Photo: Ars Electronica

Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age
Sven Birkerts

For years now there has been talk of a schism between the respective tribes of book and screen, between those whose medium relies on diligent, contemplative immersion and those who favor the more frictionless rewards of speed. In this conflict, the literary community has more often found itself on the defensive. Yes, the literati thrive online, but these communities are too often redolent of a bookstore “gifts” aisle, where expressions of tenderness for reading and writing—mugs, tote bags, #amwriting—displace the thing itself. There is more writing than ever, thanks to the ease of online- and self-publishing, but, partly as a result, what has long been a profession has come to feel more like a hobby.

Among the early signs of this mounting sense of imperilment was critic Sven Birkerts’s 1994 book The Gutenberg Elegies. Birkerts was alarmed by the emerging effect of new technologies on his beloved books and book reading, as digital distractions threatened to replace immersive narrative with contextless, fast-flying information. Twenty-one years later, much of what Birkerts feared has come to pass: electronic media have become all but inescapable in the developed world and, increasingly, beyond it. As Birkerts puts it in a new essay collection, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Digital Age, the digital now has the appearance of a “common cognitive environment,” a pervasive climate or atmosphere escapable only via the kind of enforced digital diet that leaves one open to cries of “Luddite!” Birkerts still does not have a cell phone, let alone a smart one; uses email sparingly; and is awed and baffled by the GPS he rarely employs.

In the new collection, Birkerts adopts the vocabulary of the battlefield—“strike a blow,” “strengthen one’s position,” “strategized,” “hard won”—and embodies the role of a Mathew Brady, observing the fray from a not-too-distant hill and poignantly documenting his own side’s losses. He recognizes that the other camp holds most of the tangible assets—ease, utility, ready access to information—leaving his kind to defend something ambiguous, unknowable, and unquantifiable, the value of which lies in it being exactly so.

Most of the essays explore how technology has changed the spatial, affective, neurological, and transcendent elements of individual identity—what Birkerts calls the “phenomenology of digital living.” This, in turn, has bearing on the fate of imagination and inwardness, qualities that are the foundation of literature and art. The crisis is an ontological, even spiritual one.

Birkerts is concerned, in other words, about our souls, which may not survive when every moment of contemplation is ruptured, every immanence mediated, and the very concept of the unknown undone by Google. But there may yet be a way to preserve our souls, to make space for the transcendent even in the midst of our busy, digital lives.

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On its face, Birkerts’s critique is a fairly common one. Perhaps he knows this and so trades sweeping judgments for interrogations of his own vague sense of anxiety, his email use, his skimming of articles online. The pronouns are often plural, suggesting universalism, but the arguments are subjective: “The existence of the medium has created an unremitting low-intensity neural disquiet that we somehow feel only the medium can allay,” he writes. “We are on the run from the anxious vibration of our living.” Close-reading his own responses, though, he finds himself groping to describe what he is running toward.

Still, it is hard to argue with the changes Birkerts sees. There is little doubt that technology alters our thinking: studies have shown a decreased ability to concentrate for sustained lengths of time, and, conversely, an increased tendency to multitask, with physical effects on the brain. That technology has an effect on our being is not a revolutionary claim. As David Lochhead, a theologian interested in media, wrote, we “take our technology into the deepest recesses of our souls. Our view of reality, our structures of meaning, our sense of identity—all are touched and transformed by the technologies which we have allowed to mediate between ourselves and the world.” This is true of any technology, from spades to books and telescopes. But the pace of change—and level of mediation—is inarguably greater today. So great that it may constitute a difference in kind.

Birkerts resists a mechanized world. There are other ways to save our souls.

“In a grievance-venting mood, I can have a field day,” Birkerts writes. “How few are the unmediated interchanges, how rare the direct contacts, or even voice contacts—what a mess of procedure is now installed between the self and most anything.” These broad-stroke criticisms are familiar enough: critics as diverse as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov have noted the diminishment of tangible, tactile connections to people and processes; a decline in the “specific gravity” of things; and the shift from an Enlightenment ideal of the striving individual toward a hive mind thinking in hierarchies pre-determined by the likes of Apple and Google.

More interesting is what happens when Birkerts submits the present to the kind of close reading at which he excels. Sitting on a bench next to someone conversing on a cell phone, he notes how “the technology stains the moment with its disconcerting transmission of ‘elsewhere,’ removing the talker from the realm of closed-off immediate presence, affecting the whole environment. . . . I register that something deep in human ecology has been disturbed.” One might see here the symptoms of advanced technophobia, but it is worth noting how rarely we subject these now-banal encounters to this kind of phenomenological attention. Part of Birkerts’s deeper point is that such attention is more and more difficult to access, drawn as we are along constantly available, constantly expanding pathways of links, pics, vids, and other elsewheres that encourage rapid movement from one to the next.

