Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age
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Trenchant, expansive essays on the cultural consequences of ongoing, all-permeating technological innovation
In 1994, Sven Birkerts published The Gutenberg Elegies, his celebrated rallying cry to resist the oncoming digital advances, especially those that might affect the way we read literature and experience art―the very cultural activities that make us human.
After two decades of rampant change, Birkerts has allowed a degree of everyday digital technology into his life. He refuses to use a smartphone, but communicates via e-mail and spends some time reading online. In Changing the Subject, he examines the changes that he observes in himself and others―the distraction when reading on the screen; the loss of personal agency through reliance on GPS and one-stop information resources; an increasing acceptance of "hive" behaviors. "An unprecedented shift is underway," he argues, and "this transformation is dramatically accelerated and more psychologically formative than any previous technological innovation." He finds solace in engagement with art, particularly literature, and he brilliantly describes the countering energy available to us through acts of sustained attention, even as he worries that our increasingly mediated existences are not conducive to creativity.
It is impossible to read Changing the Subject without coming away with a renewed sense of what is lost by our wholesale acceptance of digital innovation and what is regained when we immerse ourselves in a good book.
objectively this could not be the case, that likely it’s a retrofit operation imposing patterns and sequences of meaning after the event. Whatever, however. The point is that my inner storytelling impulse trumps reason at every turn. I can’t help conceiving of my life as a fundamentally meaningful project, one in which events often suggest connections to other things. Whether those connections are verifiably there or not, my thinking makes them so. Similarities between things, coincidences,
at my leisure their strangeness and absurdity, I have begun to set them down in writing, hoping in time to make it ashamed of them.” And so from one man’s idleness is begotten one of the treasures of world literature. In Montaigne the word clearly equates to imaginative fecundity, though of course we need to remember that for this writer idleness meant a removal from the constraining demands of civic life, not any slackening of his energies. Underscore: idleness does not mark a ceasing of the
see no point in talking about poetry in any deeper way without that access. At the same time, I know that there is no faster way to get cashiered out as some sort of throwback than by saying soul with a straight face. Why is this? Why should there be such discomfort around a word—or, rather, concept? It’s as if to use the word is to be denying the age you live in, deliberately voiding history; as if the concept of a living inwardness can no longer be squared with things as they are. I should
toward. It has everything to do with the subject: the poet, the artist, the condition of art. Music can be subjected to stringent analysis, it can be precisely notated, and yet the notations give no purchase whatsoever on beauty. Because while a note can be named, a sound, and from sound a melody, cannot. And with poetry, beauty and mystery begin at the very point where denotation ends. The meanings of the words reach the mind; the word sounds reach the senses. The primary material conditions for
what I imagined I was not seeing, not responding to, why I was so antsy. When I thought about it rationally, there was not that much, not really. Far more, I realized, was the feeling of aborted potentiality, the great what if? that underwrites so much of our screen obsession. It’s not so much about what’s there, but about what might be. And when the connection is dead, that impending futurity fizzles down to nothing. Nothing might be. But then time passed, another day, two days. The nature of