Sven Birkerts defines himself as an essayist, a teacher of writing, and the editor of a literary journal at Boston University called AGNI. He started out as a book reviewer, which led him into becoming a writer of essays and memoirs. In 1994 he wrote ‘The Guthenberg Elegies’, which explored the demise of reading and the rise of digital culture. It’s a phenomenal book. Then, in 2015, he wrote ‘Changing the Subject’, an update on his relationship with digital media, and a powerful cry for the importance of attention and imagination in a time where both appear to be waning.
More recently he has become, as he puts it, “kind of obsessed, both in a very literal ‘get and out and do it’ way, but also thinking about it, just taking photographs. With my telephone. It has become a little fixation of some sort that has me thinking a lot about how we take in the world and what we keep and what serves us, and what is artistic and what isn’t”. I spoke to him at his home in Arlington, Massachusetts. I think this is one of the most fascinating and important interviews I have done up to this point in this imagination research.
In the ‘Gutenberg Elegies’ you speculated about the death of the imagination. You talked of “a culture wide diminution, a large scale leaching away”. Then in ‘Changing the Subject’ you said, “If there really is a large-scale decline in artistic imagination…”. Do you think we are living through a crisis of the imagination, and if so, why?
I basically would agree with everything I had said. I’ll have to look into this, but for some reason I paused on the word ‘crisis’, because it’s hard in our time period where almost everything is billed as a crisis, to throw that into the sack as well.
But, yeah, I suppose in a large-scale time frame, if you can have a crisis over a protracted period of time, then I would say from the point of view of imagination, yes we are having one. It’s happening on two fronts, and this ties into other preoccupations. I see this as very much linked to a notion which itself is a little bit under question, which is that of independent individuality and subjectivity.
I don’t think we can talk about artistic imagination really without thinking of it as the product of one individual. I mean I’m sure teams can do imaginative things on projects, but the kind of imagination I’m talking about probably harks back a little more to the Romantics and so on as a power that can be exercised.
I see it under threat from two directions. One is that the nature of our living, that which has always fed the imagination, has become abstracted in many ways. It’s become distracted. Imagination needs material to draw on, and in many ways the way we are living makes it harder to tap a genuine resource. So that’s one end and that’s very general and approximate.
On the other end, from the point of view of the receiver or the consumer, we are so glutted, so saturated with products, stimuli, you know, just information, that it’s very hard for people to receive, and respond to genuine acts of imagination. The faculty of attention and focus, that’s all under threat. Anyone who teaches at any level will testify to this too. It’s very hard to get anyone to calm down and focus on anything for more than the length of a soundbite.
So if you have this working from both ends it’s hard to see good old fashioned imagination flourishing. I don’t know that it’s been a human given, that it’s somewhere written that it must be there. It is something that certainly did, and has been, and instances continue in our various cultures, but I think it’s changing.
If in our culture we were to be experiencing a decline of imagination, how would it manifest? How would we know? If we looked around in the world around us, what might be some of the indicators that that was happening?
As I said earlier, I do think it’s linked to our sense of subjective individuality to some extent. To take an example from our side of the Atlantic here… Well, I suppose what you would call the thriving or proliferation of this amazing low level bland national dialogue, and a kind of passive and uninspired response to what are clearly acts of insanity or idiocy, I would link that in a way to some of the phenomena that I’m talking about.
It’s not just that this faculty of taking hold of the world in a steady way through imagination is waning, but our whole essential status as independent individuals is changing. We’re not becoming robots but we’re becoming much more subjected to vast systems. We live out most of our waking day in some way interacting within some larger system, whether it’s economic or otherwise, and this depletes us. It makes it harder to register reality in ways that people might have done formerly. So yeah, that’s one way it manifests. We live a more distracted, interconnected and sort of shallow daily-ness.
