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Why I went ON and then OFF and then ON and then OFF of Facebook

Empires rarely learn in time because power tends to dull people’s capacity for critical self-reflection.

– Robert Jensen (School of Journalism, University of Texas), “The Imperial Delusions of the United States,” Al Jazeera

The royal consciousness with its program of achievable satiation has redefined our notions of humanness…It has created a subjective consciousness concerned only with self-satisfaction…It has so enthroned the present that a promised future, delayed but certain, is unthinkable.

– Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

In the busy, teeming crowd, which as community is both too much and too little, man becomes weary of society, but the cure is not in making the discovery that God’s thought was incorrect.  No, the cure is precisely to learn all over again the most important thing, to understand oneself in one’s longing for community.

– Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love

I am writing this on Søren Kierkegaard’s feast day in the calendar of the Episcopal Church.  He died childless, having written in the language of an obscure little country.  He could’ve written in German, but he wrote in Danish.  He chose to write locally, for the people he both loathed and loved.  His neighbors drove him crazy, for their provincial views and their lack of appreciation of truly real, reflective life.  But they were also his neighbors, his kin, and he wanted to write for their confusion and edification.

I am also writing this the week that everyone and their cat is discussing 9/11.  I wrote a little piece right after that day for this volume, and I think I still stand by what I wrote there.  Basically, I told the story of how Rachel lost her gift of speech right after hearing about the disaster.  We were at Kanuga Conference Center, in the beautiful North Carolina hills, and she was listening too closely to the radio in the little library there.  The adults around her weren’t realizing that she was listening, but she was.  And my very verbal little girl turned into a confused, scrambled toddler.  She reverted back to a kind of baby talk that wasn’t even hers as a baby.  She lost the gift of speech.  She was speechless.  And I suggested, in that little piece, that the proper stance before this horror may indeed be incapacitated speech.  Silence.

I went on Facebook initially as “Professor Amy Laura Hall” at the suggestion of an undergraduate who was taking my course in the Genomic Revolution Focus Program.  If memory serves, Danny himself went off Facebook for a while, after setting up my account, to see what it felt like to be off.  But he suggested I use FB to engage students in activism and critical thinking.  He thought I could use it better as a tool for teaching radical politics than the usual Blackboard offerings at Duke.  So, I tried.  And it seemed to work, in some ways.  Students were reading articles that don’t come off the usual CNN track, and arguing about them online.  They were making connections across disciplines, generations, and faith commitments and non-commitments.  It was exciting, exhilarating even, to watch people from many different parts of my life struggle with one another about basic questions of civic engagement.

But then things just went off-kilter.  I was trying to link broader political matters back to my own institution, which led to hurt feelings, and worse.  Things at work were so busy, and people were so booked with their own efforts, that side-notes and quick links stood in for real, embodied, communal conversation.  To boot, there were too many conversations going on to keep track.  People in one venue felt left out and confused by conversations going on in another venue.  I was unable to host well a virtual community.

After about 18 months off, I went back on, inspired by this piece from On the Media about how people working across continents could help free and reshape a conversation that had become mired in the usual blah blah blah of talking heads on the few, designated channels of information.

It seemed worth a try – to see whether I could get it right this time.  I didn’t.  The same problems emerged, this time with a family disaster in the mix.  Going through divorce online was a bad idea.  I wanted to encourage women and men who have gone through the mess of a divorce to be brave and honest about the pain and confusion, but, in the words of one friend, I had a tendency to “fillet myself” and offer the most vulnerable feelings there for the world to read.  To use another image, I was sending out not just messages in bottles, but bottle rockets, missing friends and former students so much that I turned repeatedly to Facebook for verification that there was a community of friends out there praying and cheering for the “Green Street Girls,” as I called my newly configured little family.  It was far too easy for me (and maybe for others) to use the screen as an intermediary.  In retrospect, I needed real, live people to bring us casseroles and hugs, to knock on my door to talk to the real, live me.  But, it turns out, that kind of incarnate care is hard directly to ask for, and even harder to receive.  (See also: Problema III of Fear and Trembling.)

In the end, the mix of political and personal on Facebook just didn’t work, and so I went off, opting for this blog.

