In Christy Wampole’s debut essay collection, "The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation," the Princeton University professor addresses many topics, including attention spans and awkwardness. “The true Renaissance person is endowed with panoramic attention,” she writes in the essay “On Distraction.” “The habit of noticing the ensemble of everything and its constituent parts is a matter of will, not of innate aptitude. It involves the conscious noticing of things and the gaps that separate and connect them.”
It’s fortunate, then, that Wampole is blessed with the ability of not only noticing, but commenting on “the ensemble of everything.” Her astute cultural criticism brings new light to topics I find myself obsessed with. I interviewed her over email about her engaging book.
In the introduction, you write: "Essays are barometers of the intellect. We are all atmospheric creatures, influenced by the cultural weather around us; the essayist takes it as her role to say something about the way the atmosphere plays upon a person and exerts pressure on the mind and its bearing." Something I'm always curious about, as a fellow essayist: What gave you the confidence to become an essayist? I feel like it takes a certain amount of belief in your opinions and your personal voice to set your arguments on the page. Have you ever struggled with that, or has that always come naturally to you?
I started to write essays because the form allows you to vent those thoughts that have no other outlet. For me, the diary entry, the short story, or the poem just didn’t cut it because they seemed to lack a certain reflective element that I believe to be the core of the essay genre. Essay writing has been for me a matter of necessity and, in some ways, therapy. I’ve written so many essays that will never see the light of day, crafted purely for myself. I’ve come to the conclusion that thoughts not put down in writing might as well never have been thought.
Regarding those essays that do make their way to the public, it isn’t that I think my opinions are worth more than someone else’s; it’s that I believe everyone should be essaying all the time and I’m simply doing my part in what I wish were a universal project. Sadly, the essays that I’d love to read most are never written down because the people who don’t write them feel they don’t have the right to say anything. The essay is a democratic, generous form and I wish more people would accept what it offers. In the future, I’d love to do some workshops or courses on essay writing, especially for those who typically shy away from this kind of expression.
What do you think those ideal essays, the ones that are never written down, would be about?
They would be reflections from bureaucrats and wage slaves, from stay-at-home moms and retired managers, from middle school kids and people who are illiterate. Most of the thoughts that get put to paper are written by people like me, people with a fair amount of education and an inclination toward writing, like university types or so-called “young urban creatives.” Thoughts from us are pretty uniform. I’d like to read someone who has not been trained to write and think in a certain way, a person who still has some measure of cultural autonomy.
One of the lines in your essay on irony, "The Great American Irony Binge," really struck me. You write: "Comment culture in general provides the illusion that one has an actual voice." Do you think the comments sections are therefore irrelevant?
No, comment sections are brilliant and extremely relevant, not for giving anyone a voice but for offering some insight into the inner workings of the human brain, even if this picture is at times rather bleak. The comments provide a decent snapshot of the collective spirit of the times and a pretty full picture of the contours of an issue. Just by reading the comment section on one article, you start to understand the legitimate pros and cons of whatever position, the weaknesses or strengths of the arguments, etc., all hammered together collectively by the commenters, who are basically volunteer content providers.
I never feel the need to add comments because A) someone else has probably already said what I was thinking and B) because I have no reason to offer up free content and sociological consumer data to the companies who run the comment sections. Our words there are certainly being analyzed and our reactions to this or that event being relentlessly catalogued and put to some profitable use. It’s all rather genius if you think about it: Give people a “voice” and you have thousands of volunteers who’ll vent all of their frustrations and joys (but mostly frustrations), reclined on the proverbial analyst’s couch. The analyst now knows your trigger points and is drafting a plan to keep that sensitivity level as high as possible. It’s just good, furtive business.
In your first essay, "The Glare of the Enlightenment," you write: "While there are still enough success stories to suggest that triumph is available to everyone, we recognize how dim the odds have become for the majority." What happened to the American Dream?
