The digital murder of the Gutenberg mind


Here’s a double dose of dystopian cheer to accompany a warm and sunny Monday afternoon (or at least that’s the weather here in Central Texas).

First, Adam Kirsch, writing for The New Republic, in a piece dated May 2:

Everyone who ever swore to cling to typewriters, record players, and letters now uses word processors, iPods, and e-mail. There is no room for Bartlebys in the twenty-first century, and if a few still exist they are scorned. (Bartleby himself was scorned, which was the whole point of his preferring not to.) Extend this logic from physical technology to intellectual technology, and it seems almost like common sense to say that if we are not all digital humanists now, we will be in a few years. As the authors of Digital_Humanities write, with perfect confidence in the inexorability — and the desirability — of their goals, “the 8-page essay and the 25-page research paper will have to make room for the game design, the multi-player narrative, the video mash-up, the online exhibit and other new forms and formats as pedagogical exercises.”

. . . The best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not Luddism; it is intellectual responsibility. Is it actually true that reading online is an adequate substitute for reading on paper? If not, perhaps we should not be concentrating on digitizing our books but on preserving and circulating them more effectively. Are images able to do the work of a complex discourse? If not, and reasoning is irreducibly linguistic, then it would be a grave mistake to move writing away from the center of a humanities education.

. . . The posture of skepticism is a wearisome one for the humanities, now perhaps more than ever, when technology is so confident and culture is so self-suspicious. It is no wonder that some humanists are tempted to throw off the traditional burden and infuse the humanities with the material resources and the militant confidence of the digital. The danger is that they will wake up one morning to find that they have sold their birthright for a mess of apps.

MORE: “The False Promise of the Digital Humanities

Second, Will Self, writing for The Guardian, in a piece also dated May 2:

The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying — the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that serious novels will either cease to be written or read. But what is already no longer the case is the situation that obtained when I was a young man. In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them. All this led to a general acknowledgment: the novel was the true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

. . . [T]he advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, but of the Gutenberg mind itself. There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.

. . . I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse. . . . I’ve no intention of writing fictions in the form of tweets or text messages — nor do I see my future in computer-games design. My apprenticeship as a novelist has lasted a long time now, and I still cherish hopes of eventually qualifying. Besides, as the possessor of a Gutenberg mind, it is quite impossible for me to foretell what the new dominant narrative art form will be — if, that is, there is to be one at all.

MORE: “The Novel Is Dead (This Time It’s for Real)


Image: Painting: John White Alexander (1856–1915); Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 5, 2014, in Arts & Entertainment, Education, Science & Technology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. and good riddance .

    Akira is a great example of what I like.. it’s sensory overload . I will always appreciate works of philosophy like Rudolf Otto’s Idea Of The Holy, that are evocative and full of moving imagery . I like pulp fiction, sensational, I’m vehemently turned off by stoic slow moving oscar worthy shit . I love fast cuts, explosions, and so on . People who try to blast film making, video games, don’t have very good taste anyway .

    I think the well of potential of video games, and animation, is largely untapped . What country besides Japan has ever really given the video games medium a serious attempt? What country besides Japan has ever given film animation a serious attempt?

    Maybe these people defending writing, absent of other forms of art (as if that is better) should be criticizing institutions like Hollywood instead .

  2. I’m with you against technology I think computer graphics lacked a human touch, but are increasingly able to convey sentience when they weren’t so able to before . I consider Avatar to be a flop, for example . I don’t find that film to be particularly moving or interesting . I love Watership Down, and The Plague Dogs, adapted from Richard Adams novels, I love anime the most because they’re the only ones who have ever really consistently tried, one of the few well springs of true creative freedom in modern times .

    Maybe I should have posted Nana, it’s a convergence of music, fashion, imagery, beautiful writing, and so on..

    My wife showed me this . It’s top shelf manga I guess at its absolute apex in terms of contemporary things.. young adult life.. without so much fantasy and genre.. it shows the nature of womanhood like nothing else I’ve ever witnessed, read, etc.. I don’t know how to explain it but there is an emotional depth to Nana that I wish I seen more in other art .

    A lot of Hollywood is male dominated, that’s another serious problem

  3. It’s easy to criticize the rise of video games and so on from a cultural mindset whom largely believes that the human heart doesn’t exist . That the soul doesn’t exist . etc.. it’s a cultural perspective that holds that only reason, logic, and so on… can be made sense of, that something evocative and sensational doesn’t lead to the same kind of knowledge… I find film animation able to convey gnosis, communion, these higher themes that writing would struggle to convey, the ineffable .

  4. In Nana emotions are not confined to the self . They invest themselves into other people, and when they’re betrayed or abandoned lose part of themselves. I don’t know how to explain it but I am not the only one that feels that Nana evokes something about human relationships on a level over and above most other dramas about relationships and so on.

    I’m not a particularly great writer particularly on the internet but my feelings would be basically… the people criticizing gaming, visual media, and so on.. as being not equivalent or worthy of introspection as literature, they’re probably from a culture that hasn’t even TRIED to use those mediums in a serious way . Simple as that.

  5. I’m an English major at Concordia University in Montreal . My education in English is as weak as it gets , being from Quebec. Some of the most exciting classes I have taken at Concordia, though I have taken some great literature courses, were one on animated films and another on horror films . They were some of the most emotional classes I’ve ever been in, not just for myself but for the other students around me. For instance being in a theatre full of people who are watching something My Neighbor Totoro for the first time, is incredible, and the horror film class had a lot of stompy walk outs and upset people, which was also awesome on another level . My opportunity to do any work at all on film analysis of animation was confined to that single class. I wrote on Angel’s Egg . I did well . I don’t remember how I managed to do this but yeah I did find some stuff written on Angel’s Egg (but there is a pittance written on it) and whatever it was fun . I don’t know if what I experienced in those classes made me think , but they stirred me in other ways, and I think anyone who is criticizing more humanities in the humanities are probably uncool people . I wish the books I read had more pictures. Music. and so on. More is more . I really don’t see the problem . I do think though that the evolutionary level of the common person consuming american media , and the level of thought gone into that media, is at an extremely low level . This has nothing to do with class but with empathy .

    I grew up part of a generation that was really angry . The response has been emotional sterility . My generations response has largely been the rejection of national art. I don’t think most people in the western world recognize how bad it has gotten .

  6. The crisis in the arts right now is a lack of reconciliation . or really confronting the issues that artists raise . We’re in a particularly nihilist period of history in terms of western art, because there is little else to say anymore but negativity .

  7. The novel is dead . So is western civilization . As a person from the Lost Generation , many of whom are rejecting western civilization in significant and lasting ways, the education establishment, the publishing industry, I could go on and on, they’ve all failed us remorselessly . The novel is dead, because western civilization is dying, Laibach sounds the warning, our souls are at risk.

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