And what got me thinking today was one particular line, spoken amidst the ongoing and too-long debate about Shakespeare; all the characters are still sitting (I think) in the library and talking about Shakespeare and whether he was gay or not (they seem undecided) and whether he had affairs with other women or not (they seem pretty sure) and whether he hid bits and pieces of himself in his plays, making himself Hamlet or maybe Hamlet's dad, and I got to thinking about that.
Back then, in the early 20th century when Joyce wrote this, did people live this way? Did the poor people, underemployed, struggling, sit around and debate Shakespeare and Whitman and Aquinas, make ribald jokes about the statue of Venus at the museum, discuss half-seriously Shakespeare's sex life as revealed by his sonnets and his plays?
I almost think, almost, that they must have, because what else was there to talk about back then? Books were limited, there was no TV or radio, newspapers were hard to get and expensive, and information, in general, traveled slowly and expensively. When books were hard to make and hard to ship, people had to choose carefully which books to print, and which news was really news and which stories were worth preserving, and they chose (for better or worse) Shakespeare as one of those things to savor and keep and talk about and read.
So to the extent that people had access to pop culture back then, they had access to Shakespeare and Whitman and Bronte, and their literature and news were carefully selected and meted out not because of a desire to shape the news, as we do today, but out of scarcity of resources: the ability to print a book and deliver it or print a newspaper and deliver that was scarce, so people were given only what was deemed the most valuable information, and they shared that and parsed it and discussed it and weighed it the way we do today, but with less information.
Nowadays, we don't have that scarcity. Everything is known instantly, and knowledge is disseminated inexpensively and quickly, if in fleeting form. The other day, having not seen much news, I checked out my Twitter account and read Manti Te'O's name coming up over and over, in various discussions, until I clicked a few links and read about his fake girlfriend having been uncovered. That wasn't the only news that day, but it was the major news of the day, competing with Obama's gun control policies and some sports scores and a few judicial decisions and what people were having for dinner, information upon information upon information, and people were sitting around dissecting the Manti Te'O story much the way Ulysses characters sat around and dissected Shakespeare's sex live(s).
It's not better or worse, I think -- it's hard for people to comprehend that there might be as much value in sitting around talking about a college football player trying to scam his way into people thinking he's straight (one sad part of the Te'O story has as its basis a claim that he is gay and made up a girlfriend to cover that up, sad no matter how you look at that rumor that we as a society could believe that and/or force someone to do that) or scam his way into winning an award, the thinking on that rumor being that Te'O seemed more likely to win the Heisman Trophy if he had a sad story behind him, which seems weird given that the Heisman is supposed to go to the best college football player, and one's motivation for winning seems irrelevant to how good one is.
It's hard, as I said, for people to think that talking about Manti Te'Os mostly harmless, mostly innocuous, somewhat helpful (people donated to cancer charities as a result of it) lie is as valuable as talking about Shakespeare, but I think it might be.
I've noted before that there's nothing in particular that sets Shakespeare apart, that maybe reading Shakespeare isn't a great idea anymore. Yes, he wrote some great stuff, but so did lots of people, and if you are trying to teach kids to love reading, struggling through 600-year-old plays may not be the best way to do it. Shakespeare's themes and storylines are equally well-done in dozens if not more great books that are more fun to read, so depending on your purpose, maybe you read Shakespeare, maybe you don't. The value comes not from the material itself but from what you want it for.
Information is funny that way: it has no intrinsic value, really. I have lots of information about things like how to sue debt collectors, information that helps me not even one little bit when I have to fix something. Information's value goes up and down depending on what you want to do with it. In the case of Te'O vs. Shakespeare, I got more use out of Te'O because Sweetie and I wanted to talk about that and we didn't want to talk about Shakespeare, plus it lead Longform.org to print other stories about Internet scams and so I read those and had a great time.
Was information more valuable 100 years ago, when it was more scarce? I don't think so; the guys in Ulysses aren't getting anywhere, or getting any smarter, in any objective sense, just sitting around riffing on Shakespeare. They are doing exactly what Sweetie and I did the other night: talking about a piece of information they all had heard and what it might mean and how it made them feel -- but there's no inherent quality that makes Hamlet more valuable than Manti Te'O's fake girlfriend story on Deadspin.
