technology, literature, and empathy: a complication
Two posts ago, I countered the notion that fiction had no role in policy debates, specifically the debates surrounding President Obama’s drone program. Fiction, I argued, by inviting us into the inner lives of its characters, can teach us to empathize with those our policy makers would reduce to strawmen and statistics. If the U.S. government’s civilian casualty numbers are reduced by counting all men of military age in a certain area as “combatants,” a good story can force U.S. citizens to see those men as individuals and therefore to look the consequences of their country’s actions in the eye.
Last post, I wrote of how Neil Gaiman used BlackBerry’s backing to begin a collaborative writing project on Twitter. There was a certain irony to BlackBerry’s funding a collaborative project to give itself an edge against the competition, especially since the industry it’s competing in famously exploits both its workers and the earth for profit. But there was also a certain synchronicity in bringing the Twitterverse together for a day of creativity and commiseration to promote a device designed to connect us across distances.
Drones, of course, are also a technology that allows us to connect across distances. It’s just that what they’re used to connect is missile to flesh.
This is the world we live in. We in the U.S. can use our smartphones to video call people in Pakistan and to learn about their lives while our government uses UAVs to obliterate them.
But the ability for communication to transcend distance is not new to the computer age. An early invention that helped give us this power was writing itself, especially when mass-produced following the invention of the printing press. When I speak of a novel’s ability to teach empathy, I am praising technology as much as art. It took a lot of innovation to get us to a place where we could devote the ink and paper to a Moby Dick or an Anna Karenina, and then reproduce it so that millions of readers could welcome Ishmael and Anna into their consciousness.
I have been thinking about writing as technology recently because in a little over a week, I am speaking at the third annual Theorizing the Web conference. (Shameless plug: registration is still open!) I am presenting a paper, inspired by the work I’ve been doing in these blog posts, which compares the ways people write creatively online and in print. To contextualize my argument, I’ve been studying the era that birthed our current understanding of “literature—” the period between the late 1700s and the 1830s that we now refer to as “Romantic.”
As I explained in the post that kicked off my focus on internet “literature”, it was during the Romantic era that the definition of literature shifted from a totality of written texts to the very best of creative writing. As Paul Keen explains in The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s, Enlightenment thinkers tended to define literature as a “republic of letters” that included fact and fiction, Locke and Shakespeare. The goal of this republic was to reach the truth through debate, and use that truth to reform both public policy and individual morals. But this view grew harder to maintain as reform gave way to violent revolution and the sheer volume of printed material stretched the republic’s borders—“The excesses generated by the French Revolution, on the one hand, and by the information revolution, on the other,” as Keen puts it. Out of the resulting crisis, Keen writes, emerged the definition of literature as we know it: “‘creative writing’, which highlighted the importance of the imagination rather than reason, and which tended to be described in a language that stressed the primacy of feelings rather than of scientific or philosophical debates.” But this change didn’t just happen; it was written by those we now call Romantics. Literature itself is a literary character.
Keen ends his book with a fascinating reading of foundational Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, the text that serves as Wordsworth’s poetic mission statement. Keen argues that Wordsworth reinterpreted Enlightenment ideas to insist on the importance of a certain kind of poetry (i.e. his) in speaking to all men and bringing out the best in their individual selves. For Wordsworth, poetry is superior to other forms of scientific or philosophical writing in the republic of letters because it requires no specialized knowledge to be understood by any given reader: “The knowledge both of the Poet and the Man of science is pleasure; but the knowledge of the one cleaves to us as a necessary part of our existence, our natural and unalienable inheritance; the other is a personal and individual acquisition, slow to come to us, and by no habitual and direct sympathy connecting us with our fellow-beings.” According to Keen, Wordsworth argued that, “poetry has the ability to reform society by developing people’s sympathetic capacity, but only if the prevailing standards of poetry are themselves reformed.” So when I called for a particular new type of literature (i.e. fiction about drones) to “develop people’s sympathetic capacities” and therefore “reform society,” I was writing from a Romantic understanding of literature.
And while I still deeply believe in the power of “literature” to teach empathy—because I’ve experienced it first hand—I have to acknowledge that the Romantics who wrote up the idea were not disinterested. They were a little like BlackBerry channeling Neil Gaiman, trying to convince a growing consumer base that their use of a new technology (mass-produced writing, in their case) was the best way to use it. In point of fact, in calling for more drone fiction, I am not disinterested. I am an avid fiction reader and an aspiring fiction writer trying to adjust to a new communication technology (the internet) and using it to call for more of what I like to read and hope to write.
Why this long, historicized disclaimer? In a New Yorker piece last week, Tejue Cole, the writer whose “Seven Short Stories about Drones” started this whole conversation, threw a giant wrench in all of our aspirations: Obama, the man responsible for accelerating the U.S. drone program, is a serious reader:
Yet Teju Cole, a writer, can think of no other way to respond than to keep writing. Of his tweeted drone stories, he writes: “I know language is unreliable, that it is not a vending machine of the desires, but the law seems to be getting us nowhere. And so I take helpless refuge in literature again, rewriting the opening lines of seven well-known books.”
I feel compelled to respond because I identify with his literary helplessness. And yet I must also call both of us out. He is a professional and I a would-be professional trying to justify our chosen profession. So now for the consumer warning—literature, poetry, creative writing, fiction, whatever you want to call it—is not enough. Empathy is important, but it is useless if it does not also inspire action.
Again there is an analogy to communication technology here. Facebook and Twitter can be important tools for promoting protests, but only if people show up to the street or the square on the promoted day.
As hard as good writing is, it is much easier to inspire or feel empathy than it is to direct or intuit how to use it; much easier to imagine why a Pakistani orphaned in a drone strike might want revenge than to imagine how we might transform the United States into a country that does not wage these endless wars. To open yourself to the possibility of acting on empathy is to open yourself up to a lifetime of frustration. Which is why, I think, many of us shut our imaginations down when we close the novels by our bedsides. Insisting on the essential equality of everyone all the time can be an alienating, exhausting business.
In my call for drone fiction, I recounted a scene from Chris Bachelder’s U.S.!, in which the young boy in charge of the Greenville Anti-Socialist League Fourth of July Book Burning reads the book he is supposed to burn and has his world view flipped on its head. But what becomes of the boy because of this transformation? Feeling empathy for the makers of the box fan in his kitchen, he is suddenly distanced from his father and his community, who are ironically, with their litter pick-up campaigns and potlucked meetings, more socialist than they know:
Stephen’s experience of connection with the box fan maker renders him incapable of communicating with those closest to him—first his father, who cannot understand his transformation, and then his chosen peers, who cannot understand what he transformed from.
Literature, as understood by the Romantics, is a starting place, but it is not a panacea. To effect change, we also need literature understood as the Enlightenment republic of letters, to document injustice and develop theories of how we might practically go about treating each other better. But beyond that, we need to have the courage to act out our imaginings. Writing, like drones and smartphones, is a technology. We, its users, must decide what to do with what we read.
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