Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age / Sven Birkerts -- Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994

In 1994, the Internet was mainly a text-based medium.  "GUIs" or graphic user interfaces were relatively uncommon.  The first major web browser "Mosaic Netscape 0.9" was not released until October of that year.  Still, the prospect of the ubiquitous use of the Internet to browse linked documents was being discussed with great excitement, at least within academic circles.  Luddites were hard to find.  For that reason alone, Sven Birkerts's The Gutenberg Elegies now appears to be a remarkably prescient warning of the downside of our new device-obsessed society.   At the same time, many of his observations seem quaint.  Birkerts got the main picture right, but he can hardly be faulted for mistaking the details or not seeing just how far down the road to digital hypnosis we would traveled.

The first half of the book tells the back story.  Birkerts, in an early chapter, recounts how he became attracted to books and writing, including his attempts to become a novelist and how he ultimately discovered his aptitude for writing essays.  In any case, we learn early on that Beikerts is devoted to print books, reading, and writing.  He goes on to describe the phenomenology of deep reading or reading in which we become thoroughly immersed in the text.  He provides an account of how reading can be instrumental in "self-formation," how reading and interpreting texts is related to our life activities apart from reading, and how the activities of reading and writing are not so very different.

In the second part of the book, Birkerts explores the coming new world of digital reading and as you might guess, he greets it with apprehension.  Birkerts fears that the beneficial habits and frame of mind created by deep reading will be undermined by the new electronic media.  He predicts the erosion of language.  He writes that "the complex discourse patterns of the nineteenth century" are becoming "flattened by the requirements of communication over distances.  That tendency runs riot as the layers of mediation thicken.  Simple linguistic prefab is now the norm, while ambiguity, paradox, irony, subtlety, and wit are fast disappearing....Verbal intelligence, which has long been viewed as suspect as the act of reading, will come to seem positively conspiratorial.  The greater part of any articulate person's energy will be deployed in dumbing-down her discourse."  It's hard to deny that his prediction has come to pass.  The 140 character twitter message has joined the 30 second sound byte to dominate much of our communication.  Worse yet, the cell phone text has returned us to the age of brief telegraphic wire messages, except everyone is able to send these messages hundreds of time a day. 

Birkerts fears that with the loss of physical books will undermine our sense of the past.  No longer will the past be represented to us in surviving artifacts, but it will be stored in databases "flattening" our historical perspective.  The extent to which university students are turning their backs on physical books is, indeed, striking.  Their work relies very significantly on texts that can be viewed online.  This is, perhaps, a product of the ready availability of electronic journal literature.  Not long ago, libraries had access only to a limited number of journals and student research relied significantly on books.  Now, back issues of journals are sold to libraries in extremely cost effective packages.  Money is made mostly on expensive access to recent issues.  This is a boon to humanities research, but Birkerts's point that our historical perspective is flattened seems credible, particularly when one views a pdf of an 80 year old journal article in contrast to an original paper version of it. 

Perhaps Birkerts's most worrying prediction is of "the waning of the private self."  He detects "a process of social collectivization that will over time all but vanquish the ideal of the isolated individual."  He writes, "for some decades now we have been edging away from the perception of private life as something opaque, closed off to the world; we increasingly accept the transparency of a life lived within a set of systems, electronic or otherwise....One day we will conduct our public and private lives within networks so dense, among so many channels of instantaneous information, that it will make almost no sense to speak of the differentiations of subjective individualism."  I'm not entirely convinced that we are losing the notion of subjective individualism.  Much of our social networks are designed to create at least an image of ourselves as individuals, but at the same time we are becoming conduits for memes that waft through the electronic social space; and if Birkerts's concern about "the waining of the private self" was really a concern about the waning of privacy itself, he could not have been more prescient.

The more quaint aspects of Birkerts's work appear in this latter half, where he describes Perseus 1.0 as the "hot new thing in the classics world." Perseus 1.0 was an early an interactive multimedia database for the Classics.  The "Perseus Project" is still going, but it has been overtaken by so many new and more sophisticated databases.  Still, Birkerts's "curmudgeonly" remarks about the use of such tools in education, particularly humanities education remain worth considering and continue to be discussed among teachers and researchers.  Birkerts also has chapters on hyperlinks and audio books.  The observations about how hyperlinks change the character of writing and reading are worthwhile; however, his prediction that audio books would supplant print books is obviously mistaken.

