Footnotes: On St. Ives, Education, and Death by Andrew Woods

St. Ives?

Too many books are printed in St. Ives. I came to this conclusion as I harvested publication details for the bibliography of my latest paper. Students and scholars alike dread the tedious duty of transcribing this information—from the name of publishers to the year of publication—into the footnotes and reference lists of their essays. And, according to academic procedures, one must mention where the book was printed. That’s how I noticed that my paperback editions of Nietzsche, Weil, Foucault, Burke, and others all seem to originate from St. Ives. I wonder why publishers seem so keen to print their books in this small Cornish resort. I remember that the band Another Sunny Day recorded a B-side called “A Boy from St. Ives,” but that’s all I know about this seaside town.

Once I completed my bibliography, I took to Google to learn how St. Ives had become a printing hub. The results embarrassed me. St. Ives was not the geographical location of the printers, but, rather, the name of the printing company. For several years, I have written “Printed in St. Ives” in countless bibliographies for college assignments. As misunderstandings go, it is minor. In the aftermath of this discovery, I wonder why including the location of the printers is necessary. Surely, the name of the publisher and the year of publication suffices. I doubt any professor feels the need to call up printing companies—whether they operate in St. Ives or not—to check that they printed a certain book in a certain year.

There are a few theories about why books declare where they were printed. An expert on book dealing suggests that mentioning the location of the printers was intended to prove the authenticity of a book to customs officials. Geographical discrepancies between the publishers’ headquarters and the printers’ offices would raise an eyebrow of suspicion and justify seizure of the contraband. Yet, the image of a customs officer inspecting one’s books seems to belong to a quaint and bygone era. I say, spare oneself the stress and download the PDF. Additionally, the joys and woes of global trade mean that a publisher and a printer can strike a deal despite national barriers. For instance, my copy of Eva Illouz’s illuminating and invigorating Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism was published by Polity Press—based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and Malden, Massachusetts—typeset in Hong Kong, and printed and bound in Malaysia.

Despite these changes, the spirit of the inquisitive customs officer still pervades the task of writing a bibliography:

“What are you reading? Who wrote it? Where’s it from? What year was it written?”

Listing citations is like answering a swift stream of questions in an interrogation room.

St. Ives?

The tedious and persnickety ordeal of writing footnotes is one of the humbler tasks of critical thought, because it pushes you to reconsider whether you trust your chosen sources. Not only should you judge the veracity and trustworthiness of your own references, you should take the effort to examine the references of your references. Carefully reading the footnotes of other authors tests your trust in the written word. Not everything printed on a page is an authentic expression of a writer’s thoughts. They might cite a study and contort the interpretations of the findings to suit their argument. Theory can precede data, rather than the other (and right) way around. We live in a time when everyone is urged to check the facts of everything they see and read. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves and others, we might admit that we are not always as attentive and skeptical as we should be. Sometimes, we can be eagerly credulous when someone says something that suits our sensibility and convictions. Writing footnotes forces one to check the basic facts—who wrote this, who published it, when was it published, etc.—and start to build a case for why a source should be trusted or doubted.

Taking the credibility or dishonesty of a source seriously is the sign of a sincere scholar. Questioning the smallest fact—Why are all these books printed in St. Ives?—and seeking an answer—St. Ives is just the name of the company—are two of those intellectual chores that help to cultivate a tidy and meticulous mind. Scrutinizing the words of others teaches you to look at your own work in a more critical light. As soon as one completes a paragraph, one should re-read it and ask oneself, “is this what I honestly think and believe?” I know that struggling to meet one’s deadlines at the end of the semester means that most students do not have the time for this type of intellectual sincerity. Conclusions are often reached for the sake of expedience. Maybe we should train ourselves to think about the task of writing as a more significant endeavor than merely finishing a paper by a certain date. Truly, reading and writing admits you into a long conversation that started before you even learnt to pick up a pen.

In an interview with The Atlantic, the linguist N. J. Enfield attempts to explain why we make small oral sounds—from “ummm” to “mmhmm”—to fill gaps in conversations. Most of these noises are social cues that we are paying attention to the speaker and agreeing with what they are saying. They are the unspoken substance of most human conversation. Enfield talks to the interviewer about transcribing interviews from the recording to the page, and ponders why all these seemingly inconsequential noises are edited out as the conversation is converted into an article. Enfield observes that “conversation is all draft;” books and articles are finished products.

