Monday, July 28, 2008

Perfecting Retreat

I've been reading Richard Sennett's 1990 book The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (I'm about to assign it to a class). I'm early on, but on page 23, Sennett reminds us of the 19th Century work of one of the pioneers of sociology, Ferdinand Tonnies. Even in early-industrial Germany 125 years ago, Tonnies saw a marked difference in social life between two kinds of communities:
The vision of an interior in whose warmth people open up was enshrined in the jargon of the social sciences by Ferdinand Tonnies when he coined the opposition between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Gemeinschaft represented to him a "face-to-face" social relationship in a place that was small and socially enclosed, while Gesellschaft was a more exposed, mute exchange. Buying a stewpot in a corner shop where you chat and bargain was an experience suffused with Gemeinschaft, whereas buying the same stewpot in a department store in silence was an operation in the domain of Gesellschaft. (p.23)
And as I was reading this, I was pondering the ability to spend so much of our lives in isolation. Certainly, shopping is increasingly isolated; not only do we not have meaningful social exchange in the aisles of our supermarket, or even at the checkstand, but we purchase more and more of our goods online (the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that "e-commerce" represented about 3% of all goods and services purchased in the first quarter of 2006, up from about half a percent in 1999; the growth is pretty much linear and constant).

But aside from shopping, we've invented fascinating ways to be private in public. First the Walkman and now the iPod allow us to have our own soundtrack, and to make it clear to others that we don't care to be interrupted. We regularly see people walking together on a sidewalk but each immersed in her or his own cell phone call. The car is a sensory isolation booth, encasing us in steel and glass and again with the stereo as an auditory buffer.

At work, the interoffice phone replaced the walk down the hall, and the e-mail replaced the interoffice phone. I'm speaking to you (whoever you might be) from my keyboard in an otherwise empty house. I go to the gym in the morning, surrounded by thirty other people engaged in the same activity, all of us wordlessly staring in bovine fixation at the televisions mounted from the ceiling. (I was in a hotel a couple of years ago that had a 5" television installed under the button panel in each elevator. God forbid that I should have to ride up to the 12th floor without passive entertainment.)

Until about 1920 or so, if you wanted to hear music, you had to go to a physical location and listen to people present in the same room with you. Now, we not only listen to music electronically transported across space on physical media or radio waves, we regularly listen to dead people (two of the Beatles, for instance, or all of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, or Mark Sandman of Morphine — an extensive list of the dead-and-still-popular, as you might imagine). The sociologist Ray Oldenberg says that in the 1930s post-Prohibition era, 90% of all alcohol consumed in America was drunk in bars and restaurants; by 1990, it was only 30%.

We have television to bring us to a bar "where everybody knows your name," or into families where mute silence is not the norm.
I spend my days with all my friends
They're the ones on who my life depends
I'm gonna miss them when the series ends
(Steven Wilson, "Prodigal," from the 2001 Porcupine Tree album In Absentia)

And even within our homes, we increasingly have custom rooms into which we seal ourselves from one another. The historian Albert Eide Parr writes of the difference in family life when the home was both heated and lit by a single fire. Bedrooms were not places of private activity; they were cold and dark, and you did nothing but sleep there. The entire family spent the evenings together in one room, and social life was by necessity quite different. Now each child's bedroom (not to mention our own) is a fully equipped recreation and entertainment venue; as one parent said, "Now that he's got cable TV in there, he'll never come out except to use the bathroom and maybe to get something to eat."

We seem to be perfecting the notion of retreat, of escape from a world we find difficult and tense and dangerous. There was a French movement of the financial aristocracy away from urban life after a particularly corrupt monarchy in 1830s, which was called the emigration interieure — they fled the cities for their own private domains. We have our own emigration interieure, facilitated by the landscapes and toys that divide us from one another.

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