Through The Media of Space and Time

A Meditation on SURFACE TENSIONS, one year later.

The first year anniversary of the Surface Tensions release has come and gone, somehow. I have decided to celebrate with a stand-alone audio piece drawn from the 6th chapter and with this reflection. Since I am no longer in the practice of writing smoothly integrated essays, these thoughts are more scattered than I’d prefer. But they nevertheless reveal how my thinking has grown and morphed, so here they are. (This eventually becomes an addendum to the conclusion, so, if you haven’t read the book, stop early and come back later.)

 

1. Reading is a cool, intimate thing.

It has been a surprising year. The largest surprise has not been a wide swath of readers — they, quite frankly, have yet to appear — but the memoir’s particular readers. These are often readers I never expected to read the book, distant friends and even friends of friends. They, without warning, message me to relay personal stories of how much it has meant to them. Of how they literally laughed and cried, reifying the cliché. Of how Surface Tensions allowed them to confront their own pasts, to consider the angels with whom they, like Jacob, like me, have wrestled. Any Surface Tensions reader knows the degree to which it puts myself out there. But readers have not only appreciated my vulnerability; they have subsequently put themselves out to me, as if my openness unfurled and secured a safety net over which they could jump into my Facebook messages.

This is cool. It’s rather wild, too, the knowledge that someone has spent hours thinking alongside you, co-thinking their hyperspecific feelings with your hyperspecific feelings. In the book, I speak of everyday intimacy and distance as covalently bonded through media. In the case of a book, I have learned, these intimacies and distances increase by massive degrees. Readers’ emotional experiences looks so different from my own… and yet, by the end of the process, they are somehow closer to me, my life, my sensibility and my way of thinking, than many of my everyday friends.

2. I still like the book, but I want to nuance some of my final ideas.

Now to the real question at hand: does book holds up? That is a hard question to answer — and probably not a question for me to answer, ultimately. What I can say with some degree of confidence: I am impressed that the book holds so many squirrely strands together, wrapping them around each other in unusual knots. It manifests what I always appreciate from young artists: a sense of formal ambition, a slightly-mad grasping toward a medium’s possibilities. It is as beholden to the nonfiction it emulates (by Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, James Baldwin, and so on) as it is determined to break down genres. Surface Tensions is a book by a young author, sure. But youth has its benefits; one of the benefits and traps of youth is a penchant for risk taking. Surface Tensions still feels like a risky book, one year later. It still surprises and rewards.

Yet youth brings frustrations with it. One of these frustrations: a lack of definitive closure. Some of the book’s biggest fans have told me that they find themselves frustrated by its conclusion. But they recommend the book to all sorts of people anyway… so I suppose I owe them a reevaluation.

3. Let’s reevaluate the conclusion.

The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. It was inspired, one could probably guess, by one of my favorite works by young artists: Good Will Hunting. I believe that, not unlike that film, my conclusion sincerely sticks some emotional-spiritual landings, but without presenting a form of closure that would have disingenuously obscured the tenuous emotional threshold from which it was written. If people are frustrated by the conclusion, they are frustrated by my own lack of personal stability.

While I hate to disappoint, I must admit: one year later, the issues I write about in the conclusion have only expanded and complicated in my mind. I look upon the conclusion with admiration. I think it’s one of the best parts of the book. But I also know that more can be done with its ideas. I therefore come to neither praise nor bury the Conclusion, but to take it and run a little further.

I must also admit that I wrote the conclusion with a bit of a strategic agenda. I was tired of those who tried to perpetuate a fundamental, ontological difference between “digital” and “physical” existence. There was, and probably still is, a tendency among certain tech-turned-anti-tech people to fetishize “the physical” and to rip at “the digital.” I bracket these terms with quotation mark because this binary holds no water. Of course we are physically embodied while engaging with digital media, and of course our physical lives involve the same presences and absences that frustrate us so much in digital spheres. I therefore think that the conclusion’s central point is still significant: digital media’s presences and absences can accustom us to live within the various mixtures of presence and absence (or, perhaps more accurately, the varying degrees of presence; absence isn’t exactly a substance that mixes) in which we spend our everyday lives wading.

I was happy, when writing, to end on a fundamentally constructivist note. I realized, recently, that I have a natural affinity for thinkers like Walter Benjamin. I have a natural desire to take on the Adornos of the world, those cranks who believe that media irrefutably lessens experience. I long to argue that technical mediation, as a symptom of modernity, can be the means by which we accommodate ourselves to all of modern life. Technical media can be a sort of interactive training module for living in a fallen world, a world stripped of aura.

