Tuesday, September 28, 2004

O My Friendster, There Is No Friend

(For a PDF version of this essay, go to The Worldview Annex.)

About a month ago as of this writing, I joined Friendster at the invitation of someone whom I had up to that point not really regarded as a friend of my own, but rather as a friend of a friend with whom I enjoyed, at most, from my own point of view, an amicable—that is to say a merely friend-like—acquaintanceship. Had this invitation not been extended to me, I probably would have remained un-Friendsterized to this very moment, as although I had nursed a mild curiosity about Friendster ever since first learning of its existence about a year earlier, this curiosity had always been overpowered first by my impression, formed on the basis of my reading of a single article in The New Statesman, that the median age of its users was just shy of 16; and second by a certain frisson of moral and aesthetic revulsion that came over me whenever I tried to imagine myself putting into practice the Friendsterian project of collecting friends. I can trace the initial stimulus to this frisson back to a micro-epoch in which Friendster itself—and for that matter the very interweb itself—could at most have constituted a gleam in a software developer’s eye, to wit, the micro-epoch of the early 90s, and it had been brought into being by an anecdote concerning a person I knew only by sight, related for my amusement by an acquaintance or near-friend of mine who had been involved in a standoff with him that had threatened to erupt into an outright altercation. “You’d better watch out,” this person had yelled menacingly over his shoulder at my acquaintance or near-friend as he retreated, seemingly content to postpone the fisticuffs until such time as he could count on the support of a sufficiently large retinue of supernumerary fists and cuffs, “I have 10 friends.” Subsequently, my recollection of this moment in all of its risibility has sufficed to check every temptation to tally or even vaguely estimate the number of my friends.

Now, as to my first reservation: I was disabused of my misconception about Friendster’s micro-generational demographics at the moment of registration, when I discovered that you had to be at minimum 18 even to join; and subsequent browsing of the gallery of user profiles has persuaded me that I am, at 32, still young enough to limbo-dance my way gracefully enough under the right rim of the chronological bell curve of the population comprising the Friendster-using so-called community. Evidently the Friendster of today is not your father’s Friendster, the Friendster of the summer of 2003. But even a month into my Friendster membership, I hold fast to my second reservation; and indeed I hold all the faster to it the longer in the tooth I become as a Friendster user.

For the balance of this essay, I propose to examine, to analyze, to contextualize, to attempt to come to terms with, this second reservation. As I mentioned earlier, I have not kept up with the press on Friendster, but I think I am safe in assuming that whatever has been written about it in our major metropolitan dailies and alternative weeklies has been prevailingly derisory in tone and pitched to a readership that was complementarily predisposed to regard Friendster with a mixture of bemusement (not amusement) and scorn. I think I am safe in assuming that my detection of more than a whiff of Limburger about Friendster eo ipso does not suffice to render me some kind of voice—or, rather, nose—in the wilderness. I think I am safe in assuming that my readership of above-average literacy must needs a rant, eo ipso, against Friendster about as much as it needs a rant against American Idol (and surely the expression “to rant against American Idol to the literate” conjures up the phenomenon metaphorically denoted by the expression “to preach to the choir” so vividly that by all rights it ought to supersede the expression “to preach to the choir” itself, at least for the duration of American Idol’s broadcast run). But I hardly believe I would be safe in assuming that my reader was annoyed, offended, bemused, put off by Friendster for the same reasons that I am annoyed, offended, bemused, and put off by it. Often enough, although not invariably, in cases in which I share a distaste for something with another person, it turns out that my fellow nose-holder is repulsed by what appears to me to be that something’s least essential, its most contingent, qualities; while I am repulsed by what appear to me to be its most essential qualities, which qualities my fellow nose-holder for her part, finds completely innocuous, if not, even supposing that he or she has taken notice of them—and as often as not she has not taken notice of them. Supposing my distaste for Friendster fits this general pattern, I imagine that Joe or Jane Average contemns Friendster because its de facto (and icky) function as an online dating service so stridently clashes with its ostensible (and wholesome) raison d'être of bringing prospective friends together; whereas my distaste for Friendster is inspired by the raison d’être itself, which I take to be far from wholesome inasmuch as it is necessarily predicated on a wholly unwarrantable overrating, sentimentalizing, kitschifying of the bond of friendship. “In the world outside of the interweb,” so the creators of Friendster must have mused in their Eureka moment, “how do people make new friends but through the friends they already have? Out of all the people in the world a person has yet to meet, with whom is she most likely to have something in common but an as-yet unmet friend of a friend? Hence what greater service could we perform on behalf the lonely and friend-impoverished than that of facilitating, through the magic of the interweb, their meeting of these as yet-unknown friends of their friends?”

But this line of thinking is founded on the old logical fallacy of post hoc, propter hoc: as a matter of course we probably are indeed obliged to select the majority of our new friends from a pool of friends of old friends, but that gives us no justification for supposing that on meeting some counterfactual version of one of these friends of one of our friends, a person who conformed exactly in every respect to her real-world self save for the fact that she remained innocent of the acquaintance of our friend, we would, statistically speaking, be any more inclined to strike up a friendship with her than we would on meeting any other stranger picked at random out of a crowd. Let me not mince words here; let me not pull any punches; let me, indeed, play right into the hands of those who would accuse me of shooting from the hip, as with a well-nigh Proustian degree of cocksureness I resume the thread of my discourse by averring that even in the best of all best-case scenarios we—you and I and people in general—have precious little enough in common with our existing friends as it is. Contingency and inertia are the foundation and walls of friendship, in relation to which infrastructure shared interests and outlooks are but so much fluting and stucco. In the course of our lives, we are lucky if we meet a handful of people with whom we individually share a single ethicule, with whom we see eye to eye on just one or two points; the greater part of the outlook of even our closest of friends is terra incognita to us—indeed terra that we would prefer never to become cognita, that in fact we would blow to smithereens if we had our druthers. Thus, there is not even the slightest suspicion of a guarantee that whatever binds us to one of our closest friends corresponds to whatever binds her in turn to her other friends. Thus, every new acquaintance we make through one of our existing friends threatens to impoverish our personal life at least as much it promises to enrich it: yes, in this new acquaintance we may have encountered a future boon companion who will one day rival our friend in point of the esteem and trust she inspires in us; but in her we are much more likely to have encountered a future third wheel who promises to blight countless rendezvous by virtue of her mere presence.

