Realism, Idealism and Social Media

by Clay Shirky on March 7, 2011

The debate about social media and autocratic regimes can be (roughly) divided into two camps: idealists and realists. Idealists—my camp—believe social media will, on average, improve leverage for citizens seeking representative government; realists believe it won’t.

Because the events in North Africa and the Middle East are so important, both in themselves and in what they will lead us to expect about the future, I have been reading realist arguments especially closely in this period, and it was in this spirit that I came across Kremlin’s Plan to Prevent a Facebook Revolution, by Andrei Soldatov, an intelligence analyst at Agentura.ru.


I’ll quote its opening two paragraphs:

Recent events in the Arab world have sparked renewed optimism with online social networks. Many in the West are now convinced that Internet technology can create something previously impossible under authoritarian states — a strong opposition that can seize power through either elections or street demonstrations.

But how directly the Internet influenced these events is highly debatable. Many of the Western politicians who hold Twitter in high esteem are, in fact, captives of Cold War thinking, sociologist Evgeny Morozov argues in his recently released book “Net Delusion.” These politicians continue to believe that democracy will prevail whenever the people beyond the Iron Curtain gain access to free information.

What interests me about Kremlin’s Plan is that, although it makes a nod to Tunisia and Egypt, it doesn’t seem to internalize anything from those events. It could have been written last year, and then simply updated to acknowledge those revolutions, without changing another word of the text.

As a result, the piece illustrates two anachronisms that have appeared in some realist arguments after Ben Ali and Mubarak’s departures: continued faith in the apolitical nature of internet use, and incompatible views on the response of autocrats to social media.

The lesser of these appears at the end of the piece:

Meanwhile, Russia’s 40 million Internet users — the country’s middle class and most active segment of the population — have shown remarkably little interest in this political struggle. This means that the Kremlin’s battle to prevent an imminent Facebook
revolution will remain largely virtual.

The unpoliticized nature of Russian internet use is presented as evidence of its political inertness. The underlying observation is correct, of course; young people the world over typically don’t use the internet for political activism, but to seek employment or distraction. This is then assumed to be evidence that these same young people are inherently apolitical. The second assumption doesn’t follow from the first, however, as illustrated by the events in Tunisia.

Prior to December 18th, Tunisia’s 2.8 million internet users—the country’s middle class and most active segment of the population—had shown remarkably little interest in political struggle there either, and that country subsequently underwent as thorough a
revolution as has been seen in the region since 1979, one in which the organizers both used and credited social media (principally camera phones and social networks) as effective in aiding Ben Ali’s overthrow.

I blame academia for planting the notion that people either are or are not political, and that we can read that aspect of their identity from their daily practice. Because universities put the PoliSci department down the street from Economics and all the way across the quad from Media Studies, we encourage people to think these are actually separate things. Meanwhile, out in the real world, they are all mixed up; you could ask whether an unemployed protester joining her friends to march on Parliament is making an economic, social, or political choice, but the answer would be “Yes.”

The North African revolutions and remind us that citizens aren’t so much political or apolitical as they are politicized or unpoliticized at any given moment; even people who don’t like discussing politics in their spare time can turn out in the Tahrir Square when the serious business starts.

The second tension in Kremlin’s Plan is more far reaching:

[L]eading Western media outlets can’t stop glorifying the Internet and social networks as the new tools for empowering grassroots resistance movements. … As President Dmitry Medvedev said last week in Vladikavkaz: “Let’s face the truth. They have been preparing such a scenario for us, and now they will try even harder to
implement it.”

Medvedev’s reaction shows that the Kremlin is taking the threat very seriously.

If many in the West wrongly believe that communications tools affect political action, then what are we to make of Medvedev’s taking the threat “very seriously”? That he too is an idiot? Alternatively, if Medvedev is the model of a successful autocrat, shouldn’t we trust him to know a threat when he sees one? And isn’t his reaction therefore evidence that social media is a threat?

This tension—“Social media is unimportant, and the autocrats are responding ferociously”—appears throughout:

As mass unrest continues to shake authoritarian states in North Africa and the Middle East, the siloviki [politicians tied to Russian military or security forces] are pushing for the registration of social network users and waiting to pounce on anyone posting an extremist message and the Kremlin is funding pro-government bloggers. This will inevitably be interpreted by analysts as a new political battle between the government against the opposition.

Speaking as one of those analysts, I can confirm that yes, it is indeed inevitable that when Russian authorities push to curtail political use of the internet, we will interpret this as a battle between the government and the opposition. This, I would offer, is because such a move obviously is part of such a battle.

The realist position is clearly correct in some cases—autocracies do adapt to new threats, and even an idea whose time has come doesn’t arrive everywhere all at once. In the short term, most of the world’s autocratic regimes will survive the current wave of protest, and in
the long term we don’t yet know whether digital tools will help create a deep shift towards representative government, as the printing press did, or if they will prove to be relatively shallow and easily domesticated, as terrestrial television was.

What I think we can now set aside, though, are the anachronistic parts of Kremlin’s Plan. There were never good theoretical reasons to believe that unpolitical use of the internet means apolitical users; now we have practical reminders that people can become
politicized when the times call for it. The causes of this shift will be debated for decades: maybe it came from people revealing hidden preferences, or from collective action being aided by information cascades, or the invention of new narratives incompatible with current
realities. The fact of the shift, however, won’t be debated.

Similarly, the self-contradicting assertion that social media isn’t a threat and that smart autocrats are working ever harder to combat it, can, I think, be laid to rest. However much Medvedev’s response to the threat changes outcomes in Russia, he is at least correct to be
worried. The best reason to believe that social media can help synchronize and coordinate insurgent action against autocrats is that both the insurgents and autocrats believe that, beliefs that seem to be strengthening on both sides as real-world evidence mounts.

{ 88 comments }

1

Jay 03.07.11 at 5:06 pm

I’d call myself a cynic, then, because I think that ultimately the political effect of computers will be bad for freedom. I get depressed just thinking about what a clever tyrant could do with the internet. Ankle bracelets for everyone, for a start.

2

Pete 03.07.11 at 5:34 pm

Jay: never overestimate the reliability of technology, especially when people have a vested interest in breaking it.

3

geo 03.07.11 at 5:37 pm

Slightly off-topic: Clay, you are quoted in the current London Review of Books as saying: “No one reads War and Peace . The reading public has increasingly decided that Tolstoy’s sacred work isn’t actually worth the time it takes to read it.” How, after learning this, have you avoided becoming suicidal? Or have you?

4

Hidari 03.07.11 at 5:51 pm

‘What interests me about Kremlin’s Plan is that, although it makes a nod to Tunisia and Egypt, it doesn’t seem to internalize anything from those events. It could have been written last year, and then simply updated to acknowledge those revolutions, without changing another word of the text.’

And quite right too. The situation in the Middle East is completely different from that in Russia: indeed, the two situations could not be more
different.

The reason why is given in this quote from the article linked to:

‘This project was organized by the Foundation for Effective Policy, a think tank run by Kremlin-friendly political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky. Judging by the courses it offers — such as “Velvet Revolutions: A Warning” — the group is charged with a single overriding task: to resist the “subversive activity” of the West.’ (emphasis added).

5

tomslee 03.07.11 at 6:14 pm

Well, western music is banned in Iran, but I don’t think that Elton John “on average, improve[s] leverage for citizens seeking representative government”.

All sorts of activities that involve people gathering together, talking together, signalling subversive beliefs, or travelling from place to place to meet each other get banned under repressive regimes, especially in uncertain times. I think what this tells us is that gathering and free expression can, under the right circumstances, be a threat to a weak regime, which is not the same as “social media will, on average, improve leverage for citizens seeking representative government”.

