By PICO IYER NY Times Published: December 29, 2011
ABOUT a year ago, I flew to Singapore to join the writer Malcolm Gladwell, the fashion designer Marc Ecko and the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in addressing a group of advertising people on “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow.” Soon after I arrived, the chief executive of the agency that had invited us took me aside. What he was most interested in, he began — I braced myself for mention of some next-generation stealth campaign — was stillness.
A few months later, I read an interview with the perennially cutting-edge designer Philippe Starck. What allowed him to remain so consistently ahead of the curve? “I never read any magazines or watch TV,” he said, perhaps a little hyperbolically. “Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that.” He lived outside conventional ideas, he implied, because “I live alone mostly, in the middle of nowhere.”
Around the same time, I noticed that those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.
Has it really come to this?
In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.
Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen.
Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago. Even Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers. (The average office worker today, researchers have found, enjoys no more than three minutes at a time at his or her desk without interruption.) During this period the workers were not allowed to use the phone or send e-mail, but simply had the chance to clear their heads and to hear themselves think. A majority of Intel’s trial group recommended that the policy be extended to others.
THE average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen, Nicholas Carr notes in his eye-opening book “The Shallows,” in part because the number of hours American adults spent online doubled between 2005 and 2009 (and the number of hours spent in front of a TV screen, often simultaneously, is also steadily increasing).
The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, though one girl in Sacramento managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month. Since luxury, as any economist will tell you, is a function of scarcity, the children of tomorrow, I heard myself tell the marketers in Singapore, will crave nothing more than freedom, if only for a short while, from all the blinking machines, streaming videos and scrolling headlines that leave them feeling empty and too full all at once.
The urgency of slowing down — to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
When telegraphs and trains brought in the idea that convenience was more important than content — and speedier means could make up for unimproved ends — Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages.” Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Thomas Merton struck a chord with millions, by not just noting that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest,” but by also acting on it, and stepping out of the rat race and into a Cistercian cloister.
Yet few of those voices can be heard these days, precisely because “breaking news” is coming through (perpetually) on CNN and Debbie is just posting images of her summer vacation and the phone is ringing. We barely have enough time to see how little time we have (most Web pages, researchers find, are visited for 10 seconds or less). And the more that floods in on us (the Kardashians, Obamacare, “Dancing with the Stars”), the less of ourselves we have to give to every snippet. All we notice is that the distinctions that used to guide and steady us — between Sunday and Monday, public and private, here and there — are gone.
We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.
So what to do? The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual. All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.
MAYBE that’s why more and more people I know, even if they have no religious commitment, seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi; these aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to connect with what could be called the wisdom of old age. Two journalist friends of mine observe an “Internet sabbath” every week, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, so as to try to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation. Finding myself at breakfast with a group of lawyers in Oxford four months ago, I noticed that all their talk was of sailing — or riding or bridge: anything that would allow them to get out of radio contact for a few hours.
Other friends try to go on long walks every Sunday, or to “forget” their cellphones at home. A series of tests in recent years has shown, Mr. Carr points out, that after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” More than that, empathy, as well as deep thought, depends (as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have found) on neural processes that are “inherently slow.” The very ones our high-speed lives have little time for.
In my own case, I turn to eccentric and often extreme measures to try to keep my sanity and ensure that I have time to do nothing at all (which is the only time when I can see what I should be doing the rest of the time). I’ve yet to use a cellphone and I’ve never Tweeted or entered Facebook. I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.
None of this is a matter of principle or asceticism; it’s just pure selfishness. Nothing makes me feel better — calmer, clearer and happier — than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music. It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: it’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”
It’s vital, of course, to stay in touch with the world, and to know what’s going on; I took pains this past year to make separate trips to Jerusalem and Hyderabad and Oman and St. Petersburg, to rural Arkansas and Thailand and the stricken nuclear plant in Fukushima and Dubai. But it’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.
For more than 20 years, therefore, I’ve been going several times a year — often for no longer than three days — to a Benedictine hermitage, 40 minutes down the road, as it happens, from the Post Ranch Inn. I don’t attend services when I’m there, and I’ve never meditated, there or anywhere; I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness, recalling that it’s only by stepping briefly away from my wife and bosses and friends that I’ll have anything useful to bring to them. The last time I was in the hermitage, three months ago, I happened to pass, on the monastery road, a youngish-looking man with a 3-year-old around his shoulders.
“You’re Pico, aren’t you?” the man said, and introduced himself as Larry; we’d met, I gathered, 19 years before, when he’d been living in the cloister as an assistant to one of the monks.
“What are you doing now?” I asked.
“I work for MTV. Down in L.A.”
We smiled. No words were necessary.
“I try to bring my kids here as often as I can,” he went on, as he looked out at the great blue expanse of the Pacific on one side of us, the high, brown hills of the Central Coast on the other. “My oldest son” — he pointed at a 7-year-old running along the deserted, radiant mountain road in front of his mother — “this is his third time.”
The child of tomorrow, I realized, may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what’s new, but what’s essential.
