Through The Media of Space and Time

The first year anniversary of the Surface Tensions release has come and gone, somehow. I have decided to celebrate with a stand-alone audio piece drawn from the 6th chapter and with this reflection. Since I am no longer in the practice of writing smoothly integrated essays, these thoughts are more scattered than I’d prefer. But they nevertheless reveal how my thinking has grown and morphed, so here they are. (This eventually becomes an addendum to the conclusion, so, if you haven’t read the book, stop early and come back later.)

1. Reading is a cool, intimate thing.

It has been a surprising year. The largest surprise has not been a wide swath of readers — they, quite frankly, have yet to appear — but the memoir’s particular readers. These are often readers I never expected to read the book, distant friends and even friends of friends. They, without warning, message me to relay personal stories of how much it has meant to them. Of how they literally laughed and cried, reifying the cliché. Of how Surface Tensions allowed them to confront their own pasts, to consider the angels with whom they, like Jacob, like me, have wrestled. Any Surface Tensions reader knows the degree to which it puts myself out there. But readers have not only appreciated my vulnerability; they have subsequently put themselves out to me, as if my openness unfurled and secured a safety net over which they could jump into my Facebook messages.

This is cool. It’s rather wild, too, the knowledge that someone has spent hours thinking alongside you, co-thinking their hyperspecific feelings with your hyperspecific feelings. In the book, I speak of everyday intimacy and distance as covalently bonded through media. In the case of a book, I have learned, these intimacies and distances increase by massive degrees. Readers’ emotional experiences looks so different from my own… and yet, by the end of the process, they are somehow closer to me, my life, my sensibility and my way of thinking, than many of my everyday friends.

2. I still like the book, but I want to nuance some of my final ideas.

Now to the real question at hand: does book holds up? That is a hard question to answer — and probably not a question for me to answer, ultimately. What I can say with some degree of confidence: I am impressed that the book holds so many squirrely strands together, wrapping them around each other in unusual knots. It manifests what I always appreciate from young artists: a sense of formal ambition, a slightly-mad grasping toward a medium’s possibilities. It is as beholden to the nonfiction it emulates (by Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, James Baldwin, and so on) as it is determined to break down genres. Surface Tensions is a book by a young author, sure. But youth has its benefits; one of the benefits and traps of youth is a penchant for risk taking. Surface Tensions still feels like a risky book, one year later. It still surprises and rewards.

Yet youth brings frustrations with it. One of these frustrations: a lack of definitive closure. Some of the book’s biggest fans have told me that they find themselves frustrated by its conclusion. But they recommend the book to all sorts of people anyway… so I suppose I owe them a reevaluation.

3. Let’s reevaluate the conclusion.

The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. It was inspired, one could probably guess, by one of my favorite works by young artists: Good Will Hunting. I believe that, not unlike that film, my conclusion sincerely sticks some emotional-spiritual landings, but without presenting a form of closure that would have disingenuously obscured the tenuous emotional threshold from which it was written. If people are frustrated by the conclusion, they are frustrated by my own lack of personal stability.

While I hate to disappoint, I must admit: one year later, the issues I write about in the conclusion have only expanded and complicated in my mind. I look upon the conclusion with admiration. I think it’s one of the best parts of the book. But I also know that more can be done with its ideas. I therefore come to neither praise nor bury the Conclusion, but to take it and run a little further.

I must also admit that I wrote the conclusion with a bit of a strategic agenda. I was tired of those who tried to perpetuate a fundamental, ontological difference between “digital” and “physical” existence. There was, and probably still is, a tendency among certain tech-turned-anti-tech people to fetishize “the physical” and to rip at “the digital.” I bracket these terms with quotation mark because this binary holds no water. Of course we are physically embodied while engaging with digital media, and of course our physical lives involve the same presences and absences that frustrate us so much in digital spheres. I therefore think that the conclusion’s central point is still significant: digital media’s presences and absences can accustom us to live within the various mixtures of presence and absence (or, perhaps more accurately, the varying degrees of presence; absence isn’t exactly a substance that mixes) in which we spend our everyday lives wading.

I was happy, when writing, to end on a fundamentally constructivist note. I realized, recently, that I have a natural affinity for thinkers like Walter Benjamin. I have a natural desire to take on the Adornos of the world, those cranks who believe that media irrefutably lessens experience. I long to argue that technical mediation, as a symptom of modernity, can be the means by which we accommodate ourselves to all of modern life. Technical media can be a sort of interactive training module for living in a fallen world, a world stripped of aura.

