Crisis of interspection

Yesterday, I came upon this passage in William Barrett’s Irrational Man:

Yet a great formal style in painting has never been created that did not draw upon the depths of the human spirit, and that did not, in its newness, express a fresh mutation of the human spirit. Cubism achieved a radical ?attening of space by insisting on the two-dimensional fact of the canvas. This ?attening out of space would seem not to be a negligible fact historically if we re?ect that when, once before in history, such a development occurred but in the opposite direction—when the ?atness of the Gothic or primitive painters passed over into the solidity, perspective, and three- dimensional style of early Renaissance painting—it was a mark that man was turning outward, into space, after the long period of introspection of the Middle Ages. Western man moved out into space in his painting, in the fourteenth century, before he set forth into actual physical space in the age of exploration that was to follow. Thus painting was prophetic of the new turn of the human spirit which was eventually to ?nd expression in the conquest of the whole globe. Have we the right, then, to suggest that the ?attening of painting in our own century portends a turning inward of the human spirit, or at any rate a turning away from that outer world of space which has hitherto been the ultimate arena of Western man’s extroversion?

…The subjectivity that is generally present in modern art is a psychological compensation for, sometimes a violent revolt against, the gigantic externalization of life within modern society. The world pictured by the modern artist is, like the world meditated upon by the existential philosopher, a world where man is a stranger.

When mankind no longer lives spontaneously turned toward God or the supersensible world… the artist too must stand face to face with a ?at and inexplicable world.

Do we still feel like strangers to ourselves? Do we still recoil from a “gigantic externalization of life within modern society”? I don’t think so, but mostly because most of us were born into a nearly complete state of alienation, have never known anything else and consequently we have no contrasting state of being with which we can compare our own.

I would argue that the analogue to extraverted exploration or introverted introspection most conspicuously and painfully present in our time is interspection — a crisis of intimacy.

In our time, largely due to social media (sorry for this boring, but true analysis), a person’s inner self is subjected to an unprecedented level of external exposure and scrutiny, both in voluntary expression and involuntary behavioral monitoring and increasingly sophisticated means of linking, tracking and analysis. At the same time, a self is assailed and buffeted by other people’s personal expressions, spoken with sincerity cranked to the maximum — heartfelt responses to tragedy, anguished pain cries from assorted microagressions, agitated responses to these social phenomena from rando bloggers amped-up on ungodly doses of yerba mate.

Even the news is infused with a standard opining and emoting. All journalism is gonzo journalism now, even when the journo subjectivity admixed into the story, far from spicing it and tilting the perspective dilutes it and locks it into a standardized, redundantly radical viewpoint.

And at work, matters are even worse. Rather than leaving our controversial opinions at home, as etiquette once required, we are now encouraged to bring our opinions “authentic selves” to work — at least selves selected from the list of recognized identities. Unique selves require far too much effort to understand, and tend to strain busy peoples’ patience. From time to time these select authentic selves are invited/required to ritualistically confront one another in encounters that are intentionally “uncomfortable” and to affirm the necessity and goodness of the ritual and the social theory that prescribes it.

And, at least in the rapidly-expanding design world, teams are plunged into resolving problems of human understanding, unknown 20 years ago. These problems are pushed to the edges of comprehensibility, because these are the extremes that yield innovation. This kind of deep working produces a completely different kind of intimacy crisis than those of social media, editorialized news, workplace authenticity and the like, all of which are counterfeit intimacy performed by social actors whose whose selfhood is eclipsed by role and buried beneath layers of personae — or what was known in existentialist circles as “bad faith”.

It is no coincidence that design’s intersubjective intimacy occurs precisely where people are trying their best to be objective by directing their mind away from who they think they are toward what the think they are not. Ironically, here is where we encounter the raw realness of fellow-souls, in the schematic interference of divergent conceptualizations and those intuitions we resort to when our conceptual schema fail us.

We seek our selfhood in the object at the center of our own experience, which is exactly the wrong place to look for self. Self is more vividly present everywhere but there, especially in times when that egoic object is such a matter of concern that it is smothered in image.

This is why Pinterest is the only social medium where selves can be found. Everywhere else is just persona propaganda.

1 thought on “Crisis of interspection

  1. Nietzsche, Daybreak 174: “Moral fashion of a commercial society. — Behind the basic principle of the current moral fashion: ‘moral actions are actions performed out of sympathy for others’, I see the social effect of timidity hiding behind an intellectual mask: it desires, first and foremost, that all the dangers which life once held should be removed from it, and that everyone should assist in this with all his might: hence only those actions which tend towards the common security and society’s sense of security are to be accorded the predicate ‘good’. — How little pleasure men must nowadays take in themselves when such a tyranny of timidity prescribes to them their supreme moral law, when they so uncontradictingly allow themselves to be ordered to look away from themselves but to have lynx-eyes for all the distress and suffering that exists elsewhere! Are we not, with this tremendous objective of obliterating all the sharp edges of life, well on the way to turning mankind into sand? Sand! Small, soft, round, unending sand! Is that your ideal, you heralds of the sympathetic affections? — In the meantime, the question itself remains unanswered whether one is of more use to another by immediately leaping to his side and helping him — which help can in any case be only superficial where it does not become a tyrannical seizing and transforming — or by creating something out of oneself that the other can behold with pleasure: a beautiful, restful, self-enclosed garden perhaps, with high walls against storms and the dust of the roadway but also a hospitable gate.”

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