Sven Birkerts, ‘Reading in a Digital Age’: A Challenge

Sven Birkerts

If there is one essay which captures all the contradictions currently at work in the literary world, then this is it. Sven Birkerts, with admirable eloquence and integrity, has unwittingly mapped out the extremities of the situation in which we find ourselves. I want, not only to challenge particular points of his essay, but also to suggest that each one of them is a star whose total constellation remains just beyond his purview.

His essay divides into roughly two halves. The first half deals with the effects of that incessant digital hum of information which constitutes the fabric of our everyday lives:

I find myself especially fixated on the idea that contemplative thought is endangered. This starts me wondering about the difference between contemplative and analytic thought. The former is intransitive and experiential in its nature, is for itself; the latter is transitive, is goal directed. According to the logic of transitive thought, information is a means, its increments mainly building blocks toward some synthesis or explanation. In that thought-world it’s clearly desirable to have a powerful machine that can gather and sort material in order to isolate the needed facts. But in the other, the contemplative thought-world—where reflection is itself the end, a means of testing and refining the relation to the world, a way of pursuing connection toward more affectively satisfying kinds of illumination, or insight—information is nothing without its contexts. I come to think that contemplation and analysis are not merely two kinds of thinking: they are opposed kinds of thinking. Then I realize that the Internet and the novel are opposites as well.

Two kinds of thinking are opposed: the type we use on the internet, when we click from one page to the next at breakneck speed, skimming the surface of the screen with nothing but a cursory glance and on-the-spot makeshift turbo-hermeneutic, and the more leisurely, self-indulgent act of meditation or contemplation which is an end in itself. This reminds me of nothing so much as the two narrative codes Roland Barthes outlined in S/Z: the proairetic and the hermeneutic. The former is the sequence of actions that constitute a plot (the what happens of a novel) while the latter is what constitutes the mystery or questions (the what does it mean or the whodunit). At the extreme, the schoolboy adventure story can stand for the proairetic, whilst the detective novel can stand for the hermeneutic. What Birkerts is referring to is a sort of wrenching apart of the two codes (if we think of them now as more general cultural phenomena) achieved by the digital age of late capitalism. Actions and deeper meanings come apart at the seams.

This leads him to the following argument:

This idea of the novel is gaining on me: that it is not, except superficially, only a thing to be studied in English classes—that it is a field for thinking, a condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours. That its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself. Enhancement. Deepening. Priming the engines of conjecture. In this way, and for this reason, the novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes.

What we have here is essentially a rerun of an argument that can be traced back to the early 18th century and the foundation of that great discourse which Baumgarten named ‘aesthetics’. With the demise of political absolutism and the rise of a new bourgeois order, the cold Enlightenment reason which had been necessary to overthrow the mystifications of kings and popes alike now threatened to turn back on itself. What had once seemed a new and exciting scientific rationality, a genuinely liberating force against the dogmatic slumber of incense and mitre, was, on beginning to achieve its aims, struck suddenly hollow. It had become a frigid instrumentalism, incapable of binding a people under a global hegemony. And so, without more ado, enter aesthetics: a form of reason with the capacity to insinuate itself into the deepest fibres of our being, into our very bodies, hiding the iron fist of pure reason inside the velvet glove of sensation. Aesthetics, in other words, was a new form of ideology. (That it was an ambiguous one which also harboured a certain revolutionary potential is undoubted, but I have no time to go into that here).

So it is that every time a ruling ideology gives way, aesthetics or literature must step in to bear the brunt of those dying mechanisms of control. In England, for example, from at least Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869) onwards, literature was called upon to assume the hegemonic burden which religion was no longer able to carry. When your people demand bread, educate their sensibilities through books so that they don’t shout quite so loud.

Unfortunately, Birkerts is in danger of unwittingly suggesting just such a solution to our current dilemma. He correctly deduces that certain shifts in our social and technological make-up (notice that emphasis on technological changes is almost always a way of not talking about economic changes) have altered our capacities to think and to perceive, and he understands these changes as negative or debilitating in some human sense; his solution to this is not to challenge the concrete historical situation, but to offer literature as a sort of supplement to appease our alienation, as a humanizing palliative in a world of dehumanizing machines.


But having done so, he then squares the circle in the second half of the essay by attempting instrumentally to justify reading novels – those very ‘antidotes’ to the ills of instrumentality! Not that you can blame him. This problem is the classic one confronting all literary scholars: how do you justify getting paid to read books? The truth is that, historically, it really is unjustifiable, so any justification is likely to be pure ideology. A non-scholar (i.e. unsalaried non-professional reader) could answer the question on the point of reading thus: ‘There is no point: reading is an end in itself, a revelling in language for language’s sake, a joyous bathing in that invisible extension of our bodies in the world’. But if you said that to the Vice-Chancellor of the university (who in all likelihood is also on the board of some oil company), the very man paying your wages, it is unlikely you would achieve tenure. And so you clutch at straws: you do a Birkerts.

What is a ‘Birkerts’? A Birkerts is when you quote approvingly Nabokov’s talk of reading as ‘aesthetic bliss’ and then immediately admit that it sounds ‘trivial’, and so try to shore it up with yet more of that very instrumentality you set out to overcome: you engage in a project which attempts to deduce the rational (maybe even neurological) ingredients of aesthetic bliss!

The contradictions at work in this wonderful essay are the contradictions of our current historical situation. They will not be overcome until the latter itself is radically transformed.


5 thoughts on “Sven Birkerts, ‘Reading in a Digital Age’: A Challenge

  1. Bob Garlitz says:

    Great examination of Birkerts. But I can’t see that your closing call for transformation of the age is much of an answer, is it? Have any ages ever been transformed? Isn’t the hope for transformation a way of permitting religious terminology to corrupt our examination of the state of things?

    1. Daniel Hartley says:

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks for your response. I think the point I’m trying to make is that we have to be very wary of any argument which poses literature or aesthetics in general as a solution to a concrete historical problem, since this is one of the hallmarks of mystifying ideology. Birkerts is proposing novel reading as an antidote to the transitive, instrumental thinking which he rightly sees as becoming dominant. The problem with this is that it refuses to take on the range of economic and technological factors which, according to Birkerts’ reading, are causing this alienated mindset in the first place. For me, that’s what you have called a ‘corruption’ of ‘our examination of the state of things’ – a turning to literature instead of history.

      By transformation I mean, firstly, taking a long, hard look at the way capitalism in this day and age functions, and then asking ourselves some difficult questions: e.g. If it’s screwing over so many people, do we really want to maintain this system? If not, it’s the entire system we shall have to overthrow – not just cower in our reading rooms bathing our hyperactive proairetic minds in the cool balm of Literature.

      I don’t have all the answers – in fact I have practically none. I just try to help pose the right questions.

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