Despite the difficulties involved in truly grasping Benjamin’s definition of aura, my preferred interpretation is that Benjamin’s “aura” implies a (1) spatio-temporal connection by which (2) an individual is pulled into and absorbed by an object outside of herself. Benjamin saw this connection severed by modern media, and also saw this severance fruitfully interrogated by processes of technological reproducibility: the processes that created cinematic montage and the surrealist photograph. Could we not also experience a similarly fruitful interrogation through, say, the iPhone? I would like to think so.

But if youth is about discovering possibilities (the “sensibility of possibility”, perhaps, most identifies Surface Tensions as a youthful work) age seems to be more about finding possibilities within limits. This happens at micro levels––as a child I wanted to be an engineer before I realized how terrible I was at math––before it occurs by ever-greater degrees: at a certain point, you find ways to live as all of your long-time friends leave you to enter eternity, one-by-one.

If I think about the media-related discoveries I’ve had over the last couple years, they’ve been about discovering limits. And I’ve realized that a potential problem with a purely constructivist attitude is the denial of limits. Yet limits exist, and limits are worth talking about. In this regard, I think that my attitude has shifted less toward Adorno-like fatalistic crankiness than toward the mentality of Benjamin’s friend and similarly-minded colleague Siegfried Kracauer.

4. Here’s a Kracauer essay that fruitfully complicates my conclusion.

Weimar-era Kracauer wrote what has recently become one of my favorite, peculiarly theological (one could even say media-theological) pieces of cultural criticism. It is called, simply, “Travel and Dance.” At the beginning of the piece, Kracauer denies the notion that postwar passions for traveling and dancing are technologically or historically determined. (“It would be all too facile to attribute these spatio-temporal passions to the development of transportation or to grasp them in psychological terms as consequences of the postwar period.”) Instead, he claims that “travel and dance have taken on a theological significance.”

To briefly encapuslate Kracauer’s complex point: postwar travel and dance function as forms of physical compensation for modern individuals who lack metaphysical imagination. Travel and dance function as substitutes for the orientation of “the real person” who lives “a double existence”: situated in, on one hand, space and time, and, on the other hand, orienting himself toward infinity and eternity. “He is always simultaneously within space and at the threshold of supra-spatial endlessness, simultaneously within the flow of time and in the reflection of eternity; and this duality of his existence is simple, since his being is precisely the tension from out of the Here into the There.”

The desire to travel and dance is, therefore, the mechanized and mathematically circumscribed man’s utter physicalization of a fundamental tension between the physical and the metaphysical, the Here and There. Modern individuals cannot even think of the infinite and the eternal! “They… run into the wall of those categories and tumble back into the spatio-temporal arena. They want to experience the endless and are points in space; they want to experience a relationship with the eternal but are swallowed up by the flow of time.”

Therefore — and here’s Kracauer’s key point––modern individuals “are granted access to the Beyond only through a change in their position in space and time… They experience supra-spatial endlessness by traveling in an endless geographic space… they imagine that infinity itself is spreading out before them”. When they dance, they experience “a liberation from earthly woes… it seems to them as if the Beyond (for which they have no words) is already announcing itself within this life here.”

Modern activities create, in other words, ways for restless people to respond to––and to compensate for––their inability to access, much less imagine, infinity and eternity. Don’t contemporary technological practices do this to an even greater degree? With iPhones and computers, dreams that were once regulated to the heavenly realm — the breakdown of space-time in a way that creates immanence, intimacy, communion; the ability to be with all of our beloved friends and family at once — almost come true in everyday life. The dead come back to life in pictures and films. We can be with friends and family across the globe, all the time, at the touch of a button. As Kracauer puts it: “We have fallen for the ability to have all these spaces at our disposal; we are like conquistadors who have not yet had a quiet moment to reflect on the meaning of their acquisition… Technology has taken us by surprise, and the regions that it has opened up are still glaringly empty…”

The constructivist will say: fill up the spaces! “Knit your story into our story into our story, stitch by stitch, bit by bit, tap by tap, and vaguely form something worth fighting for.” (That’s me at the end of Surface Tensions, not Kracauer.) Of course the thoughtful constructivist will contemplate the difficulties involved in the act of knitting, the act of building. He will say: “We must contemplate the bane of falsified images, the dangers of distance, the weight of absence, just as master builders must contemplate the difficulties of gravity and the steady, natural weathering of inclement weather.” But he will ultimately conclude: “We must build. For we must congregate, and we must worship.”

