I'm quite pleased to feature this piece from Mere Fidelity contributor Alastair Roberts today. You can follow him on Twitter here or read his personal blog here.
‘A Truth Universally Acknowledged…’
In a 1997 article on communal judgment in Pride and Prejudice, William Deresiewicz observed that Pride and Prejudice is, at first glance, an apparent exception to Austen’s practice of opening her novels by introducing a central character.(1) Indeed, Elizabeth Bennet’s character doesn’t truly come to the foreground until around the sixth chapter. Closer examination, however, reveals that there is a central character introduced at the beginning of the novel: the community, with its values, expectations, conventions, and practices. The opening sentence of the book—‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’—is a ‘mock aphorism’, which is swiftly exposed to be nothing but a judgment that is ‘well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families’ of the neighbourhood. The earlier episodes of the story focus upon the neighbourhood of Meryton and its collective consciousness, which emerges as Mr Bingley and his friends move to Netherfield and become known to the community of the local gentry, most particularly in the opening ball. Deresiewicz remarks: ‘Elizabeth cannot appear until well into this initial story because it is that story—the story of how a community thinks, talks, exerts influence—that produces her plot, that produces her’ (504).
Behind and beyond any specific situation or interaction, the community of Meryton possesses an ‘ambient quality’ or ‘texture’, which Deresiewicz describes as that of a ‘saturated social environment, an environment in which no space exists that is not social’ (513). He terms this social saturation ‘density’, observing that Austen strengthens this aesthetic dimension of her narrative by largely excluding, not only ‘scenic description and general reflection’, but also privacy and introspection (515).
The ‘density’ of Meryton’s community also consists in its ‘multiplex’ social relations, which connect characters together in a number of different ways. For instance, ‘Miss Bingley, while she is part of the community, is Elizabeth’s friend, at least in theory, but she is also her sister’s friend, as well as her sister’s love-interest’s sister’ (515). When Elizabeth and Miss Bingley encounter each other, they do so in ways that accentuate different threads of the multiple strands of relation by which they are connected. ‘And because custom dictates that all these relationships carry the right and indeed the responsibility of comment and interference, what we find, in sum, is a large group of people all minding each other’s business and all passing each other’s secrets back and forth all the time’ (515).
This social density has noteworthy advantages, not least for young men and women searching for partners: ‘many topics of conversation—all the concerns of all the people they know in common—and with many pretexts for conversation—all the ways they are already connected other than as potential mates’ (516-517). Such a social context allows for considerable proximity between young men and women, without social interactions becoming excessively intimate or personal. Within such a context of growing familiarity, potential partners are given opportunity to acquaint themselves with each other’s character.
As the community connects young men and women in so many non-romantic ways, it also creates a context in which genuinely non-romantic friendships between men and women can develop. Deresiewicz remarks upon the character of Colonel Fitzwilliam, who, in a manner unusual in such fiction, is ‘neither Mr. Right nor Mr. Wrong’, but a romantic possibility whose affectionate relation with the heroine is resolved clearly in the direction of friendship instead (518). Austen’s community is one of ‘communal friendship’, where ‘proximity and density act as the structural underpinnings of familiarity, ease, and common interest’ (519). The density of the community also allows for the development of a profoundly appealing new vision of love, one in which love is no longer ‘an ecstasy antithetical or at least unrelated to friendship’ but rather a specific form of it, whose energies can in turn flow back into the communal friendship of the society.
One of the most salient features of the Meryton community, betrayed within the opening sentences of the novel, is its manner of making judgments. The community, as Deresiewicz argues, ‘functions as a set of social activities and behavioural norms, but it also functions as a set of cognitive processes, or in other words, mental habits’ (504). The ‘truth universally acknowledged’ with which the book opens is a ‘starting-point of deduction’, free from the ‘countercheck of induction, of fresh observation and reconsideration’, one of many ‘mental reflexes’ merely waiting to be triggered by the arrival of Mr Bingley in the neighbourhood. Even on the rare occasions when it does change its reading of a situation, the community adopts a revisionism that enables it to retain absolute faith in its judgment (506). Deresiewicz highlights Austen’s description of the community’s response to Wickham’s elopement with Lydia:
All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the man, who, but three months before, had been almost an angel of light… Every body declared that he was the wickedest young man in the world; and every body began to find out, that they had always distrusted the appearance of his goodness.
