It has been gnawing at me for some time - the idea that the world wide web has taken in us what was once an engaged curiosity about the wider world and dispersed its constituent elements in a whirlpool of discontented latencies that have as their lowest common denominator, the ubiquitous click bait.
Three articles can be said to have led to this post. First, a hysterical response to a finely written and, ultimately, pessimistic view of an individual's role in tackling climate change. Two, the article being so commented upon. And three, an unconnected phrase in an experimental review of Saul Bellow's essays.
When I first read Robert Manne's criticism of Jonathan Franzen's essay on climate change, I was struck by how markedly it differed from the literary criticisms I regularly read in The New Yorker magazine itself, where the essay first appeared: The derision in stating Franzen's comparison of the conservationist sensibilities of a metaphorical Puritan Protestant and a metaphorical Franciscan Catholic, the sarcastic references to Franzen's use of a word - climatism, in counterpoint to one used just before - globalism, that seemed to me utterly relevant in its own environment but notably darker when brought out of context, and finally, casting aspersions on the sympathies of The New Yorker's, 'small army of fact checkers', when editing a piece by, 'The Great American Novelist', albeit one, 'incapable of mounting an argument'.
This is a hatchet job, no doubt, laced with the kind of ad hominem attack memes popular among the twitterati and seems destined to coax the outrage out of quasi-conservationists and environmentally-concerned netizens brought to bear on the duplicity of Franzen in decrying the diabolical negationist tendencies of lazy Americans and their destructive lifestyles.
Franzen's essay, meanwhile, manages to marry the cause célèbre of the day with the didactic effectively, with its calm exposition of a conservationist campaign personal to him, before going on to relate it to all that's wrong with how people and governments think about ecosystems, land use, and scalability. In effect, Franzen's argument is that we are using the excuse of climate change to neglect conserving specific species and habitats endemic to certain parts of the world, while stoking conflict about a catastrophe that has clearly overtaken its prevent-by date and that will affect future generations, whether we feel guilty about it or not.
As I was about to delve into Sven Birkerts' captivating account of interviewing himself as a way to alleviate the tedium of writing about Saul Bellow's essays, I encountered the phrase, something clicked, and my first reaction was to think of the phrase as an action performed on a link rather than just the usual reference to an inspiration gained.
What this says about me is that I must live too much of my life on the web, cross referencing authors with their critics, and commentators with their subjects, while learning a little more about the world with every click, baited or not. To paraphrase Franzen at the end of his essay - It's we... who need meaning.
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