Sven Birkerts Essays

Changing the Subject by Sven Birkerts

Just about the time I was starting to read Sven Birkerts’s book of critical essays about digital technology and concentration, Changing the Subject, I scanned a Facebook post from Alexander Chee, a novelist and active social media user. He noted that his friend had lost his phone and ended up starting a novel:

A friend lost his phone for six days and on the fourth day an entire novel came to him. He started it, and has 7000 words. He’s a writer but has never written a novel before and hasn’t written fiction in years.

The post resulted in a stream of comments, most suggesting that we should all give up our smart phones, but only if we all do it at the exact same time, so, as one commenter put it, he wouldn’t have to miss any funny tweets.

High-tech gadgets have taken over most of our lives. Even people who love their phones whole-heartedly admit that they spend an incredible amount of time on them. But is that a bad thing? Not just the phones, but all our digital technologies? Wouldn’t we be better off putting it all aside, slowing down a little, and starting the novel that’s alive inside us, buried by all the digital distraction?

Writers, whose work relies on extended concentration, are one of the groups most impacted by all this digital detritus. Surely we all know someone who has chosen not to give herself over to the digital life, but I’ve been surprised by how strongly writers (at least on Twitter and other online venues, which of course is a biased sample) have been apologists for the new way of doing things. Whenever a writer like Jonathan Franzen says something critical about digital life, writers, not techies, are the ones complaining.

With all their anxiety about being left behind by a culture more interested in video games and internet memes than books, writers have often become champions of digital culture. Are we digging our own graves?

In Changing the Subject, Birkerts examines our anxiety about digital technologies, with close attention paid to their effects on literary life and culture. He doesn’t own a cell phone (much to his daughter’s dismay), but he does use email and reads websites like The Huffington Post. Which is to say, he’s not as far down the rabbit hole as many of the rest of us, but he’s implicated enough.

The cell phone bit gives you a sense of Birkerts’s perspective on tech in general:

Why don’t I hurry to buy a cell phone? Maybe also because I don’t want the edges rubbed away from the idea of contact. I want to keep an understanding of distance that has some relation to geography and obstacle. Not only do I not desire to be ever-accessible, but I also don’t wish to think I have ready access. I am not ready to hand myself over to 24/7—that most chilling pair of numbers.

But why not? Everyone’s available 24/7, his daughter might say. For someone raised on the internet and cell phones, life has always been about accessibility, even if that means constant interruption.

Sven Birkerts

Birkerts says our ability to concentrate is diminishing. He refers to studies that have demonstrated this, though his method is not science reporting. He is an old-school essayist. He makes observations about his life and the lives of people around him. He refers to literature. He makes his way by association.

Birkerts’ real worry is about the diminishment of what he calls the “subjective individual.” Smart phones and the internet may take time away from reading, which is a bummer for readers and writers, but Birkerts sees the networks that the internet forms as a challenge to our individuality. “Modern living finds us enmeshed in systems that we think we require, that require us, from which it is every day more difficult to extricate ourselves,” he writes in “On or About”, the first essay in the collection.

A person cannot stand against such systems for long. Imagine trying to get a job if you’ve chosen not to use the internet. “We have shifted from an idea of self-sufficiency to one of dependence on complexly interlocked systems,” Birkerts notes, after re-reading Emerson’s Self-Reliance. And a little earlier, when thinking about Wikipedia:

But for those foot draggers among us who worry about the fate of the individual, the idea of the individual—who get stuck on the adjective human in human progress and who believe systems and selves to be opposing terms—it can be seen as a further migration toward the groupthink ethos.

While I’m sympathetic to much of what Birkerts has to say in Changing the Subject, I’m not sold that our biggest concern should be the loss of individuality. Tech may be making us more reliant on collective thinking, but it’s also giving rise to extreme forms of individuality. We may be part of multiple complex systems, but, just as often, we are isolated individuals ordering takeout by app while watching Neflix alone in our apartments.

In his defense of individuality, Birkerts either doesn’t see the process of social isolation happening or isn’t much concerned, which means he misses one of the most troubling aspects of digital life. It’s entirely possible that we should be concerned with the rise of systems and with the disruption of communities. I’d like to read an essay by Birkerts on that paradox.

Birkerts’s essays are important. They may not be the last word on digital life, but his is a much-needed voice in a conversation usually dominated by tech apologists. When confronting Utopian Tech, we need writers who are willing to think critically. There’s no app for that.