You wrote in the ‘Gutenberg Elegies’ that when we spend a lot of time around electronic devices that, “the experience of deep time is impossible” and that we’re experiencing “a loss of the very paradigm of depth”. You said, “no deep time, no resonance, no resonance, no wisdom”. How do you see that playing out? Could you say a little bit more about that?
Most recently my thinking along these lines has had this kind of counter-focus on the whole question of attention. By that I mean the capability of pushing distraction aside and engaging with whatever it is that is in front of one. That’s why, in the way I mentioned, it’s one of the off-shoots also of this thinking about what it is that happens when I go around and take photographs. They really are little windows into a certain kind of attention and they get me thinking about that.
My contention, for a while, and I still hold it, has been that the antidote to – I guess, again, the word ‘crisis’ I hesitate – the crisis of imagination, but you could call it the crisis of contemporary living in a sense. The antidote really is offered to us in the experience that art offers.
Art isn’t the only thing, but it is an accessible thing. It allows for heightened, intensified engagement, which also solidifies in those moments our sense of, for the lack of a better term, our existential selves, or who we are. We experience the same thing when we can get out into the woods if we’re walking, and suddenly we realise we’re not checking our phone, we’re away from the clock, and it’s almost a kind of hallucinatory sense that comes over us, of just being away from of these static filled systems.
If you think that this used to be – I would say up until whenever we want to draw the line – it was more the human norm, I mean, for millennia really. People lived inside of a different kind of focus. But they lived in it without the kinds of distractions that we’ve taken on as just our given. It’s a strange thought, to realise that we’re living in a new way. If you went back into the nineteenth century, people wouldn’t understand the experience that we’re having now. They would have no reference for it. Most of it is indirect. A huge amount of it is screen driven. Communications are virtual. They’re at a distance. It’s just that it’s a different world. That’s not to say that it’s a terrible world, just a different one.
You ended the ‘Gutenberg Elegies’ by saying, “from deep in the heart I hear the voice that says refuse it” but then ‘Changing the Subject’ told the tale of your reluctant entry into digital media. I follow you on Twitter and get the impression that you rather like it as a medium. I wonder if you could say a little bit about where you’re at in your relationship with all of that stuff now?
I think about it a lot and sometimes in a sort of guilty way. My response to it now has been to try to adapt it as much as possible to my uses and predilections. I use Twitter as a kind of inspirational little billboard. I don’t much read other people’s tweets (but don’t tell anyone!) But it’s kind of, you go down this street, you have an idle thought, or you’re looking somewhere and you find a quote that seems apt. It’s a wonderful way to just put a box around it and put it out there.
My work life, I think I’m not alone in this, requires me pretty much to be internet accessible. Editing this magazine, everything happens on a screen, all the submissions and interactions. That’s inescapable. I don’t do Facebook and I don’t use any apps. The only thing I use on my phone is the camera; that, as I’ve said before, that’s opened up a new kind of avenue for me and in my thinking.
So I’d say I have a complicated and somewhat guilt ridden relation to my technology. The guilt part being that I do in some part of myself still feel that I would be somehow better, more tuned up, if I dispense with certain things, if I spent more time completely away. When I have those occasions I come back and I feel so fortified and think I should do more of this. But then there are the 170 emails waiting to be answered and one falls back in. ..
It’s been really interesting over the last couple of years to see more and more stuff being written by Nicholas Carr, and all kinds of different people, fundamentally questioning the whole digital experiment, and saying asking if in 20 years’ time we will look back and say, “Was that really worth doing?”, by which stage we’re too far into it to be able to get back out again. Can you imagine moving forward from here into a world without it, or just into a healthier relationship with it? Can we go back to how it was before and everyone writing letters to each other again?
I don’t hold out a great likelihood of winding back the clock, although I will say over here there’s been the great debate about net neutrality and all of that. I know part of me follows this saying, “Well let’s just let it go to hell and become a corporate nightmare. Maybe people will back away. We don’t really need it that badly.”