Despite the difficulties involved in truly grasping Benjamin’s definition of aura, my preferred interpretation is that Benjamin’s “aura” implies a (1) spatio-temporal connection by which (2) an individual is pulled into and absorbed by an object outside of herself. Benjamin saw this connection severed by modern media, and also saw this severance fruitfully interrogated by processes of technological reproducibility: the processes that created cinematic montage and the surrealist photograph. Could we not also experience a similarly fruitful interrogation through, say, the iPhone? I would like to think so.

But if youth is about discovering possibilities (the “sensibility of possibility”, perhaps, most identifies Surface Tensions as a youthful work) age seems to be more about finding possibilities within limits. This happens at micro levels––as a child I wanted to be an engineer before I realized how terrible I was at math––before it occurs by ever-greater degrees: at a certain point, you find ways to live as all of your long-time friends leave you to enter eternity, one-by-one.

If I think about the media-related discoveries I’ve had over the last couple years, they’ve been about discovering limits. And I’ve realized that a potential problem with a purely constructivist attitude is the denial of limits. Yet limits exist, and limits are worth talking about. In this regard, I think that my attitude has shifted less toward Adorno-like fatalistic crankiness than toward the mentality of Benjamin’s friend and similarly-minded colleague Siegfried Kracauer.

4. Here’s a Kracauer essay that fruitfully complicates my conclusion.

Weimar-era Kracauer wrote what has recently become one of my favorite, peculiarly theological (one could even say media-theological) pieces of cultural criticism. It is called, simply, “Travel and Dance.” At the beginning of the piece, Kracauer denies the notion that postwar passions for traveling and dancing are technologically or historically determined. (“It would be all too facile to attribute these spatio-temporal passions to the development of transportation or to grasp them in psychological terms as consequences of the postwar period.”) Instead, he claims that “travel and dance have taken on a theological significance.”

To briefly encapuslate Kracauer’s complex point: postwar travel and dance function as forms of physical compensation for modern individuals who lack metaphysical imagination. Travel and dance function as substitutes for the orientation of “the real person” who lives “a double existence”: situated in, on one hand, space and time, and, on the other hand, orienting himself toward infinity and eternity. “He is always simultaneously within space and at the threshold of supra-spatial endlessness, simultaneously within the flow of time and in the reflection of eternity; and this duality of his existence is simple, since his being is precisely the tension from out of the Here into the There.”

The desire to travel and dance is, therefore, the mechanized and mathematically circumscribed man’s utter physicalization of a fundamental tension between the physical and the metaphysical, the Here and There. Modern individuals cannot even think of the infinite and the eternal! “They… run into the wall of those categories and tumble back into the spatio-temporal arena. They want to experience the endless and are points in space; they want to experience a relationship with the eternal but are swallowed up by the flow of time.”

Therefore — and here’s Kracauer’s key point – modern individuals “are granted access to the Beyond only through a change in their position in space and time… They experience supra-spatial endlessness by traveling in an endless geographic space… they imagine that infinity itself is spreading out before them”. When they dance, they experience “a liberation from earthly woes… it seems to them as if the Beyond (for which they have no words) is already announcing itself within this life here.”

Modern activities create, in other words, ways for restless people to respond to – and to compensate for – their inability to access, much less imagine, infinity and eternity. Don’t contemporary technological practices do this to an even greater degree? With iPhones and computers, dreams that were once regulated to the heavenly realm — the breakdown of space-time in a way that creates immanence, intimacy, communion; the ability to be with all of our beloved friends and family at once — almost come true in everyday life. The dead come back to life in pictures and films. We can be with friends and family across the globe, all the time, at the touch of a button. As Kracauer puts it: “We have fallen for the ability to have all these spaces at our disposal; we are like conquistadors who have not yet had a quiet moment to reflect on the meaning of their acquisition… Technology has taken us by surprise, and the regions that it has opened up are still glaringly empty…”

The constructivist will say: fill up the spaces! “Knit your story into our story into our story, stitch by stitch, bit by bit, tap by tap, and vaguely form something worth fighting for.” (That’s me at the end of Surface Tensions, not Kracauer.) Of course the thoughtful constructivist will contemplate the difficulties involved in the act of knitting, the act of building. He will say: “We must contemplate the bane of falsified images, the dangers of distance, the weight of absence, just as master builders must contemplate the difficulties of gravity and the steady, natural weathering of inclement weather.” But he will ultimately conclude: “We must build. For we must congregate, and we must worship.”

I have realized, over the last couple years, that while qualification complicates my constructivist stance, it nevertheless treats the mentioned issues as complications rather than true limits. My analogy doesn’t quite hold, tbh: gravity allows for a building to exist in the first place; weather allows for bricks to dry and for air to circulate. Gravity and weather, while potentially challenging, are necessary conditions for the existence of buildings in the first place; they are not true limits to the act of building itself. They are to be worked with. But aren’t falsehood, distance, absence––albeit inevitable––often worked against via modern technological constructions? We attempt to eliminate falsehood through “authenticity,” to deny distance and absence through texts and pictures and videos. While we may be stuck with falsehoods, distances, and absences (there are lots of examples of this in Surface Tensions) we’re not fans of these elements in the way that a structural engineer is a fan of gravity or air circulation.

