Sven Birkerts: The Protean Word



I'm backing down and turning left a little bit from my announced topic, which was going to be called "The Protean Word," because I thought we would come to that anyway. It would be possibly more useful and relevant for me to talk about things that actually form the context, the societal envelope, within which all of these things that we're so interested in unfold. I'm very grateful to have been able to come after Neil Postman, because aside from delivering such wise and thoughtful observations, I think he sort of set out the context for me. What I'm going to talk about is, in some ways, an elaboration of, variation upon and continuation of the same general topical concern. The one thing I'm going to do a little differently–I'm more a Plato than a Socrates when it comes to this–is I'm going to read something, rather than talk it. I envy people who can just come forward and confidently go on for an hour, talking and extemporizing, but my main writerly contract seems to be first to the page, then to the reader or audience, sort of like the moon reflecting the light from the sun. At the end, we can go absolutely anywhere with it. We don't have to stay within the circumference drawn here; we can head out toward other related issues.

I lack a title, but I think it will become fairly self-evident where I'm going. I scrawled down some things while I was listening to Neil Postman: he talked a lot about the trivialization of symbols. In a lot of ways, what I'm looking at in this piece, is also trying to look at the cultural consequence of such trivialization. I think that almost addresses the question that somebody posed earlier about the losses or down side in the Faustian bargain. I hope that the phrase I'm going to begin with is one that you know, if not from the book, then the film of Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I take that as my point of departure.

If we suffer from anything just now in America–that is, apart from the sorrows and ailments that have always plagued all people–it is from what Milan Kundera so aptly called The unbearable lightness of being. The phrase has become my thought mantra. Whenever I feel I am losing my way and my sense of mission blurs, and I teeter toward the consolations of relativism, I need only focus on those five words. All comes clear again: the unbearable lightness of being. I love the seemingly oxymoronic yoking of those two words, ‘unbearable’ and ‘lightness.’ The way we are forced to consider, if only for an instant, how something as essentially pleasurable as lightness could be unbearable. It is in that instant that I find my subject. How it is that our culture-wide rush to quicken and connect, to bring experience in line with the instantaneous shunting of impulses in our circuits, may in the end betoken a crisis of human subjectivity. How did lightness become unbearable? It is the question of questions.

My sense of the phrase, ‘lightness of being,’ possibly differs from Kundera's, as it is bound up with an ideal of effortlessness in living. Effortlessness, certainly, in terms of what were once the universal constants and constraints–labor, time, and distance. Lightness of being is to a degree what follows upon the surmounting of the myriad forms of physical resistance. It is the reaction in the psyche to the elimination or abridgment of the physical process. Our understanding of the world, our relation to it, has been significantly determined over millennia by the pressure of these constraints. The concept of distance was tied to the exertions of getting from here to there. Labor was defined by the output of energy, and so on.

Our century's recent decades, in particular, have wreaked havoc with laboriously acquired knowledge. We race everywhere in cars and planes, more and more often using our appliances, our cell phones and laptops, as we do so. We zap our supermarket meals in microwaves; we gather and disperse electronic messages, many of the exchanges taking place with people we have never met. It is an easy litany to set down. What we need to acknowledge is that with the exhilarating surmounting of former resistance comes a certain distance, as well. The roadside driven past is not the landscape known; the food ladled out of a prepared package is consumed for taste and calories: it does not bind us in any way to the terrain we happen to live on. Lightness of being is what we feel when the process or encounter is mediated for us. It is what we feel living in second --or third-hand, when ancient, conditioned reflexes are not called upon, and when the impulse of a certain exertion simply fades away.

We feel the lightness, too, in our so-called atomization, the dissolution of physical community. We move about alone, or with the remnants of our nuclear family, or with like-minded others we have found to be with. But we no longer feel between body and soil the pull that goes beyond mere ownership. The idea of history, collective as well as familial, has begun to die for us. The modern conception of freedom is to no longer feel the weight of traditional obligations and the implicit responsibility to care for those living on every side of us. This freedom, this liberation, is part of the lightness and has something to do with how it is becoming unbearable.

Do we not remark this? Of course we do, privately. We wait at a traffic light and feel unaccountably anxious. Crossing the parking lot at the mall, we suddenly forget who we are, where we're going, or what it is we're doing. But there's no public corroboration; our society has pledged to conquer all difficulty, or else to bury its traces. The same forces that have brought us our ease and acceleration–the seamless living that we all imagine we want–and that have undone much of the fabric of the local, destroying the sovereign categories of time and space and rendering our experience of them relative, have forced us to change our relation to reality in other ways as well. Data glut, and that elusive phenomenon that I call ‘culture speed,’ the sense we all have of being overwhelmed, have led us to fracture our focus. We now distribute our energy in many different directions at once. Our attention spans have attenuated alarmingly. Most of us will recognize the sensation, once it is named. It is the distraction we feel as we try, in one and the same moment, to attend to a child, keep up our end of a phone conversation, pick up and sort papers on the dining room table, and monitor the spaghetti sauce cooking on the stove. The point is not that we do these things all at once–it is possible–but that we feel the need to. The point is that given finite blocks of time and exponentially expanded ranges of stimulus and stimulus responsibility, something has to collapse. It is the focus that goes. This is part of the lightness of being, too; for when the field of awareness is divided thus and the mind is exerting itself to synchronize things and keep balance, only the faintest sense of real being is able to leak through. Simone Weil wrote that prayer is attention; in that sense, so is being. We feel the shortfall, it nags at us, but we reflexively postpone our reckonings: Next week, on Saturday, when I finally settle in at the Cape, then I'll get back to being. I'll figure my way around these assaults. Or else we rent a video for distraction, possibly one that leaves us chagrined by the passion and purpose scripted into the characters, and again, we make our private vows.