Hence the ultimate perfidiousness of the whole Friendster project. In the mere act of publicly naming our existing friends in a non-hierarchical list, as we are impelled to do by Friendster from the outset, we already traduce our affections, we publicly overrate our tolerance for the company of certain people at the expense of certain others whose tolerability we necessarily underrate; and in continually augmenting this list by indiscriminately befriending the friends of our existing friends, both close an distant, as Friendster encourages us to do over the long haul, we ensure that the discrepancy between our material connection to our so-called social network and the actual ebb and flow of our affections will grow ever wider with the passage of time. And as if this weren’t bad enough, Friendster compounds the perfidiousness by eliciting from its users so-called “testimonials,” postings on a user’s profile page attesting to all and sundry what “a fabulous, hellarad, superphly dude Josh” or “a wonderful, hyperebullient, drop-dead-gorgeous sex goddess Suzy” is. The intrusion of the word testimonial into the gemütlich realm of friendship is disconcerting to say the least, considering how gamily it reeks of such places of killjoy formality as the human resources office, the courtroom, and the funeral parlor. Traditionally speaking, when it concerns a living person, the praise bestowed within a testimonial—in a reference for a prospective employer or in a deposition in the witness stand—is by its very nature a qualified form of praise, a form of praise severely limited in its scope of moral judgment. I testify that so-and-so is an accomplished graphic designer, that so-and-so is not so morally unregenerate as to be capable of drowning a kitten in cold blood, but I am mute on the question of whether so-and-so could be counted on to cover his share of a bar tab or offer his shoulder sympathetically to the tears of a genuinely aggrieved soul. Traditionally speaking, we allow ourselves to give vent to effusions of such fulsome goo as typifies the Friendster testimonial only in eulogies at funerals, when we can rest assured that no matter how thick we’re laying on the praise on behalf of so-and-so, and no matter how much of a first-rate asshole we actually thought he was when he walked the earth, so-and-so will never manage to give the lie to our testimonial by doing a bad turn to ourselves or anyone else present, being as he is safely dead and packed up for shipping to the cemetery or crematorium. Traditionally speaking, all of these provisos on the context and content of testimonials have universally held true—but we shall have to see what becomes of them in the post-Friendster age.

So far I have written of Friendster only in connection with the institution of friendship itself—that is to say, in isolation from a consideration of the other institutionalized social bonds of our time, to wit, the family, the marriage and the (ugh!) life partnership. And so far the picture I have painted of friendship has, at its very rosiest, been rather grim in aspect. But in all candor, and in spite of the Ecclesiastian fervor of my tirade of the preceding paragraphs, I can affirm that I have come here to praise friendship—to offer a testimonial, as it were, on its behalf—and not to bury it, that I have come here, in fact to do whatever I can—presumably practically nothing—stave off its prospective burial (although, as will become presently clear, I hardly regard burial as a particularly apt metaphor for the process that I fear friendship is about to undergo). Yes, the fact is that my view of friendship is, as compared to my view of these aforementioned other institutions, positively radiant; and that at bottom my fear of Friendster has nothing to do with its potentially deleterious effects on the bond of friendship qua friendship and everything to do with its potentially deleterious effects on friendship qua last bastion of humane sociality; I fear that Friendsterism, once its example has been taken up by the world at large, will end by dragging friendship from the surface of the muddy puddle on which it presently floats down to the murky bottom of this puddle in which these other institutions have been mired for several decades now. Let us synoptically consider the state of the family, the marriage, and the (ugh![1]) life partnership at the turn of the millennium. Owing to a multitude of historical causes that it is beyond the scope of the present essay (and, what is more to the point, the present writer’s patience) to delineate, over the past 50 to 75 years particular embodiments of all of these institutions have come materially to resemble certain big-ticket durable consumer goods—personal computers, cars, sailboats, and the like—more closely than they resemble their 18th and 19th century counterparts. At every stage of life, the possession of one of these three quasi-commodities, a life partnership, a spouse, or a family (our spouse and our progeny considered collectively), is a necessary if not sufficient precondition for membership in the human community, and yet no ineluctable extrinsic force, whether in the form of parental authority or in that of the prospective disapproval of society at large, binds us to the particular life partner, spouse, or family that we have chosen to affiliate ourselves with. We are entirely free to choose whether to maintain our affiliation with this particular life partner, spouse, or family, and being thus free we are bound to be haunted by the temptation to upgrade to a more agreeable or more covetable life partnership, marriage, or domestic arrangement. And yet again, if we were to judge by the general tenor of the remarks made by individuals apropos of their (ugh!) life partners, spouses, and children, we would suppose that the institutions of romantic love, marriage, and family were stronger, more perdurable now than at any earlier point in human history. No sooner have you had sex with the same person for two consecutive weekends, no sooner have you tied the old matrimonial knot, no sooner have you sired or borne your first whelp, than you are immediately obliged, in every social setting of whatever scale, from the corporate stockholders’ meeting to the barroom chinwag, to avow that it is the presence of “Ben, my life partner,” “Suzanne my devoted wife,” “Caitlin and Brianna, my darling children” alone in your life that is keeping your from applying a razor blade to your wrists, putting a bullet in your head, slipping your neck through a noose (this, of course, until the dissolution of the life partnership or of the marriage, or until the kids move away and stop bothering to stay in touch with you, at which point you are free to avow that the depredations of a Hitler, a Stalin, a Pol Pot can never match those that have been visited on you by your ex-life-partner, your spouse, your ungrateful children). At no point in our history than at present have we had less legitimate cause to trust and to feel loved by those supposedly nearest and dearest to us, and yet we persist in devoting the better part of our conversational energy on crying up our dependence on the trust and affection of these same people. As if in willful denial of the contingency and provisionality of our affiliations with our (ugh!) life partners, spouses, and children, we protest the essentialness and perdurability of these affiliations by means of a hyperbolic rhetoric of feeling that even the Victorians in their schmaltziest moments would never have stooped to using. In short, collectively, vis-à-vis the three institutions of the (ugh!) life partnership, the marriage, and the family, we have succumbed to the much underrated vice of sentimentality: we have lost the will or the capacity to distinguish, in the first place, between what it might be expedient, for the sake of keeping up with the Joneses, to avow we feel and what we actually feel; and in the second place, between what we actually feel at the present moment and what we have every reasonable expectation of feeling a month, a year, ten years hence—most damningly of all, we have lost sight of any notion that it might be worthwhile, for decency’s sake, to draw such distinctions.