 

St. Ives?

I disagree with that judgement. Final drafts and completed works rarely represent an ending. At the same time, a first draft is nothing like the real beginning of a work. No moment of education or stage of composition embodies a start or end. Properly speaking, I think that lessons and essays “come to fruition.” Nothing illustrates the joyful and intense undertakings of learning and writing more than the word “fruition.” Nowadays, the word refers to the realization of a plan or project, or the period when a tree or vine bears fruit. Etymologically, fruition comes from the Late Latin fruitionem, which means “enjoyment.” The fruition of a letter or poem or treatise represents a cadence—perfect or imperfect—in the long, lustful tune of life. Writing is the act of taking pleasure in something beyond your comprehension, in a language that precedes and outlasts us all.

My former professor Anne-Marie Oliver once observed that chalk is the perfect metaphor for the enterprise of education and the transmission of knowledge. She remarks that “true chalk is something marked by an extreme fragility, friability, dustability, temporality . . . These attributes signified that it was once alive and that it possessed still the power of thingness, that is, something susceptible to damage, destruction, death, and accordingly, something human or humanlike. And this stuff was used to form words, dead things that live on and are constantly reanimated in the brains of other beings.” Chalk is formed of prehistoric and fossilized matter that leaves dust all over your fingers and makes marks—equations, illustrations, and quotations—on the blackboard. Coincidentally, the contents of books are printed onto the pulped remains of dead trees. Every page serves as a reminder of death.

St. Ives?

Education and death are more intimately linked than most people think. I thumb through my copy of Vilem Flusser’s Writings (published by University of Minnesota Press in 2002, printed in the United States of America—somewhere—on acid-free paper) in search of his moving definition of human communication. According to this idiosyncratic philosopher and polygot, “human communication is an artistic technique whose intention it is to make us forget the brutal meaninglessness of a life condemned to death.” Writing is the art of making meaning out of meaninglessness. Death—that final moment of becoming nothingness—fuels our desperate need to leave something behind. Oddly enough, there is a striking resemblance between the format of footnotes and inscriptions on gravestones: the name of the author, the title of the work, the year of publication, etc.

Another former professor of mine encouraged me to always conclude with the “thinking answer,” rather than the absolute one. To be honest and ironic, it seems that the only truly absolute answer is death. You cannot argue or disagree with that inevitability. So, what are answers? There are exact answers (printed in Great Britain by the St. Ives Group), elusive answers (“well, it depends on what you mean by ‘advance’…”), and honest answers (“I don’t know yet”). What exactly is the “thinking answer”? Answering a question thoughtfully means that one’s work comes to fruition, rather than to an end. Thinking answers should show the enjoyment of thought, just as writing should convey the enjoyment of words. Although typing up references is the least enjoyable part of the writing process, it is a mark of gratitude. Taking the time to write footnotes represents humility and honesty. Footnotes reveal that you are indebted to those who came before you, and express the hope that you might be able to serve future scholars in a similar way. The old and witty philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once quipped that Western Philosophy is just a bunch of footnotes to Plato. I disagree and claim that philosophy—and thought in general—is just a long line of footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to footnotes. The history of thought is more like the Talmud than the Bible, more like a first draft than a final copy. The footnote protects us from forgetting the origin of originality, and reminds us that no one ever comes up with the absolute answer. More importantly, the footnote is invitation to think with others—from our predecessors to our descendants—and enjoy every thought as it unfolds.

 

Advertisements

Judging by the Seminar: On Buses and Fascism by Andrew Woods

Most people do not place much faith in bus schedules. Congestion and traffic lights always conspire to delay buses by five minutes or more. When I moved to London, Ontario, I learnt quite swiftly that the arrival and departure of buses in this city do not follow any logical system. At least their randomness allows me to practice the art of waiting and thus cultivate the virtue of patience.

I do not have a car or a driver’s license, so the bus is the only mode of transportation that can take me from my neighborhood to the university campus. I expect that I will regret my decision not to take a driving test when I am shivering at a bus stop in the middle of the harsh Ontario winter. Then again, I am a dangerously incompetent driver. On my very last driving lesson, my instructor advised me never to get behind the wheel of a car ever again. He assured me that lives were at stake. Driving, like filing your taxes or installing your Wi-Fi router, is one of those things that needs to be done right or not at all. I suppose that waiting at a bus stop is the price one must pay for not committing any acts of manslaughter through clumsy driving.