4. I’ve been learning to treat limits as limits.

I recently heard the novelist and essayist Tom McCarthy present an essay on the technological prosthetic. Every prosthesis, McCarthy claimed — stealing “the double logic of prosthesis” from the art critic Hal Foster — is both additive and subtractive. Every technological invention enhances and diminishes. Every technological prosthesis makes us more-than and less-than human.

This seems right — and it seems to me that if the very aspects we wish to abolish via technology (falsehood, distances, absences) are the inevitable results of mediation itself, then ever-greater degrees of technological mediation cannot obliterate our initial problem. (The previous sentence is confusing, I admit. Let’s try an analogy: if eating Doritos makes you hungrier, then ever-more Doritos cannot fill you up. But the Dorito-loving constructivist cannot properly acknowledge this problem.)

Kracauer ends “Travel and Dance” in a peculiar and provocative way. I like the ending because it seems equally progressive and limit-acknowledging; it denies the simple binary between progressive and conservative, constructivist and luddite. Kracauer is aware of this: he writes that his “uncertain, hesitant confirmation of the civilizing [and modernizing] impulse is more realistic than a radical cult of progress… But it is also more realistic than the condemnations by those who romantically flee the situation they have been assigned.”

Travel and dance, he writes in his final sentence, these “excesses of a theological sort… distortions of real being and conquests in the (in themselves unreal) media of space and time… may become filled with meaning once people extend themselves from the newly won regions of this life here to the infinite and to the eternal, which can never be contained in any life here.” What a strange sentence! Read it carefully. Kracauer is not saying that we should stop dancing and traveling, that we should turn from the newly won regions of space and time, that we should destroy our iPhones and computers. Instead, we should extend through and beyond these conquests[1] toward that which cannot be mastered by these technologies and practices.

We should acknowledge our limits in the spatio-temporal realm of the here and now and extend our minds and hearts beyond these limits. We must therefore treat these limits aslimits; the only way our conquest of space and time will have any meaning is if we think beyond the space and time we have conquered, toward a world that needs redemption, toward that “which can never be contained in any life here.” This notion of extension is fundamentally progressive — but it progresses beyond that which we can truly construct.

“The passionate swarming out into all dimensions also demands redemption,” Kracauer observes––and ever-greater degrees of spatio-temporal swarming (through 3D modeling, printing, VR headsets, any app, any prosthesis you can think of) will ever-increase this need for ultimate redemption.

5. Some practical examples from my personal life would be helpful here, right?

I realize that this seems pretty abstract, so let’s bring this down to earth a little bit. I end Surface Tensions in a Good Will Hunting-esque way: I gotta go see about a girl. I describe choosing the medium best suited for my quest: should I talk on the phone? Send a text? Write a letter? Visit in person? That was a slightly disingenuous flourish, I must admit, created for the sake of rhetorical argument. Of course I was going to fly to in Chicago. I knew that while writing. We couldn’t have that conversation over the phone. That had to happen in-person. Duh.

I do not regret that decision. (If I regret anything, it’s that I did not have that significant conversation earlier––a mistake due, perhaps, to some last remaining bits of insecurity from a time when I presumed that the romantic realm was not for me.) But, sometime later, without that particular conversation even on my mind, I determined that Long Distance Dating is a Bad Idea in most cases. Many of you will say: “well, duh!”––but come on guys, I’m admitting my naivety here, be nice to me. When writing Surface Tensions, my constructivist stance would not allow me to come to that conclusion, to acknowledge that limit.

I now believe that those crucial, chemistry-laden beginnings cannot occur through digital distance. This is partially because I have grown fond of Affect Theory; if, as thinkers like Teresa Brennan have argued with verve, so many of our social interactions are created through biochemical processes like unconscious olfaction, through invisible pheromones tossed through the air, then how can the most emotionally sensitive of interactions truly function through digital distance?

I have also determined, even more controversially, that it is only prudent to ask someone out on a date in-person. “What if that person needs some time to figure out how they feel?” friends have retorted in response. “What if a little distance could be beneficial in that regard?” That’s a decent point — but what better way to gauge an emotional predisposition than an in-person approach? It has allowed me to see one young woman pull her scarf up from her neck, around her mouth, in a peculiar mixture of embarrassment and giddy surprise. I have seen another answer with measured, straightforward interest. I have seen yet another’s entire body tense up as she laughed nervously and glanced around, calculating a possibility that didn’t seem like a possibility until suddenly, surprisingly, anxiously, it was. No data could give you this. No thumbs up or thumbs down could communicate these layers of delight, indecision, confusion, surprise or lack thereof. Refusing the digital allowed for the creation of communicative possibility.