The third part of The Gutenberg Elegies laments the demise of literature and the educated reader.  My knowledge of literature is far too shallow to comment on his points, though they seem a tad overstated.  Regarding the disappearance of the educated reader, I suspect he has a point.  In decades past, reading had far less competition.  Now, finding an avid reader is rather difficult.  This is surely a function of the time we spend looking at text messages, screen-shots, and Youtube video clips, not to mention downloadable movies, audio files, and much more.  The ubiquity of cell phones means that people seldom find themselves separated from people with whom they would like to converse and so carrying around a pocket sized paperback to fill the odd empty 20 minutes isn't something we do.

All in all, The Gutenberg Elegies is becoming (or has become) a classic, early work in the expanding debate over the social and personal consequences of our new digital culture.  Any one interested in this debate would do well to read it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings / Matthew Dickerson -- Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003

A common criticism of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is that it glorifies war and violence.  It is not hard to draw this conclusion in light of the numerous battle scenes depicted in the work and the military heroism of many of its main characters.  According to Matthew Dickerson, such a reading is superficial and a more discerning reader will see exactly the reverse.  War and violence are not glorified.  They are portrayed as the horrible acts of evil forces.  The wisest of the characters are repelled by war and violence and only resort to it out of desperate necessity.

Central to Dickerson's argument is an examination of the words, actions, and motivations of Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, Frodo, and Faramir.  Dickerson rightly observes that the most thoughtful and insightful commentary about war and violence come from these "wisest" characters.  Each exhibits a deep reluctance to engage in violence and in the case of Gandalf, Faramir, and Frodo, the characters overtly recognize the moral  value of their adversaries. Gandalf is noted as saying, "Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends."  Gandalf pities Sauron's slaves, Faramir regrets the death of a man deceived by Sauron to fight against Gondor, and Frodo shows mercy, time again, to Gollum.

One of the most telling passages in condemnation of war comes from Faramir:  "War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory.  I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom.  Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise."  And against violence, Frodo is noted as saying, "Fight?" said Frodo.  "Well I suppose it may come to that.  But remember: there is to be no slaying of hobbits, not even if they have gone over to the other side.  Really gone over, I mean; not just obeying ruffians' orders because they are frightened....And nobody is to be killed at all, if it can be helped.  Keep your tempers and hold your hands to the last possible moment!"

One might wonder if these statements by characters that are certainly portrayed as wise by Tolkien are enough to contradict the general martial tone of much of the story, but Dickerson does an admirable job revealing nuances in the story and its telling that strengthen his conclusions.  After reading Following Gandalf one understands how The Lord of the Rings became so popular among the anti-war college students of the 1960s and 1970s.   War was upon us.  What was morally significant was how we dealt with it.

There is much more in Following Gandalf that deserves attention:  the importance of moral victory as opposed to military victory, mediation on freedom and creativity, power, hope and despair, and the Christian elements in the work.  There is, however, at least one current in Tolkien's work that is overlooked (or at least under-examined and that is what Tolkien thought of as the a great virtue of Northern European peoples: the willingness to remain true to one's duty in the face of certain defeat.  Certainly this virtue is most clearly revealed in times of war, but it is by no means inapplicable in other circumstances.  So too the nearly pacifist wisdom of many of Tolkien's characters hold lessons for us beyond the obvious circumstances of the novel.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

In Bed with the Word: Reading, Spirituality, and Cultural Politics / Daniel Coleman -- Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 2009

Daniel Coleman's In Bed with the Word is a collection of five short essays on the joy and value of reading.  It is simultaneously unsurprising and ideosyncratic.  That is, Coleman's personal reflections on and experience of reading are employed to draw conclusions that are no doubt widely held by serious readers.

