Sven Birkerts Essayscorer

In 1994, Sven Birkerts published a book called The Gutenberg Elegies. It was not a cheerful volume. In it Birkerts wrote of his troubles with the way that, “[t]he stable hierarchies of the printed page – one of the defining norms of that world – are being superseded by the rush of impulses through freshly minted circuits.” Reading, he argued, had already changed in the accelerated pace of modern life, and seemed to promise to change further. This was alarming to him, and he argued that people ought to resist the whole advance of computers on principle. In fact, the last words of The Gutenberg Elegies were “Refuse it.”

“Which then got me staked out as a kind of Luddite weirdo,” Birkerts says to me ruefully. “But that book came out right at a time when it was sort of a culturally hot topic, so [it got] much more attention that it might have if it had come at another time.”

He may be right. In 1994, the internet was still text-based and dial-up friendly, email was just beginning to seep into daily life, and the prospect of everyone carrying around slim and elegant devices on which we’d consume books with the stroke of a finger seemed deeply unlikely. This left a lot of space for dreamers to fill with utopian visions of a degree of interconnection that would bring us all peace and prosperity.

For a time, Birkerts got to play the foil to this, in panels and articles, but he tired of the act. He was not really a pundit by training. In fact, he had, until The Gutenberg Elegies, spent most of his life as a book critic, one with the specifically un-showy mission of surfacing forgotten or neglected work. So he returned to his work as the editor of the small literary journal AGNI and continued to write essays, but chose topics closer to his personal experience. That was, for many years, more satisfying to him.

Yet in his new book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, Birkerts is returning to that topic. Intriguingly, he returns to it as someone who has made certain concessions to the internet in his daily life. He has, for example, a cellphone and a (new-ish) Twitter account, which he admits he enjoys. “Here I am in my early 60s,” he says, “and I have discovered for the first time in my life the great fun of taking pictures.” And he admits that when he learned he could press a button and share that picture on his Twitter feed, he says: “Then it was all over for me.”

Over the course of Changing the Subject, Birkerts will also tell you that he is, like the rest of us now, well-immersed in the world of internet jargon, of apps, of blogs and commentary. And this measure of experience, perhaps, explains why in many ways Changing the Subject is a far more convincing book when it starts to question the pieties of digital evangelism. The essays here collected don’t project, into the future, a worry about lapsed attention. Instead they track it as a live phenomenon – the disappearance of a kind of attention, one which Birkerts sees as integral to the process of writing – in a tone that feels more like the elegies he had promised in the title of that other, more polemical book.

We get to talking about essays and their relationship to attention. “I always think of the essay form as a mode of meditation in a way,” he tells me, speaking in his slowly but perfectly constructed sentences. “You go toward whatever is your chosen subject and you find a way to most interestingly and truly meditate about it.” He says he doesn’t want to be bound to the meditation metaphor, not exactly, but he’s got himself going. “You have to be able to sink into your material,” Birkerts continues, “you have to be able to take hold of it at a level which requires, and is, a kind of paying attention.”

And with digital culture, he argues, “That particular quality of mind is under threat.” Then he pauses. “I don’t mean to sound ominous or dire.” And he also doesn’t mean to sound like he is judging the behaviour of others from some superior perch. “If I watch myself through the course of the day and see all the ways in which I am pulled away from that – and I don’t just mean things going on in the screen, the intensity and fragmentation of what it takes to conduct a life – an essay or anything else, any kind of attempt at expression, is a rebuttal to that.”

He qualifies further. “I don’t imagine we’re all going to live inside the consumption or making of art. But I think [art] is ... it’s a way of taking something back which is easily taken away from us.”

As he is talking I keep thinking about how, years ago, I might have disagreed with him, but now my heart is swelling with the fever of a convert. To be fair, we now live in a more hospitable cultural moment for digital pessimism. As we all try to keep up with all the tweets and the Instagrammers and the irritating arguments some people insist on having on your Facebook wall as though by friending them you have given them some kind of a certificate of entitlement to your time and attention ... Well, it’s certainly starting to be clear to everyone that they distract from longer, more contemplative projects.

I ask Birkerts if he considers all this distraction antithetical to the novel, too. He does, he admits, but only partly, insisting, “I’m not trying to be crudely binary.” But for him the experience of the novel is the opposite of this sort of distracted, fluttering feeling of contemporary life.

