A Heap Of Broken Images: Social Media and the Architecture of Anomie

In an age, when nature is besieged and the political landscape blighted, and one stands, stoop shouldered and wincing into the howling wasteland of epic-scale idiocy extant in the era, a solitary person can feel lost, marooned inside an increasingly isolated sense of self. Whether urban, suburban, or rural dwelling, the sense of alienation, for an individual, is profound … as discernible to the eye as the constellations of foreclosure signs stippling overgrown front lawns across the land … as hidden as the abandoned dreams within.

The fraying ligature of the landscape of the United States reveals an inner geography of alienation and anomie. Living on the island of Manhattan, I daily negotiate an urban layout of practical, but identity-decimating grids — a cityscape of harsh, inhuman right angles … a geography that renders street encounters abrupt, curt and intrusive.

After a time, one begins, by reflex, to buffer oneself against such intrusions, withdrawing inward — becoming a self-enclosed, walking fortress, shielding oneself from the degradations of these impersonal affronts (that feel altogether personal), with I-Pods, Blackberries, and other vestments attendant to the muttered prayers of the self-absorbed.

While above the street — corporate towers — that are steel and concrete kingdoms of blind, willful ascension — blot the skyline; these structures flee upward, as if to escape the implications of life lived at street level and sharing in the consequences of decisions made within their sterile, insular sanctums of power and cupidity.

This is architecture as blind hubris: creations made by the hands of mortal men … yet failing to have any connection to the ground, these buildings crowd out the real estate of the sacred. Moreover, their manic skyward thrust leaves them, and those imprisoned within, bereft of roots that reach down into the renewing loam of the earth, to where mortal vanity is delivered to dust and desperate hopes rot and transubstantiate into the compost that nourishes new life.

And blooms of renewal, I suspect, will not be found online as well. The electronic sheen of social media sites is no substitute for communal fabric. There is no animal musk nor angelic apprehensions to en-soul the flesh and tease wisdom out of obdurate will … No matter how many restless shades want to friend you on FaceBook nor ghostly texts descend upon you in an unholy Pentecost of Tweets, online exchanges will continue to leave you restless, hollow, and yearning for the colors and cacophony of an authentic agora.

The adolescent purgatory of FaceBook — with its castings into the Eternal Now of instant praise, acceptance, and rejection — reflects, magnifies, and acerbates the perpetual adolescence of the contemporary culture of the United States, intensifying its shallow longings and displaced panics, its narcissistic rage and obsession with the superficial. It devours libido, by providing a pixilated facsimile of the primal dance of human endeavor, leaving one’s heart churning in thwarted yearning, locked an evanescent embrace with electronic phantoms, as one, paradoxically, attempts to live out unfulfilled desires by means of hollow communion with the soul-negating source of his alienation.

One can never get enough of what one doesn’t need. Ergo, the compulsions and panic of millions of hungry ghosts will hold an ongoing, hollow mass online, in a futile campaign to regain form, gain direction, and walk in meaning and beauty among the things of the world, but instead will remain imprisoned within the very system that condemned them to this fate.

And this is the place, we, as a culture, will remain, for a time. This electronic inferno will be our vale and mountaintop, our sanctuary and leviathan. We will stare baffled into its vastness, stupefied and lost within its proliferate array of depersonalizing distractions and seductions. The more we try to lose ourselves in it, by surrendering to its shimmering surface attractions, the more tightly we will become bound in the bondage of self.

Naturally, living in the grinding maw of such monsters of alienation will engulf one with ennui and angst. Moreover, the judgment of anyone claiming not to be afflicted should be regarded as suspect.

Possessed by this mode of being: we languish in a zoo of our own making where we gaze, without comprehension, at the confines of our enclosure, chew our paws, pace the cage, and are restless for mealtime. Like an animal in a cage, we are no longer what we were meant to be; we have forgotten what it is to be alive. With the exception of superficial form, we begin to lose our affinity to what makes us recognizable as a human being and as an animal — for we have become simply a sad thing that waits for lunch. And I defy any caged clock-watcher in a cubicle to defy that point.