While mediation and fragmentation are the obvious culprits, there is another, more elusive. Consider what happens when an individual turns from the world, figuratively speaking, and fastens his or her gaze upon him or herself, taking the I as the object of primary attention. We call this narcissism; it is a familiar feature of our age. Indeed, social theorists like Christopher Lasch have gone so far as to tag our whole epoch, ‘the culture of narcissism.’ My interest just now is the individual, and it is less psychological–why it is that a person is driven to direct her energies thus–and centers more upon what happens in the course of that strange transaction. This transaction is at once the channeling of awareness away from its intended object and a short-circuiting of the self. The natural flow of awareness, the sentience, is turned upon the self and consciousness, that evolutionary triumph, has converted to self-consciousness. All consciousness, reason the philosophers, is consciousness of something. But what happens when that something is not out in the world. It seems a transgression against the intended, a break as grievous as the original break narrated in Genesis, when simple being was set aside for the ever more divisive pursuit of knowledge. There is something in our age and times that conduces to this reversing the flow of the gaze, the redirecting of the contemplative impulse from its customary exterior target. It's all guesswork, of course; but I would say that part of the explanation has to do with the removal of the world from us. The world reality long ago stopped being the simple ‘other’ of nature.

For a long time, it was a place obviously connected to nature, with habitations and enterprises still visibly bound up with the given. But what we call the world now is, more likely than not, that obscure, third thing, a gelid sort of extrusion. It is not so much characterized by nature, or even by things, but rather by electronic communications, media images and devices, in a vast circulatory system of mass-produced goods, felt by a great many of us to be indispensable. There is no clear ‘other’ now, no obvious ‘not-I’; the self, overwhelmed and frightened, unable to get its bearings, circles the wagons and reroutes the gaze. The ethos of the marketplace reinforces this, pitching itself insistently to the self that takes itself as its central preoccupation. You deserve a break today. Because I'm worth it.

When the literal eye takes in the image of itself looking, the circuit to the world is obviously broken. If you can think of looking in the mirror, at your own eye, there's a strange sort of mirror-within-a-mirror process. In fact, at that moment you have, oddly, by looking at the thing that does the looking, broken the circuit that is, at almost all other times, in place and governs our perceptual relation to the world. When the literal eye takes in the image of itself looking, the circuit to the world is obviously broken. When the self takes itself as the primary object of its awareness, the natural circulation of sympathy is violated. In the self-consciousness that results, the once natural durational flow of time is broken. This is a time awareness that we generate in our intense, experiential engagement with the world. When the engagement is interrupted, the relation to things is modified. The eye, watching itself, no longer quite belongs to a participant; it has put a break, a parenthesis, into the established way of things.

Can this same phenomenon be understood collectively? I want to propose that our astonishing technological capabilities are increasingly encouraging us to pursue a kind of looking that is something new in the world. Consider, in this regard, vice-president Al Gore's proposal, made in a speech given at MIT last year, that a continuous live satellite image of the earth be posted on the Internet. It's a staggering idea, one that bears some thinking about. This is more than just another inventive use to which our new, technological toys–sophisticated satellite cameras and the Internet–can be put. Subliminally, it marks a serious new step in our perceptual evolution, never mind if it shortly comes to pass or not. What matters is the idea and our perceived readiness for it. For this perpetual, real-time image to be posted, it would subtly infiltrate a new perspective into our collective myths. Henceforth, some idea of being beheld, planetarily, would always be with us. It is a symbolic business: where once it was the eye of God that was believed to see everything, now, deeply secularized, we would assign that vantage to an orbiting satellite. When the philosopher Bishop Berkeley wrote, To be is to be perceived, he surely meant something other than this. The idea is in the air; the time has come; and we are readying ourselves for the lightness of being beheld.

But the possibilities and implications are also troubling to us. Looking to Hollywood, where the anxieties of our collective being are thrown, as if in nerve patterns, upon a screen–the phrase is T.S. Elliot’s–we see the signs. Last summer's big movie, The Truman Show, was about a man whose entire life was filmed and watched the world over, unbeknownst only to him. Or think of The Game, another movie, where everything that happens to the Michael Douglas character turns out to have been scripted and performed by members of a top-secret agency, whose business is to sell rich people extraordinary experiences. Douglas’ character is oblivious, as are we, but in the final scenes, the whole fabric of our assumptions was ripped asunder. Everything was known, anticipated and planned for. In Wag the Dog, a major global conflict is entirely simulated in television studios, and the populace effectively believes it really happened. In each case, differences notwithstanding, the impression is created that organizations have the power to generate the entirely persuasive illusion of reality. Along with this, there is the fear that we may not understand the extent to which we are now seen or known in our living.

It is not far from this to the quasi-paranoid sense of a pervasive ‘there’ and an omnipresent ‘they.’ Rationally of course, we know that such an ultimate, superintending force does not exist, at least not one that we have manufactured. But subliminally, the situation is somewhat different: ‘there’ and ‘they’ are felt to be on the other end of the electronic circuit. We push the power button on the remote, and a world flowers in front of us. It strikes us suddenly that here is a reality not only shaped and comprehended, but that the same agency that presents it for our pleasure is connected through a hundred thousand tentacles to global reality. If anything important happens anywhere, we will be apprised. We have no comparable powers. We know almost nothing apart from what our various media digest and deliver to us. The continuous Earth image, the god's eye view, would belong to that world. Indeed, it would be the icon of omniscience. It would split us once and for all from the gravity-bound condition of isolated existence. Once beheld and known to us to be something continuously beheld and consumed as image, the world would become less entity and more idea. We would have pulled ourselves a notch further toward lightness, the apotheosis of which is insubstantiality.

Our cave ancestors, veritable bears, bequeathed undivided weightedness to their first heirs. Each generation since has sought to divide, to lessen and to ease that burden. For so many centuries, living was a kind of rude poking in ashes with a stick, or hefting a bundle from here to there. Now it is the finger, still strangely fleshy, launching signals and actions by way of codes.

But I'm not quite done with this matter of self-seeing and being seen. I seem to see traces of transformation wherever I look. There is, for example, the widely publicized example of the computer-cam, also known as the Jenny-cam, after the young woman who started the on-line fad of nonstop, documentary projection of her apartment life. Imitators have been legions; many people appear to find the idea of uninterrupted self-display irresistible. Or is it more the idea of being, always, potentially seen? This impulse to electronically breach the walls of privacy is related, if only on an inverse level, to the epidemic erosion of privacy through the myriad forms of electronic databanks and public surveillance. Whether desired or unwanted, either way you cut it, the wall between the private self and the world at large are growing thinner and thinner.

