Some years ago, a friend and I co-managed a used and rare book shop
in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We were often asked to appraise and purchase
librariesby retiring academics, widows, and disgruntled graduate
students. One day we took a call from a professor of English at one
of the community colleges outside Detroit. When he answered the buzzer
I did a double-takehe looked to be only a year or two older than
we were. "Im selling everything," he said, leading the
way through a large apartment. As he opened the door of his study I
felt a nudge from my partner. The room was wall-to-wall books, and as
neat as a chapel.
The professor had an astonishing collection. It reflected not only
the needs of his vocationhe taught 19th- and 20th-century literaturebut
a book-lovers sensibility as well. The shelves were strictly arranged,
and the books were in superb condition. We spotted some unusual editions
and a few rarities. When he left the room, we set to work, inspecting,
counting, and estimating. It is a delicate procedure, for the buyer
is at once anxious to avoid insult to the seller and eager to
get the goods for the best price. We adopted our usual strategy, working
our a lower offer and a more generous fallback price. But there was
no need to worry. The professor took our first offer.
As we boxed up the books, we chatted. My partner asked the man
if he were moving. "No," he said, "Im getting out."
We looked up. "Out of the teaching business, I mean. Out of books."
He then said that he wanted to show us something. And indeed, as soon
as the books were packed and loaded, he led us back through the apartment
and down a set of stairs. When we reached the basement, he flicked on
a light. There, on a long table, displayed like an exhibit in the Space
Museum, was a computer. I didnt know what it was then, nor could
I tell you now, fifteen years later. But the professor was keen to explain
While he and my partner hunched over the terminal, I roamed to
and fro, inspecting the shelves. It was purely a reflex gesture, for
they held nothing but thick binders and paper-bound manuals. "Im
changing my life," the professorthe ex-professorwas
saying. "This is definitely where its all happening."
He told us that he already had several good job offers. And the books?
I asked. Why was he selling them all? He paused for a few beats. "They
represent a lot of pain to me," he said. "I dont want
to see any of them again."
The scene has stuck with me. It is a kind of marker in my mental
life. For that afternoon I got my first serious inkling that all was
not well in the world of print and letters. All sorts of corroborations
followed. Our professor was by no means an isolated case. Over a period
of several years we met with quite a few others like him. New men and
new women who had glimpsed the future and had decided to get while the
getting was good. The selling off of books was sometimes done for financial
reasons, but the other thing was usually there as well: the need to
burn bridges. It was as if heading to the future also required the destruction
of tokens from the past.
A CHANGE is upon usnothing could be clearer . The printed word
is part of a vestigial order that we are moving away fromby choice
and by societal compulsion. Im not just talking about disgruntled
academics. This is a shift happening throughout our culture, away from
the patterns and habits of the printed page, and toward a terra nova
governed almost entirely by electronic communications.
This is not, of course, the first such event for the species. In
Greece, several centuries after Homer, in the time of Socrates, the
dominant oral culture was overtaken by the writing technology. And in
Europe in the decades after Gutenberg invented moveable type another
epochal transition was effected. In both cases the long-term societal
and cultural effects were overwhelming. As they will be for us in the
years to come.
I dont think that I need to argue the fact of the change
too strenuously. The evidence is all around us, though possibly in the
manner of the forest that we cannot see for the trees. The electronic
media are invisible in process, but omnipresent in product. They have
slipped deeply and irrevocably into our societal midst, creating sluices
and circulating through them. Im not referring in isolation to
television, or FAX, or to the computer networks that make them possible.
I mean the interdependent totality that has arisen from the conjoining
of partsthe disks hooked to modems, transmissions linked to technologies
of reception, recording, duplication, and storage. Numbers and codes.
Buttons and signals. And this is no longer, except for the poor or the
self-consciously atavistic, the futureit is now. Before
this now, the scheme of things represented by print and the snail-paced
linearity of the reading act looks stodgy and dull. They say that our
students are less and less able to perform the old print rituals to
read, or analyze, or write with clarity and purpose. Who can blame them?
Everything that they encounter in the world around them gives the signal:
that that was then, and that electronic communications are now.
Do I exaggerate? If this is the case then why havent we heard
more about it? Why hasnt somebody stepped forward with a tie and
a pointer stick to tell us what is happening? Valid questions, but they
are also a partial answer. They assume that we are all plugged into
a total systemwhere else would that "someone" appear
if not on the screen of the new communal hearthfire?