Restless and agitated in our confinement, we sink further into anomie … into the benumbing embrace of comfort zones (over-eating, anti-depressants, consumerism as emotional distraction, addiction to electronic media) where we chose safety over the truth of our being. In these cages of inauthenticity, our heart’s longings and human needs are held in stasis by the perfunctory persona we cultivated for approval and acceptance; there, consigned to a barren region of mind where one is rewarded for docility and duplicity, one languishes, bereft of eros and pothos — unconsciously self-convicted and sentenced for the crime of being a serial betrayer of one’s essential self.

So much of the criteria of the modern condition has atomized us, stripped us, collectively, of ritual, purpose and meaning, and placed us in the midst of what T.S. Eliot expressed in prosody as a “heap of broken images.”

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow 
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,  
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only 
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, 
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, 
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only 
There is shadow under this red rock,  
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock), 
And I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; 
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
–From: The Waste Land

There is danger, of course, in such places — but there is also the possibility of renewal.

Personal and historical traumas leave a legacy of bewilderment. And being bewildered i.e., being in a psychic wilderness, lost, having wandered or been cast past the known horizon of experience is to be in position to engage the novel, be in the thrall of unfolding mystery, and wander in a soul-suffused landscape of the sublime.

A state of alienation is right where we should be: To be able to adapt to a culture dedicated to little more than finding efficient means of exploiting the hours of the greater public’s lives for the benefit of a greedy few would be a tragedy. Living within this culture should bring on despair. It is a leviathan that has devoured your existence. Do you think you can renovate the belly of the beast … set up a time-share with Jonah and Pinocchio there and live in comfort?

Should not one stagger and stammer in mortification when shown a handful of dust?

Moreover, the solution we are offered — making ourselves a dwelling within a prison of consumer kitsch — should and does only bring on more anomie. Eliot wrote the following regarding a psyche attempting to adapt to a dying culture:

[…] Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
–From: The Journey of the Magi

One of the notions, as Rilke might put it, that is “brooding like a seed” in my psyche has been the distinction James Hillman makes between civilization and culture. Hillman avers that, and I agree, civilization is a dead thing — an edifice of crumbling marble enshrined in an eros-devoid museum of the mind where we do little more than give empty, obligatory homage to a fossilized tableaux … our forced reverence is but a perfunctory prayer muttered before the iconography of a dead religion; in contrast, culture is a living, breathing phenomenon of the collective mind, heart, and soul of the people within it. Its logos inhabits the very air of existence, permeating it like the sound of birdsong, and cricket and cicada stridulation throughout a high summer night.

Moreover, he avers that culture is akin to a madhouse; in fact, the solution lies in the back ward of the asylum, the area where are housed the hopeless cases. In other words, like Dante, proceed to the place you most fear looking upon, embrace it, and hear its awful keening and heart-opening agonies. There is the location of rebirth, the last circle of hell, retreating to a comfort zone will simply leave the situation is stasis.

So the question arises: How does one enter the soul-making shabbiness of the human condition, even though, as always, we are powerless against the trajectory of history and lost within the mad proliferation of culture — and, as Bob Dylan limned in lyric regarding the alienation this situation evokes, “[one has] no direction home?”

Try this: embrace the bracing pain of your alienation: make a home in being lost. Gaze with wonder of upon the sacred scenery of your bewilderment … Wandering in the wilderness is a holy state.

Wendell Berry believes such ventures to be one of the true vocations of the soul:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
–Wendell Berry

In other words, in times such as ours, when we embrace our alienation then we will be welcomed home — to share a common shelter with the multitudes who are also lost.

Phil Rockstroh is a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living in New York City. He may be contacted at phil@philrockstroh.com and FaceBook. Read other articles by Phil, or visit Phil's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on July 13th, 2010 at 10:39am #

    A state of alienation is right where we should be: To be able to adapt to a culture dedicated to little more than finding efficient means of exploiting the hours of the greater public’s lives for the benefit of a greedy few would be a tragedy. Living within this culture should bring on despair. It is a leviathan that has devoured your existence. Do you think you can renovate the belly of the beast … set up a time-share with Jonah and Pinocchio there and live in comfort?

