Living With Meaning, Purpose and Wisdom in the Digital Age. By Jason O’ Donnell

In March 2012 the president of product at Google, Bradley Horowitz, interviewed Eckhart Tolle at Google headquarters. The overarching theme of the event was concerned with “how to live with meaning purpose and wisdom in the digital age”. While affirming the positive elements of our ever growing hyper-connected world, Tolle also warned, that “we are in danger of losing ourselves in [the] technology”. A key point that Tolle returns to throughout the interview addresses the notion that the advancement in digital technology has created an unprecedented virtual environment within which we are constantly bombarded with information to the extent that we lose ourselves in the same technology. Given that we do now operate in a hyper-connected world with increasing pace and intensity, Google claim that their intention in inviting Eckhart Tolle to talk with their employees is to assist them in addressing the urgent question: “how can we take an intelligent approach to our work and our lives with all the demands of our time and attention. Amidst this flood of information, how can we discern the signal from the noise, in order to access and act on what is most essential to each of us’’? In other words, how do we live with meaning purpose and wisdom in the digital age?

How to live with meaning purpose and wisdom are questions that, arguably, humans have asked and strived to answer since antiquity and beyond. The digital age, on the other hand, is a recent phenomenon. If our questions on meaning, purpose and wisdom are old, and our digital technology is new, then the obvious query that seems to follow is; what is the relationship of the later, to both, our inability and our potentiality, to realise the former? Both Google and Tolle seem to agree that the “flood’ of information’’ enabled by digital technology presents a challenge in ‘’discerning [the] signal from the noise’’, and, moreover, that the confusion manifested by this challenge is central to that which frustrates our ability to live with meaning, purpose and wisdom.  Through technological innovation, Google claims to want to make the world a better place, but equally seems to concede, that ‘’in order to transform the world, we must first render the necessary transformation within ourselves.’’

Certain conclusions can be drawn from the above observations. In the first instance, it would appear that on the whole, we as human beings have yet to learn to live with meaning, purpose and wisdom. Secondly, the ‘flood’ of information, made possible by modern digital technology, presents a ‘potentially’ unprecedented obstacle to the realization of these goals. Moreover, while the ‘new’ obstacle to this realization is an ‘external’ one;  given that we have ‘always’ struggled to strive  for  meaning purpose and wisdom, we cannot say that it is our digital technology that effects the lack of meaning, purpose and wisdom in our lives. Thus, if indeed human beings are presently experiencing some existential crisis that is exasperated by the rapid evolution of digital technology, the answer (or indeed the blame) lies not in our technology but rather in the consciousness that produces it.

In 1966 Jiddi Krishnamurti[1] claimed that the ‘fundamental’ crisis at the heart of the human condition was not a political, economic, social or technological one, but rather ‘’a crisis in consciousness’’. Interestingly, Eckhart Tolle seems to present a similar argument. So, what is Tolle’s answer to Google’s apparent request to understand this ‘crisis in consciousness’, to their need to ‘discern the signal from the noise’.

As noted previously, Tolle acknowledges the benefits of the growth of the digital world, but equally, he argues that it also provides us with ever more ‘ways’ in which to distract our attention from the here and now. For Tolle the only time there is the present moment. Of course few of us would contest the fundamental reality of this statement. However, Tolle suggests that it is in fact a collective tendency of humans to get completely caught up in our ‘internal’ narratives, or as he puts if “the story in the head”. Tolle seems to suggest that we may very well understand intellectually that the present moment is the ‘only’ time there ever is, but in reality humans are almost constantly distracted by an almost incessant stream of internal dialogue, that is, “the story in the head”. Consequently, Tolle argues that this habitual pattern causes us to lose touch with the present moment.  Furthermore, Tolle insists that this is a phenomenon that is largely unconscious in the majority of humans, and as such we are generally unaware that it is happening.  Moreover, according to Tolle, it is in fact   this habitual pattern, or lack of presence, that is the cause of our inability to “discern the signal from the noise”.

Tolle’s position is an interesting one, considering for example, the difficult encounter zone between the world of print and the realm of the digital. (At least for those of us who are insufficiently familiar with  and inadequately educated in transcending the border regions between the two) Of course few of us would doubt that both the printed word and the text encoded one are equally important as we evolve further into a ‘brave new world’ of interconnectedness. However, Tolle seems to suggest (and certainly the technological wizards at Google seem to value his opinion on this) that while digital technology may present a new, and certainly more complex extension of ourselves, in our long history of striving to live with meaning, purpose and wisdom, it is not the new technology of the present (nor indeed the past) that constitutes our greatest challenge. Rather, according to Tolle, one of the biggest obstacles to living with meaning, purpose and wisdom in the digital age is our habitual tendency to distract away from the reality of the present moment ‘via’ the technology we produce.