Media theorist Mark Crispin Miller has given an explanation for
our situation in his discussions of television (Boxed in: The Culture
of TV). The medium, he proposes, has long since diffused itself
through the entire fabric of our culture. Through sheer omnipresence
it has vanquished the essential comparative perspectives. We cannot
see the role that television has assumed in our lives because there
is no independent ledge where we might secure our footing. The medium
has absorbed and eradicated the idea of a pre-television past; in place
of what used to be, we get an ever-new and ever-renewable present. the
only way that we can understand what is happeningwhat has already
happenedis by way of a severe and unnatural dissociation
To get a grip on the dimensions of the change, you must force yourself
to imaginedeeply and in non-televisual termswhat the world
was like a hundred, even fifty, years ago. If the act is too difficult,
spend some time with a novel from the period. Read between the lines
and reconstruct. Walk through the sequence of the average persons
average day, and then juxtapose to the images and sensations those encountered
by the average urban or suburban dweller today.
One of the first realizationsit is inevitableis that
a communications mesh, a soft and pliable mesh woven from invisible
threads, has fallen over everything. The so-called natural world, which
used to be our yardstick of the actual, can now be perceived only through
a scrim. Nature was then; this is now. And the great geographical Other,
the far-away rest-of-the-world, has been transformed by the pure possibility
of access. The numbers of distance and time no longer mean what they
used to mean. Every place once uniqueitselfis strangely
shot through with radiations from every other place. There was then;
here is now.
Think of it. Fifty to a hundred million people (possibly a conservative
estimate) form their ideas about what is going on in the world from
the same basic package of edited imagesto the extent that the
visual image itself has lost much of its once-fearsome power. Daily
newspapers, with their unwieldy columns of print, struggle against declining
sales. Fewer and fewer people under the age of forty-five read them.
But everyone heeds the signals. And the communications conglomerates
wage bitter takeover battles in their zeal to establish global empires.
Writes Jonathan Crary in "The Eclipse of the Spectacle":
Telecommunications is the new arterial network, analogous in
part to what railroads were for capitalism in the nineteenth century.
And it is this electronic substitute for geography that corporate
and national entities are now carving up.
Maybe one reason why the news of the change is not part of the common
currency is that such news can only be sensibly communicated through
the more analytic medium of print. The new dispensation has been described
and discussed, but no one is paying attention.
That last phrase, I agree, is slightly exaggerated, inserted to
underscore a point. I have been making it sound as though we are all
abruptly walking out of one room and into another, leaving our books
to the moths while we settle ourselves in front of our state-of-the-art
monitors. Things cannot be quite so simple. It is more the case that
we are living through a period of overlap, that one way of being has
been pushed athwart another. Gramscis much-cited words come to
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying
and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety
of morbid symptoms appears.
The old surely is dying, but I am not so sure that the new is
having any great difficulty being born. As for the morbid symptomsthese,
as I will soon show, we have in abundance.
The overlap of communications modes, and of the ways of living
that they are associated with, invites some comparison with the transitional
epoch in Greek society, certainly in terms of the relative degree of
disturbance. Historian Eric Havelock designated that period as one of
"proto-literacy," of which his fellow scholar Oswyn Murray
To him [Havelock] the basic shift from oral to literate culture
was a slow process; for centuries, despite the existence of writing,
Greece remained essentially an oral culture. This culture was one
which depended heavily on the encoding of information in poetic
texts, to be learned by rote and to provide a cultural encyclopedia
of conduct. It was not until the age of Plato in the fourth century
that the dominance of poetry in an oral culture was challenged in
the final triumph of literacy.
That challenge came in the form of philosophy, among other things,
and poetry has never recovered its cultural primacy. What oral poetry
was for the Greeks are for us printed books in general. But our historical
moment, which we might call "proto-electronic," will not require
a transition period of two centuries. The very essence of electronic
transmissions is to surmount impedances and hasten transitions. Fifty
years will, Im sure, suffice. As for what the conversion will
bringand meanto us, we might glean a few clues by
looking to some of the "morbid symptoms" of the change. First,
though, we should remark a few of the more obvious ways that our various
technologies condition our senses and sensibilities.
