War and Community–Sebastian Junger’s “War”

Just got done reading Sebastian Junger’s new book, War.  The title is a little

Sebastian Junger--"War"

grandiose since I don’t think Junger delivers the truth of War, but I do think it is a very good book and certainly the best thing, in a relatively limited sample, that I’ve read about the American experience in Afghanistan.

Junger avoids political pronouncements in preference for a close examination of the individual experience of the soldier at war, and even more particularly on the soldier in the combat zone.   Indeed, I think to some degree that the book might more appropriately have been titled “Combat,” since it is really focused not on the large scale strategy, tactics or mechanics of carrying out a war, but on the men at the point of the spear who live under fire or the threat of it.

I’m interested in a lot of things about this book, but most particularly on Junger’s concentration on the supremacy of the combat unit, the squad or platoon through whom the basic bloody work of military strategy is made real.  Junger emphasizes the fact that survival and success in combat depends on every individual soldier deciding repeatedly, if unconsciously, that the lives of other members of the team are more important than his own.  Indeed, in what was to my mind Junger’s most startling claim,  courage in battle must be understood first and foremost as a form of love:

Combat fog obscures your fate–obscures when and where you might die–and from the unknown is born a desperate bond between the men.  That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can absolutely count on.  the army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time.  The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.  What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless metanalyses, slowly came to understand was that courage was love.  In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.  According to their questionnaries, the primary motivation in combat (other than “ending the task”–which meant they all could go home was “solidarity with the group.”  that far outweighed self-preservation or idealism as a motivator” (239-230).

Junger connects this even to the solidarity of the group in the pursuit of killing.  Killing in war is not primarily about the hatred or dehumanization of the enemy, idealism about causes, patriotism for country.  It is more primordially about saving the lives of those you love.

Junger’s depictions and ruminations here are convincing to me, quite apart from my own convictions about personal or state violence, and they do give me pause over a particular conundrum.  American life is so thoroughly characterized by individualism and self-promotion.   And yet life in combat–which is in some ways also seen as quintessentially American–is by Junger’s accounting absolutely about self-effacement in some profound and existential way.  I was reminded of the controversy over The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker Poster

where veterans of bomb squads were deeply troubled by the individualistic and cowboy renegade image that was projected by the protagonist.  Reading Junger, I understand that complaint more clearly now.  The individualistic hero who strikes out on his or her own at apparently great risk to himself and others is a Hollywood figure, but one who, if univeralized, would very quickly mean the absolute destruction of a fighting the unit, the opposite of the kind of sacrificial heroism that Junger believes is a characteristic not of exceptional persons in combat, but the fundamental nature of what makes combat possible at all.

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Daumier on Reading

There’s a lovely online exhibition devoted to Honore Daumier’s representations of reading in his work as the kind of grand pere of editorial cartooning. I’m struck by the way in which Daumier represents reading as a

Not now, dearest, I'm reading

Not now, dearest, I'm Reading

social activity. Of course, there are a number of representations of reading as something that draws people into isolation. As, for instance, this piece on what appears to be man and wife together in a cafe.  This seems to fit what I’ve often taken to be the individualistic character of reading in the modern world (and, to be frank, this doesn’t seem all that different from someone sitting at a table texting or reading email while ignoring his wife or girlfriend or friends;  reading draws us elsewhere, so all the fretting that goes on about the internet damaging our social relationships may be nothing new)

On the other hand, I’m struck by the number of Daumier pieces that emphasize what I would describe as the sociality of reading, the ways in which reading is an occasion for bringing people together.  For instance, this piece with two men reading the paper together:

She did What????!!!

She did What????!!!

There are actually more of these kinds of images in the exhibit, suggesting that reading becomes a kind of occasion for sociality rather than isolation.  (Of course, it’s France, right?  Hard to know if similar images could have played in Peoria).  Still, I’m intrigued by the ways in which reading becomes a social event.  I’ve suggested in some of my work in progress that book readers in contemporary society represent a kind of social subculture with a variety of signs and forms of cultural currency.  Are you reading, what are your reading, with whom are you reading, where are you reading.  All these form a system of signification that allows readers to form a kind of social sub-group within and around their taste for books.  Far from being individualistic, reading is a cultural practice with its own distinct forms of sociality.

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: A Movie Miscellany

Several movies and DVDs with my astute and incisive observations so that I can keep up my hard-won reputation as a connoseur of film.