It is only in counterpoint to my foregoing lament on the obligatory sentimentalization of the life partnership, the marriage, and the family that I can finally sing my ode to friendship; for it seems to me that for all of its inherent and inescapable failings, the quasi-institution of friendship has, if nothing else, and in contrast to these other institutionalized social relationships, heretofore managed to slip below the radar screen, so to speak, of sentimentality—perhaps merely by virtue of its sheer marginality, its non-exclusivity, its institutional nebulousness. To be sure, sentimentalization is probably the rule rather the exception in friendship. Most people do indeed tend to overrate the degree of intimacy they enjoy with their friends just as they overrate the degree of intimacy they enjoy with their life partners, spouses, or children; and even the least sentimentally-inclined among my readers doubtlessly can attest to their firsthand familiarity with collectivities of so-called friends in which the discrepancy between the institutional rhetoric of the friendship and its underlying material stratum of intimacy is of the acutest—to name a pair of hypothetical but entirely plausible examples, a group of women who have nothing in common but their residence in Moline, Davenport, Rock City, or Bettendorf, and their womanhood, and who every Saturday afternoon as a gaggle descend upon the shops of the Rock City Supermall sporting identical pink T-shirts collectively identifying them as the Quad City Shopaholics, a group of men who have nothing in common but their manhood, their residence in the 21030 Zip code and a predilection for beer-swilling, and who every Saturday evening as a pride descend upon the barstools of the Cockeysville Pool ’n’ Pub sporting identical blue T-shirts that identify them collectively as the Greater Cockeysville Beer Swillers. But such kitschification as instanced by these examples has not been written into the very specifications, so to speak, of friendship as it has been written into the very specifications of all of the other institutionalized social relationships I discussed earlier. For whatever reason, I have found it worthwhile and practical to stay in touch with a certain individual—let us call him Jeff Stuckenschmidt—over a period of more than a decade. My presentation of my affiliation with Mr. Stuckenschmidt to the world is entirely at my discretion. I am permitted to refer to him, at one extreme of estimation as my oldest friend, or my closest friend, or one of my lead homies, while at the other extreme I may choose to refer to him as this guy I know or simply elect to avoid any allusion whatsoever to his existence in the presence of other people. Mr. Stuckenschmidt is likewise free to represent his affiliation with me to the world just as he chooses. He may choose to represent me as his oldest and closest friend in the course of every conversation at which I am not present or he may never mention me at all to a single soul; none of this is relevant to the material character of our friendship, none of this matters a whit as far as he and I qua friends are concerned. And the specific material content that Mr. Stuckenschmidt and I impart to our friendship is likewise entirely up to the two of us. I can spend as much or as little time with Mr. Stuckenschmidt as I choose in any setting that I choose, and when I have become weary of his company I can take my leave of him. If Mr. Stuckenschmidt is a passionate lepidopterist and he knows that the sight of butterflies makes my skin crawl he will never dream of inviting me along to a butterfly hunt, while if I am a passionate oenophile and know that Herr Stuckenschmidt is a teetotaler I will never dream of inviting him to a wine tasting; and neither of us will feel snubbed for having been excluded from the other's pastime. (Contrast this latitudinarian atmosphere with the factionalism that prevails in most marriages, in which each party squanders thousands of hours a year on alternately humoring the other party's tastes and trying to cure her of them.) If I take offense at something Mr. Stuckenschmidt has said or done, I am not required on the spot to figure out whether I am justified in feeling so offended; that is, to figure out whether my resentment arises out of an on-the-mark intuition of some irremediable flaw in his character or from some blameworthy trait of my own (such as, say, an inclination toward envy). I can wait for my resentment to cool to such a point at which it will no longer cloud my judgment, and at that point I can decide whether it was I or he who was at fault. If in the end I decide in favor of Mr. Stuckenschmidt, I may subsequently call him up without reservation; if in the end I decide against him, I must subsequently decide, based on a general consideration of the history of his conduct, whether the flaw in his character that gave rise to the insult precludes my enjoyment of his company—whether it is a peripheral vice outweighed by certain central virtues or a central vice insufficiently counterbalanced by peripheral virtues. I am in no way obliged in such a case to yield to my resentment by picking a quarrel with him, for the sake of “clearing the air,” of “getting things out in the open,” as I am so obliged whenever I feel rising within my breast the faintest tremor of ill-feeling toward my (ugh) life-partner, my wife, or one of my children. Within friendship it is still possible to maintain simultaneously a genuinely ethical disposition toward the other person that is, correlatively, a genuinely ethical disposition toward oneself, a disposition that gives free scope to other person’s subjecthood without impinging on one’s own subjective freedom. It is still possible to maintain such a mutual disposition within a friendship because the world has placed no formal restrictions on what constitutes a friendship, on what a friend should or should not be expected to do. Above all else, on this score, I wish to emphasize the exemption from having to name our friends as friends; as it is within this exemption that resides the utopian hope of freeing ourselves from the curse of sentimentalization. We cannot, after all, overrate that which we do not rate at all. Hypothetically—but not at all merely theoretically—we may envisage a friendship in which neither party ever made reference to the word friend either to the other party or to any third party, but which nonetheless by virtue of its continuity provided the heartiest moral sustenance to both parties; a friendship that formally speaking did not even exist but materially speaking, in point of sheer consistency of purpose, in point of its capacity to let each of them to be herself—however fleetingly—without impinging on another person’s freedom to be herself, trumped all of the other relationships in these two people’s lives, provided each of them with a greater degree of moral sustenance than did any of these other relationships. Such a friendship would be a normative if not ideal[2] friendship, and, by extension, a normative if not ideal embodiment of human sociability. Suffice it to say, such a friendship is axiomatically impossible, indeed unintelligible, within the Friendster universe; and it will be equally axiomatically impossible, equally axiomatically unintelligible, in the larger world should the codification of friendships, according to the model furnished by Friendster, become the rule rather than the exception.