As Birkerts sees it, the movement of the digital mind is lateral, directed at what is just over the horizon, along a trail laid for us by corporate interests. The digital mind uses information as a means to approach conclusion or synthesis. The movement of the Enlightenment mind, in contrast, is vertical, penetrating, profound, and inward-looking. The difference, in short, is between the mind that thinks for the sake of thinking itself and the mind oriented toward practical solutions. There is no doubt which Birkerts prefers: “Contemplation is not a subset category, not just one kind of thinking among many,” he writes. “It is the point of thinking, its alpha and omega.” This is a rather astonishing claim, but Birkerts answers that only contemplation gets at the existential, that it is “what almost inevitably follows as soon as we allow the possibility that existence is neither trivial nor incidental.” Unlike goal-directed analysis, contemplation is intransitive and for-itself, a form of experience that is both means and ends. It dabbles in the “terrain that lies to either side of certainty,” sublimating the world through the imagination.

What becomes of the contemplative mind, Birkerts wonders, when we let “the assumption of solvability take the place of what had always been a more provisional—possibly more investigatory—relation to our surroundings”? If the route can be easily found and followed, the answer easily called up, the right mate tabulated, the appropriate soundtrack predicted, what becomes of the “power of the immense unknown”? The iPhone fiddlers on a subway car may be doing business, filling the time, or, as Birkerts generously allows, engaged in a form of exploration. What they are not doing, though, is confronting the “unknown not just as what we don’t or can’t know, but as a philosophical premise of being—and ultimately the basis for seeing life as spiritually grounded.” Others—including the comedian Louis CK in a much-shared 2013 segment of Conan O’Brien’s TV show—have made more-or-less the same point. But Birkerts’s primary interest is in what happens to the imagination, that “mode of processing reality that is not amenable to statistics or calculations,” in a world where the unknown has been hidden away.

A techno-optimist will contend that, once everything is connected and automated—once the refrigerator can reorder our favorite beer and robots handle our dangerous tasks—humanity, relieved of tedium and hazard, will find itself free to live a life of productive artistic leisure, dedicated to family, to philosophy, to pursuing, as Birkerts puts it, “those soulful dialogues that, when they happen, feel like the ultimate point of our living.” But this techno-utopian future forces a rather embarrassing question: If every challenge is removed, if the for-itself of experience is replaced by means and ends, what is the point of living? What will our art be about? “To engage in such explorations requires massive inner resources,” Birkerts writes, “and to have soulful interchanges we must have soul. Where if not through the relentless abrasions of the unknown, in our responses to mystery and uncertainty, will we find that soul, or at least the inner materials we need?” This may echo grandma’s eat-your-broccoli, whatever-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger theory of character building, but that doesn’t mean it should be discounted. It draws, too, on the European Romantic tradition and its beautiful conception of soul as the burr produced on us by our friction against the world during our brief passage through. In this tradition, art’s intention is to redefine, as Keats wrote in an 1819 letter to his siblings, an earthly “vale of tears” as a “vale of soul-making.”

It isn’t surprising how near Birkerts’s critique comes to the domain of spirituality and religion. Although he dismisses “a mysticism of crystals and tarot packs,” what is at stake remains a kind of transcendence, the “above and beyond” of existence that surpasses our daily needs. It is a kind of transcendence that finds a ready home in the Romantic conception of art and literature, one that probes the “why” of existence. In his coup de grâce, Birkerts cites Rainer Maria Rilke’s incomparable Ninth Elegy. “Why,” Rilke asks in that poem, “have to be human”? Perhaps, he answers, we are here to bring the world into consciousness, for “saying: House, / Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug”:

Fleeting, they look for

Rescue through something in us, the most fleeting of all.

Want us to change them entirely, within our invisible hearts,

Into—oh, endlessly—into ourselves! Whosoever we are.

Earth, isn’t this what you want: an invisible

Re-arising in us?

It is a powerful demonstration of how the existential unknowns of the world are sublimated through language into higher awareness. Not only does the poem speak of this form of transcendence, but it also evokes exaltation in the reader, the profound recognition of two subjectivities—Rilke’s and one’s own—vibrating at the same frequency. Needless to say, the connection is of a different order than that enabled by, say, Facebook.

Yet Birkerts recognizes, too, that this may seem rarefied: we are talking, after all, about a cell phone. But the threat, as he sees it, is not to daily reality but to those moments of supreme dread and exaltation that define the existential—and, yes, spiritual—boundaries of human life. After all, as Keats wrote, even “if [man] improves by degrees his bodily accommodations and comforts . . . he is mortal and there is still a heaven with its Stars above his head.”