I do agree that “social media isn’t a threat and that smart autocrats are working ever harder to combat it” is contradictory, up to a point. But that leaves a spectrum of possibilities from an autocrat’s point of view:

1. social media is not a threat under any circumstances (ruled out)

2. social media, possibly along with many other things, can be used to create trouble under some circumstances. And it’s easy to shut down, so we’ll do it.

3. social media is particularly well suited to create trouble, so we’ll scramble to do what we can to stop it.

I think you’ve shown (2), but are claiming (3).

Plus, I believe Andrew Marr reads War and Peace every year, so there’s that.

6

hartal 03.07.11 at 6:14 pm

There was a sympathetic review in the Nation of the Net Delusion; the review was presented as a a criticism of your (Clay Shirky’s) work. New to the debate. Any comments on the Net Delusion?

7

chris 03.07.11 at 6:33 pm

Pete: never overestimate human beings’ objection to tyranny, especially when sufficiently many of them have vested interests in serving it.

The technology will work about as well as the humans responsible for making it work make it work. But what will the motivations of the relevant humans be? Internet libertarian fantasies of hacker-genius-rebels notwithstanding, there’s no reason the same person can’t be both a competent technician and a supporter of a police state. In which case they may very well tell the jackbooted thugs, accurately, what the hacker-genius-rebel has done lately and where to find him.

8

Clay Shirky 03.07.11 at 9:00 pm

@TomSlee (#5), that’s a fair cop; I don’t mean, in this piece, to be claiming #3, but rather to be noting that much of the debate so far has involved whether #1 can be ruled out or not, and it was interesting to me to read a “realist” view (now in quotes, for the obvious reason) that did not seem to rule out #1, despite what looks like pretty good evidence.

The argument about whether this is #2 or #3 (or #2.5a, “especially pernicious/easy to stop” or #2.5b, “ordinary threat, but hard to stop”) could be pursued in a couple of ways.

One would be to show that a) the kinds of synchronization and coordination required in the face of contemporary modes of repression are uniquely well supported by mobile phones, social networks, and low-cost publishing platforms, b) that these tools are better suited to those tasks than other communications tools (printing presses, terrestrial TV, the post office, etc), and that c) the State’s tools of surveillance, propaganda, censorship, and shutdown (essentially the limit case of censorship) are, on average, ineffective in the long term.

Another way would be to show that in these revolutions and uprisings, the battle between insurgents and regimes centered on access to these tools, and that the outcomes mattered for the conduct of the uprising, in mode, tempo, and outcome.

Here I’m just concerned with how the realist argument has or hasn’t changed in light of the events of Dec. 17 and after, but in the larger scheme of things, I believe…

– #1a provisionally. (I think in particular that the information cascade model, joined with your observation about cultural narrative, is an approximation of The Right Answer).
– #1b absolutely. The synchronization and coordination offered by these tools is more significant than that offered by either land-line phones, mobile phones without group communications infrastructure linking them, and anything having to do with (usually state controlled) TV, radio or the presses.
– #1c can’t yet be examined. These fights are always arms races — Solidarity would have been doomed against the Polish Government if all the strikers had were the tools of 1848. So we don’t yet know of the two successful revolutions were anomalies or precursors.

Argument #2, of course, will have to wait until the current wave of unrest has settled to see how the world’s autocrats fared.

9

Clay Shirky 03.07.11 at 9:25 pm

@Hartal, the Shorter Shirky on Net Delusion is one of the closing paragraphs in the piece here:

“The realist position is clearly correct in some cases—autocracies do adapt to new threats, and even an idea whose time has come doesn’t arrive everywhere all at once. In the short term, most of the world’s autocratic regimes will survive the current wave of protest, and in the long term we don’t yet know whether digital tools will help create a deep shift towards representative government, as the printing press did, or if they will prove to be relatively shallow and easily domesticated, as terrestrial television was.”

As @TomSlee noted, above, the question of whether these tools have at least some political utility can be ruled out; even Morosov has now said that the utility of these tools is “a settled issue. I also think the “young people watching porn and playing games never become protesters” idea is settled.

The longer term question is whether we will see only Tunisia and Egypt use these tools before autocracies adapt, so in the Autocracy column, we get Status Quo Minus Two (that’s the television analogy), or if there is some reason to think that these kinds of tools make it permanently costly for autocracies either to either embrace and control, or to simply forgo, their use, thus changing the equilibrium state in ways that are adverse for many autocracies (the printing press analogy.)

And as for Morosov’s work being a reply to mine, it is in a way, as is the Nation review, but whenever I read about the scourge of cyberutopianism, of which I am evidently the #1 perpetrator, I wonder what these authors think a merely optimistic account of the internet’s effect on society would be like?

If there is no way to argue that the internet will, on balance, have positive effects for society, then “cyberutopian” just becomes a judgmental synonym for someone who thinks the internet may be a good thing, making that label a strategy not for hashing out differences in opinion but for ending the conversation altogether (similar to ahistorical uses of the word Luddite, in the opposite direction.)

(And @geo, we got used to no one reading Ovid, Chaucer, and Marvel, so we’ll pull through this as well.)

10

geo 03.07.11 at 9:45 pm

Dear Clay,

Have you gotten used to it?

geo

11

Dan 03.07.11 at 9:49 pm

Whether autocracies can get the upper hand is going to be determined partly by the technical means at their disposal.

China’s exports of surveillance equipment have already been getting intermittent attention, including from Naomi Klein.

I’m sure we’ll see much more of this in the next couple of years. If you were an oil-rich despot, wouldn’t you be splashing out on the best filters money can buy?

12

Dan 03.07.11 at 10:05 pm

and specifically to Russia…
Political blogging has been very big in Russia for a very long time. It’s a much more significant force than in any Western European country I know of. Granted, that’s partly a case of critical writers, unable to find positions in government or the mainstream media, turning to the internet instead.

Still, the sheer size of the ecosystem (and the fact that the political blends into the general-interest blogging) means that, should an issue ever come up that resonates widely enough, it really has potential to go somewhere.

I wouldn’t bet which direction it’d send things, though. The spark could equally come from a (Soros-funded) liberal or from an out-and-out racist. Both those poles (and many others) have serious networks behind them.

Global Voices is, of course, the place to look if you’re interested in what’s happening day by day.

13

Clay Shirky 03.07.11 at 10:43 pm

@Dan, Berkman had an excellent study of the Russian blogosphere, here:
http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/node/6427

@Geo, I’ve been used to people not reading Tolstoy all my life, as I grew up in the Midwest.

14

Andrei Soldatov 03.07.11 at 11:03 pm

Dear Clay, I wish to be equally optimistic about the notion that “people who don’t like discussing politics in their spare time can turn out in the Tahrir Square when the serious business starts.” However, the recent Russian experience shows no evidence of that – when people deprived of their apartments started to protest it never lead to anything political – they carefully avoided political demands. The same happened with environmental activists concerned over the Khimki forest – so far they are not ready to turn to more abstract agenda.
But what I think the most important point in your criticism is your notion that “the self-contradicting assertion that social media isn’t a threat and that smart autocrats are working ever harder to combat it, can, I think, be laid to rest. “
In my opinion, the weakest point here is the assumption that Medvedev is the “smart autocrat” and particularly good in correctly assessing threats to political stability. There is no evidence to support it – so far there are no proofs Medvedev succeeded to deal with the crises (political, economic or in security) he faced during his presidential term.

