Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

This sounds like a rather interesting book, although I have only read a brief extract and a review. I like Crawford’s point, at least as described in the review below, that we need to pay focused attention to the constraints of physical reality, rather than losing ourselves in an abstract screen world of virtual possibilities. This is a point being made by a number of philosophers at present.

I’m not so keen on the concept of ‘mastery’ referred to below however, as this all smacks a bit too much of domination for my tastes. I would prefer to think of ‘working with’, rather than submitting things to our will. And because I can never resist throwing in a reference to Foucault: this focus on our interaction with the physical and the material, a materiality which is both human and non-human, and the necessity of patiently working with it at a whole range of levels, is arguably one of the primary focuses of Foucault’s work as well, and what makes his work so easily applicable to so many domains.

Reviewed by Nick Romeo at The Daily Beast, 5 March 2015.

Extract from review:

Crawford’s solution [to the distractions of the modern world] is not that we retreat into soothing sensory deprivation tanks; he advocates engaging with the “the brute alien otherness of the real” as apprentices and eventually masters. His ideals of focused attention are activities in which we exercise freedom not by purchasing products to express our will, but by submitting to the intrinsic demands of the external world in some restricted domain and accommodating its realities in skillful and intelligent ways. This sounds far more obscure than it actually is: playing ice hockey, practicing glassblowing, learning Russian, working as a short-order cook, building pipe organs, and playing an instrument are some of the examples he gives.

Nietzsche once said that joy is the feeling of one’s power increasing. Crawford appropriates the remark to argue that getting good at skilled actions fulfills a fundamental human need that our culture often neglects by offering instant technological solutions. In one fascinating section, he compares Mickey Mouse cartoons from the early and middle 20th century to children’s television today. The older shows present the physical world as a source of menace and humor: one thing that the constant collisions, crashes, explosions, and general slapstick show is that characters are subject to immutable laws of physics. Nature does not pander to its denizens; it follows that it’s a good idea to pay attention to the world and try to understand how it works rather than how you would like it to work.

In the contemporary Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, by contrast, a Handy Dandy machine solves problems by presenting pre-approved options on a screen menu. Technology has conquered risk and peril, and material reality meekly obeys the wills of characters, provided they have the appropriate gadgets.

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