The Heart of the Event

Everywhere what is sought is the ‘heart of the event’, the ‘heart of the battle’, the ‘live’, the ‘face to face’ – the dizzy sense of a total presence at the event, the Great Thrill of Lived Reality – i.e. the miracle once again, since the truth of the media report, televised and taped, is precisely that I was not there. But it is the truer than true which counts or, in other words, the fact of being there without being there. Or, to put it yet another way, the fantasy. What mass communications give us is not reality, but the dizzying whirl of reality […] – Jean Baudrillard

On April 25th, Matt Buchanan posted his article The Medium of The Moment on The New Yorker‘s web page. It’s an interesting little piece, arguing that Twitter is the medium of the moment because its primary aim is to deliver information in terms of nowness which isn’t exactly the same as newness:

Nowness is not simply newness, or the new: the question Twitter used to ask of users when they went to compose a tweet, “What’s happening?” is a direct inquiry about the state of now.

Fair enough, Facebook’s been asking very similar questions – “What’s happening?”, “How are you feeling?”, “What’s on your mind?” (stop harassing me!) – and yet … Buchanan has a point. In 2010, Nicholas Carr published a book named The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr describes how he began to notice a decline in his overall ability to concentrate. Not only were he and some of his correspondents distracted much more easily, they also felt a high ADHD-like need for stimulation and appeared less able than before to focus deeply on anything for prolonged periods of time. The speed with which, he says, data can now be gathered online has made the reading of an entire book seem a tiny bit obsolete. Instead of going over hundreds of pages to find the bits and pieces of information you need, it’s a hell of a lot simpler to just google it. Thus, in a bit of a McLuhian fashion, Carr sets out to link possible neural changes to the age of cheap, fast, always available data by retracing what happened to society whenever a new medium was introduced (be it maps, the transition from oral to written culture or Gutenberg’s press – in case you’d like to know a bit more, watch this video).

Taken from Lehrblogger

What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work? No doubt, this question will be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise. The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net […] but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards. – Nicholas Carr

In short: according to Carr, any new medium has the power to change society by affecting the brain’s neuroplasticity. The way we surf the Internet heavily impacts the way we think. Twitter and the like, for instance, provide our brains with a shot of dopamine each time we check our notifications and messages – a shot we become addicted to so easily, we barely even notice it’s happening. It’s such an entertaining and seemingly harmless drug, that it’s quite likely the most socially accepted one to date. But, coming back to Buchanan’s claim, why in this world of free dopamine shots would Twitter be the medium of the moment? Why not Facebook? Well, here’s a suggestion. I don’t know about your Twitter timeline, but mine quite literally exploded during Europe’s annual eurovision song contest – while Facebook, in comparison, felt a bit like attending a (really boring) funeral. Although I refused to watch, I know of almost every single thing that happened during eurovision, which even prompted me to rename it – I now call it the eurovision tweet contest. But it doesn’t stop there, we’re constantly witnessing Twitter’s dazzling speed. Remember the pope, or Buchanan’s example of the Boston Marathon bombings (and the many mishaps associated with it), and yes .. even Steve Job’s death.

Taken from Tweeteronix

At the heart of the event, without having to see it or tune in, without ever having to be there. A web version of reality that is, just as Baudrillard predicted in 1970, more dizzying than reality itself, more explosive, more direct, more now than now: nowness. It’s a speed thing, and (with the possible exception of Reddit) no social media platform’s better able to satisfy this need than Twitter. A total presence, that is always both listening and watching. A constant stream of messages, all-delivering, all-devouring. Also, a lot more sloppy, more emotional and more fragmented (the most glaring omission often being… objectivity). But Twitter isn’t alone of course. Nowness is just as much Google’s business – after all, your click-stream data sells like ice cream on a hot summer’s day. But, is it all bad? Carr, who like most of us likes and regularly uses the Internet, doesn’t necessarily seem to think so. However, he does leave us with a warning:

The Web’s connections are not our connections—and no matter how many hours we spend searching and surfing, they will never become our connections. When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.

