Fasting from Information
“Fast from stories,” advise the Taoists. The practice switches off old narratives. It’s advice related to a meditation practice of following the breath, remaining attentive from moment to moment, opening to new information, and staying in a state of awareness without judgment.
In an age of information, reading is pulled between two poles: one, reading intensively in the same areas that always intrigue us, the other, skimming for something new, observing without analyzing. A narrowing of focus is the natural shape of attention in an age of overwhelm. Fandom, loyalty to a political issue, and “following” one’s social network all take this form. How often does someone in my twitter network voice a point of view with which I radically disagree? Not so often. How often do I click through to a story on a topic I’ve never read about before? Not so often. Luddites, lamenting the death of the newspaper or our retreat from the forest, draw the conclusion that we have lost both awareness and variety. However modern it is, this narrowing of focus is almost necessary as a means of siphoning the ocean of information around us into a digestible trickle.
What about stepping into the ocean of sound itself, merely tasting its swirling mists without judging them?
I live beside that sea of information and spend more time alone with it than perhaps anyone else I know. For the last three years I’ve had the extremely unusual position of being paid, to read books and to write books, with very little in the way of outside obligation. Maybe 1% of professional historians are full-time professional researchers. The freedom of that position makes way for a diversity of reading unusual even among full-time writers, journalists, and professors.
When I was first granted this freedom, I wrote publicly all the time. Almost daily, fits of attitude would make their way onto the internet: observations about the modern university, the modern church, the modern family, the phenomenon of chatroulette, infrastructure policy, the recipe I most liked, the book I’d just been reading. Nothing was too big or too small but for me to have an opinion about it.
For the last nine months of that time, I haven’t blogged. I’ve confined myself to 140-character observations on Twitter.
I’ve been wondering about the poisoned wells of water below us, about our parched planet, the death of a radical movement on the left, about alternative capital markets, and about how far things can or cannot change in a generation.
I’ve been shifting from caring about policy to caring about participation. Instead of wondering about declining infrastructure, the collapse of the Rust Belt, eminent domain, and the segregation of the poor in the nation’s cities, I’ve been wondering about the few historical examples of cities and nations where poor people had control over their own territory. I’ve been reading about property law and its varieties. I’ve been dallying among radical law faculty at Cambridge in the 1870s, who felt in their bones that commons and commonly-owned property were the only antidote to the consolidation of power in the hands of an elite minority. I’ve been reading about water wars in South America and landless peasants in China and evictions in the United States. I’ve been scouring the World Bank reports on land reform movements and the literature published by the Via Campesina and other landless peasant movements in the global south.
I read as if asleep, taking notes without analyzing them, reading a dozen articles without synthesizing an argument. Awash in information, I fasted. There’s been too much to read for me to say yet what it meant. Most days, success was finding a spare anecdote for some argument-in-formation, or letting a dozen contrary opinions wash by my eyes. Friends grew cross with me for talking about my work so little.
But synthesis is hard. Like the gardener in the proverb who scatters seeds and forgets where they are till they grow into plants, the reader-without-judgment takes in narratives, washing the brain in new information each day, confident that somewhere in the back of the brain, aside from judgment or narrative, the hippocampus is sorting that information into appropriate registers.
I corresponded now privately, with the one friend who researched the history of allotment gardens, the other colleague who studied the history of property law and the environment, the mentor who writes about the nineteenth-century experience of caves and underground spaces.
The old issues evaporated for me. It was harder to get worked up about the future of the university when so many possible futures danced before my eyes. I was finding a new continent hidden under the mists of information, and I began to explore it, by myself, in secret forays. To write back too soon would be to risk misjudging it.
Occasionally, people would ask me to talk and I would write talks for them. At the University of Virginia, I argued that for thirty years, Foucault has driven political history towards the dead end of lamenting power’s presence without studying the avenues for liberation. At the University of Ohio, I outlined some of the models for liberatory scholarship, pioneered by radicals historians in the 1920s and 30s, who took working-class people on walking tours of their own communities, using buildings and cemeteries, not books, as sources, telling stories and at the same time proving that history was something individuals could do on their own, unmediated by the power of the expert (see chapter on landscape methods and walking radicals here).
Little by little, the anecdotes were stringing themselves into a big story, a tale of seven hundred years of people losing their relationship to territory, of the ways in which we come to know the land and reestablish a community capable of distributing territorial resources.
Time away from publishing is more precious than rubies. The sage needs to fast from stories; the student needs a long walk before writing the paper’s conclusion; faculty need sabbaticals, and saints and radicals, most likely, need to sojourn in the mountains for a month or a year at a time. That’s how we stop clutching at a particular narrative, how we relax and open the skin to the mists of information around us. In an age of information, that retreat is more necessary than ever.