I WILL not tire my reader with an extended rehash of the differences
between the print orientation and the electronic orientation. Media
theorists from Marshall McLuhan to Walter Ong to Neil Postman have discoursed
upon these at length. Whats more, they care commonsensical. I
The order of print is linear, and bound to logic by the imperatives
of syntax. It requires the active engagement of the reader, for reading
is fundamentally an act of translation: ciphers are turned into their
verbal referents and these are in turn interpreted. The print engagement
is, further, private. While it does represent an act of communication,
the contents pass from the privacy of the sender to the privacy of the
receiverwriter to reader. Print also posits a time-axis; the turning
of pages, not to mention the vertical progress through the page, is
a forward-moving succession, with earlier contents at every point serving
as a ground for what follows. Moreover, the printed material is staticit
is the reader, not the book, the moves forward. The physical arrangements
of print can be seen to accord with our traditional sense of history.
Materials are layered; they lend themselves to rereading and to sustained
inquiry. The pace of reading is variable, with progress determined by
attentiveness and comprehension.
The electronic order is in most ways the opposite. Information
and contents do not simply move from one private space to another, but
they travel along a network. Engagement is intrinsically public, taking
place within a circuit of larger connectedness. It can be passive, as
with television watching, or interactive, as with computers. Contents,
unless they are printed out (and thus part of the static order of print)
are evanescent. With visual media, impression and image take precedence
over logic and concept. The pace is quick, and the movement is laterally
associative rather then vertically cumulative. The presentation prestructures
the receptionthe viewer absorbs a steady wash of packaged messages.
Further, the technologyvisual and non-visualin every
way encourages in the user a heightened and ever-changing awareness
of the present. The now. It works against historical perception,
which must depend upon the inimical notions of logic and sequential
succession. If the print medium exalts the world, fixing it into permanence,
the electronic counterpart reduces it to a signal, a means to an end.
Transitions such as the one from print to electronic media do not
take place without ripplingmore likely, reweavingthe
whole of the social and cultural web. And we dont need to look
far for evidence that this is what is happening. We can begin with the
headlines, and the millennial lamentations sounded in the op-ed pages
and on talk shows. That our educational systems are in decline; that
our students are less and less able to read and comprehend their required
texts, and that their aptitude scores are falling like the index of
consumer confidence. That tag-line communication, called "bite-speak"
by some, has destroyed the last remnants of discourse in our public
political life and made spin-doctors and media consultants our new shamans.
That as communications empires fight for global hegemony, publishing
itself has fallen to the tyranny of the bottom line, and that the era
of the "blockbuster" is upon us. That funding for the arts
is being cut on every front, while the arts themselves appear to be
suffering a deep crisis of irrelevance. And so on.
Every one of these developments is, of course, overdetermined,
but there can be no doubt that they are profoundly connected to the
transition that is underway.
THERE are other trends that bear watching. One could argue, for instance,
that the entire movement of postmodernism in the arts is a consequence
of this same macroscopic shift. For what is postmodernism at root but
an aesthetic that rebukes the idea of a historical time line, as well
as previously uncontested assumptions of cultural hierarchy? The postmodern
artifact manipulates its stylistic signatures like LEGO-blocks, and
makes free with combinations from the formerly sequestered spheres of
"high" and "popular" arts. Its combinatory momentum
and relentless referencing of the surrounding culture perfectly mirror
the associative dynamics of electronic media.
One might likewise argue that the virulent debate within academia
over the "canon" and "multiculturalism" may not
be a simple struggle between the entrenched ideologies of white male
elites and the forces of disenfranchised gender, racial, and cultural
groups. Do we not see, on the part of the anti-canonists, an effort
to outflank the assumption of historical tradition itself? The underlying
question may not be only whether the tradition is relevant, but also
whether it may not be too taxing a system for students to comprehend.
Both sidesproponents and opponentshave valid arguments to
advance, and we must certainly stand with for those who would make explicit
the hidden assumptions and biases in the Western tradition. But it also
seems clear that this debate could only have taken the form it has in
a society that has begun to come loose from its textual moorings. To
challenge representation is salutary. To challenge history itself, proclaiming
it to be simply an archive of repressions and justifications, seems
Then there are the more specific sorts of developments. Consider,
for one, the multi-billion dollar initiative by Whittle Communications
to bring commercially sponsored education packages into the classroom.
The underlying premise is staggeringly simplethat if the electronic
media are the one thing that todays young are at ease with, why
not exploit the fact? Stop bucking television and use it instead. And
why not let corporate America pick up the tab? As the Boston Globe
Heres how it would work:
Participating schools would receive, free
of charge, $50,000 worth of electronic paraphernalia, including
a satellite dish and classroom video monitors. In return, schools
would agree to air the show.
The show would resemble a network news
program, but with 18- to 24- year -old anchors.
