Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, 1948. This sort of leisure is the prey being hunted to extinction by technology in general and the Internet specifically, and it is this leisure which permits the creation of sustaining human meaning.
Leisure, Culture, Selfhood
Pieper’s thesis, unreasonably condensed, is that our interiorization of the dynamics of capitalism and the destruction of transcendental narratives of all sorts —principally religious, but not exclusively— have together made leisure of this sort alien and incomprehensible to us. Instead of real, contemplative, open, and receptive leisure, we pursue “leisure activities” which utterly mistake the purpose of leisure and as a result fail to satisfy our deepest needs. Above all, they’re incapable of connecting us to “the real” in the world or of immersing us in “the real” in ourselves.
This lost sort of immersion, this wordless confrontation with reality, is profoundly intimate, and from it we develop authentic personal and civilizational culture (as opposed to “content”). The changes such leisure catalyzes are not easily communicable or quantitatively measurable; they are not for the curriculum vitae, the business card, or the interview, nor for the cocktail party or photo album. They do not relate to intelligence or “skills” as such, and can be experienced by any person of any class; they may incidentally correlate to characteristics we deem useful, but that correlation is emphatically not their point. Indeed, they cannot be the result of pursuit; the discovery of enduring wisdom, the achievement of awareness, the maintenance of a serene relationship with the self and the world, the sensation of joy, result from an “open” and “receptive” attitude wholly at odds with that of “self-improvement.”
Leisure in this sense is both the crucible of all durable human meaning —what Pieper calls culture— and totally without transactional, measurable, economic point. The Greeks, Romans, and pre-Industrial Revolution Western societies understood this; indeed, the Greek word for leisure, in fact, is the basis for the Latin word scola, the German schule, and the English school. And Pieper cites surprising passages from Aristotle and Plato as well as more contemporary thinkers which suggest that the connection between repose, wisdom, and culture was once clear, even if it now seems difficult to defend. (It should be added that much of Buddhism and Hinduism seem to embody this thesis as well, for example in the relationship between Theravada monks and society, or the notion of the sannyasa stage of life).
In just a few centuries, however, this idea has vanished as the values on which it depends have been replaced. What cannot be communicated and measured is now felt not to exist —if you dispute this in the arts, you likely nevertheless insist on it in matters of religion, for example— and the impossibility of exteriorizing leisure or its fruits, of conveying contemplative communion or translating it into something quantitative, condemns it to irrelevance (or worse).
Pieper apportions much of the responsibility for this to capitalism, Marxism, and the transformation of individual, sacralized labor into “work” (physical or intellectual): if the majority of a society’s activity implies certain values, members of that society adopt those values. We are our utility (this is the real meaning of ideas like “self-esteem”: what is our use to others?). We think as our economies “think”; we consume and produce as they do; and we insist on fungibility, reproducibility, and exchangeability as criteria of meaning. What is valuable must enable transactions.
Pieper could not have imagined, however, the apotheosis these market values would achieve in the technology of our age, an age of “total technology,” or what Neil Postman called “technopoly.”
Technopoly and the Self
Think of culture (both in general and the micro-culture of selfhood) as we create and experience it now, and consider Postman’s description of technopoly:
“…the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. It does not make [non-technological forms of culture or self-hood] illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant.”
No culture (or paradigm of selfhood) has ever taken its orders more directly from technology than ours; our music and visual arts, for example, are the result of technical specifications and network programming requirements above all else, and their forms rise and fall as quickly as industry needs. The most pure expression of a medium being the message must be the music video, a form born of technology in search of content and fatally bound to the fortunes of a defunct broadcasting model. The art, so to speak, of the hour-long drama, the animated GIF, the “interactive installation,” or the blog post is hardly different, and hardly likelier to last.
If the tools and processes of capitalism or Marxism reduced communities to classes, creators to functionaries, makers to workers, families to consumers, our technopoly has reduced us to users and culture to media (and increasingly online content). That is to say: culture is synonymous with technology, and because we derive our sense of self from culture, so too is selfhood. Life is what can be posted; you are what can be saved and shared as data; culture is what the Internet can convey; meaning is what you perceive online.
The Medium is the Meaning
Meaning, of course, is the great problem of any human life not concerned solely with organismic survival. What is my life’s purpose? Why should I endure my hardships or enjoy my successes? Is happiness my goal, and of what does real, abiding happiness consist? Instinct is not enough, the claims of our consumer-hedonistic society notwithstanding; the satiation of urges will not sustain you through decades, even with the most exotic rotations. Generations ago, we had static, mythical sources of meaning, but no longer, and not only is there no going back to religion as a persuasive, logically-compulsory authority, authority of any sort will not again suffice. We are now democratic in both politics and epistemology.
