Creating Time: The Magic of Writing

Well, it’s been quite a while, so I suppose some explanation is in order. I regret losing contact with the handful of loyal readers this blog had, and apologize especially for failing to follow up with some people that I met through it who reached out to me more directly. As I noted in my last apology for a long period of absence from the blogosphere (this must be the second most prevalent genre of blog posts, right after “Hello World – Welcome to my Blog!”), one of my particular challenges has been the elimination in 2012 of the Science, Technology and Society Program at Penn State, where I worked for more than ten years. It’s hard to imagine that I will ever again find an environment as congenial and supportive of my work.

The last year and a half has been about moving on, getting over the loss and building a new life around a new job at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Since my last blog post, there has been the job search and interview, moving  to Philadelphia ahead of my family last January to start the job, countless hours on the Megabus between State College and Philly, selling our house there buying new one here, and moving the family and household here last summer. Until now it’s really been quite impossible to think about the research and writing that this blog represents.

And even now. My official title is associate teaching professor, which means I do a lot of teaching. In my first year here, I taught twelve classes on the quarter system, including the summer quarter. (I believe that would be nine on the semester system).  I’m not complaining. I’ve always loved teaching, and I love it now.

But still, pursuing an ambitious agenda of research and writing with this kind of teaching load is daunting. When I was explaining my new situation to a friend and colleague from Penn State, he said “So you’ve given up the idea of continuing with research then.”

No, no I haven’t. It will be hard, and there is no guarantee I will be able to manage it. And I am ok with failing. But I believe enough in the work I’ve laid out that I’m not ok with failing to try. So, however long the odds, I’m still in the research and writing game.

But given all that, why blog? Why carve time for this out of the precious little time I have for research and writing? For me, blogging is a way to stay connected to the world, to commit to paying attention and formulating thoughts about the things that matter to me beyond the quotidian demands of my life.

Blogging is for me also a means of developing the discipline and practice of writing – to train my mind to be as motivated by the prospect of filling a blank page as it is by the flash of a facebook or twitter notification, or the prospect of spending an evening passively soaking up a movie. Without that discipline, no amount of time will be sufficient for getting this work done. With it, I may find an abundance of time in the cracks and crevices of a demanding life. My theory is that blogging as a regular writing commitment will not just be a slice of the pie, but a way of making the pie bigger.

Maybe that’s magical thinking, but my hope is that it’s part of the real magic of writing.

Around the Web: Omphalos and Hole Ousia

As I sat down to write this, I just realized that it was actually one year ago today that I launched this humble blog. One of the best reasons for blogging and social media is the chance of making contact with people you likely never would have encountered otherwise. This happened with my first post, when Peter Gordon introduced himself in a comment. Peter is a geriatric psychiatrist in Scotland who also has been thoughtfully exploring in video and writing the need to develop a richer approach to dementia informed by the humanities, and the broader problem of the division between science and the humanities in biomedicine.

I was especially flattered that he used extensive quotations from my book in one of his first videos called  The Diseased Other.  Lately, he has been courageously raising vital critical questions about the push for early diagnosis of dementia, which he summarizes in this short film:

Peter makes his videos as Omphalos and shares them on Vimeo. He blogs at Hole Ousia, and  at the Myth of Alzheimer’s blog. Check his work out.

Bless Me Father, for I have Sinned. It has been Six Months since My Last Blog Post….

If it’s self-indulgent to write a blog (and it certainly is), it’s doubly self-indulgent to apologize for failing to keep up with it. But to the extent that returning to the task of regular blogging is going to be worth anything to me or my imagined readers, I feel that I need to begin by explaining the long absence – especially since the point of this blog was to chronicle and thus focus my thoughts on the development of my second scholarly book project on the history of Alzheimer’s disease. Letting the blog drop seems like a bad sign regarding the prospects for that book. And, to be triply self-indulgent, dammit, I intend to write that book and more!

confusion-cr

So, the obvious and unfortunate thing to say is that the blog has not gone dormant because I’ve been all on fire with research and writing. Rather, my time and energy has been absorbed with the usual sorts of things that keep mid-career academics from research and writing – teaching and administrative demands and obligations to family, friends and the wider world. Plus, for me, there has been the additional challenge and anxiety of trying to figure out my job situation in the wake of Penn State’s elimination of the Science, Technology and Society Program in the face of state budget cuts. At this point, my future at Penn State remains unclear, and the academic job market is tough even (or perhaps especially) for a mid-career academic, even one who has published a well-regarded book.