While such passages might convey the impression of Meryton as some homogeneous Greek chorus of opinion, Deresiewicz draws our attention to its ‘complex internal environment that looks different to each character’ (511). After the ball scene, the Miss Bennets and the Miss Lucases meet together to ‘talk over’ its events. The analysis of the ball serves the purpose of producing a collective opinion about Darcy’s character, a judgment that appears to be retrojected into the narration of the ball—‘His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again.’ Before the conversation between the Miss Lucases and the Miss Bennets in chapter 5, however, only Mrs Bennet appeared to have such a settled opinion. The conversation establishes the community’s official version of events, marks out the ‘circle of common judgment’, and the ‘permissible limits of difference’.
Deresiewicz draws attention to the way that the conversation involves ‘homogenization and differentiation’, while avoiding any direct contradiction or confrontation. A previous statement is taken up, apparently agreed with, and then pivoted in a different direction, collaboratively forming a collective understanding in which conflict is managed by ‘allowing it expression within conventionalized bounds’ (512). ‘The sense of the conversation here … takes a new direction with each contribution, but is at every point the sum of all previous contributions.… At bottom, the implicit meaning of this mode of conversation … is that every voice is valid.’ The only voices that can be directly contradicted are voices that don’t belong to the community.
Many readers of Pride and Prejudice have fancied that Elizabeth represents a clear exception to this pattern, someone who thinks for herself and is no prisoner of convention or dupe of communal judgment. Yet, as Deresiewicz observes, Austen shows us that, rather than arriving at judgments independently, Elizabeth assumes them from her community. Elizabeth’s conviction concerning Darcy’s ‘pride’—a judgment that is pivotal for the plot—is one that moves from her community to her family, and which she accepts without real question. Her initial reaction to Darcy’s snub at the ball is to make light of it with her friends: it is her community that presses her to feel ‘mortified’ by it. ‘In short, while Elizabeth herself sends the story of Darcy’s snub out into the community, she gets her opinion and feeling about it handed back to her’ (508). Likewise, in her dealing with George Wickham, Elizabeth displays her conformity to her community’s manner of thinking, her unwillingness to ‘let the facts stand in the way of what she wants to believe’ and her uncritical dependence upon universal judgments (Wickham is a man of pleasant countenance; therefore Wickham must be amiable).
Elizabeth’s seeming unconventionality is nonetheless contained within the bounds of convention: ‘In a community that includes everyone by allowing each a slightly different role, the role it allows her—but it is only a role—is that of the person who is not fully included.’ Indeed, like her community, she is unable to cope with contradiction: ‘modification, not rejection, is her typical mode of response’ (514). This failing is most notably displayed in her conversation with Wickham about Darcy: ‘For all that she can play the gadfly, let it once become clear that she will hear only what confirms her own judgments, and she settles into a steady rhythm of assent’ (521). The result is a ‘positive feedback loop, a conversational form of circular reasoning.’ It is telling that Austen describes the characteristic of Wickham and Elizabeth’s conversation as ‘mutual satisfaction’. Such a conversational dynamic is encouraged by the character of the community: the intimacy of the group makes conflict quite unwelcome and encourages the use of modification rather than contradiction, smoothing differences over into ‘a semblance of concord’ (522). For the sake of social harmony, important differences are dissembled and contradiction cannot be admitted. The result is a suffocation of careful and critical thought and judgment.
Welcome to the Village Without Boundaries
I was first alerted to Deresiewicz’s article by Peter Leithart several years ago, but was reminded of its argument in the course of a recent discussion with my girlfriend, in which she compared the dynamics of social media to those of an Austen village. Although the world of a Regency period village such as Meryton may seem very distant from our post-industrial Internet age, there are some surprising analogies.
The Communication of Presence
Although we may be inclined to think of communication principally in terms of the conveying of information, much of our discourse does not have such a character, but is rather principally intended to convey our presence to each other. Being a typical Englishman, I not infrequently find myself exchanging remarks about the week’s weather with an acquaintance in the street. Neither I nor my acquaintance is particularly interested in the weather nor in eliciting information about it from the other. In speaking of it, however, we break the silence, express our recognition of each other, and forge a bond of mutual presence.(2) Speech is connection: we need to say something—anything!—to fill the silences that separate us. While such conversations may contain informational elements, such elements are typically incidental to their purpose.
When one thinks about it, a considerable proportion of our discourse has the formation of connection as a central purpose and almost all of our discourse has such connection as a primary effect. For instance, although we ostensibly watch and read the news to be ‘informed’, we also watch it in order to feel ‘connected’ to a wider world of social and political affairs, and in order to gather fodder for conversation around the water cooler, so that we can be present to each other in discussing the latest events. To be ‘uninformed’—about matters that typically have little to no direct relevance to our daily lives—is to be ‘out of touch’, to be disconnected. A conversation is taking place and we don’t want to be left out. Whether the ‘information’ that we consume concerns the latest crisis in the Middle East, the most recent Kardashian story, the current transfer rumours in the Premier League, or the breaking news about a forthcoming superhero movie, much of its importance to us typically lies in its potential to serve as a means of connection with others.