“And when I go into J. Crew, I’m walking through this astonishingly complex act of quotation. But almost none of the stuff is as heavy or as well made as the real thing. It’s all simulacra. It’s like they’re singing an aria over the score of this very traditional American dream thing. It fascinates me because what they’re doing has become like a traditional act in American culture. Ralph Lauren did it. He really invented it.”—William Gibson on J.Crew
WOMEN shop, men stockpile. That’s one theory, anyway, of how men buy clothes differently from women. If women see shopping as an opportunity, a social or even therapeutic activity, the thinking goes, then men see it as a necessary evil, a moment to restock the supply closet.
At the risk of perpetuating sex stereotypes, the archetype may have been Steve Jobs. When Mr. Jobs died in October, he left behind not only a peerless legacy, but a closet full of identical black cotton turtlenecks by Issey Miyake. “If he loved a shirt, he’d order 10 or 100 of them,” his sister, the author Mona Simpson, said in her eulogy.
It was an obsession that many men could relate to. Here, stylish New Yorkers reflect on their wardrobe hoarding.
GRAYDON CARTER, EDITOR IN CHIEF, VANITY FAIR
A dozen or so years ago, I came across a Paul Smith knit shirt that just sort of hit with me. It was dark blue with long sleeves, and it had a slightly old-fashioned rolled collar. The three buttons in front were small, light blue enameled half-globes with penguins in them. I thought it might be the sort of shirt I could wear for years and went back to the shop on lower Fifth to get a few more, but they had nothing in my size. I have a passing acquaintance with Paul, so I wrote him asking if they could make up a few more like the one I bought and send me the bill. Which in time, they did. I still have the shirts. And I still wear them. And damned if I don’t wish I’d bought even more.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS, STYLE BLOGGER, A CONTINUOUS LEAN
I take pride in the fact that I generally wear the same thing every day. I have this dream about throwing away everything in my closet, or giving it to charity, and then going and buying like 20 of the same Steven Alan shirt and 5 pairs of the same Levi’s Vintage Clothing 501z 1954 jeans, but not in a Steve Jobs way.
CHUCK CLOSE, ARTIST
I hate to shop. For the last 20 years I only shopped once every two or three years. I would go to the big and tall store and buy only what I could find in 20 minutes, tops — usually a few dozen briefs, T-shirts and sweaters. If there was time left, I would try on a jacket. Nothing needed to be perfect: just fit and be black.
Now I am buying African block-print shirts and pants in a riot of colors and patterns from an African street merchant. I visit him every few weeks to see what’s new. I buy 10 or 15 at a time.
FABIEN BARON, FOUNDER, BARON & BARON
I have these Adidas Campus 80 shoes, and they’re gray and suede, and I have five pairs. One gets used and I have another one.
IAN BRADLEY, STYLIST, HOST AT LE BAIN AT THE STANDARD HOTEL
For the last eight years or so, I’ve had a minor obsession with Ralph Lauren oxfords, especially the Yarmouth fit. I picked up my first in high school at a small thrift store I worked in. Since then, I’ve developed an ever-growing collection that, at the moment, stands at 16 shirts. It’s the perfect casual dress shirt: a Ralph Lauren oxford can dress down a crisp, tailored suit, or dress up a pair of raggedy denim cutoff shorts.
I’m a man that loves to have options, so I think it’s a necessity to own a range of colors (from primaries to pastels) and patterns (from plaids to stripes) so that I can wear the shirts every season and every occasion. Considering I wear at least one each week, I think they’ve been well worth the investment.
GREG FOLEY, CREATIVE DIRECTOR, VISIONAIRE, V AND VMAN
Several years ago, Adidas reintroduced the 1970s-style Rod Laver tennis shoe in both black and white. They were the most low-profile sneaker to come out in a long time, and I bought one pair of each. These were practically unbranded, elegantly shaped and surprisingly lightweight.
They sold out fast, and weren’t reissued again. Eventually, the soles of both pairs were worn through. I brought them to a local shoe repair. The guy behind the counter looked at me funny, but he patched them anyway. I brought them back three times after that, carefully considering which days to wear them to preserve their delicate life span.
Then Adidas released something similar to the Rod Lavers, but tainted with brazen red and blue stripes and a harder sole. It was like an insult. I bought a pair and happily cut the offending stripes right off. A season later they finally brought back the Rod Laver originals but even simpler — in all leather without metal eyelets — the Tournament Edition. I bought several pairs.
GABE SCHULMAN, CONTRIBUTOR, THESTYLEBLOGGER
The store Epaulet — there’s one on Orchard and one on Smith Street in Brooklyn — has these pants with a perfect silhouette and fit. They are cut slim, but not skinny. A few years ago I tried on a pair of mohair ones that fit so well that I bought three pairs — in navy, camel and olive — and a pair of gray cords in the same cut.
JONATHAN GALASSI, PUBLISHER OF FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX
I hate shopping and tend to go to two or three stores only. Over the years they have been Paul Stuart, Bergdorf Goodman Men’s (though not always reliable for my taste), Brooks Brothers (which is much better these days, thank God) and J. Crew.