Now, I’m not saying I want us all to give up on the Internet, or alternatively ourselves. No, I wouldn’t want that. What I would want however is to know that by the time I have children, instead of learning how to use a tablet, or connect to social media with Google Glass, they also learn how to read and understand lengthy arguments. I hope they will still enjoy sitting under a tree holding their favorite book (even if it’s the e-reader version, which frankly might help us save some trees). Yes, I hope we’ll remember that contemplation matters and cannot be replaced with being connected all the time. For, outside this heavy whirl, far beyond the constant penetration of nowness, there is a place in our minds which needs to be fed. And, despite what some media gurus may believe, to survive and grow, it needs a lot more than constant stimulation. Instead of being at the heart of the event, the live, the schizophrenic condition of the 21st century, it needs to remember how to be at its own heart, how to be in a state of absolute tranquility. What it needs is the right to be by itself, in its very own here … and its very own now.

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It has you!

Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you! John Irving

No, I in fact did not forget. I meant what I said: one quote a day. However, I’ve noticed it’s pretty hard to come up with anything when you’re having one of those blank mind days, where although you know it’s all up there waiting to be told, nothing really wants to come out. So, instead of writing what I intended to today – don’t worry though, it’s in the making, but I’d rather it doesn’t read like a fifth grader wrote it – I decided to simply pick a quote from one of my most dearly held authors: John Irving.

It’s from A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is probably one of the most magnificent, most magical books I’ve ever read. Stories like these are what inspires any of us to write. And writing is a very hard thing to keep up regularly, even though you try as best you can. On most days, it isn’t so hard – you just have to force yourself to sit down and think until you find your way around that story you’ve been dying to tell. But there’s something more. In fact, the man I talked about yesterday, King, once said:

A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.

But on days like today? Honestly, it’s as if my mind’s denying me access to everything, including my most precious memories. There’s no scars, no extreme joy either, only loose associations that pretend to be deep thoughts. And although it doesn’t flatter me to admit any of this, I do it anyway, simply because we don’t have nearly as much control of and insight into our own minds as we’d like to have. So next time you think you’re in control, remember what Irving said: you may believe you have a memory … but really? Much like the Matrix: it has you.

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Loneliness & Time

Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym. Stephen King

So, today I’d like to talk a bit about loneliness. In many ways, it’s a very personal subject, even though I do have wonderful friends and great parents in my life, but having a good buffer against loneliness doesn’t necessarily protect you from feeling it every now and then. I’m pretty sure you’ve all felt it a time or two, creeping up in the dark hours of the night, or while you’re at the movie’s all alone because your friends were simply too busy to join but you refuse to let that stop you from doing what you enjoy. Yes, you may even be in the most loving of relationships and still, when communication fails for one reason or another, despite being with two, you may feel lonelier than ever. And Facebook surely won’t be of much help.

beach, cute, loneliness, love, teddy

Taken from Favim

But what is it about loneliness? Why can it turn some of the most sparkly people in the world into sobbing little creatures in less than a second? Well, for one, it’s simply dreadful. Apart from the stress it causes and some of the possible resulting health conditions (yes, too much loneliness can even be dangerous), it weighs down heavily on your self-esteem. Feeling lonely equals a complete disconnect from your environment and the people around you, as if you’re stuck inside a bubble, screaming, but remaining unheard. You want to reach out but you don’t, because you feel embarrassed and you’re unable to see just how many people in the world are experiencing the same thing – you’re cut off from yourself, and everyone else.

For another, it’s as if when you’re lonely, something happens to your sensory experiences as well. Just this morning, I read an article written by Robin McKie for The Guardian (which you can find here). It talks about BBC’s Radio 4 presenter Claudia Hammond‘s view on our perception of time, and how it “differ[s] greatly according to circumstances”. She gives a cute enough example: “A watched pot never seems to boil, but go and check your emails and it will be boiling over before you know it”. Personally, I tend to experience this issue most commonly when frying meat – when did it get so black? But then again, in my case time isn’t only elastic, it’s very spongy too. Anyway, Hammond mentions a trial, in which some students were made to believe nobody on their psychology experiment liked them and a bunch of others were told exactly the opposite.

Is your teen an outsider in school?

Taken from High School Mediator

Conclusion? I’m sure you can guess: while time passed rather quickly for the second group, the first “reported times that were far longer than [those of] the test subjects who had been told people liked them”. See what I’m getting at here? It’s absolutely normal for loneliness to have such a deeply agonizing effect on people. Not only do they feel like crap, unloved, undesirable and whatnot, no, they’re quite literally stuck in a bubble, a bubble in which time passes a lot slower than usually. And until they find that picker-upper, that little bit of something that reminds them of their true worth, life may feel so slow it may just as well be running backwards – and in a way it does.

Taken from moonstruck

Memories of that day you spent on the beach drinking with friends, your first true love, the ease that comes with knowing that no matter how deep you fall – your parents, or someone, will be there to catch you. But when you’re alone, when you feel lonely? These moments seem as if they don’t even belong to you, as if you remember a past life or, worse yet, somebody else’s life. Yes, time may, as McKie tells us, “be the most widely used noun in English”. But why then, as King suggests, would “alone” be the worst? Maybe because, while in death there is no time, in loneliness there is simply too much of it. So when someone tells you “don’t worry, you won’t be alone forever”, believe them, but know that this “forever” you’re experiencing isn’t just a figment of your imagination.

Well yes, it’s true that loneliness can’t kill you. And yet, as King remarks, that makes it worse than death – the absence of time – and more excruciating than hell – the absence of everything. For, as Epicurus said already a very long time ago, where we are death is not and where death is we are not. But wherever we are and whomever we are with – the feeling of being completely alone doesn’t mind being there too. So, the best way to beat it? Fill it. With something, anything, that makes you feel alive. If you’re lucky, you’ll be up to speed in no time.

What Are You Reading This May?

Reflections of a Book Addict

It’s that time again! Time to share what we’re all reading this month! I’m still going strong with my new adult kick, adding in some historical fiction and YA novels as well.  A complete list of what I’ve read for the year can be found here.  On the forefront for the rest of May? More new adult and some historical fiction.  I’m currently in the middle of reading Karina Halle’s Sins & Needles, the first book in her Artists Trilogy.  Following that I’m delving into Karen Witemeyer’s new novel Stealing the Preacher, which is slated for release June 1st.  And finally Some Quiet Place by Kelsey Sutton.  The plot of this last book fascinated me so much I couldn’t help but request it for review!

Ok, folks! I’m turning the tables on you. What are you all reading? Share in the comments below!

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Surface Appearances – DSM-V: Small Changes, Unintended Consequences?

What had struck me was the neat appearance of the guillotine; its shining surfaces and finish reminded me of some laboratory instrument. One always has exaggerated ideas about what one doesn’t know. Now I had to admit it seemed a very simple process, getting guillotined […] as it was, the machine dominated everything; they killed you discreetly, with a hint of shame and much efficiency. Albert Camus

You may or may not know, but this Saturday the newest version of the psychiatric Bible (the DSM-V) will “finally” be released. Being the most influential tool so far for classifying, diagnosing and treating mental disorders, the US manual doesn’t make everyone equally happy. As UK-based newspaper The Guardian wrote this morning:

Early drafts of the book, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, have divided medical opinion so firmly that authors of previous editions are among the most prominent critics.

And they are absolutely right. About a year ago, while I was researching on precisely this topic for one of my philosophy papers, I came across an article written by Allen Frances (one of said authors) in March 2010 for the Los Angeles Times, poignantly titled It’s not too late to save ‘normal’. Frances who himself was “chairman of the task force that created the [then] current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), which came out in 1994” tells us how he had to “learn from painful experience how small changes in the definition of mental disorders can create huge, unintended consequences”.

Picture taken from The Wall Street Journal

Where the DSM-versus-normality boundary is drawn also influences insurance coverage, eligibility for disability and services, and legal status — to say nothing of stigma and the individual’s sense of personal control and responsibility. Allen Frances

So, next to the fact that grief now qualifies as a major depressive disorder (as if that wasn’t bad enough), the real problem fully arises when one looks at the way in which mental disorders are classified in the DSM-V. We are not really dealing with scientific evidence, instead the classification of mental disorders is largely based on observed clusters of symptoms. Or, to let Thomas Insel speak:

Unlike our definitions of ischaemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure.