Birkerts concedes that some novelists manage to engage with digital culture: “I do think there are various people working who are, in very interesting ways, if not in terms of immediate subject matter, at least in terms of the kind of mood or atmosphere of the contemporary that they are trying to capture, is one that is very much aware of digital living. Thinking of, you know, Teju Cole, it’s there in the tone.” Birkerts also points to Mohsin Hamid, too, as someone who he feels is chronicling the mood well.

“They are writing out of the new culture, but they are not writing directly about it,” Birkerts continued. “They’re finding ways to use language, scene and narrative means to create that particularly sort of slightly weightless sensation that we sometimes get, living as we do. So I do think it’s available as a subject matter. But in order for anyone to get at it as a subject matter, they still have to be in that other attentive and focussed place that creative things come out of.

“I don’t know that you can write about distraction out of distraction,” he finally concludes. “I think you have to be tuned in and then you can write about it.”

That argument made me think of my favourite essay in Changing the Subject, where Birkerts dramatizes and then analyses a moment of insight of his own. In It Wants to Find You, he records himself scrolling carelessly through an essay about Nicholson Baker that appeared at Slate. But when his eyes fall on a sentence which connected Baker’s work to Iris Murdoch’s ideal of “loving attention,” a lot of thoughts he had been having about the moral imperative to read fall suddenly into place. “I registered the flash of implication,” he writes.

And though of course it doesn’t mean he’s totally succumbed to the visions of those mid-90s utopians, it seems significant that he found the gem of insight right there, on the internet.

Sven Birkerts is an anxious man. By turns he is frightened, terrified, alarmed, filled with dread. On one occasion he shudders in his core; mostly he is just plain worried. What concerns him, a concern he is eager to transmit to us, is the rapid spread of computer, Internet and telephone technologies and more specifically what those technologies are doing to our minds. Forever glued to screens of one kind or another, clicking compulsively on the links others provide for us, we are losing the ability to concentrate, growing more itchy and agitated by the day, allowing our consciousness to be fragmented and dispersed. Our very selfhood is under threat as we are invited to think of achievement as a collective, rather than individual goal, a contribution to Wikipedia rather than a distinctive personal statement. At every step the Internet or GPS navigator puts us at a remove from the world and from our fellow human beings, deprives us of the agency we enjoyed when we had to go out and find things for ourselves rather than have them suggested to us. “Rewired,” as neuroscientists have now demonstrated, to adapt to the fitful back and forth of the web, our brains are no longer fit for the sustained attention that literature requires. Fewer young people are choosing to study the humanities. Fewer great works of art are being produced. There is a real risk of individuality being submerged in system. To make matters worse, a vast majority of people seem entirely happy with this state of affairs, to the point that anyone questioning the value of the new technologies is immediately deemed a Luddite if not a dinosaur.

The reviewer commenting on Birkerts’s fears, presented in 17 impassioned essays, owes it to him to state his own position in a debate that concerns us all. In my case he is preaching to the converted. I have not switched to a smartphone, because I do not wish to be online any more than I already am. I do not use a GPS navigator, because I enjoy dealing with maps and feeling I am getting a grip on the world around me (though I recall that Thoreau, who made maps, feared the practice would distance him from nature). Having long abandoned the television, I am surprised that Birkerts has one and watches it so anxiously; in particular, he describes his worries over three consecutive evenings watching a computer beat the best participants at “Jeopardy!” In this regard it seems he looks for an intensification of identity and selfhood by forcing himself to engage with things he doesn’t enjoy; how could a computer not beat a human in the recuperation of decontextualized data? One might as well race a car. Only on the issue of e-books am I more sanguine than Birkerts. They do not, as he imagines, encourage a diffusion of attention as one clicks on endless links, simply because, at least on my Kindle, there are no links to click on, just the text, freed from the hype and clutter of covers and blurbs. Indeed, thanks, or no thanks, to problems with the post in Italy where I live, I read Birkerts’s book on-screen and had no difficulty attending to his lively, meandering, sometimes tortuous prose.

