In Defense of Facebook: an Inchoate Essay

Warning: I am sometimes accused of attempting to fuse irrelevant things. Here I do that for real, and my “cold fusion” does fail. With the result that this is not an elegant essay. But, nobody reads even elegant essays any more. Everybody wants stories, fiction. So in the manner of the lamb that required on the night of his execution to be made a sheep, here goes nothing.

Facebook. Yeah, it started out as College Hijinx at Harvard. But:

The pseudo-Authenticity of “oh I don’t use Facebook” is rooted in Plato’s hatred of writing. What I find is that people who can write coherently about their life outside of Facebook, inside Facebook, usually turn out to be more original and creative people.

Not always: however, the demotic view that coherent writing and literacy is inverse to Authentic red-blooded Life in the raw has always seemed to me to be in large measure, complete bullshit. For openers, any society in which it’s more Authentic to watch TV than read a book is doomed.

Let me be frank, brutally frank, as some guy named Frank might say. Writing a row of Zs in response to a thoughtful and grammatical post is like laughing at or being bored by a trained ballet dancer or opera coloratura.

And note that the ballet dancer or singer is modally female. Scientists studying ape behavior have discovered, contrary to traditional views, that apes use tools.

But in the paper article that’s the source of the online reference, we read that in some instances, they have found that “alpha” apes will go, well, ape, when females or subdominant members of the group use those tools…even though in many cases, it was the females and subdominant members who invented the tool!

It is true that Facebook was “invented” by a dude doing a dudey thing, which was to rate female hotness at that gorilla park we call Harvard. My experience at Princeton as adult supervision of dudey stunts in Princeton’s IT centers, however, was that dude software goes nowhere until the dudes (1) attract venture capital and (2) hire women and subdominant Beta males to do the hard things such as write decent computer code.

This is an old pattern in the computer industry. John von Neumann was great at visualising what computers might be. Grace Murray Hopper actually discovered the fact that to make a computer do anything useful, you must use software to help you create software (the computer language). She wrote the code, not von Neumann.

True to the ape pattern, von Neumann condemned these mere clerks and women for “wasting” the computer’s valuable time which in the late 1940s was considered to be a precious resource. This viewpoint was soon seen to be flawed owing to Moore’s Law, and as early as 1970, I discovered a primitive early computer with only 8K of RAM…whose time was mostly going to waste because of the absence of competent programming.

The dominant or alpha male view in most major cities of today, which have become behavioral sinks in late capitalism, is that “nothing means anything and every thing is futile”. This results in regression to orality and in writing becomes not so much the “troll” (which often manifests a remnant of creativity) as the bullying flame.

It is related to the schools’ mistrust of students using Facebook and the binary opposition between “Facebook” and “learning”. As an English teacher it amuses me that English teachers complain that “students don’t write” and ignore the fact that you sorta haveta write on Facebook and all other Internet sites.

The paradox is encountered when the Savage (who in Huxley escapes the alpha beta class system) enters the academy as an autodidact having mastered the text outside of normalized channels and is welcomed with garlands, pig roasts and dancing girls until a second countertheme (a dialectical antithesis) occurs in which the fulfillment of the goal of writing is seen to be a sort of spoiler. Richard Strauss’ Also Sprache symphonic fantasy (“2001”) surprised my friends who, having seen the film, rushed out to buy the LP.

They were disappointed in the countersubject, a nattering response to the Nietzchean assertion of the “2001 theme”: but Strauss, like Wagner and Mahler (or Mozart and Beethoven for that matter) wrote music that reflected the material conditions of music production.

Strauss discovered something that artists today don’t face: that of course you might have a really great idea and execute it flawlessly, and, the very perfection is offensive to the killer ape in us all, unless you are Chairman Mao, in which of course, everything you do is just great, until the mob turns against you.

I believe Strauss meant to disappoint his listener in a quiet revenge for the way they (and his unwilling, uncultivated, snobbish but semi-cultivated orchestra musicians) sniped at him. My fat pal Adorno seems to believe (it’s always hard to figure out what he believes) that the work of art flips the bird at all other works of art: since Strauss, what the late Edward Said calls “late style” incorporates the artist’s rage, not only at other works of art, but at the orchestra, the audience, the impresario, and everybody else except maybe the cleaning lady who listens, enthralled, outside the hall.

Glenn Gould, in 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, invites a chambermaid into his room, in his holy innocence given the usual reason for such an invite, and she listens, truly she does: click here to open the YouTube clip in another window. I was playing, on Youtube, his Sarabande at a Hong Kong school on break to chill my homeys and the cleaning lady, who spoke no English, asked me to write down the name of the recording for (her student translator said) she’d never heard anything like it.

I recommended a former professor for a lifetime achievement award. He didn’t get it because within the second tier of the (excellent) state system of Iowa, it was thought he published too much, and too much that was original. He was exploited and abused by Roosevelt University and Iowa State throughout his lifetime, and his own graduate students. He was mocked as a nerd and my SDS friends took one look at his white shirt and tie, and failed his course on Logic, and said he was a computer man, an automaton.

