote, “It is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”

Philosophers and social theorists call this hyper-reality. Italian author Umberto Eco writes that "the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake." French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation, writes,

"Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referrential being, or a substance. It is the generation of models of the a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal."

Albert Borgmann, in his insightful book, Holding Onto Reality, describes the transition to this hyperreal world through a description of how the place of information in human experience has changed. There are three different ways that information connects us to reality. There is ...

Information about reality - Our direct experience of the natural world.

Information for reality - Our experience of information as an interpreter or chronicler of reality.

Information as reality - Our experience where the medium is the message.

Here's one example of these three types of information.

Each of these forms of information can be seen in this video of the finale of Gustav Mahler's 2nd Symphony played by the Seoul (SK) Philharmonic Orchestra. (Don't skip this experience.)

 

The first type of information, about reality is seen in the singers and musicians actually playing the music. They are engaged in actually playing the music, not simply listening or observing it being played.Think of the experience of the choir and musicians, as the symphony reaches its peak of intensity during the last three minutes. This is a direct experience of the music as it was created to be experienced by the composer.

The second type of information is seen in the sheet music that the musicians are reading to follow the score. The lyrics of the score printed in the audience's program and projected on the overhead screen. This information enables the musicians to play together, and the audience to have a higher level of understanding of the meaning of thought behind the writing of the symphony.

The third type of information is our experience of watching and listening to this concert at another time, in another place, in a totally different and private context.  This third engagement is the platform of the hyper-real. The experience transcends the experience that Gustav Mahler envisioned when he wrote the work. Imagine listening to a recording on your IPod while standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon or in the middle of Cathedral du Notre Dame in Paris. The recording creates a transcendent experience, providing another layer of experience that provides a way of personally interpreting the meaning of the physical place where you are standing. 

It is a wholly different reality. This YouTube portion is only 9 minutes of a symphony that is almost an hour and a half long. This fragment of the symphony, while dynamic and moving, is not the whole experience the symphony was designed to provide. Mash this video with other video content, and the information of the original becomes farther and farther removed from the original.

This virtual reality transcends the original. It is now no longer a representation of an event that took place in a specific place, at particular time, with people who were the participants at that moment. It is now a video that serves a different purpose. It has become its own reality.

The Hyperreality of Social Media

Social media is a platform for hyper-experiences of this nature. It is a medium where we can create relationships and experiences that are reflective of experiences that would not have been possible a generation ago.

Platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, intentionally guide the interaction that people have through it. I am convinced that people are changed by them.

The question that this raises for me is whether the purpose of the platform and the purpose of their organizations are the same.

Does Facebook's need to monetize the platform (organizational purpose) become the driving force that over time changes the purpose of the platform? 

Is it a social platform or a sales platform? Can both co-exist?

Here are other questions.

How would the platform of Facebook develop if the question of monetization never needed to be asked?

What if Facebook was only about the personal and social development of people in relationships in a global society?

What if the now shareholders at Facebook never asked about share price and dividends?

I ask these questions to highlight the importance of understanding the effect that social media platforms have. As a platform for human interaction, they different than anything in the past. The speed, immediacy and hyper-reality of these platforms changes us. It elevates old virtues like patience and listening.

The Difference between the Platforms

There are host of online tools that serve the interests of business people world-wide. For example, there are meeting platforms, conference call platforms, shared writing platforms, and all that can be done visually on a global scale.

In my work, I use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, along with many of the Google doc features. I use Skype as my office phone.  I use Pay Pal, SurveyMonkey, Slideshare and Scribd. I blog on Typepad and Wordpress platforms. And I have a Ning site. Each one is different. None are complete in themselves. All require skills that must be developed in order to take advantage of their benefits. All take time to master.

I am immersed like so many in the multitude of platforms that exist in the social media universe. And I, like I suspect many others, are dissatisfied with what they offer. For this reason, many of these platforms will not last. I say this because I am convinced that they are designed based on a certain perception, even philosophy, of human nature.

I like Facebook because it keeps me in touch with lots of people. I like it better than Twitter.

Google seems to me to be the only one of these platforms that really understands what I want, but its approach is less than appealing.

Ultimately, the difference between the platforms is not their companies' problem, but mine. I have know what I want to do with them, and use them for that purpose. But like much in hyper-reality, the old reference points fade, and new ones emerge.

For example, where most people use Facebook to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues, and others use it as platform for promoting their business, I use it more like a blog, as a place to engage people with ideas. And I find Facebook better for this than Twitter, Linked-In or Google+.

So, the difference then, is not just between the platforms, but between the people who use them. This means that the platforms of social media are a dynamic environment for human interaction, where peoples' lives can be transformed.

The Frontier of Social Media

Where does the hyper-reality of social media take us?

Is it a suitable and sustainable platform for our human desires for personal meaning, healthy, happy relationships and to make a difference that matters?

Is its virtual, almost disembodied state bode well for the ability of organizations to create collaborative structures that are prepared to replace the failing organizations of the industrial era?

These are the kind of questions I'll be asking as we continue to move through this series.