It would appear that the ‘Death of’ narrative is a siren song that is all too alluring for those of a polemical disposition. Many authors have advanced such grand declarations, few have been proven right. Indeed, the desire to put the final nail in any given coffin has created somewhat of a tradition. Nietzsche (controversially) declared the death of God, Francis Fukuyama (infamously) argued that Western liberalism had signaled ‘the end of history’  and, in an article published this very day of writing (12/2/17), it has been suggested that comedy has also had its last laugh .
Sven Birkerts, then, is in good company when writing that we are now approaching the death of literature. Following Alvin Kernan’s Death of Literature (1990), Birkerts laments that the rise of digital technologies has stripped literature of its place as a ‘source of energies’ and ‘shared recognitions’ . In other words, literature no longer holds the same cultural influence that it once did. We used to gather communities around books, but now the page has been replaced by the flickering lights of the screen.
But is this true? Has literature really been killed by the digital revolution?
Since Birkerts first published The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), we have seen incredible literary works by the likes of Zadie Smith, Cormac McCarthy, and Ian McEwan (to name but a few). The publications of novels by Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling and E.L. James have all been a cultural phenomenon suggesting – regardless of whether one considers them to be ‘literature’- that books have not been completely eradicated from the public consciousness.
However, for Birkerts, the death of literature extends beyond the presence of the book within our daily lives. Literature’s demise is a ‘shorthand tag for the progressive atrophy of all that defines us as creatures of spirit’ . It is a loss of what makes us human, that is, the erosion of creativity, imagination and meditative thought. By imposing injunctions upon us to exist constantly within the present, digital technologies prevent us from withdrawing into the comforts of solitude.
Again, I find myself mostly disagreeing with Birkerts. While it is certainly true that the Internet (and digital technology in general) has created a culture built upon the Now, I am not so sure that this has served to strip us of anything, ontologically speaking. But, I believe that to understand what truly motivates Birkerts’ claim that we are ‘living in the shallows of what it means to be human’ we should pay attention to his references to ‘true art’ .
Distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow art are nothing new. Whether it be Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Culture Industry or Clement Greenberg’s Kitsch, aestheticians have sought to draw borders between what is valuable and what is disposable. Where Birkerts distinguishes himself, however, is in the binary opposition he establishes between the material text (i.e.books) as valuable and the digital as disposable. In his description of digital technology, there is a suggestion that it is not only inferior to literary culture but also actively hostile towards it. The screen is completely incompatible with ‘true art’. As a flash of 1s and 0s, it is unable to provide the same degree of meaning that is present upon the page. This opposition has been largely deconstructed by the rise of e-books. Despite Birkerts’ assertion that screens are ‘entirely inhospitable to the more subjective materials that have always been the stuff of art’, we now find ourselves consuming literature on our electronic devices at an increasing rate . Moreover, there has also been a movement towards a literary culture – see the poetry of Sam Riviere and Steve Roggenbuck – that is fundamentally a product of the screen and digitality. Yet, Birkerts’ distinction between ‘signs on a screen and signs on a page’ entrenches a divide between the material and the virtual that is at best misguided, and at worst elitist. .
By way of conclusion, I would like to end with a brief discussion of the Internet’s capacity to democratize culture. I believe this, in some way, can offer answers to the state of literature (and the arts) in the digital age. The separations made between serious art and mass culture – as done by Birkerts et al – has been called into question with the rise of the Internet. With the wide scale access to information, the lines that demarcate culture have become hazy and indistinct. This has led many to drag out the familiar ‘Death of’ narrative (whether that be literature, music or art). But these claims of death are wrong. The silos that have regulated culture for so long are finally beginning to break down. And this is a good thing. Thanks to the Internet, I have been able to experience many novels, films, and artists that would have remained unknown or inaccessible to me. Through this democratization of culture, the Internet – far from being a harbinger of doom – may be the very thing that guarantees the future of literature.
So forget death.
Long live literature! Long live the Internet!
1. Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’ in The National Interest, No.16 (1989), pp.3-18 (p.3).
2. Bruce Bialosky, ‘The Death of Comedy?’ available at http://townhall.com/columnists/brucebialosky/2017/02/12/the-death-of-comedy-n2283592 [accessed 12/2/17].
3. Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (London: Faber & Faber, 2006), p.185.
4. Birkerts, Gutenberg Elegies, p.194.
5. Ibid., p.194.
6. Ibid., p.193.
7. Ibid., p.188.