When Jurgenson took aim at the “The IRL Fetish,” he was criticizing the colonels of the world who pick up “offline” and wield it to bludgeon others. After I posted “The ‘Offline’ Debate: Finding the Same Register,” I was pleased that Nathan Jurgenson affirmed my reading of him. As with Jugenson’s “offline,” the Colonel’s candlestick is socially constructed, but it becomes a weapon only when someone like Colonel Mustard picks it up.
The colonels of the world are what Jurgenson later dubbed “the disconnectionists.” But there is some hope: He admitted that not all of us are colonels. Not all of us feel smug and self-righteous when we “go offline.” But to what does Jurgenson attribute such hope?
With my reading on the right track, I want to engage a bit more directly with Jurgenson’s strategy, and speak in his register. I want to confront the power-play problem that develops in social constructs like “offline,” “heterosexuality,” and “cool.” And, yes, candlesticks.
First, I want to affirm that they are indeed social constructs and that they are used to make power plays. I appreciate Jurgenson’s naming them and calling us to account for how we use them. We need to recognize our social constructs, especially when they are being used as weapons.
That said, I do not think Jurgenson’s apparent solution—to simply dismantle social constructs—can actually solve the problem. It is not a basis for hope. Jurgenson believes that everything, even Nature, is socially constructed (an argument I see the logic of). Thus, as with “offline,” he sees all social constructs as inherent weapons of power. Given this line of thinking, his solution is to dismantle all social constructs. Remove the candlestick, prevent the murder. And this seems to be exactly what Jurgenson is aiming for.
That’s why, in another article also published by The New Inquiry, Jurgenson writes, “[Labeling] the digital [as] virtual . . . is one more strategy to renew the reification of old social categories like the self, gender, sexuality, race and other fictions made concrete.” He sees these “social categories” as reinforcing people’s claims to power. Deconstructing them is Jurgenson’s attempt to eliminate those claims by disarming them of their weapons.
But what does that solution leave Jurgenson with? If everything is socially constructed, what is left when he’s finished?
Removing the candlestick doesn’t simply “prevent the murder.” It precludes the murder. Jurgenson wants to dismantle weapons, believing it will make oppression impossible (or more difficult). In the end, though, dismantling all social constructs removes all possibilities. This won’t simply preclude inequality and injustice and oppression. It will also precludes choice and, finally, freedom.
C.S. Lewis, in his book, Abolition of Man, tackles the belief that deconstructing everything will be good for us. His closing remarks of the book are, I think, quite relevant to Jurgenson, who wants to dismantle, or “see through,” every social construct. Lewis writes,
“But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”Jurgenson’s effort to dismantle social constructs in order to eliminate power plays results finally in chaos or anarchy. Deconstructing “. . . self, gender, sexuality, race and other fictions made concrete,” he said. Without these so-called “fictions made concrete,” there is no culture or humanity left that is worth having.
So, while I agree with Jurgenson that social constructs like “offline” should not be used as power plays over others, I disagree that deconstructing them solves the problem of power. As Tim Keller writes, “If you say that all truth-claims are power plays, then so is your statement” (The Reason for God, 38). The power plays are problematic, yes, but deconstruction doesn’t fix them. Instead, I think there’s a better way forward—one that reappropriates them and uses them to serve others.
The Colonel represents one way of using candlesticks—as weapons of power. For an alternative vision, consider the candlesticks in the hands of Victor Hugo’s bishop.
When the powerfully-built convict Jean Valjean arrives in the doorway of Monsigneur Bienvenu, the elderly bishop welcomes the menacing figure in. The bishop’s home, he tells the convict, “is the house of Christ. It does not ask any comer whether he has a name, but whether he has an affliction. You are suffering,” the bishop observes, “you are hungry and thirsty; be welcome.” Valjean eats at the bishop’s table using real silverware on real silver plates. Then silver candlesticks are bought out to light the table. Later, when the bishop shows Valjean to his sleeping quarters, each of them takes a candlestick to light their path.
After a few hours’ sleep, Valjean wakes up in the middle of the night, and, tempted, he deigns to steal the silver plates and then escapes into the early morning’s darkness. When French gendarmes apprehend him, they return the convict to the bishop’s house. Having already been alerted to the theft, the bishop receives the men with the shackled Valjean between them.
“‘Ah, there you are!’ said he, looking toward Jean Valjean. ‘I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?’”To the Bishop as well as to Valjean, the candlesticks are indeed socially-constructed objects of great value and status. But the bishop freely gives all this power and honor to Valjean. He uses the power that is socially constructed around the candlesticks to empower Valjean, not to oppress him.
ConclusionLike the Colonel and the Bishop, we have a choice as to what we do with “offline.” Do we use it as a power play and murder others? Or do we use it to serve and empower others? For both the Colonel and the Bishop, the candlesticks were socially constructed objects endowed with immense power. Like any socially constructed object, they could be used for evil or for good. And we have a choice.
Whether we like it or not, “offline” is a new candlestick. We can’t return to life before “offline.” We must make our way in a world where it exists. Jurgenson is right to name it as a weapon, just as we are right to despise the Colonel for murdering others. Jurgenson does a great service in bringing “offline” to light in this way. But now, the solution is not to try and dismantle it. Only eliminating the Internet could achieve that. Now, the way forward is to ask ourselves, “What will we do with ‘offline’?” Will we wield it like the Colonel, or will we offer it like the Bishop?
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