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.


The Frontier is Within

IMG_0258A century ago Frederick Jackson Turner declared that the frontier was closed

A half century ago, President John F. Kennedy, challenged the nation to believe in the frontier of space as he focused attention on going to the Moon.

"No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space. ... We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

A hundred years from now, what will people have said the frontier that we crossed and settled was? As I reflect upon this, I don't think we really know.

The Frontier of the 20th Century

When Turner presented his frontier thesis, what he saw was the emergence of science and expansion of education as the frontier boundaries of the 20th century. What he could not have known was that the 20th century would also become a time world war and violence between nations, and by nations towards their citizens.

While our science advanced, our humanity retreated into barbarism.

Of course, human beings have always been blood-thirsty. But the 20th century marks a level of the sophistication in the practice of genocide, slavery, eugenics and war that is unprecedented.

This development was not so much a failure of science, for science as a culture was never in control of its own advancement. But rather a result of the social, political and economic philosophies of the modern age that emerged during the 18th. and 19th. centuries that gave a rational basis to the violence on such an enormous scale.

The humanistic philosophies of the Renaissance, which drew upon the ancient philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, and the ancient religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, gave way to the ideologies that diminished human beings into utilitarian means for industrial and cultural advancement.

As modern people, we celebrate individualism and freedom as the ultimate purpose of human society, and yet turn a deaf ear to the sufferings of people singled out for extinction by their governments. We are following a logical course of the ideologies that have dominated the last two hundred years of human history. What is the future of a planet where death on such a massive scale is hardly mentioned by presidential candidates. Is our only option to throw up our hands in defeat and let violence suck the life out of civilized societies?

I have wondered over the past decade or so why it is that so much of visual culture about the future has become so apocalyptic, and less hopeful. Compare E.T. the extraterrestrial (1982) , Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series from a generation ago to films and games like The Road (2009) , The Book of Eli (2010), the Resident Evil series and, most recently books, films and television series about zombies, vampires and alien invasion.

Does the shift from an optimism about the future, as expressed in President Kennedy's challenge, to a darker, apocalyptic one reveal our own deep insecurity about the future capabilities of technology?

Walker Percy's question from a generation ago still resonates deeply as a question that remains to be answered.

Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century?  Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making the world over for his own use?

Maybe, to paraphrase a biblical reference, through the advancement of technology, we have gained the world and lost our humanity.

The question of our time is, then, "For what purpose, and to what end does our technological advancement lead us?"

One Step Removed

I have thought a lot about frontiers over past decade, as my interest in the Lewis & Clark Expedition grew. I found in their story both the inspiration for venturing toward the frontier, and the cautionary lessons that can guide us.

I've concluded that we are one step removed from understanding what the frontier of the future is.

I know that there are all sorts of predictions about the future. I'm not talking about predicting the future. Predictions are largely taking current knowledge and extending its development into the future.

Instead, I'm talking about a frontier of the future of what is unknown and undiscovered.

This is a different mindset that requires a humble openness to the future, and a certain skepticism about what we already know and have achieved. In effect, we do what the best scientists and explorers have always done, look forward without prejudicial assumptions that bind discoveries into a preconceived understanding of the future.

The future is the horizon upon which we set our bearings, our aspirations and the validation of our values.

The difference between being an explorer rather than a futurist is that the futurist stands in the present looks towards the future, and the explorer, instead, leaves the present behind to embrace an unknown future. 

In the past, explorer's were individuals of vision who largely made their discoveries out of the public's eye. Today, we need more than individuals who are willing to venture into the unknown, we need a society that will. As the old saying goes, "the thinking that got us here is not the thinking that will get us out of here."

This first step in pioneering the future is to reorient our lives and world so that we see ourselves living on the frontier. For this is what I see, the end of what we've known for 500 years, and the beginning of a new epoch of discovery.  This reorientation is the frontier that is within each of us that must first be crossed before the larger horizon of the future can be identified.

The Next Frontier is Within

Explorers do not decide to go, and then walk out the door. They prepare.

The preparation that we need now is the frontier that is within each of us. The focus of preparation is simple. The execution is difficult.

We can begin with this question.

What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision?

This starting point leads us to the frontier within. The frontiers that we then must cross is intellectual, social and spiritual.

The intellectual frontier is to think for yourself, thinking with open observation, without prejudice, yet with skepticism toward your own conclusions. 

The social frontier is to make connections with people, establishing relationship of respect, trust, and mutual support and collaboration, so that shared discovery creates new communities of understanding for the future. 

The spiritual frontier is recognizing there is a reality beyond the material and beyond that which I can control, which is intelligible to those who embrace it with openness and a willingness to learn and adapt to its frame of understanding.

Once the frontier within has been embraced, then the next frontier will show itself.