Lars and the Real Girl: This flick is so good it had me crying twice. At the beginning I laughed so hard tears were dripping down my nose. At the end I sniffled at the funeral of a life-size doll designed to be a

Lars and Love Interest in Church

Lars and Love Interest in Church

sex-toy. Ok, this doesn’t sound too promising. Ryan Gosling is compelling as a man with a deeply disturbed psyche damaged by accumulated guilt at his mother having died during childbirth. His own childbirth. Ok, this also doesn’t sound promising, but the Gosling character compensates for his inability to connect with others by falling in love with life-size female doll he orders from an online sex-toy company. Ok, none of this sounds promising at all, but you still really have to see it. The film isn’t so much about sex-toys as it is about the need for love, the need to connect, and the redeeming possibilities of love. In some ways, though Gosling is astonishing, the center of film is the way the rest of the town responds to his need, the way it bucks up, overcomes its squeamishness, and helps Gosling’s character find the healing he needs. In some ways the film feeds that weird human response to crisis, our welcoming of crisis when we find in it that human beings can respond in ways that love and build up rather than tear down. The way a soldier, perversely, misses war because he or she remembers the ways others stood up for him, or the way she stood up for others. (Side note: I wonder if female soldiers experience this nostalgia for war in the same way that men do; I have a suspicion not since the crisis of war forces connection upon men in the way the rest of society seems to disallow). Gosling’s crisis is the occasion not only for his healing, but also for the rest of the town to become more human because they choose to care. A winner.

The poster is more interesting

The poster is more interesting

The Happening–There’s a reason that M. Night Shyamalan is considered a has-been at the age of 38. This movie was atrocious. I kept hope alive as long as I could, but was tempted to look at my watch. Wait, I don’t wear a watch anymore. A metaphor that will go the way of the dodo bird, and M. Night Shyamalan. The acting is almost universally bad. Even Mark Wahlberg, who I normally really like, is bad beyond reckoning. Every line is delivered as if the actors are saying under their breath, “I really can’t believe I’m in this sucky movie saying these sucky lines. But, hey, it’s M. Night Shyamalan; maybe this will all work out.”

By the way, did you know that his real name is Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan. I think that someone who would rename himself M. Night is probably just pretentious enough to be a bad film maker. Leave the name changes to the actors.

The Orphanage–This was also an astonishingly good film. I like well-made horror films, but this wasn’t even a horror pic, though it is often advertised as such. Yes, it is a ghost story, but that’s a little like saying Henry James’s Turn of the Screw is a horror story or a ghost story. The dismissiveness implied by the generic name doesn’t get at the emotional complexity of the film. It’s a horror story like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a horror story–Horrifying, but in the way humanity is horrifying and life can be horrifying, not because we make

The Orphanage

The Orphanage

up monsters in our brains. The film traces what happens after a boy’s disappearance as his mother seeks to find him, convinced that he has been somehow abducted by ghosts who inhabit the orphanage where she grew up. In the process of that search what she discovers is the relentless ways that human beings can be cruel and vicious to one another, and most especially to those who are most defenseless among us. In the end the film resorts to the cliche that a mother’s love transcends death, even her own, but that conclusion seemed compelling in the end. As with Lars and the Real Girl, the film offers hope that there’s a way to transcend our pettiness and mindless cruelties to one another. That we can give ourselves to others and be given to in return.

For more of my Summer’s Guilty Pleasures see:
Hard Times with Hard Times–July 10
Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Black Snake Moan–June 30

Books as sign

In “Snoopers on Subway, Beware Digital Books,” Susan Dominus of the New York Times points to the ways in which books act as social signifiers and the ways in which Kindles and other e-book readers challenge that particular moder of signification.

Trying to get a read on people who are reading is one of those aimless but satisfying subway pleasures that may eventually go by the wayside, like scanning the liner notes on the way home from Tower Records. The Kindle, an Amazon electronic book reader, may make getting your hands on a book faster, but in the process, it could “make it a lot harder to indulge in the crucial cultural task of judging books — and the people who read them — by their covers,” wrote the columnist Meghan Daum in The Los Angeles Times last fall.

The Kindle may rob New Yorkers of a subway pastime that’s more specific to this city: judging people’s covers by their books. That young guy slouched in his seat, with the hoodie pulled tight over his head — his posture suggests sheer indifference. The book in his hand, “Egyptian Cosmology,” suggests something otherwise (to guess what, exactly, would require a passing familiarity with Egyptian cosmology).

This goes along with my general sense of reading as a signifying act in an of itself, and that books function socially to communicate much more than information. Most of the stuff championing e-books emphasizes their superiority at delivering information. That MAY be true. I’m reading Treasure Island on BookGlutton–admittedly not a dedicated e-book reader but an e-book nonetheless–and I’m not totally convinced. More on that in the future. When I actually manage to finish Treasure Island, that is.