The other day driving, I heard a radio segment about a new project. A group would climb Mount Everest, filming the whole trek, and posting it in real time on the Internet. Interesting and informative, yes; but also another blow to the idea of otherness. When the austere remoteness of Everest becomes a feature accessed digitally, then another quantum of reality will have been leached away.

In this way, the ancient and once ultimate tyrannies of time and space are being broken down and reconstituted. Not just by speed and electronic simultaneity–the instant transfer of impulses between Singapore and Cheyenne–but also by the incessant generation and consumption of images. Images broker between ourselves and the other; they stand in between. Consume enough images, and the world seems less absolutely set before us. Moreover, the kind of looking we carry out here, whether we're gazing at someone flossing into their webcam or driving a piton into an Everest rock face, is not really a looking outward. It partakes, rather, of a new sort of collective self-gazing, for what is important is not so much the content of what we're looking at as the mutually held awareness of the process. Here we are in the moment, making this extraordinary leap of connection via the wonders of technology. Something happens when we have as part of our consciousness, individually and collectively, the ongoing idea of ourselves watching and being watched. We cannot be said to be living according to the old terms any more.

I am reminded of Jorge Luis Borges's disquieting little story, called The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero; in which, after the manner of a Swiss public pageant–the festspiel where a whole village would essentially enact an episode of its history–a whole town lives a portion of its history as an act, a self-conscious performance. There's a little quotation here from Borges: The condemned man entered Dublin, argued, worked, prayed, reprehended, spoke words of pathos, and each one of those acts, destined to shine forth in glory, had been choreographed by Nolan. Hundreds of actors collaborated with the protagonist. The role of some was complex; the role of others a matter of moments on the stage. The things they did and said endure in Ireland's history books and in its impassioned memory. Here it is: The Truman Show with a twist.

The image of our planet, Gaia, recalled by some as the emblem of 60s communal consciousness, the cover of the original Whole Earth catalog, only now seen continually via live feed from space, would signal a huge departure from the former mode of consciousness. Indeed, I wonder how, before our recent technological baptism, we could even speak, really, of collectivity, except in the sense of underlying human universals and shared blood impulses. In former times, before our electronic age, we lived in small groups of isolated selves. The comprehension and world vision of most people ended at the horizon. Only by bringing large numbers of people physically together–this is Charles Baudelaire's and Edgar Allan Poe's sense of the city, which is very strong in the 19th century–could that sense of local limitation be vanquished for a time. The city, of course, became a magnet: not only was there work to be had, there was lightness. Now we live always in potential collectivity. Our instruments and the impulses that they pass along have woven us together. The center of perceived power is no longer the President or any symbolic power figure; it is whatever agency gathers and disseminates the most data and imagery. No longer can we sustain the unbroken and undivided view. We live in the midst of constant fragmentation, and the signature mode of our condition is irony. Not irony as pointed sarcasm, necessarily, but irony as in distance and knowing, as in being savvy, as in balancing of different views, as in relativism. Anything not thus self-divided and self-reflexive, anything dating from before the era of fragmentation, automatically becomes an object of ironic contemplation or nostalgia. We smile now at the unfragmented, credulous world-view of the simple person. The simple person is our ancestor: Forrest Gump, Gomer Pyle, Jed Clampett. Action unbroken by self-consciousness belongs to a prior world, when all actions were undertaken, necessarily, with an immersion and seriousness that now looks quaint. More than most anything, possibly more than the overt pressures of geopolitical change, this shift in sensibility marks us off from our past, from history, and no viewing of public television specials will change that. The fact is that anything from before is faintly comical, equivalent to the jerky renditions of events in black and white newsreel footage. Of course we long for it, too; we celebrate the tokens of the past, fetishize objects and make heroes of the players. We crave those defining intensities, but we cannot have them.

The world of fashion photography has pledged to give us images that accord with our desire, as if by buying the ensemble, we may recover inner unity. Alas, intensity combined with physical beauty and tailored clothing also looks a lot like complete narcissistic self-absorption.

There is a new kind of collective consciousness in the world. I would define ‘collective consciousness’ as that component in an individual consciousness that grasps its actions, reactions and thoughts as partaking in the actions, reactions and thoughts of a portion of the larger society as well. Normally–that is, before everything changed–living in isolation, we would not be aware of ourselves as collective entities. It is the consequence of the media–newspapers, radio and especially television–not only directing the same data stream at the multitude, but also premising themselves, their entire delivery, on the idea of a collectivity. They helped create the collective individual by positing her and pitching their wares accordingly. Everyone shares not just the same data but also the reinforcing subliminal impression of an audience of similarly constituted individuals. Workplace and other interactions solidify this. They unfold by way of collective reference and establish the dominance of that implicit understanding. To live in the collective, to go to a ball game, to go see Titanic, is to feel the lightness of being, though not necessarily as something unbearable. To the contrary: it can feel desirable and even necessary. It is only unbearable when held against the idea of the differentiated individual, an idea that is fast losing texture and viability in our culture. Many find lightness liberating and seek it out, because lightness cuts against the gravity and pain of selfhood.

We shift, now, to consider a specific and representative instance: the cinematic image and the difference between movies and film, between entertainment and art. Movies are entertainment; entertainment is a collective phenomenon. Entertainment is lightness. Films are art; art is an individual experience, a singling out of the self from the mass. Films are often spoken of as ‘heavy,’ as are many serious works of art. Movies feed the great distractedness. Governed by the consensus logic of the bottom line, they are made with an eye upon the collective, upon the viewer who is a self fragmented between private and public claims. (The word ‘collective,’ I realize, comes to us laden with overtones from Marxism and from Jung, but I could not find a better word for this.) Movies are self-conscious in this way, and they come perilously close–at times crossing over–to winking at themselves. They are not about the real comprehension of their subject matter; they are focused entirely upon calculating the impression to be made. The right impression equals box office: the largest collective immersion, producing the greatest collective lightness, also generates the greatest revenue. Capital goes in search, not of the largest number of individuals, but of the spirit of the collective. Finding that, it finds the individual viewers. Though they are both on the big screen, nothing could be more different than a film like Babette's Feast and the latest blockbuster. The difference is simply not artistic quality, however we choose to define that. It is the assumption that underlies the very joining together of the images.

