In Response to Sven Birkerts

Well, Good Ol’ Sven is at it again, dissing the digital age as an abject obverse to the novel. Some questions:

1. If Sven’s students are “not reading newspapers or print magazines,” but are reading the same articles through “online news sources,” then is this really a binary opposition? Sven proudly announces that he “was watching the opening scenes of Wim Wenders’s 1987 film Wings of Desire,” but if one is to adopt his catholic approach, I would contend that, by seeing Wenders’s film on television (as opposed to projected in a theater), then he has not actually experienced the film as it was originally designed. We must therefore slap Sven on the wrists for “not watching” Wings of Desire. He commits the same “hypocrisy” that his students do in reading articles online.

2. On the subject of Wings, Sven commends the “flash I felt myself looking back in time from a distant and disengaged vantage.” But how is this unique to a 23-year-old film? One fascinating development (indeed, an exciting one) is that a movie or a blog post from only a few months ago seems ever more like ancient history. Everything we now create transforms into forgotten driftwood subject to a promising rediscovery. Liberation from the self through instant insignificance! I love it! So does the relative obscurity of sifting through our past efforts therefoe combat the problems of information saturation? If everything is available to us at the push of a button, does not the thrill arrive in finding some morsel (or some association) that nobody else has discovered (or, more accurately, vocalized)? Is there not also a thrill in revisiting something from 23 years ago and finding yet another angle? This is hardly “bemused pity,” unless you are truly disengaged and incurious about the world you live in, as Sven seems to be. Which is too bad for him. He’s missing out!

3. Sven suggests that his students are pretending “they are taking course-related notes, but would not be surprised to find out they are writing to friends, working on papers for other courses, or just trolling their favorite sites while they listen.” He does not find out if they are really doing this. In short, he shows no interest about how his students — the generation he wishes to get through to — accesses information. He complains that his students are quick on the draw with their speeding bullets of data, but he doesn’t convey how well they are able to wrap their heads around a conversational subject that requires some heavy cerebral lifting (instead of reliance upon Google) — perhaps a ruminative speculation on a novel or a piece of writing or something that is important to them. It’s not a matter of presenting “book information to them with a slight defensiveness.” It’s a matter of engaging these students with insights that will cause glorious bombs to go off in their heads! Sven, are you really that much of a solipsistic bore? Come on, sir, there’s a whole generation of readers that you can tap into, if you just got beyond your grumpy, half-hearted nihilism!

4. “Human narratives are events and descriptions selected and arranged for meaning.” Unless, of course, no meaning is ever intended or meaning is not the narrative maker’s primary concern. Meaning, as we all know, falls to the reader to make sense of what the narrative maker has whipped up in the kitchen. The best chefs understand this. What the narrative chef may call fillet mignon may be identified as chocolate chip ice cream by the reader. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this. It can actually lead to some humorous and interesting conversations. But it suggests very highly that the reader isn’t altogether different from a dog, and the author isn’t altogether that much different from a god.

5. Sven, I sent you an invite to the “party of the imagination” several times. You declined, insisting that there was no party. And you continued to flail your limbs about when all we really wanted to do was put a slice of cake in your hand and a horn in your mouth. This essay confirms that you are a party pooper. If, as you insist, imagination is “the one feature that connects us with the deeper sources and possibility of being,” I submit to you that there are these lovely folks running around you, often referred to as people. Those students with their laptops that you merely speculate upon? People. Talk to any one of them and you will soon ferret out several stories, numerous narratives, thoughts and feelings you may not have heard before. Now that capacity to communicate is indeed a “party of the imagination.” Small wonder that these spiffy souls have flocked to the Internet in droves to create a more ginormous party! No, there is no additional “layer of sheathing.” Unless, of course, you’re referring to the casual encounters section of Craig’s List and the need to protect one’s self from syphilitic strangers.

6. “My real worry has less to do with the overthrow of human intelligence by Google-powered artificial intelligence and more with the rapid erosion of certain ways of thinking — their demotion, as it were. I mean reflection, a contextual understanding of information, imaginative projection. ” First off, when you step outside of the house, Sven, I assure you that the robot armies are not marching in the streets. There is no artificial intelligence. Although I do share your concern with reliance upon smartphones (why consult a device when you can simply ask someone for directions?), the upshot is that there are neither robots nor illusory rabbits running about the streets. Also, humans willfully misunderstand information. And there are often many creative possibilities that arise from mishearing something. Why, just the other day, I thought somebody had said to me, “I’d like to come,” when they really told me, “I’d like my comb.” This may very well be a confession of perversity on my part. But I found this to be quite funny. I mean, what if everyone around us just started confessing their precise desires for an orgasm? Now when I confessed my mishearing, this led to a very interesting conversation about what humans tend to confess to strangers. Would that conversation have happened had I not misheard? Perhaps. But it certainly broke the ice. There is not a singular way to process the universe, Sven. What do I have to do? Send dirty lingerie and hand buzzers to you for needless exegesis?

7. This will be my last point. I would certainly hope that you found O’Neill’s “vantage” “intensely moving.” This is merely one manner of expressing what it means to be alive in the present. But one can indeed concentrate and move at the same time. It’s easier than walking and chewing bubble gum. Every human model, if we are to use your coarse tech comparisons, comes with a different user manual. My advice, not that I expect you to heed it, would be to put forth your energies into other models. You may end up writing a 4,000 word essay that people (aside from me) will actually be interested in reading.

