Into the electronic millenium
October 1, 1991
Oct 1, 1991
29 Min read time
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 libraries—by 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-take—he looked to be only a year or two older than we were. “I’m 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 vocation—he taught 19th- and 20th-century literature—but a book-lover’s 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 out 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, “I’m 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 didn’t know what it was then, nor could I tell you now, fifteen years later. But the professor was keen to explain and demonstrate.
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. “I’m changing my life,” the professor—the ex-professor—was saying. “This is definitely where it’s 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 don’t 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 us—nothing could be clearer. The printed word is part of a vestigial order that we are moving away from—by choice and by societal compulsion. I’m 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 don’t 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. I’m 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 parts—the 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 future—it 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 haven’t we heard more about it? Why hasn’t 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 system—where 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 happening—what has already happened—is by way of a severe and unnatural dissociation of sensibility.
To get a grip on the dimensions of the change, you must force yourself to imagine—deeply and in non-televisual terms—what 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 person’s average day, and then juxtapose to the images and sensations those encountered by the average urban or suburban dweller today.
One of the first realizations—it is inevitable—is 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 unique—itself—is strangely shot through with radiations from every other place. There was then; here is now.
If the print medium exalts the world, fixing it into permanence, the electronic counterpart reduces it to a signal, a means to an end.
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 images—to 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. Gramsci’s much-cited words come to mind:
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 symptoms—these, 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 has written:
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, I’m sure, suffice. As for what the conversion will bring—and mean—to 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. What’s more, they care commonsensical. I therefore abbreviate.
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 receiver—writer 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 static—it is the reader, not the book, that 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 reception—the viewer absorbs a steady wash of packaged messages.
Further, the technology—visual and non-visual—in 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 rippling—more likely, reweaving—the whole of the social and cultural web. And we don’t 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 sides—proponents and opponents—have 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 foolhardy.
As the nature of looking changed with the arrival of mechanical reproduction, so will the collective relation to language alter as new modes of dissemination prevail.
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 simple—that if the electronic media are the one thing that today’s 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 reports:
Here’s 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 we’re simply capitalizing on that to enhance learning.’
Calabrese’s 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 viciousness?
• • •
A species change—that is, a collective sensibility change—may 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 Harper’s debate with Neil Postman, Camille Paglia, academia’s current enfant terrible (she is in her early 40s!), observed:
. . . some people have more developed sensoriums than others. I’ve found that most people born before World War II are turned off by the modern media. They can’t 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 operas—with the sound turned down— flickered on my TV. I’d be talking on the phone at the same time. Baby boomers have a multilayered, multirack ability to deal with the world.
I don’t know whether to be depressed or impressed by Paglia’s 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. I’m 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.
Paglia’s 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) reports suggestively:
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. Leyner’s writing, which he considered important and unique: ‘It speaks to them, somehow, about this weird milieu they’re swimming through. It’s this dissolving, discontinuous world.’ While older people might find Mr. Leyner’s world bizarre or unreal, Professor McCaffrey said, it doesn’t seem so to people who grew up with Walkmen and computers and VCR’s, with so many choices, so much bombardment, that they have never experienced a sensation singly.
The article continues:
There is no 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 don’t know where you’re going, but you don’t 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 exhibit—I don’t 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 things—if 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 Shakespeare’s plays or to see Lincoln’s hand-written version of the Gettysburg Address.’
‘I’ve 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 information.
And books? Zich has the line on books, too:
He tells me about Sony’s 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 it’s 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 looking—at the natural world, at paintings—changed with the arrival of photography and mechanical reproduction, so will the collective relation to language alter as new modes of dissemination prevail.
The idea of what it means to be a person living a life will be much changed. There are no more wildernesses, no more emblems of the exalted individual.
Whether all of this sounds dire or merely “different” will depend upon the reader’s own sense of values and priorities. I find these portents of change depressing, but also exhilarating—at 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 wit—fast 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 person’s 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 processes—which are in every way constitutive of the immediate present, the now—our 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, history—cognate 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 ever 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, streamlining 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. It’s 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 any other.
• • •
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 Brodsky’s 1987 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. I felt as though I had opened a vault onto the 19th century. The poet’s 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 separateness—thus turning him from a social animal into an autonomous ‘I.’
The great Baratynsky, speaking of his Muse, characterized her as possessing an ‘uncommon visage.’ It’s in acquiring this ‘uncommon visage’ that the meaning of human existence seems to lie, since for this uncommonness we are, as it were, prepared genetically.
Aesthetic choice is a highly individual matter, and aesthetic experience is always a private one. Every new aesthetic reality makes one’s 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 tendencies—extrapolating and projecting—must 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 soul’s ozone layer, and we thin it at our peril.
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October 01, 1991
29 Min read time