Click click click
At an oral graduation exam at Harvard during the nineteenth century, the legendary American scientist, Louis Agassiz (Henry David Thoreau provided him with turtles for laboratory dissection), gave frogs to three seniors. Tell me about the frog, he said. The students were offended. They had studied at Harvard for four years. They knew what a frog was. What was this?
Their description of the frog was perfunctory, abrupt, short. They were not happy. For a moment Agassiz was silent. Come back tomorrow, he said, and tell me about the frog. They returned the next day, but Agassiz tells them, they had just begun. Three days later, the students knew the frog in ways they had not before, even though the frogs were by now worse for wear. They had the knowledge (and understanding) that only sustained attention over time could give them.
The art historian, T. J. Clark, who was doing research at the Getty Museum in California, describes how every afternoon he sat himself in front of two paintings by Poussin and looked at them for six months. He had seen the paintings before and knew them. Or thought he did. Six months told him he did not. Now, he concludes, “I shall have a better set of questions to ask.”
We do not – in fact, cannot – give such sustained attention to the details of our life today, and our failure to do so is damaging. We suffer under the dictatorship of data. Today’s story, image, fact, data or sound are gone as soon as we become aware of them. There is constant flow without cessation which overwhelms us. We have no time to reflect on what we see or read, let alone know it, if we even know what knowing is anymore. We are ruled, as it were, by the remote control. Click. Click click. Click click click.
Walter Benjamin describes how soldiers returning from WWI had “grown silent.” They could not describe what happened to them (as anyone who has been away from home returns to tell what he has seen). The War had come at them too fast, at every point devastating, overwhelming, and they could not assimilate what they experienced enough to talk about it. (Hemingway touches on this in “Solder’s Home.”)
In The ABC of Reading, the poet Ezra Pound says we will never know a book unless we slow down in reading it, practice “slowness,” that is, live with the book long enough to make it yours. In an essay titled, “Writing,” Marguerite Duras comments, “My books come from this house. From this light as well, and from the garden. From the light reflecting off the pond. It has taken me twenty years to write what I just said.”
In a society in which we are bombarded by data, information, images, sounds – material – by one media or another, there is no way we can understand what we need to understand, unless we find a way to slow it down enough that we may give sustained attention to what we consider. This explosion of what Clark calls “the regime of the image” may be increasingly democratic (as the Internet teaches us), but it prevents us from functioning in a democracy. We must find a way to ask a better set of questions. Only in that way can we live.