Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


An interview with a Luddite

Excerpts from interview with Sven Birkerts:

am including the following interview in order to give a sense of what issues are arising between proponents of print and digital culture.

€AG: Your voice in the debate over the effects of the cyberrevolution on human experience and the powers of concentration has no doubt given people pause, caused them to rethink some of their assumptions. Have the arguments of cyber-enthusiasts compelled you at all during the last year? (I understand that you have been participating in debates all over the country.)

Do you feel any of your convictions melting?

SB: I wish I could say my convictions were "melting"--- but no, they're not. I start reading a "book" like Bill Gates' The Road Ahead and I feel myself going crazy --- such simpleminded and narrow understanding of the human psyche. If this --- what he outlines --- is what we have to look forward to, I have to worry about the survival of any human uniqueness. I have always been afraid of sanitized and streamlined utopian visions. Technology cannot liberate us from the ordeals of being human. Insofar as it pretends to, or we pretend it has, it has merely shut off another room in that dwindling mansion called the "self."

€AG: Do you feel as if you have been pigeonholed into a more extreme position than you actually hold? Have you become a punching bag for propellerheads?

SB: Yes, I've been pushed into a more extreme position --- by several forces, including (1) the sense of vacuum --- that there are positions that need to be taken so that the argument is fairly represented and (2) by the propellerheads themselves, because they seem to need an adversary position clearly outlined before them.

€AG: You seem to be lamenting the death of the reverberating, meaningful text. The fact, in other words, that (would-be) readers are unhealthy, gorging on visual junkfood and lacking sorely in endurance.

Is this a function of TV? Computers? Both? Do you see the vanguard of the Digital Revolution as also being guilty of this poor health?

SB: I never used the phrase "poor health." I do think the digital interaction encourages a string lateral orientation, with a tilt toward data and information, whereas I believe the key texts and their main values are deep and yield only to patient, steady application. It comes down to a philosophy of language --- whether we believe words transmit or incarnate meaning. I believe the latter and don't feel the need for lateral access of the sort touted everywhere these days.

€AG: Your arguments and elegies often contain religious rhetoric. How does religion factor into your feelings about/fear of digitized communications?

Do you see the dissolution of the author in electronic postmodernity as a kind of sacrilege? As attenuating or supplanting the omnipotence of Western civilization's God?

SB: I've had no religious schooling. I've had a strong sense of the sacred, but it attaches to a private rather than pubic experience, collective communions, and all the Chardin sort of thing. The subjective self, epitomized for me in the author, is a stronghold of meanings and the dissolution of the author is a step toward a kind of relativistic anarchy. We need certain kinds of 'author'ity in our culture because most of us, from laziness or lack of aptitude, don't have a clue about the meanings or possibilities of planetary existence.

€AG: Do you think that many of your literary heroes --- such as wolf, Kerouac, Miller, et al (as mentioned in The Gutenberg Elegies) --- would have embraced hypertext as a narrative format?

On page 35 of Gutenberg you recall longingly, "A book was a vast play structure riddled with openings and crevices I could get inside."

Is hypertext capacious in that it supplies 'gaps' into which the reader fills his or her imagination?

SB: I refer you to "Of Mouse and Man" in Gutenberg where I take this up at some length.

Kerouac and Miller, once randy road heroes, are by no means literary ideals for me ---neither can write with much penetration or depth. Woolf, yes. But she never would have assented to hypertext, for her reverence for subjective integrity was too strong.

(note: In "Hypertext: Of Mouse and Men" Birkerts discusses his reaction to hypertext fiction. Upon attempting to read/navigate/rewrite Stuart Multhrop's early hypertext piece, Victory Garden, Birkerts says he felt "paralyzed... [he] waited patiently for the empowering rush that ought to come when worlds open upon other worlds and old limits collapse..."

Apparently it didn't come. He much prefers a teleological approach to the narrative. He rejects the digital text on the grounds that it is ephemeral. "Nearly weightless though it is, the word on a printed page is a thing. The configuration of impulses on a screen is not --- it is a manifestation, an indeterminate entity both particle and wave, an ectoplasmic arrival and departure. The former occupies a position in space --- on a page, in a book --- and is verifiably there. The latter, once dematerialized, digitalized back into storage, into memory, cannot be said to exist in quite the same way. It has potential, not actual locus" (154-5).)

€AG: What do you think of the following cybermantra (it seems to be extolling the same profound individual reading experience that you value, but suggesting different means to the same end):

"I, whoever that is, am always interacting with data created by the collective You, and by interacting with and supplementing the Collective You, will find meaning."

--degerati Mark Amerika and Lance Olsen

SB: Sounds like utter garbage to me. Newspeak voodoo --- what does this mean?

€AG: Do you see any upsides of the Internet? Any probing or incisive ideas being disseminated?

SB: The upsides of the Internet are the saturation of the world with data and the unexpected discoveries and applications (in medicine, say) that emerge therefrom. The information is neither good nor bad, but how is it we're all so suddenly interested in it? I suspect we're enamored of the process, the rush of power that comes from tapping the keys and seeing what happens.

€AG: What is your vision of utopia?

SB: My idea of utopia is anti-utopic in the sense that it features conflict, sadness, loss and untimely death along with the usual complement of wonders. I guess I'm saying that how things are is utopic, that I wouldn't want to change the mix --- and that, logically, I'd have to keep the microchip, too.

Maybe, though, I'd move everything back about 90 years, technologically speaking.

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