Friday, September 2, 1994

Q&A: Sven Birkerts, Texts and Time


Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review: 9/2/94

Q&A: Sven Birkerts, Texts and Time

The ultimate point of the ever-expanding electronic web is to bridge once and for all the individual solitude that has heretofore always set the terms of existence.

Sven Birkerts, The Guttenberg Elegies: The Fate Of Reading In An Electronic Age (1994)


HB: Let me start with Socrates, in the Phaedrus, complaining about the newfound reliance on the written word, as opposed to speech, as an instrument of instruction. Socrates worries that the increase in literacy is going to result in a net decrease in true intelligence. “As for wisdom,” he says, “pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality; they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.”

Some 2,500 years separate you and Socrates. He laments the beginning of text-based culture, you its possible demise. Yet sometimes you seem to share a language of opposition to impending change.

SB: The electronic media can be conceptualized — and has been by Richard Lanham in The Electronic Word, for example — as a kind of swerve back to a tradition of rhetoric. That’s not how I think about it.

HB: You’re not so concerned with everything that was lost in the departure from the oral tradition. You’re much more impressed with what was gained.

SB: I am aware, as well, of the loss. It’s just that I see the trade-off as worthwhile, not to mention inevitable. Now, inevitability strikes again. We’re looking once more at fundamental transformations, and a different set of losses and gains. Nevertheless, I can’t simply go with the argument. I can’t conclude that because electronic is inevitable electronic is good.

It’s a matter of different ways of knowing and inhabiting the world. For a very long time the guiding ambition was toward a certain kind of wisdom rooted not just in language but in written language. Of course, we will never leave language behind. But if we orient ourselves less in terms of the written word, the printed book, and move to a set of supposed equivalencies — the visual image, the electronic screen, the complex and simultaneous transmission of denser webs of data — I think we lose our hold on that tradition. What’s at risk, ultimately, is the individual compact with wisdom.

HB: Where would our notion of wisdom be without Socrates? And he was choosing speech over text.

SB: I don’t claim all wisdom and human possibility are inscribed in the pages of books. I do claim there’s a particular meditative relation to experience which is the crown or the flower of subjectivity, of individualism, of whatever we value in developments since the time of the Renaissance, to put a rough period on it. The paradigm of that relation is print, print as a meditative medium rather than a transmission medium, print as a medium in which words are frozen, held so that one can return, linger, immerse oneself in language.

HB: This is what you refer to as the reading state.

SB: When we talk about issues of print, media, communication, we are talking about a complex of relations that includes time. The relation to experience that I single out — that I privilege — is the duration relation, duration as Henri Bergson uses the term. I’m talking about slow time.

HB: Time when you lose track of time.

SB: It’s what we turn to art for. More for that, for slow time, than any particular set of messages.

HB: Yet you privilege reading over the rest of art. You single out text.

SB: That’s my bias.

HB: Some people may get there through music, others through the contemplation of visual art. Aren’t there a number of avenues to slow time?

SB: I do emphasize those deriving from the printed word. True, you can look at a painting or listen to a quartet and also enter the duration state but it is a self-enclosed duration state.

Music, for example, is utterly bound to time. The printed word is only bound to time insofar as you choose to make it so. The beauty of print, and what will be lost in a shift away from text, is this recursive element, this meditative link, the fact that one stops, lingers, returns. The pace is set by the need, the desire, not the apparatus. Of course, all the apparatuses are equipped with ways to go back. Of course, you can rewind, scroll back but it’s already a different activity.

HB: You talk about the dual consciousness that arises when you are reading a book that matters to you, and describe cycling back and forth between these centers of consciousness.

SB: The reading state contains a paradox: I get closest to myself when pulled most intensely away from my center. I’m reading a book, lost in the subject matter or narrative at hand. I’ve put my subjective life on hold yet it remains present as a kind of ground bass. As I’m pulled farther and farther away from myself something occurs, which I can’t begin to define, that brings me closer to myself.