Again, like Kracauer, I don’t think we should relinquish our conquest of time and space. I still text and tweet and Facebook message. But I do so in varying degrees. I have largely turned from mass communication to in-person communication. I try to not only contemplate, but to regularly steep in why these communications won’t satisfy, why they won’t fulfill the longings of my heart, why they need to be redeemed. The people I’m speaking to are not truly present in those texts messages. The intimacy I desire cannot be translated into zeros and ones. And I then push further: I not only long for in-person immanence, but want what can only exist in the infinity and the eternity that exists beyond this fallen world.

I am, regardless of the digital strands I weave into the world, regardless of the words I weave into sentences, fundamentally alone in myself, even estranged from myself. I have opportunities for interpersonal construction and I’m constantly faced with the limits of this construction. The germs of these thoughts are all over Surface Tensions, of course, but they have only magnified in my mind since the book was published.

4. The Limits of Self Discovery

I recently listened to an interview with Father James Martin for the radio show On Being.Near the end, Martin shared a prayer by the mystic Thomas Merton. It struck me. It sits on my desktop background. I have begun to memorize it. It begins like this:

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

And the fact that I think I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

Writing Surface Tensions was an experience of self-discovery. And, by God’s grace, I think I discovered a lot. Those discoveries, the narrative I weaved, still inform who I am, how I think about things. I have a much larger capacity for self-awareness now — too great sometimes, perhaps. Great enough to push me down a self-conscious tunnel into David Foster Wallace Land.

But it is now time to––without withdrawing from a life of interpersonal activity and technological engagement––acknowledge limits to self-knowledge. Limits to knowledge of my future. Limits of technological engagement. Limits of productive mediation. Limits of life in this spatio-temporal world.

This requires only a slight shift in attitude: from “I shall overcome” to “I shall live within.”

Vaguely form something worth fighting for, yes. But know how to fight and when to stop fighting, when to realize that presence and immanence and intimacy are gifts that no degree of technological progress can give. Extend yourself into the world through prosthesis after prosthesis, but keep that pesky double logic in mind — knowing that, as you make yourself more-than-human, you may also feel less human. And know how to accept the gifts of presence and absence, awaiting the immanence and the communion and the joy that rests beyond the realm of our imagination.

 

On Sunday, Pastor Dan, at my parents’ church, spoke of Peter’s response to the Transfiguration–“Moses, Elijah, AND Jesus are here?! Awesome! Let’s build some huts for you guys!”––and he spoke of our innate desire to build. He then recalled the time that King David, feeling a little sheepish and embarrassed, decided to construct a cedar house for the Ark of the Covenant, which sat lamely in a plain tent.

Dan quoted God’s response, as mediated by the Prophet Nathan, in the Message translation: “‘You’re going to build a ‘house’ for me to live in? Why, I haven’t lived in a ‘house’ from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now… Furthermore, God has this message for you: God himself will build you a house! When your life is complete and you’re buried with your ancestors, then I’ll raise up your child, your own flesh and blood, to succeed you, and I’ll firmly establish his rule. He will build a house to honor me, and I will guarantee his kingdom’s rule permanently. ”

It is a house that will extend beyond David, a house that will spread throughout space and time, for people he does not know and cannot imagine, for generations on end––into infinity and eternity.

When he hears this, David gets on his knees: “Who am I, my Master God, and what is my family, that you have brought me to this place in life?”

May this be our prayer.

May we adjust our eyes to apprehend a house that extends beyond our constructive powers.

May we pick up our iPhones, straighten our shaking legs, ready our sleeping feet.

May we rise, clasping hands, clasping each other tight.

And may we propel ourselves through space, stepping in time, toward the door of the infinite and the eternal that somehow, improbably, incredibly, awaits––open and beyond.

Posted in Blog, Essays

Release The Krake––Er, SURFACE TENSIONS!

not what is actually being released

*not what is actually being released

I am going to interrupt my “Surface Questions” series – which, by the way, could use some more questions, if you’re at all interested in receiving a free copy of Surface Tensions (read the gist in previous posts) – due to a surprise. Namely, at least some distributors (Amazon seems to be out of stock) are releasing Surface Tensions today. If you preordered the thing, it’s either at or on its way to your doorstep right now. I’ll still do the question draw on July 1st, but I’d like to switch gears on this Big Deal Day (BDD, for short).

I’m excited to release this book into the world. I’ve worked harder on Surface Tensions than anything else. I’ve devoted my heart, soul, mind, strength, anxiety, frustration, perfectionisty issues, all that stuff to it. I’ve spent many hours on individual sentences. I’ve edited and edited. I’ve by turns delighted and despaired over it. For an entire summer, it took over my heart and mind like a crazy intractable virus. All of that led to today and to the upcoming months.