‘Small talk’, such as the sort of conversation about the weather I described above, is perhaps the classic example of discourse designed to establish connection (although it is certainly not the only sort of conversation that effects connection). Topics of small talk are typically non-threatening matters that draw upon shared background and which tend to vary from group to group. The chosen topic doesn’t matter as much as the desired conversational dynamic and connection that is established through it. A period of small talk will often precede more serious conversation, but no less often will constitute the entirety of a conversation. A typical topic for small talk among British males, for instance, is football (‘soccer’ to Americans). Unlike the weather, football is a subject that men can get animated about, without being a matter that is volatile in the way that politics or religion might be. Football establishes differences between people (‘what do you have to say about your sorry performance against us over the weekend?’), but also bonds (‘did you see the England game last night?’). In this way it provides, among other things, a great source of camaraderie, non-heated argument, verbal sparring, and playful teasing, all around a subject that isn’t that personal and which is externally focused. These are all ideal conditions for the sort of conversational dynamics through which men often bond. Such conversations are a bonding ritual, whose content is typically of lesser importance than their social function (although, on account of the powerful bonding that it grants access to and represents, a subject such as football can become important and people who lack knowledge of or interest in it can be regarded with a measure of distrust).
Conversations about football or another sport are a less direct and personal way of achieving social bonding: in having a lively conversation about a common external interest we can relate closely together, while retaining a degree of personal distance from the subject matter and enjoying a playful antagonism within the conversation. Such bonding occurs as we are drawn outside of ourselves and share a focus upon something else. Once a good dynamic has been established, such conversations can move onto subjects such as, for example, politics or society, where real differences can be aired. Other forms of conversation achieve bonding more through the sharing of personal and relational concerns, judgments, and values, taking for their subject matter personal and interpersonal issues. Celebrity or TV gossip, for instance, is a way in which relative strangers can share or align their judgments and values in personal and relational matters before discussing or confiding anything closer to home, where differences in perspectives could prove more threatening. It also offers people who have no mutual acquaintances a way they can share an interest in persons. Such gossip can be a safe testing ground for the shared values and judgments that constitute tighter and more intimate relationships and communities of self-disclosure and close mutual involvement and concern.
Self-disclosure and discussion of the state of affairs within our relational networks and communities—the sort of conversation that things such as celebrity and TV gossip can provide an avenue to—can bring and hold people very close together. While this can often take the less savoury form of harmful and salacious gossip, it is generally a healthy and important means of creating tight-knit communities of mutual concern. In talking in such a manner, we take a direct interest in each other. The designation of such conversation as ‘small talk’ may be a pejorative marginalization or denigration of speech—primarily women’s speech—that is highly concerned with, attuned to, and engaged with the social ecology.
Communications Technology and Discourse
Henry David Thoreau once remarked:
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.(3)
Although we should not regard technology’s relationship to our discourse as determinative in the manner of a writer such as Neil Postman—not least because there are numerous other factors that shape and frame its use: political, social, personal, economic, existing conversational habits, etc.—its relationship to our discourse, while always involving a degree of ambivalence, is far from a neutral one. This is especially the case when we stop speaking about particular technologies as such and focus upon ‘actually existing’ technologies—technologies as they function embedded within the broader ecology of our social structures. As it opened the channel for a new conversation, Thoreau appreciated that the telegraph brought with it the potential to alter both the form and content of American society’s discourses in specific yet not entirely predictable ways (as my girlfriend observed, a telegraph between Texas and Maine, precisely by opening up a conversation between places that previously didn’t have much to talk about, may have been crucial for the formation of a collective American identity). A similar point can be made about the Internet and other modern forms of communications technology.
What the Internet and the mobile phone make possible is the establishment of a new ‘saturated social environment’, which shares a number of common features with the society of Meryton as Deresiewicz described it. Modernity has rendered us more detached from each other and more disembedded from particular contexts, yet our communications technology offers us a way seemingly to overcome this social alienation, providing us with media with which to ‘connect’ to each other. Our lives are caught between this profound condition of alienation and a sort of ersatz state of hyper-connection that substitutes for what we lack in our offline existence. While some might have expected the Internet and mobile phones chiefly to be used for the communication of information, their primary significance in most people’s lives is their provision for the communication of presence. The Internet often feels a lot less like an ‘information superhighway’ and much more like a virtual village, where, through countless intertwined lines of relationship, everyone is minding everyone else’s business.