Still, I think the emphasis on books as an information delivery system misses the point that these systems themselves function as cultural artifacts and so themselves enable certain forms of communication just by being, regardless of the information that they contain.

Dominus goes on to say:

Of course, the Kindle won’t stop people from reading in public, but it might make that potentially public act seem oddly private. And we risk stripping reading of the extra work it does, enlightening us about the curiosities of the people with whom we so often seem to share space and nothing else.

I think this is right in a peculiar way. I’ve mentioned on this space before my sense that I am the only person in the coffeeshop who reads books anymore. This lends itself to a particular sense of isolation that has nothing to do with the peculiarity of my activity. Buddhists meditating together are “isolated” in one sense, but the shared silence–or chanting–is a form of cultural communication nonetheless. I feel more distinctly isolated from a person on a laptop than I do from a person reading a book. This may be irrational, but is a fact nonetheless.

Computer use does not serve the purpose of bonding me to the people in my immediate vicinity in the way that reading a book in the library or the bookstore does, or at least seems to do. In a peculiar way, the computer connection homogenizes my cultural spaces. They are all equally points of connection elsewhere, as if the laptop turns everyplace in American into a strip mall–the strip mall that homogeneous space wherein every American can feel they are familiar but alienated.

In Praise of Shyness, Solitude, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (And All Other Personality Disorders Associated with Reading): Or, What’s Wrong With Being Disconnected?

A review posted on spiked-online.com, “Humanity, Though Art Sick,” discusses Christopher Lane’s new book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness. Among other things it appears that Lane discusses the exponential pathologization of the human race at the hands of the American Psychiatric Association, with particular emphasis on the way shyness or a tendency toward introversion has gradually come to be seen as a deviation from human normality.

A couple of excerpts from Helene Guldberg’s review:

‘In my mother’s generation, shy people were seen as introverted and perhaps a bit awkward, but never mentally ill.’

So writes the Chicago-based research professor, Christopher Lane, in his fascinating new book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness. ‘Adults admired their bashfulness, associated it with bookishness, reserve, and a yen for solitude. But shyness isn’t just shyness any more. It is a disease. It has a variety of over-wrought names, including “social anxiety” and “avoidant personality disorder”, afflictions said to trouble millions’, Lane continues.….

Lane writes: ‘Beginning in 1980, with much fanfare and confidence in its revised diagnoses, the American Psychiatric Association added “social phobia”, “avoidant personality disorder”, and several similar conditions to the third edition of its massively expanded Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In this 500-page volume… the introverted individual morphed into the mildly psychotic person whose symptoms included being aloof, being dull, and simply “being alone”.’ Shyness now allegedly almost rivals depression in magnitude, a ‘sickness’ for which ‘almost 200million prescriptions are filled every year’ in the USA. Apparently, social phobia – shyness – ‘has become a pandemic’, says Lane….

The sad consequence of this state of affairs is that the range of ‘healthy behaviour’ is being increasingly narrowed. ‘Our quirks and eccentricities – the normal emotional range of adolescence and adulthood – have become problems we fear and expect drugs to fix’, Lane writes. ‘We are no longer citizens justifiably concerned about our world, who sometimes need to be alone. Our affiliations are chronic anxiety, personality or mood disorders; our solitude is a marker for mild psychosis; our dissent, a symptom of Oppositional Defiant Disorder; our worries, chemical imbalance that drugs must cure.’

In general this book—at least based on the review—seems simpatico with the recent essay by Eric Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher education (Yes, the essay that I generally dissed in an earlier post, but which I still think was topically interesting. According to Wilson:

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy. The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field, positive psychology, devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy. Doctors offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.

Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment?

I’m not sure that this amounts to a backlash, but anecdotally it does seem to me that there’s been a little more questioning of the notion that we ought to get rid of every hiccup in our emotional well-being. Recently a mother of one of my children’s friends told me they had taken their child off mood-altering medication. The child has responded with new confidence in class and by growing two inches in two months. Re. moods….Maybe there’s something OK about feeling that there’s something askew in a world where men and women are coming home maimed from a foreign war in which they’ve done far more maiming of women and children than our own country would ever politically endure in its wildest dreams or nightmares. Maybe it’s Ok for a teenager to feel that they don’t fit in so well with the in crowd. I think we think every such teenager is on the brink of Columbine. Maybe feeling a little disconnected will lead them to … read books. Hey, maybe it’s Ok to not feel wonderful, and maybe, just maybe it’s Ok to not want to join in with the gang all the time. Gangs, after all, are called gangs for good reason.