John Horgan wrote about Insel only recently for the Scientific American, with the (somewhat funny) title Psychiatry in Crisis! Mental Health Director Rejects Psychiatric “Bible” and Replaces with… Nothing. Simply put, Insel wants to research mental disorders free from DSM categories, in order to find evidence “based not just on vague symptomology but on more specific genetic, neural and cognitive data”.

Seems nice enough, there’s only one problem: this will take a long time and success isn’t guaranteed. Specifically, since Insel tells us in the same go that “we cannot design a system based on biomarkers or cognitive performance because we lack the data”. I can only agree with Horgan’s conclusion that, if nothing else, this war between deeply flawed DSM categories and a severe lack of useful empirical data, shows that “modern psychiatry is in a profound state of crisis”.

Moreover, until such time where Insel’s dream of a better developed RDoC (Research Domain Criteria) project for psychiatric diagnoses becomes a real possibility, the DSM will likely continue to dominate our interpretations of ‘mental sanity’. And as if psychological mumbo-jumbo wasn’t sufficiently present in our vocabulary just yet, now we can’t even grieve our loved ones anymore without the fear of being labeled “majorly depressed”. How can it be a disorder to have loved and lost, and actually feel that loss for a while? When did we run out of time to contemplate, go into and even lose ourselves – in order to find new ways to be? And when exactly did it become oh so clear what ‘normal’ is, anyway? As Allen nicely puts it in his aforementioned article:

Defining the elusive line between mental disorder and normality is not simply a scientific question that can be left in the hands of the experts

People have a right to feel, and we must be very careful with so-called “laboratory produced” manuals that supposedly know how to divide us all into “normals” and “not-normals”. Just like the guillotine for Camus – a neat appearance and a shiny surface, a sterile laboratory instrument, something that appears so small and unhazardous before our eyes doesn’t prove its innocence simply by the way it looks. After all the negative things we’ve heard of the DSM-V so far, we may easily imagine it as some kind of dangerous trap, lurking over our minds, designed to capture anyone who gets too close.

Taken from Labor Related

… but in the end, it’s just a book. Right? Are we really just exaggerating in our minds what we do not yet understand? No, it really never depends quite so much on the way things look – the real puzzling part is how, when and why they could become weapons and whose heads will be figuratively decapitated first when they do.

Classificatory thought gives itself an essential space, which it proceeds to efface at each moment. Disease exists only in that space, since that space constitutes it as nature; and yet it always appears rather out of phase in relation to that space, because it is manifested in a real patient, beneath the observing eye of a forearmed doctor. Michel Foucault

Are you willing to die?

You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live. – Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

Let me begin with one of my favorite books of all time: Steppenwolf. It is symbolic after all, for the book deals with a man who lives in seclusion, and yet in plain sight. Completely immersed into his own world, in his books and art, his love for classical music, he is arguably one of the strangest creatures around. Feeling as if he’s half man, half wolf, he cannot comprehend the ways of man and yet .. he can also not live without them. Wandering through life alone, sad and a bit lost, he meets this girl – and she says to him one of the most beautiful things anyone could say by asking how he could possibly be “done with life” if he didn’t even try everything life has to offer? How then, she wants to know, could he possibly be certain that life was not for him?

Truthfully, I have also not tried everything life has to offer and I’m sure neither have you. We are so easily defeated, we are so willing to believe that we’re “not good enough” or unable to reach certain goals – but until we try, how can we know? Until we die, how can we stop living? For the most essential thing about being alive is to keep on trying new things, to continuously reshape our ideas – in short, to be alive is to be in eternal transformation. Take this blog for instance. I was pretty convinced I was unable to have a themed blog – or to put in any real effort for an extended period of time. Well, I’m a coward. Because I never tried. Similarly, in your own ways you are a coward.

We have the right not to give up and to try out as many new things as we want to. No one can tell us what we must or mustn’t do with our lives. If you know where you’d like to go, go there! Don’t tell yourself you’re not “good enough” or “unable to achieve something”. Never believe that where you are is where you have to be – unless you like being there. Ask yourself whenever these thoughts come up: are you really done with life? Did you accomplish all of your goals – or are they still waiting for you to dare trying? In the end, the question Hesse is asking us is simple: are you willing to die while you’re alive, or do you want to live until you’re dead?