Even after setting aside the ultimately unanswerable kinds of ad hominem retorts to my very premises, retorts that in any case might be issued only by the sort of self-congratulatory Pollyanna who has given up reading this essay several pages ago (“You’re just saying all of these mean things about people because you’re incapable of loving; why can’t you just accept others as they are like me?,” etc.), I can foresee two objections to the argument I have advanced so far that at first blush seem entirely reasonable. The first—and the easier of the two to dispatch—consists in the observation that Friendster is hardly the first example of a thing of its kind to appear on the world stage, that in Friendster we hardly witness the first large-scale and certainly not the most radical attempt to redefine or reconstitute the quasi-institution of friendship. Two obvious candidates for such a precedent spring to mind, namely Quakerism and the International Communist Labor Movement, neither of which, obviously, has in the long run proved fatal to the classical institution of friendship. Every Quaker was (and, for all I know, still is) obliged to address every other Quaker as friend; every Communist was (and in a tiny handful of countries still is) obliged to address every other Communist as friend’s more plebian synonym, comrade. Quakerism has been around for the better part of four centuries, Communism for the better part of two; at certain points in their respective histories each has been a social and political force to be reckoned with on a national or global scale, and yet all along, even during those periods and in those places in which one of the other of them has been at its been at its most vigorous and has claimed the greatest number of adherents, people have continued to form and cultivate friendships on the classical model. “Is it not conceivable,” my reasonable opponent queries me, “that Friendster should flourish on the same scale as Quakerism or Communism while remaining content, like these two movements, to leave the classical institution of friendship untouched? Does the mandate that every Friendster user should address all of his fellow Friendster users as friends differ in any material respect—vis-à-vis the world at large—from the mandate that every Quaker should address all of his fellow Quakers as friends or the mandate that every Communist should address all of his fellow Communists as comrades?” To the first of these questions I answer no; to the second, yes. For in both Quakerism and Communism the friendly-comradely mandate is merely a tactical maneuver subordinate to a larger strategic aim. Quakerism and Communism are both movements in the only meaningful sense of the term: that is to say, they are both collectivities united by their will to attain a common goal—the kingdom of God in the case of the Quakers, a post-capitalist utopia in the case of the Communists. Thus, the hailing of your fellow Quaker or Communist as a friend or comrade amounts to nothing more (or less) than an acknowledgment that he or she is every bit as devoted to the cause of the movement as you are. Neither the Quaker nor the Communist has ever seen any point in dispensing with the classical notion of friendship, or in ceasing to cultivate friendships according to the classical model, until such time at which every human soul will have been won over to the cause of Quakerism or Communism; the Quaker or Communist has always simply gone about his business in the world with two parallel notions of friendship in his head—one that is lofty, noble, and preeminently transcendent; and another that is lower, common, and worldly. In the present, fallen state of the world, you and I are both friends or comrades inasmuch as we are both united in our will to bring into being the kingdom of God or the workers’ paradise, a will that transcends our venal impulses to enjoy each other’s company and to help each other out as individuals; in hailing you as my friend I may put you under the obligation to attend an anti-war protest in solidarity with all of our other friends, or to participate a campaign to organize the workers at a local factory in solidarity with our other comrades. But on the other hand I do not thereby put you in any danger of being one day conscripted to help me move or share a drink with me at five minutes’ notice when I find myself in a state of personal crisis (unless, by some unhappy coincidence, we find ourselves both living in some jerkwater town where neither of has any expectation of meeting any other Quakers or labor activists). But Friendster, unlike Quakerism and Communism, is no movement: the Friendsterian project of making as many friends as possible is not subordinated to any higher aim but constitutes an aim in itself. And unlike Quakerism and Communism, Friendster makes no pretense of redefining the institution of friendship from scratch; indeed, it holds fast to the classical notion of friendship and presupposes its solidity. For the Friendster user, it is not a question of forming an altogether new kind of affiliation with the world under the auspices of an altogether new definition of friendship, of devoting oneself to a cause and retroactively christening all of the adherents of that cause (even those whose existence she is as yet unaware of) as friends; it is a question, rather, of maintaining her existing affiliation with the world along with her existing understanding of friendship, and of slackening the standards according to which she considers herself bound to another person in friendship. To cast my comparison of the two classes of phenomena into a metaphor that is only barely a metaphor: Quakerism and Communism set about forming an economy apart from the one sanctioned by the state, an economy that makes use of its own, self-minted currency; while Friendster sets about flooding the official state-sanctioned economy with counterfeit bills that are impossible to distinguish from legitimate currency. In the post-capitalist or post-secular world envisaged by Quakerism or Communism—that is to say, a world in which every human being was a Quaker or a Communist—the old classical notion of friendship, like the state, would have long since simply withered away, having been supplanted by a form of sociality by comparison with which the affiliation of mere individuals with other mere individuals would seem downright barbaric. By contrast, in a world in which every human being was a Friendster user—a world that Friendster may be preparing us for whether it actually envisages it or not—the classical notion of friendship would survive intact, but radically degraded, given that 99% of all of the friendships subsisting in the world had been built on a foundation comprising a handful of smiley-face emoticons and 50-character-long text messages.