I should have bought multiple J. M. Weston loafers. You can’t get them in New York anymore, but they’re the best shoes I’ve ever had. When I see someone wearing them, I recognize them instantly and feel very jealous.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN, EDITOR AT LARGE, INTERVIEW
I will never, in my life, decide to stop wearing gray sweatshirts, so having a perfect simulacrum set allows me to focus my anxiety on my work or whether or not I am dying. Adam Kimmel makes — or made two years ago — these ultimate gray sweatshirts. Heavy but not stuffy, enough to beat a chill but also not trapping, so you could run away without breaking a sweat, perfect for writing with the window open.
I bought one and liked it so much — and feared their disappearance — I bought two more. All three are currently in rotation in my life, all identical, except one has a very slight soup stain half the way down.
BILLY REID, FASHION DESIGNER
I’ve been a stockpiler for years. Several items like vintage 517 Levi’s, I will buy three to four at a time. I have three pairs of our Roper boots in various stages of wear. I have a half-dozen of our white button-down oxfords and two of our navy blazers. My reasons usually have to do with availability, especially if I know it won’t be produced further, or a situation, like with wingtips, where the newer might be right with suits and the older one with jeans.
PAUL BIRARDI, AN OWNER OF ODIN NEW YORK
Generally, I don’t stockpile clothing other than multiple footwear pieces by Common Projects. But recently I purchased washed chinos in different colors from J. Crew, mostly because whenever I find something that fits me properly, sure enough a designer will do away with that style the following season.
PAUL SEVIGNY, D.J., NIGHT-LIFE IMPRESARIO
For a time, A.P.C. was making great cotton underwear, but then the weight went up, to probably twice as thick. Armor Lux, another French brand, makes these blue-and-white striped boxer briefs. Every time I go to Paris, I go to about four different stores that I know carry them and buy every single pair that they have. Sometimes 20 or 30 pairs.
SCOTT CAMPBELL, TATTOO ARTIST
Black socks. Plain old dumb Gold Toe from Target. The rest of my wardrobe is all over the place, but my sock drawer could belong to Batman. It’s probably 20 to 30 pairs of the same black socks, all in rows.
My mother told me a story about the first time my father came to the house to take her out on a date. My mom’s older brother answered the door. He looked my dad up and down, and noticed that he was wearing white socks. He sent him away, saying that she was too classy a girl to be taken out by a man wearing white socks. If he wanted to go on a date with my mom, he had to show some respect and come back wearing black socks. I was probably 11 when she told me that story, and I’ve been wearing black socks ever since.
MARCUS SAMUELSSON, CHEF AND RESTAURATEUR
My friend Mckenzie Liautaud makes these really sick ties with all sorts of accents: pins, glitter, all sorts of different stuff. You almost have to discover his ties by stumbling on them in a small shop. I buy four each time I see him, and they’re perfect for special events or the holidays.
HARRY BELAFONTE, SINGER, ACTOR AND ADVOCATE
Given my frequent travels, stepping off the plane each day in a new city is a tough challenge for appearing unwrinkled. One of my greatest treasures has been the Brooks Brothers non-iron shirts, which never fail to give a fresh appearance. I have several in each color. My other favorite purchase is Kenneth Cole’s suede sneakers. I bought four pair. Kenneth Cole discontinued the model so I am happy to have bought more than one.
ilovecharts: Yesterday we posted a chart to which some people took offense. One person took the time to write us directly with her anger about the chart. I took exception to her tone and disagreed with her assertions and regrettably fell into one of the more simple traps of poor communication, writing a response mostly aimed at the form of the message and not the substance. I cooled down, attempted to clarify, but the damage had been done.
Due to my lack of foresight, ThisGingerSnapsBack had to deal with a wave of misogyny and ignorance from commenters that is not only uncalled for but base, disgusting and depressing. By responding in public, I brought that on and I am extremely sorry. I don’t condone the behavior of those commenters, even (especially) if they comment in defense of my point.
What’s more, TGSB was right. There is a way to read the chart in which there is no other conclusion than that it is in support of rape culture. I missed that angle when I posted the chart, and still did not see it when responding to TGSB. I had a few things I needed to learn, and I am extremely thankful there were those willing to have civil conversation with me so that I could learn.
Reading the chart as supporting rape culture involves understanding how the terms “Friend Zone” and “Nice Guy” are used in discourse by different groups. This was a conversation of which I was unaware. To me, the Friend Zone is a classification for people feeling that somebody, due to shared history or comfort or habit, does not consider them a romantic possibility in any sense, be it “I’m attracted to this person” or “I’m not interested in this person.” The possibility has not arisen or been contemplated; it is not even a “no” to the person, just a “never thought about it.” There is certainly sadness about being in that position, but also real friendship and possibly a desire for more, hope for sparks, that I do not see as malevolent or detracting from the relationship.