To Birkerts, art is an act of attention, framing a piece of the world through the imagination, imbuing it with meaning. He draws on both Iris Murdoch’s sense of “loving attention” and Simone Weil’s idea of attention as a kind of prayer. In imagination-as-attention, Birkerts finds transcendence and morality, an “act of the spirit,” a way of turning the world into soul as Rilke instructed. Birkerts, here, comes close to the thought of the American Transcendentalists. Confronted by the rapid mechanization and industrialization of the early nineteenth century, Transcendentalists found meaning in and through unmediated attention to the natural world, recognizing the immanence of nature and the sacred in man. Birkerts identifies in our own digital revolution a need for a new Transcendentalism: a spiritual, aesthetic, and moral renewal achieved through contemplation, idleness, interiority, receptivity, the organic, and the unique. Such a movement would protest the digital status quo on behalf of the “seeking, self-apprehending” individual. “Each new age requires a new confession,” Emerson wrote, “and the world seems always waiting for its poet.”

Is there space for such a poet today? Birkerts is pessimistic. He despairs that what Emerson called an awareness of the “spiritual fact” cannot persist when digital technology has placed such a thick barrier between us and the world, replacing the sublime act of attention with a perpetual state of distraction. Besides, he writes, people simply don’t talk that way any more, outside of religion, and it all sounds a bit silly, “for we don’t credit the inward as a place for progress or gain, or anything much at all.” How do we create, Birkerts asks, if we cannot take ourselves seriously as souls?

Perhaps such pessimism is warranted in a world where “mindfulness” is little more than a buzzword and “soul” most commonly refers to a fitness craze. Where subjective judgment is superseded by data, the mental cathedral, as Nicholas Carr put it in The Shallows (2010) is replaced by a mental bazaar. The comparison is useful, as the activity conducted in both church and marketplace is a kind of search, which is of course central to what this technology is for: not just Google, but GPS, dating apps, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon—all guide us toward what they think we want. The shift from cathedral to bazaar represents a shift from search as contemplation to search as a way for capitalism to extract value, exploiting information as an energy company might an oil well. The purpose of the tools is a kind of hyper-capitalism in which freedom is freedom of commerce whenever and wherever, and, thanks to the increasing connectivity of mundane objects, often without deliberate participation.

Birkerts’s response is to opt out to the extent that he can. But we might also confront these challenges by encouraging a change in the terms of the search. As I see it, the task of a new Transcendentalism would be less to actively oppose digital technology or save us from it than to, as Rilke put it, “change it into ourselves,” bringing to it the same kind of transformative, sustained attention that the Transcendentalists brought to the natural world.

“Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” Emerson wondered in his introduction to the essay “Nature.” “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition?” One might put the same question to the connected world of today. Most of us will have to use these tools, like it or not; why let someone else decide our relation to them? Transcendentalism was as much about resisting imposed structures of control and interpretation as it was about resisting a mechanized world. Perhaps the role of art now, the way it can best fill the spiritual voids left by our immersion in the digital, is to create for us an “original relation” to it.

Birkerts, whose references lie mainly outside of contemporary art, may not have encountered it yet, but such art is being made, whether or not it jibes with one’s taste. While much so-called digital or “net” art merely mimics systems of interpretation already in place, there are those artists, now, whose interest is not in the strategies and selling-points of the system but in finding an honest relation to it. Far from Silicon Valley, there are tinkerers whose work more closely resembles a kind of folk art, whose objective is not the next billion-dollar app but the creation of soul-satisfying uses for and meaningful investigation of the digital tools and interactions that constitute daily life: Taeyoon Choi’s handmade computers, for instance, and Brian House’s “tanglr,” a shared browsing extension for Google Chrome. In works such as Addie Wagenknecht’s “Data and Dragons” sculptures, James Bridle’s, Adam Harvey’s anti-surveillance fashions, Nick Briz’s “glitches,” and Tega Brain’s “eccentric engineering,” technology becomes more than a means to an end. These artists build circuits and programs and other objects for the sake of beauty and contemplation, approaching ones and zeros in the spirit of language. They find there, no doubt, a sensation akin to Nabokov’s “aesthetic bliss.”

Literature, at least that which is widely disseminated and read, lags behind these efforts. But it is not hard to see where it, too, could achieve this: perhaps not in the plot-driven, immersive novels Birkerts prefers, but in works that use the digital characteristics of fragment, association, connection, and speed to create not just meaning but a transcendence of the medium itself.

This would be an expansive, inclusive, nimble literature—the rhizome rather than the root tree. Interpreting and sublimating the digital world, such a literature could provide what Deleuze and Guattari meant by a “body without organs”: a deeper reality underlying the appearance of something complete and whole, which returns one to the freedom of original relation. This is the space reserved for the poet of today.