It's how you use it, and what the information means, and how it affects you, which came to a point when I read this quote from Joyce, which I loved:
It is an age of exhausted whoredom groping for its god.
I'm not sure what age Joyce meant by that quote, but I instantly thought that it applied to our generation, to this age.
Back then, people did not necessarily have to ask what information was valuable, did not have the ability to decide for themselves what they might think. That decision was made by the forces around them: poverty, scarcity, lack of production. The ability to control information existed because information was so hard to disseminate. The people thought things because that was all they had to think.
They lived, then, in a hallway -- a brightly lit hallway that led them more or less in one direction: where the information-providers wished them to go. Down here lies Shakespeare; you will come with us or stay behind, they were told. It is no wonder that people sat around, when they discussed things at all, discussing Shakespeare. What else did they have to discuss?
Now, though, we have an abundance of information. We sift through it constantly, reading updates in emails and on Twitter, hearing it on the radio and seeing it on billboards and having it literally pop up on our computer screens. There is so much information now that we watch news footage while listening to a voice-over and at the bottom of the screen and on the side even more information scrolls by.
We are drowning in information. Or, more to Joyce's point, we are lost in information. It is a vast sea and we struggle through it, groping for our gods, unsure what to believe anymore and what to make of things, what value to place on the information we do have.
An age of exhausted whoredom, groping for its god.
Are we better, or worse, than the people of Joyce's time, of his book? Were they smarter, because the dirty jokes they told involved Shakespeare and Cleopatra, made references to St. Thomas Aquinas and Walt Whitman, whereas we debate who Khloe Kardashian's real father might be and quote Family Guy?
Most people would say yes -- most people would say that Shakespeare outranks Family Guy, but why? Is it because Shakespeare in the past was seen as more valuable and was preserved, the few plays written by one man surviving from that era above all others, whereas now our efforts seem more ephemeral and lost in a vast ocean of effort and talk?
Is Shakespeare seen as more valuable because it was deemed valuable in the past and so that value carries on, the way gold's value exists simply because we say it is valuable? Gold, after all, has value because it is scarce, no new gold is being created, and people say it is valuable. All of those things are true of Shakespeare, too, and also this is true: if we all decided tomorrow that gold was worthless, and Shakespeare worthless, both would be worthless, no matter the protests of a few.
Things are valuable because of scarcity, and because we say they are-- and those two go hand in hand. The less there is of something, the more valuable we think it is and hence the more valuable it becomes, until we pay $119,000,000 for a painting because there aren't many of that painting around.
But now, when there is so much of everything, we can feel exhausted in an age of leisure. We work no harder, certainly, and mostly less hard, than people did 100 years ago. Our jobs involve sitting, reading. Our lives have luxuries unimaginable: houses sealed against the cold, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, tiny computers we carry in our hands, information abundant, food abundant, life abundant.
But people feel as though things are worth less, maybe -- the things we create deemed inferior to the things that were created then. Ulysses is a classic book; my own are not? Why? Because the one is old and was coveted? Because there will never be another Ulysses?
And so we look for more classics, and we debate what might be truly worth debating, and we try to measure the value of ever more things, feeling as though we may not measure up, in many ways, to the old days. We search for our new gods -- leaders who will tell us what to think, consensus about issues, maybe just a lot of people talking about the same thing so we can feel in on the story.
The more we have of something, the less we value it. We have lots of time and lots of information nowadays, and we think little of both. But that may not be a bad thing. When we stopped caring so much about gold, and let our money be measured by other valuations, the world changed, a little for the better, a little for the worse.
Now, we have freed ourselves from the gold standard of information, no longer letting a tiny hoard of capital determine what we will know and think and feel, and that has left us, like Joyce's characters, still sitting around talking about the things we know -- but more tired, as a result of having to winnow and sift through all that we know, and more questioning of the real value of what we know.