This becomes a definition of art, as well, though I will not push the point here. Writing about the difference between science and art, the late Walker Percy insisted that science can only deal with the general phenomenon or malaise, that it can never tell us what it is like to be an individual, to be born, live and die in the 20th century. The same distinction applies, I would say, to entertainment versus art. Art is never pitched to the collective part of the self, but to the distinct, unique self, the self that stands not just apart from, but fundamentally against, the collective.

Now we must ask, what is the difference between the collective and the universal? A great many individuals can be joined together in a response to elements in a work of art that are understood to be universal. But their response is not coming from the collective part of the self, as I have characterized it. The universal resonates the individual, the self, bringing a recognition of commonality within a context of essential difference. Experiencing the collective immersion, one feels lightness. Experiencing the universal, one feels neither heaviness nor lightness, but the proper balance between them.

An issue in all that I'm saying here is not so much changes in world, for these proceed unabated, but rather changes in the sphere of human subjectivity: what it feels like and what it seems to mean, person to person, to live in the world now. The final question then: why unbearable? What is wrong with lightness? How have we failed ourselves by stepping into lightness?

I recall the absolute terror that I felt as a child watching the old Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The terror was at least twofold, deriving in part from the fact that the afflicted were outwardly unidentifiable, looking just like the unafflicted, and in part from the fact that the affliction was essentially the absence of soul. What was it that so frightened me? It was the loss of everything that gave pleasure and definition to life. The outer form of existence stripped of its animating energies was worse than no existence at all. If that ever happened, I thought, I would kill myself; it would be unbearable. I wonder how far to extend the analogy. Much of the lightness I describe feels benign: we know it, we enjoy it. But were it to spread and become the dominant experiential mode, it is very likely the world would not seem a nightmarish place, but merely a dull, tranquilized place. It would be a place where any true artistic expression would resonate like a shout in a silent hall.

I'll stop there. I know I was unloading a lot of aphoristic observations about culture, media, image and seeing, all one on top of the other. I can try to get behind and explain it from my point of view, or go elsewhere. That's up to you.

Audience: I'd like to return to the primary metaphor that you used, which was the mirror gazing. I like that way you described it. There's two sides of it: when you're looking in the mirror, it's like looking at something that makes yourself absolutely real, in a sense, and at the same time, it makes you absolutely unreal. In order to realize yourself, you're looking through this image which is always outside of you. To extend that metaphor the way you did into the notion of the self and the collective, the collective functions as the mirror. Which of these sides of the mirror would it be possible to perform an intervention in this process?

Birkerts: You said a mouthful. First of all, when I took on that image as the governing metaphor, it was not so much looking in the mirror to see yourself represented as to try to pinpoint what happens when you're looking in your own eyes, into the very mechanism of looking. In fact, your body is a kind of a blur; you're directing your own gaze at the thing that produces the gaze and setting up a kind of endless reverberation. As I was working on all this, I was looking for an analogy that would convey this thing that I do feel is very new in the world. For the first time ever, we have the technological competence to make it happen. We have placed between ourselves and the world a very elaborate, ramified process of reproduction, looking, multiplying, transmitting. It, in a way, almost displaces the very apparatus that is between ourselves and what used to be the simple transaction with the world. What we are looking at in our collective looking is largely about the process of looking itself. That is what's happening with electronic media: it's not that we care very much about whatever little thing that is flickering on the screen. What we are enthralled by is the fact of the flickering. We have situated ourselves within the network so that as we are using it we are very aware that we are partaking in something brand new in the world, which is a simultaneous rush of the image, the impulse, the datum. We care for that, right now, much more than we care about whatever it is that we're actually finding out. This seems to me to have suddenly been injected into our culture on many fronts. The first place I looked, as I often do, is to the world of popular entertainment, to see the messages that are coming from that quarter. It seemed intriguing to me that so many films were about that. I'm referring to the instances I named before, like The Truman Show and Wag the Dog. The looking itself was what was being looked at. This was never quite possible before.

You asked what can one do as an ‘intervention.’ I think that was your word. First off, to have an intervention, one first has to recognize there's a problem. An intervention in psychiatric terms often involves confronting the person with the problem. It becomes finally seen as a real problem and not just something you made up. I don't think we're close to that point, culturally. I think we are bewitched and starstruck by the whole thing. It's going to take a long time before it comes clear in a striking sense, not that it's all bad, but that it's a bargain. It's a very real concept to me: You don't just get something. You get something and you lose something. You get extraordinary access in terms of space, and you lose the ability to be absorbed in your immediate space. At some point, I think it will possibly be revealed as more of a trade-off than we now see it as. That would be the point where some idea of intervention might arise. If I were true to the logic of my metaphor, the first thing you would do is to break the circuit of self looking at self. Perhaps it would be a kind of abstinence from all the things that force you to look at the collective and personal self. Maybe it means Outward Bound, to go into the woods and sit there for a week, on a stump, until the world comes trickling back. It has to be something that disrupts the seamless flow of data and imagery. This is one of those reality-testing questions. I feel like we are simply surrounded by it, as in an elastic cocoon. There's almost very little I can do in my daily life, and I'm not someone who is particularly embedded in technology. I feel it around me at all times, and I worry about that. Maybe it's an age thing: I'm just old enough to have somewhere in my memory banks a memory of the other. I was a kid, up until ten years old, in a world that didn't feel like this. It wasn't better or worse, just different. Now, inexorably, it has begun to feel another way. We just have to figure out how to live in it in a way that sustains, if we value it, a subjective selfhood, an articulated self as opposed to a self that is just an extension of all the other selves.

Audience: You talked about ‘lightness of being’ as one of the problems with all technology. What do you think about the possible connections between new technology and the recent phenomena of violence in this country? There have been suggestions that instances such as the Columbine killings could not have occurred without the Internet. Could you comment on this?

