The vulnerability of human experience to abbreviation

This expression used by Alain de Botton in his How Proust Can Change Your Life (pg 42) stood out to me. He uses it in relation to the morning news, reflecting on how reporting inevitably strips away from the reality of what is reported on. This is an example of a broader tendency for human experience to “be stripped of the more obvious signposts by which we guide ourselves when ascribing importance”. To use the language of Andrew Sayer, factual reporting strips away what matters to people about what is being reported on. The distillation involved in reporting on the facts of a case unavoidably subtract how those state of affairs move people and motivate them, leaving us with an arid picture susceptible to wide circulation when so many other accounts compete for our attention. The abbreviation of human experience is a practical necessity which detracts from our understanding of others and the world around us, even as it contributes to our knowledge of those conditions.

It might be argued that social media highlights human experience in a new way, though I would suggest it is demotic in the sense of reality television rather than democratic in the sense of participatory. It foregrounds human experience through templates and incentivised interaction, increasing the flow of human experience in public consciousness but at the cost of its integrity. Abbreviation is intensified rather than attenuated, with so many shards of experience flying around that radically truncating our attention is the only way to cope. What gets through is what is spectacular, jarring or enraging. It is not a return to human experience but its last gasp, with meaning and mattering mangled by the machinery of abbreviation. Under these conditions, what de Botton calls the finger placing ability becomes important:

The value of a novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognise as our own, yet could not have formulated on our own.  (pg 28)

I’ve always been fascinated by these depths. The struggle within us to articulate something and the relief that comes when we find a way to say it. Often though we change in the process of saying it, as we suddenly recognise a state of affairs within us by virtue of being able to express it. The opposite of what de Botton calls abbreviation is what Charles Taylor calls articulation. Resources we can draw on in articulation are invaluable in an age of radical abbreviation, helping us become “newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness” such that we are “drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about” (pg 29). Articulacy we develop expands outwards, sensitising us to the abbreviation we encounter around us and leaving us more adept at recovering the reality subsumed by its thin expression. This is not a call for slowness, as much as for elaboration. There’s a value in being long winded, even if it’s unlikely to get you read.

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3 Comments

  1. ‘DIMINISHED DIGITS PROVE TOO TITILLATING FOR FRISKY FRUMPS.’ James Joyce ‘Ulysses’ – in fact this whole book exemplifies your last point! (Nice view from Greenwich to Isle of Dogs! A fine beard too, if I may say so!

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