THE AUTHOR of multiple books of nonfiction — including The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, and The Other Walk: Essays — Sven Birkerts has remained a prolific and significant voice in literary and cultural criticism, showing a range of interests and aptitudes, and giving his readers new perspectives on topics from the sonnet to the cell phone.
In his most recent book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, Birkerts returns to ideas about technology almost 10 years after writing a new foreword to his original meditation, The Gutenberg Elegies, which was first published over two decades ago. In the interim, his thinking has become that much more focused and refined, and my conversation with him raised a trove of considerations for me as a reader, a teacher, and a millennial — ones I hope other young writers will take to heart.
MICAH MCCRARY: You’re the author of The Gutenberg Elegies, one of the seminal texts on the effects of technology on our culture. Why this new book, Changing the Subject? What’s changed for you, especially as a writer who’s something of a Luddite?
SVEN BIRKERTS: We can get to the Luddite part of the question soon, but in terms of there being a shift between The Gutenberg Elegies, first published in 1994, and the new book. Well, in a sense, the nature of that shift is, as the title not-so-slyly suggests, the new “subject.” When I was first thinking about the technological transformation of culture, it was possible to point to the source of the change — it was the arrival of the personal computer and early online culture. But in the 20-plus years since then, that somewhat isolated identifiable thing has transformed the culture. It’s now a total environment that we all move around in. It’s very nearly a seamless envelope — and I don’t think I need to itemize the elements. But unlike so many other things that have come along historically to change how we live, this digital environment is largely invisible. The dimensions of the polar icecap we can see, but this we largely can’t.
My angle, my interest, is in asking how the transformation is affecting us subjectively, whether the terms and conditions of individual selfhood are being modified — of course they are! — and in what ways. Though the core concerns are as much as I first outlined in Gutenberg, now there is an added chill factor, which I see as our fairly relentless drift toward hive behaviors and hive mentality. How not? We are more interconnected than ever before, and the meshes get more and more closely woven.
What’s changed for me? Well, it’s become harder to wear the Luddite hat without feeling like a total hypocrite. I mean, as a teacher, editor, and head of a writing program, I’m using my screen all the time. I tweet. And I have a smartphone — but I mainly use it for taking pictures. Does that disqualify me? It should. I would defend myself — maybe lamely — by saying I’m doing field research, but if you stared me down I would have to crack a smile.
If The Gutenberg Elegies was written, as you say in the Introduction to the 2006 Edition, "in a mood of private emergency," what "mood" might you say Changing the Subject was written in?
Can we call serious questioning a “mood”? Sure — we can call it “the interrogative mood.” The essays in Changing the Subject were almost all written to trace out one or another vector of wondering. What are the effects of the collapse of distance? What is the nature of attention? How do these various prostheses (GPS, Wikipedia, Google Earth …) affect what Marshall McLuhan in his time called the “sense ratios”? What about serendipity? What happens to the myth of the solitary creator in an increasingly collaborative culture? And so on. There is a lot of asking going on, and the answering is more speculative, less dogmatic (I hope). There is an essay in the book called “It’s Not Because I’m a Cranky Luddite, I Swear,” in which I thrash out aspects of my own quasi-Luddism and try to get at the ambivalences that shadow every attempted stance.
I’ve seen you bring the work of Walter Benjamin, specifically "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," into your own, and I’m wondering whether you see Benjamin’s work as having a large influence on yours.
Benjamin was a more specific influence in earlier writings, most obviously that particular essay, but in more recent years he has been more a tutelary spirit, a figure of influence. We all have our private touchstone figures, I think — people we call to mind when we need to be reaffirmed in what we’re doing or how we’re doing it. Benjamin, I feel, was never not wrestling. His writing carries enormous pressure of thought with aphoristic elegance. When I forget what a certain kind of speculative thinking can be, I go to one or another of his essays — about the storyteller, about Baudelaire...I love the fact that behind (or alongside) all of that thinking is a lyricism, a metaphoric sensibility. He energizes and provokes — always.
And your other "private touchstone figures"? Will you admit to some of them here?