15

geo 03.07.11 at 11:21 pm

Not many people read Tolstoy, Ovid, Chaucer, or Marvell in East Boston (the working-class neighborhood where I grew up), either. But if I thought those writers, and the rest of the great literature for which their names are standing in here, were no longer read by a lot of people in our culture, and recognized by most of the rest as something infinitely precious, supremely valuable, even if beyond their own reach — something like, say, understanding higher mathematics or attaining enlightenment or being deliriously happy in love one’s whole life or saving thousands of other people’s lives through many acts of sustained heroism — then no, I don’t think I could get over it — not as easily as you seem to have, at any rate. I suspect most people reading Crooked Timber couldn’t, either.

Do, I beseech you, think a little more about the matter, off-thread.

16

Clay Shirky 03.07.11 at 11:53 pm

@Andrei, the assessment that Medvedev is well-positioned to deal with the threat that social media poses is in the original piece — the point I’m making is that ‘inert media, furious reaction, smart autocrat’ is a “Pick Two” situation, and the author didn’t pick.

As for “No evidence”, there wasn’t any evidence in Tunisia either, until there was. The state can make it very expensive to reveal preferences in all kinds of ways — this is not to say that an autocracy can’t keep those costs so high that political will for change _never_ synchronizes (for timeframes long enough to count as “never” in international politics — decades, say). It is to say that any given failure of the protestors to force change is evidence that the State has succeeded in seeing off the threat, but not that the population will always be quiescent.

17

Clay Shirky 03.08.11 at 12:05 am

@geo(rge), responding in a different comment, because of the length.

I think it is _precisely_ the case that Tolstoy, as the avatar of the class of creators you identify generally, is increasingly less “recognized by most of the rest as something infinitely precious, supremely valuable, even if beyond their own reach…” The broader thesis of the argument LRB is quoting from is that much of the current cultural anxiety about the internet is that, although the actual number of people reading Tolstoy is probably not falling much (as documented elsewhere on CT, Humanities majors, as a precent of college graduates, fell to something like 8% some time ago, and is now actually pretty steady), it is increasingly less the case that the people not reading Tolstoy can be convinced that they should feel bad about not reading Tolstoy et al., or that they should be impressed with people who do.

Put another way, appreciation of High European culture is becoming something like Civil War re-enactment — it’s enjoyable for the people who do it, but does not seem to be creating much curiosity or envy in the people who prefer doing other things with their free time.

This doesn’t much bother me (and I’m a card-carrying member of the affected group, in a “My beach reading is Richard Rorty” kind of way), and if it bothers you, I’ve got a feeling you’re going to be in for a pretty big disappointment as the actual behaviors of American citizens becomes increasingly visible online.

18

Brendan Taylor 03.08.11 at 1:20 am

I think the question of how social media will affect politics (in the future, on average) is silly. A bit like asking (in the early 20th) whether telephones will be good for representative government on average. Worse, because “social media” is such a broad term.

The way to ensure that social media will have positive effects is not to assert that it will (as so many social media theorists are wont to do), but to learn how to effectively use it in positive ways.

19

tomslee 03.08.11 at 1:32 am

Going back to Clay at #8. My own “realist” position has changed somewhat in the light of Egypt, and others with more clout (Evgeny Morozov) have, as you note, also acknowledged the role that social networking played. But to some extent the realist position has been as distorted as the “utopian” position, in that it’s not all “Internets? Oh Noes!” From what I can see the realist adjustment is not so dissimilar to the utopian adjustment following the crackdown in Iran.

On 1b: “that [digital/social media] tools are better suited to those tasks [coordination required in the face of repression] than other communications tools”. We’ll have to see, of course, but it looks to me that Egypt was a special case in that it was open enough for Facebook to be very widely used among a young and rebellious demographic (and still very new, so not yet regulated).

The fact that all the major social networking platforms have become centralized and commercialized over the last three years makes them much easier for states to control, and yet (speculation) their architecture seems inevitable for a truly mainstream service. So either tools will be decentralized and not mainstream, or mainstream and not decentralized, and neither path looks very promising for large scale dissent (although both have their uses).

But then, I didn’t think the Irish cricket team had a chance against England, either.

20

Brendan Taylor 03.08.11 at 1:43 am

I think the question of how social media will affect politics (in the future, on average) is silly. A bit like asking (in the early 20th) whether telephones will be good for representative government on average. Worse, because “social media” is such a broad term.

The way to ensure that social media will have positive effects is not to assert that it will (which is all I ever hear of from social media theorists), but to learn how to effectively use it in positive ways.

21

geo 03.08.11 at 2:23 am

This doesn’t much bother me

That’s what I can’t get over.

22

gmoke 03.08.11 at 3:26 am

Well, I’ve read Ovid, Chaucer, Marvell, and Tolstoy – including the later political/religious works. In fact, I’m thinking about giving Chaucer another go and, now that you mention it, both Marvell and Ovid deserve additional readings too.

I answer the phone “NSA is still listening and so am I” so am not particularly rosy about the “technologies of freedom.” The rumor that Belarus collected cell phone GPS data after demos and that the Russians are planning to do the same on an ongoing basis must give one pause.

However, it is interesting to see that some folks are thinking about building a network that is free from both government and corporate control. A collection of the initiatives I know of appears at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/03/03/951845/-Can-We-Build-a-Peoples-Internet

If you have some time next time you come through Cambridge, Clay, please give me a call.

23

nick 03.08.11 at 3:54 am

@geo–

I’ve got a lit PhD, and think of myself as not unsympathetic to big claims for High Culture, but the only difference between my position and Clay’s is that I will admit to the occasional nostalgic twinge.

Try the first chapter of John Guillory’s _Cultural Capital_ for an immensely well-informed argument that the state of affairs you imagine as intolerable has already come about: in essence, that such a state became inevitable once literature lost its central position in the cultural education of the national bourgeoisie (two big steps: the decline of classical literacy, and the gradual removal of literary texts from the vernacular rhetoric/expository writing canon.)

If Clay were to argue that the Internet has caused the decline of High Culture, I’d differ with him–but I don’t think he does….

24

Luke Schubert 03.08.11 at 4:19 am

@tomslee: I haven’t heard anything about Elton John’s influence in Iran, but rock music was important in Communist Czechslovakia.

From Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Plastic_People_of_the_Universe
“Bassist Milan Hlavsa formed the band which was heavily influenced by Frank Zappa (Plastic People being a song by Zappa and the Mothers of Invention) and the Velvet Underground in 1968.”

“They were convicted of “organized disturbance of the peace” and sentenced to terms in prison ranging from 8 to 18 months. Paul Wilson was deported even though he had left the band in 1972. It was in protest of these arrests and prosecution that led playwright Václav Havel and others to write the Charter 77.”

(This is also mentioned in Havel’s book, “Disturbing the Peace”.)

25

Paul Montgomery 03.08.11 at 5:12 am

Seems to me that the main “captives of cold war thinking” are in the Kremlin. They are still in the 1980s mindset of the Western media being a tool of the US government and running an aligned agenda to influence foreign politics. Yet the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were not fomented at all by Western influence, they were entirely domestic in origin (from what I have read). Many commentators have been bemoaning the lack of Western contribution and reaction to these events.

One might surmise that the autocrats are trying to justify their continued employment by creating false boogeymen to fight. That is pure Cold War thinking.

26

geo 03.08.11 at 6:08 am

Thanks, Nick, I’ll look at Guillory. But I’m not suggesting that a decline in the centrality or prestige of high culture isn’t happening. It does seem to be happening — and to be accelerated by the Internet. I’m simply pointing out that it is intolerable, and registering my amazement that Clay — or anyone — could be fine with it. It may be necessary some day (many centuries hence, I would suppose) to leave Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, et al behind, in the dimness of primeval cultural memory, because we will have achieved/become something incomparably richer and larger as a civilization and a species. But anyone who thinks we’re ready to do that now seems to me … well, not to have a very good grasp of his or her cultural priorities, to put it as mildly as I can.

