Dropping Out as a Disciplined Choice

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , networking

In my last post, written a few days after J. D. Salinger died, I remarked that he had become almost as well known for his reclusiveness as for his contribution to American literature. I compared him, as many had over the years, to Howard Hughes, observing that his 50-year-long withdrawal from society attracted a disproportionate panoply of emotions, including bewilderment, curiosity, resentment, and challenge. A recent experience, however, has led me to consider a new perspective on conduct that, if irrational, can nevertheless be seen as principled and defensible.

In the interest of transparency, full disclosure, and truth in self-advertising, let me state at the outset that my files contain a bulging folder labeled “A Curmudgeon's Guide to Social Networking.” This does not mean that I have never signed on to Facebook or Twitter—only that I have done so warily, and rarely have shown up at either site since.

Not long ago a friend asked me to join her network on a service called LinkedIn. When I did, I was presented with a list of names I recognized and invited to check those I wanted to be in touch with. I did, and the response has been astounding. Many went along, and for each of them I received a notice that so-and-so and I were now “connected,” although we already were, and in some cases have been for years. The same notice invited me to “continue building” my own network, although I neither have a network nor aspire to build one.

The astounding, and somewhat heartwarming, part was a flood of protests from correspondents who wanted no part of the arrangement. To my surprise, the most techno savvy designer I know proclaimed proudly that he didn't belong to LinkedIn or anything like it. A writer in England, having read the fine print, nervously fired back:

I clicked to see what I was committing myself to: '…you actually grant by concluding this Agreement, a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, unlimited, assignable, sublicenseable, fully paid up and royalty free right to us to copy, prepare derivative works of, improve, distribute, publish, remove, retain, add, and use and commercialize, in any way now known or in the future discovered, anything that you submit to us, without any further consent, notice and/or compensation to you or to any third parties.'

Jesus. What do they want? My immortal soul? Would you be offended if I offered it to you instead? And left out the intermediary?“

An industrial designer in Hawaii wrote, ”Thanks for the invitation to join LinkedIn. But I'm happy enough staying in touch with old friends directly, without going through a commercial online intermediary.“

A design critic demurred thus: ”Nice to hear from you. I'm linked out, I'm afraid, but have noted your latest email address.“

From a West Coast graphic designer: ”I love you and miss you but I hate linked in!“

An artist volunteered: ”I am not on LinkedIn. I joined Facebook for a day and then decided that I must have been nuts to join. So I defaced myself.“

I realize that sites such as those are useful in developing careers, delivering messages to specific audiences, keeping posted on what's going on in various fields of interest, and exchanging photographs and news with people who are otherwise difficult to reach. Nevertheless I am wholly sympathetic to those who rejected my invitation (which, by the way, I did not write) and am sorry I bothered them. Salinger would have understood, although he very likely would not have given a damn. There is a case to be made for his increasingly stubborn isolation. Granted his was an extreme case, but it came at a time when there were extreme issues to be faced or run away from. Salinger dropped out of society just before the possibility of privacy did. There were cell phones, but they had not yet become ubiquitous, impartial carriers of both trivia and high solemnity. The Facebook phenomenon had not been imagined; Twitter had not yet created the roles of follower and followed. For Jacqueline Kennedy, to be followed was to be hounded, and paparazzi was a term of contempt even to people in no danger of ever being photographed. Today, however, everyone is camera ready, and on a first-name basis with everyone else. This very site carries a post offering advice about writing job-hunting email. The author's first recommendation is not to use first names when writing to someone you don't know. Not so long ago it would have been unthinkable that anyone would commit so egregious an error.

Salinger fought fiercely to keep possession of his life story and the life stories of the characters he created. But is this so strange, when so much of the controversy regarding the arts today has to do with the muddy question of who owns what and for how long? When iTunes offers a cost-free alternative to CDs and Google can make a copyright deal with the Authors Guild, intellectual property rights, a concept once laughable in its pomposity, has become a matter for serious consideration.

Salinger's weirdness was hardly unique. Writers and artists throughout history have acted in ways that were not normal, whatever that means, or may once have meant. The English poet Roy Fuller once wrote a poem listing great writers who suffered from being different. Among the aberrations he noted:

Swift had pains in his head.?
Johnson dying in bed?
Tapped the dropsy himself.?
Blake saw a flea and an elf.?
Tennyson could hear the shriek ?
Of a bat. Pope was a freak.?
Emily Dickinson stayed?
Indoors for a decade.?
Water inflated the belly?
Of Hart Crane, and of Shelley.?
Coleridge was a dope.?
Southwell died on a rope.

Donne, alive in his shroud,?
Shakespeare in the coil of a cloud,?
Saw death very well as he?
Came crab-wise, dark and massy.?
I envy not only their talents?
And fertile lack of balance?
But also the appearance of choice?
In their sad and fatal voice.

Those contradictory features—choice and lack of balance—may provide a clue to a mystery: the timing of Salinger's removing himself from the world in which he had achieved so much. By dropping out when he was at the top of his game, he left readers wondering what his game really was.

But what if it wasn't a game? What if Salinger's strange, abrupt departure from publishing (he reputedly never stopped writing, although no one yet knows what and how much) was not as bizarre as it looked, but the perfectly understandable act of choosing to remain what used to be called a ”private person.“ That phrase now is applied mainly to celebrities by their press agents. True, the concept of privacy has not yet been entirely forgotten. Even Facebook promises the faint hearted that ”You decide how much information you feel comfortable sharing on Facebook and you control how it is distributed through your privacy settings.“ So there are now privacy settings. But are there really any truly private persons left? Andy Warhol's brilliant 15-minute rule reminded us that everyone could now be ”someone“ for a spell, but it also forced us to recognize that we no longer have the luxury of being no one.

Read the full poem by Roy Fuller here (note: RALPH stands for the Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities and bears no affiliation with author Ralph Caplan). 

Thumbnail image source: Facebook ”Dislike“ T-shirt 

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.