In the mobile phone, technology has assumed an especially intimate form. It is a device that can be carried on our persons at almost all times. People have become so attached to and dependent upon their phones that they often struggle to cope for any extended period of time without them. With the mobile phone, we are never unconnected. Even when we are seemingly alone, we can enjoy access to the presence of thousands of other people. A single tweet or updated Facebook status can communicate our presence to the many people who follow or are friends with us. A short text can share a private moment with a close friend. Such communications are often without any significant informational content, but are rather ways in which we stay connected with each other.
The Collapse of Social Space
Deresiewicz comments upon the ‘density’ of Meryton and similar remarks can be made upon our hyper-connected world. Our use of mobile phones and the Internet have in many cases occasioned a collapse of social space into more condensed forms, subjecting us to an ever greater pull of social ‘gravity’. How has this occurred? Here are a few ways:
They substitute for and undermine the mediation of the body. The body limits and focuses us in various ways. We can only physically be in one place at a given time. The body ‘grounds’ us. The body also represents one of our most fundamental forms of differentiation, distinguishing each one of us from everyone else. When the mediation of the body is diminished, so is the differentiation that it establishes. The result can be a situation where there is much less of a difference sustained between us and where it is much easier to impose the projections of our imaginations onto the disembodied persons with whom we are interacting.
They negate physical space. While I am sitting in my home in the UK, I can be interacting with someone in Australia. Even when I travel abroad, my friends in Durham can remain in constant contact with me. I can no longer easily step ‘outside’ of my most immediate community and other communities are always entering into it. As they negate space, our new communications technologies can also weaken our very physical presence, marking it by absence. In being ‘connected’ to others online and via our phones, we are less ‘present’ in our bodies and physical social environments. I may be seated in this room, but my mind is somewhere else entirely.
They erode privacy and self-presence. Our communications technology creates a sort of virulent ‘social pollution’, making it increasingly difficult to enjoy absolute solitude, to be entirely disconnected. Everywhere we go there is a sort of background hum of voices of our connected world, a world which is always insistently at hand and clamouring for our attention. Silence and solitude, preconditions for deep self-presence (or thoughtful reading), are ever harder to come by. The result is a deeper dependence upon our communities to establish our sense of self and a weakening of our capacity to think and act independently of them.
They encourage the weakening and shortening of our attention, by the heightened stimulation and incessant distraction of many concurrent interactions that we can move between at any given time. We find it harder to devote our sustained and undivided attention to any one community, conversation, or person, without being distracted by many others. We incessantly flit between online conversations and interactions and also attenuate our presence to offline ones in the process.
They speed up our interactions, often denying us the time necessary to reflect and respond, encouraging us to operate reactively instead.
They break down the distinctions between spaces, between public and private, between work and home, between formal and informal, between realms of combative dialogue and realms of close connection, between academic and popular, etc. The result can be stifling, denying us the distinct spaces that we need to devote ourselves fully and undistractedly to certain forms of activity and engagement, making it more likely that we will be multitasking, delicately trying to carry on two different types of conversation simultaneously, or homogenizing our conversation and action. With the breakdown of the boundaries between public and private, for instance, it is much more difficult to have challenging public conversations that aren’t constantly derailed by personal feelings.
They collapse boundaries between social groups and conversations and break down generational, educational, and social distinctions. We are all brought closer to each other in a way that disguises and is hostile to pronounced differences of competence, authority, and right to honour. Our media tend to flatten out our social spaces in an egalitarian way, falsely suggesting that all voices merit an equal part in the conversation. As conversations that would previously be clearly separated from each other start to eavesdrop upon, to intrude in, and to become entangled with each other, the results can be volatile.
In all of the above ways, the Internet brings us very close together, establishing something akin to Meryton’s ‘density’. Yet, in so doing, it creates a much less differentiated social order, without the variegated social spaces, the solitude and privacy, the distinction of social roles and voices, the more exclusive conversations, the time, the bodily rootedness, the physical distance, and the focus of attention required for robust and well-defined identities. In such conditions, the sort of herd dynamics described by such as Edwin Friedman and René Girard can start to prevail: people become emotionally locked together, imitate each other, and easily succumb to cycles of reactive outrage and violence. While Warhol promised us ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ in the sixties, the density of our connectedness has brought with it ‘fifteen minutes of shame’ of the virtual village.