The Friend Zone is not always used this way. From men, there can be a lot of anger involved in using the term. It is seen as a penalty for misdeeds, or worse for not being desirable enough. One gets “put” there as if it is in the woman’s power to be attracted to the man but she refuses to do so just to punish him, or worse again because she only goes for the guys she can’t be friends with: the dangerous, mysterious type. The blame is on the woman either for doling out punishment or for having “incorrect” standards of attraction, and so is born resentment and ultimately the Nice Guy. As in, nice guys finish last. As in, “woe is me, why am I always overlooked when I’m the person who is the real friend, not the attractive jerk?” And resentment turns to entitlement. “I’m the real one for her. How could she not see that? I’ve done so much for her. She owes this to me.” And that entitlement undermines the original friendship (if indeed there even was real friendship involved and not just rejected courtship) and leads to general misogyny and possibly to dangerous behavior toward the woman.
And that’s not even getting to the Nice Guy™, a term used for predatory men who consciously use the Friend Zone as an entry for sexual conquest. The Friend Zone is used in those circles as other Pickup Artist terms are used: a page from the playbook.
These terms (Friend Zone and Nice Guy, as outlined above) are used almost clinically in feminist conversation and in other circles. The signifier to signified is clear. And using language in that way, so too is the chart. It is at best Nice Guy anger and at worst, Nice Guy™ advice.
However, not everybody is involved in that conversation. I consider myself a feminist, have spent a lot of time thinking about the origins of misogyny and pointing out its presence in many facets of life, and I was unaware of those terms. That is where the conversation becomes difficult. While sticking up for people in my definition of the Friend Zone (just because a man want’s to be seen as a romantic possibility, why must his goal be sex and why must his desires be vilified, especially all the way to rape?), I was unknowingly endorsing the concept of the Friend Zone as framed by entitled men. I was not speaking the same language as TGSB and so her criticisms were offensive in my construct and my criticisms were offensive in her construct.
It is my job as a curator to do my research and I failed in that regard. I went for tone without investigating content. To my read, I could rebuttal the content and that was enough. Well, my read doesn’t matter. I did not treat TGSB like a person who was hurt, I treated her like a troll. And here is probably the crux of the issue.
It is easy to dehumanize on the Internet. And it is easy to assume that meaningful conversation cannot be had. One sees so much trolling and is subject to so much criticism that an escape through dehumanization is needed to stay sane. It is in that dehumanization where this problem arose. My reaction the TGSB was clearly a product of the cumulative frustration of being treated like the sum total of this blog and not as a person who runs it, frustration with the kind of comments I have been receiving in the last few months, a period in which the tone of conversation has noticeably shifted. I have been feeling dehumanized and made the mistake of paying that forward to TGSB and so the Internet rolls on…
I’m only guessing here, but perhaps this says something about the changing nature of Tumblr as it gets larger. It certainly says something about what it has meant for this blog to have gone from a mostly hardcore Tumblr following to one more broad. In many ways, I miss the smaller, more collaborative feel of this blog in its earlier forms. People talked to us more, submitted more personal work, reblogged with commentary more and “liked” less. I still love Tumblr, but differently. It was a small town then, with all the benefits of that lifestyle, and is now a city. There are big names, institutions and established franchises and incredible original material, but there are also the elements that harden those of us who live in cities. There are feelings of anonymity and loneliness. There is visible self-interest and constant competition. Mostly, there is anomie and subsequent dehumanization, which leads to generalizations, stereotypes and vitriolic exchanges between otherwise empathetic, rational people.
To have any meaningful change on any scale, we need better communication and re-humanization. That goes all the way from relationships to global politics. People need to talk more about their frustration and confusion, and do so especially when it is difficult. The Friend Zone resonates with a good many reasonable, kind people, but also with a good many angry, mal-intentioned people. It exists pretty broadly, but functions differently for different people. It can be very innocent, but can also be very dangerous, can be romanticized, can be exploited. It’s a dumb term and one that I never actually use, but it is trying to describe something that should be talked about.
Better communication and re-humanization could have changed yesterday’s events. TGSB did not approach me as a person and did not consider that I may not be either an idiot or a misogynist. She did not consider that I might not understand the terms in the same way she did or that there was another dialogue possible. She did not set out to write me hoping for conversation. And I don’t blame her. She was pissed! And had every right to be. And had every right to unload and not be attacked for her opinion.
And beyond being pissed, what would compel her to think that, in the Land Of Trolls, anybody would be on the other side of that inbox willing to communicate? I Love Charts is an institution on Tumblr now. It has a book deal. It has about 100,000 followers. Why would it care? And why would it be any different than the army of trolls now populating her inbox with hate-speech I am responsible for? Well, I Love Charts is also still just two people, one of whom posts every day from his laptop and is happy to be a part of something so big but feels a little weird about his relationship with 100,000 people.
It is my job to communicate through action that I am here, I am responsive and I genuinely do not want to offend, bully, hurt or marginalize anybody. If I’m feeling dehumanized and want to change that, I need to start by re-humanizing myself.
The Internet is populated with real people. People who mean well, and hate hurting other people, and play 13 Dead End Drive and Monopoly all night while motoring through a bottle of Scotch to try and sort out their feelings, and wake up on the couch with a migraine and a computer on their chest with Louis CK staring at them from a paused frame of his most recent special. And ultimately, people who can and want to learn about other perspectives and can realize when they have been in the wrong.
