The Beatrice Interview

Sven Birkerts

"We can't stop ourselves from attributing and projecting all over the place."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

When literary critic Sven Birkert's The Gutenberg Elegies appeared last spring, his ruminations on "the fate of reading in an electronic age" met with very serious appraisal from the cyberspace community. Birkerts spent much of 1995 engaged in debate with technology advocates like Kevin Kelly and John Perry Barlow about the growth of the global information infrastructure and its potential threat to what Birkerts views as a very particular kind of literacy.

RH: Are you surprised at how the book seems to have caught on within the very community that most people would have thought you were criticizing most sharply?

SB: At first I was, but now I think I understand why that happened. These people who are the frontline "cyberthinkers" like nothing more than to talk about [cyberspace] in every sort of way, especially the larger, visionary ways.  And they saw my argument as a 
perfect occasion to mobilize their own enthusiasm.

When we did the Harper's 

the first thing we discovered was that we all agreed on one core premise, which is that [the Internet] is not a small thing, like CB radio -- this is big, and deeply transformative, and will change everything about the way we think. They see that influence as being more positive, and I am holding out for a more skeptical stance at this point.

RH: You champion the act of reading text as fundamentally different from reading off a screen, focusing a lot on its contemplative qualities. It occurs to me that there's also a leisurely quality to reading text. Sitting at a computer seems to me, no matter how relaxed or entertaining it may be, unable to produce a genuinely leisurely condition.

SB: You mean actually, physically, in the chair?...I would hold on to my argument even in a future where I could imagine something that looks very much like a book and might even unfold in your lap as you sat. It would still be generating its text from a chip. There's still a difference, something about the physical opaqueness of the page. We know it's a dead end, that the word has no place else to go or to come from, whereas the potentiality factor of the screen will always be subliminally present.

If you go into one patch of nature, it's wild and undomesticated, you've just hopped a fence and plunged into the nature, you perceive it differently than if you go in knowing that it's part of a national park. You perceive the same bushes or trees, but there's an underlying knowledge that changes your attitude to your experience.

RH: You're saying no matter what the technical format of the screen, the fundamental premise remains that the information potentially came out of nowhere and goes back to nowhere when we're done?

SB: Yes, I think that premise is there, and has to be. And that nowhere becomes a very important somewhere that we project onto psychologically. We can't stop ourselves from attributing and projecting all over the place. At least with a book, the projection goes into the text itself rather than into the delivery system.

RH: Has your experience in the last few months modified your positions in any way?

SB: I'm probably holding my positions more vigorously than ever, but the one place where I don't want to be blind and refuse to see reason is that I'm very much aware that this is a medium beautifully suited to the storage and transmission of data, and that it can be enormously transformative for the better in that regard. I think the functions that are going to be brought forward and refined as time goes on are going to be editorial and very sophisticated and going to subdue the impression that people have of suddenly walking up and facing the ocean -- that ocean is data, and it's only 
going to get larger.
 But there will be all sorts of 
ways of navigating the ocean, arranging the data.<P></TD>

My fear is that people are going to say,

RH: There was a very interesting comment in the coda, where you suggested that Wired magazine was a metaphorical "masturbation aid," in that every issue you read inspires you to think, generates ideas for you. That seems to be the core of much about what you say about the printed page in general -- that literature at its best becomes something in which we are actively involved. We're thinking about it, we're extrapolating from the issues that are in it. When we're online, do you get the sense that we're not inspired to think in that way?

SB: Yes...the way I field that particular question, which is experiential and hard to prove, is that when I'm talking about reading, in the more literary sense, I believe that when it's working, readers enter a particular relationship to time which I don't think they are able to enter online... I mean this sort of literally, sort of metaphorically; it almost has something to do, without being simplistic, with electricity itself. Circuitry and electricity somehow do not allow a certain interior switch in the reader to be thrown that opens us up to "deep time". The "deep time" or "duration state" that reading opens upon is a time that is not aware of the segmentation of time, and was pretty much a historical norm until our century, where we discovered so many different ways of shattering it.

