The new search


Jenny Hendrix has a finely measured review of Sven Birkerts’s new book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Digital Age, in Boston Review. Toward the end, before calling for a new poetry, she writes:

The activity conducted in both church and marketplace is a kind of search, which is of course central to what this technology is for: not just Google, but GPS, dating apps, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon—all guide us toward what they think we want. The shift from cathedral to bazaar represents a shift from search as contemplation to search as a way for capitalism to extract value, exploiting information as an energy company might an oil well. … Birkerts’s response is to opt out to the extent that he can. But we might also confront these challenges by encouraging a change in the terms of the search. As I see it, the task of a new Transcendentalism would be less to actively oppose digital technology or save us from it than to, as Rilke put it, “change it into ourselves,” bringing to it the same kind of transformative, sustained attention that the Transcendentalists brought to the natural world.

“Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” Emerson wondered in his introduction to the essay “Nature.” “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition?” One might put the same question to the connected world of today. Most of us will have to use these tools, like it or not; why let someone else decide our relation to them? Transcendentalism was as much about resisting imposed structures of control and interpretation as it was about resisting a mechanized world. Perhaps the role of art now, the way it can best fill the spiritual voids left by our immersion in the digital, is to create for us an “original relation” to it.

The problem with tradition, as Emerson saw it, is that it too easily turns into a vintage clothing shop. We go in and pick up cheap readymades for our minds to wear. (“Why should we … put the living generation into masquerade out of [the past’s] faded wardrobe?”) The problem with escaping tradition is that it can leave us unmoored in the present, our course determined by the whims of the current. You tear down the cathedral only to find that the bazaar is a narrower prison. Before we can establish an original relation to digital technology, it strikes me, we’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with the past that the technology has been designed to hide.