By JOHN PLOTZ NY Times, Published: December 23, 2011
By some miracle, you set aside a day to tackle that project you can’t seem to finish in the office. You close the door, boot up your laptop, open the right file and … five minutes later catch yourself thinking about dinner. By 10 a.m., you’re staring at the wall, even squinting at it between your fingertips. Is this day 50 hours long? Soon, you fall into a light, unsatisfying sleep and awake dizzy or with a pounding headache; all your limbs feel weighed down. At which point, most likely around noon, you commit a fatal error: leaving the room. I’ll just garden for a bit, you tell yourself, or do a little charity work. Hmmm, I wonder if my friend Gregory is around?
This probably strikes you as an extremely, even a uniquely, modern problem. Pick up an early medieval monastic text, however, and you will find extensive discussion of all the symptoms listed above, as well as a diagnosis. Acedia, also known as the “noonday demon,” appears again and again in the writings of the Desert Fathers from the fourth and fifth centuries. Wherever monks and nuns retreated into cells to labor and to meditate on matters spiritual, the illness struck.
These days, when we try to get a fix on our wasted time, we use labels that run from the psychological (distraction, “mind-wandering” or “top-down processing deficit”) to the medical (A.D.H.D., hypoglycemia) to the ethical (laziness, poor work habits). But perhaps “acedia” is the label we need. After all, it afflicted those whose pursuits prefigured the routines of many workers in the postindustrial economy. Acedia’s sufferers were engaged in solitary, sedentary, cerebral effort toward a clear final goal — but a goal that could be reached only by crossing an open, empty field with few signposts. The empty field is the monk’s day of spiritual contemplation in a cell besieged by the demon acedia — or your afternoon in a coffee shop with tiptop Wi-Fi.
In the later Middle Ages, monks performed fewer solitary tasks, and as the historian Andrew Crislip has shown, their vulnerability to the torments of acedia diminished. But for early medieval writers, acedia’s symptoms were so prolific as to be often contradictory. For St. Benedict, the affliction took the shape of “a little black boy pulling the monk away by the hem of his garment,” while to the great fourth-century ascetic Evagrius it sometimes appeared as “demons that touch our bodies at night and like scorpions strike our limbs.” Gluttony and laziness can betoken acedia, one Desert Father, St. John Cassian, warns. However, “excesses meet” and “reluctance to eat and … lack of sleep put me in much greater danger.” The only real constant, during acedia’s heyday, was that it prevented monks and nuns from keeping their minds on their tasks, and their bodies in the right place. “Have you deserted your cell?” Basil the Great asks. “Then you have left continency behind you.”
If the diagnoses in medieval texts were so psychologically acute, it’s very likely because the most ferocious accusers and denouncers were themselves acedia sufferers. Today, too, it takes an acediac to know acedia. When I read Cassian on “disgust with the cell,” I look around my own office and sigh deeply; and I greet like an old friend the monk whose gaze “rests obsessively on the window” while “with his fantasy he imagines the image of someone who comes to visit him.” Cassian’s description of acedia as mental drift, meanwhile, perfectly encapsulates the pointless and random detours that stop me from bearing down on a particular page: “The mind is constantly whirling from psalm to psalm, … tossed about fickle and aimless through the whole body of Scripture.”
Of course, the desert monks were emphatically not us. Stripping their lives down to the bare bones, they sought the divine and fought the demonic alone. What could be more different from us, tap-tapping away with social media always at hand? They gazed upward toward God; we shoot sideways glances at one another while trying to resist the allure of e-mail (nowadays, you can “desert your cell” without shifting from your chair). Still, “excesses meet,” and now that solitary unstructured brainwork has returned with a vengeance, we may be suffering an epidemic of early medieval acedia. Is there anything we can learn from the monks and nuns who came before us?
As the motto orare, laborare et legere (pray, work and read) suggests, monasteries and convents from the sixth century onward found ways to situate divine contemplation within an essentially convivial context. For community-oriented orders like the Benedictines, collective singing, tilling the soil and shared meals were as crucial as divine reading. There are some parallels to this kind of enforced sociability among contemporary lab scientists, who stave off both distraction and torpor by sharing with their colleagues a contentious and collaborative life of the mind.
Those of us for whom long stretches in an acedia-hazard zone are unavoidable may have to look farther afield for comfort. It’s worth noting that an acquaintance with ancient philosophical traditions concerned with self-control and mastery of the passions (especially Stoicism and Platonism) did much to shape the mental prescriptions offered up by the Desert Fathers. The mental exercises Evagrius urges on those whom acedia has laid low — for example, dividing oneself into two, “one the consoler and the other the object of consolation” — unmistakably anticipate the self-disciplining (and self-forgiving) exercises of modern cognitive-behavioral therapists.
There is also comfort to be found in the realization that monks who knew the dangers of acedia nonetheless kept going to the desert — not because they thought they would be safe from acedia’s temptations, but because they courted those temptations in the hope of strengthening themselves for further work. One of Cassian’s most moving stories involves a rebuke to an aged monk who scorns a young monk’s acedia because he himself has never experienced it. The old man, Cassian writes, was no sort of spiritual guide for a young monk looking to overcome these inevitable temptations.