A prototype includes a report on a United
Nations Security Council meeting on terrorism, a space shuttle update,
a U2 music video tribute to Martin Luther King, a feature on the
environment, a "fast fact" (Arachibutyrophobia is the
fear of peanut better sticking to the roof of your mouth) and
two minutes of commercial advertising.
"You have to remember that the children
of today have grown up with the visual media," said Robert
Calabrese [Billerica School Superintendent]. "They know no
other way and were simply capitalizing on that to enhance learning."
Calabreses observation on the preconditioning of a whole
generation of students ("They know no other way...") opens
a whole other can of educational worms. Should we suppose that American
education will begin to tailor itself to the aptitudes of its students,
presenting more and more of its materials in newly packaged forms? And
what will happen when educators find that not very many of the old materials
will "play"? Is the what of learning to be determined
by the how? At what point do vicious cycles begin to reveal their
A SPECIES changethat is, a collective sensibility changemay
already be upon us. We need to take seriously the possibility that the
young truly know no other way, that they are not made of the
same stuff, the same molecule patterns, that their elders are. In her
Harpers debate with Neil Postman, Camille Paglia, academias
current enfant terrible (she is in her early 40s!), observed:
...some people have more developed sensoriums than others.
Ive found that most people born before World War II are turned
off by the modern media. They cant understand how we who were
born after the war can read and watch TV at the same time. But we
can. When I wrote my book, I had earphones on, blasting rock
music or Puccini and Brahms. The soap operaswith the sound
turned down flickered on my TV. Id be talking on the
phone at the same time. Baby boomers have a multilayered, multirack
ability to deal with the world.
I dont know whether to be depressed or impressed by Paglias
ability to disperse her focus in so many directions. Nor can I say,
not having read her book, whether her multitrack sensibility has informed
her prose. Im mostly baffled here by what she means when she talks
about an ability to "deal with the world." From the context,
"dealing" sounds more like a matter of incessantly repositioning
the self within a barrage of onrushing stimuli.
Paglias is hardly the only testimony on the subject. A New
York Times article on the cult success of novelist Mark Leyner (author
of I Smell Esther Williams and My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist)
His fans say, variously,
that his writing is like MTV, or rap music, or rock music, or simply
like everything in the world put together: fast and furious and
intense, full of illusion and allusion and fantasy and science and excrement.
Larry McCaffery, a professor of
literature at San Diego State University and co-editor of Fiction
International, a literary journal, said his students get excited
about Mr. Leyners writing, which he considered important and unique:
"It speaks to them, somehow, about this weird milieu theyre
swimming through. Its this dissolving, discontinuous world."
While older people might find Mr. Leyners world bizarre or
unreal, Professor McCaffrey said, it doesnt seem so to people
who grew up with Walkmen and computers and VCRs, with so many
choices, so much bombardment, that they have never experienced a
The article continues:
There is non traditional narrative,
although the book is called a novel. And there is so much use of
facts, though it is called fiction. Seldom does the end of a sentence
have any obvious relation to the beginning. "You dont know
where youre going, but you dont mind taking the leap,"
said R.J. Cutler, the producer of "Heat," who invited
Mr. Leyner to be on the show after he picked up the galleys of his
book and found it mesmerizing. "He taps into a specific cultural
perspective where thoughtful literary world view meets pop culture
and the TV generation."
My final exhibitI dont know if it qualifies as a morbid
symptom is drawn from a Washington Post Magazine article
on the future of the Library of Congress, our national shrine to the
printed word. One of the people interviewed in the piece is Robert Zich,
the so-called "special projects czar" of the institution.
Zich, too, has seen the future, and he is surprisingly candid with his
interlocutor, Linton Weeks:
At some point in the future,
he says, "individual people will be able themselves to directly
access these masses of thingsif all they want is information."
But the library will retain some functions,
he says, such as "storing things which have value and interest
in themselves, not just because of the information they happen to
contain. And just as you go to the National Gallery to see its Leonardo
or go to the Smithsonian to see the Spirit of St. Louis and so on, you
will want to go to libraries to see the Gutenberg or the original
printing of Shakespeares plays or to see Lincolns hand-written
version of the Gettysburg Address."
Ive suggested," he says, "and
in part disturbed my fellow librarians, that in fact the big research
libraries and the great national libraries and their great buildings
will go the way of the railroad stations and the movie palaces of an
earlier era which were really vital to institutions in their time...Somehow
folks moved away from that when the technology changed."
