Who knows what Frank O’Hara, the ubiquitous New York poet from the ’50s, would think of the Internet and blogs and media columns.
That our Information Age switches manmade places for electronic ones would probably distress him. One of his more famous quotes reads, “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” The man’s poems catalogued life as it happened around him. What would he think of Second Life and Match.com in place of bohemian cocktail parties? Google Reader instead of a corner newsstand? We’ve made real-life divestment so simple, we don’t even notice it (he’d note the passing of record store culture). I worry that it’s our culture’s hidden regret.
I should say I don’t think people hop on their iPhones thinking they’ll project their soul through so many satellites and towers. But I do think our Internet selves are starting to overshadow the real deals.
But Internet culture in 2008 may only be a synonym for a parallel situation in 1950s New York City. We will always find ways to depress and suppress ourselves (AOL chat rooms and/or martinis be damned). What O’Hara might note is how the Internet has become the avenue for staking out a piece of ourselves for the world to see. Facebook, MySpace, “World of Warcraft,” etc., ad nauseum. Leaving tracks on the Web is like leaving a paper trail of stray thoughts and desires through Lower Manhattan. The wider audience barely notes your brief passing. O’Hara dashed off poems while standing in line, waiting for lunch or huddling on the train. He tried to pour life itself into his typewriter.
In a review of the most recent collection of O’Hara’s poetry, Dan Chiasson wrote in this week’s New Yorker, “That primal cry ‘Here I am!’ is what every O’Hara poem implies – the long, art-starved past now behind him, the beauty of representation having replaced the stultifying air of actual life.”
There is a disconnect between the “Here I am!” bullhorn of the Internet and the Internet’s near-insurmountable anonymity. Every Michigan Daily article is uploaded to the Web each night, tagged with meta-data and catalogued for the archives. So are hundreds of thousands of pieces of journalism across the world. There are blog posts, online magazines, social networking sites, Craigslists and Wikipedias. Every single entry has a byline, a handle, a person behind it. But trying to project oneself – the actual living, breathing self – into this kind of world is just not possible. “Here I am!” is swallowed by the maelstrom.
The “stultifying air of actual life” is gladly brushed aside on the Internet. We transcribe ourselves to whatever platform we prefer. To use the obvious Facebook example, putting up a still from an obscure film as your profile picture with a quote referencing the film even more obscurely projects, however glibly, an image of yourself to friends and strangers alike. The gum you prefer, your perpetually tangled hair and the way your shoes sound when they hit wet pavement all fall to the wayside in favor of a pruned image. Your life is “represented,” not actualized.
And yet this action of incomplete “self-referencing” is a huge part of how we generate our culture, our encyclopedic entry in human history. Larger answers can be gleamed, not individual ones.
“When O’Hara includes, in his poems, urine and sequins, aspirins and Strega,” Chiasson wrote, “it’s not because he is addicted to reality – on the contrary, he is addicted to artistic transformation, and is distressed by the fact that bits of the world haven’t been subjected to mimesis, and preservation by it.”
We list the albums that matter to us, comment on the political blogs whose ideologies we hold dear, and the process isn’t really about ourselves. It’s about what moves us collectively, the sum of thousands of anonymous, one-on-one and me-against-the-world interactions. It’s about O’Hara’s “traffic halt”: “and even the traffic halt so thick is a way / for people to rub up against each other / and when their surgical appliances lock / they stay together / for the rest of the day (what a day).” Except we don’t do this face to face – at least, not as much as we used to.
But the Internet, our construct of 0s and 1s, somehow provides us comfort and intimacy. People do find love and happiness on J Date and Match.com and even Craigslist. More poignantly, PatientsLikeMe.com, headlined by the New York Times as a “MySpace for the afflicted,” is a community of patients suffering from common ailments. Hundreds with Alzheimers, Parkinsons, multiple sclerosis and AIDS list their prescriptions, regimes, therapies, weight and moods in an impressive pooling of primary resources.
“Patients Like Me” recently added a space for people with mental disorders. What started as idle clicking through profiles became a window to my own struggle with clinical depression. I saw the medications I once took analyzed by dozens of people, their mood swings displayed in graphs over the past day, week, month and year. Numbers could now quantify the afflicted mind; everything has a reference point outside of its own experience.
I’m sure Patients Like Me can, has and will help people with medical problems of all stripes. But even there, you create a profile with a picture and a bio. You project away from what is actually you in order to be part of a temporary community. At the end of the day (or night) you turn off your computer and deal with yourself. You breathe air from the room you’re in and go to bed, to class or to work. Your experience on the Internet is a short-term memory, plumbed again and again.
While medication helps thousands with mental illnesses, what helped me through the rough parts was one-on-one therapy, having someone to talk to. The best prescriptions come with such contact: You can’t assess the mind without knowing the person.
Are we diluting ourselves? Are we now unconsciously “representing” ourselves as small fractions of a whole when it comes to the Internet? The Internet isn’t a sign that people regret life, but it can be a turning away from your own body, your own you.
“It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail,” O’Hara wrote “or, conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial.”
The Internet is not so interchangeable. It is its own nebula, and no matter how widespread its hyper-acceleration of culture, it will never be flesh and blood. This isn’t a doomsday scenario; this isn’t a denunciation of all-things Internet. But we are perhaps in the motions of a cultural shift toward disingenuousness, toward not even the lowest common denominator, but a fraction of the common denominator.
In the end, we have what we have of each other. The mind is meant to be distracted and sidetracked, but don’t forget what’s in front of you: your hands, your feet, and the rest of the world.
This is Klein’s farewell column. E-mail your gratitude to firstname.lastname@example.org.