In the first essay, Coleman describes how reading allows us to become connected to experience wider than our own.  Two stories make this point.  The first is of his six year old brother deciding to spend the day "in bed with the Word."  Hence the book's title.  Though not yet literate, his brother understands the way in which books connect us to something beyond our immediate world.  The second story is of an eight  year old girl in Trinidad who, by discovering a book about the 1791 Haitian Revolution, is connected to her own cultural history.  Coleman writes these stories in a compelling way, but their subject is by no means unusual and Coleman brings little new insight to it.

The second and third essays present related ideas.  According to Coleman, serious reading is "countercultural."  It fosters our inclinations toward democratic citizenship and requires that we open ourselves to the prospect of new experiences and learning. Here, Coleman seems to disregard the possibility that we might read deeply in works that we know or expect to confirm our existing beliefs.  Whatever is new in our reading is little more than filling details or adding additional weight to our worldview.  Such an approach to reading might be far more common than Coleman would like to believe.  Coleman's discernibly liberal politics are likely what leads him to his conclusion about reading.

In his fourth essay, Coleman discusses the relationship between the reader and the author, which he describes as one initiated by absence.  The absence, however, is to a great extent overcome when the reader become immersed in the text. The reader becomes to hear the voice of the author intimately in the reader's head and comes into the presence of a "companionable ghost."  It is in this essay that Coleman does reach beyond commonplace observations and makes many interesting points.  He compares the absence relationship, overcome in the act of reading, with the relationship that a theist has with their god, particularly the direct experience that Sufis have of the divine in the course of their whirling dance.

The final essay continues to reflect on the connections between religion and reading in a discussion of reading as "eating the book," an actual practice of some Jews. His point here appears simply to be that to gain the real benefits of reading we must read books "wholly, fully, and slowly, so they become parts of our bodies, the very structure of our lives."  It is an unsurprising claim, but in a world in which our reading is brief, quick, chaotic, and unconnected, it is worth remembering.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Preparing for Climate Change / Michael D. Mastrandrea & Stephen H. Schneider -- Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010

Mastrandrea and Schneider's little book Preparing for Climate Change presents the case that adaption strategies to climate change must be driven by accurate assessments of local vulnerabilities.  For local adaptation strategies to work, they must be informed by global climate predictions, refined to distinguish local variations.  All of that seems uncontroversial; however, a discussion of climate change adaptation -- while critical in specific circumstances -- has the danger of playing into the hands of those who have denied climate change and continue to seek ways to defend the fossil fuel industry.  Consequently, any book such as Preparing for Climate Change should first of all emphasis the need to take drastic actions now to mitigate the effects of climate change.  Without such action, any effort to adapt is likely to be futile. Unfortunately, Mastrandrea and Schneider do not make this clear enough.

For a couple decades now, the fossil industry, related industries, and their apologists have worked hard to cast doubt first, about the fact that our climate is changing and then, about the fact that human activity is a significant -- if not leading -- cause of climate change.  Their misinformation campaigns have been surprisingly effective.  It is, perhaps, a testament to people's desire not to read the writing on the wall.  The truth is, as Al Gore has observed, just too inconvenient.  The evidence, though, is becoming clear to even the most casual observers:  loss of sea ice, Greenland's melting surface, glacier retreat, extreme heat waves, droughts, forest fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and superstorms.  Furthermore, the evidence from these obvious phenomena are buttressed by an avalanche of scientific studies measuring sea level rise, ocean acidification, coral reef bleaching, the mountain pine beetle plague, and numerous other consequences of climate change.

More and more, climate change deniers are having to come to terms with the fact that the day they can cast doubt on anthropogenic climate change is ending.  Already we can see them changing their tactics in defense of the fossil fuels. "Adaptation" is becoming the preferred approach among the former denier community.  Their main argument is that while it is true that the climate is changing, the best way to deal with it is through developing the technologies and infrastructures that will minimize the harsh consequence of change.

Among the most famous proponents of this approach is the Danish political scientist and adjunct business professor Bjorn Lomborg.  According to Lomborg, the problems of climate change can be solved with the expenditure of a mere 250 billion dollars worldwide per year and that this expenditure would along the way help resolve poverty, educational deficiencies, disease, etc.  To be fair, Lomborg also is advocating investment in research into alternative energies, but he does not advocate deploying it just yet.  Deploying alternative energy systems and reducing carbon energy consumption certainly would mitigate the unfolding crisis, but for Lomborg, the cost of deploying wind and solar energy generators currently is too great.  Consequently, he believes money would be better spent on seawalls and storm-proofing buildings.