Most of the things mentioned above are not necessary effects of the technology of the Internet and mobile phones. One could imagine a society which used such technologies in a very different way from our own. In fact, many of the things mentioned above were considerably less true in the days before the rise of the big social networking sites, when the Internet functioned more as a frontier and less as a settled community.
As in the case of Meryton’s communal dynamics, we ought to recognize the appeal of the sort of connection and the mutual communication of presence that the Internet and our mobile phones make possible, especially to an age of alienation. For people who feel marginalized and unvalued in their immediate communities, kindred spirits online have been like an oasis in a desert. For real world friends and family, the Internet and the mobile phone have relieved the pain of distance and offered us ways in which to strengthen and enrich our relationships. Our mobile phones and the Internet have enabled us to enjoy forms of communication that mitigate our loneliness, that give us access to support in times of personal struggle, that allow us to make new friends, that permit stimulating exchanges of opinion, and that equip us to form new networks empowering real world action. These are all wonderful things, but our current forms of these technologies come with underappreciated costs, disadvantages, and dangers.
The Mental Habits of the Virtual Village
The first part of this article discussed the manner in which the density of Meryton’s community produced a series of social stumbling blocks for healthy knowledge, thought, and judgment. Likewise, a hyper-connected, saturated, social environment will press us to alter the ways that we think, reason, articulate ourselves, discourse, and arrive at judgments.
Austen’s characterization of Wickham and Elizabeth’s conversation as one of ‘mutual satisfaction’ could no less appropriately be applied to the sorts of conversational dynamics that typify many contexts online. The ‘density’ of these environments and the closeness of the bonding within them produce a cosiness that is welcome for many, but which is generally quite resistant to contradiction, conflict, criticism, and genuine difference. Such characteristics and behaviours as likeability, empathetic connection, mutual vulnerability and mutual affirmation, personal resonance, relatability, and inoffensiveness are essential to the operation of such environments, but these characteristics and behaviours largely preclude openness to criticism and challenge of the group and its conforming members. Those who make firm criticisms will readily be classed as ‘haters’ or enemies of the group and driven out with hostility, while the group reaffirms itself and its members of their rightness and the vicious character of all opponents, reinforcing all of their prejudices and steadily inuring all members to criticism.(4) Such communities will also often engage in rigorous ‘policing’ of deviant viewpoints and, like the stereotypical mediaeval villagers, will frequently enact swift and merciless mob justice upon those who do not conform as they ought. Alan Jacobs’ recent remarks about our rapid movement to a society that cannot tolerate difference are relevant here.
Austen insightfully recognized the manner in which our delight in tight-knit, pleasant, and agreeable communities—and in conversations marked by ‘mutual satisfaction’—renders us susceptible to deep distortions of communal discourse, knowledge, and judgment. When we are all so relationally cosy with each other, we will shrink back from criticizing people in the way that we ought, voluntarily muting disagreement, and will shut out external criticism, reassuring and reaffirming anyone exposed to it. In such contexts, a cloying closeness stifles the expression of difference and conversations take on a character akin to the ‘positive feedback loop’ that existed in Wickham and Elizabeth’s conversation, where affirmation and assent merely reinforced existing prejudices. In such contexts, communities become insular (a tendency that can be exacerbated by algorithms), echo chambers of accepted opinion, closed to opposing voices.
Deresiewicz’s discussion of the dynamic of conversation in a culture that cannot handle conflict and contradiction is illuminating. Communities within which every voice is valid, where group consensus exerts a strong pull upon all, and such consensus is arrived at through an inclusive and collaborative approach where everyone’s contribution is affirmed and modified can be deeply appealing on a relational level, but deeply flawed when it comes to producing accurate judgment. It would also take considerable nerve and self-definition to turn away from the comfort of the group’s continual affirmation and courageously oppose its consensus, withstanding its hostility. For those whose identity, processes of judgment, and confidence are so dependent upon the group and conforming to it, this move may be too difficult to make.
Many have sought the comfort of such communities on the Internet, often taking refuge from the conflict that exists in their offline communities. Enjoying the intoxicating sense of togetherness that comes when everyone appears to be like-minded, and the sense of justification from the constant reinforcement of the affirmation of one’s group, there has been a resistance and retreat from healthy conflict. Differences cannot be entertained without animus or rancour and open and attentive engagement with alternative viewpoints are replaced by in-group affirmation through such things as demonization, caricature, and snark directed towards opponents, binding the group through hatred, anger, suspicion, and fear and encouraging imitative thought patterns.