    Try this: embrace the bracing pain of your alienation: make a home in being lost. Gaze with wonder of upon the sacred scenery of your bewilderment … Wandering in the wilderness is a holy state. Phil

    Thanks Phil I was almost ready to quit tired of trying to fight the mad looked at as being sane and I am very familiarly with Wandering in the wilderness we are old friends. Am serious Phil I was going to quit seeing no answers we have come to our real journey, the mind that is not baffled is not employed I need a cup of coffee. Oh and those greedy few let’s see if we can baffle them just a bit as I think you just did.

    The Real Work

    It may be that when we no longer know what to do
    we have come to our real work,
    and that when we no longer know which way to go
    we have come to our real journey.
    The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
    The impeded stream is the one that sings.

  2. BartFargo said on July 13th, 2010 at 1:51pm #

    Sounds like someone is tasting “sour grapes” after failing to build a network of Facebook friends.

    Seriously Phil, is having your own website/blog, where you post ridiculously over-written diatribes like these weekly, any less vain or narcissistic than maintaining a Facebook/Myspace/Twitter profile and interacting with others who do the same?

  3. kanomi said on July 13th, 2010 at 3:18pm #

    I liked the article.

    A problem with Facebook, among others, is that they have found one more thing that used to be part of the common human experience and have monetized it – the simple act of friendship and the privacy of relationships is now a commodity for these parasitic hyper-capitalists.

    As Eisenstein explains it in the Ascent of Humanity:

    “Want a good business idea? Simply find something—anything—that people still do for themselves or each other. Then convince them that it is too difficult, tedious, demeaning, or dangerous to do themselves. (If necessary, make it inconvenient or illegal.) Finally, sell it to them instead. In other words, take something away and sell it back again.”

    http://www.ascentofhumanity.com/chapter4-4.php

  4. Don Hawkins said on July 13th, 2010 at 3:33pm #

    Fargo talk about missing the points of Phil’s words. So you went to Phil’s web page and any thought’s on controlling the masses? The part I find most interesting is for some reason the so called controllers are themselves the most controlled they live in two or even three different worlds at the same time hence in a mad world only the mad are sane. I thank my lucky stars that I see this and yes that was not always’ the case. Wandering in the wilderness ever been there because if not you have never used your eye’s never used your ears and for the few who think they control the masses are they in the wilderness oh yes they sure are and in reality the most controlled of all reality hasn’t gone anywhere a mere illusion to think it has in spacetime. Now Fargo what do you think try and think outside the box wandering in the wilderness so to speak if you don’t like it you can always’ go back to the real world or is it?

    Beneath the seemingly rational exterior of our lives is a fear of insanity. We dare not question the values by which we live or rebel against the roles we play for fear of putting our sanity in doubt. –Alexander Lowen

    Go slow if you feel the fear of insanity stop and fast turn on Fox New’s a guaranteed cure then go shopping maybe buy some gold or one share of stock and have fun doing it but if you feel something is not right with the world maybe felt this all your life stay tuned and we will see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

  5. Don Hawkins said on July 13th, 2010 at 5:07pm #

    What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.
    Sigmund Freud

    “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
    Ray BRADBURY

    “…succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” Marx

    It’s a real blessing for me to tell you, sir, that calvary has arrived – Fox is here! Glenn Beck

    The muck of ages sir, the calvary has arrived – Fox is here! We know Glenn everything is going to be just fine and your boss Rupert well ever watch any Batman movies remember the penguin overlooking Gotham City quack quack quack and the ending of the movie Glenn remember the real world or is it with arms outstretched fair and balanced. Am going to see the movie South of the Border HA HA HA HA and read book’s do you have a new one wait don’t tell me it’s about the muck of ages quack quack quack fair and balanced it’s all mine all mine and Glenn have you ever felt something is not right with the world maybe felt this all your life stay tuned and we will see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

    We the People of planet Earth, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure Tranquility, provide for the common defence against space aliens who don’t come in peace but only want our resources, promote the general Welfare from each according to his ability, to each according to his need and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for all people on the third planet from the Sun one World Glenn HA HA HA. You can’t be serious oh yes we can.

  6. BartFargo said on July 13th, 2010 at 7:08pm #

    Hawkins, your posts make absolutely no sense. Either English isn’t your first language and you deserve points for trying, or you really need to slow down your typing and write in coherent sentences.