So I haven’t been as agitated about that issue. By the same token, you say “have a healthier relation going into the future”… I don’t think it would be without a price. If you caught me in one of my more pessimistic moments, and I do have those fairly often, I really do think that the long-term species projection is that we’re going to become far more socialised and interactive in that sort of “hive-mind” sense. I do take that seriously as a concern.
I don’t think we can have the benefits of the internet or digital things, and at the same time preserve the best and most vital aspects of subjectivity. I think they are contraries. The more we give ourselves to our apps and our systems and doing everything by proxy on line, it’s not that all this free time is going to let us be our original pioneer selves, it’s just going to make us people who are enslaved to those kinds of operations.
To the degree that I do that, I also feel it. I’m aware of it. My relation to all bureaucratic things is much different than it used to be when I would stand in line and talk to someone and try to settle whatever it was, banking, or insurance. Now everything requires an elaborate field, multiple passwords, and usually there’s failure written into the system somewhere so that you come up against the wall of the bureaucracy in some way that makes you understand the extent to which you are powerless against it. It will win. So the only alternative is to either be very good at it, or be very ascetic. I sort of prefer the latter.
One of the things that I was really moved by in your books was your focus on attention, because for me you really put your finger on something that I have felt slipping away in the world around me. Why does attention matter, and what happens to a culture as its attention starts to decline?
It’s a deep and vexing question. If you took it all the way to a far extreme, but I think it has some relevance, Simone Weil famously said, “Attention is the soul of prayer”. It is the requirement for the experience, however we characterise it, of connection, or connectedness.
When you are in love, at first, then you are completely besotted with the other person. You are doing nothing but paying attention. I mean, in a sense, there’s a kind of obsessive emotional focus. It is the root of connection. You get it when you are transported at a concert, if it really is reaching you.
It would be hard to live in a sense of perpetual connectedness. I’m not sure why, but I think it might be. It just sort of calls on the reserves, a lot of it is taxing. But it is the vital punctuation. All of our deepest relationships are anchored in episodes of mutual attention between people. Certainly our thinking lives.
You mentioned Nicholas Carr. Just following my associative track here, but his famous article, “Is Google making us stupid?”, by admitting – and I’ve seen this a lot now – to the difficulty he now has doing something that formerly came very easily, which is sitting down and just quietly reading a book. It was an interesting point of focus, because what he was really isolating, and I certainly experience it too, was just that one’s psychological equipment has been significantly jarred by how we are forced, or asked, to live.
It’s very hard really to sit and focus or concentrate on anything now, because that’s not how we live. We spend the greater part of everyday necessarily just flitting quickly from thing to thing, and multi-tasking, tagging things, hitting links, saving links, doing whatever. It’s very hard to imagine that you’re then going to go home and pick up ‘David Copperfield’ and immerse for an hour. The mind has become too skittish. What has happened is a certain kind of damage to the faculty of attention.
The question on the table then is, is it intrinsically better, deeper, more desirable, to be able to sit and read uninterruptedly for an hour, or two? Is that just a given benefit? Or is there a huge amount to be gained from this other way that we now process our experience? I’m going down on the side of the focus and the attention, and I feel that disruption of my former ability to do things as a negative.
I try as much as possible to do things in my life that will counter that. And that does involve selective turning away from various electronic enchantments…
What do you think it means for progressive campaigning, progressive politics, the fact that we live in a time with less and less ability to concentrate, with less and less imagination? When we live in a time when our imaginations are shattering into a million pieces? How does that affect how we might do campaigning and make change happen?
One inevitable consequence of these very things is an essential passivity that happens. The organism responds to a condition of being psychologically overwhelmed all the time. I mean in a sense you single out an issue, a really important issue like climate change, but you realise you could line up five or six others right alongside it, and insofar as one tries to track what’s going on in the world, and pay attention, it’s not that at any point you think, “Oh, this is irrelevant, this is not important, or this is not important”, it’s more that the system itself just needs to shut down a little bit in the face of it, just in order to be able to carry on with the rest of the daily business.
