Those following American higher education are no doubt familiar with William Deresiewicz, former Yale Professor and author of the bestselling book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, a scathing critique of the culture of elite universities in the U.S. I was exploring some of his old blog posts on The American Scholar, and this particular piece resonated with me. I decided to repost it here and share it with you all. What is the look of our time to someone of my generation? It is the metallic sheen of a coke can, the over-saturation on an Instagram photo with its golden-ratio dimensions, intent on creating an image of infallible perfection. Don’t forget the massive global corporations that profit by feeding off our insecurities.
I was standing in Chicago’s Millennium Park some time ago, taking in the famous “Cloud Gate” sculpture, also known as The Bean: 66 feet long, 42 feet wide, 33 feet high, curvilinear at every point, an elongated fat dome of stainless steel, like a giant drop of mercury or a meaty silver mushroom with its stem pulled out. It was breathtaking–not the sculpture itself so much as what I saw reflected in its highly polished surface: a stunning panorama of city and sky, skyscraper and cloud, monumental in its sweep and hyperreal in its clarity. I turned around; the city itself was nowhere near as beautiful. I turned back; even the people around me, their images sharp, shiny, silvery, clean, were perfectly gorgeous and glamorous.
And then it hit me: this is the look of our time. It’s the high shine on a can of Coke or a celebrity’s skin. It’s the gloss of a glossy magazine, the shadowless white glow of a television studio. It is Frank Gehry’s titanium swoops, our architecture du jour. It’s the new generation of television sets: flat-panel, high-def. But most of all, it is our magic screens, the new Wunderkammern, especially those sexy ones of the Apple variety–MacBook, iPhone, iPad. We escape, through these portals, into a world of pure brightness. Everything’s more beautiful in cyberspace.
What is this about? Our contemporary impulse, it seems, toward the post-human. There is much eager talk these days about the possibilities of technological self-transcendence: bioengineering, robotics, “the singularity” or “transhuman moment” when we’ll all supposedly upload ourselves into cyberspace and simply become our machines. The modern shininess, with its image of incorruptible metallic perfection, is the visual expression of this longing.
But a longing is all it is, born of sudden technological acceleration and looming environmental catastrophe. The plain truth, the sad truth, is not that we’re approaching the post-human, getting ready to discard our mortal envelopes, but only that we want to, and can’t, and won’t. Back in the 1950s, we were all supposed to be flying around on jet packs by now, too. The truth is not the heavenly Cloud Gate version of Chicago, but the flesh-and-concrete one. Dreaming of the post-human, we only show ourselves to be, as always, all-too-human.