There’s the instant of return, the moment when you look up, shut the book, notice the trees outside the window. You experience subjective consciousness at an intensified pitch. There’s simultaneously a condensation of self and its irradiation with the consciousness of the person who generated the language.

Reading, logically, should dilute the self. In fact, the opposite occurs; the self is distilled. To me, its the single most intensive way of doing it. For example, we’re in the oral tradition at the moment. We’re sitting here talking. Yet I don’t begin to have the sensation of penetrating your consciousness, becoming coextensive with it. When I ingest your words from a page, I am, paradoxically, much closer to you. My sensation is that a deeper sort of communication has transpired.

HB: You manage to tell a good deal of your life story in The Gutenberg Elegies by way of the history of your reading.

SB: I can do it because I am self-defined as a reader, subject to all sorts of compulsions and manias about books. There are others whose autobiographies may be written far more eloquently in terms of cars they have owned. For reasons discussed in that essay, I fled into books.

HB: You describe the process of entry or reentry into a book, the fidgeting around, the sometimes extended process of getting comfortable. Isn’t it possible that the difficulty of entering the reading state is more than incidental? Turning tiny text squiggles into vessels of meaning is something we learn to do in grade school. Maybe we should regard it as a rite of passage, an ordeal, painful like all ordeals, which is why we are so inordinately proud of it.

SB: It’s all of the above, difficult, painful and worse when, as is happening to me, the eyes deteriorate. Still, life lived without books is simply not enough. It’s too diffuse. I can’t live without print-based concentrations of meaning. If I have to go through the day wondering about the next feeding, even a day punctuated with good conversation, it’s still not enough. I need to feel there’s a place in my life that gathers the dispersed rays to a point. The knowledge that somewhere in the day those rays will be gathered and focused allows me to carry on and informs my highest ambition, which is to create something that would serve in that way for somebody else.

HB: You say that despite all indications to the contrary, we are, as a species, “wired for meaning.”

SB: Yes.

HB: But wired for meaning is not the same as wired for books. And wired for language is not the same as wired for the written word. For example, you write about the sixties that, “They were about protest, yes, in part against our government’s intervention in Southeast Asia, but no less against the social structures that stood in the way of the pursuit of meaning.”

True. On the other hand, we tended to view reading as vicarious living. There was a lust for immediacy, anti-literate for the most part, and yet not anti-meaning.

SB: Growing older and away from the sixties, the written word and the idea of history and of past take on a significance they lacked formerly. You begin to see the weave goes all the way back and there’s no place where the thread really breaks. The more you understand about the nature of the weave the more you can understand about where you are sitting.

HB: So much of twentieth-century culture is anti-historical, as if there would be a primal, more energizing kind of experience if only history would get out of the way.

SB: The anti-historical bent is expressed in modernism: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

HB: Yet you often argue that it’s only in postmodernism that continuity breaks down.

SB: There’s a tonal shift. There can’t be a specific moment when the idea of the timeline collapses, but I think modernism lived with the hope of pushing forward toward the future. Then, in the immortal words of Joseph Heller, something happened; we lost the motivation to push forward.

I know a great many artists of one sort or another, and I detect a chronic low-grade flue feeling of crisis in the arts. There are little places to go, but maybe no big place to aim at anymore. Postmodernism is what you do with that feeling; you don’t cease to create but you do create differently.

For example, it’s one thing to have a modernist collage and another to have a postmodernist collage though they may look like the same sort of thing. The modernist collage is an explosion of contents directed toward a revolution in meaning. The postmodernist collage says we have diverse material that can be arranged in interesting ways. The spirit of advance is missing.

There’s a sense in which you can’t argue against postmodernism. It’s like trying to argue against technology and electronic media — you can’t, they’re there. But you need to articulate attitudes and take stances if only to keep defining the issue and the argument so that there may be an issue and an argument — and so that everything doesn’t dissolve into fizz.

Definition is the challenge now, to have a sense of definition or contour about anything. Our crisis, one of our crises, is the crisis of definition.

HB: A good deal of the battle, then, is to simply indicate there is a battle. In your words, “Being a curmudgeon is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.”

