Books,  Culture and Society

A Response to Chris Hedges’ “Retribution for a World Lost in Screens”

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Bob Stein posted a link to Chris Hedges’ essay “Retribution for a World Lost in Screens” on Stein’s Facebook page. I responded, and Stein asked for clarification; this is my attempt to provide a more complete response to Hedges’ piece. I think Hedges is too easily dismissive of “screens,” and, even more importantly, the people behind those screens. I also think his is a tired rehearsal of an old argument that has already proven false. I am far more optimistic about the people of the screen.

Plato asserted that text would destroy memory and lead to the end of civilization, resulting in men who “seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.” While I share Hedge’s sense of impending doom, I think that pointing at the screen as even a contributing factor is daft. I think Hedge’s own isolation and egotism and elitism is fostering his talismanic associations with the printed page. He has created his own fetishistic idol, and his own demons.

For various reasons, I have no talismanic associations with the printed page; my allegiance is to the word, in text, in pictogram, and in the human voice. A book is merely a container for words, for text, for image, and yes, for data. I am about to leave with my partner for a writer’s workshop where there will be writers using pens and notebooks, and MacBooks, and digital styli, and memory to record their impressions of each other’s words, written and spoken, and where they will be interacting with each other one-on-one, in small groups, and over Twitter and text message and email.

We are still tellers of tales; we still experience narrative lust, and joy. We meet face to face through a glass, though it is not dark. My sense of optimism is spurred by several things— first, my experience in the college English lit and comp classroom, before and after the personal computer. I still teach students to read Chaucer aloud in Middle English; they still memorize his words, and those of Donne, and Shakespeare and Frost, and Keats and Monty Python for the sheer joy of it. We still parse text, whether it is rasterized or preserved on vellum, or on a digital reproduction of a manuscript too fragile to share, but which now the world may access.

I am optimistic because I have met life-long friends via the ’net, and we gather together with familiarity and comfort in the flesh, though we meet for the first time in the analog realm. I am optimistic because one of the online communities I belong to has come together to return a member of our community home after she was trapped by Katrina, shepherding her and her cat from one to another, passing her off to her next host and driver, until she and her cat arrived at their home. We have bought roofs, found adoptive parents, critiqued poems and plays and novels, cheered with each acceptance and commiserated with each rejection from a publisher, and mourned as a whole for the loss of a member. We are a community. We are neighbors, separated by miles by brought together via the speed of light.

I am optimistic because we are managing to share scholarship with scholars who are all over the world, affiliated and not, to engage in scholarly community via blogs and online communities. In that first community I mentioned, we have a vibrant politics forum where we require citations and analysis of argument for political discussions, and we have a single cardinal rule, respect for a fellow writer, and a single corollary; don’t be a jerk.

Hedges alludes to the ideal of the padeia, ekstasis, as a thing withering on the digital stalk; I submit that he is missing what blooms around him. Yes, we have have the idols of the tribe, the cave, the marketplace, and of theater; but Bacon’s Four Idols are hardly new. The fault lies not in our screens, but in our thought processes. We have generations who have not been taught to engage with content, to engage with text and image, but the organic ability, nay, the desire and even the compulsion to engage and parse and understand is still there; I submit it is our responsibility to future generations to demonstrate that rhetoric and conversation, whether on the screen or on vellum, still ties us one to another, and that we still have a greater community of shared ideas and ideals; we act like chickens with opposable thumbs, but we can be better.

The emphasis should not be on text in any specific container, but on words and on the ability to understand and communicate and share. The emphasis on the printed page is so misplaced that it should be laughable to any humanist; just as Plato denounced the arrival of text, so to did opponents of the incunabula decry the evolution of the printing press in that it made the luxury of the book affordable. This outcry too is being repeated, with objections to the liquidity of the digital text and the “death of the book.” The assertions about the authority of the codex book disappear for anyone who has ever seen what the early book was like; no word spacing, for one, and no, it was absolutely not linear. Even the early printed book bore with it the assumption of glossing as inherent, of text as conversation, much as the return to hypertext and the networked screen are doing for us now. The book has always been a container; whether the container was made of baked clay, or curling papyrus, or scraped animal hide, or fiber or silicon, the book is just the container; the screen is just a window and of the making of books there is no end.

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