Living in the 21st Century

13 Aug

(Prefatory Note: The following post is more personal than is my natural mode of communicating on this website. I hope it causes no offense. It is confessional to the extent of acknowledging my own surroundings of digital devices that while liberating in some respects are repressive in others. To sustain our freedom under these ‘postmodern’ conditions requires the rechristening of meditative intelligence (as distinct from the instrumental rationality that acted as wet nurse of the ‘modern.’)


Living in the 21st Century



Ever since I read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen I have been haunted by the suggestive resonance of its opening line: “When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.” Of course, Rankine allows this quietness to evoke her anguishing memories of past subtle racist slights that are the hurtful daily experiences of embedded racism that has for centuries undermined the normative pretensions of ‘civilization,’ not only here in the United States, but globally. Recently, a series of police atrocities throughout America has reminded us ever so forcefully that the election of an African American as president did not mean the end of racism, but alarmingly, an ugly new beginning, an apt occasion for the emergence of Black Lives Matter.


It is the first part of Rankine’s sentence that speaks so simply, yet so responsively, to the circumstance of our 21st century reality, our struggles with loneliness while treasuring the self-discoveries that are uniquely dependent on reflective solitude. What Rankine is telling us is that digital modernity has diminished our capacity to be creatively alone and sufficiently sensitive to the arts of self-discovery. She is instructing us that we need to be so tired that we even refrain from turning on any of our devices, presumably a rare occasion given modern life styles. These devices, whether TV, I-Pad, smart phone, and others have often been our principal nurturing experience, fill our empty hours, usually with distractive and repetitive forms of emptiness. Accordingly, if we find ourselves alone and in bed, without electronic or human others, we should gratefully recognize the occasion as fit for self-exploration. That is, make the best possible use of this precious state of consciousness situated precariously between our devices and our need for sleep. The word ‘even’ in Rankine’s sentence is strategic here, suggesting the abnormality of this condition, yet the second part of the sentence promises rewards that follow from letting “yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.” Yet also because strong sleepiness is part of the scene, there is always the risk of losing wakefulness, losing oneself in sleep to avoid the often painful realizations of exploring what lies below the surface of our mindless immersion in the lifeworld of daily experience.


In effect, most of us, whether consciously or not, have bargained away most of our inner selves in exchange for the enjoyments, evasions, and mysteries of pervasive connectivity that brings us our favorite music, encourages our wildest phantasies through dating and social networks that merge potentialities with cravings, freely accesses information and people anywhere on the planet, lets virtual reality blur the boundaries between experience and imagination, sometime playfully, sometimes maliciously. And all the while, the drones do signature targeting and the war planners are busy beyond their wildest dreams relying on our taxes and passivity!


While digital connectivity simultaneously pacifies and activates, treacherous demonic forces are unwittingly devising the extinction of the species while pursuing their own deluded visions of ultimate deliverance. The restorative energies of normalcy and moderation have almost vanished, yet we go on with our work and play as if the future is not in severe jeopardy. Or if not entirely distracted by the immediacies of everyday life, we escape into one or another extremism, whether it be religious or anti-religious, new age or materialist. Lingering in our personal past may evoke memories we need to compose a better grasp on our private life, but to meet the public challenges that are threatening human destiny in pools of swirling dark waters, we need to learn quickly to master the rigors of long distance swimming against menacingly strong currents.


What most of us can no longer even imagine is life without our devices! I thank Claudia Rankine for this devastating insight into the perilous human condition of our time, whether private or public, individual or collective. Without it, we would be truly lost. With it, there are glimmers of hope, struggle, emancipation.

17 Responses to “Living in the 21st Century”

  1. Gene Schulman August 13, 2015 at 2:19 am #

    This reader has no problem. He has no devices to distract him from reflection, and spends a lot of time reading books, which help one to reflect on life. It is the younger generation who are under the influence of our modern consumer society that has such problems, but are unconscious that they do.

    • Richard Falk August 13, 2015 at 2:31 am #

      Gene: You make me feel young!! Although I still read from time to time, especially if given books by those few Gutenberg holdouts among us!!

  2. ansorinawawi August 13, 2015 at 5:11 am #

    Prof Falk, i and my wife knew you while I was a graduate student at Princeton in the early 60s. Am grateful to be able to follow your work and your writings.

    • Richard Falk August 13, 2015 at 6:43 am #

      Tell me your names so that I can test my memory! Thanks for writing, and encouraging words.

  3. keeneshort August 13, 2015 at 6:25 am #

    And of course, there is the irony that I discovered this post on one such device. But the distractions you mentioned are, indeed, a regularly pacifying force for most of my generation.

    • Richard Falk August 13, 2015 at 6:45 am #

      And, of course, the post was written and disseminated on such a device, and so we exist under permanent siege!

      • keeneshort August 13, 2015 at 6:50 am #

        Perhaps using them for subversion might be useful, as you have demonstrated here.

  4. Jack Ucciferri August 13, 2015 at 8:43 am #

    You might enjoy this thoughtful reconsideration of modernism and civilization:

    • Richard Falk August 17, 2015 at 12:52 pm #

      Thanks for this, Jack; a very strong and persuasive critique of ecomodernism as a solution to contemporary
      problems of carrying capacity of the earth, and related issues. I must reread the Dark Mountain essay when
      I am less tired and it is less hot..

  5. ansorinawawi August 13, 2015 at 11:57 am #

    My full name is Mohammad Ansori Nawawi, and that of my wife is Anne-Marie. Am a Malay-Indonesian, while she is of Irish-Scottish stock. As you were interested in Indonesia, then, on a number of occasions we had conversations in your office. One social occasion my wife and I still remember well was an evening at the home of David Landman (a former journalist with long experience and established connections in Indonesia, who was then in the Princeton’s development office) with you and your wife and Louis Fischer. While mainly in the Politics dept, I was also in the Economics dept, concentrating mainly on theories of political and economic development.

  6. ray032 August 14, 2015 at 6:31 am #

    We have smart phones and dumb people!

  7. Laurie Knightly August 14, 2015 at 6:27 pm #

    Late in life and with considerable insight Charles Darwin said,
    “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts. If I had to live my life again, I would make a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week. For perhaps the parts of my brain now dulled would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness.”

    • Richard Falk August 14, 2015 at 9:56 pm #

      What a lovely congenial bit of guidance that intuitively informs my life already, but the quote lends authority and theory to practice!

  8. rehmat1 August 14, 2015 at 8:07 pm #

    If one study the history of United States and Canada from some object source, he will find out that both countries were created out of racism against the Native people – followed by African slaves, Korean, Chinese, Latinos and now Muslims.

    However, one racism is hardly mentioned in the mainstream media; the political racism. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley of Indian heritage can tell you lot about that.

    • Gene Schulman August 15, 2015 at 11:59 pm #

      Could you please explain to readers just what your comment has to do with the subject of this post?

      • rehmat1 August 16, 2015 at 5:54 pm #

        Though I never claimed to enlighten the brainwash crowd – but my comment addresses the word Fr. Falk used at the 9th line of his above article – RACISM.



  1. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » Living in the 21st Century - August 17, 2015

    […] Go to Original – […]

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