Your thoughts are no longer worth a penny

March 10, 2006

Information overload and endless means of communication have deprived us of the ability to reflect, says Terry Eagleton, who invites fellow Luddites to part company with e-mails and mobiles

When do academics think? When does anyone think, for that matter? The proverbial visiting anthropologist from Alpha Centauri, informed that earthlings indulge in an activity known as thinking, might be forgiven for assuming that we think rather as we eat or sleep. Just as there are special times and places for eating and sleeping, so it would be natural for an alien to imagine that there were dedicated times and places for thinking as well, the latter perhaps going under the title of universities. This is not a view that would survive much acquaintance with the inside of a university. Even so, a galactic observer might assume that stashed away within this complex of buildings in which people are busy filing reports, discussing investment policy, playing bar billiards and pretending to have read Othello , there are well-insulated rooms with soothing music and subdued blue walls set aside purely for thinking, sacred spaces that staff and students drop in to from time to time, like chapels or lavatories.

The nearest things we have to such spaces are known as libraries, in which we deal mostly with other people's thoughts rather than with our own, and in which the music leaking from one's neighbour's earphones is unlikely to be all that soothing. Thinking is not a special activity, even in universities. Nobody apart from the obese and narcoleptic eats or sleeps all the time, but almost everyone thinks most of the time.

Such thoughts need not be of an Einsteinian grandeur, but they are still thoughts, as Tracey Emin is still art. Thinking is more like breathing than ballroom dancing. Like playing the fiddle as opposed to the organ, you can do it more or less anywhere. Unlike chemistry and bodybuilding, it requires no special equipment. We think for the most part unthinkingly, scarcely aware of our cogitations. There is no particular reason philosophers should have their insights in the study rather than on the bus.

Like prostitutes, philosophers are paid for doing what most of us do anyway. This might prove as puzzling to the Alpha Centaurian as the notion that there is a class of people paid to breathe, and who justify the fact on the grounds that their breathing is of a purer, higher kind than the sort you get in the back bar of your local. Scientists, of course, are a different matter. Laboratories are places where thinking is a matter of material practice rather than pure speculation. Thought here is a practical, corporeal, almost tangible affair, as it is in the theatre rehearsal room. In fact, the rehearsal room is probably the closest thing we humanists have to the scientific laboratory. Rehearsing a play is a practical, collaborative, open-ended affair, in which there is no single author, nothing is free from revision, most of the stuff is made up as you go along, and what goes is what works. Academics who want to write creatively should try plays rather than novels, since it gets you out of the house.

Most creative writers don't just write on machines; they think on them as well. For them, typewriters and computers are organs of thought rather than instruments of it. There are two kinds of writer: those for whom writing is transcribing, and those for whom it is composing. Transcribers think and then write their thoughts down, with the peril of many a slip and blockage between the two. Composers don't know what they think until they write. Writing for them is more discovery than recording. "I really do think with my pen," Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked, "because my head often knows nothing about what my hand is writing." Just as Lucky in Waiting for Godot can't think without his hat, so most novelists can't imagine without their computers. Tie their hands behind their backs and, like the proverbial Neapolitan, they begin to grunt and stutter.

Press this to an extreme, however, and the process of writing takes over from thinking altogether. We then arrive at the postmodern situation in which a monstrous amount of communication dwarfs a dwindling amount of content. One hundred and fifty years ago, this was known as symbolist poetry, in which you pared content to a minimum so as to achieve a pure experience of language itself. Today it is known as e-mail. According to one modernist theory, the problem was not having experiences but communicating them. How could anything as shop-soiled as language convey my unique sensations? The motto of this movement, in which existentially anguished creatures shambled around in black leather jackets helplessly mouthing, was: "If only I could tell you, I would let you know." Nothing was as shabbily inadequate as words. Anything that mattered went too deep for something as banal as speech.

For postmodern culture, the situation is the exact reverse. Now it is communication that is easy and experience that is difficult. Instead of experiencing the world, we now experience the experience of it. One thinks with pity of all those deprived millions of tourists who explored the Giant's Causeway over the centuries without having the Giant's Causeway Experience. How could they have possibly known what they were looking at? As the air shrieks with a torrent of mobile phone signals, experience withers and dies. This is why it has to be artificially manufactured by the heritage industry. Once upon a time, we couldn't communicate our experiences; now we can't experience because of our communications. A lot of contemporary discourse is what linguisticians call "phatic", meaning communication that is about itself. Starved of any other own content, communication takes itself as its subject matter, as in "Nice to talk to you". We are back in the age of Mallarmé, though today it is known as the mobile phone.

How does all this affect higher education? Simply in the sense that instead of engaging in reflection, we think about the organisation of thought. We are so busy painting the Thinking Room, assembling committees to decide on the piped music and working out the cost of heating the place that we have failed to notice that there is nobody in there. The Thinking Room is not only the alien's fantasy, it is ours too. In this way, we ape late capitalist culture in general, which invests so much energy in constructing the means of life that it forgets how to live. It is a sobering thought that in a world of mind-bending material abundance, we are still as preoccupied with the sheer practical infrastructure of life as our Stone Age ancestors. If there was a time when we dreamt that there was something called thought, which transcended the ignoble but essential business of survival, that epoch is rapidly running out.

Ruining reflection with an excess of information has, to be sure, its political benefits. It means that universities can no longer be centres of critical reflection - not so much because their occupants have ceased to be critical, but because they have ceased by and large to reflect. We are being robbed of the most precious medium of reflection, which is time.

Instead, the state keeps us harmlessly occupied in form-filling while it steps up surveillance and imprisons without trial. Even so, just as you can stop eating Israeli oranges by way of personal protest, so you can make your own Lilliputian stand against the information fetishists. Personally speaking, I have never used e-mail or the internet, and don't possess a mobile phone. Even quill pens, which had only just gone out of fashion when I started my Oxbridge career, strike me as technologically sinister. Those who wish to join me in my Luddite resistance to power (no phone calls, please) can be assured that like the toddler weaned from her comforter or the addict from his cocaine, the most surprising discovery of all will be the recognition that they never needed all this pointless stuff in the first place.

Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory and John Rylands fellow at Manchester University.

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