Lomborg's optimism about our ability to adapt to the coming changes does not take seriously the growing body of data that reveals potential threats far beyond our abilities to adapt.  Nonetheless, he has captured significant media attention for his views.  This is likely due to the fact that by minimizing the harms we face and overstating our ability to adapt takes the fossil fuel industry off the hook and allows us to believe we can continue our high-carbon lifestyles.  It is in the face of this that we should judge Mastrandrea and Schneider's Preparing for Climate Change and take care to place it in the limited context that it deserves, lest we add support to the fossil fuel industry's continuing campaign to profit at the expense of all of us and our descendants.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion / Jonathan Haidt -- N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 2012

There is an extremely good motive behind Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, i.e., a desire to get people of good will, both conservative and liberal, to see past their own moral perspectives and take one another seriously.  To do so, one needs first of all to see one’s moral perspective as being in some sense subjective and also to assume the legitimacy of the perspective of those with whom one disagrees.  In short, Haidt is calling on us to exercise a little humility and charity when it comes to moral debates.  His main approach for inculcating these virtues is to connect our moral thinking to emotions that are generated by a set of pre-established values.  By examining the moral psychology of liberals and conservatives, he hopes that we will be able to recognize the causes of our differing moral attitudes and find a vocabulary that will allow us to disagree constructively.

The central metaphor for Haidt's moral psychology is that of someone riding an elephant.  The rider is the reasoning/rational aspect of a person, while the elephant is the emotive aspect.  By and large, the elephant goes where it wants to go and the rider provides an after-the-fact justification of the elephant's actions.  At best, the rider can inflect the elephant's movement.  For Haidt, emotions are doing the main work in moral behavior.  Against this, view he poses "rationalist philosophers" or often simply "philosophers."  Setting aside his view of moral psychology, his critique of his alleged opponents is quite misguided.  His mistakes comes from thinking that normative philosophical theories are moral psychological theories.  I'll say more about this later.

The most intersting aspect of his work is his analysis of the sets of values he finds in liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.  According to Haidt, the values of each are based on six "foundations:"  care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation; but the importance of these foundations (or values) is different for the different political groups.  Again, according to Haidt, the moral judgments of liberals are dominated by care/harm, liberty/oppression, and fairness/cheating (in that order of importance.)  The moral judgments of libertarians overwhelmingly dominated by liberty/oppression with some influence coming from fairness/cheating.  The moral judgments of social conservatives are, however, motivated equally by all six of the moral foundations. 

These conclusions are by no means surprising, but on first glance, one might question how Haidt has quantified his results.  By looking at the copious references to psychological studies and the number of surveys available on Haidt's website,, one can be reasonably convinced that his work on this score is of high quality.  One might object, however, to an overly general assessment of the regulating relationship between emotion and reason.  While it is true that much that goes by the name "reason" is in fact rationalization, reason nonetheless has a role in moral judgments -- a role that might differ among different people.  Some of us drive elephants while others of us drive horses;  Some of us are assertive drivers while others are passive.  Haidt glosses over these distinctions between the varying strengths of emotion and reason among individuals in a population.

It is important to make these distinctions as without them, one is left without an ability to evaluate moral judgments.  If we are stuck with pre-established values which drive us in spite of reason, it becomes impossible to constructively discuss moral differences.  Our moral conclusions are no more amenable to review and change than our culinary tastes.  That Haidt largely overlooks the significance of applying reason to moral decision making turns his work, at best, into a recommendation to apologists on how to address and persuade people with different moral perspectives and not an appeal to see past one's own initial moral perspective and to seriously entertain reaching more valid conclusions about moral questions.  Haidt needs to put aside deterministic psychology and take seriously the moral questions we face.  His antipathy to and misunderstanding of normative philosophy makes it unlikely that he will ever do that.