As to the second of the two plausible objections to my argument, namely that I am surely taking Friendster just a wee bit too seriously in ascribing to it any kind of world-transforming power; given that Friendster is in essence a mere toy, hailing from the infantile fringe of the interweb; and given, moreover, that a substantial plurality, if not a majority, of Friendster users, being full aware of its infantile provenance, habitually allude to their own affiliations with Friendster with tongues firmly in cheek—as to this objection, I have no hope of conclusively refuting it. For to argue persuasively that something sets a bad precedent, as I hope I have already done vis-à-vis Friendster, does not amount to arguing persuasively that it sets a dangerous precedent. A man who drives his car over the railings of a bridge sets a bad precedent for other drivers, but one not very many of them will be keen to follow. Generally speaking—or, at any rate, in the human world—the only way to go about arguing that a given precedent is a dangerous and not merely bad one is to try to prove that it echoes in some significant register an antecedent bad precedent whose dangerousness has, with the benefit of hindsight, been conclusively proven.[3] As we have already seen, in the register of friendship itself Friendster has no precedent of any kind, dangerous or harmless, to echo. Hence my intuition that Friendster threatens to erode the quasi-institution of friendship as we have known it necessarily rests on my admittedly counterintuitive conviction that flippancy, jocularity, lack of seriousness, whatever you want to call it (only please, for Petessakes, don’t call it irony[4]), far from being the impassable scourge of sentimentality, may in the long run, in some instances, prove to be sentimentality’s partner in crime. My conviction is that when we jokingly refer to something by means of the word x we are behaving more like the person who refers to this same something as x in all earnestness than we are like the person to whom it would never occur to refer to this particular something as x in any spirit, joking or otherwise. As regards Friendster specifically, then, I believe that if the devisers of Friendster had not, on some level, as the expression goes, been keen on capitalizing on the sentimental and non-predatory connotations of the word friend, they would have chosen a different name for their service: in a spirit of greater modesty they might have called it Knowster; in a spirit of greater frankness they might have called it Prospectivesexpartnerster. And I believe that Friendster users, in acquiescing in the designation of the people they happen to meet or keep in touch with through Friendster as friends, are complementarily on some level either capitalizing on or being capitalized by these same sentimental and non-predatory connotations, however smirkingly they might go on about Friendster in their real-world conversations.

In order to make my conviction carry any weight with the reader, I must tell the story of how some particular word, having initially been bandied about in a spirit of jocularity, eventually came to serve a materially serious function; and happily, I have the story of just such a word ready to hand, that word being another F-word, indeed, the coarsest of all F-words—namely, folks. The ballad of the word folks that I am about to tell is the mirror image of the science fiction scenario I envisage for the post-Friendster world; for whereas looking ahead to the post-Friendster world I see a watchword of civilization being debased by the increase of its currency in uncivil settings, the story the evolution of folks over 80 or so years is a tale of the ennoblement of a watchword of barbarism through the increase of its currency in civil settings. Through the earliest decades of the last century, folks was a word used exclusively by bumpkins in reference or address to other bumpkins. And implicitly or explicitly the word folks always carried with it the attributive adjective plain, or simple; to the person employing it folks were always plain, simple individuals like you and me without any use for book-learning or the fancy talk of city-slickers. The class of folks comprised all of those idlers and simpletons who were distinguishable not so much by their idleness and simplicity as by their placidity in the face of the notion of remaining idle and simple. On the other hand, within a general register of linguistic usage for the purpose of designating, in the third person, a more general class of human beings comprising both the provincial and the urbane we had at our disposal the perfectly serviceable and humane word people; while for the purpose of addressing a class of human beings to whom by default we always gave the benefit of the doubt of assuming they were cultivated and urbane, we had at our disposal the equally serviceable and humane expression ladies and gentlemen. But all that started to change back in the (heady?) days of the first-generation organ of electronic mass media, the radio, when some cynically plain-spoken humorist hailing from the heartland (Will Rogers seems a likely candidate) hit on idea of addressing his entire listening audience, comprising all sorts of folks—er, people—from toffish Manhattan socialites to little old ladies in Dubuque, as folks, by way of bringing them all under one big chautauqua-tent-like electromagnetic umbrella. Of course, our humorist must have known full well that roughly half of his audience were not and did not consider themselves folks, but he also presumably thought that this half would also take his hailing of them as folks as a good-natured jibe, and would actually, in a perverse kind of way, enjoy it, as they might enjoy a week’s sojourn at a dude ranch. The telos of this bit of rural vaudevillian tomfoolery of yesteryear is that now, at the turn of the millennium, folks has almost completely displaced people and ladies and gentlemen in practically every conceivable kind of context, from greetings in general-circulation letters or e-mail messages to the body text of articles in major metropolitan newspapers. At the same time, folks has shed not a particle of its old connotation of placid simplicity and idleness; it has, I must emphasize, displaced rather than replaced the word people. To refer to or address a given human collectivity as a group of folks is automatically to hail each member of that collectivity as a good-natured, banjo-picking, tobacco-chewing, rocking-chair-loving hillbilly, a veritable Jed Clampett. But clearly, a substantial if ever-diminishing minority of the populace would prefer not to be lumped in with Jed Clampett and company—they would prefer, in correspondence addressed to them by strangers, to be addressed as Dear Sir or Madam; to be addressed by their radio and television talk show hosts as (a member of the collectivity of) ladies and gentlemen; to read in their local newspaper about the people milling about the corridors the Rock City Supermall (where they themselves have been known to shop). For my part, I know that whenever I receive a general-circulation e-mail that opens with a greeting of “Folks,” or turn on my radio and hear myself and my fellow-listeners addressed by the same formula, I want to reach into the monitor or the speaker with both hands, seize the offending party by his grubby lapels, and having dragged him bodily into the room, pull his moth-eaten homburg down over his ears, break his god-awful banjo in two over my knee, and pour chaw from his own pouch down his throat until he chokes. But of course, practically speaking, I have no means of giving vent to my outrage; the most I can do is to close my inbox or tune to a different station and wait for it to dissipate. The folks and would-be folks among us have triumphed seemingly for good; in our epoch those dour and pretentious sorts who aspire to be full-fledged people are, as they say, shit out of luck. Those who, in a thoroughly Friendsterized world, took so serious and selective view of friendship as to demur at calling a friend every Tom, Dick, and Harry (or Meg, Jane, and Suzy) whose existence they had become apprised of through the interweb, would likewise be shit out of luck.