For many of us the encounter zone between the old and the new is still a grey area, for others (like those employed at Google) it is a familiar, interesting and innovative place. However, if Tolle is correct, then most of us, the technologically aware and the technologically ignorant alike, have yet to understand, that in order to ‘really’ discern the signal from the noise, both within and without, we must learn to become present, to notice when we are distracting away from the here and now, and to adopt an attitude that enables us to notice this tendency and integrate present moment awareness into the growing pace and intensity  of our daily lives. At least for Eckhart Tolle, this is the fundamental prerequisite to learning to live with meaning, purpose and wisdom in ‘any’ age.

Works Cited

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blkW5wdBk00

Living with meaning purpose and wisdom: With Eckhart Tolle and Bradley Howritz.


[1] Jiddi Krishnamurti (1895 – 1986) was an Indian speaker on spiritual and philosophical subjects. Krishnamurti’s central doctrine was aimed at promoting a ‘revolution’ in human consciousness as a way to transcend human suffering. His doctrine was a personal one, as such he was not affiliated with nor did he promote any particular religious or philosophical tradition.

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Intertextuality

     In his famous essay, The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes writes “we know now that [a] text is a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” (Barthes, 1968) Barthes is referring to the relational nature of texts and the way in which the text is not (as is traditionally understood) a product of a single author. Rather, for Barthes a text is a compilation of various art-forms that the compiler (author) assembles; the outcome of which constitutes an ‘intertextuality’ of existing material culture. In this essay I will define and describe the term intertextuality in relation to its employment in modern literary theory. Borrowing largely form Graham Allen’s book Intertextuality, (2000) I will discuss how the historical origins of the term have their roots in Ferdinand de Saussure’s work in linguistics. I will then show how the Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, revises Saussure’s work, and in doing so, identifies the social and cultural aspects of language that informs and reflects the intertextual nature of a literary work. Finally, I will show how in the 1960s, Julia Kristeva’s merging of Saussure and Bahktin’s theories of language, results in the first articulation of the term intertextuality. The purpose to this essay then, is to offer a brief history of the origins and use of the term intertextuality as well as an explanation of its meaning and use in modern literary theory.

According to Graham Allen, the historical origins of the term intertextuality are to be found in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure. In his Course in linguistics, Saussure explores the fundamental question: what is a linguistic sign. For Saussure the answer to this question is twofold, namely the signified (concept) and the signified (sound or image). Together both constitute Saussure’s linguistic sign. In referring to Saussure’s linguistics, Graham Allen informs us that “a sign is not a words reference to some object in the world but the combination conveniently sanctioned between a signifier and a signified”. (Allen 2000: 8) For example, “in the English language we use the word tree [not] because it points to the physical object of a tree, but rather, because the word tree itself is a signifier associated with a certain concept”. (Ibid) The point is that the meaning of a sign is non-referential. The sign is a combination of a signifier and a signified, and as such its nature is arbitrary. Therefore, signs possess meaning not because of a ‘referential’ function, but because of their function within a linguistic system as it exists sycrhonically. (At any one moment of time)
For example, in everyday life we believe that when we write or speak we are being referential insofar as our utterances are describing external objects in the physical world. When we utter the word tree we take for granted that we are using the word to designate a particular object that we are looking at. (For example when I observe a beautiful oak while walking in the park) However, according to Saussure what is ‘actually’ happening when we utter the word tree, is that we are merely “producing specific acts of linguistic communication (parole) from the available system of language”. (Langue) (Ibid) For Saussure then, “the reference of the sign is to the linguistic system and ‘not’ directly to the physical world”. (Ibid) Allen suggests that the above point has “many implications for traditional ideas about what it means to employ language”. (Ibid)

Central to traditional ideas of language is the notion of a human agent drawing meaning form his or her chosen words. However, Saussurean linguistics replaces this idea with one that asserts that all acts of verbal and written communication arise from choices made within a system which pre-exists any speaker or agent. Roland Barthes’ writes, “If (la langue) is the social part of language the individual cannot himself either create or modify it; it is essentially a collective constraint which one must accept in its entirety if one wishes to communicate.” (Barthes 1984: 82) Barthes is drawing our attention to the notion that the ‘collective constraint’ that he believes is inherent in Sausserean linguistics negates the possibility of individual creative agency in the process of communication. Barthes’ point is crucial in the emergence and articulation of the term ‘intertextuality, and is more comprehensively explored in the work of Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bahktin.