Birkerts: I didn't really want to bring up Columbine, but it seems to me the very apotheosis of lightness of being, precisely because those people went in and did the actual shooting. There was a murderous impulse there, but the impulse was, to my mind, inseparable from the fact that they had lost all sense of the gravity and substantiality of a human life. That was no longer a viable concept for these people. People have always killed, but killing was often an act undertaken with a grave sense of consequence. When you killed, you knew what you were doing. This was, to me, killing that knew it was killing. It was killing that was happening in a kind of other place, which is what allowed them to do it. They weren't seeing what they were shooting at. I know it's a cliché, but it had about the same reality quotient as the screen image on the Gameboy. I see it as, in some way, bearing out a little of what I'm saying. You wonder if it's just a consequence of it or something more: on some obscure level of the soul, is it the desire to feel something? You go out and do that much damage in order to feel something, anything. It takes that much to get your bang.

Audience: You talk about the need for self-looking, and that the first step is recognizing the problem. I was wondering when you think self-looking yields knowledge. Do you think it's necessary to look within?

Birkerts: I'm glad you asked that question, because it allows me to clarify that. I think there is self-looking in the oldest, most venerable, Socratic aspect. That Socratic ‘know thyself’ is the essential motto of what it means to be human and humane. It's what you strive for. I feel that ‘self-knowledge’ and ‘self-gazing’ are almost antithetical terms. The kind of looking where you look at yourself and take yourself as an object of inspection and interest is, to me, narcissism. That's the guy leaning over the pool, enchanted with his own image. It has nothing to do with self-knowledge, self-seeking, in the good sense rather than the bad sense. I don't think the process of looking, unless it's done with hyper-criticism, can ever begin to yield any kind of knowledge, whatsoever. I can only see it as enforcing and widening a rift between the self and the actual world. I think it's possible for people to begin to live in a kind of dreamy bubble, until something happens to shock them out of it. The biggest problem we're going to face culturally is death and the fear of it. I think that's the one place where the whole game keeps breaking down. You can almost script a life for yourself which is safely cocooned. It almost can be lived in a pleasurable dream, except that you know somewhere behind it all is the ‘off’ switch, and all of this will stop someday. That's the other thing that Socrates did, was link knowledge to death. He said, To philosophize is to learn how to die. You address yourself not just as something that wondrously exists, but as something that wondrously exists but for inexplicable reasons is going to stop existing and stop being wondrous. That's the beginning of the thought process that instigates philosophy. You keep wondering, is there a way around this? Is there a way that I can come to think of things that will allow death to happen to me and not be the most wrenching and horrible thing? Is there a wisdom that I can acquire?

I think if we move in this cultural direction that I'm theorizing here, we will make every attempt to suppress, deny, and conceal–as we're so good at–death. It will be even more of a mystery event, for the average person. Death is a private event. We don't hear about it much, and I think we'll hear about it less.

Audience: I want to respond to your presentation from a cross-cultural perspective. Descartes said, I think, therefore I am. There's an African proverb that says, We are, therefore I am. It is a very interesting troping on thinking. I suspect that the self-entrancement accompanying this embodiment that we find in Western technological culture has a lot to do with a lack of community, a lack of thinking of one in multitudes or an extended system. A driving power is the kind of heavy hammering we get from capitalism: how we can be comfortable, how we can make it alone, how we can become individual humans. These things override the spiritual concerns that make communality possible or attainable. My question is this: I come from a culture where I've experienced communality and how much that can be a strong, supporting instrument for the self in moments of crisis. For young people growing up in a place like London, New York or San Francisco, who aren't used to an extended familial or societal network, what can we do to suggest alternatives that can both inform their real lives and their attitudes toward art? There is the example of August Wilson, when he started writing plays. Because he was articulate in the communal experience, people said that wasn't the way to write plays. The individual is supposed to the hero. But Wilson said that the community can also be the hero.

Birkerts: You said some really good things there. When you are talking about coming out of a communal culture, I want to make sure that it's clear that when I am talking about the ‘collective,’ I'm talking about an abstract process. It's the act when you feel that by virtue of some message or image you are being joined to a whole host of your brothers. It is the exact opposite of what the communal experience really is. It's the modern bastardization of the communal experience, which we have largely given up and lost in the way we move around geographically, because of all these disruptions. That's why we are drawn in this way to reconstitute it electronically. That's a very new kind of constitution of community. It's not community in any of the old, viable senses.

I don't know–because there is so much rara, boosterism, glitz and attractiveness to these new technologies, those people who feel the impulse to question or criticize it begin to, after a while, feel like they're raining on the parade. I feel like everything I'm saying is kind of dour and negative. But, here we go. This both adds to what I'm saying and tries to address what you were asking. One of the consequences of the arrival of the electronic bubble and the general societal atomization that we're all experiencing on many levels is that we are losing an authentic sense of history and of where we hail from beyond one generation back. That has never been true before, because history and community have always been intimately bound. If you leave community, you leave history, in many ways. There's a certain countering impulse: whenever something seems to be disappearing, we go back and look for it in other forms. So you'll see, for instance, articles about the genealogy boom. Suddenly everyone in America is interested in knowing where they came from, and this is all brought to you by the Internet. The very process that alienated you, or was part of what alienated you, is now bringing about a kind of solution. You can go chasing through history, via the databanks, to rebuild the family tree and find out who was where. They're strangely linked phenomena.

What do we do to counter this malaise? I think one of the many functions of art, across many forms and genres, is to create and reinforce a compelling reminder of history, what it really is, and how historical connections pass through generations–sins of fathers are visited upon sons, etc. We need to be constantly reminded that we are just skating across the very thin contemporary surface. Underneath and behind are long millennia of our ancestors living in very different circumstances, generation after generation. Only in the last two or three generations have we seen this emancipation or pollination effect. I think without that history, we feel inwardly bereft and light. Part of what makes you feel heavy is to realize the extent to which you carry the actual burden of your family and who they were and what they did. In too many cases, we have liberated ourselves from that. How do we get it back? It has to come back by way of art. I don't think we're going to reconstitute those towns or villages except through the intense experience of authentic imagination.

