Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Talks: Sven Birkerts at the Royal Irish Academy

Literary critic Sven Birkerts gave the final lecture in the Critical Voices series last Thursday night in the library of the Royal Irish Academy. I can't recall the exact title but it was something like 'the drowning signal', a reference to diminution of human presence in the digital age. From the outset, Birkerts acknowledged the provisional nature of his thoughts, remarking that what he had to say was 'a gamble with tendencies' rather than any prescriptive message. While it is difficult to accurately take the temperature of the times, Birkerts believes there is a desire, probably millenarian, for large-scale 'psychic events' that somehow encapsulate a particular era, generation or moment. Virginia Woolf's belief that human nature had changed in 1910 on foot of seeing a post-impressionist exhibition in London was not verifiable but evoked the colour and mood of that time.
For Birkerts, the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 was a defining moment, not only for the possibility of imminent nuclear destruction but also because the event, through media coverage, did away with his assumption of the sovereignty of place; the national, the global were now local concerns. Birkerts registered the same feeling in the wake of September 11 and like the cloud emanating from Three Mile Island, he argues that our experience of the world is now mediated through a culture that is systemic, invisible and dispersed.
Positing two figures, Adam and Zeno, the former living in the 1700's, the latter now, Birkerts suggested that human consciousness has been transformed, defined then by embodied physical reality and local concerns to now disembodied dataspace and a life of dreams.
The problem with this, according to Birkerts, is that people are becoming part of a network that increasingly denies the possibility of individual thought, citing plans for searchable digital libraries and online encyclopaedias as a move towards 'group think'. Such networks also fray actual human contact as people increasingly socialise and interact online. I couldn't help thinking here of a tram journey I took from Eindhoven airport last year through the outer suburbs of the city. I remember feeling that I was entering some well ordered machine where people had long since retreated from the outside world, content to live out their lives in the warm glow of the Internet, gaming console or television. That feeling came back a few weeks ago on the 46A bus as it made its way through the empty roads of south Dublin.
Birkerts then went on to address the position of art in this age of information overload and lamented the fact that this was a period without artistic force; what has happened to the imagination? It no longer seems possible for the individual to encapsulate the present moment because the world has overwhelmed it; there is now simply too much stuff.
Despite this bleak prognosis, Birkerts did finish on a positive note by discussing what works of art are, feats of concentration, the total immersion in a creative act, which has a power that mere information can never possess. Why? Because while information imposes shape, imagination creates shape. Birkerts seems to suggest that art is still possible, you just have to think harder about it and remove yourself from the constant hum of the digital age.
A lot of what Birkerts said struck a chord but at times he was too alarmist. There was something slightly jaded about his assertion that this was a period lacking in artistic force- wasn't it Virginia Woolf who dismissed Joyce as boring? Evidence that it is not always possible to identify great works of art at the time at which they appear. And I think it is also the case that there is a great appetite for literature now with book clubs and reading groups a fixture in many people's lives and any number of blogs reviewing and discussing books. Clearly people are still finding time to read books and it may be that the current moment is dominated by news of technological advancements because of an age-old deeply human desire for novelty.

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