You must change your life

Rainer Maria Rilke (public domain)

Rainer Maria Rilke (public domain)

That’s the stark dictum that closes this very beautiful lyric by the 19th-century German poet Rilke. It’s a poem worth reading:

Archaic Torso of Apollo
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

I love everything about that poem, particularly in this translation. The lyric manages to be awestruck, roguish, erotic, stern, and breathtakingly imperative all at once. It represents a very complex frame of mind indeed. And the greatest complexity comes at the end, with that command that is so direct and at the same time so dense with meaning. Is it a conclusion? A rueful or resigned admission? A command? Why does the inclusive “we” quickly morph to “you,” allowing the poet to address an unseen companion so very urgently?

Rather than get all lit-crit on you, dear reader, I want to say that the conceptual framework in this poem is one of augmenting human intellect, just as surely as Doug Engelbart’s vision for interactive computing was and is. When we are faced with the shared experience of beauty and meaning, or at least the potential for these things, we understand that we are challenged to be answerable to that experience, and to create within it those things we will in turn share with our fellow human beings. Not to put to fine a point upon it: I’m talking about bootstrapping, recursion, feedback and feedforward loops, symbols and metaphors and carefully noted observations and measurements, an integrated domain.

But to get there, even to recognize the “there” that we want to get to, we have to alter our conceptual frameworks. We have to change our lives. The change comes, not in response to coercion or lemming-like marches to the superdrumming of consumer culture, but in response to an unmistakable encounter with beauty, meaning, life. A conceptual framework that recognizes the augmentation inherent in learning, narrating, curating, sharing. An integrated domain.

I did my deepest dive ever into Engelbart’s conceptual framework just a few weeks ago, when at Brandeis University I led a group of librarians, faculty, and edtech folk in an Engelbartian analysis of a live performance by Jimi Hendrix of “Red House.” Nine minutes long, and I played it all. I had the folks organize themselves into five small groups and gave them all the same charge, though I didn’t tell them what was coming. I expected to get bafflement, resistance, incredulity, and maybe a few brave imaginations who’d at least try to engage with my deeply strange and ambitious idea. What happened instead took *my* breath away. Every single group rose beautifully to the challenge, teaching me things about that performance I’d never thought of before, with each group building on the preceding groups’ work, on the fly, and with a depth of commitment and beauty of expression that nearly brought me to tears more than once.

It’s all in the frame of mind, the invisible “largest organ” that Scott McCloud memorably compares to our skin in the chapter “Time Frames” from his Understanding Comics. When the conceptual framework is in place–and the framework is both an integrated domain and a platform for bootstrapping and augmentation–almost everything is possible. When the conceptual framework isn’t there, the deepest engagement forever eludes us. Worst of all, we never get to the deepest understanding of all, the one that brings us to the awe Rilke describes and Sherry delightfully imagines here.

Engelbart’s essay ends with these words, words that sadly are not included in The New Media Reader:

This is an open plea to researchers and to those who ultimately motivate, finance, or direct them, to turn serious attention toward the possibility of evolving a dynamic discipline that can treat the problem of improving intellectual effectiveness in a total sense. This discipline should aim at producing a continuous cycle of improvements–increased understanding of the problem, improved means for developing new augmentation systems, and improved augmentation systems that can serve the world’s problem solvers in general and this discipline’s workers in particular. After all, we spend great sums for disciplines aimed at understanding and harnessing nuclear power. Why not consider developing a discipline aimed at understanding and harnessing “neural power?” In the long run, the power of the human intellect is really much the more important of the two.

In many respects, Engelbart’s plea echoes through all the readings we’ve done this semester. It echoes in my own open plea for my fellow educators, faculty and staff and students alike, to embrace the challenge of making real school into that “dynamic discipline that can treat the problem of improving intellectual effectiveness in a total sense.” School should be the place where bootstrapping is at its finest, where conceptual frameworks for augmenting human intellect are explored and co-created by staff and students and teachers alike, where an integrated domain is constantly imagined, experienced, and invented anew. The astonishing, troubling, and inspiring power of interactive computing can make that possible, if we bring our whole new minds to the task, and if we have the honesty and courage to engage with the conceptual frameworks interactive computing represents and can, in turn, make newly possible. Alex Reid says it succinctly and eloquently:

Simply put, you cannot keep your non-digital notion of what it means to be an academic and become digital. It is a more fundamental transition than that. It means inhabiting a new academic space with new behaviors and expectations. Just like we all learned in graduate school what it meant to be non-digital academics, one must now learn those ethics anew.

Lance makes the same point from a different angle:

I leave this seminar being really excited about the future–what it holds for us as educators and parents, the possibilities for our children to live richer lives as a result of New Media…. As I think about all this, my minds goes back to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” the part that says,

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.