27

Alex 03.08.11 at 10:02 am

Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Politics is very good on Russian regime use of the Internet, specifically talking-points distribution, leaking of kompromat’, and organised trolls, both straight and concern-trolls or false flags. Arguably, Gleb Pavlovsky was ahead of everyone else about this, running Putin’s campaign for president and war with Chechnya in 1999-2000 while there really wasn’t much elsewhere beyond Drudge and Media Whores Online.

But then, that’s the state of the art from Bush-Cheney ’04. How well will it work in 2011?

28

Alex 03.08.11 at 10:03 am

To clarify, I consider Bush ’04 to be the historic high point so far of reactionary Internet politics, a full scale implementation of the Pavlovsky playbook.

29

Hidari 03.08.11 at 10:31 am

In terms of the ‘cultural decline’ thesis, there was an interview recently with Luke Haines (whose book ‘Bad Vibes’ is recommended if you are a bitter, twisted, middle aged failure who hates everything, much like myself). The interviewer asked him: ‘What do you think of modern life?’. To which Haines replied ‘It’s actually pretty good, as long as you don’t read any newspapers or magazines, listen to the radio, watch any TV or switch on a computer.’ I think this is quite a profound answer, and I don’t think he was being ironic. As long as you don’t expose yourself to what Adorno called ‘the culture industry’, modern life actually is pretty good (as long as you are white, middle class, and have enough money, generally). It’s all the extraneous bullshit that makes it unbearable (or at least highly annoying).

I speak as a self-proclaimed reactionary pretentious elitist (and proud of it!).

30

F. Blair 03.08.11 at 12:11 pm

“To which Haines replied ‘It’s actually pretty good, as long as you don’t read any newspapers or magazines, listen to the radio, watch any TV or switch on a computer.’”

It’s true. Think how much better off, smarter, and more literate a person would be who’d never seen “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights,” “The Singing Detective,” or “Breaking Bad.”

31

Hidari 03.08.11 at 2:08 pm

FWIW I have tracked down the quote. Significantly it’s about modern Britain not modern life (as I had remembered it).

‘What is your take on modern Britain?

As long as you don’t turn on the TV, don’t listen to the radio, don’t open a newspaper and don’t turn on a computer then ‘modern’ Britain is just fine. Restoring the three tier class system where everyone knew their place obviously wouldn’t go amiss, but joking aside, we live in a super accelerated culture and media that scatterguns duff info about like bullets at a high school massacre. I tend to think that most information disseminated through the media is untrue, not in a paranoid Thom Yorke ‘the government are out to kill us ’ kind of way, just in the constant trickle of inaccurate news and pointless opinion. The current recession wasn’t caused entirely by banks — it was caused by people wasting time at work, looking at the internet, writing inane comments about stuff they actually don’t care about.’

The irony of me posting this last sentence on a blog is as bleakly apparent to me as it is to everyone else.

32

belle le triste 03.08.11 at 2:30 pm

Actually the recession was caused by a glut of failed pop-stars.

33

Aaron Eden 03.08.11 at 2:32 pm

Let’s just say that what’s happening in the real world is gossip and social networking sites help spread the word faster. People don’t realize that they have a tremendous power when they move in numbers and speak as one. Social networking sites help them do so faster and yes, like any other tools – it can be used for something bad or for a good cause. One should not blame social networking sites for people’s revolution these days… just take for instance the French Revolution centuries ago – when people are wanting change, they’ll unite – with technology or none.

34

Paul C 03.08.11 at 2:45 pm

“The broader thesis of the argument LRB is quoting from is that much of the current cultural anxiety about the internet is that, although the actual number of people reading Tolstoy is probably not falling much… it is increasingly less the case that the people not reading Tolstoy can be convinced that they should feel bad about not reading Tolstoy et al., or that they should be impressed with people who do.”

Possibly the cultural anxiety about the internet is that public discourse is increasingly dominated by sweeping statements for which the evidence base is virtually non-existent in the service of arguments which are promotional leaflets rather than useful debate. Or maybe that’s just me.

35

Hidari 03.08.11 at 2:50 pm

‘Actually the recession was caused by a glut of failed pop-stars.’

Well if David Hasselhoff brought down the Berlin Wall I suppose anything is possible.

36

Hidari 03.08.11 at 2:59 pm

Actually on a more serious note and replying to the implicit argument of comment 17, here’s a piece from the New York Times, worth reading in its entirety, which deals with these issues, what seems to me to be the most important parts highlighted.

‘A curious op-ed article (was) published on Jan. 6 in The Boston Globe, in which Neal Gabler, a biographer of Walt Disney and a historian of Hollywood (as well as a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication ) heralds “The End of Cultural Elitism.” “Tastemakers beware,” the subhead warns, “the audience is no longer interested in your opinion.”

What? Say it ain’t so! Mr. Gabler begins with the assertion that, “as anyone who has ever wiggled in his seat at a classical music concert or stared in disbelief at a work of conceptual art can attest, culture in America has usually been imposed from the top down.” And what about the vastly larger segment of the population who avoid such egghead pastimes altogether? They are the heroes of Mr. Gabler’s article, which is about how an anonymous band of “democrats” overthrew the forces of “official” culture as embodied by “media executives, academics, elite tastemakers and of course critics.”

These people, also characterized as “cultural imperialists” and “commissars,” have conducted a long and tireless campaign to force everyone else to look at conceptual art and go to classical music. “For over 200 years,” Mr. Gabler writes, “normal Americans have longed to exercise their independence and free themselves form the tyranny of the elitists.” And now, apparently, that nightmare of oppression is over.

Thank the Internet, on which sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Ain’t it Cool News exert a populist influence greater than that of the old elites and equivalent to the grass-roots democracy of “American Idol.” If those examples seem a little dated, Mr. Gabler has newer evidence to cite his implication that 2010 will join 1848 and 1989 as a banner year in the annals of revolution….

The virtue of Mr. Gabler’s essay is that it gives energetic and eloquent voice to a pervasive ideological fantasy. None of the “commissars” and “imperialists” in his tableau of cultural dictatorship are named, and that is for the simple reason they are imaginary creatures. I don’t mean like straw men erected for purposes of debate, but instead like ogres and dragons invented to scare children. But belief in these monsters is remarkably widespread, in part because they answer the need for scapegoats, and no one is easier to blame these days than “elitists” of various kinds.

Ignoring their instructions thus becomes a heroic assertion of liberty, a way of striking out against illegitimate and arrogant authority. But who are we kidding? There is very little in cultural life that is easier than ignoring what critics have to say, and for more than 200 years normal Americans have been doing just that. And critics, for the most part, have accepted that, since virtually none of us is actually motivated by the urge to tell other people what to do.

Speaking personally, but also out of a deep and longstanding engagement with the history and procedures of my profession, I have to say that the goal of criticism has never been to control or reflect the public taste — neither thing is possible — but rather the simpler (but also infinitely difficult) work of analyzing and evaluating works of art as honestly and independently as possible.

I’ll get right back to that, I promise. But let me cede a point to Mr. Gabler, who has in other writings contributed a great deal to my understanding of the history of American popular culture, Hollywood in particular. There is a cultural elite, in America, which tries its utmost to manipulate the habits and tastes of consumers. It consists of the corporations who sell nearly everything with the possible exception of classical music and conceptual arts, and while its methods include some of the publicity-driven hype that finds its way into newspapers, magazines and other traditional media, its main tool is not criticism but marketing.