It’s really hard to create activism now. A lot of that has to do with this particular kind of saturation, and a lot of it has to do with this thing I’ve been talking about, this exposure, or engagement in systems. A lot of us carry this basic notion at the same time that it’s all too big for us, that the power of any individual action is really very small. It’s harder and harder to believe in the myth of the engaged individual rallying and turning around some great force. We all want to believe that but I think it’s just getting harder and harder.
You know again, speaking from this side of the Atlantic and I’m as guilty here as anyone else I might imagine, I’m just shocked that all of us aren’t in the street all of the time, even as I understand that we know that we can’t be. You know, it’s a simultaneous bewilderment and the state of being overwhelmed, if there is a word for that. Overwhelmedness. I really do think that action is possible but it needs to be defined and scripted on what any person would perceive as a doable scale. People need to feel that if they did this, it would make a difference. So therefore the tasks have to be somehow redefined.
So if you had been elected as the President of the US in the last election, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’, what might you do in your first 100 days in office?
Well … boy … good question. Interesting.
Everybody I’ve interviewed for this book so far, I’ve asked them this question and they all go, “Great question!”
Given that there are a thousand places to look, the first place I would look and possibly make it my Presidential calling card, and I would also I hope telegraph a whole set of values as I did this, would be to look very hard at education.
From top to bottom, from kindergarten through postgraduate. And to really try to send, not only the message that it’s of tremendous importance, but also to try to create an enormous and searching dialogue around what it is that we’re doing to a whole, probably at this point at least a whole, generation of our population.
My first impulse, beyond any practical thing, would be to open the dialogue about meaning, meaningfulness and to what end are we all doing what we do.
The lens for this would be to bring those people who are across the board responsible for instilling knowledge, values and questioning into our young people, to find a way to bring that extraordinary brainpower, that collective brain power, into the field. To get talking about it, and to determine, just on a very philosophical, and then after that following the philosophical, probably also in practical ways.
So that’s an ad hoc answer because no-one ever offered me the Presidency before.
You mentioned before that you’re quite good at policing yourself in terms of, “I don’t do Facebook. I use Twitter but I only use it to put stuff on. I don’t get into big debates with people. I use my smart phone. I don’t have any apps on.” That speaks to a degree of self-control and focus which is really quite unusual. Sherry Turkle’s research all about the power of smart phones where she says basically you have a smart phone in your pocket, “it’s not just a phone, it’s a very potent psychological device over which you are evolutionarily incapable of resisting”. I wonder if you had any advice for people about how you manage to hold those boundaries?
Well that’s interesting because when you asked the previous question about what I would do, and then when I brought up education, in the back of my mind, though I didn’t see the place to say it, but I really also had the idea of using that as the first place in which to declare a kind of obligatory internet-free environment. Or at least significantly, not in a fascistic police state way, but, you know…
I do see more and more articles and they’re sort of human interest about the teacher here or there who forces all of her students to put their phones in a box when they enter the room and so on. That’s a very sort of simplistic retort to what’s going on. But if you spend time in a classroom, and I’m thinking back to years when I taught undergrads, it’s a genuine problem. Not just that they would literally have the phone at the desk in front of them and would periodically be checking. You always thought well they were probably looking up vital information relating to what was being discussed, but of course they weren’t.
But also you became aware of it as a possibility; there’s a kind of magnetic thing sitting there. The eye couldn’t resist drifting down to the screen periodically. I mean that’s part of what we’re talking about. I don’t know that I discipline myself so much as that, I just have come up very readily and probably happily against my own incapabilities. There’s so much that I can’t do, or I’m too lazy. It’s actually laziness rather than discipline.