While I look down the road in the hope of spotting the approaching bus, I think idly about the set text for today’s seminar: Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. The book’s editor, Ronald Beiner, compiled Arendt’s lecture notes on Kant’s Critique of Judgement to supply a surrogate for the book that Arendt never finished. According to Arendtian lore, a sheet of paper was found in her typewriter after her death that bore two epigraphs and the title Judging. It was the first page of the final part of her trilogy The Life of the Mind. So, what is judging?

Judgment has a bad reputation nowadays. Being judgmental is perceived as a vice and conjures up the image of an entitled prig who believes that his opinions are unquestionably superior and meritorious. Moreover, judgment is too closely related to prejudice (Latin. praeiudicium—“prior justice”) for anyone to think that there is anything redeemable about it.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can rescue the exercise of judgment from accusations of judgmental-ness and prejudice. After all, stubbornness of mind is not an inherent quality of judgment. In fact, Arendt quotes a letter that Kant wrote to his friend and pupil Marcus Herz in 1770: “You know that I do not approach reasonable objections with the intention of merely refuting them but that in thinking them over I always weave them into my judgments and afford them the opportunity of overturning all my cherished beliefs.” Judgment cannot take place without an open mind. Since we share the world with others, no one can make a claim or present an argument without encountering someone else’s opinions and objections. Furthermore, Arendt argues that this acknowledgment of the existence and intelligence of other people is already weaved into a judgment. She explains that imagination—the capacity to make present what is absent—enables us to anticipate the responses of others and imagine why they might agree or object to our opinions. In a sense, imagination enables us to host a roundtable discussion in our own minds.

It is apt that I am thinking about judgment on my way to a seminar. Whereas lectures present authoritative answers, seminars provoke curious discussions. Incidentally, the word seminar originates from the Latin seminarium— “breeding ground, plant nursery”— which, in turn, derives from seminarius— “of seed.” No one is expected to present a fully-grown tree of an idea in a roundtable discussion (Truthfully speaking, few scholars seek definitive answers unless they are consulting the O.E.D.). Every remark or question is a scattering of conceptual seeds that might grow into an offshoot that takes the conversation into an unforeseen direction. There is something playful and rewarding about seminars. Debates remind me of games of chess, in which two combatants must compete until one of them emerges as the victor. Seminars, on the other hand, evoke the image of several friends jogging together in the park on a Sunday afternoon. No one needs to win; there is no score. Just as jogs exercise body, seminars broaden and sharpen the mind.

Although scholars are usually caricatured as solitary and unsociable types, we crave and cherish the company of our peers. Even when we appear to spend too much time in silence and solitude, we are never completely alone. Whenever we quote a statistic or reshape an old idea, we enter a genuine relation with our predecessors, contemporaries, and descendants. Yet, I fear that this joyful and spirited play between history and the future is under threat.

Like many others, I have puzzled over the meaning and purpose of a scholarly life in the age of revitalized fascism. Times of crisis can inspire feelings of futility and fatalism. I worry that someone who is prepared to plow through a crowd of innocent people in a sports car may not be bothered about the fact that graduate students attend and participate in seminars. Nonetheless, something as simple as sitting in a room with others and discussing a topic respectfully is antithetical to fascism.

Fascism offers a simple explanation of the world for those who cannot confront the unpredictability and complexity of modern life. Different groups are cast in the roles of the good guys and the bad guys. Nothing is safe or sacred whenever fascists plait their ideology into the texture of life. Anyone who publishes an inconvenient fact is accused of spreading fake news; anyone who stands up for the rights of others is ridiculed as an “SJW.”