It would be quite a list, since the influences are of different kinds and they have changed over the years. Many have been literary — poets like Robert Lowell, Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Tomas Transtromer, Elizabeth Bishop; writers of fiction like Robert Musil, Julio Cortazar, Malcolm Lowry, Max Frisch, Marguerite Yourcenar, Saul Bellow, Virginia Woolf. I realize that as I’m doing this mental inventory, I’m actually thinking in terms of essays I’ve written — for the very real reason that whenever a writer becomes a kind of obsession, I try to get at him or her by writing. These are a few on the literary front. Essayists? Joan Didion, Roland Barthes, Benjamin (again), Cyril Connolly, Annie Dillard. As far as the kind of thinking that I find myself pursuing, that quasi-paranoid stuff about computers, media, and networked systems, I took a lot from, in no order, Marshall McLuhan, George W.S. Trow, Walker Percy, Don DeLillo, Neil Postman: all writers who took seriously the idea that these phenomena largely invisible to the eye — and seemingly innocuous and ease-making — were having huge impacts on the psyche, how we think and process, how we relate to others, how we relate to the physical reality of the world.
Were any of these actually your teachers? And how much do you think of your own teachers when you translate what you believe about writing into your classroom?
My most important classroom teacher was the poet Joseph Brodsky in Ann Arbor in the 1970s — and I have here and there written about the experience. I learned nothing about methodology — he was not that kind of a teacher — but I got the rare, and to me explosive, experience of feeling what it’s like when an actual writerly soul gets hold of literature (poetry) and talks about it from the inside. I learned more from the man’s impatience with us than from anything particular he said. It was the friction of the ordinary (us students) against the extraordinary (Brodsky, the poems we read). This was not to be translated by me into any teaching practice. When I teach, though, I do — relentlessly and probably boringly — try to get students to slow down, to appreciate that the combustion of language happens word by word. But then, I don’t teach poetry. And I never had any teachers who taught the essay, or “writing.” I’ve had to make that up, learning where I can from wonderful co-teachers in the MFA world (Lucy Grealy, George Packer, Bernard Cooper, Phillip Lopate, Dinah Lenney, Joan Wickersham, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Liam Rector, George Scialabba, Verlyn Klinkenborg — quite a list, huh?). My thing is structure — trying to discover eloquent form. Each form is eloquent in its own way, just like every unhappy family. There is no prescription for doing this, and this is the great challenge of the teaching I do.
In the Changing the Subject essay called "The Lint of the Material," you write about your habits, telling us you’re the same person in 2015 as you were in 2000. But what about your writing and teaching habits? How much have they changed with changes in technology?
I now write and re-write on the laptop. It’s hard to tell what is the effect of technology and what is the effect of getting older. I do think my basic way of moving in on any given subject is much the same as it always has been — I marinate ideas, or, to change metaphors, I let them swirl around and around in my head, until they feel ready to be written. I recognize when that point has come when I get distinct phrases starting to bubble up (my third analogy here). The difference is just that I take that agitation to the keyboard and screen now, as opposed to pen and notebook or keyboard and paper. I think I may be harder to satisfy now than I used to be, and I probably go over my sentences even more often than I did before. I feel things develop in what T.S. Eliot called “the auditory imagination,” and if I try to impress anything on my students, it’s the importance of rhythm, diction, syntax in the formulation of expression.
And I respond to my MFA students exactly as I did 20 years ago, when I started low-residency teaching. I line-edit their manuscripts, and I invest much energy in trying to second-guess their deepest motivation or impetus, to honor this in my comments and questions, to nudge it where I feel it can be nudged.
Is low-residency teaching different from working with writing students year-round?
Low-residency teaching is my dream job, really. Because the “instruction” requires a certain sustained immersion and devotion of time. I work with five students a semester. At the 10-day residency I meet with them, and we discuss not just their pieces from workshop, but also their reading, their backgrounds, their writerly ambitions. As a teacher I am also, at some level, trying to psych them out by trying to see or intuit things about what they’re doing that they may not themselves be fully conscious of. I do a lot of prodding and testing. Not in the manner of a therapist, who might try to get at the material directly, but via the prose. “Let’s look at this scene — is there something more going on?” That kind of thing. Then we part ways and the correspondence semester begins, and I do a lot of close work on the prose.
After I’ve thought through the month’s offering, I try to synthesize my thoughts into a substantive letter — with suggestions, side-bar reflections, recommendations of authors or books they might look at. Working with students in a regular college course, I can do so very little of that. And undergraduates are — many of them — just trying to get the credit and the grade, whereas my MFA students are there because they want to write. They can’t not write. Big difference.
