OCTOBER 4, 2015
A FEW THINGS I did not do while reading Sven Birkerts’s Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age:
- Check my Apple email account from my laptop, desktop, iPad, or two iPod Touches
- Check my Google email account from my laptop, desktop, iPad, or two iPod Touches
- Check my two university email accounts from my laptop, desktop, iPad, or two iPod Touches
Twenty-one years ago, in The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts observed a world being swiftly transformed by technology and pondered “the fate of reading in an electronic age.” Those essays remain just as sharply and painfully relevant today (maybe even more so, as one wonders why nobody listened to the man). But as forward-thinking as Birkerts was in his pre-21st century anxiety, it’s almost quaint now to look back at the references to VCRs and videodisks, faxes and answering machines, or to the “hardwiring of the nation” in preparation for the “electronic web.” (Just as children now ask “What’s a VCR?” soon they’ll be wondering “What’s a wire?”) After all, when The Gutenberg Elegies was published, AOL was still duking it out with Compuserve for the right to charge people by the hour as they waited for a single image to download one agonizing line at a time. Witness Birkerts’s angst over the Sony “hand-held electronic book,” which held just that — a single book. Ahh, those halcyon pre-Kindle days …
Despite the title, Birkerts’s subject is, of course, very familiar: What happens to us — as individuals, as a society — as we swim through this constantly raging sea of technological innovation? What is the impact on our minds? Our humanity? Our souls? As he explores these questions, Birkerts references neuroscientists, engineers, media theorists, and “digital pundits” such as Nicholas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains), Kevin Kelley (Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World), and Clay Shirky (Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age). While these citations ground the book in time and place, in research-based suppositions and concrete facts, Birkerts’s passion truly soars when he turns to less contemporary thinkers like Emerson, Rilke, and Woolf.
The title of the first piece, “On or About,” is pulled from the opening quote, from Virginia Woolf (“[O]n or about December 1910 human character changed”) — a neat bit of closing the circle, since it was Woolf who two decades ago also kicked off The Gutenberg Elegies — “It was [she] who started me thinking about thinking again,” Birkerts wrote back then, at the start of the first essay of the collection. For that jumpstart, then and now, we can all be thankful, for it is Birkerts’s thinking that is the highlight throughout; his musing aloud on a deep-seated fear “[t]hat we have a different, much diminished sense of human presence now … that something deep in the human ecology has been disturbed”; his sharp-eyed analysis of the shape of that disturbance and the ways in which its effects are seen throughout society —
We feel it as anxiety, as self-detachment, as a sense of incompleteness, a private distress to which we respond, if we do at all, by turning to therapy, to prescriptions, to meditation and endorphin-releasing exertions.
One potential cause for all this, he argues, is the manner in which we have replaced what he terms “duration time” — periods of contemplation and reverie — with a “now” time filled with constant electronic distraction. This loss of something he views as essential to our individual being, combined with a general reduced human presence in our lives and our increased reliance on faceless networks, will lead, he fears, to a “drift toward electronic merging, social hiving — with all the systemic leveling of idiosyncrasy that implies.”
If this prediction sounds familiar, it may be because it mirrors the language of dystopia, perhaps the dominant artistic mode of recent years, as any quick scan of the bookshelves or movie times will show. But the version hinted at in Changing the Subject is different: this dystopia hasn’t been brutally enforced by some tyrannical government entity. Just the opposite — it’s one that we seemingly can’t sign up for fast enough (even Birkerts admits to using email and going online, though at the time of the writing he had so far continued to resist the siren call of the cell phone).
A few other things I did not do while reading Sven Birkerts’s Changing the Subject:
- Watch, download, or stream via the large-screen plasma TV, the set-top box, the DVR, the Blu-ray, the Apple TV, my laptop, desktop, iPad, or two iPod Touches any movies, shows, or video clips from:
- Cable TV (basic, standard, or enhanced)
- HBO Regular, HBO Go, or HBO Now
- Showtime Regular or Showtime Anytime
- NFL Now, NFL Mobile, or WatchESPN
- Amazon Prime
- Movies on Demand
- DVD or Blu-ray discs
Woolf initiates the conversation, but Emerson and Rilke get in more words. In “Emerson’s ‘The Poet’ — A Circling,” Birkerts contrasts Emerson’s vision of the role and power of the poet (standing in for artists in general) and the individual to their seemingly diminished capacity in our own times, so diminished in his eyes that at the end he compares our underused imaginations to a “phantom limb.”
Similarly, in “The Room and the Elephant” (a version of which was first published in Los Angeles Review of Books), Birkerts turns to Rilke as a more reliable guide to a life well lived, in comparison with today’s technological cheerleaders:
Rilke’s watchword, the driving concept of the elegies, is transformation. He sees our tenancy on earth as fragile; he registers an anxiety which … is uncannily like the anxiety many of us live with every day. But where the impulse of our age is clearly toward instrumental mastery, toward what is, in effect, the invention of a parallel realm in which we all collaborate and, perhaps, move toward some kind of social merging, he offers up the difficult other course. Instead of turning from the demands imposed on individual being — which is to say, at root, solitary being — he urges fronting that world, taking it in, suffering it, and in the process, though with no guarantee of success, transforming it … [He] asks that we take the world in, swallow it in our living, and then labor to spin it into the stuff of a higher awareness.
In this piece, though, Birkerts is less fatalistic, ending not with the vision of our amputated or atrophied sensibilities, but with a question that indicates his faith in our humanity. Don’t we know “occasions when it strikes us that the world is indeed changing, and changing in ways that escape our easy reckoning,” he asks, “but which sometimes waken in us, depending on the day, depending on our nature, either bursts of quiet exaltation, or else premonitions of some deeper dread?”