Fascism overpowers imagination with delusion. Whereas imagination requires the humility to admit that someone could rightfully disagree with you, delusion requires the staunch belief that anyone and anything that contradicts your worldview is objectively wrong. Everyone knows that it is easier to delude oneself than imagine the perspective of someone else. Novelists struggle for years to grasp the essence of what it means to live and act as a human being before they can craft fictional characters that “ring true.” In this light, one can understand the appeal of Ayn Rand’s novels to right-wing libertarians. Her characters are nothing more than mediums for competing ideologies. No depth, ambiguity, or mystery is permitted in the system of Rand’s objectivism. Think about the rape scene in The Fountainhead. Under fascism, intimacy and tenderness can play no part in sexual intercourse; there is only abuse, aggression, and domination. That’s why contemporary fascism is so keen to defend our pernicious and pervasive rape culture. Fascism refuses to accept that people deserve dignity even when they are inconvenient. Women deserve respect even when they withhold consent. Protestors are not terrorists just because they disagree with you.

Riding on a bus teaches me a lot about living with others. As much as I would like everyone on this bus to be quiet enough for me to read Simone Weil in peace, I do not suffer from the requisite megalomania to think that I should force them into silence and submission. People cannot be manipulated like pixels on Photoshop.

Noise is just a part of public space.

I think about a counter-protest that I attended recently in opposition to the gathering of an anti-Islamic group that claimed to promote the right to free speech. While they yelled their hateful speeches into a megaphone, we banged on drums and blew on whistles to drown them out. Later, a member of that group approached me and asked why I wanted to deny his right to speak freely. I told him that our confrontation had nothing to do with free speech. Given the authority, their group would have ordered the police to arrest every single participant in the counter-protest. They did not want us to listen. They wanted us to be silent.

Fascism cannot tolerate the existence of seminars, because they prove that the alt-right’s conception of the right to free speech is just a pale facsimile of the real thing. Seminars reveal that coming closer to the truth requires conversation and collaboration. Broadening one’s mind means opening oneself up to the sacred inconsistency of the world. In a more mundane sense, it means waiting for a bus even when it is a few minutes late.

I am sitting in the seminar room now. People nod in recognition whenever someone new enters the room. There is casual chatter about the reading for the week. Someone scribbles a few prompts into their notebook to remind them of significant points to raise as soon as the discussion gets underway. Someone starts the seminar with a question and someone else offers a tentative answer, then someone refines the answer with stipulation, which, in turn, prompts someone else to pose another question. As I listen, I think: “Fascism has no home here.”

 

Powell’s Bookmarks: On Leaving Portland by Andrew Woods

A few weeks ago, I re-watched the 2002 Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, which seemed to be playing at the local cinema as part of a Nicholas Cage retrospective. Cage plays the screenwriter Kaufman as he struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s mesmerizing book The Orchid Thief into a movie. The structure of the book, described as “that sprawling, New Yorker crap that doesn’t really go anywhere,” does not lend itself easily to a film adaptation. During one of Kaufman’s attempts to start the screenplay, he describes an opening scene that stretches from the beginning of the earth to his birth in mid-twentieth century Los Angeles. Finding a plot (as a verb, to make plans; as a noun, a patch of solid ground) in this sprawling life—that does not really go anywhere—is one of those mammoth mammal tasks that appears so insurmountable that someone invented the snooze button on alarm clocks just so we could ignore this responsibility and return to sleep for a few more precious minutes. I am reminded of the thoughts of Blaise Pascal as he tried to describe this condition:

“We are floating in a medium of vast extent, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro; whenever we think we have a fixed point to which we can cling and hold fast, it shifts and leaves us behind; if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips away, and flees eternally before us.”

We are trapped between the infinitely large and infinitesimally small, engulfed by the impenetrable secrecy of life. I suppose it is no wonder that people like bookmarks:  to know that you have a place somewhere in the enormity of everything. Considered in this light, dog-earing the top corner of a page is forgivable. You wish to leave a trace of yourself in the copy of a book that left an impression—evanescent or indelible—on your mind and heart.

I promised my mother I would not buy any more books until I returned to England. Back in September 2015, I expected to live in Portland for no more than a year. One of the two suitcases for my first transatlantic flight to Oregon was crammed with books, and I assumed that they would easily satisfy me for a year. I was wrong.

From what I recall, I broke my promise within the first week. The irresistible temptation came from a David Shields’ novel called Dead Languages, which I bought at the famous Powell’s City of Books. When the transaction was complete, the cashier slipped a complementary Powell’s bookmark between the front cover and the title page. The bookmark bears the addresses and contact information of each Powell’s branch on one side, and, on the other, lists their “buying hours” and implores you to “sell us your books.” During my frequent visits, I have spotted several people with cardboard boxes full of books which they hope to exchange for a wallet-wad of dollars.