In short, Zich sees a future in which
libraries will be nothing more than museums of the printed word
unless they seize the opportunity to become clearing houses of electronic
And books? Zich has the line on books, too:
He tells me about Sonys hand-held electronic book, which
is being marketed in Japan, and the miniature encyclopedia coming
next month from the Franklin Electronic Publishers. "Slip it
in your pocket," he says. "Little keyboard, punch in your
words and it will do the full text searching and all the rest of it.
Its limitation, of course, is that its devoted just to that
one book." But "the Sony thing has memory cards. Cards
are the equivalent of the books... The machine is just there to
read the contents of whatever card you stick in it."
-Brave New Library
We know, of course, that one can find evidence to support any contention
he wishes to make. I have been on the lookout for signs that will confirm
my intuition that a sea-change is upon us. Others might argue that the
technologies cited by Zich merely represent a change in the "form"
of reading, and that reading itself will be unaffected; that there is
little difference between following words on a pocket screen or on a
printed page. Here I have to hold my line. The context cannot but condition
the process. Screen and book may hold the same string of words, but
the assumptions that underlie their significance are entirely different
depending upon whether we are staring at a book or at a circuit-generated
text. As the nature of lookingat the natural world, at paintingschanged
with the arrival of photography and mechanical reproduction, so will
the collective relation to language alter as new modes of dissemination
Whether all of this sounds dire or merely "different"
will depend upon the readers own sense of values and priorities.
I find these portents of change depressing, but also exhilaratingat
least to speculate about. On the one hand, I have a great feeling of
loss and a fear about what habitations will exist for self and soul
in the future. But there is also a quickening, a sense that important
things are on the line. As Heraclitus once put it: "The mixture
that is not shaken soon stagnates." Well, the mixture is being
shaken, no doubt about it. And here are some of the kinds of developments
we might watch for us as our "proto-electronic" era yields
to an all-electronic future.
1. LANGUAGE EROSION. The change from the culture of the book to
the culture of electronic communications will, as I have suggested,
radically alter the ways in which we use language. On every societal
level. The complexity and distinctiveness of verbal and written communication,
which are deeply bound to traditions of print literacy, will gradually
be replaced by a more telegraphic sort of "plainspeak." Syntactical
masonry is already a dying art; simple linguistic pre-fab is the norm.
Ambiguity, paradox, irony, subtlety, and witfast disappearing.
In their place, the simple "vision thing", and the myriad
other "things." Verbal intelligence, even now viewed as suspect,
will come to seem positively conspiratorial. The greater part of any
articulate persons intelligence will be deployed in masking itself.
The growing impoverishment of language will escalate through a
series of vicious cycles. Curricula will be streamlined and simplified,
and difficult texts will be pruned and glossed. Fewer and fewer people
will be able to contend with the masterworks of literature or ideas.
Joyce, Woolf, James, and the rest will go unread, and the civilizing
energies of their prose will circulate aimlessly between closed covers.
Whatever exchange of ideas there may have been in our society will wither
away, except of course among the echelons of the professional academic.
The gulf between the academic and the man on the street, already wide,
will become unbridgeable.
2. FLATTENING OF HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES. As the circuit supplants
the printed page, and as more and more of our communications involve
us in network processeswhich are in every way constitutive of
the immediate present, the nowour perception of history
will inevitably alter. Changes in information storage and access are
bound to impinge upon our historical memory. The depth of field that
is our sense of the past is not only a linguistic function, but is in
some essential way represented by the book and the physical accumulation
of books in library spaces. In the contemplation of the single volume,
or mass of volumes, we form a picture of time past as an accumulation
of sediment; we capture a sense of its depth and dimensionality. Moreover,
we meet the past as much in the presentation of words on pages in books
of specific vintage as we do in any isolated fact or statistic.
If we take the etymological tack, historycognate with "story"is
affiliated in complex ways with its texts. Once the materials of the
past are unhoused from their pages, they will assuredly mean
differently. The printed page is itself a link, at least along the imaginative
continuum, and when that link is broken, the past can only start to
recede. At one and the same time it will become a body of disjunct facts
accessible to retrieval and a mythology. The more we grow rooted
in the consciousness of the now, the more will it seem utterly
extraordinary that things were every any different. And here, naturally,
the entertainment industry will seize the advantage: the past will be
rendered ever more glorious, every more a fantasy play with heroes,
villains, and quaint settings and props.