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Sven Birkerts and the Frightening Fitzroya

Being wrong is wonderful! It’s a bit like accidentally walking into a fitzroya and suddenly realizing that there’s this large evergreen that you didn’t know about. Suddenly, you’re forced to alter your existence to account for the fitzroya. And when you ponder the fitzroya a bit — as Darwin did, dutifully naming it in honor of the HMS Beagle’s captain — you begin asking a few questions. How did the tree get there? Why does it have such a mammoth diameter? And how can all this be used in tandem with other shards of understanding?

I suspect that Sven Birkerts is a man terrified of the fitzroya.

On Friday afternoon, I entered a Columbia University classroom. Birkerts had come into town for a debate with Jenny Davidson, moderated by Andrew Delbanco, styled Blogging: Good or Bad for Literary Culture? “I can’t tell if we’re positioned at odds,” whispered Birkerts to Davidson before the proceedings started, a foreshadowing of the stalemate to come.

The audience was composed of approximately twenty-five nimble-minded students, many of whom offered interesting inquiries. I felt a tad displaced wearing my The Brain That Wouldn’t Die t-shirt, but sitting in the front row with this sartorial choice seemed the right thing to do. As one of the “reputedly intelligent” figures mentioned in Birkerts’s 2007 Boston Globe article, I thought I’d see what this reputedly intelligent man had to say. After all, our man Sven had called the litblogosphere “too fluid in its nature ever to focus on widely diverging cultural energies” and railed against us being “predatory on print.” (Never mind that Birkerts, as a literary critic, is likewise predatory on print whenever he writes an essay concerning books.)

It should be self-evident by now that I find the idea of one form of writing deemed inferior solely on the basis of appearing in a different medium — whether it be a blog, a hypertext novel, or what not — to be an utterly ridiculous tautology. Sven Birkerts, I’m afraid to report, is a man who specializes in tautologies. This is not to suggest that he isn’t a smart man. Nor is he entirely against blogs. But he is certainly a weary man, a self-described “gradually graying book reviewer with several decades in the trenches.”

He opened his remarks by reading thoughts from a slightly crumpled piece of paper, hoping that in tossing around cerebral softballs, he could perform some off-the-cuff binomial expansion. Here were some of his phrases:

“A whole new paradigm of transmission.”

“We bring forward a technology. It begins to fashion and inform us.”

“Like the car, it has conditioned us and bent us to its shape.”

“The size an scope of an idea. Within the book, ideas formed in certain ways. Exigencies on the thinking life.”

“Notions of authority and gatekeeping and accountability.”

“The technology intricately bound to our mentality. All of the premises associated that will change.”

“One specific development within a very large, vastly distributed tendency fueled by the possibilities of the Internet.”

“Eroding the notion of the single subjective author as the locus of authority.”

“Organization now lateral and associative based on the link.”

“Loss of centralized top-down structure.”

And so on. Birkerts was much better speaking off the cuff. But one sees within this shaky torrent of phrases the main problem with Birkerts’s position. His complaints are centered exclusively around his own perceptive hang-ups. He did not cite any specific examples to justify his line of thinking. I pointed out to him that his gripes were primarily perceptive and conceptual, and he seemed to agree. Birkerts’s position was further parroted by Delbanco, who expressed a mild sense of terror at participating in a Slate roundtable because this involved sending his thoughts off into the ether. He was, however, slightly more open-minded than Birkerts. Slightly. Delbanco’s terror also equated to being unfamiliar with the form. It struck me that writers over a century ago must have had the same fear of the Remington typewriter that these guys have of the Internet today.

By far, the most reasonable participant was Davidson, who advocated blogging, but pointed out that blogging could not directly replace newspaper criticism. She pointed to both the constraints of word count within newspapers, and simultaneously observed that there were certain advantages of concision within the short-format blog post. She pointed to Caleb Crain’s behind-the-scenes approach to blogging, Colleen Mondor‘s well-rounded perspective, and numerous other blogs. She pointed to certain advantages to the blog form, including the ability to quote more of a textual example — something that newspapers were increasingly not in the habit of doing. I did hope that Davidson would be a little more contrarian about blogging. But unlike Birkerts, she had solid examples for her position. Birkerts, by contrast, essentially parroted the same stolid points over and over again, sounding very much like a broken 78.

I do not believe Birkerts to be an entirely inflexible intellect. He did address my line of questioning, which, in Birkerts’s defense, involved excessively effusive delivery on my part. But he did appear quite bored to be sitting in a Columbia classroom. When I came up to him afterwards, he wanted to get the hell away from me as quickly as possible. But I gave him my card.

It has become evident that the biggest problem with this “debate” is the surfeit of stubborn souls unwilling to consider the alternative form, whether it’s the blogger who refuses to consider the virtues of editing or thinking through his post a bit or the print advocate so terrified of anarchic fun that he cannot find it within himself to trust his instinct from time to time. I’d like to think that this can be bridged. But in the meantime, where does this leave the wondrous fitzroya?

(For another take on the talk, go here.)