Monday, August 01, 2011

Being There

After spending a week largely at home, largely alone, immersed in my intellectual projects, trying to prioritize among them, it's good to be back in the office, among people (though it's still quiet around here). My attention is now turning to all the work I'll be doing with people this coming semester, a sizable part of which will be teaching a course.

It was with this in mind, perhaps, that I paused over my morning coffee while reading about Jaron Lanier in the New Yorker. I generally share his views about social media and what they are doing to our sense of ourselves, at a deeper level, what they are doing to "existence", and I thought he provided a very good, very everyday sort of example that I will take with me into my reflections on teaching:

At the South by Southwest interactive conference, in Austin, in March of 2010, Lanier gave a talk, before which he asked his audience not to blog, text, or tweet while he was speaking. He later wrote that his message to the crowd had been: "If you listen first, and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you’ll be in what you say. This is what makes you exist. If you are only a reflector of information, are you really there?"

Last year, I once suggested to my class that they all put away their laptops and mobile phones for an hour and just draw on their memories (of what they had read for class) and their available intelligence, in short, their brains. Some of them said they enjoyed the experience, but we only tried it once. This year, I might insist on it for three hours at a time, and all ten lectures. "Try really to be here," I'll tell them.

Lanier's remark looks a bit like something Fran Lebowitz once said. I'm fond of saying she has answered Heidegger's "question concerning technology" simply "No". In Martin Scorcese's documentary, Public Speaking, she offers the following bit of wisdom:

I have none of these machines which allow people to not be wherever they are. Since I don't have them I'm forced to be where I am all the time, which is why I'm noticing what people are doing.

Heidegger's word for human existence is "Dasein", which literally means there-being or here-being, or being there, and is intimately related to presence. It's the opposite, we might say, of "being neither here nor there". What Lanier and Lebowitz are trying to tell us (Lanier from his vast experience with technology, Lebowitz from her vast inexperience) is that technology prevents existence—it prevents you from being there.

When I saw Cake play in London earlier this year, John McCrea implored us to put away our phones. "You don't have to prove to everyone else that you are here right now," he said. "Can't we just all be together here tonight." My teaching will, of course, be just like a Cake concert in so many other ways too.


Jonathan said...

Good points. I'd like you also to write about being elsewhere. Baudelaire's "Nimporte ou, hors du monde." Or the fact I am now in Denmark, virtually speaking, writing on your "wall." Where is the balance between here and elsewhere? I admit I sometimes go too much into elsewhere and need the corrective reminder to take care of my Dasein.

Andrew Shields said...

Will you survive? :-)

Thomas said...

Will I survive the "presence" of my students? Time wil tell. (I'll let you know.)

Andrew Shields said...

May they give you lots of presents.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I'm thinking about exercises in presence with students too. I think presence can be practiced and opportunities made for such practice. Here's something to think about though - it's one thing to pack up and put away technology. But we are still sitting in chairs, perhaps also horridly behind tables, separated from one another, perhaps crossing arms and legs if no table affords protection, closing ourselves off nonetheless. We still need to learn how to open, and what to do (we need a task). How to be in the room. How to be present. To what to pay attention. How to listen and stay engaged when not writing notes or typing notes...

So I think there is exploration to do to match our form (our bodies movement and relation to one another in space) to our content (whatever learning or discussion or thinking in which we are meant to engage). And the instigation to the happening may come from either - a shift in form, or a provocation of content.