Mikhail Bakhtin argues that Saussaure’s linguistics “constitutes an abstract objectivism that perceives language as a stable, normative, closed system of linguistic signs which operate according to its own self-contained laws, irrespective of individual consciousness or creativity” (Bakthin/Volosinov 1994: 25) For Bakhtin, Saussure’s abstract system of language precludes any meaningful creative participation by the speaker. “It stands before the individual as an inviolable, incontestable norm, which the individual, for his part, can only accept. (Ibid: 26) For Bakhtin, the social and cultural elements of a speaker’s environment, as well as the ways in which different speech genres are delivered and received, play an integral part in the formation and articulation of language. Bhaktin maintains that “all utterances are ‘dialogic’; their meaning and logic are dependent upon what has previously been said and on how they will be received by others. The abstract linguistics of Saussure strips language of its dialogic nature, which includes its social, ideological, subject-centred and subject-addressed nature”. (Allen, 19)

For Ferdinand de Saussure then, the relational nature of the word is based on an abstract and generalized system of language which includes the spoken word and that which is spoken about. For Mikhail Bakhtin, the relation stems from the words existence within specific social situations, and specific moments of utterance and reception. However, the fact that Saussure and Bahktin’s respective theories of language appear to be diametrically opposed does not inhibit an understanding of the term intertextuality and its origins. On the contrary it brings us much closer. According to Graham Allen, it is Julia Kristeva’s attempt in the 1960s to combine Saussaurean and Bakhtinian theories of language that results in the first articulation of intertextual theory.

In “Desire in language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art”, Kristeva revises Bakhtin’s work in her essay’s ‘The Bounded Text’, and Word, Dialogue, and Novel. In both papers she focuses on the ways in which a “text is created out of other already existing material. She argues that author’s do not create their work from their own imagination, but rather, compile or assemble them from pre-existing texts”.(Allen, 35) Thus, the text becomes a “permutation of texts, an intertextuality in the space of a given text, in which several utterances, taken from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another” (Kristeva 1980: 36) Borrowing form Bahktin, Kristeva argues that texts do not present clear and stable structures expressed through discourse; they embody society’s conflict over the meaning of words. Thus, intertextuality deals with a text’s existence within society and history. Texts have no unity or unified meaning of their own; they are always connected to on-going cultural and social processes. For Kristeva, the text is not an individual, isolated object but a compilation of cultural textuality.

The term ‘intertextuality’ originates in the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure. Sausurre’s linguistic sign radically challenges traditional assumptions concerning the relational nature of meaning and therefore of texts. However, Saussure’s abstract system removes the notion of the individual possessing any autonomous creative agency in the utterance of the word. M.M Bakhtin, on the other hand, asserts that language cannot be isolated, but must be understood in terms of the social and cultural environment of which the speaker is a part. In rejecting the abstract objectivism of Saussure’s system, Bakhtin allows for the intertextual nature of language, and thus rejects any notion of stable meaning. Combining both Saussure and Bakhtin’s theories of language, Julian Kristeva points out that texts are an assemblage of pre-existing works. Kristeva questions the idea of originality and meaning; arguing instead that the text is a product of social, cultural and ideological discourses; discourses that there can be no consensus on and that are always in constant flux.

It is clear now what Barthes means when he says that “a text is a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” When Barthes suggests that “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture”, he is referring to the intertextual nature of the text; to its intertextuality. “The view of language expressed in these lines by Barthes is what theorists since the period which his essay was produced have termed intertextual, and [it] has been argued, that without a working knowledge of intertextual theory and practice, readers are likely to retain traditional notions of writing and reading; notions which have been radically challenged since the 1960s”. (Allen, 7)

Works Cited
Allen, Graham. Intertextuality. Routledge, London: 2000
Bakhtin, M.M. The Bakhtin Reader: Selected writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev and Voloshinov. Pam Morris (ed), London Arnold: 1994
Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology, Annette lavers and Colin Smith (trans.), Jonathan Cape, London: 1984
Kristeva, Julia. Desire and Language: a semiotic approach to literature and Art. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudiez (ed). Columbia University Press, New York: 1980
Works Consulted
Bakhtin, M.M The Dialogic Imagination. Four essays, Emerson and M. Holquist (trans), M. Holquist (ed), University of Texas Press, Austin TX: 1981
Bakhtin, M.M/V.N. Volosinov. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. L. Matejka and I.R.Titunik (trans.). Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London: 1986

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Exploring The 'Pros & Cons' Of The Digital World

Textual Arc ~ Archives Representation Communication

Textualities: A third year seminar course at the School of English University College Cork

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haphazard academia

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BRAD TEARE

Exploring The 'Pros & Cons' Of The Digital World

Textual Arc ~ Archives Representation Communication

Textualities: A third year seminar course at the School of English University College Cork

Don't Scroll Down

Exploring The 'Pros & Cons' Of The Digital World

broganocallaghan

the musings of a final year student

haphazard academia

my foray into scholarly musings

Kirsty Hawthorn

Exploring digital media & digital birth networks

mad ways of thinking

An avenue to stimulate creative thinking and inspire new ideas.

The WordPress.com Blog

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.