While the picture Birkerts paints can be bleak, it would be wrong to characterize this collection as monotonically grim or apprehensive. Twenty years ago he wrote with more of a sense of mourning a fait accompli, as implied by his use of “elegies” and “fate” in the title, but here the key subtitle words are “art” and “attention,” presented not as signposts of loss but as bulwarks against the threatening tide of technology.
Art for Birkerts is “the necessary counter to our information glut crisis.” Though he fears we live in a time of attenuated creativity, even perhaps a time that defies creative representation, he continues:
Imagination is a formative inward power, independent and generative. Information, by contrast, and by original definition, imparts inner form from the outside … Imagination creates shape; information imposes shape. The former is the energy of the self, the latter the energy of the world … Great art, ambitious, realized art, not only lifts us to its level, but also gives us energy in the form of attention; it offers an inward integrity to help counter the dissipating force of signals, endless distractions of data. It arms us, if only for a time, against the depletion that threatens on every front. But more than a refuge or a sanctuary, it is also an inoculation; it is a preemptive engagement undertaken on behalf of the individual and it keeps the ideal of individuation, so threatened, still viable.
What art requires of us in return, what it compels, is attention. Sustained attention. The problem, however, is that “our fragmented, dispersed living [is] wreaking havoc” on our ability to call up such attention, having to do with “a whole mad universe of images and signals, figments and streams of information arriving through devices, all of which affect attention itself, altering its reach and intensity.” And yet, in the end, for Birkerts,
It’s [still] all about attention. … Attention paid to the life, to the fact of the life, to events and people, to their enormous mattering — all the things that could not be more obvious when we’re brought awake, but that really do get slurred away by distraction.
More things I did not do while reading Sven Birkerts’s Changing the Subject:
- Answer my cell phone
- Read the book on my Kindle Keyboard, Kindle Touch, iPod Touch, or iPad
- Listen to music on my iPod Nano, iPod Touches, iPad, TV, Apple TV, or stereo, via Apple Music, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Pandora, or Spotify
- Play Pandemic, Chess, Forbidden Island, Carcassonne, or Botanicula on my iPad
- Set my cell phone alarm
How, though, are we brought awake? Or more importantly, how do we go about waking ourselves? True, as he says, great art will do the trick. But equally true is that most of us don’t come face to face with “great art, ambitious art” — the kind that makes one “feel the live presence of beauty” (here he offers as examples Joyce’s “The Dead,” The Great Gatsby, and Woolf again) — on a daily basis. However, in “Attending the Dragonfly,” the brilliant essay that closes out the collection, Birkerts shows us that that finding things to pay attention to requires not a trip to MoMA but “an action of the spirit.” Here he is in about as pedestrian a setting, employed in as mundane an activity as one can imagine, working his stationary bike in his son’s old bedroom:
At some point I catch myself studying the tree with its bare branches reaching in toward the window, and the hedge down beside it, crusted with old snow turning purple in the evening light, and then I see how the pavement cracks and buckles just beyond. Things could not be more beautiful. How could they? What would I add or change? What could improve this desk right here in front of me, with its small pile of books, the folded over sheet of newspaper, and that most curious oblong, that thing that looks for all the world like a dragonfly that has fixed itself there. Each point, I think, is a center around which a world can be drawn. It’s all about attention. Attention. On the street, in the spot where the pavement dips, a puddle filled with sky: Gray, blue, perfect. How have I been sitting here all this time, looking this way and that, and not seen that glowing patch of changing light? No end to looking, I think …
What he is showing us here is what he tells us later in the same essay: “[N]othing, nothing can be discounted.” How fierce this repeated call for attention, this plea at the end of a book filled with sorrow over a world transforming itself not for the better, over the replacement of wisdom with information, contemplation with distraction, duration with speed, the individual with the hive. And yet, at the end, what Birkerts leaves us with is not grief, but rapture. Not resignation, but epiphany:
I was not on the bike when the recognition came this most recent time … I was lying in bed just before dawn, awake, as so often happens now — suddenly alert with the sensation of “This is it — this is my life!” which usually arrives and then just vanishes, but I lay there, eyes closed, and held it. And I knew right then that I could turn my mind to any part of my life and bring it alive. Anything: the water fountain at my first school, the feeling of walking with my friend in the pine woods near my house … the weight of my newborn son when I held him up over my head. I could point my mind to anything in my life and have it — savor it there in the dark, even as I was telling myself that this must not be forgotten, that it absolutely has to be attended to, that my life will make sense only when every one of these things is known for what it was, or is. I think back on it now, holding myself straight, in purposeful motion, but not moving at all, staring in front of me as the world tips lightly from side to side.
It is a moment as transformative for the reader as for the author, one that almost negates so much of the anxiety that has come before. But only almost, for even as one lingers on that image — even as one is, as Birkerts describes as his own experience of art, “compelled to attention” — it’s impossible not to wonder who out there who does not already seek this sort of moment is going to read this book? Is it the ironic tragedy of Birkerts’s spot-on observations that in the distracting cacophony of this noisy, noisy world, most will not pay heed to a necessary treasure like Changing the Subject? If so, his fear of 20 years ago that “we are giving up on wisdom” will have truly come to pass.
A few things I did immediately after finishing Sven Birkerts’s Changing the Subject:
- Reread my copy of Duino Elegies
- Reread the end of “The Dead” and then reread “The Dead”
- Looked a little longer, a little harder, at the world around me
- And checked all my email.