Wednesday, July 30, 2014

On Reading Email (Once a Week)


I remember it very well. One day in the early 1990s I was reading the weekly journal of the University of Utrecht, where I was a student, and came across a small column that announced the invention and introduction of a brand-new way of communication. It was called “e-mail” (that stands for “electronic mail”, the note explained), and was extremely cheap because it used the telephone line to transmit entire text messages in just a fraction of a second. I was impressed. Could it really be true that instead of incurring expensive telephone bills for calling my friends at the other side of the Atlantic or of Europe, I could tell them everything I had to tell them for almost nothing? It seemed too good to be true. Surely there was a catch, and the telephone companies would find some other way to make us pay.
That is now more than twenty years ago, and I have forgotten what those early emails even looked like. Email has become so normal and omnipresent that we find it hard to imagine how people got anything done before the nineties. What did you do if you were organizing an international conference, for instance, and needed to communicate with your colleagues about all kinds of tiny details, correct misunderstandings, create
consensus, and so on? Well, there is an answer. We sat down to write letters. And having finished them, we had to go out and put them in a physical mailbox, or find a fax machine somewhere, in cases of great hurry. Or we made a phone call, in spite of the costs, and it all took a lot of time. Didn’t we have anything else to do than wasting hours and hours on such laborious and time-consuming procedures? Well, there’s an answer to that too. We could find the time, for a very simple reason. We did not need to spend hours every day reading email and responding to it.

When email was first introduced, its benefits seemed a bit similar to those of voicemail. Instead of having to deal with phonecall interruptions all the time, you could quietly read your messages at a moment of your own convenience. If people wanted to speak with you right away, well, bad luck for them, they just had to wait. But as email took over as the dominant means of communication, along with the introduction of visual and auditory cues ("you got mail!" - nowadays abbreviated as "bleep" or "boink" or just a number, for of course you got mail!) this quickly proved to be an illusion. Nowadays, email looks more like a wide open door that gives direct access to your home, with a large invitation over it: 

WELCOME! Everybody, known or unknown, may enter here at any moment, day or night, twenty-four hours a day. Feel free to walk straight into my study whenever you feel like it, and start talking to me about anything that’s on your mind, important or unimportant. I might be busy trying to concentrate on something when you enter, but no need to worry about that. Just start talking anyway. I’ll do my best to interrupt everything I’m doing right away, I'll listen to whatever you have to say, and will do what I can to answer immediately.

How normal is it, really, that we now find this normal? Should we even be surprised when scientists find that email increases mental stress and decreases our ability to concentrate? Or that our continuous exposure to internet, twitter, or texting cues causes our brain to get addicted to them, for straightforward chemical reasons based upon dopamine? As a result of that mechanism, known as a dopamine loop, the stream of interruptions gets even bigger: for if we are left in peace for a little while, this very fact makes us so nervous that we start interrupting ourselves.  
In his important and predictably controversial book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr begins with an observation that I trust will sound familiar to many of us:

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in
the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. [...]
I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web’s been a godsend to me as a writer. [...] The boons are real. But they come at a price. [...] [W]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it [...].

Carr provides hard neurological evidence. Our brain is very flexible: it quickly learns in response to whatever we ask it to do – and unlearns what we neglect to ask it. At present, we continuously train ourselves to get better and better at those skills that allow us to use the Internet quickly and effectively. And boy do we get good at it! But it goes at the expense of other skills that the Internet just doesn’t require, or even discourages. Notably those skills of deep and prolonged concentration on one single piece of text – without continuous hyperlinks that move us instantaneously to another text, full of other hyperlinks that again move us elsewhere, and so on. The fact is that we are systematically training our brain not to concentrate on a line of thought, an argument, a narrative. We are training it in the art of breaking our concentration.

Reading Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle (yes, that's a hyperlink! Please stay with me anyway) made me aware of another dimension of email: that of guilt and social pressure. It is already bad enough that my concentration gets shattered whenever a new visitor walks into my study and issues a beep to interrupt what I’m doing. And it is even worse that when nobody walks in for five minutes, my dopamine compels me to get up and walk to my door to check whether anyone is coming yet, and that when I’m back at my desk, I am distracted because my brain keeps wondering why nobody is there to disturb me. 
- When will the next beep come? 
- Have they forgotten me? 
But the process does not stop there. When new visitors come in, as they invariably do, they expect me to answer quasi-immediately and are likely to take offense if I don’t. 
- I have received the email, haven’t I? 
- I have the technical means to respond, don’t I? 
- So then why the f@#$%^&! do I not respond? What is it that’s keeping me? 
And even this can get worse. Similar to what happens in the dopamine loop (first you get interrupted by others, but eventually you don’t need them anymore: you’ve started doing it all by yourself), even if nobody is blaming me for being slow with my answers, I end up feeling guilty all by myself. I don't want them to think I’m impolite and egoistic. They might think I’m some arrogant ass (those professors, you know...) who finds his own stuff so important that he just can't be bothered to take an interest in others and respond to their needs. 
Too busy? What nonsense! They get as many emails as I do. No cause for me to complain, as if I’m in some special category. If they can answer their emails, so can I. 