I recently listened to Louis C.K. talk about the process of working on his most recent show, Horace and Pete; I’ve heard him breathlessly ramble on about it for a full 90 minutes on WTF. Listening to C.K., I felt an acute sense that, for one who hasn’t worked on a creative project of that sort of scale, effort, heart, and intensity, he must sound like a bit of a loon, maybe even a bit of a narcissist: self-obsessed through creative obsession. (This is why you can sense many creative people squirm when they’re asked about their own projects; they feel the tug of narcissism and shun it.) But I also understood C.K.’s bubbly, breathless intensity: it’s kind of crazy to work on a project of massive, life-changing proportions in secret for many months before sending it out into the world. It’s only sensible to want to ramble on about it. (This blog has been my form of rambling.)

Unfortunately, the press declared that C.K.’s project was a failure. I hope that doesn’t happen with Surface Tensions, but I also acutely understand that, even though I’ve put a lot of effort into the book, that doesn’t mean that it’s automatically great. I get this oh-too-well. I’ve felt the spectre of non-greatness loom throughout the entire creative process. When I started working on what became Surface Tensions, my goal was to simply write a book that wasn’t bad. There were days of badness. I felt them and I took them hard; I sent my editor frazzled emails, full of ideas for editing and further drafts and badness-fixing.

But something happened at some transformative point; I can’t even tell you when, exactly. It was probably less one point than a slow transformation over time. All I can say was that at some moment(s) in time, I stopped feeling bad and started feeling happy about the book. I  felt that Surface Tensions was the book that it needed to be: it took on its own life to the extent that major edits felt somehow disloyal, disfiguring, wrong. And then I felt peace. I’m sure it still has some issues, of course. But I feel in my gut that it reached a point – a  pivot point that perhaps a lot of art reaches? – when complaints and dislikes will have as much to do with personal preference as with the work itself. It’s what it needs to be, and that’s kind of beautiful.[1]

So I hope you dig it. I have a couple (helpful, I hope) reading tips:

  1. For the less academically-minded among you, certain passages might seem complicated or wordy. I encourage you to avoid feeling intimidated or annoyed. Don’t worry too much about that stuff; keep charging through. It all leads back to real life, I promise. Knowing every thinker and theorist and idea isn’t essential to digging the book as a whole; stuff is only there if it helps illuminate and bring us back to things that really matter to all of us.
  1. For the more academically-minded among you, parts of this book might seem weirdly, embarrassingly everyday. I encourage you to stick with it; I’m putting ideas to the test.
  1. For the non-religious, I encourage you to let down your guard a little. I’m not trying to manipulate or convert you by any means, believe me. I’m trying to engage my own life experience as honestly and openly as possible. You don’t have to buy into aspects of my experience at all. I don’t even want that from you! All I want is intellectual and emotional integrity from both of us.
  1. For the religious, I encourage you to let down your guard a little. I’m not trying to demolish the Church with my critique, to get even with people from my past, to do anything brash or manipulative. I’m working through my stuff, clearly, but it’s my stuff and my stuff alone – I have no agenda,beyond the desire to write with loving, self-aware openness regarding my own life and the world in which we live.
  1. If I mention you in the book, even in a buried way, it is not the Ultimate Subtweet. Translation for non-Twitter users: it’s not a passive aggressive way to get back or lash out due to something you did. Like Mary Karr, I only write about people I love. I’ll say it again: I only write about people I love. I wouldn’t take the time to think about you, to even wrestle with your impact on my life, if you didn’t fill a significant, meaningful spot in my heart.

Finally, if you like the book, please tell your friends about it. Please share it. I’m not doing this to make money; I don’t have to worry about finances, fortunately. I merely believe in my heart of hearts that this book can help us bond together in loving unity, that it can help us use media to pull ourselves out of ourselves for the sake of interrelationship. I believe that it can help us think about media in ways that will make the world a legitimately better place.

And I can only do this through you. I once believed, as you might, that publishing a book implies instant cultural credence and popularity, instant opportunity for fame and success. The truth is, there are a lot of books out there, a lot that aren’t good at all, and a lot that go out of print very quickly. My publisher is wonderful, but it doesn’t publish Malcolm Gladwell or Rick Warren: the sort of writers that gain major book tours and rocket themselves to the top of bestseller lists.

This book will only be as successful as you make it. If you read Surface Tensions and enjoy it, if it moves you, if it makes you laugh and think, please tell your friends. Please tweet about it. Please Instagram about it. Please Facebook about it. Use media to allow it to help us grow together in what Stanley Cavell calls the “whirl of organism.”

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

Happy reading!