The essay for me begins with the second word, maybe the third or fourth, and it tells on itself—which is to say on the writer’s mind and sensibility—quite soon after that. For the space of a word or two, sometimes longer, the obvious and mediocre can pass as being possibly something more. But not for too many words beyond that. What am I playing at here? I’m overstating things, of course. But I’m also serious: I’m trying to figure out—as a reader, as an editor—how long a work can go without showing its true self—its sui generis character, or its inability to transcend received thinking. As an editor I need to be able to tell quickly. Time is in short supply, and submissions throng the sluices like salmon in spawning season. Yes, the editor needs to know exactly what he’s looking for, and he needs to be cruel—which is to say he needs to believe in his taste.

What plagues me in my capacity of editor at AGNI, an editor who insists on at least looking at everything that comes in, is not bad writing, which announces itself right away and can be dealt with in an eye-blink, but writing which has picked up some of the gestures of authentic uniqueness, enough to lure me in, but which never really comes to life—only comes close enough to have me wondering if it’s me or the prose.    

I have to speak personally here. In looking for nonfiction—or any work, really—I try to make myself susceptible to being struck. The rest is up to the writer.  It took me a long time to come to this, many seasons of reading like a good citizen, remarking to myself as I turned pages and more pages: This is very able, this is clear, this is an important subject—rather than Hey, hey, come here: listen to this!  And there is a world of difference.

If the first words can hint at the quality, the first sentence or two will as often as not reveal. What exactly? Not the subject, not usually, and not necessarily the theme—that stratum of deeper content. But it will reveal the author in voice and in relation to her subject; it will, best case, offer a first clear glimpse of the true goods.

This is natural and inevitable if you think about it. Any stylistic expression gives a running Geiger-counter read-out of the expressing self, and the start of a work more so—because the true writer knows to begin any piece of writing with best foot forward, the style put most conscientiously (and indicatively) to work. By “style” I don’t mean prose in fancy dress, nothing like that; I mean self-sound. It can sometimes arrive looking ordinary, even slightly clunky, as in the first sentence of Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s “You Gotta Have Heart” (AGNI 77): “A pack of Vantage containing two cigarettes was in my coat pocket when I arrived at the hospital.” But reading this I was snagged by two things right away—the specificity of the two, and the combustible pairing of “cigarettes” and “hospital.” Why? I picked up hints of defiance, transgression; I felt there was something deliberate, not lazy, in the use of the passive voice; I trusted right away that this was the voice of a truth-teller. I read on.

Or, taking the other extreme, there is the opening that gives away nothing, but does so with a supreme confidence that persuades me instantly: All will be revealed. Robert Leonard Reid (AGNI 76) begins his essay “The Doubling Is Always Observed” thus:

“On the Kupuestra. It is not supple. It communicates nothing. The kupuestra is mute; brittle; many-cornered, the body is a polygon; the choreographic equivalent of Ak-Mak crackers, but without the sesame seeds.”

I didn’t understand a word of this. But what a suggestive fog the writer made: the word-sounds (kupuestra, choreographic, Ak-Mak), the condensed syncopations of phrases, the thrill of analogy, this mysterious entity seen as being “the choreographic equivalent of Ak-Mak crackers, but without the sesame seeds.” The thing with suggestive fogs, of course, is that the wanderer must before long make out a few shapes that will indicate his whereabouts, and then the fog must break, the way it does so thrillingly when the road lifts you up from whatever miasmic valley you had been driving through.

Or else: “It arrived in four pieces—which word, pieces, doesn’t do the job. It arrived in four—four what? Four parts? Four boxes—each one wider and heavier than I, than either of us; and it was just us back then, just Fred and me in our new house—our first house (our first and last, could that be?); the one in which we’d all grow up (not just the kids); the one in which we two will get old (along with the dogs).”

 A tricky attack, this opening of Dinah Lenney’s “Breakfront” (AGNI 76).  At a cursory glance, or skim, it appears to qualify itself almost out of existence—pieces becoming parts becoming boxes, the “I” becoming part of a couple, then a family. But what tremendous control in the voice! A whole life-premise and narrating persona stands revealed on the far side of all of those dashes and parentheses. Indeed, you could say that the stuff of the three parenthetical asides subtly maps a life-trajectory, from aspiration to realization to a wryly wistful projection of a cycle fulfilled.

A few things need to be insisted upon. These three openings are so different because the essays are themselves so different. Every essay that finds its way into AGNI is, I think, norm-defying. I could no more say ‘this is the kind of essay we like’ than I could say what makes a good writer. Beyond, that is, an irresistible drive to tell the truth about an experience, or follow the spoor of language to a striking recognition, or… I would emphasize, too, that had any of the essays cited failed to follow through on the promise their opening extended, I would not have chosen them. But they did, confirming for me the principle of the organicism of the realized work.


Sven Birkerts has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He is the author of nine books, most recently: My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir(Graywolf, 2008), and The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011).

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