Man is crystallized in the peculiar system of the book.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Reading in the Digital Age

Reading in the Digital Age.” Sven Birkerts. The American Scholar, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring, 2010). pp. 32-44.

Birkerts’ article is only the latest of a number of similar pieces that have appeared in the last decade or so to question the ascendant digital paradigm in the context of reciprocal losses to human culture. The genre tends to pursue several now familiar themes, and Birkerts’ piece is no exception.

He makes the mandatory observations about generational differences in our use of digital technologies; he cites recent scientific findings to support the notion that we are physiologically more like computing devices than we care to admit (regardless of the fact that our understanding of brain function is extremely limited); he laments both the replacement of real experience by an invasive, hyperactive virtual one and the attendant loss of attention span; he describes our awkward cultural accommodation to increasingly ubiquitous, highly seductive technologies; and, he admits freely that he himself, though limited by his apparent generational deficiencies, is to a degree committed to his “screen.”

Birkerts’ perspective is very much a personal one, which alone makes his article worth reading; what it does best is to reveal the deep complexity of his anxiety around this issue. For some of us, it seems, the problems of the digital paradigm loom very large indeed. And, perhaps they should.

But he accomplishes something else, perhaps unintentionally, which raises troubling questions that might have remained hidden had we not charged down the digital path in the first place, questions that compel scrutiny of our assumptions about what it means to be human.

Unlike similar articles on the topic, “Reading in a Digital Age” proposes a specific corrective, or at least a possible means of resistance. Arguing that the capacity for narrative thought is exclusively human (on its own, a highly questionable assertion), he offers its richest expressive form, the novel, as an "inwardly experiential, intransitive, mode of contemplation," one whose singular demands on our attention and concentration inure us to the fragmenting effects of the digital juggernaut.

I was intrigued by Birkerts' proposal. It was quirky and promised to be compelling on elaboration. But it is precisely in making his case for the novel that his article fails. And the nature of its failure is why it seems worth commenting upon here.

What is remarkable about his argument is that, though he aligns himself with the novel rhetorically, and perhaps too purely nostalgically, he seems not to understand its significance, its genuine, enormous, transformative power. He manages only to suggest tentatively that the novel, if given the chance, will “yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won,” as though reading novels were merely a heightened form of diversion. And though he hints at the possibility of deeper implications and meanings, he seems irretrievably convinced that there is no more to it. One can’t help thinking that his reluctance to offer a more convincing case arises from a hobbled, reductionist grasp of the novel, one limited to, as he says, “narrative premise and the craft of realization.”

Having retreated to the more sterile (and quantifiable) corners of literary consideration, it is little wonder that he should feel so threatened by the advancing digital paradigm. Oddly, it makes perfect sense: Birkerts' anxiety seems to arise less from his concerns about digitally imposed reductionism than from the fact that it trumps his own version of it. It can only be disheartening to realize one has nothing more profound to offer, to feel one is a mere machine.

Kundera sums up the problem nicely:
Now, if the novel’s raison d’être is to keep the “world of life” [quoting Husserl] under a permanent light and to protect us from the “forgetting of being,” is it not more than ever necessary today that the novel should exist?

Yes, so it seems to me, but the novel too is ravaged by the termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art.1
So, allow me to clarify, to defend. But first, just to open the floodgates some, a brief passage from Proust:
But it was in vain that I lingered beside the hawthorns—breathing in their invisible and unchanging odor, trying to fix it in my mind (which did not know what to do with it), losing it, recapturing it, absorbing myself in the rhythm which disposed the flowers here and there with a youthful light-heartedness and at intervals as unexpected as certain intervals in music—they went on offering me the same charm in inexhaustible profusion, but without letting me delve any more deeply, like those melodies which one can play a hundred times in succession without coming any nearer to their secret.2
Here is a taste of the novelist’s reach, his fierce strength, the sudden acceleration of mere language into an infinity of knowledge, through sensation and experience and loss. Here is a talisman for the novel itself, for the mind. Over this marvel, the digital paradigm has no reign. Nor will it ever.

The novel’s most profound achievement, the key to its greatness, is the way in which it refracts the world through so many experiential filters. I cannot be Proust (or Mann, or Woolf, or Nabokov), but some primal (primate?) connection to him through his monumental work, to his world, permits me not only to explore that world, but to regard mine with similarly tuned sensual attentiveness, through his “settings,” so to say.

One lives in a certain grace having read Proust. He has given me his world, but also mine, in parallel, heightened, enlarged, made deeper and more magnificent in the process—and I do not mean this at all metaphorically. I am being as literal as I can possibly be—the idea is essential to the understanding of what exactly a novel is. Through his writing, Proust has literally recalibrated my senses, realigned my perceptual ground, so that I am a fundamentally different being than I was before reading him. And therefore my very world has been transformed, infused with even more vitality and meaning.

These observations echo Robbe-Grillet. In his essay “From Realism to Reality,” he is more specific on this point, insisting that simplistic notions of the novel as merely a framework for plot and character mean nothing when “we realize that not only does each of us see in the world his own reality, but that the novel is precisely what creates it… it is invention, invention of the world and of man, constant invention and perpetual interrogation.”3

To end, the digital paradigm poses a threat only if those who value the life of the mind cease to engage in endeavors that require thoughtful, concentrated reflection. And what of the relative powers of these apparently competing interests? The answer is simple and needs only to be stated once clearly: The novelist's reach into the world is always superior, because it is the novel, “in inexhaustible profusion,” that makes the world fully real.

  1. Milan Kundera. The Art of the Novel. Translated by Linda Asher. Faber and Faber: London, 1999. p. 17.
  2. Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright. Modern Library: New York, 1998. p. 194.
  3. Alain Robbe-Grillet. “From Realism to Reality.” For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction. Translated by Richard Howard. Northwestern University Press: Evanston, 1989. p. 161.

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