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James Edward Whorton Jr
Five Attributes of Self
Sven Birkerts, whose book The Gutenberg Elegies has been
excerpted and reviewed widely of late--New Yorker, NY
Times Book Review, Harper's--has a provocative argument:
that reading literature off the internet diminishes one's selfhood,
as compared with reading from a book, which enhances it. The idea
is that online, one's hooked into a kind of superbeing, and becomes
part of a larger mind, and is no longer an isolated lit-digging
I know I disagree with Mr. Birkerts, even before I know why. Towards
figuring out why, it might help to list a few adjectives that
describe an autonomous consciousness, in order to consider whether
they also apply to my mind surveying the net:
1. ATTENTIVE. Yes, I'm attentive online. Perhaps my attention
is a little more scattered than when I'm reading a book, cause
on the net I'm usually on the verge of backing out of whatever
file I'm in to look elsewhere for something better. It may be
my attention is more superficial than when I'm flipping pages.
But superficiality isn't new to my mind--it's the same state I
fall into when I'm walking in the woods, it's exactly that kind
of attention: stop and look at this mushroom, it's orange, gotta
look it up later--here's an interesting dung pile, shiny black
pellets, might be a marmoset or something--here's one of those
baby loblolly pines that looks like a freak wig on the ground,
gathering up sap for its growth spurt--
2. DESIROUS. Yes, that which is conscious and apart, desires.
My own particular Self is always particularly desirous when partaking
of the net. Soon as the Self stops desiring to go on, I log off.
And I log off often! In fact, the great quantity of boring stuff
on the net makes this place a workshop for me in my own tastes.
I've learned a few things about them, here.
3. REBELLIOUS. A self is distinguished by its capacity to rebel.
Only individual selves can do this. Can I do it, can I use my
heels, can I talk in funny voices and scatter thumbtacks, while
jacked in? Indeed I can. Lit on the net is just as readily ridiculed
4. SECRETIVE. A consciousness keeps its own counsel. Like others,
I do this superbly online. For example: can you name the passion
that stirred in my bosom when I checked out online Chaucer?
The further I consider it, the unlikelier it seems that I am losing
my identity in some communal consciousness. I do not blend and
diffuse into all of you, while here--rather my own personal alertness,
randiness, unmanageability and privacy thrive.
There's another aptitude unique to selves--REVERENCE. While browsing
hyperpulp on the net, can I still revere those things I judge
deserving of my love? The answer is certainly yes. At every moment
on- and offline I am defined by what I hold to be most precious.
No technology yet has diffused my devotion to the novel Anna Karenina--and
I do not mean here the book of 736 pages, but a certain fantastically
complicated performance of the mind of Leo Tolstoy. The book itself,
as a thing occupying shelf or lap space, is fine, but it's not
indispensable. The quality of mind is what carries me to Heaven,
and it would be so with that novel even if I had to read it off
a barn wall.
James Edward Whorton Jr. is finishing his doctoral studies at
The Center for Writers, The University of Southern Mississippi
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