Sven Birkerts: On Writing, the Distractions of Technology, and Iota
May 9, 2018 § 3 Comments
An interview conducted by Sarah Einstein,
Essayist Sven Birkerts writes often and compellingly in defense of the artfulness of the essay and its ability to connect us to the sublime. He worries that we’re losing that artfulness to the pull of technologies that clamber for our attention; attention that we need if we are to create or experience art.
Nothing could better describe my own problems with writing at the moment. Even writing this, I’m pulled away by a New York Times “Breaking News Alert” that, really, isn’t particularly pressing. Just another pronouncement from Trump about the Stormy Daniels case, which I could well have waited to read until this evening and probably have gotten by with never reading at all. But everything feels so urgent right now, and so fragile, that it’s difficult to leave the constant demands of the 24-hour news cycle behind and do the quieter, more complex work of contemplation that fuels the personal essay. So I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with him about this very problem, and I’m anxious to (try) to implement his suggestions.
Einstein: I’ve been thinking about the essays in Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age quite a bit lately. I first read it in 2015, when it seemed common-sensical to me that both to create and appreciate art, we must resist the temptation to let the internet train us to be gadflies. I read the essays with easy agreement, even if I sometimes checked Facebook between them. And then, of course, the world changed and it was possible not to know the state of the nation if one looked away for more than a few hours. I’ll admit I lost a good six months of productivity to the constant pull of this disaster and that outrage, so sure at first that each one must surely be the last one. It’s only lately that I’ve been able to pull myself away from what I like to imagine was deeply engaged citizenship, but which I am sure was more political rubbernecking, at the hourly pronouncements from the press.
I’m wondering if you think it’s less, or more, necessary now for us to unplug from the constant intrusion of technology, given that it often intrudes to tell us about some new degradation to our democracy? How do we consider carefully when it seems that what we consider is, right now, in such constant turmoil?
Birkerts: You ask the question of the hour, and it frets me daily. We can’t not tune in to crisis-time in the West, but neither can we let our already threatened inner independence get snuffed out. It seems important to distinguish between staying informed and—your good word—“rubbernecking.” Gawking at the “breaking news,” feeling full of dread but mildly titillated, too, we not only burn up huge amounts of time, but we get more deeply implicated in the system that brings us the spectacle—a system which jumps from network news to Facebook to Twitter, and keeps us in thrall with the promise of the resolving next thing. 19th century novels were often published in serial form and structured to the logic of the cliff-hanger, as were soaps and prime-time series after them. Now it’s “breaking news” and click-bait.
The more entangled we are, the less oxygen there is for the formerly free-standing “I.” And also the less content. If you spend much of the day free-styling between platforms, what do you have to work with in the soul-making department, and what will you use to make your art, if art is what you make?
What we need to do is regularly break the media spell. The hypnotist snaps her fingers and the guy on the stage stops acting like a duck. We break the spell not by weaning, but by suddenly stopping. Power failure—“where did you put the candles, hon?” And we need to do this as often as our reliance warrants. Which is something only we know—how deep in we are. By stopping we get an update on our addiction. By staying stopped for a while, we give unmediated existence—what used to be called “life”—a chance. You can’t just unplug and be reading your Knausgaard the next minute. You need some time to once again become the person who can do so.
Great advice, Sven—take it!
Einstein: In a letter to Poetry Magazine, you wrote that you’ve encountered a “withering away of a felt secular connection to something that might be called transcendent” in the culture of our time. I imagine this connection, itself, requires the sort of attention you argue for in Changing the Subject. How can we get this access to the sublime through art back, or do you think it’s lost to us for the time being? Are there writers today who you think are particularly good at fostering this connection?
Birkerts: I like Theodore Roethke’s words here. He wrote: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” I have to believe that for all the media saturation and distraction, that “means” is still viable. But it’s not an easy thing, is it? I will use the old word “soul” and say that our souls—our secular souls—need some saving. Art is a path of attention, of concentration, and in the process, both of making and of experiencing, we are taken out of the nervous percolation of the moment and immersed in the other time. Duration time—which is time during which we are unaware of time whirling by. Absorption. This is the natural habitat—it’s why we were allowed to be children once—and we do recognize this as soon as the immersion happens. But then we forget, need to be reminded again and again that it’s there. The hypnotist’s finger snap.
My big word for a long time now has been “attention.” It must be paid, as Arthur Miller wrote.
Einstein: What do you wish people were paying more attention to at this moment? Is there something you wish we’d pay less attention to?
Birkerts: The ordinary, just for starters. Life begins at home. The dust motes hanging in the light, the cat doing its yoga stretches. The thing registered is less important here than the registering itself. This kind of perception is at the same time a means of self-perception. It completes a circuit. It may not have a further end, and doesn’t need one. What we are doing when we watch or scroll and click is something different. The attention I’m talking about fixes on the real time/space existence of the thing, whatever it is. Scroll-attention happens in a separate time/space zone and it is, given the nature of electronic media, always asking us to lean toward the next thing.
Einstein: What advice do you have for essayists who want to find their way to artfulness in these distracted times?
Birkerts: Hmmmmm….Find ways to keep believing that what you feel needs to be said does need to be said. This means a regular checking in with the true origins of the impulse of the project. It also means keeping company with your kindred, the writers who move you to emulation. As you are writing ask yourself the simple question: “Am I having fun?” I mean this in the craft sense: “Is my sentence-making interesting and surprising to me?” Do not fear the digression—it may be your unconscious tugging at your sleeve.
Einstein: You’re one of the workshop leaders at the upcoming Iota Conference, which consists of four days spent on Campobello Island just over the Canadian border. I’ve been twice, once as a workshop leader and once as a participant, and one of the things I valued most about it was the opportunity to let go of distractions, to focus for a while on art with others of a similar bent. Can you tell us a little about what participants can expect in your workshop?
Birkerts: Given that I’ll have two days with each group of students, I hope to use exercises and conversation to help the writers get closer to the urgency and insistence of their respective projects. I won’t say more, but that is the teaching impulse I feel these days.
Want to study with Sven Birkerts at Iota this summer? Dates are August 15 – 18. Visit www.iotaconference.com while there are still seats available.
Sven Birkerts is the author of nine books and has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. He has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, and Mt. Holyoke College, and is director of the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir and Remnants of Passsion, and her essays have appeared in Ninth Letter, The Sun, Whitefish Review, and other literary journals. She is the founding editor of Signal Mountain Review and teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her online course Memoir Writing for Happy People runs June 1 – August 31 at Iota Short Prose Online.