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The Electric Word

Sven Birkerts replies to
"The Message Is the Medium" by
Atlantic Monthly New Media editor Wen Stephenson

EXCHANGE: The Gutenberg Elegies
From Chicago Review, Summer 1996

Dear Editors,

I was gratified to read Wen Stephenson's lucid and concept-focused review of my book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age ("The Message Is the Medium," Chicago Review 41:4 [Fall 1995]). Read thus one feels seen. Seen, and in some important ways disagreed with, which at some level one wants (and if I don't get rid of this "one" I'm going to drive myself crazy).

I have various quibbles with Mr. Stephenson's quibbles, but I will save those for another occasion. I would like to address myself instead to what I see as our key point of difference, a point which, as I think about it, seems to enlarge itself concentrically until it embraces everything.

It comes down to this: Mr. Stephenson does not think that the medium through or by which the word is transmitted changes in any way its fundamental essence. I maintain that it does. And since Mr. Stephenson more or less recapitulates my argument in the body of his essay, I will not repeat it here. Let me fasten upon his closing salvo, however, the point of which is to reassure us that verbal content survives the transfer between media unchanged. Mr. Stephenson writes:

. . . I jump to another page that I've 'bookmarked,' where I find the poem that's been going through my head for the last few days, ever since I discovered it here on the Internet Poetry Archive site. I open the sound file I've saved on my hard disk, and the soft Irish voice of Seamus Heaney comes over the speakers of my computer. I follow his voice through the eight concentrated lines of 'Song':

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

What does happen when I am reading or listening to a poem? And does it matter that it is transmitted to me, voice and word, through a computer? The second part of the question is beginning to bore me by now. The first part I doubt I'll ever answer. And so I print out . . . Heaney's poems and take them with me to pore over on the train-ride home.
Mr. Stephenson is, of course, playing a game here, representing in a few sentences his reliance on all of our modes of interacting with a given literary expression -- from oral memory ("the poem that's been going through my head") to print ("so I print it out"), to electronic ("since I discovered it here on the Internet Poetry Archive site") to electronic multimedia ("I open the sound file"). It is supremely ironic, however, that the content itself should be Heaney's lovely "Song," the whole point of which is to reenact through language a kind of stripping away of the veils in order to arrive at a pure perceptual recognition, one uncontaminated by any of our myriad devices of mediation.

Mr. Stephenson would no doubt reply that mediation or no, his absorption in the Heaney poem is proof positive that the word is like the patterned energy of one of those knots that can be slipped intact from rope to rope provided that the ends are connected; that, in other words, the medium of transmission is functional and nothing more.

To that I would counter that the sense of presence that literature seeks to create is primarily -- not exclusively -- focused on the private and social circumstance of the individual, and that this sense is fundamentally at odds with the electronic system that would store and present it. That the world that brings us the Web is already at a significant remove from the worlds conjured to exist in a book. So that even if it did not matter on one level -- even if Mr. Stephenson were encountering his text as purely as he claims -- it would matter on another. To deny this is tantamount to asserting that the automobile has had no impact on the natural world because with it we are able to get to more remote places than before. No, the auto has significantly altered the dynamic between man and nature. It is, then, the fact of the new medium, not just its means, that I am talking about.

But the means, I maintain, matter significantly. The tree hiked to and seen is not the tree driven to and seen, even though it is the same tree. The words of "Song" may be the same no matter what context we greet them in, but different media put us in fundamentally different relations. The listener, of course, gets the benefit of presence and immediacy (in the etymological sense of no mediation). The reader of the lines on the page performs the familiar conversion of printed word into auditory signal. For the person reading the poem on the screen there must be the subliminal awareness that the word has passed through an alchemical bath, has travelled a circuitry. Same word, but . . . Do we say that a print on paper and a digitalized image on a monitor display are identical, that the image stands free of its context? No, in some elusive way we recognize that the transmission has become part of the content (read again Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"). Heaney's poem handset on a broadside and the same poem run off on a mimeo-stencil will reach the reader differently. This is not to say that the skilled and serious reader (and I believe Mr. Stephenson is such) cannot peel away the husks or otherwise read compensatorily in order to get at the pure word (rather, its chimera). But to manage this requires discipline and a high degree of awareness, and the ordinary reader generally lacks both.