In the absence of persuasive transcendental belief systems —God is dead, everything is permitted— we look to one another for meaning. Smeared across vast suburban landscapes, a world of diaspora, of exile from the cities in which we live but within which there are no public spaces and no neighbors, we find one another in the only space in which social interaction is still possible: online.
What do we find there? We see Facebook photos of smiling, active couples and learn that love means shared hobbies; we inattentively scan the tweeted utterance of our purported friends and learn what matters, what is important, what counts; we note the data in each other’s profiles —a person is her favorite movies, which she selects from a licensed, partial, auto-completing list, or the hashtags he includes after remarks about arbitrated trending topics— and we form a model of what it is to be a human. We follow one another on service after service, seeking amusement, beauty, some justificatory clues, hinted potentialities, signs of meaning. But our expressions of selfhood are dictated by what we can post, share, photograph, upload, link, capture. We see culture and selfhood as shaped by market forces, technology constraints, business decisions, and arbitrary software designs. No form of meaning stands apart from the technopoly and remains relevant; there is no evidence of meaning beyond those actions which can be turned into apps or pages and made to generate profit.
In the democratic capitalist technopoly, therefore, meaning is defined by forces that take no note of meaning-in-itself, reject as irrelevant everything that cannot be made into discrete, monetizable, digital units. Technology requires user actions; leisure-as-repose cannot be initiated by a click, shared, or sold. Neither, for that matter, can love, wisdom, or joy.
(Their portrayal, however, can be, and if the primary sense one has online is of a perpetual performance, a performance in which the performers do now know they’re performing and cannot stop, this is why. A perceptual world without any conceivable instantiation of subjective interiority is a world in which only what can be portrayed exists. It’s no coincidence that the rise of simulating technologies corresponds to the ascendency of appearance over essence. To take one example, this is why artists have been replaced by people who portray artists in their simulated mercuriality or their de-rigeur vices. Creative inner-struggle perhaps once drove archetypal artistic despair, but what’s inside no longer exists, so the portrayal reigns. An artist who doesn’t “act like” one isn’t one. The same is true for politicians, the beautiful, the talented, even the ordinary.
Thus: the substitution of culture’s portrayal for culture, and thus too the pervasive sense of unreality and disconnection we experience amidst what is theoretically the most informative and connective technology in history).
Flight and return
When one is away -away- from the technologies of portrayal which shape our lives -away from television, away from the electronic display, away from the status message and the news feed, one quickly begins to recover a sense of selfhood apart from speech or post. One again experiences the self without mediation, social dilution, distraction. And, if one is afforded sufficient time, and is perhaps immersed in the rhythms of the natural world, one can experience “a co-respondence, eternally established in nature… not yet descended into words… the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion -in the real.” One begins to emerge.
Most are familiar with this reprieve, and as well with the regret one feels as one cedes to the essentially addictive habit upon returning to the world of breaking one’s silence: a post about one’s vacation, perhaps. But worse is that most of us are now unable even to get away; should we be fortunate enough to lose the fetter of an Internet connection, we still insist on taking photographs, ostensibly to record the moment for ourselves but actually because at every step we imagine how our experience might be conveyed, portrayed, broadcast. We interiorize technology as it interiorizes the market’s emphases; we all search for what can be transacted upon, for attention or esteem or approval or money. We blink into a sunset, search for our phone’s camera, and imagine how the photo will play on the screens where our avatar lives, screens belonging to other selves whom we know only as representations.
And as networks extend their influence, it is ever-harder to experience real repose, the deep communion with reality that produces authentic meaning and enduring culture. We live in a de-cultured culture, subsumed beneath an avalanche of transitory, ephemeral, temporary meanings, soon to be buried by new posts, new photographs, new digital artifacts of those acquisitive, performative “leisure activities” which are now the primary source of meaning in our lives (and most of which, of course, cost money in one way or another).
None brings us closer to whatever is essential and unmediated, unadulterated inside of ourselves, nor to any ultimate reality; indeed, perhaps no one believes in such things any longer. But if the existence of something apart from postable, quantifiable, monetizable, digitally transmissible data is in doubt, one thing is not: the Internet is an expression of radically materialist and utilitarian values which stand in opposition to leisure as Pieper described it, and therefore to the source of culture as it existed for millennia. Even if one prefers the dynamic, competitive, addictive, temporary cultures of portrayal and enactment that prevail now, it is hard to imagine life without even the possibility of repose. Yet it is harder still to imagine how such repose could ever be possible without the sort of radical disconnection from the expanding technopoly which, perversely, is considered a turning-away from the world, rather than a return to it.