Art by Maskull Lasserre

I am leaving Portland soon. Every so often, I look at the messy piles of books in my apartment then glance at a nearby Powell’s bookmark to check their buying hours. You must book an appointment for an employee to sift through your books and decide whether anything is worth enough money to take off your hands and sell in the store. I think that process discourages me. I could not bear the humiliation of standing in public while someone judges my literary taste before they hand me a few dollars for two boxes of books. Walter Benjamin observed astutely in his breathtaking essay “Unpacking My Library” that “to the book collector . . . the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves,” so I am reluctant to return half of my collection to the coercion of commerce. They will become just another commodity to be repriced, reshelved, and resold.

Luckily, the other half of my collection will endure and travel with me. Unlike Benjamin, I am still in the stage of packing my library—choosing the right volumes and facing the Tetris-esque challenge of fitting them neatly into boxes. Some of them still contain their Powell’s bookmark, ready to help me find and keep my place.

The history of the bookmark takes place inside the history of the book. Before the Big Bang of the Gutenberg Galaxy, books were rare and written by a meticulous scribe. The rarity of these texts, writes A.W. Coysh in his 1974 Collecting Bookmarks, demonstrated the “need for some device to mark the place in a book . . . Without bookmarkers, finely bound volumes were at risk. To lay a book face down with pages open might cause injury to its spine, and the crease on a page that had the corner turned down remained as a lasting reproach.” One could put a bookmark between the pages and remove it without leaving a trace. Bookmarks used to be predominantly made with silk and leather, but, as the mass-publishing industry made books more available and affordable, they were made with cheaper material like thin card. The new availability of paperbacks meant that the bookmark became less of a way to protect the pages and spine of a book, and functioned more as an artificial memory aid. It anchored the reader in the text.

And so, I take another tome from my shelf and decide whether it is headed toward my new home or the Powell’s on Hawthorne. Just as every bookmark belongs in a book, every book belongs on a shelf. When I was younger, I dedicated hours to arranging my bedroom library in alphabetical order. Eventually, I ran out of space to organize them into neat rows. Stacks of randomly ordered books rose to the height of my wardrobe, and, occasionally, tumbled to the floor. Benjamin explains that one’s library maintains “a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” Regardless of the obsessive order of your books (alphabetical, chronological, thematic), they will fall into a familiar disorder as soon as you take them off the shelf, place them in your lap, and forget to reshelve them according to their original arrangement. An excessively neat library is the mark of the unenthusiastic reader.

Right now, my library is neater than it has ever been. Two different piles for two different fates. Reflecting on his own library, Benjamin opines that the collector desires and respects singular copies of books rather than the book-in-itself. I have not possessed and read Shields’ Dead Languages, but only my own copy of that book. Each copy in these piles is a belonging that I have taken to the various houses and apartment buildings where I have lived over the past two years. Even though I paid the rent to put a roof over their spines, these tales and treatises formed a dwelling—as Benjamin put it, “with books as the building stones”—in which I found peace and purpose. It seemed that I belonged to them more than they belonged to me.

Installation by Alicia Martin

Copies of Dead Languages, Race Matters and Silent Spring that were once mine will soon fall into the hands of someone else. Like Don DeLillo writes in White Noise, “Maybe there is no death as we know it. Just documents changing hands.” Each book bears the bruises of previous owners: creases in the spine, smudges of dirty thumbs in the margins, a scribbled birthday message from a close friend on the title page. The history of the book encompasses the histories of each individual book and each individual reader. Whenever someone turns to a new page and starts to speak with that faint voice inside their head, they are alive. Maybe I will feel less remorse about taking my books to that desk in Powell’s if I understand that I am sharing the opportunity to feel alive with people I will never meet or know.

Once again, I move from one city of strangers to another. I doubt that I will make the same promise to my mother. We have both learnt that books overrule oaths. Speaking of my books, they’re all sorted into their separate boxes and addressed to different destinations. I am going to take them out tomorrow. One trip will take me to the Post Office; the other, Powell’s. I expect one last complementary bookmark. After all, I read a lot of books and I do not want to lose my place as I turn from page to page. I like to follow the plot wherever it goes in this sprawling, New Yorker-style crap of life. I fold over the corners of pages occasionally to remember where I have been and to remind myself to return there in the future. In this way, all the places I’ve been stay with me wherever I go.

