Monday, October 13, 2008

Face to Face, Hand to Hand, Eyeball to Eyeball

At 55, I have not mastered the verbal jazz-dance of party talk.

I like parties, in general, particularly when there’s booze, good food, uncontrollable laughter, and dancing. But I tend to shun events where I’ll be expected to stand around, holding a cup of fruit punch and a paper plate of cookies, peanuts, and a wedge of pepper jack on a Ritz, where the burden of fun is on me to think of polite so not too clever things to say to people with whom I share one or at most two common interests. (I’m writing this now, while skipping just such an event—a brunch for community-college teachers like me.)

I’m not shy. One on one, with anyone with wit, passion, and a shared obsession, I do well enough, if not brilliantly. And it’s not for lack of ego. Mine rages. Sometimes I think I keep mum because I want to keep that tiger in its cage. I have no qualms speaking in front of a classroom of students either—the attention (such as it is) is half the appeal of teaching for me. It’s been years since I’ve done community theatre, but the bubbling nerves that count as stage fright for some energize me.

I’m part of the problem with the state of communication today. Worse than most, even, as I prefer e-mail to phones or chat rooms.

Today, communication is basically advertising. Harmless enough in the pursuit of detergent sales and gym memberships, ad talk has seeped also into politics, religion, corporate-sponsored science, the arts, and education, where its effects have been to soften and corrupt.

Alexander Pope and Oscar Wilde would be appalled. The bon mot has become the sound bite—at the cost of shitloads of culture and community. Fewer people entertain at home now—and when they do, the focus is usually on TV or a video game.

As for public speaking, the art is practically lost. Most of the venom directed against Barack Obama has been for his eloquence. His detractors attack him precisely for wanting to meet with world leaders, rather than skip the foreplay of diplomacy and fire the rockets. We have the “better angels of our nature” on one hand versus pitbulls with lipstick on the other. I can’t imagine that Abraham Lincoln could win the Republican Party nomination in 2008, much less the Presidency, because he hardly ever smiled, his wife was raving mad, and his speeches were generally brief and free of sarcasm (also, he flip-flopped on the issue of slavery).

Conference calls, televangelism, and “smart” (computerized) classrooms have nipped conversation in its last remaining buds: business, church, and school.

Why do I feel so much more comfortable alone with my laptop this morning than together with peers over bagels and cream cheese?

Partly because I’m an introvert, yes. Partly snobbishness, perhaps, at times. Mainly, I suspect, because I live in a society that, though far from peaceable, views argument as too direct and potentially disorderly, and so a society that fosters a sort of blithe stupidity averse to wit, surprise, and stimulation not effectively mechanical or predictable in nature.

We have signs of resistance to this trend, of course. American men, traditionally less articulate and convivial than women, have looked to sports to offer opportunities for increasingly brutal contact—basement fisticuffs, shoot fighting, and catch-as-catch-can wrestling in organized or informal fight clubs—where the impact of body upon body cannot be mistaken as “virtual.” Forms of touch and intercourse (i.e. communication) that lack mediation and subtlety—thus also lacking insincerity and disregard.

Associations with homoeroticism in these contexts cause participants, both straight and gay, no small amount of anxiety, sometimes exacerbating the violence, sometimes turned inward as self-loathing or feelings of guilt.

Boxing champion Roy Jones, Jr. (who took a freshman writing class from me back in the 1980s, writing every one of his essays on the subject of boxing) said this year, “In sports the one beautiful thing is you never know a person until you do battle with them, you share something special with them” (1).

I don’t think we’ll ever hear this statement on Oprah, but I believe it’s true. Life in a disengaged society causes us to find new ways to connect. A fight is as good as a dance or a peck on the cheek in creating intimacy.

Within a society where talk is becoming increasingly abstract and vague, often merely phatic noise, where mass media supersaturate every area of life with ideologically enriched sameness, where feelings are as programmed, massaged, and disposable as the laugh track of a sitcom (2), the thump of knuckle on bone is reassuringly human, intense, and personal.

How else can we know each other? What means of personal engagement remain, as manners and civilized forms of social intercourse vanish?

(1) Qtd. in “Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones Jr Quotes and Videos.” East Side Boxing. 12 Oct. 2008 .
(2) Gitlin, Todd. Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives. Rev. ed. New York: Holt, 2007.

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