There’s a theory, widely held, that new media — social platforms, porn, the comments section of the Guardian — are deranging us by messing with our dopamine receptors. It’s a convenient story for a time of widespread derangement. It’s also a pretty old one. Here’s Wordsworth, from the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800):
For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. to this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves.
A “craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies” pretty much captures the cadence of twitter, doesn’t it? Wordsworth seeks in the Preface to make an apology for poetry as a means of arousing the mind “without the application of gross and violent stimulants”: as a way to rehumanise discourse, to claw it back from the clutches of The Discourse. He situates the poet as “a man speaking to men”, rather than a node in a pseudonymous network of informants constantly relaying “intelligence” to one another, and in doing so harks back to a pragmatics of public address in which the mediation of the platform is a great deal less pronounced. To write and publish poems such as the Lyrical Ballads is imagined to be like speaking in a public square, or a large sitting room. This mode of address has two simultaneous addressees: “the Reader”, in person, and “the Public” as a body of readers, both of whom may be spoken to humanely, in the hope of receiving a sympathetic reception. There is not, as Thom Yorke complains at the end of Life In A Glasshouse, “someone listening in”, a third-party who both commands the means of distribution, and reaps the benefits of supervening on all connectivity.
This week I deactivated my Facebook account, deleted my old tweets and removed my main account from Twitter. It’s quite possible that, as the Book of Forbidden Love (link very NSFW) predicts, I’ll be back: I’m not about to give a recent-ex-smoker’s diatribe on the evils of the foul addiction from which I myself have heroically broken free, especially as I’ve quit both platforms and returned at least once before. Nor would I stake my neck on the upkeep and flourishing of the blog you’re now reading: I’ve abandoned such things in the past. Nevertheless, it’s true that I’ve finished there, and started here, in the hope of re-aligning some priorities, getting my dopamine supply better regulated, and writing according to a different cadence. Earlier today I found myself amused by a trivial thought — that the melodic line under which the famous “Tristan chord” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde first appears, a sequence of four rising chromatic notes, is the same as the melody to which “Stop the Pigeon” is sung in the theme tune of animated series of that name — and immediately felt a pang at the lack of a twitter feed to broadcast it to. (Well, here it is). What might happen to thoughts like that if they were allowed just to dissipate, or quietly hover around like motes in a sunbeam? I would like to see if I can recover the ability to read a whole book; and, perhaps, to write one.