I could imagine that in the coming years, the average American will dream less about the accumulation of things and more about the simplification of daily life; the reduction of work hours; the strengthening of social bonds; the de-digitalization of life; and the replacement of the virtual with the actual. At least I hope this will be the new American Dream.
Of course, this dream would be a nightmare for the economy, which relies on the proliferation of non-needs. If everyone suddenly realized they don’t need half the crap they own, that their hours spent online being studied as consumers are a waste of life, the economy would implode. I was at Newark International Airport the other day where at each restaurant, they’ve begun to install tablets at every single table, at every single seat. I watched families sitting there, their personal tablets blocking their view of one another, not saying a word, mesmerized by these flimsy entertainments. Our economic system demands default brainlessness. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to shake themselves out of this existential lethargy, but those of us who can have a responsibility to wake up as many people as possible.
What's the most effective way to wake people up?
There are small- and large-scale ways to get people to notice certain features of the system in which we live. I often engage in small acts of rebellion. For example, when I fly somewhere, instead of just consuming some silly movie, I flip through the flight magazine and write in what might be called “cultural commentaries” for the next person to find, little notes pointing out the manipulative aspects of this or that ad, the real motivations behind this or that article. I also carry around a marker with me for defacing sexist, racist, or homophobic ads. This practice is very common in Berlin, where I spend a good chunk of each year. Whenever a company makes the mistake of putting up the poster of a bikini-clad model at a bus stop, the people often respond within 24 hours by vandalizing it beyond recognition, plastering it with the word SEXISMUS. It’s fantastic.
On a larger scale, I try to write about those seemingly banal or innocuous but secretly significant things that surround us, hoping to model a practice I wish were more widespread. The French philosopher Roland Barthes woke me up in my undergrad years with his book "Mythologies," which shows how everyday objects like French fries, toys and soap are completely readable micro-indexes of an entire culture. In other words, they have deep significance if we just take the time to notice and interpret them. A cup can be read like a book and can tell us as much about the civilization that produced it. With this spirit in mind, I wrote a piece about the movie "Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure," which may seem like a dumb buddy movie but which displays all the preoccupations of late 1980s antihistorical, neoliberal America. If we could all learn to be more proficient readers of culture, especially pop culture, many of our problems would become more visible and thus more solvable.
God, yes. That's why I strongly believe in think pieces--or the well-written ones, at least! I know a lot of people get sick of them, but they serve a purpose. I'm not talking about ones that are spit out without any thought put into them. How do you feel about the cultural proliferation of think pieces?
I’m ambivalent about this proliferation. On the one hand, it is reassuring that some people are paying attention to certain aspects of culture and trying to analyze and make sense of them. On the other hand, many of these pieces – the kind you dislike, the most common ones – provide only surface readings and seem to be more for entertainment purposes than anything else. They also tend to be extremely ahistorical, giving only a cursory historical background that has been snapped up from Wikipedia. The best think pieces are written by people who have been working on the same problem over many years. The talented specialist is good at both panoramic analysis and microscopic analysis. Like you, I love reading these kinds of think pieces.
Your essay "On Distraction" should be handed out to college freshman as required reading. You write: "Increasingly, human interaction without a filter verges on the painful because the skills in dealing with others face-to-face have been abandoned for the refinement of digital social skills. All communicative occasions today are ideally set up to avoid that horror of the modern soul: awkwardness." And later on in the same essay, you write about the Situationist International movement in 1960's France, where intellectuals and artists put together group walks in order to see the city they knew in a different way. To pay attention. How do we force ourselves to deal with the awkwardness of life, despite the temptation to submit to the comfort of routine?
As a professor, I spend most of my time around people who are between 18 and 25 years old. Since I started teaching in 2000, I’ve noticed that students seem less and less willing or able to have a conversation of more than five minutes without succumbing to the siren call of the phone. It’s like a pacifier. The grand intervention of this kind of technology in our lives has mortally wounded face-to-face interaction, I’m afraid. What’s worse, distracted people are fairly easy to control. If your attention is dissolved enough, you are less likely to notice the culture patterns that make people behave this or that way politically.
