Americans’ obsession with sarcasm might be turning the concept of sincerity into a dirty word. In a new collection of cultural criticism, The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation, Christy Wampole, an assistant professor of French and Italian, explores Americans’ short attention spans and growing discomfort with risk. She argues that technology and consumerism have made our lives too insubstantial. What we need, she says, is to embrace the gravity that has disappeared from modern culture.
How is technology transforming the way we interact with each other?
Technology turns people into passive creatures. We become these cultural sponges where we consume and absorb much more than we make. Technology, of course, can be used in incredible ways. But the moment we start sacrificing what is close in favor of the remote, that’s very dangerous.
I know someone who constantly looks at her phone when we’re having a conversation, and it drives me insane. It’s a real loss when you start to privilege an invisible, faraway person — or the news or your email — over the person who’s looking you in the eye.
You write about the “sedative” effect of distraction in modern life. Why is it so bad to be distracted?
It’s very easy to manipulate distracted people — politically, economically, socially — because distraction numbs you. I’m not just talking about technology; we’re also distracted by the urge to be busy all the time. There’s a reason we’re increasingly unable to deal with things that are weird or unusual, because we use our busyness to avoid real connection. You stop fully noticing and questioning things around you. People say to me: “Why in the world would you study literature?” It teaches you how to cultivate a certain kind of attention, which you can then apply to everything, even life.
Why do you urge readers to be cautious about irony?
It’s very risky to be sincere these days. There are, for example, so many opportunities to be ridiculed online. I think some of it comes from a lack of faith in institutions — law, church, education, government. So you make light of everything because it feels like the only thing keeping you from despair. What I’m arguing is that you can give form to your own life through authenticity, without needing to resort to sarcasm or mockery. You can be serious, and that can be a solution to all that cultural anxiety.
You write about the concept of the “other serious,” which you define as a change of attitude that offers a way to a more meaningful life. How can it enhance the way we live?
The “other serious” is a contrast to the knee-jerk, polarizing communication we see so often in politics and online. You have to be attentive to the world around you, but gentle with it, too. And then there’s this joyfulness and willingness to experiment. I think we forget that you can be joyful and serious at the same time. I encourage people to use their free time to make things, even if it’s just writing down an observation. That creativity generates its own energy.
Interview conducted and condensed by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11