Monday 5 December 2011

Body and Screen

In the Graham Greene short story "The end of the party", Greene describes how the two twin brothers, Francis and Peter, are playing hide and seek in the dark. Francis did not want to play, and had had a sense of foreboding about going to the party in the first place. Greene describes the intimacy of the relationship between the two brothers as they seek each other in the hide and seek game:
"for between Francis and himself, touch was the most intimate communication. By way of joined hands thought could flow more swiftly than lips could shape themselves round words. He could experience the whole progress of his brother's emotion, from the leap of panic at the unexpected contact to the steady pulse of fear, which now went on and on with the regularity of a heart-beat." 
This is, to me, what attachment is. It is fundamentally a sensual communication: the mothers voice, smell, touch with the baby - just as the touch between twin brothers similarly communicates "more swiftly than lips could shape themselves round words."

I'm thinking about this as I read Sherry Turkle's new book "Alone together".

Turkle is worried about our lives on screen. She sees physical togetherness separated by screens - peculiar techno-etiquettes which seem to run against common-sense behaviour (like the nanny who would only text her housemate because it "was intrusive to knock on her door"). I share many of these concerns, but I'm anxious to address them in a way which doesn't say "technology bad!".

The problem is attachment, and the fact that attachment may well be fundamentally physical. I'd wondered about an online space where attachments could form; but a friend pointed out that that is no more likely to be meaningful than virtual sex. But if it is about people being physically together, then we have a problem because somehow we have to stop the screen becoming a barrier and turn it into something convivial. The question is "how can technology help us to use the screen to face each other?".

I often sit on the sofa with my daughter and a laptop looking at her and my favourite youtube videos (lots of comedy). These are special moments for both of us, and something which we could not have done without Youtube and laptops. Both Youtube and the laptop enhances the moment of togetherness in an immediately to-hand way. But the attachment is with each other: we both recognise it as a special moment: we dwell in the moment.

Most of the time when I'm on the computer, this togetherness is not my experience. My thoughts are active, strategic and somewhat selfish: "how should I phrase this message to so-and-so?"; "I see so-and-so online.. should I skype them?"; "how many people have viewed my latest blog post?"; "what should my next blog post be?" (that one preceded me writing this!). I wonder if I'm not always seeking personal advantage or ego-boosting...

There may not be anything wrong with that, but it is important to recognise what it is not. Personally, I've found myself to be a happier person since I started blogging and tweeting, but my blog started out as a kind of therapy: I've learnt to blog as I've learnt not to be afraid. (Which makes me think that Luhmann is right about communication!) But on the other hand, I know so many people who live on Facebook in such an ever-active frame of mind that I'm left wondering about their deeper lives, their sense of self and ultimately their capacity to act sensibly. There is an aspect of 'life online' which is riddled with a deeper existential fear: do I blog and Facebook as a way of drawing attention away from my mortality?

It may be that only with catastophic loss does the power of attachment really hit home. At such moments, Facebook is not the place to be - it is not the moment when strategic communications are made. The place to be is directly dealing with those affected.

Greene's story ends in death, with such a loss. His Catholic doubt beautifully expressed:
"'Where's Francis?' but they were silenced by Mrs Henne-Falcon's scream. But she was not the first to notice Francis Morton's stillness, where he had collapsed against the wall at the touch of his brother's hand. Peter continued to hold the clenched fingers in an arid and puzzled grief. It was not merely that his brother was dead. His brain, too young to realize the full paradox, yet wondered with an obscure self-pity why it was that the pulse of his brother's fear went on and on, when Francis was now where he had been always told there was no more terror and no more darkness"

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