Which "acts of attention and recognition" (to steal your notion of serendipity from your essay of the same title) have opened up for you now that you’re composing on a laptop?
I guess the question is: What has changed since I switched from decades of yellow legal pad + typewriter? Interesting to ponder. I think — and this is not all good — that these days with a laptop I am more ready to dive in and start something, whereas before any decision was a more physical (which is to say labor-intensive) commitment. I really was, for years, one of those people who would, say, re-type a whole page because I didn’t like a particular sentence. (And I am a few-finger typist, though quite a fast one by now). The virtue of the old composition was that I wouldn’t start something until it was much farther along in my head. Which meant that I learned to develop and hold thoughts in my mind before venturing to the page. The new mode is liberating. You can save, cut and paste, dip in and change a phrase, whatever. It could be too much freedom, and because of that I’m glad that I put in so much time doing it the old way, because those reflexes have not died out completely. I still wait until I feel the contour-form of what I’m after. It’s hard to say how this works — I just arrive at a sense of readiness. But a readiness that holds a lot of unknowns in it, that has a promise of surprises. I do believe that when the material is “ready,” the language will start to guide the expression, and the little decisions made then influence what comes next.
And when you’re making connections — recommending authors and books to your students, how do you do that now? Is it the same process you once followed when reading liner notes and CD inserts (as you talk about in the new book)?
I want to say that the single greatest shaping force here, the basis for being able to make these connections, came out of the long time I spent working in all kinds of bookstores. I’ve said it before, that that was my real college, my education. What I mean is that it was an amniotic immersion in books and reading. It was years and years of not following some course syllabus, but rather of picking up a book because it looked interesting, because someone in the store (one of my brilliant book-rat co-workers) might have said, “Hey, you have got to read this.” Any good book will, in the manner of a pool-table bumper, send you angling off to another, and that to another, on and on. The trails are not predictable, they really are serendipitous, but not in the manner of Pandora (“If you liked …”). It’s much stranger than Pandora. Mention of a name in John Berger sends you to some art critic who sends you to the letters of so-and-so, who you find out was mesmerized by X. … You do this for years and it creates this referential network. Then on top of that comes the grid of, say, critics. I start to read Edmund Wilson or Randall Jarrell or Susan Sontag, and their enthusiasms are so palpable, you have to find that person … on and on. And it never stops, because you really are never done with any worthy writer, you can’t cross him or her off the list. How many times has some writer sent me back to the same essay by, say, Emerson. Each time it’s like “I’ve never read this before.”
Do you think sites like Goodreads and Amazon help readers in the same way your coworkers once did?
I am completely down on the idea of these sites in any way replacing the contagion of word-of-mouth, and I don’t think they ever will. In the essay you mentioned earlier, “Serendipity,” I go off a bit on the idea of the preference algorithm (“If you liked X, you will want Y …”). Good bookstore workers, and I’ve known some very good ones, have a kind of dowser’s sense of things. They can tell by the cut of a person’s jeans, by their posture, what a customer will like. OK, I exaggerate. But the human factor, what you pick up in a face-to-face exchange, is so information-laden. Preference programs can’t get at it, not at the level at which it matters. Sure, if you want books about pirates or lapdogs. But if you want books that give you the transport of rhythmic density, of a certain degree of wryness. … Well, you can fill in the rest.
In addition to being an essayist, you’ve worked prominently as a literary critic. Has your approach to criticism changed over the years?
I feel like I’ve migrated from thinking of books as a critic to thinking of books as an essayist. By which I mean I’ve moved away from a certain kind of explanatory impulse and into a more personal and exploratory realm. I’m now interested in what the reading of a given book does for me, how it creates a world, how it might actually influence my life. A recent test case of this has been Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which I’ve been reading and re-reading from what might be called a phenomenological angle. I find it inexhaustible. How does Woolf evoke time, its passage? And: how does that actually affect me; how does it impinge on my day-to-day or my dead-of-the-night thinking? I am not interested in evaluation that much, and that has always been one of the critic’s central job descriptions.
In the age of the essay and the op-ed, has that "central job description" changed? I’m wondering if you see anything different in the criticism you read now as opposed to the criticism you read, say, 15 years ago.
