Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘media’

20 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Humane Art: Virginia Woolf on What Killed Letter Writing and Why We Ought to Keep It Alive

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“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.”

“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence,” advised an 1876 guide to the art of epistolary etiquette, “but also as a work of art.” More than half a century later, and another half century before the dawn of email as we know it today, one of the greatest letter writers of all time turned a concerned eye toward the death of that singular art form. In April of 1940, Virginia Woolf was tasked with reviewing a new biography of 18th-century English art historian Horace Walpole, a prolific writer of sixteen published volumes of letters. Woolf’s essay, titled “The Humane Art” and found in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us Woolf on the malady of middlebrow and the piece she read in what became the only surviving recording of her voice — is less about Walpole or his biography and more about the art of letter writing itself: its private function, its cultural evolution, its uncertain future in the face of emerging forms of media.

Countering the biographer’s assertion that Walpole’s letters were “inspired not by the love of friends but the love of posterity” — a tool of history rather than of his inner world — Woolf considers the general genius of the letter writer:

If we believe that Horace Walpole was a historian in disguise, we are denying his peculiar genius as a letter writer. The letter writer is no surreptitious historian. He is a man of short range sensibility; he speaks not to the public at large but to the individual in private. All good letter writers feel the drag of the face on the other side of the age and obey it — they take as much as they give.

Woolf makes the curious but instantly sensical proposition that the rise of her very own ilk — the paid writer — is what spelled the decline of fine letter writing:

Was it … the growth of writing as a paid profession, and the change which that change of focus brought with it that led, in the nineteenth century, to the decline of this humane art?

In prescient sentiment that resonates all the more loudly as we consider the currency of the social media age, she points to new media in particular as the dagger at the heart of the personal letter:

News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private; and how monotonous after a page or two the intensity of the very private becomes!

As though with blogs and Tumblrs and Facebook feeds in mind, Woolf writes:

Instead of letters posterity will have confessions, diaries, notebooks… — hybrid books in which the writer talks in the dark to himself about himself for a generation yet to be born.

Returning to Walpole, she considers what his letters — and the traditional art of epistolary correspondence in general — reveal about the vitalizing role of real letters in our lives, as an anchor to both our tribe and to our own identity. As we continuously struggle to understand what binds our past selves and our future selves together into the same person, Woolf points to the power of the letter, which bridges two privacies, in assuring us of our own selves, at once stable and self-renewing:

Above all he was blessed in his little public — a circle that surrounded him with that warm climate in which he could live the life of incessant changes which is the breath of a letter writer’s existence. Besides the wit and the anecdote and the brilliant descriptions of masquerades and midnight revelries his friends drew from him something superficial yet profound, something changing yet entire — himself shall we call it in default of one word for that which friends elicit but the great public kills? From that sprang his immortality. For a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.

Whether it is an act of supreme irony or supreme affirmation that Woolf herself ended her life with a letter — and a letter so cruelly commoditized by the era’s parasitic news media — remains an open question.

Page from 'How to Write Letters,' 1876. Click image for more.

Complement with Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, writing and consciousness, and her breathtaking love letters to Vita Sackville-West.

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Wisdom in the Age of Information and the Importance of Storytelling in Making Sense of the World: An Animated Essay

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Thoughts on navigating the open sea of knowledge.

For my part in the 2014 Future of Storytelling Summit, I had the pleasure of collaborating with animator Drew Christie — the talent behind that wonderful short film about Mark Twain and the myth of originality — on an animated essay that I wrote and narrated, exploring a subject close to my heart and mind: the question of how we can cultivate true wisdom in the age of information and why great storytellers matter more than ever in helping us make sense of an increasingly complex world. It comes as an organic extension of the seven most important life-learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings. Full essay text below — please enjoy.

We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.

This barrage of readily available information has also created an environment where one of the worst social sins is to appear uninformed. Ours is a culture where it’s enormously embarrassing not to have an opinion on something, and in order to seem informed, we form our so-called opinions hastily, based on fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding.

“Knowledge,” Emerson wrote, “is the knowing that we can not know.”

To grasp the importance of this, we first need to define these concepts as a ladder of understanding.

At its base is a piece of information, which simply tells us some basic fact about the world. Above that is knowledge — the understanding of how different bits of information fit together to reveal some truth about the world. Knowledge hinges on an act of correlation and interpretation. At the top is wisdom, which has a moral component — it is the application of information worth remembering and knowledge that matters to understanding not only how the world works, but also how it should work. And that requires a moral framework of what should and shouldn’t matter, as well as an ideal of the world at its highest potentiality.