A crucial dimension of the online ‘village’ environment is the saturation of the social space of many persons to the point where they never are truly alone for a sustained period of time, precluding searching introspection, self-presence, and self-definition. Without such non-social spaces and times, the self will not easily be able to sustain any clear identity of its own over against the group, but will be caught up in the collective opinion and self. When groups and relationships so extend their intimacies that they leave members without a genuine reserve of non-social space, time, and identity—typically a sine qua non for persons holding positions of their own, rather than merely assumed from the group—groups forfeit the power of difference and contradiction to power growth and insight. In the socially saturated communities created by mobile phones and the Internet, all opinion has to be observant of group consensus and resist expressing any difference that might rise to the level of conflict.(5)
Escaping the Village
I have compared the density of the village of Meryton with the saturated social spaces of the Internet, remarking upon the resistance to conflict that is characteristic of both. Within Pride and Prejudice, Austen punctures the closed insularity of the Meryton mindset within which Elizabeth is ensconced. As we reflect upon the means by which this was accomplished, I believe that we can draw useful lessons for our contemporary contexts of discourse.
There are two key things that enable Elizabeth to escape the stifling saturated social context of the village. The first is Darcy and the mode of discourse that he represents. The second is the process of being physically removed from the environment of her community.
Darcy versus Meryton
Elizabeth’s conversations with Darcy stand in stark contrast to her conversation with Wickham. While her conversation with Wickham was one of ‘mutual satisfaction’, her conversations with Darcy are arguments. Deresiewicz observes the way that Austen, in her writing of Darcy’s voice, seems ‘to be deliberately evoking and affirming the epistemological procedures of a courtroom, where contradictory positions are debated and adjudicated rather than mitigated or dissembled’ (522). For instance, she writes:
“Allowing the case, however, to stand according to your representation, you must remember, Miss Bennet, that the friend who is supposed to require [Bingley’s] return to the house, and the delay of his plan, has merely desired it, asked it without offering one argument in favour of its propriety.”
Like an unrelenting lawyer, Darcy insists on pursuing the truth of a situation, willing forgoing agreeability in the process. Darcy challenges Bingley’s preferred mode of defusing or deflecting arguments with insubstantial good humour. Bingley, like Elizabeth (who deflects conflict with wit), is so wedded to social pleasantness and harmony purged of all conflict, that he cannot abide the open airing of contradiction. Deresiewicz remarks upon the importance of Darcy’s character for Elizabeth’s liberation:
It is necessary first of all that the man who disrupts the patterns of Elizabeth’s life be unpleasant to the point of cussedness. No affability, and no concern for social harmony, will prevent their conversations from being unrestrainedly oppositional.
Darcy displays the polar opposites of the mental habits of Meryton, to a degree that virtually assures some measure of a continuing antagonism between the two parties.
A critical turning point in the plot occurs when Elizabeth receives Darcy’s letter. It is significant that she receives the letter while away from her community, without recourse to its communal processes of judgment. Had she been at home in Longbourn, she would have talked over the letter’s contents with Jane, potentially defusing it in the process. Elizabeth later remarks of her situation that she was ‘with no one to speak to of what I felt, no Jane to comfort me and say that I had not been so very weak and vain and nonsensical as I knew I had.’ Her characteristic judgment and coping mechanism of talking things over in intimate and affirming community not being open to her, Elizabeth had no excuse but to engage in the painful and unsettling introspection that her highly affirming friends and family members had hitherto discouraged. Admitting the voice of contradiction required a non-social space and time, it required being forced to think self-critically, rather than receiving an affirming judgment from her community.
Deresiewicz also highlights that the written character of the words—and the absence of their writer—also denies Elizabeth recourse to her preferred tactic of defusing or dismissing contradiction with wit, which she readily would have done in a social context. However, left alone the only choice that she has is to reflect upon or ignore the words in front of her. Not only does her solitary situation deny her the social means of dissembling or avoiding the truth. It also, by releasing her from the gravity experienced within its immediate orbit, frees her to arrive at a judgment that runs directly contrary to the opinion of Meryton regarding Mr Darcy.
A New Community
Deresiewicz argues that, following Elizabeth’s awakened knowledge, she, while remaining connected to it, begins to detach herself from the community of Meryton. On her return, she no longer participates in its communal activities as she once did. Opening herself up to the contradictions that Darcy brings requires that she establish distance between herself and her community and its homeostatic stifling of difference.
Yet this establishment of distance neither entails pure rejection nor abandonment. A crucial aspect of the resolution of the plot is Darcy’s willingness to associate with Elizabeth’s family and community, from whom previously he had entirely detached himself. Neither Darcy’s detachedness from nor Elizabeth’s embeddedness in the Meryton community represents their final posture in relation to it. Rather, while being connected to it, they establish a distance and difference in relation to it, a distance and difference through which their private interactions can in turn flow out into and bring a new dynamic to the community within which they first encountered each other.
Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship is, as Deresiewicz recognizes, characterized by a different conversational dynamic from that of Meryton, one that is opened up to growing awareness and mutual challenge: ‘Neither can see themselves without the other, and only together—in the back and forth of critical conversation—can either progress towards greater understanding’ (528). In place of the suffocating closeness of Meryton’s discourse, Darcy and Elizabeth create and sustain the space within which they can genuinely disagree with each other, resisting the urge to dissemble, but without falling prey to animus. For instance, Elizabeth ‘may not believe quite all her self-mockery, but with it she accomplishes several important things: she gives Darcy the rhetorical and emotional space he needs to criticize her himself, she enables herself to receive his criticism without humiliation, and she enables Darcy to continue listening when he does again become the target of her mockery.’
Challenging the Online Village
Last November, Mallory Ortberg’s book, Texts From Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations With Your Favorite Literary Characters, was released. The book, like almost everything Ortberg writes, was often hilariously funny. However, no small measure of the humour arises from the ridiculous incongruity of the social interactions of past ages with those that prevail in the age of the mobile phone and the consequent implausibility of the projection of the plots of classic novels into our hyper-connected age. The mobile phone, along with the Internet, has effected such an intimatization, proliferation, and immediacy of our communication and such a social saturation and condensation of our relational networks that many of the crucial plot developments would probably never occur in a contemporary situation. Although I know from experience that mobile connection in rural Derbyshire can be patchy, it seems unlikely that a contemporary Elizabeth Bennet wouldn’t have walked to a local village to find reception on her mobile and talk things over with Jane, or that she wouldn’t have gone to the local pub to get Wi-Fi access in order to contact friends to discuss Darcy’s letter (or would Darcy have sent an e-mail?) and perhaps engage in a little compulsive Facebook-stalking.
After such a flight of imaginative fancy, I consider how the social saturation that is integral to the plot of Pride and Prejudice is surprisingly weak when compared to that which prevails in many contemporary contexts. However, if the social saturation of Meryton could stifle the mind of a woman with as lively and sharp an intellect and wit as Elizabeth Bennet’s, despite the naturally differentiating friction provided by slow transport and communication and the greater obstacles of distance, what chance do young minds have in our hyper-connected context? For such young persons, time that would otherwise be devoted to the private reading of books would likely be given over to Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, texting, reading and commenting on blogs, and the consumption of other forms of mass media.
I have argued that the Internet and other contemporary communications media occasions a collapse of formerly differentiated contexts and identities, encouraging an intense social saturation. As in the case of Meryton, this creates resistance to contradiction and conflict in many contexts (and a correlated intensification of unhealthy antagonisms elsewhere). Elizabeth could only break with Meryton’s communal judgment when forced to reckon with the contradiction represented by a persistent individual for whom truth would never be dissembled for affability and when she was disconnected from the community that prevented her introspection, which pressured her conformity, and facilitated her self-deception. The first of these two things—the personal representation of unavoidable contradiction and conflict in conformist communities—is still a clear possibility today, even though such communities have developed more effective methods of closing themselves off to such challenge. However, extraction from mentally stifling communities—the second of these things—is far less possible today than it was in the past. Our communities can follow us almost everywhere we go and, unless we are determined to escape them and to resist their encroachments, the privacy and solitude that we require for self-presence and introspection will no longer so naturally afford themselves to us. We also risk forfeiting genuine communal goods that may be lacking offline.
Reading Pride and Prejudice and reflecting upon Deresiewicz’s analysis of it, I am struck not only by the many Merytons that I have encountered online, but also by the challenge of mindfulness that faces all who would seek to develop the sorts of practices that would save us from succumbing to their characteristic failings. It is unlikely that many of us will enjoy the strategic power or influence to recast the shape of—or pioneer radically new forms of—Internet communality. Nonetheless, each of us faces a tactical challenge of faithfully and wisely navigating and inhabiting the unfavourable terrain that currently presents itself to us. In contrast to ‘strategic’ solutions, ‘tactical’ responses will be far more occasional and contextual in character; the responses that I adopt in my context may not be so fitting in yours. For those of us who wish to escape the unhealthy dynamics of the online village, we will need to establish habits that run contrary to those of most of our peers and that may appear radically ‘backward’ to many. We may need to abstain from certain forms of online media. I know people who still refuse to use a mobile phone, aware that these devices typically come with unreasonable demands upon our privacy, our peace, and our solitude. A number of us have left Facebook and/or Twitter—or are considering doing so—recognizing the unhelpful ways in which their communities were shaping our identities and thinking.