I have realized, over the last couple years, that while qualification complicates my constructivist stance, it nevertheless treats the mentioned issues as complications rather than true limits. My analogy doesn’t quite hold, tbh: gravity allows for a building to exist in the first place; weather allows for bricks to dry and for air to circulate. Gravity and weather, while potentially challenging, are necessary conditions for the existence of buildings in the first place; they are not true limits to the act of building itself. They are to be worked with. But aren’t falsehood, distance, absence––albeit inevitable––often worked against via modern technological constructions? We attempt to eliminate falsehood through “authenticity,” to deny distance and absence through texts and pictures and videos. While we may be stuck with falsehoods, distances, and absences (there are lots of examples of this in Surface Tensions) we’re not fans of these elements in the way that a structural engineer is a fan of gravity or air circulation.

4. I’ve been learning to treat limits as limits.

I recently heard the novelist and essayist Tom McCarthy present an essay on the technological prosthetic. Every prosthesis, McCarthy claimed — stealing “the double logic of prosthesis” from the art critic Hal Foster — is both additive and subtractive. Every technological invention enhances and diminishes. Every technological prosthesis makes us more-than and less-than human.

This seems right — and it seems to me that if the very aspects we wish to abolish via technology (falsehood, distances, absences) are the inevitable results of mediation itself, then ever-greater degrees of technological mediation cannot obliterate our initial problem. (The previous sentence is confusing, I admit. Let’s try an analogy: if eating Doritos makes you hungrier, then ever-more Doritos cannot fill you up. But the Dorito-loving constructivist cannot properly acknowledge this problem.)

Kracauer ends “Travel and Dance” in a peculiar and provocative way. I like the ending because it seems equally progressive and limit-acknowledging; it denies the simple binary between progressive and conservative, constructivist and luddite. Kracauer is aware of this: he writes that his “uncertain, hesitant confirmation of the civilizing [and modernizing] impulse is more realistic than a radical cult of progress… But it is also more realistic than the condemnations by those who romantically flee the situation they have been assigned.”

Travel and dance, he writes in his final sentence, these “excesses of a theological sort… distortions of real being and conquests in the (in themselves unreal) media of space and time… may become filled with meaning once people extend themselves from the newly won regions of this life here to the infinite and to the eternal, which can never be contained in any life here.” What a strange sentence! Read it carefully. Kracauer is not saying that we should stop dancing and traveling, that we should turn from the newly won regions of space and time, that we should destroy our iPhones and computers. Instead, we should extend through and beyond these conquests[1] toward that which cannot be mastered by these technologies and practices.

We should acknowledge our limits in the spatio-temporal realm of the here and now and extend our minds and hearts beyond these limits. We must therefore treat these limits as limits; the only way our conquest of space and time will have any meaning is if we think beyond the space and time we have conquered, toward a world that needs redemption, toward that “which can never be contained in any life here.” This notion of extension is fundamentally progressive — but it progresses beyond that which we can truly construct.

“The passionate swarming out into all dimensions also demands redemption,” Kracauer observes––and ever-greater degrees of spatio-temporal swarming (through 3D modeling, printing, VR headsets, any app, any prosthesis you can think of) will ever-increase this need for ultimate redemption.

5. Some practical examples from my personal life would be helpful here, right?

I realize that this seems pretty abstract, so let’s bring this down to earth a little bit. I end Surface Tensions in a Good Will Hunting-esque way: I gotta go see about a girl. I describe choosing the medium best suited for my quest: should I talk on the phone? Send a text? Write a letter? Visit in person? That was a slightly disingenuous flourish, I must admit, created for the sake of rhetorical argument. Of course I was going to fly to in Chicago. I knew that while writing. We couldn’t have that conversation over the phone. That had to happen in-person. Duh.

I do not regret that decision. (If I regret anything, it’s that I did not have that significant conversation earlier––a mistake due, perhaps, to some last remaining bits of insecurity from a time when I presumed that the romantic realm was not for me.) But, sometime later, without that particular conversation even on my mind, I determined that Long Distance Dating is a Bad Idea in most cases. Many of you will say: “well, duh!”––but come on guys, I’m admitting my naivety here, be nice to me. When writing Surface Tensions, my constructivist stance would not allow me to come to that conclusion, to acknowledge that limit.

I now believe that those crucial, chemistry-laden beginnings cannot occur through digital distance. This is partially because I have grown fond of Affect Theory; if, as thinkers like Teresa Brennan have argued with verve, so many of our social interactions are created through biochemical processes like unconscious olfaction, through invisible pheromones tossed through the air, then how can the most emotionally sensitive of interactions truly function through digital distance?