  7. BartFargo said on July 13th, 2010 at 7:14pm #

    kanomi – I agree that the capitalization of companies like Facebook and Myspace upon the interactions of individuals (or as they put it, “consumers”) online is problematic, and is a major pretext for avoiding the scene altogether. But Phil seems to just be against the idea of social networking as a concept in general, not realizing that it has great potential for bringing friends and family (who might be living in distant parts of the globe in today’s world economy) together across great physical distances, and promoting interaction and understanding between those of different cultures. Yes, many divisive forces are present as well- but isn’t that true of real-life interactions also?

  8. Don Hawkins said on July 14th, 2010 at 1:48am #

    Coherent sentences,” I think it’s starting to happen”.

    (who might be living in distant parts of the globe in today’s world economy) together across great physical distances, and promoting interaction and understanding between those of different cultures. Fargo

    together across great physical distances, and promoting interaction and understanding between those of different cultures.

    Thailand and Vietnam are the world’s largest exporters of rice and many farmers there are finding it increasingly difficult to pay the bills due to erratic weather. The Thai Ministry of Interior declared 53 provinces as disaster areas and said that 6.5 million people are being affected by the drought.
    According to a report in the Asia Times, the drought in Vietnam is shaping up to be the worst in a century with little rainfall across the entire country since last September:
    “The Red River in the north is at record low levels, but it is the Mekong Delta – the country’s premier rice-growing region – that has been the most severely affected. The Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development predicted in March that some 100,000 hectares in the delta were under threat.

    A towering cake vying to be the world’s biggest lasted one day outdoors in Paris, brought down not by ravenous sweets lovers but a sweltering heatwave in the French capital, organisers said Friday.

    It seems the so-called “Tour sans Faim” (Tower without Hunger)”, standing 7.82 metres (25.7 feet) tall, had to be taken down because it was starting to look more like the leaning Tower of Pisa.

    A temperature of more than 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) made the big pastry tower rather soft and unstable.

    Some pieces of the towering cake will be on display in an exhibition at the architecture centre until Sunday.

    And Fargo a cake is not the only exhibition coming down the track
    —————————————————————————————————-
    Record breaking heat has caused blackouts in the Northeast US as utilities struggle to keep up with demand. Commuter rail service was slowed in DC and New York due to the threat of buckling rail lines swelling in the 100+ degree weather.

    Weather Service spokesman Sean Potter said: “It’s safe to say this is one of the hottest days in about a decade for many locations in the north east and even inland. You’d go back to 2001 or maybe 1999 to find a similar heat wave.”

    The sweltering wether is far from over. Forecasters predict more hot and muggy weather on the way. Freaky weather dot com

    Beijing, China (CNN) — Millions of Chinese are struggling to stave off the country’s worst floods in years, as heavy summer rains pour relentlessly across southern and central parts of the country.

    China has been delivering emergency supplies of food, blankets, and tents to the nearly one million people who have been displaced. But the bigger, long-term challenge will be how to help the flood victims rebuild their lives. That will take a lot more resources, money and time.

    More resources, money and time just maybe a new way of thinking
    ————————————————————————————————–

    QUE DIEN, Vietnam — The rivers that should nourish his thirsty rice paddies are too salty, and the rains are late this year. Dang Roi does not know if he will be able to salvage anything from this spring’s crop.

    Vietnam is the world’s second-biggest rice exporter and the Mekong Delta, where Roi farms, accounts for more than half of its production.

    But Roi’s paddy fields in Ben Tre province are burning up during a drought which meteorologists say is the worst in decades.

    The dry season should have ended already, but in the yard of Roi’s house in Que Dien commune, barrels that collect rainwater for his family’s cooking and washing show the desperate situation. They are half-full, or empty.

    Experts say Vietnam is one of the countries most threatened by climate change, whose effects are seen in worsening drought, floods, typhoons, exaggerated tides, and rising sea levels.
    ————————————————————————————–
    It is too early to panic about this. Only a quarter of the rainy season has passed, and one factor that kept the rains away last year, the global El Nino weather effect, is fading. But a year after the worst drought in nearly four decades, India needs a normal rainfall more than ever. WSJ

    It is too early to panic about this is it!