I do not like to use Facebook. There it is, upfront. I will occasionally pull up Facebook and here is how such interactions proceed: Glance at newsfeed; think that “in order to be useful I need to strip my Facebook of all but, like, three people;” and then I close the tab. Michael Cobb’s piece in the recent PMLA, “A Little Like Reading,” makes an argument that, despite my reservations of Facebook generally, I would agree with. I would argue, however, that his examples need some serious context (and serious context), that they receive! The thing that first strikes me about Cobb’s piece, which argues for the potential virtue of Facebook-style reading of numerous tiny clips of information, is how informed our man Cobb, really is. Bringing to bear on his discussion of Facebook well-informed discussions of Susan Sontag, Theodore Adorno, and Walter Benjamin on Baudelaire, at the very least (after all, the man’s staff photograph is with Snoop Dogg; he is clearly well-networked).
While the stakes of Cobb’s argument are not such that one can easily disagree with his conclusions, I do wonder what are the implications of his process: that to do something interesting with the “light, like” reading Cobb must necessarily contextualize these likings in a network of theoreticians. Obviously, Cobb does not disavow this practice, and I in no way mean to “call him out” for this seeming conflict. Cobb admits and advocates for this kind of contextualization, “Rarely can we not interpret a thing, encounter any work of art without a whole bunch of knowledge, a whole bunch of desire, and all of those mental categories that make art into something useful” (205).
Playing in parallel here is what he is considering in the debate between the “good” and “bad” kinds of negativity. The bad kind, presumably, is the “endless nothings,” and the “positive” kind—the difference is still somewhat unclear and perhaps someone can illuminate this in the comments if my stab seems too in the dark—which seems the same except it is productively set against “the mind.” Here he quotes Adorno quoting Hegel: “The life of the mind only attains its truth when discovering itself in absolute desolation” (206). The virtue of nothingness, then, is that it allows a freedom of the mind, of mental associative activity, which is hampered by a too rigorously structured something. Here, again is Cobb on the productivity of the “nought” of Facebook: “You stare into something that can feel like a hopeless oblivion, and then it can stroke divine thought, or a peculiar combination, which will not yield sovereignty in meaning, or precise ordering of time, or even a good essay” (206). As I mentioned, the stakes are, in a way, quite low. He continues that the myriad feeds of information can “intrigue you as much as…the best and precise narrations in that book you wrote about religious hate speech eight years ago” (206). Finding the mind, intrigue generally: it is hard to disagree that these things could emerge from looking at Facebook. However, Cobb seems necessarily to have couched this gentle, ephemeral insight in a heavily contextualized essay. What his argument ends up looking like is that one can be sparked by interesting patterns in media like Facebook, but in order to articulate said sparks, one still needs deep immersion in other “deep” discourses. The mind can only be discovered in the “nought” if one has already synthesized a great deal of structured something. Again, it is not a contradiction of any kind; it is simply the one-layer-removed from Cobb’s argument that I find complicates the essay in useful ways.
Cobb gives no specific examples of how this works with an example actually from Facebook, perhaps, no snark intended, because the examples are simply too ephemeral. The question is, then, if this is simply “the mind finding itself” as Adorno and Hegel and Cobb want to suggest, is what Facebook reveals only the structure of the mind already examining it? Perhaps, then, this explains why an article about reading Facebook is really an article about interpreting Melville, Carson and Dickinson through certain well-regarded theorists and vice-versa.