One lesson to be drawn from those monastic stories is that persistent, alluring stimulation may be just as unavoidable in our new digital life as it was in the Egyptian deserts, though it now takes the form of Fruit Ninja rather than hem-tugging demons. Flight by itself is no solution. Disconnecting the Internet or confiscating a teenager’s cellphone probably helps less than looking for ways to live with persistent temptation and to move beyond the mixed pleasure that every post, tweet or “level up” affords.
The Benedictine monastery I recently visited in central Massachusetts did have a Facebook page: 15 people “liked” a post on how a monk buying pipe insulation was mistaken for a medieval battle re-enactor. Being there, though, was something else. The sung Latin prayers and the communal lunch — consumed in companionable silence while one monk read aloud — subtly but unmistakably guided my thoughts toward some of the same questions that monks and nuns have grappled with for centuries. When I curled up to read one of Cassian’s quarrels with St. Augustine, it was as if the two divines were only a shout away. My smartphone pinged seductively from the bedside table, and I let five minutes go by before I checked it. Well, almost five minutes.
By RANDY KENNEDY NY Times, Published: December 28, 2011
One recent afternoon in the offices of the Midtown law firm run by David Boies and his powerful litigation partners, a large black clamshell box sat on a conference table. Inside were raucous, sometimes wildly funny collages of photographs and magazine pages handmade by the artist Richard Prince, works of art that have become the ur-texts of one of the most closely watched copyright cases ever to rattle the world of fine art.
In March a federal district court judge in Manhattan ruled that Mr. Prince — whose career was built on appropriating imagery created by others — broke the law by taking photographs from a book about Rastafarians and using them without permission to create the collages and a series of paintings based on them, which quickly sold for serious money even by today’s gilded art-world standards: almost $2.5 million for one of the works. (“Wow — yeah,” Mr. Prince said when a lawyer asked him under oath in the district court case if that figure was correct.)
The decision, by Judge Deborah A. Batts, set off alarm bells throughout Chelsea and in museums across America that show contemporary art. At the heart of the case, which Mr. Prince is now appealing, is the principle called fair use, a kind of door in the bulwark of copyright protections. It gives artists (or anyone for that matter) the ability to use someone else’s material for certain purposes, especially if the result transforms the thing used — or as Judge Pierre N. Leval described it in an influential 1990 law review article, if the new thing “adds value to the original” so that society as a whole is culturally enriched by it. In the most famous test of the principle, the Supreme Court in 1994 found a fair use by the group 2 Live Crew in its sampling of parts of Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” for the sake of one form of added value, parody.
In the Prince case the notoriously slippery standard for transformation was defined so narrowly that artists and museums warned it would leave the fair-use door barely open, threatening the robust tradition of appropriation that goes back at least to Picasso and underpins much of the art of the last half-century. Several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan, rallied to the cause, filing papers supporting Mr. Prince and calling the decision a blow to “the strong public interest in the free flow of creative expression.” Scholars and lawyers on the other side of the debate hailed it instead as a welcome corrective in an art world too long in thrall to the Pictures Generation — artists like Mr. Prince who used appropriation beginning in the 1970s to burrow beneath the surface of media culture.
But if the case has had any effect so far, it has been to drag into the public arena a fundamental truth hovering somewhere just outside the legal debate: that today’s flow of creative expression, riding a tide of billions of instantly accessible digital images and clips, is rapidly becoming so free and recycling so reflexive that it is hard to imagine it being slowed, much less stanched, whatever happens in court. It is a phenomenon that makes Mr. Prince’s artful thefts — those collages in the law firm’s office — look almost Victorian by comparison, and makes the copyright battle and its attendant fears feel as if they are playing out in another era as well, perhaps not Victorian but certainly pre-Internet.
In many ways the art world is a latecomer to the kinds of copyright tensions that have already played out in fields like music and movies, where extensive systems of policing, permission and licensing have evolved. But art lawyers say that legal challenges are now coming at a faster pace, perhaps in part because the art market has become a much bigger business and because of the extent of the borrowing ethos.
Dip almost anywhere into contemporary art over the last couple of years to see the extent. The group show “Free” at the New Museum in 2010 was built partly around the very idea of the borrowing culture, the way the Web is radically reordering the concept of appropriation, with works that “lift, borrow and reframe digital images — not in a rebellious act of stealing or a deconstructive act of critique — but as a way to participate thoughtfully and actively in a culture that is highly circulated, hybridized, internationalized,” as its curator, Lauren Cornell, wrote.
Christian Marclay’s wildly popular video “The Clock” from 2010 was 24 hours of appropriation, made from thousands of stitched-together fragments from films and television shows. Rob Pruitt’s show “Pattern and Degradation” at the Gavin Brown and Maccarone galleries in 2010 lifted designs from Lilly Pulitzer, from Web photo memes and from a couple of T-shirt designers, whose angry supporters staged a flash-mob demonstration to protest the use of the design without attribution.
Mr. Marclay and Mr. Pruitt were both born before the 1980s. But to look at the work of younger artists, especially of those who don’t remember a time before the Web, is to get a true sense of the velocity, and changing nature, of appropriation.