But I am starting to question whether it is helpful to characterize all these things as mere distractions that take me away from my work. At this point, I think the only way I will be able to move forward with this project, my career and my life is to think about how  all these seemingly disparate demands and desires are connected. That’s perhaps obvious. Tracing the connections between individual experience and larger structures and meanings in society unfolding in time has always been the attraction for me of historical inquiry. My first book argued that the experience of dementia and the diagnostic category of Alzheimer’s are not only a personal tragedy and a medical concept, but are connected to a profound historical transformation in the meaning of selfhood and the politics and policy of disease in an aging society. More broadly, understanding the way that my individual struggles and occasional triumphs are connected to the wider world is essential to living a conscious, good life. But it’s no less challenging for being obvious. The tendency to ignore or obscure such connections has become perhaps the defining feature of late capitalist society.

All of which is to say that as I turn my attention back to this blog, I will be moving away from my original intention of keeping it focused strictly on my work on the recent history of dementia and Alzheimer’s. I’ll continue to write plenty about that as I continue to follow the field and hopefully do begin to make some progress in framing and research the book. But I’ll also be blogging about concerns ostensibly far afield from dementia that draw or demand my attention – like climate change, or global poverty, or the political economy of the modern research university, or biking or music – and about how they all might somehow link up on the faith that wherever my work and my life take me from here, it will be the richer for the inquiry.

As the working title of my book, To Conquer Confusion describes both the ostensible goal of finding an effective treatment or prevention for Alzheimer’s and other dementias, and the challenge of creating and maintaining coherent intellectual and institutional frameworks that could connect and coordinate the diverse experiences, interests and efforts of the many different kind of people connected to each other in the dementia field. As the title of my blog, To Conquer Confusion will also describe my own struggles to develop this work while answering the conflicting demands of life.

Blogging and dementia: Why this blog? Why any blog?

Like a lot of academics, I have found it difficult to stay focused on my research and writing following the publication of my first book. In part this reflects the usual challenge university faculty have in balancing teaching and administrative obligations, and taking quite seriously the quaint notion of “having a life” outside of work. In my case, it also reflects some ambivalence about my work that I think comes from the peculiar emotional demands of this topic – ambivalence that I may explore on this blog soon. In any case, I intend to use this blog as a way to get and keep my head back in the game. It will be a space for thinking out loud, forging some new connections and staking out some commitments in public as I begin work on a new book.

So this blog will serve as a kind of open notebook to explore issues related to my ongoing work on the history of Alzheimer’s disease and aging in the modern world, which I described in some detail in the “about this blog” and “about me” pages. In the remainder of this post, I want to talk about the questionable enterprise of blogging itself and how it might relate to dementia.

My friend and colleague in the history of the neurosciences Stephen Casper has written a very nice post on his blog that lays out all the good reasons an academic might have for blogging. Still, the sheer absurdity of this enterprise ought to be acknowledged up front.

When I write for any public, regardless of whether the medium is a book for an academic press, an article for a general audience publication, or a facebook status update, I write out of a stubborn commitment to the idea that my life can and should have meaning, and that writing for others can be a means of solidifying that meaning, of somehow making a difference in the world.

But there are at least two problems with publication that have developed over the past few decades that threaten to overwhelm the modern ideal of writing as an act of meaning. The first is the crisis of the overproduction of information that threatens to overwhelm the ability of any individual to know what is important. In the academic world, lip service to interdisciplinarity aside, the accelerating production of new scholarship in every field has made increasingly quaint the notion that, as university faculty, we should be sufficiently aware of major developments across the university to be able to engage meaningfully with any and all of the important ideas of the day. Even in a very narrowly defined subfield, scholars struggle to keep up with the proliferation of new research.