I have been thinking about these problems for a long time and have come to a clear decision. I refuse to be manipulated and disciplined into conformity with the logic of The Circle, and most importantly: I reserve the right to protect my own brain. I don't want to expose it systematically to conditions that limit my ability to do what I do best: concentrate. From now on (July 2014) I will therefore be reading my email once a week, and will disable it entirely during the rest of the week. I know that many people will find this incredibly radical, or preposterous, and some will get angry with me - so let me explain. It is really very simple. My core business as a scholar in the Humanities requires the ability of deep “concentration and contemplation” (as formulated by Carr). That is what I need most when I'm studying books, articles, or primary sources. I have a responsibility, to myself and to society, to protect and cultivate those skills, for if they wither and decline then the quality of my work will suffer. I know very well that even this brief explanation sounds like a justification or even an excuse. Perhaps it is. But if so, it nicely illustrates the very point I've just been making: like everyone else, I'm by no means immune to the guilt-inducing magic of The Circle.
Now I’m well aware that, even though these general problems of concentration/interruption, dopamine loops, or social pressure by the internalization of guilt are real and universal, something that doesn’t work for me might work better for others. Different people have different mental constitutions, not everybody responds in the same way to stress, and quite some friends and colleagues do not experience email as a problem the way I do. Some people are able to switch quickly from one task to another, and that's great for them, but I have never had that ability: I just happen to be a deep concentrator with a long and slow curve. Some people enjoy digital socializing, and that's great for them too, but I don’t: I find it empty and superficial and prefer meeting people face to face. Some people like to focus on information, and that's fine too, but my interest is in knowledge, which is not the same thing.
Am I too naive or optimistic in thinking that this could actually work? I’ll have to see how it works out in practice, especially as the new academic year begins. But one thing is clear: reading email once a week means that once I sit down to do it, I will be concentrating on it. 100%.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Exterminate all the Idols