The preceding remarks might leave some readers with the impression that the burden of healthy thought overwhelmingly devolves upon individuals, considered apart from their communities, that community is principally to be considered as an obstacle to thought. This is certainly not the case. Healthy thinking—not merely dysfunctional thinking—is communal in character and not a task it is wise to assume alone. Austen’s challenge to us is not that we all become a particular type of person—a potentially disagreeable agent of contradiction such as Darcy, for instance—but that we all play our part in shaping our shared spaces to be ones that are receptive and appropriately responsive to the necessary contributions of a Darcy, without adopting a new form of homogeneity in the process. Healthy processes of communal thought are naturally differentiating and allow for—indeed, they typically require!—considerable variation in gifting and preferred modes of interaction and continual individual and communal processes of making space for genuine difference—not just for the Darcys of the world, but also for the non-Darcys. Elizabeth’s example here is useful: even when she was not directly engaged in contradiction herself, she spoke and acted in a way that would afford Darcy ‘the rhetorical and emotional space’ that he would require were he to disagree with her. We are integral to the stifling power of online communities and each one of us can do much to counteract this, by giving everyone else the space within which to disagree with us without rancor, by welcoming open divergence of thought in friendly communities. We are also driving the hyper-sociality that the Internet and the mobile phone make possible, as we expect our friends and acquaintances always to be at our disposal. If we developed a habitual protectiveness and respectfulness of each other’s solitude, privacy, and right to disconnect we would be better servants of each other.
Perhaps the great challenge for us is that of avoiding either complete immersion or complete detachment. It is tempting to maintain the contradiction that is inimical to the online village by rejecting the village entirely. It is much more difficult to maintain the contradiction within it, appreciating the many blessings and strengths of such communities, while resisting their pathologies and benefitting them by our atypically differentiated presence in the process. Both the Elizabeths and the Darcys of our world need to adapt and true alternatives to the stifling and stagnant Merytons of our connected age will require transformation and collaboration of both parties.
1: William Deresiewicz, ‘Community and Cognition in Pride and Prejudice’, English Literary History 64:2, 503-535. 2: Scholars call this form of speech ‘phatic’ speech, a term first coined by the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski. 3: Cited in Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business [20th Anniversary Edition] (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 65. 4: Molly Fischer powerfully challenges such online cultures in herarticles on the phenomenon of the ‘ladyblog’: ‘When intimacy is your model of success, it becomes easy to assume that everyone is either a friend or a traitor.’ 5: There has been a lot of discussion of the apparently growing phenomenon of ‘uptalk’ over the last week or so (for instance, here, here, here, and here). Uptalk—the use of a rising intonation at the end of declarative sentences—is primarily observed among young women, although it is used widely by men too. Unsurprisingly, much of the conversation has focused upon the ways that society polices young women’s voices or leads them to sacrifice the strength of their own voices. Taylor Mali attacks the mannerism of uptalk in a memorable spoken poem, insisting on our need for robust declarative speech.
John Milbank, in a characteristically hyperbolic passage, describes it as ‘the sing-song accent of self-righteous complacency and vacuous uniformity’, proceeding to remark: ‘This intonation implies that any overassertion is a polite infringement of the freedom of the other, and yet at the same time its merely rhetorical interrogation suggests that the personal preference it conveys is unchallengeable, since it belongs within the total set of formally correct exchange transactions.’ John Milbank, The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (London: SCM Press, 2009), 224-225. My speculation is that such speech habits are exactly what we should expect to find within a saturated social environment. The social environment is no more ‘saturated’ than it is among young women, who, far more than their male peers, employ mobile phones and the Internet to establish intense interpersonal connection.
The result is the rise of a form of speech that routinely weakens declarative statements, embodies an appeal to group consensus, forestalls challenge, and calls for a response of affirmation from others. Saturated social environments and those who have developed within them cannot easily sustain the stresses of forceful self-expression and the antagonisms that can arise from this. Uptalk, like Meryton’s mannerism of modification rather than rejection, is a mannerism of speech—reflecting habits of thought—that frequently serves to decrease the threat of conflict in a social environment where there is little social space for difference or robust self-defined expression. When everyone is so tightly connected together and people are emotionally exposed and vulnerable to each other, all opinions need to be affirmed to some degree and no individual should be importunate or overly assertive towards the collective opinion in the expression of their viewpoint.
Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University in England) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespass beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast and blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria.