Sebastian Smee, Net loss: The inner life in the digital age (#BookReview)

Book CoverIf you’ve been reading my blog recently, you’ll already know why I am reviewing Sebastian Smee’s Quarterly Essay edition, “Net loss: The inner life in the digital age”, but to briefly recap, it’s because it inspired a member of my reading group to recommend we read Anton Chekhov’s short story, “The lady with the little dog”. What wonderful paths a reading life can take, eh?

Smee’s aim in his essay is, he says,

to dig into this idea that we all have an inner life with its own history of metamorphosis – rich, complex and often obscure, even to ourselves, but essential to who we are. It is a part of us we neglect at our peril. I am interested in it because of my sense that, as we live more and more of our lives online and attached to our phones, and as we are battered and buffeted by all the informational, corporate and political surges of contemporary life, this notion of an elusive but somehow sustaining inner self is eroding.

He commences the essay, though, by admitting that he uses social media – a lot. And not only that, he also admits that he knows that he is “handing out information about myself to people whose motives I can’t know. I feel I should be bothered by this, but I’m not, particularly.” He’s not bothered because they know only know “superficial stuff” about him, such as his phone number and age, what sports teams he supports, the music he listens to and where he does the weekly food shop. From all this, he  says, they can probably guess how he’ll vote, but, he says, and this is a big but, “they cannot know my inner life”.

This is where Chekhov’s “The lady with the little dog” comes in because Gurov discusses his inner and outer lives, making clear that the inner life is where “everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people”.

The digital age is, as Smee says, making huge incursions into our lives. Children, “from a young age, are encouraged to present performative versions of themselves online” and, for all of us, “it gets harder to be alone with ourselves or to pick up a book; harder still to stay with it”. This is true – to a degree – though there are many of us who do carve out alone-times for ourselves. For me, this includes never being plugged in when I walk. That is definitely my alone-time. As is my yoga time, and bed-time when my phone is in another room, while my book is with me!

But, what is this inner life? How do we define it? Smee says it includes “apprehensions of beauty, your intimations of death, what is going on inside you when you are in love, or when your whole being is in turmoil”. He feels that, today, “we can no longer assume that it has its own reality. To the extent that it exists at all, it seems to have no place in public discourse. Even in discussions of art, it is ignored, thwarted, factored out”. Hmm, I haven’t consciously thought about whether, when discussing the arts, we refer to our inner lives, whether we share our innermost feelings about what we see, hear or read, but I’d have thought we do. Yet, if Smee is right about what he calls “the obscurity and unknowability of our inner selves”, then have we ever?

Anyhow, Smee explores what “self” is and how various writers and artists have viewed it. Chekhov’s Gurov, for example, felt a tension between his inner and outer lives; while American filmmakers Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin, he says, portray our identity, our inner selves, as something flexible, as something messy, splintered, and defined by our relationships with each other.

Smee talks about the effect of social media, like Facebook, on our selves. Trustworthy studies, like one in the American Journal of Epidemiology, he says, “find that use of Facebook correlates with diminished wellbeing, both physical and mental”. Correlation doesn’t mean causation of course but the implication is there. Smee returns to his question about how much companies like Facebook really know about us, about how accurate their profiles are.

He talks throughout the essay about algorithms, because that is how social media software works. Their algorithms that deal “with big and disparate data sets can see patterns where they couldn’t previously be detected”. This has “proved incredibly useful in business, medicine and elsewhere”. However, these algorithms “still struggle to cope with the messiness and idiosyncrasy that inhere in individual human beings.” Can they, will they ever be able to, gain access to our inner lives? It’s hard to say, he says, because “individual reality is beyond quantification. And cause and effect are always more complex than we like to think”.

Throughout his discussion, Smee draws mostly on writers and artists, rather than on philosophers and psychologists, to explore his topic, to exemplify his arguments. And so to this question of quantifying individual reality, he turns to Cézanne, who conveys in his art that

life … is not hierarchical, like a newspaper article, or linear, like an algorithm. It is fluid and multifaceted … Instead of cause and effect, there are only clusters of interlocking circumstances which mysteriously give rise to new circumstances.