On the negative side of the equation then — the fact that an Internet culture undermines the habit of sustained attention in a way that is bound to have repercussions for literature and indeed for our experience of selfhood — it is hard not to agree with Birkerts, though arguably these phenomena were always changing in response to shifting environments. It is when he presents his positives and ideals that one starts to feel uneasy.

The essays of “Changing the Subject” were written for miscellaneous publications. As a result, there is no overall plan and a great deal of repetition. Since Birkerts’s core interest is attention, attention as a prerequisite both for creativity and any enjoyment of another’s creativity, many of the pieces are presented as dramatizations of his own attentive, cogitating mind. We are drawn into his life as he watches television, reacts to an article or novel he has read, deals with a power outage that denies him the Internet for a few days, leafs through a collection of photographs showing people reading books, responds to the news of Seamus Heaney’s death or simply pedals away on his stationary bike observing the various objects in the room. The intention is always to give us a sense of the power of language and literature to sustain the self and ­create “meaning,” while constantly warning us that all this is under threat from “the tidal inrush of digitized living.”

The ideal situation, repeatedly evoked, is that of the rapt reading experience of the child; literature, like modern technologies, distances us from sensory reality, but it does so in a focused way that consolidates our habit of self-narrative and indeed of reframing and possessing the world in words. So, on encountering a rabbit in a nature reserve, Birkerts is delighted by the immediacy of the experience, but then feels “how much richer” it would have been “if it were rendered by the right prose stylist.” In another passage, he takes Rilke’s line “all / this Here and Now, so fleeting, seems to require us” as meaning that a human being’s “psychological and spiritual purpose” is to bring the “world into consciousness,” that is, “subjectively, inwardly, into language.” In the essay on Heaney, Birkerts commends his “profound and guiding faith in language.”

The possible objections are obvious enough: that selves, whatever they may be, achieve identity only in relation to others; no self exists alone, but is inevitably part of a social system, hence systems of one kind or another are necessary for selves. And the most overwhelming system of all, the one that more even than the Internet interposes itself between the mind and sensory reality, is the language in which the self talks and narrates itself into existence. (Beckett is mentioned on two or three occasions, but his contention that language is of its nature mendacious and to be made fun of at every turn is not discussed.) In general, the evident continuity between Internet culture and what came before, the push toward communications systems (road, railway, mail, telegraph, publishing, phone, wireless, television) that would create, for better or worse, a human reality somehow separate from the physical world, is not given much reflection. Rather we are offered a stark opposition between literature and the Internet, since “book and author are one of the last bulwarks we have against infoglut.”

What remains impressed on the mind is not so much Birkerts’s arguments, which are hardly new, but the tone and, as it were, the gesturing of his prose. On one hand, he is eager to be colloquial, up-to-date, savvy, urgent (italics abound); on the other, he is constantly looking for a convincingly sophisticated presentation of the kind of elusive reading experiences he is eager to evoke. The reader thus finds himself overburdened with adjectives. Rather than beauty we have “significant, impact-­making beauty,” rather than nervous flutters, we have “subthreshold neural flutters,” rather than a faded photograph, an “ectoplasmically faded ­photograph.”

To what end? Birkerts opens his book with an account of his panicky response to the Three Mile Island nuclear leak, which was his “induction into the late-modern, or postmodern, age.” He was just 27, and his assumption of the “safe sovereignty of place” was “shattered”; he realized he was “trapped inside of a huge system” that could very easily destroy him. Behind all the polemic and reflection of “Changing the Subject,” one feels throughout an anxious desire to recreate a safe environment in the house of language. A novel is a “refuge or a sanctuary,” also an “inoculation” against the threat of hostile systems, a place one can “hide the self away.” Page by page, the rhetoric strains to earn the right to repeat one of Birkerts’s reassuring mantras: “Author and text, thinker and thought — these shape the foundation, the matrix, of who we are and what we know.” Although I too have committed much of my life to literature, this does seem a rather reductive vision of human destiny. More pertinently, I doubt it will reduce Internet use by a single click.

Continue reading the main story


Art and Attention in the Internet Age

By Sven Birkerts

256 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.

Correction: October 25, 2015

A review on Oct. 4 about “Changing the Subject,” by Sven Birkerts, misstated part of the title of a book by the reviewer, Tim Parks. It is “Where I’m Reading From,” not “Where I’m Writing From.”

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