Can social media link people across the barriers of our usual, Fox versus MSNBC divisions?  Can Facebook break down walls that divide what we usually read and who we usually attend to?  Maybe.  But it tends too often to serve as a substitute for real, incarnate, embodied time with one another.  The staff who wrote the Robin Hood series that helped to reshape reality for their listeners (see link above) had to work textually rather than communally because of the Red baiting, blacklisting practices of that time.  We aren’t under quite such strictures.  And it seems that social media works best when it facilitates real events in real time and real space for us to attend to one another – to see one another face to face and look at the real presence of God’s beautiful universe written in another person’s eyes.  This is the best way to organize politically, and to find true “friends.”

So, I am off Facebook again, and I am meeting more people at the Durham’s Farmer’s Market and at yoga class and, yes, even while hula hooping at Motorco.  True to form, I talk to just about everyone about the crazy politics going on in the state and about community organizing in Durham, and I dare bring up God or even Jesus periodically to those who have multiple piercings and are headed for a very kinky fetish party (real example) at the heart of hipster Durham.

I am not going to try to type something meaningful about 9/11.  Read the linked Al Jazeera article for the best commentary I have seen to date.  But I will say on this Feast Day of Saint Kierkegaard that using the gift of speech for and with one’s real neighbors seems the best use of our God-given, intricate minds.  We can work the multi-lingual, dis-embodied spaces of the internet for fun, but the real labor of love is to try to speak the language of incarnate love with the people who live closest to us, knocking on doors and introducing ourselves to people who watch a show we find abhorrent or play a video game we really wish we didn’t know exists.

We should take time on 9/11 to remember the nearly 3,000 victims who died that day. But as responsible citizens, we also should face a harsh reality. While the terrorism of fanatical individuals and groups is a serious threat, much greater damage has been done by our nation-state caught up in its own fanatical notions of imperial greatness.

– Robert Jensen (same article as above)

I agree with my Texan compatriot here that we have become a people willing either to countenance or ignore what is happening in the wider world of torture and warfare (see link to TAMCAT notes/resources).  We need all hands on deck and all media in the mix to wake us all up to what is being done in our name around the globe.  And, in this little missive on this little screen, I would suggest that the words best spoken will be those uttered face to face, across an awkward chasm of existence, rather than those typed on a screen.  Risk the strange grace that comes from such an encounter, even if it means a bemused stare or a true misunderstanding.  To bring my beloved Kierkegaard back in, risk loving the neighbor close at hand, even if this is the hardest work of all.  Facebook can’t heal the spiritual brokenness that Jensen speaks about.  It is a useful tool, but only if part of a smaller, more intricate web of human relationships built over time and over slowly sipped coffee.


  • Kim

    When you first appeared on facebook I felt like I had found a way to sneak into Duke and audit your classes. It felt like such a gift to connect (a tiny bit) with your ideas and your students (past, present, future even?) but I think you are right that there is something about the frenzy of facebook that can easily sweep one away. I think there is a real beauty in believing that silence in real presence of another person could be more meaningful than impassioned posts online. Maybe the danger of social media is that feeling connected can easily feel like action, like we’ve already really done something.

  • Anonymous

    I hear you. Without dredging up a lot of BS that’s best buried, a good chunk of my headaches these past few years was as a direct result of social media where what could have been resolved over drinks de-evolved into massive blog battles. 

    But I concluded that as a writer, I can’t go offline as this is the major way that writers stay connected to their readers, source articles, etc. But I no only use the tools to post info re my articles, talk up other people’s articles/events, etc. 

  • Johatlem

    Hey Dr. Hall:  I have TOO much embodied community here in Toronto!!!!!!!! 🙂
    I think I would have fit better in the OLD monasticism. (Although, there is that entire celibacy issues)…
    Blog seems like a great idea.  I sent you an email.  Hoping you could take a look at it….
    Jodie Boyer

  • Misha

    As a non-Facebooker largely concerned with self-satisfaction, I want you to keep blogging!

  • Anonymous

    They have “very kinky fetish” parties in Durham? Where was this when I was in Div school? Man, this is some serious *#$&. I could have been all Foucault all up on everyone.

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