And an especially effective marketing ploy has always been the direct appeal, over the heads of supposed experts and fuddy-duds, to the consumer. Make-believe elites — which is to say independent voices in the public sphere, whatever the terms of their employment or the shape of their sensibilities— disrupt the perfect union of buyer and seller. No pesky commissars prodding and scolding, just a bunch of people doing what they want, which coincidentally happens to be what the companies with the biggest advertising budgets want them to do. No argument, no debate, no chance of wiggling through something you don’t like or staring at something you don’t understand. Freedom!’

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/movies/16scott.html?_r=4

37

Walt 03.08.11 at 3:00 pm

Increasingly dominated? Clearly you don’t remember the good old days.

38

chris 03.08.11 at 3:02 pm

@geo: But hasn’t the same thing already happened to opera, theater, and classical music? The skies have not fallen, as far as I can tell.

Your concern seems to have a tinge of “you kids these days and your darn internets, get off my lawn!”. Perhaps because it so strongly resembles similar complaints by practically every generation in human history.

39

Henry 03.08.11 at 3:10 pm

bq. FWIW I have tracked down the quote.

Surely though the best recent Luke Haines interview has to be this one for the “sorry sunshine” quote alone. I’ve always been fond of his work (‘After Murder Park’ in particular) – if as belle le triste says, he’s a failure, he’s certainly a very successful one.

40

Ben King 03.08.11 at 3:24 pm

Im geting bored of this debate. Instead of focusing on the particular content of societies emergent properties, why not look at the bigger picture? Trace it all the way back and it is clear, simply through cause and effect and simple, evolutionary axioms, that communication technology and imagined identity are causally linked. There is an attractor, our shared reality, that because of the now global, democratic production of culture/identity, is forging a global identity based on the common. Yes the Internet will overthrow previous power structure of religion, state and commerce; communication technology is the only thing that can, and ever has.

http://grimeandreason.blogspot.com/2011/02/internet-global-identity-and-overthrow.html

41

bob mcmanus 03.08.11 at 3:42 pm

@geo:Surprise!

Nietzsche’s “Last Man”, George, is us. From Wiki:

“a weak-willed individual, one who is tired of life, takes no risks, seeks only comfort and security”

“an apathetic creature, who has no great passion or commitment, who is unable to dream, who merely earns his living and keeps warm.”

We can no longer bear to look at nobility, and view the last 3-4 millenia of culture with horror and shame disguised in ressentiment. Aeschylus, Murasaki, Shakespeare, Jefferson, even Lenin are just so wicked and ugly compared to our liberated, peaceful, democratic, egalitarian selves. Ewww…

Nietzsche saw us, and went mad.

42

geo 03.08.11 at 3:43 pm

Paul @34: Look at Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies for the argument in its pure form. Though your reference to the lack of an “evidence base” suggests that there’s not much likelihood of a meeting of the minds between the two of you.

chris @37: No, the skies won’t fall. It won’t be a catastrophic change. It will be a gradual, molecular hollowing or flattening out of the sensibilities of educated people. If you think, for example, that the disappearance of Mozart and Keats from the experience and mental horizon of most educated people wouldn’t make their verbal imagination and prose style less graceful, supple, and sensuous, then you should think again.

43

Henry 03.08.11 at 3:46 pm

And on the main point – for my money, the best classic formulation of George’s complaint is Randall Jarrell’s A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (requires JSTOR access). I feel some sympathy with it – but I think there are two slightly different questions at play here. One is whether there is still the opportunity for those who want to read _War and Piece_ to read works like _War and Piece_ (and perhaps to discuss it with others who enjoy it). Here, new technologies have both positive and negative effects. They may make it less likely that people will read complex works by offering distractions, but they afford new social possibilities to those who do (one does not need to live in a major metropolis any more to engage in conversation, or to easily find literature). The other is whether it is a good thing that certain complex works of literature have high cultural prestige attached to them, and whether new communication technologies lower that prestige. Even if this is true, it is less problematic (for me) – to the extent that the value of works like _War and Peace_ is inherent to the cultural objects themselves, it is not necessarily troublesome that they have lower prestige in the general culture. There are of course practical considerations – if there is less cultural prestige attached to them, possibly fewer people will read them. But they will also be more widely and readily available to those who genuinely want to read and enjoy them (the marginal cost of getting an out-of-copyright version of War and Peace from Project Gutenberg is now zero).

If I were pushed to engage in half-arsed speculation, I would hazard the prediction that ubiquitous information technologies are going to mean that canonical works like _War and Peace_ will be less read than they otherwise would be. A lot of people read the canon because it is the canon – and that is not at all entirely a bad thing. The canon, for all its problems, serves a useful role as a kind of coordination point for culturally valuable material. However, I would also guess that non-canonical work of cultural worth will be a little more likely to be read than it would be otherwise. This is not a Chris Anderson ‘long tail’ argument – I’m not suggesting at all that this work will predominate – but that it will be a little easier to find for those who want to find it than it used to be. I would further speculate that work which can generate or be adopted readily by some sort of online community will do better than work which cannot. Some of this work will be valuable, complex and interesting, some not so much.

44

Paul C 03.08.11 at 4:08 pm

Geo: just to be clear, my reference to the lack of an evidence base is primarily around the claims made about the role of technology in society in this discussion, rather than the popularity of War and Peace. My point being that I don’t think Shirky has much evidence, if any, for either.

This is confirmed by the fact that in this article (http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2008/07/why-abundance-is-good-a-reply-to-nick-carr/) he said: “no one reads War and Peace”. In this guest post, he says: “…although the actual number of people reading Tolstoy is probably not falling much”.

45

dsquared 03.08.11 at 4:46 pm

Tolstoy, Ovid, Chaucer, or Marvell

For some reason, when people put together these lists of the crowning achievements of western culture, they always give the game away by including their favourite metaphysical poet (as with British Education Secretary Gove, who included Dryden). Marvell’s really not a first division galactico of English literature. He fell into obscurity for more or less a century, and was brought back when TS Eliot decided to recruit him as a predecessor. These things do go in and out of fashion.

46

chris 03.08.11 at 5:01 pm

@geo 41: It’s not a disappearance, it’s a displacement (or perhaps even more accurately, a dispersion of different sub-audiences to different places on a vastly larger cultural landscape). You may not like new culture as much as old culture, but insisting that everyone else should share your tastes seems pointless, at best.

@bob 40: Truly, you have admirably summed up why a heroic narrative like _Harry Potter_ or _Iron Man_ couldn’t possibly succeed with modern audiences. We just have no taste for struggles between good and evil anymore.

47

geo 03.08.11 at 5:30 pm

Thanks, Paul, sorry I jumped the gun.

Unlike Henry, I don’t have to be pushed to engage in half-arsed spectulation. In fact, I need to be forcibly restrained from doing so to the exclusion of everything else. So here goes.

Birkerts’s argument (which I follow) is wholly qualitative. It’s not a matter of how many people are reading War and Peace, or in what format, or at how many words per minute. It’s a question of what kinds of reading experience, of imaginative engagement, are available in different environments. In a (compared to us) slow-moving environment with moderate amounts of stimulation, it is possible to lose oneself in deep, intricate verbal (musical, visual) texts, to glimpse new textures, architectures, and temporal orders, to emerge with one’s identity and sensorium slightly but significantly altered. The grain, rhythms, and topography of one’s imagination are subtly reshaped. You’ve been stopped in your tracks, hit by a lightning bolt, the world looks different. It’s a transcendental experience — not the only kind, but the highest quality such experience humans have attained so far. The Jupiter Symphony, Keats’s odes, Joyce in “The Dead,” Lawrence on birds, beasts, and flowers — it doesn’t get any better.