SB: There’s a running debate in our culture, at least from romanticism on — back then it was the industrial revolution, technology in its mechanistic phase — about values and technology. Even someone as relatively close to us as D.H. Lawrence had to strike crazy postures in reaction to technology.

Now it’s as if the war is over. We are so overwhelmed and infiltrated. the only people who sometimes still stand against the encroachments of technology are those I least want to identify with, namely cultural conservatives.

HB: There are times in The Gutenberg Elegies, when, together with cultural conservatives, it seems you long to reinstate a distinction between high and low culture.

SB: I adhere to such a distinction in my own life

There are things you look at as being of ultimate interest and benefit — books you go back to, people you revere, a private canon. And there’s everything else. I hope this doesn’t make me a conservative across the board, but I want to preserve the idea of subjective depth as a human possibility. Serious art as I’ve experienced it is bound up not with the sense of the immediate but with a larger aspect, the aspect of eternity.

HB: You allude to Walter Benjamin in The Guttenberg Elegies, particularly his “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” But I think it’s a misreading of that essay to see Benjamin as only lamenting the dissolution of the aura that had traditionally enfolded the work of art. What’s fascinating about Benjamin is that he’s looking both ways. He sees the old pass away and measures the loss. He sees totally new modes of perception come into being and is far from condemning them.

SB: I think that’s absolutely right. Coincidentally, I’m reading a book by Richard Powers called Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance, a postmodern novel that plays fast and loose with history and combines essayistic passages with narrative to arrive at a collage effect. The author pops a long essay into the middle of the book on the theme of Benjamin always having it both ways, and this made me realize I had been willfully misreading him. I was predisposed to hear only Benjamin’s lament for the dissolution of aura, not his song of praise for the reproduction of images.

Benjamin makes his argument in a prose completely steeped in the mental traditions of high culture, even as he espouses democratization. It’s the very paradoxes and tensions in the piece that make it stay alive.

HB: As you say, it’s hard work to be a curmudgeon. For example, you apparently had every intention of disliking the audio-book, but in the end wound up quite moved by it.

SB: Yes, its taxing to be a curmudgeon but I’m acting out of a kind of necessity.

HB: And Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance is a kind of book you might have disapproved of in the past for embodying a postmodernist aesthetic.

SB: What allows me to enjoy it is that Powers himself is so surpassingly intelligent. It’s postmodernism with a wink, which I suppose you could say of all postmodernism: it winks as it delivers the goods. And the novel is, in its way, a cultural lament of the kind I respond to very deeply. It looks both ways; we’re back to Walter Benjamin.

In any case, postmodernism may already be gone even as we speak. And who knows what’s around the next bend? The only thing for sure is that we are not returning to cultural hierarchies. Between deconstruction on the one hand, and multiculturalism on the other, the canon battle is no longer a battle, it’s over. The notion of books and authors — of a significant tradition of books and authors — can’t withstand the combined assault.

HB: Near the end of The Gutenberg Elegies you write: “There is, finally, a tremendous difference between communication in the instrumental sense and communion in the affective, the soul-oriented, sense.” And you conclude, with regard to the electronic media, “From deep in the heart I hear the voice that says, ‘Refuse it.’”

You are drawing on religious language here. Are your objections to electronic media, at bottom, religious?

SB: You’re asking a core question, a question I would want to be asked.

I have a problem defining myself within religious terms. I’ve never, even as a child, been to a church service. In that sense I’m a real outsider to religion. But I am haunted by the spiritual possibilities of consciousness, of being human. It’s what I’ve always responded to in art — Wordsworth’s image of “trailing clouds of glory.” I feel we come from somewhere and are headed somewhere. Whether that jives with what science is telling us right now is almost immaterial.

What is at the core of my lament at the end of the book is that I see the inevitable movement into electronics and technology — and not only communications technology — as ultimately diffusing, diluting and pulling us away from the charge of the sacred. It doesn’t make it impossible; it just makes it more difficult.

It carries us farther. It doesn’t carry the mystery farther. To me that’s worrisome. 

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