 

[1] I don’t say “it is what it needs to be” as a way to defensively deny its issues, although there were definitely points in the process when I did that as a way to squirm and avoid important edits. There’s a district difference, I’ve found, between saying “don’t challenge the art, bro!” as a way to remain stubbornly ignorant of error, and to acknowledge a legitimate state of peace felt toward a work that’s been thoroughly tinkered with and challenged and worked through.

Posted in Blog, Writing

Surface Question 2: “Most Influential Author?” (Part 2)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, comment or email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 2: When writing this book was there any one author whose works influenced you the most? Also, what are the odds of a lolcat translation of your book being released?

I suppose I have one more short response to this question. There is another Zadie Smith essay in which she says, regarding novel writing:

“Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. I want to hear every member of the orchestra – I’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if my sentences are baggy, too baroque, I cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If I’m disappearing up my own aesthete’s arse, I’ll stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say, and pick up Dostoyevsky, the patron saint of substance over style; a reminder to us all that good writing is more than elegant sentences. The only rule is quality.”

I’m not quite so methodical. But, while writing Surface Tensions, I subscribed to the swimming-in-sensibility routine. I spent half of my average workday reading, not writing, filling my brain with other people’s words and other people’s thoughts. I read Gary Shteyngart and Leslie Jameson and Emily Nussbaum and Phillip Larkin and Lauren Winner and David Foster Wallace. (I even took a class on Infinite Jest at the very end of my undergrad career just so I could swim in Wallace’s massive, churning, crazy great hot tub of a novel right before writing my own book.) I would occasionally pluck particular elements from a particular writer’s sensibility for a particular purpose: an equally silly and useful dash-made neologism straight outta Wallace over here, a bit of Joan Didion’s sentence structure for a descriptive segment on the California desert over there. But more often than not, I would indiscriminately swim in these great writers’ great prose and let it all soak in and sporadically spurt back out when needed. You can probably find bits and pieces of these writers all over my work, if you search hard enough.

And, of course, the great thing about writing a memoir-meets-essay is that I could quote directly from the articles and essays and books I was reading, thinking about, working through. My summer writing diet is imprinted into the book itself.

So although “Generation Why?” quite clearly made a difference on my way of thinking, there wasn’t really one author that made a bigger influence on my writing than others. I tried to inhale the whole chorus and exhale it through my own sensibility – creating, I hope, something inspired by others and unique in its own right.

 

Posted in Blog, Writing Tagged , , , , , ,

Surface Question 2: “Most Influential Author?” (Part 1)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, comment or email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 2: When writing this book was there any one author whose works influenced you the most? Also, what are the odds of a lolcat translation of your book being released?

book catI’ll tackle the second question first: The lolcat translation is being polished as we speak. The finest translators in the land are squinting through their monocles, smoking their corn cob pipes, and scrupulously parsing page after page of fine-grained papyrus. It’s long, thankless labor, but somebody has to do it.

Now to the first question: the short answer is “no,” but that’s too easy. I suppose that the author who
really inspired this whole shebang, the first to make me want to write about technology and media and selfhood in the first place, was Zadie Smith. I was a second-semester freshman when I read her essay “Generation Why?” in a large, silent Bobst Library reading room, for my Intro to Fiction and Poetry class. I credit this piece with single-handedly turning my attention from criticism to essay. It begins as a review of The Social Network – and it’s a damn fine review, I must add: Smith describes how “muscles seem outlined by a fine pen” and how “water splashes up in individual droplets as if painted by Caravaggio” – before morphing into a broader critique of Facebook, what it’s doing to selfhood, what it’s doing to my generation. What starts as the critique of a specific film blossoms into full-blown cultural critique, grounded in philosophy and literature. But its not just transformation that makes the essay work: ideas weave their way throughout the entire piece like musical motifs. I thought it was magnificent. It is magnificent.

But I instantly knew that it wasn’t sufficient. It introduced the provocative and definitely-true idea that the technological systems we live within form our sense of what a self can be, what a self should be, and therefore shape and even denude ourselves in critical ways. But, as I wrote in my final essay for that writing class in early 2012, “more often than ever before, I see people trying to break through Facebook’s interface in order to start meaningful, nuanced, and thought-provoking discussions… More often than ever, I see people using Facebook to link to interfaces where being ‘liked’ isn’t the epitome of online existence.” I brought up a point that I heard Alissa Wilkinson – who ended up writing the foreword for Surface Tensions – make about idols and icons. I paraphrased:

Idols are mere commodities, things that have no influence beyond their own existence. Icons are things that point to something beyond themselves, things that link to things beyond their own hollow existence. In Wilkinson’s argument, Facebook can be an icon. It serves the function of linking. It links to literal Internet links, it links to actual friendships, and it links to actual forums designed to destroy the idol of merely being liked for simplistic, 2-dimentional reasons…

…People can choose to use Facebook to link to substance and make connections that actually matter. The possibility for devolution and mindlessness will always be available, but society can always have the potential to­­ – like Zadie Smith – see the shallowness of these sort of “connections” and consciously choose to transcend Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms. Online, with cleverness and popular preferences, it is possible for me to be my own Final Club president; I can be readily liked. As the programmers in The Social Network suggest, there is an “algorithm” for that. But is that really the sort of person I want to choose to be? Can’t I choose to link to something greater? 