What we declinists fear is that in a fast-moving environment with excessive amounts of stimulation, the intensity of attention that’s necessary to absorb (never mind produce) such work gradually becomes harder to summon up. Compared with the easy, bite-sized treats continuously on offer, it just seems like too much effort. We lose the desire, then the ability; eventually the aesthetic imagination atrophies. We turn, culturally, into a version of the population of the spaceship in Wall-E.

Would that be bad? I can’t prove it. They seemed happy.

48

bianca steele 03.08.11 at 5:40 pm

geo,
Would you be happy if people read the classics but not in a way Sven Birkerts approves? Would you be happy if they read Tolstoy but not Franzen, Lethem, and McEwan? Those three, but not Tolstoy? If they liked Zola but thought Tolstoy was crap and didn’t hesitate to say it?

49

engels 03.08.11 at 5:44 pm

Would you be happy if they read Tolstoy but not Franzen, Lethem, and McEwan?

I can’t speak for anyone else but personally I’d be positively ecstatic.

50

Myles 03.08.11 at 5:46 pm

I can’t speak for anyone else but personally I’d be positively ecstatic.

I really can’t see what you’ve got against Franzen. He’s a fine writer.

51

Myles 03.08.11 at 5:47 pm

(I have to think that part of the popular Franzen-bashing is sheer snobbery toward his not being avant-garde.)

52

Hidari 03.08.11 at 6:00 pm

53

JP Stormcrow 03.08.11 at 6:19 pm

We turn, culturally, into a version of the population of the spaceship in Wall-E.

Thanks for coarsening it down for us, if you had used “lotus-eaters” hardly anyone would have gotten it.

54

geo 03.08.11 at 6:24 pm

bianca: Would you be happy if people read the classics but not in a way Sven Birkerts approves?

I’d have to check with Birkerts.

55

bianca steele 03.08.11 at 6:37 pm

Okay, what if they read Tolstoy and Neal Stephenson but wouldn’t read Franzen or any other contemporary “literary” authors because they tried that minimalist, or pomo, or whatever junk a few times in their twenties and got nothing out of it?

56

chris 03.08.11 at 7:02 pm

It’s a transcendental experience—not the only kind, but the highest quality such experience humans have attained so far.

Y0u do recognize that that is an opinion, one might even say a value judgment, and not a matter of objective fact on which you can reasonably expect to dictate to other people… right?

And furthermore, different people’s brains are different, and so precisely which works can put them into such an altered state of consciousness will vary from person to person. This seems to me like a strong argument for encouraging people to indulge their idiosyncratic tastes in art consumption and not just stick to the traditional canon.

57

geo 03.08.11 at 7:05 pm

“Dictate”?

58

william wesley 03.08.11 at 8:06 pm

Politics is by definition what we do in mass. What individuals will do and what a mob or political party (same difference) will do are completely unrelated. Put any person in a mob and they will in most cases do things they never would do as an individual.
Each individual is protesting because the others are, without a mob everyone would just go home. Very very few people actually make individual decisions, and they are the true leaders, and the most likely to be silenced by the ruling elite
The mob can not be predicted by assessing individual behavior nor can individuals be predicted based on their mob behavior therefor the element of surprise is entrenched in both

59

john c. halasz 03.08.11 at 8:18 pm

geo:

Is it the loss of the literary (etc.) works themselves that you are bemoaning, or the loss of literary culture qua the literary public sphere? (Though the regular political public sphere is in still worse shape). Admittedly, the notion of a literary public sphere is somewhat paradoxical, since it is a public participatory form of privacy. But it serves to mediate and “test” the formation of personal and collective “identities”. Here’s the thing, though. Ever since the notion of literature in its modern sense, as a distinct category of fictive or imaginary discourse, validating the deliberately “fake” or non-veridical as a form of “truth”, emerged in the course of the 17th century, it’s always carried along with and by it a sense of contemporaneity, of being a “history of the present”, news that stays news, as Pound put it. So if it’s at all to survive, it can only be by maintaining its openness to contemporaneity, and thus being marked by those very factors that threaten its dissolution.

60

Alison P 03.08.11 at 8:26 pm

The title of Clay’s book is from Finnegans Wake, as are the term ‘quark’ and the concept of monomyth which influenced the composition of Star Wars (for example). Artefacts like FW are the boiler-rooms. Everybody doesn’t have to go into the boiler rooms to enjoy central heating. But some people have to go and service the boiler, and people would notice if the boiler went off.

(that’s enough forced analogy for now)

61

geo 03.08.11 at 9:18 pm

bob @40: Yes, I’m sure Zarathustra had the Internet in mind.

john @57: Yes, even the most enduring monuments must eventually dissolve or, better perhaps, recede into humankind’s cultural DNA, just as, say, the experience of being prey for half a million years is woven far down into the physical DNA of humans. But I wouldn’t call what’s happening with great literature nowadays a form of assimilation or incorporation. I’d call it mass amnesia. Or, to vary the metaphor, it’s not a case of cultural evolution but of cultural extinction.

62

chris 03.08.11 at 9:39 pm

@56: OK, maybe “dictate” is too strong a word. You didn’t propose the Art Police. But if you don’t expect to at least *influence* others as to what art they should enjoy, then what’s the point of bemoaning the fact that they choose to enjoy art you consider inferior?

@58: But you can replace the boiler with a different boiler and the heat still works. The boiler analogy isn’t an argument for standing athwart the shifting tides of artistic fashion and yelling “Stop!”. It’s at best an argument for having some kind of art, which is a position so unexceptionable that the only way to pretend it is under any threat whatsoever is to define art the pretender doesn’t like as “not really art at all”.

Anyway, the useful parts of the *concepts* monomyth and quark isn’t their names; all the heavy lifting was done by Campbell and a variety of people including Gell-Mann and others, respectively. If Joyce had never lived, the same concepts would still have been invented; they just would have been called something else. Heck, Campbell might have even come up with the same pun on “monolith” himself, although obviously there’s no guarantee of that.

63

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.08.11 at 10:14 pm

War and Peace is a good book, but there’s some good prose in these here comment threads too, and once in a while someone even posts a limerick.

64

Alison P 03.08.11 at 10:50 pm

I think as well as ‘art’ there always will be art-for-artists, some playground for artists, some exemplar or testing ground. There are for example the ‘bands which other bands like best’, and they aren’t always the best sellers. Or the fashion shows with clothes most people wouldn’t be seen dead in. Or the poetry which best-selling writers read. You know – that’s what I mean by the boiler room. Where it’s a bit hot and uncomfortable and nowhere to sit down.

I agree that doesn’t mean saying ‘stop’ to culture, the exact opposite, but it does mean there’s a renewing base of specialists who will always want to read – whatever – Olaf Stapledon or Tolstoy or Frank O’Hara, and whoever will be the new people coming up. Their influence is on specialists.

65

Clay Shirky 03.09.11 at 2:50 am

@Paul C, the Tolstoy observation is in two parts.

The first is that no one (in some inverse cognate of ‘le tout Paris’) reads Tolstoy anymore, for which the evidence is the paltry sales recorded by BookScan, and the fact that most of the copies that are sold are sold in hardcover, never the medium of choice for an avid reading population.

The second is that this decline was mostly finished some time ago, hence the relative present stability of the remaining, tiny audience.

