Whoz Side U On, Anyway

Hilary Plum
January 12, 2012
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At the very end of last year I attended my grandfather’s funeral; he passed away at the age of 90, after a brief illness, surrounded by family. The service was lovely, held not in a church but at the golf club of which he and my grandmother had been members for 55 years, its walls as always decorated by any number of his photographs.

At the service were not only his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, but dozens of his friends and community members whom I had never met. It was wonderful to see them there, to know my grandmother had such friends and community, and also made me pause: my grandfather worked at the same company for decades and he and my grandmother lived in the same city and the same house for over 50 years. Neither my parents nor I are in the same situation, nor on track to be—moving more often, shifting jobs and/or locations regularly (my job moves with me, state to state, since I can do it from home). My grandparents were members of a church, a golf club, a bridge club, and other social organizations and societies, some mysterious to me. I know why I am not a member of each of these particular institutions, but when I think of what might replace their role—a network outside one’s family and workplace, ties to a community that include members of other generations, other professions, other backgrounds—I come up short. For all the liberation of recent generations, it seems in some ways our lives may have tightened around rather than expanded beyond the nuclear family. We move, and move again, and after all only our partners and children and pets move with us; everyone else we keep in touch with, or not, and we meet people in each new community, or not, some of whom we may later keep in touch with, or not.

As I was considering this—then sitting in my parents’ living room, leafing through stacks of magazines—I found this letter to the editor from a recent New Yorker, which responds to an earlier article by George Packer on the Occupy Wall Street movement:

[Packer’s] article also speaks to what I think is at the core of the movement: a yearning for community. In today’s high-speed, online world, people are no longer connecting with one another in meaningful ways. The O.W.S. message is that the ninety-nine per cent feel forgotten by businesses and by the government, but it also seems that we feel forgotten by one another. Ray Kachel, the story’s main subject, went from a lonely life surrounded only by technology to a community full of conversations and a sense of commitment to his fellow-Occupiers; O.W.S. gave him a place to belong. Let’s hope that the Occupy movement is the beginning of a trend in which our focus turns back to one another—that it leads us to come together, in homes, schools, places of worship, and community centers, to share stories like Kachel’s, and to make connections with our neighbors. [by Emily Walsh]

I share Ms. Walsh’s hope; but as I give voice to it I feel neither cynical nor truly optimistic. I have observed the Occupy movement as I observe most things: from home, through the internet, radio, and television (and the latter two come to me via the former).  I live in a rural setting where there was little doing Occupy-wise, and I have a chronic illness that makes it difficult to function on a predictable schedule, thus difficult to travel or work outside the home. One of the enduring symptoms of chronic illness is the collapse of planning: since one’s ability to execute any plan will depend entirely on how one is feeling at that future moment, a factor that’s unknowable, a high percentage of plans will always fall through, just evaporate, and in continuing to make plans one is always living half in fantasy. So I am usually little “involved” in any community, since I can’t make commitments to definitely get to this or that event, to volunteer for x at y time, to get to work two days in a row, etc. I think, though, that in this reduced state, the state of heightened isolation that illness creates, I am merely an exaggeration of a contemporary problem: I move often; I see friends considerably less than I mean to; I travel little; I work primarily online rather than face to face; I put down few ties in a community beyond immediate professional contacts and friends I already happen to have or might somehow luckily stumble into. I rarely meet anyone who is not in distinct ways like me (who is not, for instance, involved in the literary world, or who I don’t know from my hometown or through one of the almost excessively many educational institutions I have attended), as I might through a place of worship, or school, or other site of communal contact and endeavor. Such as in Zuccotti Park.

Does the Occupy movement, then, make me feel less alone? Dramatically put, but I think that’s the question. I share its values; did it then answer my yearning for community? I don’t think so. I think it may indeed have done this—I hope it did—for those who were actually there, who gathered and shouted and slept and got jailed and argued and got dirty with and fed and lent books to one another. I think they may have felt closer to the “99 percent”; that abstraction may have become more real to them. I don’t think that the movement could do this for me, who only experienced it at a distance, thus mediated—and this is true even today when things seem theoretically so present online, when real-life events seem already part-virtual. Without being there, I was not there; I felt neither present nor involved. Just by reading and watching online I was not responsible to anyone, and I think to feel involved in community one must feel above all responsible—just as it comforted me to think there were so many who would feel responsible to my grandmother during her difficult time.

I am not faulting the Occupy movement for this, of course; I am grateful to those in the movement for all they have done: for our national dialogue, our morale, our standing in global public opinion, for all the possible future real effects on our politics. My point is rather just to note that the internet is an enormously powerful tool for social organization—as 2011 proved resoundingly—but it is something less than a community, less than itself a society. Twitter didn’t overthrow Mubarak, after all; the tens of thousands in Tahrir did. I am sometimes on Twitter, but I was certainly never in Tahrir, I was not even in Zuccotti Park, and no matter how intensely I might imagine I can’t feel that I was. It has been beautiful and heartening to read about Occupy, but it was also only reading.

I reflect upon this on this blog as a way of wondering about the communities we participate in online, what they can be, what we want them to be, what they are. So many online forums feel—as others have often observed—something less than public, less than “for everyone”: anyone can read this or that blog, but it isn’t quite meant for everyone (and how could it be? who can write “for everyone”?); it is oriented toward and most deeply engaged with by a certain audience that follows it regularly, even with the added factor that strangers may occasionally enter the room. Naturally this is somewhat true even of more traditional media, magazines or newspapers—there will always be a group of people who knows them best, who is most conversant with their aesthetic, their politics—but less so, surely, since these pieces and articles are meant to stand alone, be widely comprehensible and individually accessible over a much longer period of time. Through my work I have relationships, even friendships, with people with whom I have exchanged hundreds of emails, spoken on the phone, but never met. I am quite grateful for these relationships; but still one would like most of all to be in a café together. I imagine that there are many people who might disagree with me about this, people who seem to have built and dwelled in whole communities online. But even as I type that sentence, this “many people” remains an idea, theoretical: I don’t know them, and they don’t know me.


[This post’s title is borrowed from the fantastic poem of this title in Dean Young’s Elegy on Toy Piano.]

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