The prose looks only okay to me now, formally speaking. (I took a class with Zadie Smith a couple years later. She helped my writing improve significantly.) But this essay is definitely Surface Tensions 1.0. My basic argument (this isn’t a spoiler; I make this point in the Introduction) is all here: modern media can diminish myself, can “curve myself inward,” as Martin Luther would put it, but it can also form a bridge, an intervening substance, between myself and things beyond it, things that matter. The rest of Surface Tensions is a Memory Lab in which I test the contextual viability of this theory. It looks at occasions when meaningful linking did or didn’t occur in my life, though a variety of mediums. It brings this idea down to earth.

To be concluded tomorrow…

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Surface Question 1: Why Memoir? (Part 4)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 1: So I guess I’ll take the bait… I know that you’ve written about movies before, and I know that you’ve written articles, but what inspired you to write a memoir? Are there any particular memoirs that inspired you?

(Continued from Part 3) The cornerstone quote shows up halfway through The Situation and The Story, squeezed right between Gornick’s discussions of essay and memoir. It brings it all into focus.

She’s finishing a mediation on “Her and I” by Natalia Ginzburg. “‘Her and I’,” Gornick writes, “is an essay rather than a memoir because the writer is using her persona to explore a subject other than herself: in this case, marriage. If it had been a memoir, the focus would have been reversed. Ginzburg would have been using marriage precisely to explore – illuminate, define – herself. That would have been her intention. Her simple intension, I might add.”

As I read this paragraph on a Manhattan-bound R Train, my heart sunk a little. Ok. Got it. But then Gornick mentions a peculiar exception, one coincidentally – or not so coincidently – written by a pastor’s kid. An exception by a pastor’s kid wrestling with his past, with his church experience, with an unfair and upended world:

“A perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir is James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son,’ a piece in which the writer takes a deep breath, inhaling the experience of himself in the world, then expels it through a viewpoint of such complex intentionality that the intersection between the self and the world becomes one of nearly perfect equality: neither being served at the expense of the other so that at one and the same time a subject is explored and self-definition is pursued.”

This hit me like a bolt of lightning. I knew “Notes of A Native Son” pretty well, and I knew that it would take the ego of king to presume that I could write anything nearly as spectacular. But I nevertheless realized, on that R train, that this was the sort of text I needed to write: a deep intake of my self-experience in the world and an exhalation so intentional that the text could form a permeable membrane, a permeable medium, between meditations on my developing self and thoughts about the media-saturated world in which it developed.

It couldn’t be a text in which I merely used the media-saturated world for end of self-exploration. Nor could it be a text in which I used my self for the sake of illuminating the world. It needed to be a perfectly equal intersection: world and self, ideas and experiences, theories and lived realities needed to be so inseparably intertwined, so deeply interconnected, that one would leave the book with both a greater understanding of our mediated world and an intimate knowledge of my own coming-of-age story. These elements needed to be in constant conversation, mutually illuminating and benefiting each other as woven through my linguistic loom.  The book needed to be a bridge between memoir and essay.

I’ll let you decide whether I actually succeeded in this lofty ambition. I will say that it was a riskier one than I anticipated; I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. With any step out of equilibrium between self and world, the whole text threatens to unravel. If the seesaw leans too far in the direction of my self-development, at the expense of the media-saturated world, then it’s just a memoir with a lot of dopey philosophical theoretical essayistic digressions thrown in – wastes of space at the expense of the meat of the matter. If the seesaw leans too far in the direction of ideas about the world, then it can hardly count as a memoir. It becomes either an essay or a textbook with a number of weirdly personal anecdotes wasting space. I now understand why essay and memoir are kept separate so often: the sort of “complex intentionality” that Gornick speaks of is damn hard to muster.

Yet I’ve been relieved by couple responses. I visited the Hendrickson Publishers office about a month ago to film promotional video material. The marketing coordinator asked if I’d describe a memorable story from the book. These stories exist, of course, but Carl and I sat for some time, trying to think of a good little story to extract from the fabric of the text, stumped. “The stories are just so utterly tied to the ideas and analysis and everything else,” Carl eventually said, “that it’s hard to just pull one out.”

I recently asked a beta-reader what she thought of a story that I had added pretty late in the the revision process. Did it add something significant? “Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine this book without every little piece included,” she said.