“For the generation that I spend my days with, there’s not even any ideological baggage that comes along with appropriation anymore,” said Stephen Frailey, an artist whose work has used appropriation and who runs the undergraduate photography program at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “They feel that once an image goes into a shared digital space, it’s just there for them to change, to elaborate on, to add to, to improve, to do whatever they want with it. They don’t see this as a subversive act. They see the Internet as a collaborative community and everything on it as raw material.”
At the same time the tools for mining and remolding those mountains of raw material are proliferating. In November a developer and a designer introduced an iPad art app called Mixel, aimed at amateurs but certain to end up in artists’ studios. It allows users to grab images from the Web or elsewhere, collage them almost effortlessly and then pass them around, social media style, for appreciation or re-mixing.
One of its creators, Khoi Vinh, a former design director of NYTimes.com, has been surprisingly frank when asked about the tsunami of copyright problems such an idea stirs up. “This is really a case of, you have to do it, try it and ask for forgiveness later,” he said to an interviewer. “Otherwise it would never get out there.”
In a homage-to-old-“Sesame Street” video that was made to promote the app, the friendly narrator urges, “Pick anything that inspires you.” And, in a sense, that simple exhortation goes to the heart of the issues raised by the Prince case and Web-driven reuse culture in general.
American copyright law has always performed a complicated balancing act involving both commerce and culture. It tries to protect products of creativity so that people have economic incentive to keep on creating, so that a new movie, for example, is not immediately copied and resold on Canal Street, depriving the moviemaker of the possibility of income. But the law has also evolved ways to allow for creative uses of copying: the fair use exemption, which allows some copying for things like criticism, comment or news reporting.
Over the last couple of decades part of the equation for deciding whether fair use is indeed fair is how much the thing copied has been transformed. In other words, even if we are long past making anything completely new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes declared a couple of millenniums ago, copying should be allowed only to the degree to which it adds to or builds on what came before.
Deciding what is sufficiently transformative and what is not has often been tough enough in other cultural realms, like music and literature. But as copyright tensions mount and the courts increasingly confront the issue in contemporary art, the question becomes ever trickier. In large part this is because the questions turns on artistic intent, often a much grayer area in the visual arts than in other arts, and especially so over the last three decades as art movements have fragmented.
What were Mr. Prince’s intentions in re-using the Rastafarian pictures taken by the French photographer Patrick Cariou and why did he choose them? For the sake of parody? For criticism? Or did he just pick something that inspired him, for reasons as difficult to plumb as any those of many postmodern artists?
In a deposition in the case that was recently published as part of an unlikely art book by the writer and director Greg Allen, lawyers for Mr. Cariou follow Mr. Prince deep into the strange and often trackless territory of artistic intention. About as close as they get to pinning him down is that he wanted to use the borrowed pictures to explore his fascination with the painting of Willem de Kooning and also thought of his collages and paintings as part of an idea for a movie about a post-apocalyptic world in which Rastafarians, famous literary lesbians and others commandeer hotels on St. Bart’s.
“So what are four lesbians from the early 20th century doing on St. Bart’s in, now, when there’s a nuclear war, like why are they there?” a lawyer asked Mr. Prince, who responded: “Your guess is as good as mine. That’s what I do, I make things up.”
At another point in the transcript of the deposition, a lawyer asked, “What is the message?”
Mr. Prince replied, “The message is to make great art that makes people feel good.”
He also made it clear that he was not making art that commented on Mr. Cariou’s work itself. (Judge Batts ruled that for a work to be transformative it must “in some way comment on, relate to the historical context of, or critically refer back to the original works” it borrows from, a test she said Mr. Prince’s work failed.)
In an interview Daniel Brooks, Mr. Cariou’s lawyer, said that if such a subjective principle for borrowing as Mr. Prince’s were to become the legal standard — and in parts of the art world it is already much more subjective in practice — there would be no way to protect copyright.
“It can’t just be random, that he ‘liked it,’ because there’s no practical boundary to that,” he said.
But Joshua Schiller, Mr. Prince’s appeals lawyer from the firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner, said the boundary is whether a new work of art results from the borrowing. And he argued that it was clear that Mr. Prince had made parts of Mr. Cariou’s pictures into distinctive Richard Prince works, not just copy them to pass them off as his own and deprive Mr. Cariou of his livelihood. Whether the work was successful and whether Mr. Prince’s intentions were interesting or even explainable can be left to debate. But the primary intention was to create a work of art, Mr. Schiller said, and that is the kind of creativity the law seeks to encourage.
“This is not piracy,” he said. “These are not handbags.”
Mr. Prince’s appeal will probably be heard in the next few months. But the decision will not answer the larger questions about how copyright should evolve to deal with the reality of artists in a digital world or how the art world should deal with such questions morally and ethically. The possibility has often been raised of establishing an extensive system of licensing and permissions for images and other artistic material, akin to the one that operates in the music industry, but even many advocates of stricter copyright standards do not seem optimistic that such a system could work in the art world.