He was, however, the first competent teacher I’d had.

This dialectic, then, of authenticity, if that is what it is, has marked my life. For example, it’s a great excuse for the kids not to use Facebook to stay in contact because I use it to say the truth whereas my younger son admonished me that his friends use it to tell stories that please them. I’d discovered as early as 1981, when I abandoned him (while being financially responsible) that I needed some media to defer and to manage the explosive number of angry mental texts, call them “resentments”.

I found this in recovery groups and also in inexpensive Chinese notebooks. My life was “unmanageable” if I tried to do everything at once, and, even at a basic level of day to day existence, I needed to prioritize. When the Internet came along I found it useful merely for telling the truth.

The kids were my MySpace friends in 2006 but MySpace was a disaster, of course. I accept their decision re Facebook contact today, I suppose. However, from the standpoint of truth, I have to say that I believe that they do so because in my marriage, my unwillingness or inability to be a patriarch, and my desire to prolong my adolescence, caused my former wife to unwillingly adopt the role of p-m atriarch as is common in many families.

Which means, I believe, that it’s painful for the kids to have to deal with me today. It’s not what I say, it’s perhaps what I might say given the sometime randomness, the very creativity, of what I do say: perhaps, just perhaps, my sons feel like Edgar at the end of King Lear:

The waight of this sad time we must obey,
Speake what we feele, not what we ought to say

If they cannot feel filial piety then they must not express it…even as Cordelia at the beginning of the play cannot speak the words Lear wants to hear.

But I’m in China, where the expression of filial piety, in ritual ways (Confucius’ “rites”) are not so much mouthed without feeling as thought to be identical with the feeling.

My rowdiest students nonetheless, at the end of the class, bow and mouth their thanks. I like it and I bow back. Inauthentic? Yes. Honest. Also yes. It’s usually been a tough class and the Rites make it end in a dignified way, a memory of a Chinese heaven that never was outside of hope: doesn’t June-Mei’s mother, in Joy Luck Club, say “never expect! Only hope!”?.

I read about a Chinese guy who wore adult diapers and stood for 62 hours on a train during Chinese New Year to see his father, and this, in China, is a type of writing: calligraphy. The blogger Han Han thinks it’s shameful that China should be the sort of society where this happens: but to my knowledge, he has no practical solution to the problem created by (1) the need for migrant labour and (2) the fact that Chinese people don’t get discretionary time off and must take it on national holidays.

The children don’t want to mouth to me expressions of filial piety: they probably are pervaded by the idea of Authenticity since it’s sort of a given in the university community in which my work, all over the world, allowed them to live in. I want to tell them that I speak kindly to my own father and try at this late date to connect, and usually fail because of basic coldness on his part: he told me, and not so long ago, that his car mattered more to him that I did.

But, I cannot tell my sons to show filial piety. I don’t stand for 62 hours on a train to see my Dad and I don’t have enough money set aside to see him or attend his funeral. I hope to be able to solve that problem this month with extra work, but the coldness I get from family members may be based in their view that my blogging is too personal.

Cordelia’s Authenticity is strangely of a piece with the later awakening scene in which she speaks lovingly to her father despite the fact that Shakespeare has given Cordelia no obvious motivation and does not seem to want to say that she’s had a “change of heart”. She saw no reason to honor her father above her bond and was a Shylock in Act 1, but his mistreatment by her sisters, without causing a change of heart, quite normally activated her active, and voiced, compassion. In fact, we know it’s true, assuming of course we’ve stayed awake, because we remember that this gal is not at all prone to mouthing insincere words.

My own father is well taken care of because of his own financial prudence and my elder brother’s strong sense of responsibility. I merely helped my Dad, in a somewhat bumbling and completely embarassed, tongue tied way (because of our history) when he was ill and I was in the USA. But, I cannot ask my sons for filial piety, only quietly point out that while the “jargon of authenticity” condemns things like Father’s Day cards or emails, they are really great to get. Peter told me he was OK in the snow last winter and this made me happy for a surprisingly long time.

Words, words, words. My Mom actually told me to succeed at school because my Dad wanted something to brag about to the other doctors at work. Whether or not this was the right thing to say is indeterminate, but it sure did not motivate me. The Chinese way is a mutual flourishing in which the son’s success means joy for all.

The dialectic of the killer ape and the tool making ape might be a motor of history. The dialectic of authenticity is another: in Shakespeare, the fact that characters can never say they love without being actually in love: note that despite all the dirty dealing, you never have a plot in Shakespeare based on a young man pretending to love a woman in order to get her money, an 18th century theme. I apologize for not fusing these dialectics properly in this genuinely random post. Reconciliation of thought and with the children is far off. Next year in Jerusalem.

This essay started off as a defense of Facebook. FB is merely one more way of escaping “authenticity” in favor of “honesty”. Mark Zuckerberg might have been a twerp, but he’s given us a tool.

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