And then in her foreword, Alissa Wilkinson writes that Surface Tensions “works equally well as a small primer on media and a memoir of growing up in a thoroughly mediated age.” Works equally well. Phew.

This was a long answer to a fairly simple question, I know. But this was a far from simple book to write. Yet if you come out of it thinking and feeling in equal measure, if, while reading, you feel like you’re “having a long, deep, close conversation with a friend” – a conversation about my personal life and the media-saturated world in which we both live – then it was more than worth the effort.

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Surface Question 1: Why Memoir? (Part 3)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONSwhich will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 1: So I guess I’ll take the bait… I know that you’ve written about movies before, and I know that you’ve written articles, but what inspired you to write a memoir? Are there any particular memoirs that inspired you?

(Continued from Part 2.) Fast forward several months. My book proposal has been submitted and approved. I stare ahead at the 50,000-word mountain that I must summit in ninety days, if all goes well. (The final product ended up containing 60,000 words – something I would not have believed one year ago.) I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of beginning. Beginning is, I think just about any writer will tell you, the absolute worst. You feel the weight of absolute absence. I run all over Prospect Park for inspiration. I go to friends’ graduation parties to drink and stall. I tease out an essayistic meditation on Facebook. I stumble into The Strand and pick up the memoirist and essayist Vivian Gornick’s nonfiction writing guide, The Situation and The Story, for comfort and guidance.

It’s only so comforting. For Gornick, the very uniqueness of the memoir, compared to the essay, is its devotion to the process of self-development rather than interest in the world beyond the self. For Gornick, it’s a matter of priority: the situation (for me, growing up as a pastor’s kid during the technological boom of the 1990s and early 2000s) is the specific circumstance in which the story unfolds. But the story, “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer,” “is always self-definition,” and if a memoir is worth its salt, the story of self-definition must sit in the driver’s seat:

“From journalism to the essay to the memoir: the trip being taken by a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward… The question clearly being asked in an exemplary memoir is ‘Who am I?’ Who exactly is this ‘I’ upon whom turns the significance of this story-taken-directly-from-life? On that question the writer of memoir must deliver. Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.”

Reading this, I began to fear that by treating my memoir like an extended essay on media, I would pull the memoir away from its true formal calling. I began to fear that I would pull myself away from my role as a memoirist. Not to mention disappointing readers that would pick up my book expecting to be doused with emotional experiences and personal change-over-time. The concept of my memoir-to-be revolved around situation: the media-saturated situation in which we all live. But I began to wonder if the book’s engine really needed to be a story: my bildungsroman, my story of self-growth and self-becoming.

I came to this wondering reluctantly. I knew that if my bildungsroman were to be my train’s engine – rather than the muddy track on which it would roll but ultimately pass, full-steam ahead – my story couldn’t be trite. It would require me to self-examine harder than I had ever self-examined. I would have to wade into my most emotionally fraught experiences: to play in a sandbox mixed with shards of glass. It wouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t easy.

But I don’t wish to be all melodramatic. As Gornick describes it, decent memoirists’ “work records a steadily changing idea of the emergent self. But for each of them a flash of insight illuminating that idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organizing principle.” I was fortunate enough to discover, as I finished Chapter One, after I finally turned to the difficult job of charting my personal experience, a flash of insight similar to the one Gornick describes: an insight tied to a steadily changing idea of my emergent self.

You can find this right at the end of Chapter One. It’s sitting there in a late paragraph, a blueprint of everything to come. It’s the sort of realization that, if pulled out of the text after the fact, would seem to diminish the complexity of my experience. But as insight realized early into the text, it provided myself (and, as woven into the text, readers) with an organizing principle. Far from diminishing the complexity of my further writing, it gave me a preparatory sketch for the oil painting, an outline I could then fill with colors and chiaroscuro and all of the messy contradictions of life. This insight pulled out a developing self that I could track, that felt – despite its relative simplicity – authentic, or not unfairly distorted, at least. It gave the story a way forward. It provided an engine for the train that would glide upon situational elements. It provided what, I steadily grew to believe, would justify the reader’s investment in 50,000+ words: an honest excavation of my own selfhood, my own life, my own coming-of-age. My plan of attack changed significantly.

Well, I don’t wish to exaggerate here. What changed was not the direction I was walking, exactly, but a shift like a pivot from my heel to the ball of my foot: a crucial shift in my center of gravity, but a subtle one. It’s not like I trashed the meditative philosophical bits entirely. Far from that: I merely realized that they were only valuable insofar as they related to and illuminated my personal experiences. And much to my steadily increasing excitement, through many hours toiling in coffee shops, natural connecting tendrils began to form between the personal and the theoretical, the experiential and the philosophical, the everyday and the academic.

I was helped in this regard by one more Vivian Gornick bit, a quote that formed a central cornerstone for Surface Tensions.

To be concluded tomorrow…

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