While it may feel uncomfortable for some people to move through the day without the digital pacifiers – like the phone, Facebook, email, whatever – I would be in favor of a push against this kind of technological dependency. I used to be on Facebook and at some point, I noticed that I was looking at it all the time despite the fact that it made me feel disappointed and at times disgusted by our species. It is a pretty shallow concept, more about empty chatter and products packaged as ideas than about human connectedness or political engagement. I’ve tried to make a sharp distinction in my life between what I need and what I want, and realized that if I stick to what I actually need, everything just feels better. Minimalism, not maximalism, guides nearly everything I do, except writing. I live slimly, having cut off the unnecessary fat of distracting devices, desires disguised as needs, and shallow interactions. Even if such an existence is at times uncomfortable, it is nonetheless real.
Do you feel less distracted since you left Facebook? And how do you feel about smartphones?
Definitely. I’m much less distracted since I left Facebook and other stupid websites behind. It’s been a great decision and I haven’t regretted it once. A primary motivation was fatigue at reading silly analyses on the Internet of things I’d written. It is so easy to cough up a random opinion and slap it on the Web. I’m happy to have a mature discussion with someone who disagrees with me, but I don’t have much patience for sloppy reading. I would find some emotional misreading of one of my pieces and then not feel like writing for a day or two. That’s in part why I wrote “In Praise of Disregard” and left behind all the noise and distraction. Now, I can write in peace and have excellent email exchanges with people who take the time to write me personal emails. In this way, I’m in contact with real people in the real world, not just living grist in the vacuous opinion mill. As far as smartphones go, I finally got one, mainly since I travel so much and they are undeniably useful in unknown cities, but I keep it deep in my bag unless I’m using it for something. It has all sorts of weird crumbs and fuzz stuck to it because it lives in that pit. I miss calls all the time because I don’t want to look at the thing.
In your essay "Intergenerational Conversation," you write of your students’ generation: "They are afraid of loss because they've been told how horrible it is by older people. The now has to be celebrated every second, to the detriment of actual experience." But hasn't that been true for decades now? Between self-help books and talk shows, Americans have long focused on trying to live in the moment to the detriment of actually, you know, living.
The commodification of happiness has been at the core of so many marketing campaigns over the years, and this is as true now as it’s ever been. We’ve been trained to be hyper-self-conscious of our experiences and to accept only the pleasurable ones as legitimate. Self-consciousness is maybe the key feature of contemporary life, and it’s very difficult to turn one’s consciousness in a different direction because the self is addictive. It’s reliably there and can be shaped into so many things with just a little posturing. To get away from the pressure of having to be a meaningful individual with a singular, extraordinary life, it helps to be quiet and study. It is unnecessary to photograph or narrativize every second of one’s existence. It is unnecessary to abide by some consumerist Carpe Diem. Better would be to live unremarkably, focusing on things that have nothing to do with you and your social circle, things that are themselves small and ephemeral. Nature, books, art, and music are the best facilitators of this kind of living. No one has to know about it. It can be your secret with yourself.
In your essay "On Awkwardness," you advise: "The next time you find yourself in an awkward circumstance, imagine if you embraced fully the foreignness of the moment…Recognize it as an occasion for thinking beyond yourself, outside your body and your routine." In many ways, that's what writers attempt to do on the page. So how can we do that in life with a bit more ease?
I have a tactic that has been very helpful in putting things in proportion. When I feel socially strange about something that’s happening, I zoom out, past the sidewalk where I’m standing, past the block, the neighborhood, the city, the state, the country, the continent, the planet, and the galaxy and then I ask myself, “How much does this situation matter?” That’s usually enough to smooth out any wrinkles in my experience.