The Fall of the Hermetic Idols
I’ve been reading a lot of different things lately, and not everything will find its way into this blog. But I definitely need to write about my experiences with a somewhat older book by two French scholars that I bought second-hand and devoured from cover to cover: Carmen Bernand’s & Serge Gruzinski’s De l’idolâtrie: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (Of idolatry: An Archeology of the Humanities, 1988). I have long been puzzled by the fact that whereas one can easily fill a library with academic books about “magic”, there are so few systematic studies of “paganism” as a category in the study of religion and even less that focus on what was traditionally seen as the core practice of pagan religion – “idolatry”. The rare exceptions to this rule, such as Moshe Halbertal’s & Avishai Margalit’s Idolatry (1992), focus mostly upon Judaism. One searches practically in vain for authoritative monographs about the notion of idolatry and its significance in monotheist religions generally.
And yet, that significance is enormous. If Jan Assmann is right, as I think he is, then monotheism defines its very identity not so much by its focus on One God (after all, it shares the focus on one deity with many “pagan” religions, and normative Christianity believes in a triune deity, not to mention angelic hierarchies and so on) but by its radical and uncompromising rejection of pagan “idolatry” – the worship of gods incarnated in images or statues – as the unforgivable sin par excellence. The history of how idolatry has been discursively constructed as monotheism’s “other” in the history of the three “religions of the book”, and the real-life effects of that discourse, should be a major concern for scholars. Anybody who finds such a statement too radical will perhaps change his mind after reading Bernand’s & Gruzinski’s study of the 16th-century colonialization of Mexico and Peru.
Garcilaso de la Vega
One learns from these authors that the Spanish conquerors used the “paganism” of late antiquity as their model for understanding the beliefs and practices they encountered in the New World. The cults of the Indians represented a phenomenon that seemed universal to them, since it appeared to exist in the Americas just as it had existed in the Roman Empire: that of a “natural religion” born from an inborn human desire for knowing and worshiping God (homo religiosus), but deprived of divine Revelation and hence an easy prey for infiltration by the devil and his legions of demons, who are always busy trying to convince human beings to worship them in lieu of the true God. The central reference for Bernand & Gruzinski is Bartolomé de Las CasasApologética Historia sumaria (1550), but they discuss a range of other major authors as well. I was particularly fascinated by the cases of Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), nicknamed “the Inca”, whose perspective on the Amerindian religions (in his Comentarios reales, 1609) appears to have been strongly influenced by the Renaissance Platonic Orientalist tradition of prisca theologia in the wake of Marsilio Ficino and Leone Ebreo; and by that of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (1568/1580-1648), who seems to have taken a somewhat similar perspective, describing the philosopher, poet and ruler Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472) as “a sage even wiser than the divine Plato, and who alone managed to raise himself up to the knowledge of a single ‘creator of visible and invisible things’” (p. 136).
If I understand Bernand & Gruzinski correctly (I’m not always sure, for unfortunately their writing is sometimes less than clear), the relevance of the “ancient wisdom discourse” of the Renaissance – a major fascination of mine: see Esotericism and the Academy ch. 1 – reaches even much farther than European culture alone. The early modern European discourse about “paganism” seems extremely relevant for understanding the attempts by intellectuals to justify the brutal realities of colonialist expansion; and moreover, it is crucial for understanding the emergence, in early modern culture, of “religion” as a general and universal concept born from the encounter and hence the comparison between Christian and “native” cultures.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry
Chapter 6 of De l’idolâtrie is titled “Extirpations” and discusses the systematic campaign of exterminating pagan idolatry in the New World. It starts with a reference to Peter Paul Rubens’ “Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry”, which once again shows that Europeans were incapable of thinking about Amerindian “idolatry” otherwise than through the prism of Hellenistic paganism. It is impossible to discuss the shocking effects of the conquests – by 1625, only 5% of the indigenous Mexican population had survived! (pp. 146-147) –  separately from the conquerors’ ideological conviction that idolatry in all its forms had to be destroyed by any means necessary, together with anyone suspected or potentially capable of practicing it. In the canon De Haereticis of the 3rd Mexican Council (1585), indigenous idolatry was discussed as equivalent with “apostasy” and “heresy” (p. 156): not as a rival form of religion, therefore, but as an intentional rejection of Christian truth. 
The penalty was death.
Sven Lindqvist
In parallel with De l’idolâtrie, I was reading Sven Lindqvist’s brilliant travelogue “‘Exterminate All the Brutes’”, an impressive attempt at understanding the origins and foundations of that famous sentence from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Lindqvist does not discuss idolatry, but he reveals in chilling detail how the doctrine that “primitive peoples” and their cultures must be exterminated was a necessary and integral part of the “progress of civilization” as understood by mainstream 19th-century popular and intellectual European culture. If anyone might think that “necessary and integral” is a bit of an exaggeration here, Lindqvist’s analysis may come as a shocking revelation. I will give just two examples, although Lindqvist gives many more, showing that such statements were not the exception but the rule. Herbert Spencer claimed that “imperialism ha[d] served civilization by clearing the inferior races off the earth” (Lindqvist, 162): “the forces which are working out the great scheme of perfect happiness, taking no account of incidental suffering, exterminate such sections of mankind as stand in their way ... Be he human or be he brute – the hindrance must be got rid of” (Social Statistics (1850). Eduard von Hartmann’s formulations were even more brutal: “As little as a favor is done the dog whose tail is to be cut off, when one cuts it off gradually inch by inch, so little is their humanity in artificially prolonging the death struggles of savages who are on the verge of extinction. ... The true philantropist, if he has comprehended the natural law of anthropological evolution, cannot avoid desiring an acceleration of the last convulsion, and labor for that end” (Philosophy of the Unconscious, vol. II, 12). These theoretical convictions were taken quite literally by the conquerors who took it upon themselves to advance the noble cause of civilization by “exterminating the brutes” – with such thoroughness and cruelty that one cannot but assent to Lindquist’s controversial comparisons with the horrors of the Nazi genocide. We all know about the Holocaust, as we should. But how many of us are familiar with (to give one more example, not covered by Lindqvist) what happened during the “rubber boom” of the decades before and after 1900, when the Amazon Putumayo region was transformed into a “death space” (as formulated by Michael Taussig in his Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man) of random torture and murder where the lives of “Indian savages” were worth less than nothing?
Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us (1897)
De l’idolâtrie ends with a demonstration of how the religious campaign against idolatry was taken up and continued by the Enlightenment (rather similar to my argument in ch. 2 of Esotericism and the Academy), and one might say that Lindquist traces the same story of “extirpation” or “extermination” forward through the history of colonialism and far into the 20th century. Extirpation of idolatry in the name of Christianity, and extermination of savages in the name of progress and civilization: isn’t it obvious that the two are intimately related both conceptually and historically, as the former created the essential ideological foundations on which the latter could build its deadly mission of civilizing the globe? If there is just a grain of truth to this comparison, then isn’t it time for scholars to start taking a serious look - and I mean a very serious one - at the history of the Western campaign to “exterminate all the idols?