In conformity to custom, I shall conclude this essay as I began it, on a personal note, by publicly taking stock of the state of my own friendscape a full month into my Friendster membership. So far the list of friends on my profile page comprises a mere five individuals, only one or at most two of whom, by virtue of being people I try to stay in touch with on every week or every other week when they are nearby and every month or every other month when they are far away, actually qualify as friends according to my provisional, private standards. The other three I would describe as friends of friends who are there effectively because they asked to be by adding me to their own list of friends. (To brush away a hand offered in friendship is as good as to make a new enemy, no?) On the other hand, I myself have been left in suspense by one of my provisionally genuine friends, a Friendster user whom I invited to be my Friendster friend several weeks ago and who has yet to acknowledge my invitation. Should I read his silence—so I ask myself—as a token of the marginality of Friendster in his own world or as a token of my own marginality in that world, a marginality that has so far been belied by his willingness to meet me for dinner at least once during each of his increasingly rare and increasingly brief stays in my home metropolis (his former home metropolis)? In all of this endless fretting over the question of whether I am being snubbed by this friend of mine I descry the materialization of one of my least wholesome qualities, a kind of jealous suspiciousness that I must always be on guard against whenever I find myself speculating about the motives of other people. I can hardly take comfort in the thought that my Friendster use is nurturing this quality rather than abetting my efforts to rein it in. Nor can I take much pride in the fact that I have seen fit to accept more than one Friendster testimonial in which I seem to be presented more as an object of ridicule than as one of esteem. Parenthetically, I must add here in qualification (but by no means in retraction) of my earlier diatribe against Friendster testimonials that, presumably in rebellion against the inherent soppiness of the testimonial formula, a minority of Friendster users have taken to penning testimonials that are essentially anti-testimonials, mini-screeds that tread a fine line between satire and surrealism; and that the testimonials I am writing about are instances of this anti-genre. To elaborate: in one of the two testimonials he has written on my behalf (the other one consists of a single word: “deviant”), Paul claims that I “like collecting boxes.” I can pinpoint the inspiration for this little fragment of misrepresentation down to the very day and practically the very hour of its origination; namely late on an early summer evening when Paul paid his first and so-far only visit to my apartment and vocally observed that occupying practically the full breadth of my living room couch (and thus effectively annulling its utility as an accoutrement of hospitality) were two enormous cardboard boxes, the packing materials for the very computer on which I am writing this essay, a computer that had been delivered to me less than a month earlier. Now, I’ll tell you something, ladies and gentlemen: disposing of large cardboard boxes in my apartment building is no picnic; with justice you might even describe it as something of an ordeal. You have to collapse them, fold them up, and carry them all the way downstairs (seven flights in my case) to a dumpster at the side of the building. To anyone already aware of this set of disincentives or thoughtful enough to intuit them after the fact, the presence of these two boxes in my apartment would have served simply as an index of my participation in a certain kind of middle-grade slovenliness. But Paul, whether or not he really saw their presence in a different, more sinister light (and I can’t seriously imagine he did), impishly seized on it as a pretext for publicly affiliating me with the risible but nonetheless decidedly sinister class of demented souls who actively hoard cardboard boxes. And for all of my scruples on this score how could I refuse to allow him to represent me thus? If there is one character in our epoch who is the object of more contempt and ultimately more mistrust than the type who hoards cardboard boxes it is the type who, as they say, can’t take a joke.
To my credit, I have at least managed to resist the temptation to invite my non-Friendsterized friends to join Friendster for the sake of padding out my list of friends and thereby making myself appear to be better liked, more popular than I at present appear to be to the so-called community of Friendster users. I have further managed to resist the temptation to use my Friendster membership as an excuse or pretext for getting back in touch with a round half-dozen former friends and acquaintances whose existence in the world of the present I have become cognizant of through their inclusion in one of my Friendster friends’ list of friends. Prior to my affiliation with Friendster, I had at my disposal abundant means of ferreting out their whereabouts and dropping them a line, and yet for whatever reason I did not find it worthwhile to do so; why should I find it any more worthwhile to do so now? The discovery that we share an affiliation with Friendster inspires in me no more fellow-feeling than would the discovery that our respective Social Security numbers shared a single three-digit prefix.[5] In the end, I suspect that my foray into the world of Friendster will be short-lived: I do not foresee my list of friends expanding much beyond its present length; nor do I envisage myself endlessly tweaking my profile page in the hope of transforming it into a homing beacon for my prospective soul mate in the urban bustle of Manhattan or the wilds of Tajikistan. I foresee myself essentially doing my level best to live, as long as I am permitted to do so, in exactly the same manner as I lived before I signed up with Friendster—fastidious in choosing my friends and even more fastidious in choosing which of them to call friends, keeping as my watchword Montaigne’s famous proclamation, lifted from Aristotle, “O my friends, there is no friend,” and embracing it in all of its bracing paradoxicality.

