This Will Kill That

Cassiodorus at work.

This essay was written in response to a conversation on our website about the future of reading and writing. The conversation started with essays byBenjamin Kunkel and Marco Roth, and continued with responses from the editors on our news page.

Ceci tuera cela”: the famous slogan of Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre-Dame in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, as he touches a printed book and glances nostalgically at the cathedral towers.  “This will kill that.”  It’s not hard to sympathize these days.  Hugo had to reimagine the 15th century in order to evoke a major shift in technologies of the word.  We just have to hold our smart phones while looking at a copy of Hugo’s novel–or read Hugo’s novel on our smart phones. Resistance is futile: welcome to our new digital overlords!

But Hugo’s resigned pessimism as well as his technological determinism, are, I think, unwarranted now, for reasons both abstract and pragmatic. The abstract reason is that technological changes to literacy have slow and unpredictable effects.  Right now many digital formats are still straightforward recreations of the book; the Kindle and its cousins reproduce a mise en page that hasn’t changed in fundamentals since 13th century scribes at the new universities of Western Europe offered harried students books with running heads, chapter titles, indices, and the like. What remains to be seen is if, and how, digital technology changes that format at all.

Along this abstract vein: a history of cultural pessimism should counsel us to be cautious about our dismay. Take Q. D. Leavis, author of the stern 1932 jeremiad Fiction and the Reading Public, which bemoans over two-hundred years of declining cognitive abilities and standards.  Mass literacy, newspapers, and popular fiction were all for Leavis signs of the slow death of attentive reading.  In many ways Leavis was right–Miltonic prose couldn’t thrive in the 19th century, nor could epic verse.  But would we have it any other way?  Would we surrender the novel, say, so that we could learn to concentrate and memorize properly again?  And what did that concentration feel like, exactly?  (And how many people were capable of such attention?)  All the more ironic, then, that Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, and others have made the classical novel a paradigm for engaged, attentive thought, while for Leavis it was a disaster for cognition.

We don’t know what it felt like to read before newspapers, before mass media, before printing. We don’t even know what “attention” is; one person’s rapt, deep attention is another person’s dangerous trance, while what looks like constant distraction might also be an ability to synthesize. Pragmatically, for intellectuals to stake a claim on such things as “attention” or “concentration” is an abdication of our best ground: content.  There is no valid reason to think that War and Peace teaches deep attention any better than a first-person shooter game.  There are plenty of reasons, enduring ones, to think that War and Peace aerates and nourishes our daily lives more fruitfully, and productively, than Call of Duty.  Which is to say that staking our claims on a format (the printed book), rather than on specific, lasting artifacts of a bookish culture is a losing proposition.

Not simply because digital formats are bound to win.  (“Win” what, anyway?  Older textual technologies never quite vanish.)  More importantly because by pontificating about the shame of declining attention-spans and the like, we ignore the very real social, economic, geopolitical causes that make bookish “attention” of the kind we like to imagine so hard to come by.  Raymond Williams once pointed out the same thing as a response to Q. D. Leavis: even if one grants that cultural standards of concentration or attention have declined, one has to ask what conditions of life for most individuals (industrialized labor, for a start) make it hard to “attend” to text.  The answer is not simply that technologies of text, or literary standards, changed.  It is a more complicated and possibly more discouraging picture of the needs and capacities of those outside the boundary of high-literate schooling.  As Williams put it: the question isn’t whether ephemeral, fragmented consumption of text or images is a drug of choice for many; it’s what social conditions make such a drug necessary–ways of life that produce no satisfactions, only a momentarily appeasable itch for sensation.  (A problem that the great novelists, Tolstoy included, made part of their explicit content.)  We should beware being sidetracked by issues like attention spans–fuzzy, ill-defined issues ripe for self-satisfied laments–from the main problems facing us.

If there’s a useful image for intellectuals of the moment, I’d suggest an ancient figure living through a moment of looming and seemingly total change: the 6th-century public figure and textual theorist Cassiodorus. Following the collapse of Ostrogothic rule in Italy, Cassiodorus seems to have withdrawn from public life for some decades, only to emerge in later life as the founder of a Calabrian monastery. There he laid down methods and rules for the scribal preservation and dissemination of scriptural and secular texts, trained scribes, attempted to forge networks of the learned, and amassed as many texts of value as he could, all in a moment of political and social chaos. For generations of scholars, Cassiodorus was a self-congratulatory mirror: the last sad remnant of classical culture, watching Europe spin into barbarian, vernacular anarchy. But now it might be possible to see him as a remarkably pragmatic, even cheerfully adaptive intellectual of his time: trying hard to preserve what he could and reworking the old into new formats and forms.  There is in his lifework a humility about the limits of what we can predict mixed with a confidence about what can and should be kept alive in the face of change that any present-day intellectual (scholar, writer, thinker) would do well to emulate.

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