Good question! I think in the former day — whatever that was (pre-internet saturation?) — the critic worked within a cultural context, the parameters of which were known or intuited by anyone who worked within that culture. Now, in the age of the great lateral scattering, the critic, if he or she is really to be a critic, has to re-create some of the context within which a given work exists. And this gets harder and harder. Imagine Edmund Wilson filing copy nowadays. I don’t mean to say that we don’t have a number of very intelligent critics, but they can’t fall back on the broad inclusive tone, the tone that assumed that certain basic understandings were operative. They have to build from the ground up, and at every moment — and this goes for teaching, too — they fear the eye roll. The eye roll — the fear of the eye roll — has changed a lot about how things happen in our intellectual culture. Is this new? Yes, mainly it is. The eye roll is the reflexive response of the person conditioned to instant gratifying entertainment. Amuse me or I will move on. It is hard to be serious in a sustained way.
So what can a critic fall back on, if anything? The assumption that a reader will google?
What can a critic fall back on? I think your question identifies a change in the critic’s job description. Formerly (and maybe I idealize), the critic spoke to an audience. There was the assumption of a certain baseline “cultural literacy,” though of course it was in sedimentary layers, so that the reviewer/critic writing for the Saturday Review supposed a slightly less informed readership than did Edmund Wilson writing for The New Yorker, or T.S. Eliot for The Criterion. We have our own sedimentation today, of course, and the person writing for the Barnes & Noble reviewing site is not sounding like Louis Menand in The New Yorker. But these days, more than before, the critic has to fill in and create context for what he or she is writing about. There is just too much to know about. Google searches are good for pinpointing information, but they don’t — can’t — provide the larger frame within which things make sense. So, the responsible critic needs to offer instruction. Oddly — maybe paradoxically — this is one of the big reasons that people read The New York Review of Books — not because they want to know what Sir Aubrey Chiswick thinks of the latest book on the Reformation, but because they know that Sir Aubrey will be obliged to give them a concise and maybe interesting mini-lecture on what the Reformation was.
In Wikipedia’s age, how important do you think it is for readers to ponder "the death of the expert" (as you suggest in your essay "The Room and the Elephant")?
“Expert” does have a hierarchical ring, doesn’t it? And that — a symptom of how things are — makes it instantly uncool. Of course, there are kinds of expertise. Technical expertise is not to be argued with — all our techno-thriller movies, have you noticed, are premised on the arrival of the rumpled, vice-ridden but utterly brilliant “solver”: the expert. But in the humanities? Expertise is suspect, seen as hegemonic, as somehow supporting the idea of canonicity — it’s very tricky. Should readers ponder this? Of course! Not with the idea of solving the enigma of expertise, but because pondering keeps alive the whole question of how our cultural ideals are created and enforced. It’s extremely interesting to think about.
You write, in "Bolaño Summer," that you’re envious when you "see a person sitting quietly with a book, lost to the world." But you specify this with the novel. What about when you see a person sitting with literary — as opposed to theoretical (like Kant or Lévi-Strauss) — nonfiction?
Well, the novel — or anything else “literary” — bears upon the realm of the imagined, the created. When you read a work of nonfiction (“The trading routes of the early Hittites …” “Rembrandt’s later career was ushered in …” or whatever), you are to some degree within the continuum of the factual, known, reportable order. The work may be wonderful, enlightening — but it does not shift you cognitively and existentially from A to B. But when you read “It was the best of times …” Or “Call me Ishmael …” you enter another dimension, one that you flesh out and make vital with your own inner “stuff.” So, if I see someone reading a work of history or popular science or whatever, I am prepared to grant them an interesting engagement — but I do not believe they could be experiencing the Nabokovian “aesthetic bliss.” That would be the coveted state.
But we find "cognitive and existential shifts" in work like yours, like Maggie Nelson’s, like James Baldwin’s or Roland Barthes’s, etc. How does this work in your own writing?
I’ll take this on obliquely, if I may. There is this idea — I associate it with Brechtian theater — about “baring the device,” purposefully creating effects that shatter the illusionism of the theater-going experience and remind the audience that the set is the set, the greasepaint is just that — it was meant as a reminder of the constructedness of artistic illusions. I think of this sometimes when I’m writing, when I’m girding myself with that “objective” voice in order to take on some subject. I realize that all I’m really doing is reporting my thoughts and sensations as I confront that subject or “thing.” What started out as a growing mistrust of my own pronouncing voice took a liberating turn — I became really interested in patrolling that interface. To the point that now, after years of doing this, I find it very hard to write about anything where I’m not at some level also writing about the fact of writing. I’m as fascinated with what sequence of inner events brings me to a thought as I am with the thought itself — maybe even more.