This is why the storyteller is all the more urgently valuable today.

A great storyteller — whether a journalist or editor or filmmaker or curator — helps people figure out not only what matters in the world, but also why it matters. A great storyteller dances up the ladder of understanding, from information to knowledge to wisdom. Through symbol, metaphor, and association, the storyteller helps us interpret information, integrate it with our existing knowledge, and transmute that into wisdom.

Susan Sontag once said that “reading sets standards.” Storytelling not only sets standards but, at its best, makes us want to live up to them, to transcend them.

A great story, then, is not about providing information, though it can certainly inform — a great story invites an expansion of understanding, a self-transcendence. More than that, it plants the seed for it and makes it impossible to do anything but grow a new understanding — of the world, of our place in it, of ourselves, of some subtle or monumental aspect of existence.

At a time when information is increasingly cheap and wisdom increasingly expensive, this gap is where the modern storyteller’s value lives.

I think of it this way:

Information is having a library of books on shipbuilding. Knowledge applies that to building a ship. Access to the information — to the books — is a prerequisite for the knowledge, but not a guarantee of it.

Once you’ve built your ship, wisdom is what allows you to sail it without sinking, to protect it from the storm that creeps up from the horizon in the dead of the night, to point it just so that the wind breathes life into its sails.

Moral wisdom helps you tell the difference between the right direction and the wrong direction in steering the ship.

A great storyteller is the kindly captain who sails her ship with tremendous wisdom and boundless courage; who points its nose in the direction of horizons and worlds chosen with unflinching idealism and integrity; who brings us somewhat closer to the answer, to our particular answer, to that grand question: Why are we here?

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01 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Click Like You Give a Damn: The Politics of Linkbait and How Feeding on Buzz Ensures a Malnourished Soul

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“We have to start shaping the world we want with our clicks, because clicking is a public act.”

When we feed on buzz, are we really nourishing our souls?

Most intelligent, motivated people believe that we shape the world with our choices — that subverting our convictions to some this-is-just-the-way-it-is ideology is unacceptable, disempowering resignation. And yet even the best-intentioned people often get caught in believing this on an abstract level, while making passive, semi-automatic choices in our daily lives that float us further from rather than closer to the world we say we desire. Just like all drivers think that traffic is other people, we tend to consider our culture’s questionable products the result of other people’s questionable choices, forgetting that culture is always an aggregate of which we are invariably a part.

In this excellent and urgently necessary short TED talk, journalist, community organizer and political commentator Sally Kohn takes on the epidemic of clickbait, reminding us with equal parts wit and wisdom that our mindless media gluttony, which Alan Watts aptly termed “orgasm without release” more than half a century ago, is shaping the very culture we so readily sneer at — because, lest we forget, clickbait is to culture what cliché is to language and its cumulative eradication is just as much the sum total of our individual choices.

We all say we hate this crap. The question is whether you’re willing to make a personal sacrifice to change it. I don’t mean giving up the Internet. I mean changing the way you click, because clicking is a public act. It’s no longer the case that a few powerful elites control all the media and the rest of us are just passive receivers. Increasingly, we’re all the media. I used to think, oh, okay, I get dressed up, I put on a lot of makeup, I go on television, I talk about the news. That is a public act of making media. And then I go home and I browse the web and I’m reading Twitter, and that’s a private act of consuming media. I mean, of course it is. I’m in my pajamas.

Wrong.

Everything we blog, everything we Tweet, and everything we click is a public act of making media. We are the new editors. We decide what gets attention based on what we give our attention to. That’s how the media works now. There’s all these hidden algorithms that decide what you see more of and what we all see more of based on what you click on, and that in turn shapes our whole culture.

[…]

In an increasingly noisy media landscape, the incentive is to make more noise to be heard, and that tyranny of the loud encourages the tyranny of the nasty.

It does not have to be that way. It does not. We can change the incentive. For starters, there are two things we can all do. First, don’t just stand by the sidelines when you see someone getting hurt. If someone is being abused online, do something. Be a hero. This is your chance. Speak up. Speak out. Be a good person. Drown out the negative with the positive. And second, we’ve got to stop clicking on the lowest-common-denominator, bottom-feeding linkbait.

[…]

If what gets the most clicks wins, then we have to start shaping the world we want with our clicks, because clicking is a public act. So click responsibly.

You can, and should, follow Kahn on Twitter and support her work here.

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