Audience: I hear more and more a certain amount of fear and negative feeling in people, that we are losing the mechanism of looking. People are scared that we are losing our subjectivity and sense of who we are. I sometimes feel, though, that it's good not to put too much emphasis on subjectivity, since that's the way history has been bent. There are a lot of things that we don't understand right now, but, when you think about it, there are always concepts that we don't understand. No one understood what Nietszche said when he was around, but now we are beginning to truly grasp it. Do you think we have to know right now? People are so afraid of being in a chaotic situation, but perhaps if we just accept it, it will begin to make sense. A lot of people in cyberspace are beginning to find a logic in the chaos, and find it easier to function within that.

Birkerts: Are you asking if, in dealing with all this chaos and change, the best way might not be through it? Perhaps the answer lies by going through it and discovering in the furthest reaches new patterns, which will then become our basis, rather than rejecting it and trying to turn back or build upon old understandings. To subject ourselves to it as a kind of challenge or discipline and move forward: is that something like what you're asking?

I think pessimism has to be part of the recipe, because it would be a dangerous situation if some of us didn't go around being skeptical. It's one of those dubious honors one takes on sometimes. It doesn't mean that I'm sure I'm right, but just that I'm sure the questions need to be asked. I had a question for Neil Postman about the trivialization of our symbols and the leaking of a legitimate secret life out of some of the cornerstones of our culture. I wondered whether he saw it as a process of continual decline and erosion, or as a part of a cycle. If we've taken all of our sacred symbols and emblems, emptied them out and turned them into the stuff of advertising, are we really going to go along as a culture with nothing? Or will we do something more like a Freudian return of the repressed and find new ones or reinvest old ones with new life? It seems to me a very crucial question of where we think we are going, historically. When we get rid of something, have we really gotten rid of it, or have we already begun to create the hunger for it?

Audience: There's always been this nostalgia, as well as a yearning for the future. It just doesn't seem like we're all headed that way.

Birkerts: Yes, it's a simultaneous thing that goes on. The frightening thing about that nostalgia is that it's a legitimate, powerful and explanatory human emotion, and one that has been cruelly co-opted. Nostalgia is one of the places where the advertising mind has really moved in, taken a legitimate thing and found that it really pays. Half of the things that are being sold to us are being sold under the umbrella of nostalgia, using the language of nostalgia. Advertising feeds our sense of disorientation, confusion and loss, and it feeds us images of coherence and attainment. It often hearkens back to a slightly earlier time, as if to suggest that the company hasn't really gone anywhere, that it's still there in Pepperidge Farm. What it does is negative in the sense that it defuses and channels away a legitimate feeling that people have about the loss or destruction of the familiar. It expresses and expunges it in a way so that we aren't able to register as deeply as we might the sense that a lot of things truly are no more, and are going away at a faster rate than they have before.

Audience: Do you think it might have something to do with the need to destroy the sacred? The sacred has always had a tremendous amount of power. We don't ever want anything to get so sacred to the point that it controls us entirely, in the way that the church and the state did in the 50s and early 60s.

Birkerts: I think that's very true, and I wonder what we can think of that can still fit the bill. Have any of you read Dom DeLillo's novel, Underworld? It's very much a book of our pre-millennial moment. It's big and somewhat demanding, but if you're interested in the image culture and the implications of it, the novel takes those things on in many ways. What I'm trying to get at, is that this novel spans the last fifty years, and it does so in a particular way. It moves backward in time, and at the end is an epilogue that glances forward into the era of cyber-connectedness. The further you move backwards through various decades in American history, following a sketchy cast of characters, the more palpable things seem to become. It's almost as if gravity begins taking over. By the time you're back in the world of the 50s in the Bronx, with the communal life there, you feel you've stepped way back into another kind of time. Then he stops and there's an epilogue, where he suddenly breaks back into the present. There's a little narrative that features someone being reconstituted in cyberspace after death. It's extremely jarring, but he seems to be getting to the crux of a lot of these issues. He is at once nostalgic in his embodiments of all the things we seem to be shedding as we move forward in time, but he's also a savvy, watchful and self-critical writer, so it's not indulgent nostalgia. It's very hyper-aware.

Audience: You and Postman both seem to be posing one set of iconic value to what was sacred. I feel that it goes back to what Yoko was saying earlier, that there's only one selfhood being discussed here. It's lacking the idea of many different selfhoods or an idea of pluralism. For instance, I believe the net does provide a sense of community, albeit of a different sort. When I'm clicking away with some information that's coming at me, I'm thinking, I'm thankful that this person put this out. There's another sense of community coming through this media that is not being talked about.

Birkerts: Yes. I think that when Postman talks about the positive side, which does not lack for boosters, would include what you're talking about. There is a huge availability of data, and also contacts and perspectives. The question for me is, granting that, is there anything that is dangerous or worrisome about allowing that to displace the actual face to face? Does inhabiting, more and more, a realm where things are virtual in their essence change you in the here and now, or does it just add something to your repertoire of reality?

Audience: Does that not go back to the question of the books? If we all have the same book our professors have, why do we still come to NYU for classes? Doesn't it still go back to that question?

Birkerts: Yeah, in a very real sense it does. The question is hardly dead. I think it will be the big question in education over the next twenty-five years as it becomes overwhelmingly clear to more and more people that they're paying a whole lot of money simply to occupy a physical space. They're paying for things that are now available on tape or on a downloaded package, so what is the point of real time and real space in education? It already is being debated fairly intensely. It ends up, if you push the question far enough, in something that feels almost primitive, which is an argument about presence. What is it that just sheer presence in space adds to communication? Why is it different to sit and listen to Neil Postman talk, see him address questions and make gestures in front of you, than to sit at home where it's much cooler and run the tape? Is there a difference? What is that x factor that you gain by sitting in a room with somebody?

Audience: Just to pick up on what the past two people have said, I'd like to offer a more positive approach to this confrontation with technology. When I asked you about intervention earlier, you said at some point perhaps we needed to sever this link. I believe that this link, this looking, is exactly where knowledge of self, or any kind of knowledge, any kind of culture, emerges. To me, the crucial thing would be to maintain the link, because in this link is precisely where the notion of self and collectivity are defined. Let's take a person like Donna Harraway–like most feminist cyber-critics, she sees this space in cyber-technology opening up the very re-definitions of woman, nature, and so on. She's seeing the age that we're entering into opening up the possibility of redefining those things, those identities and collectivities. It's a space of opportunity, which is of course not a pessimistic view. How do you view those views?

