My sense of faith, in the secular sense, is tested by my odd sense of careerism. Too often concerned about success, I become frozen by whatever Big Idea I’m chasing at the time and neglect the ordinary, plugging-away-at-it work I should be doing. If I were to have faith that actually doing the work would lead to a sustainable, ethical, and satisfying life, perhaps I would actually do the work regularly.
More than nine months and, well, only four posts ago, I wrote about the dizzying presentism as described by Douglas Rushkoff in the early days of the pandemic. The survivalism of “read and react” was replaced, after that post, by “read and do nothing,” though I did manage to write this lengthy review of Greil Marcus’ new book Under the Red White and Blue. (I may return to that review in a future post.) Obviously the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and more unarmed Black people changed the summer of 2020, as did the worsening pandemic. Contemplation became necessary but even more difficult, and, because of my job, focused on what benefits it could provide my students.
At the same time, as the Black Lives Matter protests in Columbus and around the country bloomed, contemplation seemed like a luxury. Action was needed, and action happened. I felt guilty for not being on the streets, but I took the advice given to me and donated money to bail funds and monetized my music for the resistance and spoke how I could speak on social media. The latter, for me, is always nerve-wracking. Twitter and Facebook and Instagram seem like they’re not the places for contemplation; they’re built on declarations, the more declarative the better, and slow writing is counter to their platforms’ structures and ecosystems. On them, the moment is god: the occasion, the language, the purpose, and the vehicle to transcendent reward. My absurd tweets, angry tweets, self-promotional tweets, and the occasional pragmatic tweet are functions of the moment. Read and react.
I envy colleagues and community members who’ve integrated their creative and political work seamlessly with social media, who seem to blurt wisdom, not hot takes, but more importantly retain and even build a sense of integrity through that techno-social ecosystem. Their posts feed their writing; their writing feeds their posts. So often I feel scattered, fragmented in purpose, and making that public seems useless at best, harmful at the worst.
Recently, though, I’ve begun to wonder if my hesitancy to expose my half-baked ideas into the void of public life is a result of my depression and lack of self-worth. The crushing pressure of careerism, which I slough off with the romantic artist’s shrug, is created by own my brain in reaction to the world. My depression is ultimately a negation which, before it reaches rock-bottom, which is to say, on its more functional days, generates plots and characters—heroes, judges, conspirators, enemies—and rules in its darkness. In the void of it, all of this disappears. But on the edge of the void, when every day is a slog, there is a paradoxical abundance of nothing borne by stories my brain tells itself, all of which lead back to my utter worthlessness. Speech in private becomes difficult, speaking in public, pointless.
The contemplation of slow writing can either soothe or exacerbate the problem. I am unhappy when I’m not writing in some fashion, but the regular work of writing requires honesty that in turns requires a confrontation with one’s failings. Sometimes I feel like I’m just paddling along, drowning privately. Other times, the failure of one day’s writing is calmed by the fact that there’s another day. Slow writing that feels peaceful and productive imagines without anxiety a future. (Anxiety is another problem of mine.) It imagines a world ahead, so even though it may require some remove from the present, it doesn’t sink into the total disassociation from the world that accompanies depression, for me, at its worst.
Many years ago, when I was first diagnosed, I began having conversations with a priest named Father Vinnie. He was fond of homilies and quotations and wordplay. “Depression needs expression,” he told me once. He mimed a punch to his own pudgy gut—the depressing—and then slowly drew his fist away, asking me, I suppose, to imagine his flesh returning to place. As hackneyed as this wordplay might seem, it seems obvious to me that he was right. Art is the only example you really need for this. (The function of social media in the expression of our despair is a topic for another day.) The expression may not, in the end, save a depressed person, but without it, there’s nowhere for the despair and self-loathing to go.
Surely there can be a middle way between the total remove and silence with which I’ve characterized slow writing and, on the other hand, the frenetic, always-public production of self and work that characterizes social media…or blog posts. The latter reminds me of Boris Groys’ essay, “The Truth of Art,” in which he argues that both the artist and the audience are subordinate to the algorithms of social media and the internet in general; in a way, argues Groys, the algorithm is the real audience. Thus the artist has lost any claim to uniqueness, but has gained the power of being more like the audience. The downside, though, is that the artist’s work has become more so the documentation of the art work than the art work itself. The artist more often used to go away, make the art work, and emerge when the art work emerged: slow writing, in essence. Now, one is more often required or inclined to always be present, e.g., demonstrating one’s process, livestreaming from one’s studio, commenting on politics and other issues of the day as a public figure.
It remains to be seen if I can navigate a middle way, but perhaps if I can see these public blurts—blurtations?—as evidence of a process, the expression will soothe the depression without the pressure of social climbing and professionalism limiting what I say.
Evidence of a process of contemplation.
Faith not in a goal but in the process.