Will, I wonder, this inherent instability save us – and our inner lives?

Social media will, of course, continue to keep trying to access our selves. One way they do so is by trying to capture as much of our attention as they can. And yet, Smee goes on to argue, our inner lives, “the very things that move us the most”, are, in fact, “the hardest to share”. Chekhov knew it was hard to do. Moreover, he knew that sharing our inner selves “can also be a betrayal of the primary, inward experience.” Touché.

Smee also makes an important distinction between private and inner life. Privacy is linked to political freedom (and power), he says, “to what you do and think away from the interested, potentially controlling eyes of others”. It’s “a shallow concept”. Inner life, on the other hand, as he argues throughout the essay, “may be elusive and impossible to define”.

And yet, says Smee, it’s this inner life that can erupt into hate, as we see played out on social media, the trolling, the never-ending vindictiveness. He references Frances Bacon’s paintings, arguing that they “dramatise a tension between the psyche’s darker compulsions and a pressure felt within civilised society to conform, to stifle emotions, not to lash out.”

Do we want these inner lives unleashed? (In a way, though, we then know what people really think?!) However, the question that most interests Smee is why are these negative aspects of our inner lives being unleashed? He suggests that it’s what all the artists (the filmmakers, writers and painters) he quotes are expressing – “an apprehension that we are alone”. This is where, Smee proposes, social media comes in with a solution:

One response to this panic, it seems to me, is to disperse ourselves, by being as widely visible as possible. Social media, and the internet generally, make this feel possible, to an unprecedented degree. They allow us to lay before the world (in the hope that the world will be watching) the things we love, the things we hate, and a mediated image of our lives that can seem to rescue us from the threat of oblivion.

But, to really protect our inner lives, he believes, we need the converse: “to pay attention again to our solitude, daring to hope that we might connect that solitude to the solitude of others.”

So where does the essay leave us? Early on he argues that

Once nurtured in secret, protected by norms of discretion or a presumption of mystery, this ‘inner’ self today feels [my emph] harshly illuminated and remorselessly externalised, and at the same time flattened, constricted and quantified.

It’s easy for us to say, yes, yes, yes, this is so, but I wonder whether this too is just a feeling? And whether, in truth, our inner lives remain as obscure and unknowable as Smee describes in the essay – and therefore as rich as ever? Net loss is a fascinating essay to read – particularly for “arty” types who love allusions to writers and artists. He makes pertinent points about the way social media operates and gives us much to think about regarding the inner life, but in the end leaves us with more questions than answers – which is perfectly alright. The one immutable, however, is that whatever we think is happening, the inner life is worth protecting.

Lisa (ANZLitlovers) reviewed this, as did Amy (The Armchair Critic) who discusses it at some depth including delving into what Smee doesn’t do.

Sebastian Smee
“Net loss: The inner life in the digital age”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 72
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2018
ISBN: 9781743820698

Linda Jaivin, Found in translation: In praise of a plural world (Review)

Linda Jaivin, Found in translation Book cover

Courtesy: Black Inc

Reading synchronicity strikes again! In the last couple of months, the issue of language, translation and culture has been crossing my path – in Diego Marani‘s The last of the Vostyachs, in Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, and on Lisa’s blog post about the AALITRA Symposium on Translation. I was consequently more than happy to accept a review copy of the latest Quarterly Essay, Linda Jaivin’s Found in translation.

Now, as some of you know, I have mixed feelings about reading books in translation. I want to read them because I want to read not just about but from other cultures. Not being fluent in all the languages of the world, the only way I can do this is to read works in translation, but when I read a translated work I am very conscious that there is a mediator between me and the work. This bothers me. Linda Jaivin, herself a translator, knows exactly what I mean:

… it is absurd to speak of issues of literary style, rhythm – or any aspect of a translated work aside from its structure, characters and plot – without acknowledging that the language of the text is at once a creation of the translator and an interpretation of the author …

And she gives good examples to support her statement. I was pleased to see her acknowledge this, because she knows of what she speaks! But, this little point is only a very small part of Jaivin’s wide-ranging, entertaining but also passionate essay. Jaivin, if you haven’t heard of her, is a multi-skilled woman: she subtitles Chinese film and television and translates Chinese text; she has worked as an interpreter; and she has written novels, stories, plays and essays.

As a reader and lover of words, I enjoyed Jaivin’s discussion of the technical and philosophical challenges faced by translators. She peppers her discussion with an eclectic but fascinating array of examples. And she quotes other translators, such as Edith Grossman who wrote that

a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation … no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly.

Take swearing for example. How we swear is highly cultural. Swear words, Jaivin writes, “expose what is forbidden, what is permitted and what is held sacred” in a culture, and consequently “can  throw differences in worldviews into sharp relief”. However, you’ll have to read the essay, if you want to see her examples!

I was intrigued by her argument that translations of classics go out of date! So, this means that the Spanish will always read the same Don Quixote but English speakers are very likely to read a different translation depending on which one is currently in vogue.

“… a culture doesn’t grow just by talking to itself …”

But, the critical point of her essay is not the act of translation. As the title of her essay implies, Jaivin is passionate about pluralism, and more, about cosmopolitanism. By this, she means not just living side by side, not just accepting each other, but “sharing a common vision”.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeFor Jaivin, “translation” is not a narrow concept. Its implications extend far beyond the “simple” translation of words from one language to another, because attached to language are meanings and ideas. When ideas are translated – via words – from one culture to another those ideas change. Jaivin describes how concepts such as Confucianism and yes, even democracy, change when they cross cultures. This can lead, she says, to misunderstanding but it can also provide “room for the kind of creative interpretation that allows cultures and the conversations between them to grow and evolve”.

She argues that, because of Australia’s particular history and geography, and because Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language in Australia after English, “Australia is … in a unique position to translate the shift from the ‘American century’ to the ‘Asian one’ …”.

Building successful international relationships, she believes, requires genuine communication, which includes knowing, recognising and respecting other languages. It

does not require the weak to adopt the language of the strong – as reliance on English threatens to do, given its global and frequently imperial reach.

Jaivin argues that learning a foreign language should be a compulsory part of year 12 and university education, because “we need to have every possible line of communication open to us” if we are to successfully traverse the changes coming.  Not everyone agrees. What do you think?

Linda Jaivin
“Found in translation: In praise of a plural world”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 52
Collingwood: Black Inc, November 2013
ISBN: 9781863956307

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

Tim Flannery, After the future: Australia’s extinction crisis (Review)

Quarterly Essay No 48 Cover

Quarterly Essay 48 cover (Courtesy Black Inc)

Tim Flannery is an Australian palaeontologist-cum-environmentalist who has been on the public stage for a couple of decades now. He has published several books on environmental issues, some best-sellers, including The future eaters and The weather makers. He was Australian of the Year in 2007, has starred in three television documentary series with comedian John Doyle, and is currently Chief Commissioner of Australia‘s Climate Commission.  With the environment being his passion, he is used to controversy, but many of us regard him as a national treasure. There, I’ve shown my hand!

Needless to say, I enjoyed his current Quarterly Essay titled After the future: Australia’s new extinction crisis. In it he analyses the causes of the second wave of extinctions, and suggests solutions.

The essay is divided into 8 short sections. Near the end of the second section, Flannery writes

I hope the message is loud and clear. Australian politics, and the bureaucracy that supports it, is failing in one of its most fundamental obligations to future generations, the conservation of our natural heritage.

It’s scary stuff. On the preceding page he discusses public ignorance, arguing that most people are unaware that a new wave of extinction is happening, and that those who are aware “commonly believe that our national parks and reserves are safe places for threatened species”. I fall into this latter camp, I’m afraid. I knew it wasn’t all hunky-dory but I had assumed that the parks and reserves were working. Apparently not. The reasons are complex. Funding is of course one aspect and underpins some of the issues he raises, such as the lack of resources and support for effective planning and management, and a decrease in scientifically trained staff able to research and monitor the situation.