I have also determined, even more controversially, that it is only prudent to ask someone out on a date in-person. “What if that person needs some time to figure out how they feel?” friends have retorted in response. “What if a little distance could be beneficial in that regard?” That’s a decent point — but what better way to gauge an emotional predisposition than an in-person approach? It has allowed me to see one young woman pull her scarf up from her neck, around her mouth, in a peculiar mixture of embarrassment and giddy surprise. I have seen another answer with measured, straightforward interest. I have seen yet another’s entire body tense up as she laughed nervously and glanced around, calculating a possibility that didn’t seem like a possibility until suddenly, surprisingly, anxiously, it was. No data could give you this. No thumbs up or thumbs down could communicate these layers of delight, indecision, confusion, surprise or lack thereof. Refusing the digital allowed for the creation of communicative possibility.

Again, like Kracauer, I don’t think we should relinquish our conquest of time and space. I still text and tweet and Facebook message. But I do so in varying degrees. I have largely turned from mass communication to in-person communication. I try to not only contemplate, but to regularly steep in why these communications won’t satisfy, why they won’t fulfill the longings of my heart, why they need to be redeemed. The people I’m speaking to are not truly present in those texts messages. The intimacy I desire cannot be translated into zeros and ones. And I then push further: I not only long for in-person immanence, but want what can only exist in the infinity and the eternity that exists beyond this fallen world.

I am, regardless of the digital strands I weave into the world, regardless of the words I weave into sentences, fundamentally alone in myself, even estranged from myself. I have opportunities for interpersonal construction and I’m constantly faced with the limits of this construction. The germs of these thoughts are all over Surface Tensions, of course, but they have only magnified in my mind since the book was published.

4. The Limits of Self Discovery

I recently listened to an interview with Father James Martin for the radio show On Being. Near the end, Martin shared a prayer by the mystic Thomas Merton. It struck me. It sits on my desktop background. I have begun to memorize it. It begins like this:

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

And the fact that I think I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

Writing Surface Tensions was an experience of self-discovery. And, by God’s grace, I think I discovered a lot. Those discoveries, the narrative I weaved, still inform who I am, how I think about things. I have a much larger capacity for self-awareness now — too great sometimes, perhaps. Great enough to push me down a self-conscious tunnel into David Foster Wallace Land.

But it is now time to––without withdrawing from a life of interpersonal activity and technological engagement––acknowledge limits to self-knowledge. Limits to knowledge of my future. Limits of technological engagement. Limits of productive mediation. Limits of life in this spatio-temporal world.

This requires only a slight shift in attitude: from “I shall overcome” to “I shall live within.”

Vaguely form something worth fighting for, yes. But know how to fight and when to stop fighting, when to realize that presence and immanence and intimacy are gifts that no degree of technological progress can give. Extend yourself into the world through prosthesis after prosthesis, but keep that pesky double logic in mind — knowing that, as you make yourself more-than-human, you may also feel less human. And know how to accept the gifts of presence and absence, awaiting the immanence and the communion and the joy that rests beyond the realm of our imagination.

On Sunday, Pastor Dan, at my parents’ church, spoke of Peter’s response to the Transfiguration––“Moses, Elijah, AND Jesus are here?! Awesome! Let’s build some huts for you guys!”––and he spoke of our innate desire to build. He then recalled the time that King David, feeling a little sheepish and embarrassed, decided to construct a cedar house for the Ark of the Covenant, which sat lamely in a plain tent.

Dan quoted God’s response, as mediated by the Prophet Nathan, in the Message translation: “‘You’re going to build a ‘house’ for me to live in? Why, I haven’t lived in a ‘house’ from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now… Furthermore, God has this message for you: God himself will build you a house! When your life is complete and you’re buried with your ancestors, then I’ll raise up your child, your own flesh and blood, to succeed you, and I’ll firmly establish his rule. He will build a house to honor me, and I will guarantee his kingdom’s rule permanently. ”

It is a house that will extend beyond David, a house that will spread throughout space and time, for people he does not know and cannot imagine, for generations on end––into infinity and eternity.

When he hears this, David gets on his knees: “Who am I, my Master God, and what is my family, that you have brought me to this place in life?”

May this be our prayer.

May we adjust our eyes to apprehend a house that extends beyond our constructive powers.

May we pick up our iPhones, straighten our shaking legs, ready our sleeping feet.

May we rise, clasping hands, clasping each other tight.

And may we propel ourselves through space, stepping in time, toward the door of the infinite and the eternal that somehow, improbably, incredibly, awaits––open and beyond.

[1] Kracauer uses similar language of extending through and beyond the spatio-temporal formations in his famous essay “The Mass Ornament,” btw.



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Nathan Roberts

Nathan Roberts