At a debate about the Prince case at the New York City Bar Association last month Virginia Rutledge, an art lawyer and former general counsel for Creative Commons, a nonprofit group that advocates for more open copyright standards, said she believed that the problem facing the art world was as much a “cultural attribution crisis” as a legal crisis and that the problem could be at least partly addressed by cultivating a stronger climate of simple acknowledgement and credit.
But Hank Willis Thomas, one of the artists taking part in the debate, said that the recycle and remix culture was gaining speed so rapidly that trying to bring order to it was, even now, like trying to hit a moving target.
“Whatever’s after this,” he added, “is going to be pretty crazy.”
This is a list of people who mysteriously disappeared, and whose current whereabouts are unknown or whose deaths are not substantiated, as well as a few cases of people whose disappearance was notable and remained mysterious for a long time, but was eventually explained.
I’ve been thinking about Louis CK lately. I’m a fan of his show on FX, and I’m so happy his recent adventure in distributing his newest comedy special himself has been a rousing success. But my thoughts are going elsewhere to wonder why he has blown up in popularity in the past couple years, and why his comedy seems to resonate with these times. It always feels like there’s a comedian willing to address contemporary concerns with insight and honesty for each moment in time. All the greats had their focus: Richard Pryor and Chris Rock had race, George Carlin had absurdity, and I think Louis has hit on some sort of subterranean undercurrent of emotion that I didn’t realize might be swelling until I listened more closely: shame.
Sixty years ago, Alfred Kinsey, a professor of zoology at Indiana University, published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, an 804-page tract documenting impressively high rates of non-normative behavior among ordinary Americans, including widespread premarital intercourse, marital infidelity, homosexuality, and masturbation. The report made a ponderous pretense at being value-free.
The scientific facade fooled no one. Despite Kinsey’s numerous assertions that he was merely an empiricist, the disclaimers were disingenuous. A polemicist with a strongly sex-affirmative and antiguilt agenda, he was intent upon proving that many if not most American men deviated significantly from the social rules governing sexual behavior, and that had their transgressions been discovered, quite a few of them would have been found guilty of breaking a law. Kinsey’s take-home message outraged the defenders of bourgeois rectitude, whose hysterical indignation was contemporary with the intensification of the Cold War, the rise of aggressive McCarthyism, and the escalated emphasis on conservative family values and gender roles. Five years later, it was no surprise when the publication of Kinsey’s companion volume Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (asserting, among other things, that a woman’s capacities for orgasm and marital infidelity were essentially no different from a man’s) was met with a storm of objection in the media that successfully laid waste to the zoologist’s credibility and funding.
If in America the Kinsey Reports sold into the markets for prudery as well as prurience (the voyeuristic fascination inseparable from the moral outrage), the European response—especially among West German, French, and Swiss journalists, sociologists, and theologians—is less well known. It was also one of horror—not at the prevalence of sexual activity, but rather at what was perceived to be an utter lack of genuine sensuality in American culture. As a Swiss psychoanalyst put it in his critique of the Kinsey Reports, “Everything exudes an air of numbed lovelessness.”
European commentators were aghast. In erotic terms, the United States was a frightful wasteland: the women were apparently frigid, the men sexually inept. The American “dating game” was said to epitomize a culture of rampant competitiveness and superficiality. Single females needed to enhance and falsify their breast size to achieve any sexual self-esteem at all, and married women found their only fulfillment in the success of their husbands’ business careers. To European eyes, the version of Protestantism that dominated the American scene instilled sexual inhibition in men and women alike; the distinctly American premarital activity known as “petting” was seen not as a clever compromise that permitted mutual orgasm without the risk of pregnancy but as yet another sign of the sex-negativity of American culture. With a zeal that can only be read as schadenfreude, Europeans described the chief military and ideological victors of World War II as pathetically lacking in erotic imagination and playfulness. Above all, they emphasized that there was something sad (as opposed to threatening) in the world Kinsey envisioned.
Europeans fixed on something that many Americans had not. Kinsey counted orgasms the way other people counted beans or pennies or cars on the highway: he considered orgasms (or “sexual outlets” as he called them) equivalent units that could be added, subtracted, and compared. The problem with Kinsey, his Europeans critics contended, was that he never thought about the quality of the orgasm, only its quantity. And he never thought at all about love.
In 1955, the French journal Esprit accused Kinsey of deromanticizing sex with his mindless fixation on “outlet” statistics and his “rudimentary” understanding of sexual passion. What Kinsey seemed unable to imagine, the French critics argued, was that emotions mattered just as much as, if not more than, the “machine-like” manipulation of another person’s genitals. “The desire to know the other, the vertigo of curiosity” about one’s partner: that was the decisive ingredient at the moment of orgasm that defined great lovemaking. Rather than finding genuine communion and “something precious to exchange,” the “human animals” that Kinsey described could seek at best a “spasm of consolation.” “Lacking all love, all tenderness,” there was nothing but the contact between skin and skin, between “autonomous nerves.” This, Esprit concluded, was truly solitude à deux: deep loneliness in the midst of sexual activity. When Americans had sex with each other, they were really just having sex with themselves.