Friday, July 16, 2010

Only Disconnect

Do you know who Gary Shteyngart is? I did not. However in this week's NYRB there's an article by Gary Shteyngart titled "Only Disconnect". It's brilliant. It is a prose poem. It is one of the best examples of writing about personal inte(dist)raction with the constantly transportable screen that guides the living steps of people. For example: " The device (iPhone) came out of the box and my world was transformed. I walked outside my book-ridden apartment. The first thing that happened was that New York fell away around me. It disappeared."
Let us take a quick look at the idea of space: de Certeau defines " as a practiced place." Place is understood as "...elements distributed in relationships of coexistence." (p. 117 Practice of Everyday Life) What Shteyngart discovers is that he is no longer practicing (in) space. He describes himself as being in a "techno-fugue state" in which he "...nearly knock[s] down toddlers and the elderly..." de Certeau's definition of place includes the idea that two separate and distinct elements cannot occupy the same spot at the same time. However by removing Shteyngart's attention from his surroundings causes him to attempt to inhabit the same places as other individuals moving his walk from a reading of the city (and carefulness of other individuals) to a blind following of the iPhone's touring map. What is interesting is that as people we prefer the type of directions the map gives us (turn here, travel this far, turn here, travel this far, turn here...) The given map is not concerned with what is to the left or the right but the getting from here to there to get, in Shteyngart's case, a taco.
But there is leaving, loss of signal a rediscovery of space that causes Shteyngart to"wake up from the techno-fugue state and remember who I am."By the end of the essay Shteyngart's friends have arrived to " roast an animal and some veggies". Due to the lack of a mobile network, due to location that the iPhone can no longer delineate, the connecting of the iPhone has been replaced by the personal connections with people. Granted, this is a generally romantic view that non-technologists like to advance against the technologists that screens are responsible for the destruction of inter-personal skills and relationships. However it should not be surprising that at the lapse of connective signal we return to previous types of connection. To return to de Certeau "it is the partition of space that structures it...there is no spatiality that is not organized by the determination of frontiers."(p. 123) Shteyngart discovers that his frontiers are determined by his cell phone reception. If individuals are reliant on the map to organize their interactions with space, and that map is delivered via satellite, one's perspective is immediately determined by the connection to that data source. This then determines the partitioning (defining) of the space that the individual is able to inhabit. One cannot practice something that is not known; though we can repeat motions without understanding. This is merely repetition. Machines can repeat. People should know and be known. Thus to follow maps, of any sort, without allowing for our own wandering and practicing of place is to repeat actions without the understanding of how the structure of chosen steps affects our own reading/discourse with the space of the world around us in determining the practice of everyday life. Failure to practice results in an eventual loss of space because the reason for the space's existence (reading a book, walking without a screen, etc.) is forgotten or at least subsumed to the insistence of daily routine which is not the practice of everyday life. Rather we should end everyday "as we commune in some ancient way, laughing and the fading...light." Indeed, Mr. Shteyngart, indeed.

And then there is also this: "American fiction is good. It would be nice if somebody read it. "

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