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.
The Future of Reading and Writing
Wed, 2010-08-11 15:56#1
The Future of Reading and Writing