In Defense of Laggardism by Andrew Woods

 

 

 

I KNOW WHEN I’M BEING CATERED TO,
I KNOW WHEN I’M BEING CATERED TO,
I WILL NOT SETTLE FOR THE LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR.”
Car Seat Headrest, “Not What I Needed.”

Marshall McLuhan’s “Challenge and Collapse: The Nemesis of Creativity” appeared frequently on my graduate school seminar syllabi. My professors believed that it was a text that deserved to be read, revisited, and remembered. Occasionally, a passage from the text comes to me as I am thinking or writing. Finding the right quotation is like coming home to discover that someone else has cleaned your apartment, that someone else has already done the dirty work and put everything in the right place. Ironically, the following quotation is a quotation of a quotation of a quotation from the tale of an old Chinese Sage to Werner Heisenberg’s The Physicist’s Conception of Nature to McLuhan’s text itself:

“As Tzu-Gung was travelling through the regions north of the river Han, he saw an old man working in his vegetable garden. He had dug an irrigation ditch. The man would descend into a well, fetch up a vessel of water in his arms and pour it out into the ditch. While his efforts were tremendous the results appeared to be very meagre.
Tzu-Gung said, “There is a way whereby you can irrigate a hundred ditches in one day, and whereby you can do much with little effort. Would you not like to hear of it?” 
Then the gardener stood up, looked at him and said, “And what would that be?” Tzu-Gung replied, “You take a wooden lever, weighted at the back and light in front. In this way you can bring up water so quickly that it just gushes out. This is called a draw-well.”
Then anger rose up in the old man’s face, and he said, “I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am ashamed to use them.”

330px-Diffusionofideas

In 1962, Everett Rogers proposed a theory of the diffusion of innovation to explain the spread of an idea or invention through a society. The circulation of new thoughts or technologies involves five different types of people: the innovators, the early-adopters, the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards. Diffusion starts with the innovator who introduces an invention that appeals to the early-adopters, and then gradually becomes popular with the majorities. In terms of the market, the innovator is the entrepreneur; the adopters and majorities are the consumers.

So, where does that put the laggard? The laggard is usually classed as a traditionalist who refuses to abandon their old, less efficient ways in favor of the latest technology. Marketers do not bother to appeal to laggards, because it is not profitable to advertise to a demographic who are unlikely to buy the latest products. They are immune to hype. They will not settle for the lowest common denominator. The elderly gardener in Tzu-Gung’s tale personifies this laggard. Despite the obvious advantages of the draw-well, he prefers his outmoded methods and simple way of life.

So, what the hell is this gardener’s problem? What’s the harm in adopting a draw-well? Although the gardener accepts that he could irrigate ditches more quickly with a draw-well, he understands that using this invention would integrate him into a market that prioritizes efficiency over simplicity. As soon as he adopts this invention, the humble gardener becomes the industrial farmer. Forty-Six Indian farmers commit suicide every day; their hearts cannot endure their transformation into machines.

The laggard, much like the luddite, is often painted as a reactionary figure who reviles and resists progress: the old granny in the retirement home, the cantankerous codger in his vegetable garden, the rural recluse in an empty farmhouse… What possibilities are thought-leaders and marketers hiding behind these caricatures? Should we trust their definitions or propose an alternative?

Any alternative description of the laggard lies in defining freedom as the rejection of optimism. Rejecting optimism means knowing that the promise of the latest technologies will probably be broken, and contesting the platitude that better machines create a better world automatically. We live in a technocracy, where we are ruled by technology. Fun is no longer any fun. Innovation is no longer innovative. Customization obscures standardization. Everyone searches for different products on the same websites; everyone scrolls through different Facebook newsfeeds on the same screen. This is why people slobber over typewriters from the 1940s, dig their Gameboy cartridges out of boxes in the basement, and scribble handwritten letters to their new pen-pal. We are living in the future of technology, but it is so boring that we are desperate to return to the past. Laggardism compels us to find a way to approach technology without believing the hype of futurists and advertisers. Laggardism is a pessimistic futurism.