[1] To gloss my inarticulate “ugh!” in comparatively articulate English: with the displacement, over the course of the past decade, of the paired terms girlfriend and boyfriend by the single gender-neutral term life partner we have clearly reached an all-time low as regards the discrepancy between the words we use to designate our particular affiliations with other people and the actual character of these affiliations. Girlfriend and boyfriend were both appropriately infantile in connotation: in referring another person as your girlfriend or boyfriend you conjured up in the mind of your listener or interlocutor the image of two high school students going steady—that is to say, seeing each other for a period of at most three years, a period pretty much coextensive with the length of the average relationship between two adults of any age. The introduction of the term life partner was evidently intended to impart to such relationships an aroma of sanctity, grown-upness, and perdurability that they are simply incapable of exuding. Your chances of persuading your parents that they may expect to see Suzy next Christmas will not improve an iota for your having introduced her this past Christmas as your life partner rather than as your girlfriend. Those who would divest the phrase of its sententiousness by cropping it down to the word partner more often than not end up setting their listener or interlocutor the awkward and distracting task of figuring out whether the relationship alluded to is of a professional or of an amorous nature, a task made all the more exasperating by the fact that often enough the domains of love and work overlap.
[2] A norm is distinguishable from an ideal by virtue of the practicability of its attainment.
[3] Hence the avidity with which partisans of every conceivable political cause pounce on interwar Germany in search of parallels to the present historical situation. After all, the most dangerous bad precedents in history are to be found there
[4] The history of the debasement that the word irony has undergone over the past half-century is worthy of treatment in a separate essay, perhaps even a monograph.
[5] In all candor, though, I must confess to having been mildly piqued by the wholesale neglect of these former friends and acquaintances of mine, by the apparent fact that not one of them has thought it worthwhile to invite me to be her Friendster friend. But such is the perverse logic of the human heart: to invert and inflate Groucho’s famous witticism, any club that won’t have me as a member is one that I want to be asked to join, regardless of whether I would ever have it as my club.

Friday, July 09, 2004

An observation I've been meaning to record somewhere for about six months now

We find other people's cell phone conversations irksome principally (and perhaps solely) because they simultaneously whet and frustrate our appetite for eavesdropping.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Pseudo-Mars and Pseudo-Venus

So, partly under the inspiration of Phil Gyford's Pepys Diary blog I've started up a blog version of Addison and Steele's Spectator. Originally I planned to publish this post as a comment on that blog, but on second thought (and also in emulation of Mr. Gyford's practice) I decided that I should save my editorializing for this one. The very first post headed (by me, not by A&S or any of their editors) Chastity and Courage put me in mind of how nuanced and progressive the Enlightenment view of natural human qualities was by comaprison with received opinion about these qualities in our own time. The essay (by Addison) centers around--or rather grows out of--a "Discourse upon that which passes for the chief Point of Honour among men and Women." By a "Point of Honour" Addison means a moral quality that a person feels himself or herself shamed in failing to exemplify; in men, he writes, the chief point of honor is courage, in women chastity. Addison's main aim in this essay is, in a word, to persuade the reader that each of these qualities is much overrated as a virtue--that in being given pride of place it crowds out the cultivation of more worthwhile qualities. The cause of this overrating of courage among men and of chastity among women, Addison speculates, must be "that each Sex sets the greatest Value on the Qualification which renders them the most amiable in the eyes of the contrary Sex. Had Men chosen for themselves, without Regard to the Opinions of the Fair Sex, I should believe the Choice would have fallen on Widsom or Virtue; or had Women determined their own Point of Honour, it is probable that Wit or Good-Nature would have carried it against chastity." What's fascinating and ultimately compelling about Addison's thesis here is its refusal to make a beeline from established practice to some ineluctable natural cause. The present-day reader would agree with Addison that men prize courage because they want to make a good showing in the eyes of women and that women prize chastity (or, at any rate, wish to avoid seeming promiscuous) because they want to make a good showing in the eyes of men, but he or she would take this to be a difference hard-wired into us by nature and would then adduce some dopey pseudo-scientific theory drawing on the evidence provided by the behavior of cavemen, dogs, reptiles, possibly even protozoa by way of arguing that because we could never help it anyway all of us, men and women alike, should just go on behaving as stupidly as we always have according to the models supplied to us by the current microepochal stereotypes of our sex. (Recall that most of the hack behaviorialist accounts of sex differences account not only for such historically unspecific qualities as chastity and courage but also such new arrivals on the scene as bad driving and forgetting to put the toilet seat down.) Not that Addison rejects the notion that there are biologically grounded moral differences between the sexes--quite the contrary; he simply believes that because these differences never emerge unmediated by a social setting, we should never assume that the prevailing pattern of their manifestation is either desirable or natural. According to the Addisonian dispensation, we must draw a distinction not between men and women as they are and as they would be in some adrogynous utopia, but between men and women as they are and as they would be in some realizable world in which they would remain men and women while being more attentive to the moral exigencies of a bi-sexual (as distinct from bisexual!) world. But the intermillennial reader has long since lost both the relish and the capacity for making such salutary distinctions as these; that capacity and relish have long since fallen victim to the ravages of Ockham's Airbrush, that rule of intermillennial logic that states that "the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable when and only when it reaffirms our prejudices."

Thursday, June 24, 2004

General Mills

So, having finally taken the measure of Mills's Power Elite I can now say that I was not mistaken in my premonition of just under three weeks ago that it would induce in me a fit of a peculiar sort of plus ca changism. Of course, though, to say that my reading of the book ended up making me feel exactly as I had expected it would is not at all to say that I learned nothing from it; and in fact I learned a great deal. But before explaining what it was I learned (and in order to explain it) I should perhaps first give the reader some sense of the plus ca changeism I'm talking about as against the ordinary garden-variety plus ca changism that consists in the simple recognition of the past in the present or vice versa. I learned a great deal less, mind you, about the world the book purported to describe than about the world that preceded it and the world of the present. Received plus-ca-changeist wisdom about the 60s is concerned with debunking the myth of the 50s as the golden age of the nuclear family, the era of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, et cetera et ad nauseum; it is in other words, presentist in its polemical slant. "We may think of the 50s as the 'Good old days,' the conventional plus-ca-changeist "but statistics show that the rate of out-of-wedlock births was as high as/nearly as high as/ higher than it is today." But my form of plus-ca-changeism takes the following form: "We may think of the 50s as the good old days but it's shocking to discover how bad they already were--how far back the badness of the present extends, and how much of a fall civilization had already taken by then." Now, if my plus ca changeism had turned out to be of the familiar plus la meme chose kind, you would expect me to be saying here that what I learned was that things have more or less always been as bad as they are now, I'd be taking the line that this book was a wake-up call to all those who would idealize the 50s . But my plus-ca-changeism was a different variety: the more you think things have changed for the worse recently, the further back in time "recently" turns out to be.