Birkerts: Only in the affirmative, in terms of how you just described it. But I would still come back to that distinction between looking at yourself to look and looking at yourself to know. I think they are different. I'm only critiquing the narcissistic gaze at the self, not the gaze at the self. One learns more about oneself not by looking at oneself but by looking intently at the person standing next to them. The circuit of your own self-awareness doesn't bring in anything new, ultimately. We fall in danger of losing the world, losing it as an incredible, real, three-dimensional, hard thing. We need to know the world in its former physicality; we need to understand distance, cultures and nationhoods. That's what I'm afraid we will cut ourselves off from if we enter the realm of the mediated image, where everything is essentially equal, if we forget where the anchor to everything is.

This is the terrible thing about the technology of the creation, reproduction and dissemination of images. It's not that any of the images are bad, it's not even that being able to send and view an image is bad, but there's something that happens, almost quantitatively. The image begins to erode that which it is an image of. When you are bathing yourself in a steady diet of images of the world, there is a wearing away of the idea of ‘world.’ That's sort of what I mean. I'm certainly not against anything that is to be gained, in terms of understanding human difference and having the kind of perspectives that an enlightened, comparative view might extract from cyber-culture. I just think there's a fine line there, and it's very tricky. You can quickly cross from where it adds, augments and feeds you to where it begins to deplete. The image is not untethered; it has basis. It has its value based on what it refers to, the existence of that. We can't forget that, and it's easy to. It's easy to walk around and realize that your whole day, week or month has essentially been spent looking at clips of the world, at second and third hand projections of the world. That begins to then define your subliminal sense of metaphysics. The world begins to feel light and easy, because it's image. It's a vague, elusive, hard to pin down thing.

Audience: I would like to respond to the point you brought up earlier, about the implications for education, in terms of physical presence. I think it goes back to some of the stuff Postman brought up earlier, about the initial impact of writing and how that changed education to a student following a discussion, rather than participating in it. I see electronic media taking over that, removing the student one step further from the participation in the educational process. If it's electronic, and there's no interaction, then the student becomes a passive consumer of information. This discussion couldn't be going on if electronic media took over in the academic realm. There could be substitutes for it but I don't think it would be the same.

Birkerts: Let's pretend that we're still here, but it's being taped and disseminated elsewhere. When you write something down, you do it to remember it later, but you also listen to it differently because you know you've got it down on paper. If you're listening to a tape of a lecture, you're another step removed, because you have it on tape. Your tape is your prosthesis, your mental adjunct. If you live, essentially, in a context where it's all there and available, you start to think along the lines of, Hmm, do I have any ideas about liberalism? Let me see if I do. Oh yes, this is what I learned. You haven't even inscribed it in a particular root, etymological sense, you haven't written it into your memory bank because you haven't had to.

Audience: You just become awash in electronic information, the same way you do in consumer information.

Birkerts: You know that it's all out there...

Audience: Yes, so you never really have to integrate it into your knowledge. What would bother me about that would be the loss of intellectual community in the educational process. We'd be giving up one more community that we are physically a part of.

Birkerts: That's a big one. The metaphor for that, to me, is Amazon.com versus your neighborhood bookstore. On one hand, you have so much more availability and access, but you lose the real time sense that there are actually others like you, who you see standing next to you in the same section of the aisle. Those impressions, subliminally, are what begin to add up to your sense of living in a culture. It's a strange culture where you can type in anything and have it at your door in two days–I mean, who's going to go against that–but something has been removed. It is the sense of the context of the mattering, which has to do with living as a cultivated or philosophical person in an environment where that is a part of the process of life. That has been leached away, little by little. It is, once again, a trade -off.

Audience: What about if you're in a classroom but the interaction becomes just as much so that it seems like everything is actually happening? You talked about aura in your writing; what does that really offer?

Birkerts: Well, I won't stray too far from the bookstore/Amazon analogy. It is elusive. How can I say this? If you turn a vacuum cleaner either backwards or forwards, you can't see the moving air, you see the difference in the particles moving one direction or another. It's something invisible that, once you remove it, you don't see any immediate change, but everything is different. We're talking about that sense of going around in the world in a physical community, and literally seeing others and feeling yourself in the same volume of space with them. Ultimately, if you pick at it away enough, this represents an entirely different set of assumptions and feelings of living in the world than having all those same sensations, only once removed via screen, sound or whatever. It's the ‘it,’ right? There's a story that I was very struck by in its cautionary metaphoric allegory. It's by E.M. Forster; the collection is called The Eternal Moment, although I can't remember the name of the story now. Basically, it's a futuristic scenario, where people are essentially living in self-contained cell units. Every need is met; it's a hyper-sophisticated, neural, electronic information web, so you can find out anything, contact anyone, but you're encased in your hexagonal cell. Obviously, I don't think it's going to come to that, but the story articulated the furthest extreme of that fear. It is the fear that you can have everything given to you and still end up with nothing, if it's not given to you in the context of what all those things finally mean and represent. What good is it to get a whole world of information, history and philosophy, all of which refers to a world in which people walk around and see each other, but be getting that in your private chamber, via screen, modem and so on? The knowledge is of a world that you've absented yourself from, in some implicit way. So it changes.

But there is a velocity and momentum to technology, and I think it's driven a lot by the interests of corporate capitalism. It ensures that, no matter what we think or whether we're comfortable with it, there's a forward moving consumer logic to it, to the development of these technologies. It's not going to go away; it's going to come at us, packaged in ever more attractive and sexy guises. All of us are going to have this struggle, this inner thing between the world as our basic, evolved, bodily senses tell us it is, and the world as the emergence of virtuality. There's a real disconnect there, between those two worlds.

Audience: I have a comment, and I wanted your opinion of it. You talked of these new technologies as distancing us more from the world and other people. In a world where people spend more and more time in the spaces where they're trying to make a living rather than with the people they love, I think that some of these technologies offer the possibility of people working at home. It can offer a flexibility to people that might allow them to be less distanced from actual experiences with other people.