Admittedly, the alternative Laggard could be misconstrued as a bit of a spoilt brat. Complaining about one’s ability to afford and access new and efficient technology can seem trivial compared to the fact that many people in the U.S. do not have a reliable supply of clean water. Although it appears that these two problems differ in type and scale, they represent the same predicament. An anecdote from Henri Lefebvre’s masterpiece Critique of Everyday Life might help to prove this claim:

“Several years ago a world-wide firm which was trying to extend the market and put a rival firm out of business decided to distribute paraffin lamps to Chinese peasants free of charge, while its rivals, less ‘generous’ or less shrewd, went on selling them. And now in several million poverty-stricken Chinese households artificial light (an immense progress) shines down on muddy floors and rotten matting—because even peasants who cannot afford to buy a lamp can afford to buy paraffin…The ‘progress’ capitalism brings, like its ‘generosity,’ is just a means to an end: profit.”

The people of Flint, Michigan took pictures with their smartphones of the dirty water flowing out of their faucets. Immense progress can coexist with the most scandalous regression. Laggards are aware of this hypocrisy of progress. In fact, they would prefer a kind of progress that enables people to access clean water over one that attempts to relocate the global elite to a colony on Mars. Laggards do not feel much affection for these advancements that transport only the few to their destination of profit.

Silicon Valley, a contemporary synonym for “progress,” is entering a dangerous period in which it must introduce solutions to problems that it created (solving progress with more progress). Mark Zuckerberg puts “disputed” tags on Fake News stories which could not have gone viral without Facebook’s ‘Share’ feature; Elon Musk launches Neurolink to combat Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity. Eventually and inevitably, these solutions will become problems that will require new solutions. Every new solution must be greeted with a critical glare rather than open arms. We lose our freedom if we succumb to the optimism of innovation and early-adoption.

So, how does someone become a laggard? Let’s be realistic (et demandez l’impossible). Whether one subscribes to the philosophical tenets of Hobbes or Rousseau, no one possesses a return-ticket to the state of nature. Golden Ages are no more than the apparitions of forgetful nostalgia. Moreover, Golden Ages were not golden for everyone. If you wish for a world free of technology, sign up for the nearest Amish community. We must acknowledge that most of us live (comfortably or otherwise) in a capitalist society. Furthermore, our participation in this society requires a minimum level of prosperity. Ironically, I cannot write or publish these words without the products made by those people in Silicon Valley that I seem to hold in contempt. The whole affair reminds me of Louise Mensch’s comments about Occupy London in an old episode of Have I Got News For You?

One is not ethically obligated to return to a pre-technological state of nature to critique the role of technology in our lives. One can protest capitalism while drinking Café Lattes and using your smartphone. The Laggard is the opposite of the person who believes that we cannot have innovation without capitalism. Under capitalism, we are permitted only one regime of innovation: FREE WIFI AND DIRTY WATER FOR ALL! The Laggard wants to try out other regimes of innovation. Some of them even hold the radically subversive view that everyone has a right to access clean water (in Flint, Michigan, Sebring, Ohio, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation…): FREE WIFI AND CLEAN WATER FOR ALL!

So, I start and end with water and machines. Why did McLuhan deem it appropriate to insert an ancient tale into his book about the then-emergent phenomenon of mass media? Every new technology disrupts the physical body and the body politic in electrifyingly dramatic ways, but very few people notice. Two decades ago, no one could have imagined or anticipated the seismic impact of Facebook. Nowadays, the extraordinary become mundane instantly. The abnormal becomes hypernormalized. That’s why we need people who pay attention more than ever. Admittedly, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’ famous awareness tests prove that we see only what we are told to watch:

We are too busy watching the basketball game to notice the gorilla. Some people do not realize that there is a heart of a machine growing in their chest, wired up to the market with transcontinental fiber-optic cables. Everyone has a heart of metal these days, but they also have a choice to sever the wires. Water is too precious and necessary to become a commodity. Water is life. Ironically, the humble gardener refused the offer of more clean water, whereas the new Laggards demand it. Sites of struggle change. As soon as we cut the wires, our machine hearts can roam wherever they wish and fight whenever they want. They will beat and beat. To fight for one’s life and the lives of others is the only progress worth chasing.