It is vexing for me not to be able to lay the whole business to rest with a few incontrovertible arguments. But alas -- and mercifully -- we are in subjective terrain. I can only argue what I suppose and my reader/critic can only do the same. I will say, though, that as soon as one allows that the medium affects the message (never mind McLuhan's assertion that it is the message), then the whole electronic transformation of society needs to be examined with great care. If there is no effect, and no change, then there is no problem, other than whatever the problem has been all along.


Sven Birkerts

Wen Stephenson Replies:

I'm reluctant to reply to Sven Birkerts's generous letter in response to my article on The Gutenberg Elegies, partly because he so nicely describes what is perhaps an irreconcilable difference between us, but also because I feel the whole debate over the printed versus the digitally transmitted word has become distracting and even counterproductive. For if Mr. Birkerts and I recognize the extent to which we are allies in a much larger struggle, then this kind of debate starts to look more and more like that between factions of a religious sect (say, the cult of literary-aesthetic experience) arguing over fine points of doctrine while the foundations of their faith are under assault and beginning to crumble. So, rather than try to rebut his arguments, and indulge in further speculation on the nature of verbal experience, I'm more inclined to take his last sentence as a point of departure (or at least to suggest where such a departure might lead).

The digital age is a given. Like it or not, it is the future that my generation has inherited. Whatever the effects, whatever the superficial changes brought on by the latest phase of the ongoing technological revolution, they are the least of our problems -- both as citizens and as readers. Nevertheless, despite the givenness of the digital future, I don't believe we are faced with an all-or-nothing choice between print and pixel. Books and computers can exist side by side, have been known to do so productively, and may complement one another in surprising, delightful ways. No, the choice we face is much more urgent and stark: namely, between a future in which literature has some discernible influence within our culture and one in which it does not. That we are faced with this choice has little or nothing to do with the nature of new media such as the World Wide Web and CD-ROMs, and everything to do with the nature of well-established mass media such as radio, television, and film, and the commercialized mass culture these media have promoted and sustained for decades.

In the struggle for literature (and the values that term implies), it would be a grave mistake to equate the Web and other multimedia technologies with the electronic mass media that have brought us to this pass in our cultural history. The Web is not television. It is neither the movies nor the recording industry. It is something entirely different, entirely new. While it does bring together image and sound, primarily it conveys the written word. Furthermore, not only is the medium based on language but also on the ability -- the imperative -- of individuals to make choices, to seek out and select the kinds of content they want to engage and interact with intellectually. And it is because of these and other essential attributes that the Web has the potential to reawaken an appreciation for language itself, both as a written and a spoken medium, and for literary works. Publishers and educators are beginning to realize that the Web and other new media can be powerful weapons in the struggle for literature and literacy.

More needs to be said, and in much greater depth than I am able to do here, about the significance of the Web as a radically decentralized network for the distribution of literature. Not only is it inexpensive to produce content on the Web, it's getting cheaper to gain access to it, and someday soon it will be as accessible as the telephone, the radio, and the television. There's already a much publicized presidential initiative to bring Internet access to every public school in America.

So let me toss this line to my "unregenerate" novel reader, resolved to go down with the ship of serious literature. The Web may never replace books -- whether novels, or nonfiction narratives, or collections of poetry. I, for one, believe that literature -- both in print and digital form -- will endure, and that the Web itself may play an important role in its survival. For if publishers seize the opportunity, multimedia publishing on the Web could well revitalize, maybe even revolutionize, the role of literary journalism in our culture. It is too easy to be short-sighted, to forget that this medium we call the Web is in its infancy: who knows what sophisticated forms of literary activity it may accommodate in the near future? Imagine the impact such activity could have. Consider the rise of mass literacy, the development of journalism, and the beginnings of the novel in the eighteenth century. As access to the Internet expands, multimedia literary journalism on the Web might play a similar role in generating a broadened interest in and demand for serious literature, even novels, at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

  • Return to "The Message Is the Medium"

    Sven Birkerts is a literary critic and author of
    The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber and Faber, 1994). He has recently edited the anthology Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse (Graywolf, 1996).

    Wen Stephenson is editorial director of The Atlantic Monthly's New Media department.

    Copyright © 1996 Chicago Review. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
    Originally published in
    Chicago Review Vol. 42, No. 2 (Summer 1996).
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