Posted by: Nancy | April 11, 2010

History vs the windtunnel of cyberspace

Lewis Lapham visited Kansas City recently; making several appearances and speaking throughout the day, in part to promote his magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly.

I’ll confess, I haven’t yet read the magazine; but I will. It’s beautiful and intriguing; bringing history, art, culture — the humanities — into focus around a single topic in each issue.

In the talk that I saw, Lapham’s discourse touched many topics, but the value of history was a thread throughout. His talk led me to see a new potential in the study of history, brought even more sharply into focus in our digital world of instant access to everything, all the time.

Lapham began with a bit of his own history. I loved this story: growing up in a family surrounded by books, at age six, he asked his mother to read Moby Dick to him. She agreed, with a caveat: He would have to recall each night where the story had left off. Wise mother! If he failed to catch the story or remember it, she threatened to switch over to Peter Rabbit. He recalled the stopping point each night, I suspect, to the delight of them both.

He grew up in the shadow of World War II. “The presence of war gave a sense of what was at stake,” he said, “and a sense of the larger narrative of the world.” That larger view has stayed with him, allowing him to make connections between the American republic and Cicero or Shakespeare or Aeschylus.

The large view he holds of today’s society is a grim one. It is a gilded age, of pomposity, of individualism taken to the extreme, coupled with a devouring of the earth and its resources through immense corruption. “The rising demand of the population, together with the dwindling of earth’s natural resources, including water, foretells nothing but violence of one sort or another.”

This society of consumption, acting with no thought of others, has lost the notion of inheritance. “We have need of everybody else; those who have been before us and those who will come after us.”

His notion of community doesn’t include social networking: “In the wind tunnel of cyberspace, overload breaks the connection between then and now.” Living only in the now omits the richness of the past. He quotes Cicero: “Not to know what happened before one was born is to always remain a child.” He continues, to be a child is to be an easy mark, susceptible to con men practicing religion, politics, advertising.

But art is a connection to other people. “The creator aligned with the beholder adds to the common store of human energy and hope. That is what is in these books, that is what the humanities are. It’s a gift, it’s not collectible. That’s the difference between money and art … the difference between the stomach and the mind.”

The current wash of media and celebrity fueling the society of consumption doesn’t seek wisdom, just sensation — the motion is more important than the content. He cites Marshall McLuhan as being “extraordinarily prescient” with his 1964 assertion and description of pattern recognition and how it would become the sum of wisdom. Quoting McLuhan: We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

Part of the problem with social media and Twitter-like exchanges is the shallowness it encourages. “How can you answer in 10 words what cannot be answered in 10,000?” he asks. It’s all pattern recognition. “We have not figured out how to have a meaningful discourse in the time allowed.”

He does not offer a solution, unless it is to encourage a return to valuing the medium of the book and seeking out a deeper connection to our world, our history and each other.

While encouraging this deeper discourse, Lapham also uses today’s tools (irony?) to get his message out — there’s a Facebook and Twitter and podcast link prominent on the website.

Perhaps the pattern to recognize, after all, is: We need to connect to each other, in every way we can.

(Lapham spoke at the Kansas City Public Library, April 7, 2010.)


  1. Thanks for this write-up, Nancy. I went into the event with trepidation, expecting to hear so much curmudgeonly grumbling about how we should all study the classics and history because Lewis Lapham said so, dang it! But I found his arguments trenchant and convincing.

    His indictment of celebrity culture was spot-on. When he recriminated the Tiger Woods scandal as no better than money laundering and advertising cynically disguised as a human story, I thought he was being a bit over the top. Then I went home and saw the Nike TV ad with Tiger Woods looking sorry while his late father’s voice ran in the background.

    Nothing has ever made me want to read Cicero more.

    • Thanks Jason!

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