The Columnest: Only Connect
What does it mean to connect - to traditions, to one's cultural roots and each other - in this era of radical transparency?
All the arty young women I know are experimenting with open relationships and undefined sexuality. “How’s your dating life going?” I ask one friend. She’s sleeping with a guy and dating a woman who’s in a long-term open relationship. I try to explain her experiences to my (monogamous, hetero) self in some way, try to imagine what it’s like to play, to be tangential in your lover’s life. Or rather, I badger my partner to tell me how he understands open relationships (which dog me more than merely flexible sexuality), because this is at times how I think: by coerced consensus. When I do this, it’s a sign I’m afraid. But what am I afraid of?
That I don’t understand; that there is something fundamentally different about my friend’s life, all the young people’s lives, that I can’t understand from here. I feel the same way when I’m asked to think too much about how twenty-somethings view the internet. Tell me they don’t just swim in it like dolphins in the sea!
But it is one of the primary truths that I don’t understand what it’s like to be anyone else—to be situated any differently than I am, to live a different life than I do. I don’t, I can’t. Why am I so resistant to that fact? In my resistance, I can see bad and good; I can see everything from cultural appropriation to empathy, from the dangerous idea of a default humanity to E. M. Forster’s plaintive motto, “Only connect.”
Spotted recently: a young man wearing a band jacket decked with gold braid, frogs, epaulets. Cropped, it came just under his chest; he might have borrowed it from his little brother. Also recently: two young men in topknots. Young men in outré beard styles: Amish, Abe Lincoln. Young men in vests, yes, we know that, but now young men in vests and striped shirts with loose sleeves and Abe Lincoln beards, looking from the waist up like Deadwood extras, only a lot cleaner. From the waist down, they’re still wearing those skinny pants that showcase butts so tiny—two inches from coccyx to cheek bottom, eight inches across the back pockets—that they seem to need new names: asslets, buttinas. Oh young men! Where do you come from? Where are you going?
With Thanksgiving on the rise, though, we must put off the finery of our new lives and return to our families. Unless, that is, you have a family of your own. I’ve been thinking about holiday traditions lately: how when I was a child it seemed that we had always and forever done this or that, when in reality my parents had invented everything a few years before. Or, in the case of longer-lived traditions, their parents had invented it, or their parents’ parents. But the larger point is that it’s all disposable. Stop making stained glass cookies, and you might as well never have done it. Once, I thought of pinecone turkeys (their fans tracings of our hands, cut from autumnal construction paper) as inherent to Thanksgiving. In reality, the time of pinecone turkeys was brief: I haven’t made one in 30 years.
When I was a child, it seemed we had always and forever held to these holiday traditions,
when in fact, they are disposable. Stop making stained glass cookies,
and you might as well never have done it.
We used to go to my grandmother’s house in Jacksonville, Florida for Thanksgiving. This could not have lasted more than nine years, probably less, but it seemed to me then that children had always hidden in the purplish folds of the tablecloth set on the long table in my grandmother’s dark dining room. The adults—mysterious, numberless—spoke a different language than my brother and I (the only children around). It was strange, one day, to come to and realize I could understand a conversation about whether or not to wash plastic plates, and even stranger to be in my grandmother’s kitchen with light streaming in the windows and see—just as if I were, myself, a woman—the remains of cherry pie needing to be scraped off the plastic plate, the question about whether the plate was worth washing and using again. How strange, to recognize the world! Then, as if I had broken the spell, the whole show folded up: the adults (my great-aunts and uncles) began to die, my grandmother sold her house and moved to Tallahassee, and I never again hid in the folds of her tablecloth.
Recently I read, or rather, skimmed Sue Halpern’s New York Review of Books article “The Creepy New Wave of the Internet,” in which Halpern tackles four new books on the internet and the future. I admit to the skimming, because surely this is one of the creepier features of the current internet—the way we don’t read half of what we post, repost, or “like”– because it’s not the whole article I want to bring up for you here, but Halpern’s quotations from Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism:
Connecting everyone and everything in a neural network brings the human race out of the age of privacy, a defining characteristic of modernity, and into the era of transparency. While privacy has long been considered a fundamental right, it has never been an inherent right. Indeed, for all of human history, until the modern era, life was lived more or less publicly….
In virtually every society that we know of before the modern era, people bathed together in public, often urinated and defecated in public, ate at communal tables, frequently engaged in sexual intimacy in public, and slept huddled together en masse. It wasn’t until the early capitalist era that people began to retreat behind locked doors.
Rifkin, Halpern notes, “dismisses our legal, social, and cultural affinity for privacy as, essentially, a bourgeois affectation.”
This sounds terrible to me. I understand the world only through the lens of the private—my life, my lover, my inimitable set of memories. But I also understand that it is impossible for me to know what else there might be. I might not even know the future when it comes—or recognize the future that is already here among us.
Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC.