Tonight I had a chance to hear a lecture by Julia Kristeva, feminist, linguist, psychoanalyst, novelist, and general philosophical giant. I would say that she inflected my thinking during my brief forays into literary theory, but that would be to insinuate that I actually understood her writing enough to have an opinion. She was always one of those thinkers that I hoped to immerse myself in and understand – someday. This was my chance to do it, even though I had not picked up one of her books in years. Guess what? There is nothing like an hour of listening to incredibly long sentences uttered in a French-Bulgarian accent to make you feel like you an intellectual midget.
Most of the time I watched my brain flutter around, picking up a few sentences from the lecture and then despairing because I seem to have the attention span of a gnat. This woman was throwing around allusions to Kant and Heidegger and I was realizing that I could not focus on her brilliance for longer than 30 seconds at a time.
What has happened to my mind? Was I ever focused and attentive enough to be up to the task of fully comprehending a discussion of the existence of a unified European culture? Do I blame the Internet for shattering my consciousness into a morass of disconnected ideas, juiced up on sound bites and video clips, “cheat sheets” rather than newspaper articles?
I listened to Kristeva speak in a hall full of undergraduates. Some of them nodded as she mentioned the dead white guys they had probably just read for their survey courses. Some disrupted the ten people in their row to leave halfway through. As Kristeva talked of quadrilingual Europeans I wondered how many twenty year olds in that room could really read, never mind write, a poem in another language. I know that I certainly could not, and I wonder what the American intellectual climate will look like when people of my generation and those who follow us take up the intellectual reigns. Will we be able to truly bear witness to other cultures in the world or will we just teach our kids about this amazing global society that is almost completely navigable in English?
As our European counterparts begin to divide themselves into so many pieces that they are conversant in four languages, we seem to be slicing up our attention spans so that we can monitor four different windows at once. Is this just a different kind of schizophrenia? Is the Continental model focused on a valid multiplicity of identity while we are just swimming around in countless pools of English speaking triviality?
Perhaps I am being too hard on our country because it is so easy to be a critic of the world that nurtures me and just as easy to romanticize other parts of the world because, hey, I don’t speak the language!
It seems that at the very moment that the earth is becoming small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand, it is growing stunningly out of reach. There is so much information in the world to absorb, we cannot possibly take in even the tiniest fraction. How can we figure out what to focus upon and how do we train our brains to be receptive enough for all that knowledge to matter?
Maybe I am mourning a hyper-intellectualism that we will not even miss. Perhaps we are moving to a more democratic discourse that does not demand a working knowledge of semiotics to gain entry. Is it possible I am just panicking because we are entering a new age when the academic signposts are changing and we all must get used to redefining nature and origins of wisdom?