I’ve never learned to use the GPS. My wife thinks I’m crazy. It’s just I can’t be bothered to figure it out. I don’t have any apps as I said because I can’t figure out what I would do with them. So there’s a lot of just trying simplification through laziness and reluctance, as opposed to principle. But if it looks like principle, then let’s go with that.
One of the people that I interviewed is a woman called Deborah Frances-White, who is a comedienne and an actress, and Improv person. And I said to her, “Do you think we live through a time of poverty of the imagination, or an anaemia of the imagination?”, and she said, “No, I think there’s never been a time like it. Look at young people these days. They come home from school and they can make a TV programme. They can post it online. They can have their own radio show. They can be constantly producing and creating in a way that when we were kids, we just came home and watched the television.” Is she wrong?
I know what’s she’s talking about. I think about this too, especially because I’ve a fairly technology adept son who’s now in his early twenties. He spent an enormous amount of time doing gaming and so on, and we would argue about it a lot. He maintained the same argument, that it was far more creative and interactive than sitting back and watching Gilligan’s island or something, which I’m sure is true.
But when you get closer to the stuff of these games, and also I think of the enormous media events that now arise from them, the kind of Game of Thrones culture and all that, it is spectacle, and it’s fairly simple. The complexity resides less in the subject matter and much more in just the operational busyness of dealing with it, with moving things around. There’s a different application of imagination.
It’s more to the process, and less to the thematics or whatever. But I certainly don’t want to mount the argument that we were all, in my time, deeply immersed in more important things. I don’t think that’s true either. Though I do think people read a good deal more, and differently, even 30 years ago than they do now. I’m talking about people in their teens and twenties. I don’t see a terribly active reading culture, and I don’t yet know if that will be offset that they’ve been living this “really imaginative” interactive media culture. I’m not sure how things will weigh out there.
When a culture stops reading what do we lose?
One thing we lose right away is that it’s almost never mind what you’re reading, but if you’re having the experience of sitting and translating these little symbols into concepts and sounds and so on, I think any active reading – if it’s not skim reading or hyper-text link reading, or workplace reading, let’s call it imaginative reading –in the action of doing that, you essentially create a state of solitude around the activity.
That is deeply relevant to this sense of a distinct private identity. You fortify the notion of identity just by acts of attentiveness. They don’t have to be acts of reading. It’s anything where you are interacting in an undistracted way with some aspect of things. Whether it’s artistic or walking, or sitting in a boat and fishing. But just not being distributed across a vast surface of distractions.
I feel like we are becoming more and more like a boiling frog in the pot of imagination, as it were. That the further we get into crises such as climate change, the more frightening it becomes, the less able we are to imagine a way out…
Yeah. I mean as you say that, it certainly does make sense. A huge amount of coping with any issue, and if we take climate change, but there is the sort of received intelligence or wisdom about whatever it is that’s happening, and that’s being furnished for us by aerial photographs, by scientific statistics, and various things that are persuasive. All the graphs of what will happen to sea level, incremental effects.
That all happens on one plane, and I really think with anything like this, it’s when it hits home, when it’s in your yard. At which point one might also say it’s probably too late at that point. In the way that we have to pay attention these days, we’re paying attention across an enormous field. Things are coming at us, that things didn’t use to come at people in this way. They came few and far between and in different ways.
Now you wake up every day and as a citizen you feel it’s your duty to see what’s been going on in the world, and you are instantly affected across a wide swath of your attention span by so many things. To get any one of those things to feel real, that does require an act of intense imagination.
Sort of, “Well if this were my yard that were burning…” If this were my ‘whatever’. That’s the kind of thing that rouses a person to think of doing something. That is an act of imagination. It’s an act of extrapolation and personal connection. I do feel, yes, in the big picture, it is hugely important as the world goes on and as more and more threatening and calamitous things happen, that we not lose the capability to see them for what they are, and to relate them to our own circumstance in a sort of meaningful and direct way. That requires a certain attention, a certain amount of focus. It requires imagination, necessarily.