Birkerts: I agree, that's clearly another tendency, and there's a value to that, up to a point. The point at which the value breaks down is when work life and private life are not only brought more closely together but begin to interpenetrate. Then it changes again. It's not where you pause at your computer and play with your kid for a half hour and then go back, but instead, Mommy's busy now, Mommy's on-line, you're right there but you need to busy yourself. That's where the lines get drawn and redrawn.

I mean, a lot of people that I talk to really do worry about the tyranny of this permeability. The same thing that gives you a whole set of wonderful new options, like having a pager and a cell phone in your car –it frees you up in a lot of ways– but to the same extent, it chains you down. Your boss can reach you, and has to be able to reach you. Psychologically, the possibility that your boss might reach you begins to cut into your pleasure. It's like being a medical resident, and having to be ready at any second to have what you're doing interrupted.

Audience: (Inaudible)

Birkerts: I certainly have to, in order not to seem like a mono-maniac, allow that there are a whole number of positive uses, variations and inflections to all of this.

Audience: It seems like the impression I'm getting from you and from Neil Postman is that there is a dualistic attitude towards what's happening: either you blindly go along with it or you look back on the glorious past with nostalgia. I don't necessarily agree with that. Like you said, it's happening no matter what and it's not going to go away. So, to me, the question or challenge to consider is what to do with that, as artists or intellectuals? This change is happening so rapidly that people are getting drowned in it. Instead of resisting the change and looking back on the past with nostalgia, maybe the challenge is to find a way to use the new technology but still retain, contain or continue to seek humanity in other ways. What do you think about that?

Birkerts: I think that's exactly right. I think there's no other way to pose it to ourselves, as thinking, artistic or expressive people, what it is that we ought to be doing, given that it's really here. Contrary to what Postman said about it all already being done with–it's done in the sense that, once the wheel was invented out of a rock, that was done with, but the automotive age still had to follow. I do think that it's done with in the sense that now we can get everything to everyone, but now it's really beginning because of the implications and inevitability of that. It's not going to go backwards. That's what we look at, that's what we face. You're exactly right: one would be foolish to strenuously insist that we dismantle it, or just indulge in all sorts of cultural nostalgia and look back at the glory days. I just don't want those things to fade entirely and be seen as unnecessary foot-dragging on the part of a few disgruntled skeptics. When we give something up, we should mourn it, and mourn it significantly. If we really are leaving behind a whole way of living in the world, pre-electronic, which we are, then I don't think we can just turn the corner and keep walking. I think we need to go through a complex interior reckoning with that. That's where I come in. But I see what you're saying and I agree with that. That is the challenge, to take whatever is the best, most viable and most humane of the old understanding and find a new way to put it into yet another formation, another language.

This feels like a good place to stop. Thank you for coming and asking such good questions.



Analysis by Ann Mansolino



As we shift from traditional print-oriented literacy to digital literacy, our society finds itself in the midst of a vast cultural transformation. The consequences of this are far-reaching, and are summed up by Sven Birkerts as an ‘unbearable lightness of being.’ Through his use of Milan Kundera's memorable phrase, Birkerts refers to the ideal of effortless being in the digital age. We no longer encounter reality directly, he claims, but rather live second or third hand, as our experiences are increasingly mediated by technology.

Birkerts' outlook on a society characterized by this ‘lightness’ is grim, as he sees our collectively blind embrace of such mediating technologies leading to the dissolution of physical communities and individual subjectivity. And yet, I believe, the idea of community has not really been lost. On the contrary, I would argue that it has been revived, albeit in new forms, in the spaces opened up by digital technology. I do not see these attempts to reformulate the idea of community in the digital realm as bastardizations of an ideal, as Birkerts claimed, but rather as a renewed recognition on the part of many individuals around the world of the human need to connect meaningfully with others through whatever means are available. If anything, electronic communities function to expand our definition of community. As a result of digital technology, we may now define our communities in terms of like-minded individuals around the world who share interests, goals, or values while still at the same time maintaining our ties to the physical communities in which we reside. While I believe that on-line communities are viable, I do at the same time share Birkerts' fear of allowing the virtual to displace the real in our lives. Traditional physical communities provide a sense of rootedness and identity that on-line groups (at least in my experience) cannot. To willingly renounce our ties to the individuals around us is to give up part of what makes us human. I do not believe that any amount of electronic information is worth such a sacrifice. How, then, do we maximize the benefits of new digital technology while minimizing the risks to ourselves and our physical communities? To what extent should we allow our technologies to alter our conceptions of self and community? How do we determine when the risks outweigh the potential benefits?

In his presentation, Birkerts described the changes that he sees taking place in human subjectivity in the electronic age. Having placed technology between ourselves and the world, our experience of being in the world is increasingly mediated and collective. Individual self-knowledge has been replaced by collective self-gazing in our digitized world of ‘lightness.’ Birkerts expressed anxiety about this perceptual shift --anxiety which I believe is justified. Nonetheless, I wonder if the mere awareness of this condition of ‘lightness’ changes the condition itself. Is there yet another perceptual shift involved in the simple acknowledgment of the loss of individual subjectivity which might restore some of what has been lost? Can we, through thoughtful contemplation, begin to reclaim ourselves from the muddle of insubstantial electronic signals that constitutes collective consciousness?

Birkerts' outlook initially appeared to be quite bleak; however, when questioned by the audience following his presentation, he readily conceded that new technologies have value and benefits. It became apparent that his talk was not a tirade against digital technology so much as it was a reasoned and thoughtful plea for greater self-awareness and criticality in relation to the technological objects we have created. It was a warning of the risks inherent in blindly allowing ourselves to be seduced by our devices, unwittingly losing ourselves in the process. Birkerts has accepted the fact that technology is here to stay, and thus urged us to consider the myriad of implications which face us as individuals and communities in the electronic age.

Perhaps most hopeful were Birkerts' statements about art. In the midst of ‘data glut’ and the rise of a collective media-based consciousness alienated from a sense of history and cut off from its cultural roots, Birkerts suggested that art has the power to intervene --to create and reinforce a sense of connectedness to a historical past. It is rare and refreshing to hear the authentic exercise of the imagination spoken of as a source of power and resistance. Yet still I wonder: how can we as artists make our individual voices heard above the din of the constant bombardment of meaningless information that characterizes our media-saturated world?