However, Flannery argues there are more systemic issues, mostly relating to “politics”. One is the increasingly risk-averse behaviour of governments, resulting in their being prepared to do nothing rather than risk failure. Another is the fact that the environment is no longer the bipartisan issue it once was, with the right increasingly seeing the environment as a left issue. The conservatives are, paradoxically, losing interest in conservation! Environmental stewardship, Flannery argues, once inspired leaders of the right, like Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan in the USA, and Malcolm Fraser in Australia. It was Malcolm Fraser “who first used federal powers to prevent sand mining on Fraser Island, who proclaimed Kakadu a national park, and who ended whaling in Australia”. However, the rise of green parties (here and in other first world nations) is alienating the right, and yet are not always friendly to conservation. “Animal rights issues, such as opposition to the culling of feral species”, for example, “can sometimes get in the way of environmental stewardship”. The result of environmental issues being seen through the lens of party politics and ideology is that the effort to discredit conservation has resulted in the rejection of science as “a guide to action”. This, says Flannery, is dangerous territory.

While Flannery spends around a third of the essay setting out the problem and discussing the causes, his main thesis is that the current focus of environmental programs on preserving ecosystems is not working – and he presents some convincing arguments for changing the focus to saving individual species. He describes programs in the Kimberleys which are managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (with which he is connected) in partnership with indigenous groups, using their fire management techniques. But his most impressive example is a privately managed program in Papua New Guinea, the Tenkile Conservation Alliance, focused on saving a tree kangaroo. He argues that it “is a prime example of saving an ecosystem by concentrating on saving a species”, and asks:

How is it that one Australian couple has almost single-handedly transformed the fortunes of a people and the biodiversity of a mountain range while trying to save  an endangered species of tree kangaroo? The answer is simple: the Thomases [zoologists] set clear goals, used scientific methods to monitor their progress, and reported back to the people.

I’m not sure I’d call that simple. Or, perhaps I’d say the process is simple, but deciding on environmental priorities and finding the right mix of people/organisations to manage it is not so simple. Flannery’s solution is there needs to be:

  • a legislative commitment to zero tolerance on further extinctions;
  • the establishment of a Biodiversity Authority [yes, I know, another bureaucratic body] that is independent of government, that has “unequivocal targets”, and which faces strong consequences [what, I wonder?] on failure to deliver; and
  • the acceptance and formal involvement of non-profit organisations in managing biodiversity programs.

The Conversation, an Australian academic and research sector blog, is currently running a weekly series on endangered species. A commenter on last week’s post suggested outsourcing the listing of endangered species to peak groups, pretty much mirroring Flannery’s argument regarding partnerships between the government and non-government sectors.

Overall, the essay is clearly argued, but occasionally Flannery makes a statement that jars. One is his statement that “even under Labor governments with a strong green bent, national parks are not always safe” which he supports using the example of the Bligh Government’s starting the process of de-gazetting a part of the Mungkan Kaanju National Park with a view to returning it to its traditional Aboriginal owners. He doesn’t elaborate on this. I wrote in the margin, “Is this wrong”? Not surprisingly, at least one indigenous leader, Marcia Langton, took offence. I suspect it was a case of Flannery finding a poor example to support his argument regarding national parks being threatened even by supposedly sympathetic governments, but I don’t know.

Despite odd moments like this, I did find his argument convincing. However, as I’m sure he’d say himself, it’s not a guaranteed solution. Early in the essay he makes a point of discussing scientific method, arguing that “science is not a search for the truth” but about “disproving hypothesis”.  The hypothesis he proposes here is surely worth testing given the failure of current methods. It begs his early questions, though, regarding political and social will, which may in fact be the critical variables that we need to resolve.

