Welcome, Sven!

I’m assuming, and I think not incorrectly, that many of the folks currently reading my meanderings have read and either celebrated or despised (or some deeply ambivalent mixture of the two) Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. For those who haven’t, a quick (and thoroughly unfair) summary: Books are really, really good for the soul, especially the kinds of books we think of as serious modernist literature, and the world has pretty much gone to hell in a handbasket since the advent of the technologies that are distracting us from engagement with such bound, printed, individualist texts. To quote:

I do not anticipate a future utterly without books, or bereft of all discourse about ideas, or entirely given over to utilitarian pursuits. No, what I fear is a continued withering-away of influence, a diminution of the literary which brings about a flattened new world in which only a small coterie traffics in the matters that used to be deemed culturally central. (194)

The most telling section of The Gutenberg Elegies has long been, for me, the coda, entitled “The Faustian Pact,” in which Birkerts claims to have met the devil, and its name is Wired magazine. In the pages of this publication, an unabashed promoter of the ostensible digital revolution, Birkerts finds evidence of “the argument between technology and soul” (211), an argument that can only be resolved in either capitulation (and damnation) or fervent retreat from the contemporary.

With this background, you’ll understand then why I find Birkerts’ most recent editorial in the new online manifestation of Agni so riotously funny:

How do I now justify using and promoting a technology which, just a few years ago, I deplored? Do I no longer deplore it? What can I offer to explain myself? I would say — short answer — that the digital age has arrived and that, at least in immediate retrospect, it has the feel of inevitability about it. Who knew? Well, clearly some people did. They read the signs, trusted that it was our collective will to move forward into connectedness and the radically changed private and public space that connectedness makes inevitable. I’ll admit it took me a while to accept this — not the fact of the technology, but the zeal of people everywhere to embrace it. But I have made my correction; I have accepted that there is now a new way of things.

Is it an admission of error, or merely a capitulation? Is it a move into a truly new medium, or instead a kind of retrenchment of “literary value” in digital form? Is it any coincidence that Birkerts himself refers to this move as a form of “apostasy”? We can all now welcome, it seems, Mr. Birkerts into the new orthodoxy — but it will be interesting to watch in what this new orthodoxy, for him, consists.

2 thoughts on “Welcome, Sven!

  1. I was in the ambivalent camp, I guess, but The Gutenberg Elegies was certainly one of the most thought-provoking books I read at the time (’96). When I’m feeling disenchanted with the digital and browsing through a second-hand book store lined with fading paperbacks, I feel inclined to agree with him; but at other times I, well, spend five years of my life working on the web. Birkerts’ original message still sits somewhere in the back of my mind, though, as a cautionary tale, a reminder of what we’re giving up even as we embrace the new; and that’s no bad thing.

    And that short essay is a thoughtful piece, too, despite its amusing ironies. Thanks for pointing it out.

    On the subject of Wired, have you read Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish?

  2. There’s a new book about Wired out too, saw it on the heaps of steaming new books pile at Barnes and Noble; it’s a ‘business’ book, full of dot com boom intrigue.

    Gutenberg Elegies is one of those works that’s of its time, that time being the period (mid 1990s) when people were just starting to realize that the wild-eyed hypertext dreams might actually amount to something, and that the new networks out there are something that might impinge on more than just hobbyists. Birkerts has an essay in the 1996 “Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club” which is a neat chronicle of the era as well.

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