I also find it amusing that, at #34, you elided the reference I made to the evidence that college-level interest in the Humanities has stabilized. Here, for your reading pleasure, is the original CT link, with evidence of the hypothesis about previous fall and current but low stability of interest: http://crookedtimber.org/2010/11/16/breaking-news-humanities-in-decline-film-at-11/

@geo, there’s a difference between “a gradual, molecular hollowing or flattening out of the sensibilities of educated people” and the need for the ignorant to respect their betters for reading those whacking thick books.

There are two different forces at work here, noted by Henry. One is that we are living in a paradise of access — Tolstoy is available worldwide at a cost of $0.0, given that he had the good sense to write before copyright was extended to infinity minus a day. The quality of access, in fact, is at an all-time high in human history — the average resident of Idaho now has access to a greater slice of the world’s literary patrimony than a resident of Manhattan did 20 years ago.

The other effect, though, is that uneducated people no longer pick up that Algonquin Club vibe from popular culture, no longer absorb the idea that somewhere, smart people are reading smart books and that we are enviable.

I love the former fact, and don’t really mind the latter, which is to say I am an elitist but not a snob. Another parallel might be with mathematics, which long ago left the realm where ordinary people could even begin to understand what it means to assert that P might or might not equal NP; society still supports the education of people who grapple with those questions.

What I’m advocating is treating Tolstoy or Proust the way we treat Spencer and Boccaccio, as historically important literary giants whose works have fallen into desuetude, but which we still expose to our more sensitive undergraduates, in hopes that the work will infect a few of them. A culture as rich and as educated as ours should always have people around who can offer a convincing account of what Spencer was up to with _The Faerie Queene_. Society needs and should properly have dozens of such people, hundreds even. Just not thousands, and nor do we need millions to genuflect to the hundreds who do.

66

geo 03.09.11 at 5:24 am

Dear Clay,

Thanks for dealing forthcomingly with this question, all the more because it’s not at all what you could have possibly anticipated having to discuss, given what you originally posted. Sorry if my interventions have helped turn the thread in an unintended and possibly not wholly welcome direction. I hope you’ll have another chance to join a conversation about the Internet and politics here.

I’ll just restate my view and leave you the last word, if you want it. The access question is neither here nor there. Yes, it’s good that books are available cheaply, just as it’s good that I can get to the valley of the Colorado River more easily than John Wesley Powell could. But that doesn’t mean that the technology and infrastructure that make this possible — the internal combustion engine, the highway and air-transportation systems, and the energy industry — are an unmixed blessing. Whether the environment as a whole would be better off, and whether we would on the whole enjoy it more, with different, less p0lluting technologies is the question in that case. Similarly, whether the culture would be better off, and whether we ourselves would be more sensitive to “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty” (as old Lionel Trilling used to say) without the hyperstimulation and sensory overload induced by contemporary information (and entertainment) technologies is the question between you and me.

Likewise, it’s no comfort at all that there will always be a few hundred eccentric people who enjoy Spenser (surely you didn’t mean Boccaccio?) and a few thousand (?) who enjoy Tolstoy and Proust, and perhaps a few tens of thousands who are intimate with Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the King James Version. An organic evolution (say from ornate verse to vernacular prose) is one thing; a sudden and drastic loss of cultural memory is something else. One would have to be verbally tone-deaf not to hear Shakespeare and the KJV everywhere in English speech (unless it’s ugly and impoverished); just as one would have to be philosophically tone-deaf not to hear echoes of Plato or Kant or Dewey in everyday moral argument (unless it’s utterly primitive). Those and other classic cultural sources perfuse our talking and thinking. If they’re suddenly no longer alive and available, even at a remove or two, to our common speech and collective imagination, it will be the equivalent of a lobotomy.

As for the uneducated: it’s not a question of envy but of aspiration. Envy is what a vulgar poor person might feel for a chic and fashionable (which is what “smart” means — it doesn’t mean “cultivated” or “wise”) vulgar rich person. “Smartness” is a competitive good (what’s the economic term?) — you don’t want everyone to be smart, or there’s no point. And besides, the poor person knows perfectly well that the difference between him/her and the fashionable rich person is purely accidental and contingent — if she lost all her money and you suddenly had it, you’d be “smart” and she’d be dowdy. Being “smart” doesn’t signify any internal development, any growth. But grace, eloquence, wisdom, learning are not purely external. Of course it’s a matter of luck, class, etc. who has the chance to acquire them. But in a rational, humane society they wouldn’t be competitive goods. So it’s an infinitely healthier thing to yearn for leisure and a library, or for music lessons, than to wish one could sit around getting sloshed at the Algonquin.

Well, it’s late, I’m rambling, and we two seem to be left alone on the field. Thanks again.

George

67

Alex 03.09.11 at 9:15 am

If they’re suddenly no longer alive and available, even at a remove or two, to our common speech and collective imagination, it will be the equivalent of a lobotomy.

In what way aren’t they? Also, would I be entirely unfair to say that this:

In a (compared to us) slow-moving environment with moderate amounts of stimulation, it is possible to lose oneself in deep, intricate verbal (musical, visual) texts, to glimpse new textures, architectures, and temporal orders, to emerge with one’s identity and sensorium slightly but significantly altered. The grain, rhythms, and topography of one’s imagination are subtly reshaped. You’ve been stopped in your tracks, hit by a lightning bolt, the world looks different. It’s a transcendental experience—not the only kind, but the highest quality such experience humans have attained so far. The Jupiter Symphony, Keats’s odes, Joyce in “The Dead,” Lawrence on birds, beasts, and flowers—it doesn’t get any better.

is just irrefutable at worst and de gustibus at best?

68

Paul C 03.09.11 at 10:55 am

Clay,

Bookscan was launched in 2001, and I don’t know if it has figures from before then: perhaps you could share with us your evidence for a previous decline in the number of people buying? I don’t have access to Bookscan figures, but here’s a Slate piece from April 2003:

Take Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace… Last year, it sold 33,000 copies, according to BookScan. The Cardinal of the Kremlin, another Russia-set novel, by spy-genre grandee Tom Clancy, and 1988’s No. 1 best-selling book, just barely scraped ahead of War and Peace, with 35,000 copies sold. Its sales have been dropping, and it probably won’t hit those figures next year, or ever again. In contrast, War and Peace will, by all evidence, continue at its steady pace”

Perhaps there’s been a precipitous decline in sales since 2003, in which case my argument is weak. Yet a quick trip to Amazon shows that War and Peace is #42 on the Kindle free ebooks list and #2500 in overall sales, and Project Gutenberg shows that 9,878 people downloaded it in the last 30 days. That seems quite a large number of potential readers for a long book by a foreign author that’s over a hundred years old, but even if all of those people are only genuflecting rather than reading, that’s quite a lot of people who still feel the need to genuflect.

Tolstoy is regrettably off-topic, but my point was that I don’t think you have much evidence to support your point. I level similar charges against your arguments around social media, which is why I suggest that cultural anxiety about the internet may not be exactly what you think it is.

69

Paul C 03.09.11 at 12:29 pm

p.s. Surely it would be more accurate to say that idealists believe that social media will improve leverage inevitably, not just “on average”? For what it’s worth, what’s happening at the moment is we’re heading towards the synthesis. Both sides in the debate appear to be moderating their positions, but we still have to suffer through the rhetoric.

70

Yarrow 03.09.11 at 12:54 pm

What we declinists fear is that in a fast-moving environment with excessive amounts of stimulation, the intensity of attention that’s necessary to absorb (never mind produce) such work gradually becomes harder to summon up. Compared with the easy, bite-sized treats continuously on offer, it just seems like too much effort.