3. THE WANING OF THE PRIVATE SELF. If there is any validity in
what I have projected so far, then this third possibility intrudes itself
ineluctably. We may even now be in the first stages of a process of
social collectivization that will over time all but vanquish the idea
of isolated individuality. For some decades now we have been edging
away from the opaqueness of private life and toward the transparency
of a life lived within a set of systems, electronic and other. I am
not suggesting that we are all about to become mindless, soulless robots,
or that personality will disappear into an Oceanic homogeneity. But
certainly the idea of what it means to be a person living a life will
be much changed. The figure-ground model, which figures a solitary self
before a background that is the society of other selves, is romantic
in the extreme. It is ever less tenable in the world as it is becoming.
There are no more wildernesses, no more lonely homesteads, no more emblems
of the exalted individual.
The self must change as the nature of subjective space changes.
And one of the many incremental transformations of our age has been
the slow but steady destruction of subjective space. They physical and
psychological distance between individuals has been shrinking for at
least a century. In the process, the figure-ground image has begun to
blur its boundary distinctions. One day soon we will conduct our public
and private lives within networks so dense, among so many channels of
instantaneous information, that it will make almost no sense to speak
of the differentiated self.
We are already captive within our webs. Our slight solitudes are
transected by codes, wires, and pulsations. We punch a number to check
in with the answering machine, another to tape a show that we are too
busy to watch. But there is no need to itemize the strands of the web;
they are obvious. Also obvious is the fact they will continue to ramify,
growing ever denser and more sophisticated, and at the same time smoothing
out, stream-lining themselves for more efficient transmission. The model
is that of a circuit board, and we are the contact points. The expansion
of electronic options is always at the cost of contractions in the private
sphere. its axiomatic. WE will soon be navigating with ease among
cataracts of organized pulsations, putting out and taking in signals.
We will bring our terminals, modems, and menus further and further into
our former privacies; we will implicate ourselves effortlessly into
the unitary life, and we will no longer remember that there was ever
It was while I was brewing these somewhat melancholy thoughts that
I chanced to read an old issue of the New Republic that reprinted
the text of Joseph Brodskys 1987 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
I felt as though I had opened a vault onto the 19th century. The poets
brilliant plea on behalf of the book at once countered and corroborated
everything I had been thinking. What he upheld in faith were the very
ideals I was saying goodbye to. I greeted his words with an agitated
skepticism, fashioning something more like a valediction. Or if not
that, a plea. Here are four passages:
If art teaches anything...it is the privateness of the
human condition. Being the most ancient as well as the most literal
form of private enterprise, it fosters in a man, knowingly or unwittingly,
a sense of his uniqueness, of individuality, of separatenessthus
turning him from a social animal into an autonomous "I."
The great Baratynsky, speaking of his Muse, characterized her
as possessing an "uncommon visage." Its in acquiring
this "uncommon visage" that the meaning of human existence
seems to lie, since for this uncommonness we are, as it were, prepared
Aesthetic choice is a highly individual matter, and aesthetic
experience is always a private one. Every new aesthetic reality
makes ones experience even more private; and this kind of
privacy, assuming at times the guise of literary (or some other)
taste, can in iteself turn out to be, if not a guarantee, then a form
of defense, against enslavement.
In the history of our species, in the history of Homo sapiens,
the book is an anthropological development, similar essentially
to the invention of the wheel. Having emerged in order to give
us some idea not so much of our origins as of what that sapiens
is capable of, a book constitutes a means of transportation through
the space of experience, at the speed of a turning page. This movement,
like every movement, becomes flight from the common denominator....
This flight is the flight in the direction of "uncommon visage,"
in the direction of the numerator, in the direction of autonomy,
in the direction of privacy.
What Brodsky is addressing, of course, is his view of the relation
between art and totalitarianism, and within that context his words make
passionate sense. But I was reading from a different vantage. What I
had in mind was not a vision of political totalitarianism, but rather
of something that might be called "societal totalism"that
movement toward deindividuation, or electronic collectivization, that
I discussed above. And from that perspective it appears that our era
represents a headlong flight from the "uncommon visage" named
by the poet.
Trafficking with tendenciesextrapolating and projectingmust
finally remain a kind of gambling, however. One bets high on the validity
of a notion and low on the human capacity for resistance and for unpredictable
initiatives. No one can really predict how we will adapt to the transformations
that are already underway. It may turn out that language is a hardier
thing that I have allowed, that it will flourish among the bleep and
the click and the monitor as readily as it ever did on the printed page.
I hope so, for language is the souls ozone layer, and we thin
it at our peril.