You once wrote that "art is an ongoing determination to fill in the blanks created by the agitations of what we later call history." How do you view this now? Still as "ad hoc theory," or is it a more solid belief?
I don’t quite remember how I intended that idea of “blanks,” but I can say that the question of the function of art — not just painting, but all expressive genres — is always on my mind. Art for itself (what are the changing conditions of its creation and reception?), but also art as a kind of vertical counter-thrust to the lateral expansions of the digital. I wrote in Gutenberg about art as the embodiment of duration, as opposed to the increasingly segmented clock time, nano-time we live in terms of; art as fostering subjective unity, as against the distracted fragmentation so much of our living requires. So, maybe it’s not so much a matter of filling blanks as of creating possibilities for attention and, with that, interludes of subjective wholeness.
So where do you see the literati and the "digerati" coming together, if they intersect at all?
Now this is a tough question — there are so many variables, and so many readings of those two key terms. I’m on record as saying that the novel and the internet are opposites. And though it’s one of those sweeping statements that people love to go after with “What about …?” I basically hold to it. What I mean — and it relates to your question — is that the novel, really the aesthetic experience in general, both the making and the partaking, is rooted in duration time and requires deep attention. Duration time is, in shorthand form, the time we inhabit when we are not aware of inhabiting clock time. The point of the digital is instantaneity — it is vast and lateral and moves impulses between nodes. In this way it is the apotheosis of distractedness, of fragmentation — though I do sometimes wonder if at the far end of such distribution of focus we might not arrive at another kind of timelessness. I don’t know. Anyway — where literati and digerati do connect is at the point of distribution. The writer does not make his or her work out of digital consciousness, even if it is in ways about digital experience — but when it is finished, odds are it will be brought to its readers through certain digital channels. These aren’t the only channels, of course, but they are there to be reckoned with more and more. The question — which goes back to your question — is what happens when a would-be reader encounters, say, a profound, immersive poem on the screen while hopping from link to link. Does he shortchange the poem as he “reads” it, or does he enact a resistance to the basic digital shuttling process by stopping everything to read it as it ought to be read — which is to say, slowly and without competition from peripheral stimuli?
You write, in what’s maybe the cornerstone of your thinking in Changing the Subject, in the essay "You Are What You Click," that the humanities are making a U-turn from Philosophy and Poetry to Big Data. I’m under the impression that this is more of a hard left, with writers like you philosophizing about what this turn to data means. How do you see yourself as a member-critic (hybrid intended) of the so-called Digital Humanities?
I’ll accept the “hard left” designation, sure. I’m always such a catastrophist. I see Digital Humanities as coming about through the convergence of several things. One, and this is hardly new, is the push toward finding legitimation within the humanities — which impulse was partly responsible for the wide-scale adoption of the poststructuralist theory. When you can crunch numbers and statistics, you acquire some of the prestige of the scientist. Finding out how many times Thomas Hardy used the word “stile” can, in the right frame, be illuminating. Two, having been handed the mind-boggling tool that is the search engine, how can the literary academic establishment say no, especially as students are fleeing in droves to legitimate techno-disciplines? Finally, not to be discounted, is the pervasive sense that everything has been said, that Melville has been ransacked for theses, every vein has been drilled for its ore — suddenly, the liberation of data! A fracking analogy beckons. Will this movement deliver any news we can use? It seems to me that it is a push away from ideas and implications and toward the concrete thingness of the worlds represented. That is not irrelevant material. But it is a further divestment of the felt power of the imagination.
Finally: What advice can you give to the budding writers of our time?
Besides “don’t quit your day job”? Well, that part holds, but it always has. If we think of writing as a state of being, a stance toward the world, rather than a viable profession, then I think — for the reasons embedded everywhere in this interview — there is no more necessary or challenging thing one can do. At least if one is disposed to reflection, to figuring out the place of the individual in this new dispensation — figuring it out and securing its ongoing vitality. It will seem more and more subversive to be a writer, a real writer, in an age of vast managed systems. And whatever happens within those systems, I don’t think they can quite eradicate the thing that happens inside when a person hears what she recognizes as the truth. We have many layers, do many things, wear many guises, but I think underneath it all we crave what a system disperses and a writer works toward: connection and coherence.