Part of our cultural crisis is that most of the things that have traditionally conferred sensations of value and meaning to an individual tend to unfold in that time frame. Close relations with people take place in a situation of presence, as do spiritual experiences, and those experiences fall apart as soon as you become aware of the digit or the clock hand. This is true of all aesthetic immersion as well; if you're standing in front of a painting, so long as you know you have to meet somebody at the deli in twenty minutes, you're not experiencing the painting. My intuition is that the whole larger system of interaction, computer technologies and so on, goes against that state, blocking us from it, and conditions us in such a way that it makes it harder for us to get to that state over time. Another analogy that I would use is that driving in cars as much as we do does not make us unable to walk, but our steady reliance on the car has transformed the way that we walk. It's very difficult to recapture the spirit of the ambling walk that has no purpose or destination, that was done simply for the pleasure of the act.

RH: What you say about deep time harks back to what you say much earlier in the book, when you comment that most people only owned a handful of books, but read them over and over and over again. It seems to me that they lived in those texts in a way that we cannot, because we are bombarded by so many texts and so many other media.

SB: There's another thing that attaches to that idea, which is that so many people who read in childhood have a very special and profound set of associations with reading. It's not just that they had time to read and the whole world of books became a discovery, but it's also true that children experience deep time in certain ways. The time of childhood is not a time that understands segmentation. When you combine inhabiting a durational mode of experience with encountering works of imagination that accept all your projections and allow you to move into their world, it's an experience that can never be reduplicated. Adult reading can, at its best, only catch a piece of it.

RH: I sometimes feel, as a person in my mid20s, that I'm part of the last generation that really had that relationship to reading. As if I was perhaps five years too late to really grow up as thoroughly absorbed in computer games as people younger than me seem to be. I play them, but it rarely feels the way they describe it.

SB: Who knows, maybe they're having a deep, intense experience with those computer games. But it's not an experience that I've ever had; I don't know what it feels like.

RH: And it appears to be an experience that doesn't offer the same opportunities for moral, ethical, or metaphysical contemplation that reading does.

SB: And the nature of those games, because they are pitched to visual reflexes, really has to be more entertaining...there are some quest games that may be more contemplative, but never having played them, I wouldn't know.

RH: How much potential in the academy do you see to reverse the trends that you talk about? How far down the slippery slope are we, and can we get back?

SB: That's an enormous question, obviously. In the New York Times recently, there was an article about a new trend in academia, especially English and literary studies, a radical turn against theory and deconstruction that is predicated on ecology and environmental awareness. It struck me as an interesting symptom of a pendulum. The pendulum went way over in one direction in the 80s -- I happen to see all those literary trends, of which deconstruction would be one of the main ones, as in some way related to (not caused by) the kind of cognitive modes the computer experience engenders. It's a long argument, and I could make it some other time, but...basically, it was a decentering, a dethronement of central power, an exploration of trails and webs and so on, removing the author from the work, all that stuff.

RH: Deconstruction and similar theories, in the way that they reduce a text to information, definitely are kindred to what's happening in computers. That's related to what I think is one of the most critical points in your book, when you buttress Russell Jacoby's thesis from The Last Intellectuals about the way in which the public intellectual withdrew or became obsolete after the Second World War. The intellectual life retreated into the academy, where it's being encroached upon even further, so that the influence that the academy has is shrinking, and the opportunities for intellectuals seem fairly grim.

SB: I think of "intellectual" in the larger sense of the word, in the sense that tries to come up with a synthetic critique or vision of any particular social situation. And the compensation for the disappearance of that, which I don't find a huge compensation, is particularization; any given area of study being broken down and further broken down. This is something that technology is aiding in an alarming way, in that you can create your whole society of people interested in a certain bug, because you can contact them all online and organize your intellectual cell. When that happens, you're less bound by the cultural responsiblity of standing for the larger world of ideas.

BEATRICE More Beatrice Interviews
Jonathan Raban | Steven Holtzman

All materials copyright © 1995 Ron Hogan