No space to contemplate

At the moment, with the U.S. election over, it seems clear to me that the book was to democracy what the Internet is to demagogy. Perhaps, looking back at the end of this century, if we still retain the ability to look back then, we will realise that the religious fanatics who actually burned books in the 20th century were by far the lesser threat — and not unrelated, in their refusal to engage with the other and to contemplate themselves in the universe, to the larger threat, to the threat that finally emptied our world of depth, colour, significance, and books.

Reflection and hyperattention

“Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible,” writes Byung-Chul Han. “Increasingly, such immersive reflection is being displaced by an entirely different form of attention: hyperattention.” He goes on to argue that a hectic rush into activity and a low tolerance threshold for ‘boredom’ are not conducive to culture, just as multitasking is not a progressive but a regressive step. Animals have always ‘multitasked’, for instance, by eating, grooming and keeping a watch for other predators at the same time. Multitasking, Mr. Han suggests, is the common plight of all animals, including humans, in a hostile environment. What humans had partly achieved, and are now gradually losing, is the space and capacity for contemplation.

It is impossible to contemplate on computers. This is not just because, as Mr. Han suggests, computing as an activity is opposed to contemplation. Computers, iPads and other such screen-reading devices are structured to split our attention; the Internet forces us to ‘multitask’, as all those pop-ups indicate at the simplest.

This is obviously part of my lament. But I would not leave it there, because literature — literature as in reading a book — provides a particular kind of space for and varying pace of contemplation. One can pay deep attention to a flower, or to a piece of music. One can contemplate the cosmos or a painting. But as anyone who has read more than one book knows, reading books enables different — and differing — types of contemplation.

Difference is not political jargon in the context of literature. After all, literature was never what was universally and eternally the same; literature was what could be read in different ways in different spaces. Shakespeare is not universal and eternal in the sense that we read Shakespeare as he was read in the 17th century or the 19th. Sameness is not what makes Shakespeare ‘universal’ or ‘eternal’; it is difference. Shakespeare’s appeal to each generation — and perhaps each culture — has changed and continues to alter. Shakespeare is ‘universal’ only to the extent that his texts are capable of ever-changing readings without loss of depth. The reason this happens is that Shakespeare’s texts gain from what I call the process of reading; they allow space for the reader to dive into them. Not all plays or sonnets from Shakespeare’s age do so, or not as much.

This space is not to be confused with pace. One can argue that screen reading is far too fast: for instance, your eyes move down the page, but the cursor moves the line in the opposite direction too. So that you can read faster, and faster. To read fast is a bit like driving fast: you get to your destination sooner, but you see much less on the way. Literature has never been only about getting to your destination. The book allowed various levels of pacing, and one of the characteristics of literature is to hurry the specific reader and slow her down from page to page, line to line, and, at least in poetry, word to word.

In general, the ability to read slowly is dying out, and along with that the spaces in and beyond the book will get flatter. Of course, one can argue the book will never die, just as opera and ballet have never given up the ghost. But the opera and the ballet were always elite cultural activities. To have literature survive like opera or ballet, in the exclusive theatres of social prestige, would be as bad as burying it.

Engaging with the text

Literature had moved away from that, without being reduced in the process: the materiality of the book had enabled literature to percolate and also gain in depth and space. Contrary to what is often suggested, the book was not elitist; it was democratic. The ancient Brahmins of India, for instance, controlled learning far more strictly by insisting on its oral transmission. That was the reason why early Buddhism, which was partly an anti-caste and anti-Brahmin revolt, focussed so clearly on texts. Even 2,500 years ago, the book — in its limited manuscript forms — freed learning from the control on a group, and of space and time. It was a process that was rounded out with the invention of the printing press. Literature became literature in and by this process of reading. It was not just reading, but a particular kind of reading — framed by a particular device, the book, that enabled us to engage with the text in complex and contemplative ways.

Perhaps the political notion of democracy was itself a consequence of this, because reading books forces the self to engage with others (and with itself as an-other-self) in ways that the computer, especially the Internet, cannot. It is far too easy, as Han also notes, to avoid engaging with the other on Internet. It is even easier to avoid engaging with oneself on the Internet.

Internet and digitalised reading, at least as they are today, seem more likely to lead to demagogy than to democracy. It has happened in the U.S. But the U.S. is not the only place where it is happening.

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark. His latest novel is ‘Jihadi Jane’.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2020 10:51:41 PM |

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