Tim Flannery
“After the future: Australia’s new extinction crisis”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 48
Collingwood: Black Inc, November 2012
ISBN: 9781863955829

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

Anna Krien, Us and them: On the importance of animals (Review)

Krien Us and them

Quarterly essay cover (Courtesy: Black Inc)

I’ll admit it right up front, I am not a vegetarian or a vegan. I like to eat meat. I wear leather shoes. I like to think, though, that the source of these products has had a comfortable life and a quick, stress-free death. But I’m kidding myself, I know. And Anna Krien’s essay, Us and them, about the relationship between humans and animals, doesn’t reassure me.

In roughly 25,000 words, Krien, whose Into the woods I reviewed a couple of years ago, explores the complex relationship we humans have with our living, breathing co-inhabitants on this earth of ours. She exposes the underbelly of this relationship but resists simplistically declaiming the abuses and proclaiming that there is an easy solution. We all know there isn’t. As she says in the first section:

I’m not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a farce – deep down we all know it.

The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with.

To try to answer this question she confronts the tension that exists in our relationship with “them” which is, as she puts it, the tension between seeing them as “beings” versus “objects”. She asks:

How to ensure that the butcher, the scientist, the farmer recognise that the creature in their care is a being, even as all the while they [and, I would say, by extension we] continue to use it as an object?

This is a well-structured essay. After an introductory section in which she sets the scene and poses her question, Krien explores the issues thematically, through the sorts of “encounters we have with animals”: Killing; Testing; Hunting,

These are, obviously, the encounters which are the most problematic. She spends little time on our positive and generally more mutually beneficial* encounters, such as in their roles as pets, guide dogs, and companion animals. That’s fair enough, given the serious questions she wanted to confront, but it’s a bit of a shame, nonetheless.

I like Krien’s writing. It’s well-researched, informative, and presents unpleasant facts with a light touch. She’s neither didactic nor conclusive but rather writes as one going on a journey with us. And she asks hard questions, such as these ones in the killing section:

  • Should Australia remain in the live animal trade and by so doing help other countries improve their animal welfare practices?
  • What does it say about our priorities when we have a World Society for the Protection of Animals but not one to protect women?
  • How do we explain the fact that more Australians empathised with the cows (being sent to Indonesia) than with people (such as those Indonesians for whom the cattle trade  means work and food, let alone the asylum-seekers plying the same seas as the cows)?

She explores the complexities of testing and here again disabused me of my head-in-the-sand hopes. I was surprised to read that the number of animals being used in research and teaching is increasing not decreasing. And again, the difficult questions. Is some testing acceptable, necessary even, and others not? And if so, on what basis do we decide? Why is there a disjunction between what scientists do in animal testing and believe is ethical, and what laypeople think?

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book'dout - Shelleyrae)

In her section on hunting, the focus is not so much on recreational hunting but on the hunting of animal pests – some native, such as dingoes, and some feral. She talks about apex predators, and the environmental impact of removing them. When the top predator goes, the ecological balance is severely disturbed. The loss of dingoes, for example, can be directly related to the extinction of small mammals. One solution to protecting farm animals that doesn’t involve killing dingoes is to use guardian animals like maremmas and alpacas. Hmm, methinks, introduced species aren’t always a good option – think camels, think cane toads – but so far so good it seems.

Late in the essay, Anna Krien writes that many scientists describe our current geological era as the Anthropocene, recognising the significant (negative) impact human activities are having on the earth. She follows this with biologist Edward O. Wilson‘s suggestion that what comes next will be “the Age of Loneliness” typified by “a planet with us and not much else”. I don’t want to think about what that would be like. There’s no easy answer to all this but, as Krien says, we must “acknowledge the questions” and continue the discussion. To do anything else is to deny that not only are animals are “important” in themselves but, to put it selfishly, they are important in multitudinous ways to us.

Anna Krien
“Us and them: On the importance of animals”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 45
Collingwood: Black Inc, March 2012
ISBN: 9781863955607

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

* Though I’m aware I’m making a human-centric assumption here!