When I needed a neighbour
Were you there, were you there?
When I needed a neighbour
Were you there?
And the creed and the colour
And the name won’t matter
Were you there?
One of the most eye-catching details about Andrew Marvell was his lack of friends. On the one hand, who could blame all those who knew him? He was (or became) a private, suspicious man, angry and fractious at times. He may have had difficult experiences with women and almost certainly did with alcohol.
On the other hand, who could blame him? He was dedicated to his work. He witnessed others readily changing allegiances and forsaking conscience. He witnessed fiendish intelligence networks sabotaging the postal system. And, supposedly, he had to dismiss a corrupt attempt at bribery.
Marvell’s strong aptitude for privacy amidst an expansive public sphere would naturally make his friendships more cautious and selective. Or, was it simply that he cared about what friendship actually meant? The relationship between Marvell and Milton was hardly straightforward, but it persevered, and ‘On Mr Milton’s Paradise Lost’ is a powerful gesture.
If these are the times…
When starting the thesis in Geneva, I found myself constantly exploring questions of cultural transgression. “Milton surely would have blogged. Would Marvell have blogged too, if anonymity was guaranteed?” “What would their relationship have been with print and social media? Stephen Fry and Thomas Pynchon?” Futile research questions these may be, but surely not irrelevant. This age, when the first major media revolution has taken place since the 1640s, offers perhaps the best chance to capture a screen-print for issues that would have been similarly prevalent then.
The enigmatic ‘stigma of print’ is surely one such issue. In the sixteenth century, many authors in their (often false) modesty considered print to be vulgar and circulated via scribal publication. Supposedly, this trend ran out of fashion by the revolutionary decades of 1640-1660, Marvell and Milton’s time. But why?
Arguments could be made about the localised coterie function of such literature or the obvious inhibitions that cultural norms procure. Perhaps, though, one concern with egotism turns into another. Manuscripts for small circles are quaint and fulfilling enough, until print finally takes off. Then, like anything else, when everybody rushes for fame, fortune, popularity or prestige, one might just fancy a piece of that too. Ceteris paribus, the accomplishment achieved through small-scale publication, and with it, the impact of the authorial voice, is suddenly lost.
Suggesting this only comes from a cultural phenomenon where noise is necessary. There are more voices than ever, and it’s very difficult to be heard. An awful lot of constructive energy has to go into creating noise. The media revolution has left a decidedly forceful conclusion. If a business does not embrace the internet and social media, it risks being left behind. If individuals do not embrace the internet and social media, they too risk being left behind.
And this has fractured the very fabric of interpersonal bonds, not least the vital distinction of what friendship actually means. There is a total degradation of the concept of ‘friendship’ on several levels. One is acquisition. People now leave open invites for total strangers to befriend them on Facebook. Friendship descends below even acquaintanceship into the grotty unknown. Another is retention. People collect hundreds of friends, many of whom they never speak to or even know personally. The tragedy is in learning just how people’s understanding of friendship appears to have become diluted.
Several burning examples fuel this post, which justify the heavy weight of my disappointment. I neither want to embarrass myself, nor compromise any dignity, but I trust these examples inside my own head to verify the velocity and ferocity of the conclusions. As usual, I address a problem, attempt to swallow the negativity, and move on. Why? Because to uphold any decent standards would be to have barely any friends left!
Perhaps that’s as it should be, and not such a bad thing, except that it’s difficult to let go. And here is where the analogy to print comes in. Once it takes off, you’re drawn to follow. When the cultural norm (which makes a difference) has spiralled to multiple-hundred, it is easy to feel worryingly adrift from modern life without an artificially high number to show for yourself.
Like the explosion of print, it’s like the world of opportunity stands available, and the expectation is only to grow. There’s our human portfolio, under the guise of ‘Friends’. Even so, one asks, what is to gain from cutting friends? With everybody in the same boat, to make sacrifices of your own would not necessarily gain any reciprocity from anybody else. All you’re likely to do is trim the edges of your own history, and the thought of that eroding away to very little is quite devastating.
The Future of Friendship
Recently, the case was made about how early social media nurtured friendship. How the tide has changed. Now the whole friendship rigmarole is re-examined as Google+ adds further dilution and division. I had no idea why it was created or why it was necessary – after all, what are a few privacy improvements when the most powerful data collection tool on the planet is feeding? But if there’s one thing that the team behind Google+ understands, it’s that social media has bastardised the word “Friends” to something brittle, pitiful, and unrecognisable. I’m glad it’s not just me.
If anyone cares to speculate on any areas of personal significance this video might have to me, I’d be very interested to hear. But beyond this, if you are a friend, or care about friendship, thank you. There’s also a great post on Facebook and Social Awkwardness which puts much of this maligned theory into practice.