How futile is the written word in the digital era?

Dialogue with the Alter Ego on the artistic challenge of contemporary writers

“Well, I said to Gambetti in front of the Hotel Hassler, if we are totally honest, the state of general stupidity is already so advanced that there is no going back on it. Ever since the invention of photography, that is, with the beginning of this brain annihilation process more than a hundred years ago, the intellectual capacity of the world’s population continues to decline. The photographic pictures, I said to Gambetti, have initiated this global process of stultification, and it has taken on a deadly speed for mankind at the moment when these photographic pictures became motion pictures. For decades now mankind is doing nothing else but stupidly watch these deadly photographic images and is paralyzed by them. At the turn of the millennium, mankind will have reached a point where thinking and reflection is effectively no longer possible, Gambetti and the process of disseminating stupidity, which has been set in motion by photography and has become a worldwide habit through the motion pictures, will be at its peak. In such a world, which is then dominated by stupidity, it will be quite impossible to exist, Gambetti, I said to him, standing at the open grave, and it would be good if we kill ourselves before this brain eradication process of the world is complete. (…) My advice to the thinking person can only be to kill yourself before the turn of the millennium, Gambetti, that is truly my conviction, I said to Gambetti, standing at the open grave.”

Excerpt from Thomas Bernhard: Extinction (Text reference: Thomas Bernhard, Auslöschung, Frankfurt/Germany, 1986, page 645f). Translation provided by Noah denkt™; original text in German see footnote*. In the excerpt it is the fictitious narrator Franz-Josef Murau who tells us about a conversation he had with his student Gambetti. You should note that “Extinction” was published before the internet became a household item in Europe.  Franz-Josef Murau, the fictitious narrator, by the way died in 1983 at the age of 49. It is unclear whether he died of a natural cause but we think he did.

Question by Noah denkt™ (Nd): Dear Alter Ego, we are wrestling again in with a question that we have already run by you occasionally but that needs reconsideration again. It’s about what we do. The question is this: What sense does it make for an unrecognized artist/poet/philosopher to add his voice to a market place that is already overwhelmed by an information, entertainment and analysis overkill as it is? Is it not true that there is only one way to demonstrate the superiority of your judgment at a time when people are frantically jockeying for attention which is to not participate in that attention game and then not crack up for doing so? Obviously, the latter isn’t an easy feat to accomplish. Jihadists, for instance, don’t manage to achieve this. Neither do Xenophobists, nor Femen activists, nor guerilla marketing practitioners. So isn’t it time to shut up and focus on our practical daily life instead? After all, we can still confide in the irresistible quality of our analysis to evidence itself in the many private interactions we have with members of the public on a regular basis.

Answer by Alter Ego of Noah denkt™ (AE): Clearly, there is solid reasoning in this. But is it not also true that we need to come up with dialogues like these at least occasionally only to feel good about ourselves? Doesn’t our brain muscle require the regular exercise of concentration and focus that comes with the production of a literary piece? It seems to us that meditation, sports and run-of-the-mill human interaction can only take you so far in the process of sharpening your judgement and awareness. It also takes the precise pinning down that is implicit in the artistic act. And then the question arises: How can you motivate yourself to go through the pinning down process when you already know upfront that your final piece will end up in the trash can anyway?

Nd: Correct. And yet, honest to God, there isn’t that much to say anymore, is there? It’s simply gotten so absurd, so pathetic and so hysteric out there that it seems ridiculous to still validate this with our own bla bla bla. 

AE: Well, at least we still have to say what we are saying here. And who knows what other twists and turns will happen in our life that can still spur us into creative action.

Nd: Your optimism here is in stark contrast with the negativity that you normally tend to vent in our blog posts. So where does this change of heart come from?

AE: Honestly, your Alter Ego wouldn’t have the guts to confide entirely on the wisdom that we demonstrate in our everyday social interactions to do the marketing job for us. It is not that we dismiss the intellectual awareness of our social entourage. But it simply seems to us that we could not manage to keep our cool in the face of financial annihilation if we weren’t also pitching ourselves to the wider anonymous mass market.

Nd: So all your talk about flexing brain muscles and exercise of focus was just a clever ploy to camouflage your existential income angst?

AE: Yes and no.

Nd: Well, what do you say to that? How can we argue with that?

AE: Simply accept with the fact that a certain amount of angst is legitimate and that you don’t have to be a hero all the time.

Nd: We can accept that as long as you don’t go overboard with your anxiety and suggest more bend-over exercises to us such as, for instance, integrating video into our website. You probably heard that the German newspaper industry is planning to do just that. In their words, they want to “emancipate newspapers from paper” and the written word, one might add….

AE: Yes, we picked up on that. But your Alter Ego can promise you to not pester you with suggestions like these, – at least for now. For the time being, we are quite happy to still leave these kind of considerations to those who really can’t control their business angst.

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Footnote*: “Ach, wissen sie, Gambetti, habe ich zu diesem vor dem Hotel Hassler gesagt, dachte ich jetzt an der offenen Gruft, wenn wir ehrlich sind, ist der allgemeine Verdummungsprozeß schon so weit fortgeschritten, daß es kein Zurück mehr gibt. Mit der Erfindung der Fotografie, also mit dem Einsetzen dieses Verdummungsprozesses vor weit über hundert Jahren, geht es mit dem Geisteszustand der Weltbevölkerung fortwährend bergab. Die fotografischen Bilder, habe ich zu Gambetti gesagt, haben diesen weltweiten Verdummungsprozeß in Gang gebracht und er hat diese tatsächlich für die Menschheit tödliche Geschwindigkeit in dem Augenblick erreicht, in welchem diese fotografischen Bilder beweglich geworden sind. Stumpfsinnig betrachtet die Menschheit heute und seit Jahrzehnten nichts anderes mehr, als diese tödlichen fotografischen Bilder und ist wie gelähmt davon. An der Jahrtausendwende wird dieser Menschheit Denken gar nicht mehr möglich sein, Gambetti und der Verdummungsprozeß, der durch die Fotografie in Gang gebracht und durch die beweglichen Bilder zu weltweiter Gewohnheit geworden ist, auf dem Höhepunkt sein. In einer solchen, nurmehr noch vom Stumpfsinn beherrschten Welt zu existieren, kann kaum mehr möglich sein, Gambetti, sagte ich zu diesem, dachte ich jetzt an der offenen Gruft, und es wird gut sein, wenn wir uns gerade noch bevor dieser Verdummungsprozeß der Welt total eingetreten ist, umbringen. (…) Mein Rat an den denkenden Menschen kann nur der sein, sich vor der Jahrtausendwende umzubringen, Gambetti, das ist tatsächlich meine Überzeugung, habe ich zu Gambetti gesagt, dachte ich jetzt an der offenen Gruft.“

Auszug aus: Thomas Bernhard, Auslöschung, Frankfurt, 1986, 1. Aufl. 1988; Seite 645f

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