Quotes by Sven Birkerts

(from The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age)

-Language is the soul’s ozone layer and we thin it at our peril.

-Serious reading is above all an agency of self-making.

-Syntactic masonry is already a dying art.

-We can define imagination as the power to conceive and deploy representations, to combine elements–images, sounds, words–into coherent patterns.

-What you start with are pattern-making impulses of imagination.

-The technologies are spoilers.

-Turning our backs on the full sensory business of living, we have installed another-proxy-world between ourselves and that original place.

-The dollar is betting, as it always does, against the soul. Soul waxes in private, wanes in public.


This is a very important, insightful book on reading and e-mediated experience. Birkerts contends that the saturating, virtual-based e-mediated experience erodes live in-person human presence, actual primary human experience, and the basic authority of the individual. Young contemporary e-based users have a fragmented sense of time rather than a big picture-greater context sense of history, tradition, and cumulative organic process. They have little sense of the possibility of a comprehensible unified whole and no informed sense of either a personal or collective future. With little sense of underlying patterns or structure, they see the world as basically relative.

They have a reduced attention span and, impatiently, are increasingly unable to experience natural empathy or to do sustained inquiry.  They engage in limited/limiting shallow, glib, cliched unrealistic entertainments and shun deeper analysis and critical thinking. Their language tends to be dumbed-down literal plainspeak; vertical engagements involving  the use of discourse, irony, ambiguity, paradox, wit, figurative language, metaphors, depth and meaning (via reading, books, the arts) are too difficult for many.. Overall, they choose the habitual collective e-hive over true autonomy and independence.

Re. the two different modes and paradigms, our society is turning its back on the primary world and the primary (individual) imagination as well as the fundamental durational and biological rhythms of natural process. We are losing the assumption of underlying coherence and wisdom (which is an understanding of the underlying laws and patterns of human experience).                                                                            

The e-mediated world is also an unnatural proxy world which short-circuits the pattern-making impulses of primary imagination, bestowing, instead, autonomy and authority to gadgets. Because human experience is increasingly fundamentally e-mediated, humans increasingly do not know each other via/as immediate presence. Old concepts such as truth, soul, and destiny are likewise becoming meaningless. The e-habit “distances the self from the primary things that give meaning and purpose to life. We are cut off from beauty, from love, from true passion, and from the spiritual.”


Personally, I think we are seeing a corresponding decline in what used to be called sensibility. Sensibility is a key construct which people once were more interested in cultivating and developing. As Birkerts describes it, it is, on one level, a range of fine feelings and ability to make distinctions (whether moral or aesthetic, etc.). On another, it is a refinement or cultivation of presence (what one essentially is and could be). On yet another, it is the part of inner life that is not given, but fashioned. On still another, sensibility means a coherent inwardness. For my own part, I believe that sensibility embodies the possibilities of /for resonance, integrity, and appreciation of such ‘old school’ things as gentleness, greatness, order, wisdom, romance, love, truth, beauty, soul, and the arts.

Yeats in “The Second Coming” talked of the centre not holding, which we can easily see in a variety of external, contemporary, historical situations. I believe, too, it is the autonomy of the individual and his/her sensibility that is the current (inner) centre under siege. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves and others to wilfully maintain and develop our inner centres, our autonomies, and our sensibilities. These are truly civilizing and stabilizing aspects that keep us from resembling the uncentered, Caliban-like “rough beast” that slouches toward Bethlehem to be born in Yeats’ great poem.

“Live from your own centre.”--Joseph Campbell

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