In the blogosphere,where the flow of information is not controlled by peer review and the costs of production are nil, things have quickly become truly absurd. The best current estimate suggests that there are now more than 172 million blogs out there, with about 75,000 new blogs created and more than a million blogposts published each day. The old saw that a roomful of chimpanzees randomly typing for long enough will reproduce a literary masterpiece seems now extended toward its logical conclusion: an infinitely expanding number of monkeys typing will eventually produce everything that it is theoretically possible to say.

In any case, there certainly aren’t enough monkeys in the world to read all that is earnestly being written. Given such daunting numbers, how can choking the virtual world with one more blog possibly be an act of communicative meaning?

A second problem concerns the creation and maintenance of self-identity in a hyper-mediated world. Since the early 1980s, social critics have argued that post-World War II mass-consumer society has presented acute challenges to the creation and maintenance of selfhood. For my purposes here, the most cogent of these critics is psychologist Kenneth Gergen, who argued in The Saturated Self  (1991) that technology wildly proliferate human relationships to the point of “social saturation,” with the result that “the very concept of personal essences is thrown into doubt. Selves as possessors of real and identifiable characteristics – such as rationality, emotion, inspiration, and will – are dismantled.” As suggested by the artwork (shamelessly stolen below) illustrating Teddy Wayne’s brilliant send-up in last month’s New Yorker of the cultural practices of “reposting,” the emergence of blogging and other social media since then would seem only to have exacerbated this problem, as the opportunities to communicate about oneself and what we think is important through new forms of media to an expanding circle of “friends” or “contacts” are coming to seem more like obligations and burdens than opportunities.

And here is where blogging connects to dementia. As I argued in my book, it is no accident that these sorts of social critiques became commonplace at roughly the same historical moment that Alzheimer’s disease was emerging as a major public issue. A disease whose most prominent feature is the destruction of memory, and most dreaded moment is when victims no longer recognize friends and family members they have known for a lifetime, seems to perfectly embody these concern about the erosion of self. Alzheimer’s disease, it seems, is one of the emblematic disorders of a post-modern culture. And conversely, blogging and social media seemsto embody the fragility and fragmentation of postmodern selfhood that has come to make Alzheimer’s so frightening.

Having said all that, I immediately feel the need to issue caveats (which is perhaps symptomatic of the very problems I am describing.) Though the overproduction of information certainly undermines the ideal of writing to create meaning, it does not make meaning impossible. Moreover, though I think the connection I point to between the symptoms of dementia and the way that hyper-mediation of the social world challenges our ideas of selfhood is real and significant, to assert that they are the same would be absurd and dismissive of the real challenges faced by people with dementia. I make a distinction between the dementia produced by the hypocognitive situation of the person with Alzheimer’s, and the confusion produced by a hypercognitive society. Both are profoundly, perhaps at times even equally, disorienting and disruptive of a coherent sense of self. But there is a difference between having one’s cognitive abilities impaired to the degree that one cannot successfully perform expected social roles, and experiencing confusion – even extreme confusion – because social roles that one successfully performs are contradictory and incoherent.

I do not know the answers to these problems, but I do think we do well and grow by acknowledging and learning to live with them. So however absurd it may be in the crowded, narcissistic echochamber of the new media world of discourse, this blog will be a means for me engage in the ritual speech act of talking about some things that I think are important, of taking stands in the world in the hope of connecting to some larger human purpose.

Of course, I do recognize that I may be deceiving myself, that this enterprise may be part of some larger process, some larger, grander scheme beyond my ken. Perhaps I am merely being recruited into that vast and growing army of monkeys typing endlessly toward the information apocalypse that will be brought about when every conceivable idea has been expressed. And on that day the unfolding universe of words and its illusive promise of meaning will finally be brought to its fulfillment. The vast human stream of words will expand to become everything and nothing at all.

Whatever the true purpose of my efforts, I will humbly endeavor play my part…