I Share Therefore I Am

“But I know it when I see it”, a quote attributed to US Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart reflecting his inability to define pornography with any kind of specific legalese. And yet he needed to rule on a case that evaded legal definition. The ordinary, everyday interacting with the highly nuanced, articulated and over defined legal canon can lead to just such expression. This conjures up an aspect of philosophy which, according to Stanley Cavell, has hamstrung the discipline since the Enlightenment, if not long before. Skepticism within not only the academic approach but our very culture has received his energy and attention. Cavell concerns himself with an “ordinary” language approach to this aberrant exercise of reason. Within the everyday it is as difficult to pin down as porn, though we would like to believe that we know it when we see it.

“In that essay, “Knowing and Acknowledging,” the ordinary is discovered not as what is perceptually missable but as what is intellectually dismissable, not what may be but what must be set aside if philosophy’s aspirations to knowledge are to be satisfied. There I articulate my sense of what happens to philosophy’s aspiration by saying that skepticism is not the discovery of an incapacity in human knowing but of an insufficiency in acknowledging what in my world I think of as beyond me, or my senses; so that when I found, in a following essay on King Lear, that Shakespearean tragedy enacts the failure to acknowledge an other, hence forms a lethal set of attempts to deny the existence of another as essential to one’s own, I came to wonder whether Shakespeare’s tragedies can be understood as studies of (what philosophy identifies as) skepticism.” (Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow by Stanley Cavell, 2005, pg. 12)

This everyday approach to the workings of culture (and one of its manifestations – Shakespeare) brings to mind a past Moyers and Co. interview (October 18, 2013) in which the guest was Sherry Turkle, psychologist, author, MIT professor and Director of that school’s Initiative on Technology and Self. She and Bill discussed her recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and contemporary technology with social media (all quotes Sherry Turkle from the transcript of that interview).
“Well, I call it “alone together.” That we’re moving to a space where we feel free to respond to the three promises that technology now makes us, that we can always be heard, that we can be wherever we want to be, and that we never have to be alone.”
“John McCain recently, under the pressure of the discussion of the Syrian crisis, said that was boring. And he needed to go to something that was more stimulating. And so he went to a game. And what that showed is that what we’re going to is something that revs us up and puts us, we know, neurochemically in a state where we’re less able to come back and be part of the give and take of human conversation.”
“They could not say no to the feeling that somebody wanted them. Somebody was reaching out to them. The neurochemical hit of constant connection is what we are — is what we have now.”
“And so what concerns me as a developmental psychologist, watching children grow in this new world where being bored is something that never has to be tolerated for a moment. You can always go someplace where you’re stimulated, stimulated, stimulated, is that people are losing that capacity.”
“Sending is being. It’s starting to be that sending is being. And I think that this has a, potentially a downside, because, you know, you begin to not have as much a feeling of autonomy and sense of self if your way of thinking about yourself is so tied into sharing and texting and being enmeshed that way.”

Turkle proffers an antidote, an alternative to this pervasive cultural condition she describes:
“No, it really is a different way of seeing the self. And again, I come back to the importance of solitude, the sense that people need to learn how to gather themselves and be alone and experience solitude, which is different from loneliness. Because the way things are now, you know, people think that loneliness is a problem that needs to be solved and that only technology can solve.”

This all becomes very strange. Solitude and being alone were considered officially subversive in many countries in the 1930’s, and even today still carry a covert cultural stigma of “anti-social”. This juxtaposition of Turkle with Cavell is even all the more strange in that the cultural phenomena that Turkle describes appears to be the antithesis of what Cavell takes to be the definition of contemporary skepticism. “(a)n insufficiency in acknowledging what in my world I think of as beyond me, or my senses” appears to be blunted by a culture of constantly promised reaffirmation and acknowledgement through continuous connection. The “technological fix” to what all bothered Descartes, Hume through the likes of Kant now finds its own “fix” as being a life cultivated and promoted by those very same folks, namely one of solitude and being alone (at least within the exercise of their discipline). To a certain extent, Turkle and Cavell would find agreement in the writing of Cavell’s hero, Emerson, and his essay Self Reliance. But in terms of language, they may be miles apart. What seems to separate these two descriptions of very analogous states (skepticism and Turkle’s “Alone Together” culture) is the difference in, and evolution of, language brought about by ever new technology. Ordinary language appears to be employed when I “send”, “receive”, “share” and am “acknowledged” (affirmed) through the “connections” afforded by technological culture. And yet “I share therefore I am” doesn’t at all resemble what Descartes was saying.

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