Mills himself, for all of his relative youth, seems to be a man of an earlier epoch: "In America, [the celebrity] system is carried to the point where a man who can knock a small white ball into a hole in the ground with more efficiency and skill than anyone else thereby gains access to the President of the United States."

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Sunday, June 06, 2004


I've just become acquainted with Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten courtesy of Kultur's video of the Stuttgart Opera's production from 1989. Before my viewing I reflected on something Adorno had said with typically Adornonian heavyhandedness in his 1969 essay "Opera and the Long-Playing Record": "It has been more than thirty years since any operas have been written for opera houses that--if one is allowed to insist on such high standards--manifested something of world spirit [Weltgeist]." Now, as the premiere of Die Soldaten had taken place in 1965, and Adorno had almost surely at least heard of it, I wondered whether he was lumping in Zimmermann's opus in with these latter-day Weltgeist-benighted operas. I can now only guess that he was. Yes, at the level of compositional technique Die Soldaten seemed to be modern enough, at least to my my relatively unschooled ears, inasmuch as I noticed passages that obviously showed the imprint of Webern (passages in which, for example, a woodwind solo phrase would be followed by a col legno ensemble string phrase bearing no obvious resemblance to it in melody or phrasing). But practically from curtain rise to curtain fall the Weltgeist remained elusively out of reach. Adorno would of course have forbidden himself the use of that "almost," as for him the notion of a partially-Weltgeist-manifesting work was as nonsensical as the notion of a partially-haunted house. But as for my part I think an "almost" is not amiss in this case, I should probably explain what I understand Weltgest-affirmation to consist in, in case my understand of it diverges from Adorno's. For me, a good rule of thumb for testing whether a work is in touch with the Weltgeist is to ask whether it has transformed my picture of the epoch [Zeitbild] that engendered it or merely reaffirmed my already-extant picture of that epoch. In saying this, I should not be misconstrued as claiming that if a work makes use of or is partially constituted by the stereotypical motifs of its epoch we should assume that it fails to manifest the Weltgeist. One of Die Soldaten's boosters--I can no longer who, blamed the infrequency of its productions on its distinctly 1960s character. But this bit of reportage hardly sufficed to persuade me to write off Die Soldaten in advance as being out of touch with the Weltgeist, as I know only too well how often people mistake the most trivial and inconsequential elements of a work for its most essential elements, so that a work dating from the 1960s need make only the most fleeting reference to LSD or the Beatles in order to qaulify as a product very much of its time--meaning a work merely of its time. In fact there are very few such stereotypical flags of the 60s in Die Soldaten. Nonetheless in a more than superficial way, Die Soldaten is a product of its time.

At first, I thought it might turn out otherwise--and in this expectation inheres my qualifying "almost"--for the visual and aural spectacle that commenced with the rising of the curtain was like nothing I had ever heard or seen before. Peter Quantrill, in his MW review of the DVD of this production, describes Zimmermann's overture or prelude as a "five-minute orchestral pile-up that summarises and seems to reject all the music written before it." More disturbing for me than the music itself, though, was the choreography that it accompanied: at the commencement of the opening bars, the cast, numbering in the dozens and assembled en masse on the two-tiered stage, stood or sat fixed in waxwork-like attitudes; gradually, as the music progressed the figures were disturbed by its irregular, unpredictable rhythm, first only mildly and in unison, as though actuacted by the movement of a wildly erratic clockwork mechanism; and eventually jerkily, convulsively, and in chaos, as though each of them was being jolted by a sporadically administered electrical shock. Above all else what made this ballet mechanique so disturbing for me was that I didn't know when it would end--the thought that these figures could go on behaving in this way indefinitely without betraying the slightest trace of any recognizably human quality was downright horrifying. (Admittedly this was not an effect that could be reproduced in subseuqent viewings.) Inasmuch as this pantomime constituted an "advance"--if such it can be called--on the merely depersonalized characterization of expressionism, the form of characterization exhibited in Wozzeck and Lulu while resonating with none of my poetic stereotypes of the 60s, for its duration Die Soldaten appeared to to me to be in touch with the Weltgeist. That all changed with the commencement of the first scene proper. Now, throughout the prelude, which had ended with everyone collapsing into some sort of mass coma, the only figures exempt from participation in the pantomime had been those of Marie and Charlotte, who remained frozen at the center of the lower stage; now with the sounding of the first chord (at least I think it was a chord) of the first scene they sprang into life--albeit only with what little life was required for a fairly static scene centering around the composition of a letter. The first bit of dialogue, an aria given over entirely to lugubrious metaphysical speculation, came from Charlotte. The following line is characteristic of the whole: "If man knew what was to be found at the depths of his heart he'd wish he'd never had one." A powerful beginning--the only trouble is, it's not to be found at the corresponding point in the text of the play by J. M .R. Lenz that serves as the basis for Zimmermann's libretto. I don't know if Zimmermann transplanted this bit of dialogue from some other place in Lenz's writings or whether he composed it himself. I lean towards thinking he composed it himself, as the notion that something might be concealed in the depths of the heart seems intrinsically psychoanalytic in character. Such forced anachronism would certainly be in keeping with Zimmermann's practice throughout the opera. Not that at any other point he tampers so conspicuously with the dialogue or the action, save in one critical part of the last scene; for the most part, indeed, Zimmermann follows the Bergian precedent of using dialogue drawn verbatim from the original play in relation to which the libretto thus stands as an abridgement rather than an adaptation. No, most of Zimmermann's tamperings take a form that would go unnoticed by someone who was encountering this work for the first time blindfolded, courtesy, say, of the Telarc CD release of this production. It is, in fact, in his staging of the play that Zimmerman most evidently capitulates to the stereotypically 60s.


Wednesday, June 02, 2004


The heading of that last (and, in this unique instance, first) posting was misleading. True, I was thumbing through C. Wright Mills's Power Elite yesterday, but I haven't yet read enough of it to say anything remotely well-informed about it. Whatever I learn from it I suspect it'll induce in me an attack of plus-ça-change-ism (a specific form of plus-ça-change-ism whose character I may perhaps elaborate later in connection with my better-informed account of the book).

C. Wright Mills