And then I think about my own children, and realize that this is what the New Media will make possible.

Or at least, what it can make possible, if we see that we must change our lives. Parenting makes that imperative very vivid. Perhaps the opportunity to bring a new academy into being can do this for us as well. Perhaps if we stop trying to tweak our tired industrial schooling processes, and instead change our conceptual framework to imagine a newly integrated domain in which we actually do co-create that augmentation we claim we want, the augmentation so many of these thinkers and dreamers invented computers to empower, we can keep our eyes on that wonderful world, not as techno-utopians, but as fellow laborers in the vineyard (to choose an old metaphor), fellow new medianauts struck with wonder at the possibilities this new language of interactive computing reveals.

6 thoughts on “You must change your life

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention You must change your life « Gardner Writes --

  2. Rilke is a great read, for sure, and this is a nice take on his ideas.

    I’ve run across Rilke on a number of occasions.

    I would like to step out of my heart
    and go walking beneath the enormous sky.

    Most recently in Ray Monk’s biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Rilke was supported for a short time by Wittgenstein, who subscribed to the idea that you have to earn your place in the world, that it is not just given to you, but you have to take it.

    Part of that – and the part I like about both Rilke and Wittgenstein – is the idea of giving yourself over completely, whether to an idea, an activity, or most ideally, to the ordinary and mundane, in which the greatest wonders are found.

    Most people merely walk under the night sky; people like Rilke and Wittgenstein lose themselves in it.

    I can’t recall at the moment where I read it, but there was the story I read of how the student singing was unable to reach new heights, until that one day he simply dedicated himself to the task with all abandon, losing the sense of self, and dedicating himself completely to the performance.

    It’s not about augmentation. None of this – being human, being digital – is about augmentation. Of such there are tools and technologies that can extend our reach, amplify our voice – but in the end, it is up to us to completely involve ourselves in the performance, the communication, the use.

    No matter ho loudly you can amplify your voice, Wittgenstein would say – and probably Rilke with him – that this voice will represent nothing more or less than who you are, and that you must deserve to have that voice, and when you do, the greatness in the voice will shine through.

    I think… I think… I think I believe this too.

  3. Nice post Gardner. It is true, we must change. But NOT simply to accommodate or interpolate with the” new media landscape” alone. Because that very landscape is itself the product of a no longer tenable system (or set of systems). This is my worry; that in positing new media and technology as the basis of change, the platform for augmentation, we’re simply ingraining even further the set of assumptions and basis on which it rests. This is not to become determinist or to deny the evidence of the world that does indeed surround us; it is to ask us to accept an even bigger framework. Bigger is perhaps not right. But different. Different than the either/or binary logic of male domination from which this new media landscape resulted. (And before Stephen takes me to task for being fuzzy about either/or I would just say as but one simple example, and not one I’m endorsing. I’m just not being fuzzy.)

    I don’t think we are at odds, but to the extent to which we find ourselves continuing to have to bracket off parts of self or other aspects of experience to accept this as the landscape that is, I think we are not working in a way that respects the penultimate line:

    “would not, from all the borders of itself,
    burst like a star: for here there is no place
    that does not see you.”

  4. You’ve just helped me make another connection. Sadly, I get most of my literary references second hand, and the only one about Rilke I can cite (at least, prior to reading THIS post) is from a tune by Ray Wylie Hubbard, one of the great songwriters of Texas. Interestingly, the line from Rilke Hubbard quotes in “The Messager”–see his album, “Loco Gringo’s Lament”–is, in its own way, a kind of explanation for why it is so hard to change our lives. The last stanza from “The Messenger” goes:

    now I have a mission
    and a small code of honor
    to stand and deliver
    by whatever measures
    and the message I carry
    is by Ranier Maria Rilke
    he said “our fears are like dragons
    guarding our most precious treasures”

    “Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures.” In order to achieve the vision Alex Reid proposes in the passage you quote above, a certain amount of dragonslaying is definitely in order. Wonderful, inspirational post, Gardner!

  5. Reading the Rainer Maria Rilke poem and your blog caused me to change something; I’m going to try successive performances of the poem amongst sB. Ed. students to help dredge up its multiple meanings, to learn about perfomance, individuality, existential qualities to like and art etc., Hendrix seems like an apt Apollo or patron saint for this approach to the integration of all those fine techniques, attitudes, and rich cultural inheritances that artists mine to us meaning and depth.
    If Hendrix is an apt god, for academics, I think we should revere the insights of Alfred Gell, Britsh anthropolgist who commenced the study of the anthropology of art. The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology is required reading for any serious student of interactive computing.
    I leave you with this video clip of a chinese acrobatic ballet troupe who managed to perfect the technology of pirouettes performed atop the head of a male dancer, if you want to get lost in the night sky. Enchanting!

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