For my own purposes, I’m intrigued by the degree to which behaviours often associated with reading fall along the lines of…well…currently defined personality disorders. I mean, read the history of readers from Jean Toomer to Richard Rodriguez to Anna Quindlen. (To Pete Powers, if I had an autobiography out there that anyone would read). We are not, for the most part, the types who are great joiners. I mean, Joyce Carol Oates is one of my heroes. A person who spends her life alone in a room, apparently, about 14 hours a day, doing little more than disgorging words in to a computer.

Indeed, I remember as a college student reading an essay wherein Walker Percy says something like there’s nothing more alienating for a sad and lonely person than reading a book about happy people while sitting on a bus full of happy people. (Actually, I think there is something more alienating in my experience; attending a party full of happy people and not having anything at all on hand to read, not even a book about happy people). By contrast, the happiest thing in the world for such a person is to read a story about a sad and lonely person while sitting sad and lonely on a bus.

Percy didn’t make me want to go out and join a book group. He did make me smile and ask “How did he know?” I didn’t have to be with Walker Percy and share a hot toddy to know I was not alone, less alone than I often feel at parties with people sharing hot toddies. (Which, as I think of it, I never am since hot toddies are from Louisiana and I don’t think they know how to make them in Pennsylvania.)

This leap is full of logical fallacies, but it seems to me no accident that the apparent decline in reading of fiction and of levels of reading comprehension has accompanied the pathologization of solitude in American culture. It hasn’t just been the American Psychiatric Association. It’s been in business with business models that emphasize working groups rather than individual initiative. It’s been in religion and it’s been in the discussion of family values.

(Let me say that although I am a Democrat I nearly became nauseated when Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards proclaimed in their last debate “We’re all family.” Good Grief. It’s enough to make one think again about John McCain. Anything to escape the cloying grip of politics family style. We aren’t a village or a family. We are a big beast of a country, largely run by a military-industrial complex intricately intertwined with a system of global finance and corporate capitalism that even leading economists admit that they can’t fully comprehend. I would like to believe that our politicians realize we don’t want the country run by our Aunt Joe or Uncle Sue. No accident that John McCain spent five years alone in a brutal cell. He learned something all the joiners may never figure out).

Above all things, of course, the ideology of the internet–with its relentless drumbeat of connection, connection, connection–teaches us that lonerdom is peculiar and worthy of suspicion . Ever faster, ever more omnipresent, ever more inescapable. The compulsion to “friend”–the ubiquitous and sad new verb of our era–utter strangers. Even those that critique the internet as not really connecting us at all—as Lee Siegel apparently does in in his newest book on internet culture—even these critics exalt the ideal of connectedness above all else. Internet connection is bad, not because connection is worthy of thought or criticism, but because the internet purportedly does not provide true and authentic connection and community. Everyone and their mother exalts community and connectedness. What new pill or what technology or what community reading program will get us there? Whereas dictatorships control readers and writers by shooting them, we control them by pathologizing the behaviours that might lead…horrors…to hours spent alone doing God knows what.

Indeed, why read anymore at all to confirm the importance of your own solitude and sadness. Take a pill, you’ll feel better in the morning. Or join a book group.

At moments like this I feel like becoming a back-to-the-lander.

Let it be said, maybe we are too connected. Maybe we need more solitude. Maybe we need more silence without the relentless need to hear (or see on screen) the clattering voices of someone else, as if we are too afraid to listen to the clattering voices in our own imagination.

In this spirit, I have to confess that I am less than thrilled with the advent of bookglutton.com (though, in the spirit of America the connected, I’m planning on joining up), which I discovered on a blog at teleread.org this morning. At Bookglutton, you read books collectively online with others, viewing their comments on every page as you go along. Every book a blog. No longer the absorbed attention that borders on the mystical that we experience in traditional intensive reading, caught up in the alternative world created by another’s imagination. Instead, now, even reading books will be like attending movies where one-third of the audience converses on cell phones, another third texts friends on the opposite side of the theater, and the final third feels compelled to engage everyone around them with their commentary–as if they were afraid they might be sitting alone in the dark.

Am I alone in thinking that there is something pathological about this need to connect? Is it possible that a people who has lost the capacity for contented solitude, or even discontented solitude, who has not learned to embrace its own loneliness, is it possible that such a people is maybe just a little bit sick?

Now that you have finished reading my blog, write me a comment. Please. I am feeling disconnected. And lonely. And Sad.

I think I’ll take a pill. Or find someone to friend.