Over on Making Light Abi Sutherland has been re-watching Babylon 5 and commenting on each episode. That’s about 80 hours just for the watching part, never mind the writing about it. If (and the proposition is dubious) Babylon 5 fandom is more numerous than War and Peace fandom, it’s not because of bite-sizedness.

71

chris 03.09.11 at 2:41 pm

@Yarrow: Good point. _The Wheel of Time_ and _A Song of Ice and Fire_ are also quite a bit longer than anything Tolstoy ever wrote (or _Moby Dick_, etc.), as is _Harry Potter_.

The fact that today’s long works are generally published piecemeal doesn’t mean that they aren’t long works or that nobody bothers with them.

72

Gepap 03.09.11 at 4:30 pm

The world has had moments of collective revolt before, so I don’t see this moment as somehow the result of something brand new that can be laid at the feet of any one technology, anymore than one could lay 1848 to the feet of say railroads, or 1989 at the feet of TV or some such comparison. Social media may help bridge some of the distance that modernity, in its increasing atomization of society and the economy, has created but it remains a tool, not the cause, for yearnigs for change. If in 30 years we look back and see the first decades of the 21st century as specially turbulent, then perhaps then we can make that judgement.

Also, lets not forget that at the end, facebook and twitter may connect folks, but they don’t erase the fact that power is forged through violence or the threat of it. The upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia worked because the regimes had very narrow bases of support and in the end the security forces were unwilling to fight for the elites. In Iran, the regime, equally or even more autocratic, does have a broader base of support and a security appartus willing to kill for it, so revolt there have failed as of yet. Even if facebook and twitter had greater penetration there, that wouldn’t change the dynamic, but would merely give the regime supporters their own ability to get organized.

73

bianca steele 03.09.11 at 5:31 pm

Alex @ 67
It isn’t refutable, because Sven Birkerts published it, and he is a very serious person who is steeped in the most serious of serious culture, in the European tradition, and his argument draws on various even more serious people, several of them actually European and some even people who can reasonably be expected to have known what they were talking about.

74

geo 03.09.11 at 5:41 pm

What bianca said.

75

nick 03.09.11 at 7:11 pm

geo–you can’t have missed bianca’s irony; yet you don’t seem to acknowledge the rather corrosive effect of her argument on your position. I am puzzled.

Important cultural works will always exist; what individual examples, genres, media count as important will always change. (I also think Birkerts is a pompous clown, but that’s another matter. I probably love, say, Wallace Stevens as much as he does; I also think “The Simpsons” is greater, more significant art than anything a novelist did in the 1990s. People who value high/residual forms for their own sake are monks. Monks are valuable; but most people shouldn’t have to feel guilty about not being monks.)

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geo 03.09.11 at 7:29 pm

Nick, it sounds like you’re asking: what is the basis for judgments of literary excellence? The best answer I know of is in Edmund Wilson’s essay “The Historical Interpretation of Literature.”

Was bianca really being ironic?

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Henry 03.09.11 at 7:52 pm

Looks ironic to me (the ‘very serious person’ being a class of an internet meme these days).

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JP Stormcrow 03.09.11 at 8:14 pm

Rarely is the question asked, is our children aware of all serious culture traditions?

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nick 03.09.11 at 9:29 pm

geo: thread is a’dying, so this will be my last: I’m not asking anything. I’m saying that “judgments of excellence” will remain a category applied to cultural production, but that “literary” in the terms you’ve been using it is going to Go Away. It is a pretty recent invention…..

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chris 03.09.11 at 10:20 pm

@77: And not only that, but one reason it’s a joke is that it (correctly) identifies pointing to Seriousness as an argument from authority, which any serious person knows is no argument at all.

Serious authorities are particularly discredited in some quarters for having provided serious advice like “the US will be greeted as liberators in Iraq”, but even without that, history is full of serious people excluding all points of view but their own from serious consideration and then being proven seriously wrong.

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geo 03.10.11 at 3:07 am

But Sven Birkerts is a very serious person who is steeped in the most serious of serious culture, and his argument does draw on many other serious people. I’m sure bianca was serious.

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geo 03.10.11 at 3:40 pm

Nick: Birkerts and I aren’t claiming that “the literary” won’t go away if things keep to their present course. Just trying to suggest that among the consequences might be a loss of inwardness and psychic depth. That — a collective flattening out into a horizontal or “hive” consciousness — would be something new.

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bianca steele 03.10.11 at 8:52 pm

Well, “irrefutable” was ironic. I’ve no doubt Birkerts thinks it’s irrefutable and that all, not only some, of his sources should be considered to know what they’re talking about, and also that he’s said something meaningful (which I don’t think browbeating the reader, for example, until he understands the importance of the word “reflection” in “reflective reading,” is), but there’s too much that’s obviously personal opinion, presented ex cathedra by someone who nobody that I know of has actually given a chair.

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john c. halasz 03.13.11 at 4:13 am

@83:

“there’s too much that’s obviously personal opinion, presented ex cathedra by someone who nobody that I know of has actually given a chair.”

So what’s your point? If someone you knew had given him a cathedra, it would be hunky-dory, but those without cathedras can only be talking out of their asses?

“Argument from authority” is scarcely an all-purpose refutation of a dogmatic fallacy, since all *validity* rests upon a cultural background of assumptions, which, to be sure, can be brought into question, but just not without the equal effort to rigorously engage with them. And “reflective reading” pretty clearly echoes Kant’s “reflective judgment”, so, er, it’s not just an arbitrary personal opinion.

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bianca steele 03.14.11 at 1:44 am

jch:
Are you saying that anybody who manages to publish a book brings into being a positive obligation on the part of every potential reader to engage them so seriously as to refuse to admit an inability to accept their point of view? If this is the case, we should have much more stringent obligations for publishers than I think we do.

(And can a writer really make a valid claim to seriousness just by sprinkling words like “reflective” throughout his or her prose?)

Sven Birkerts is a decent literary critic/book reviewer who wrote an interesting book, part memoir and part reflection on modern technology, idiosyncratic and somewhat persuasive, but limited.

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john c. halasz 03.14.11 at 6:17 am

@85:

“Are you saying that anybody who manages to publish a book brings into being a positive obligation on the part of every potential reader to engage them so seriously as to refuse to admit an inability to accept their point of view? “

Er, obviously not. (I haven’t read Birkerts in particular. But the “declinist” account, together with the pomo account of collapsing hierarchies, new technological media, and unaccountable “mutations”, which is 50 years old, as its obverse, is familiar enough to me).

The point goes to what I said above to geo: is he lamenting the lapse of literary works or of literary culture in general? Birkerts’ work would amount to another contribution to a debate about the status of that broader literary culture. It needn’t be taken “seriously”, ( as if the affectation of “seriousness” were tantamount to significance), but should be regarded ( or not) as a substantive contribution, depending on how well it articulates the normative issues involved.

I have no resentment against anyone’s particular preferences, as to literary consumption. But the notion that mere preferences should be paramount, rather than the critical consideration of the “value” that literary works themselves contain or raise, is parasitical upon the whole apparatus of of literary-critical culture/discourse, (which can be traced to Kant’s “justification” of judgments-of-taste as at once rational and arguable, but unresolvable or undecidable, by the very same token), and thus at once positivistic and self-stultifying.

(I could go on about the problems with Nietzsche’s take here, but I think I’ve said enough and time is running out on this thread).

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Hidari 03.14.11 at 8:47 am

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bianca steele 03.14.11 at 12:54 pm

Worry about collapsing hierarchies is as old as Shakespeare at least–or did you mean the postmodernist account is different from his?

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