Photo by Barry Schwartz
Leon Wieseltier has garnered a lot of sympathy these last couple of months, along with everyone else who was fired or quit from The New Republic (where he was the literary editor for 30 years). He recently wrote a piece for the New York Times, “Among the Disrupted”, now sort-of-famous: a classic conservative yearning for a romanticized what-used-to-be, where technology does not overrule “art”. I’m pretty sure when typewriters first came in (or printing!), there was the same reaction to the “new”: technology being the enemy of deeper meaning, the support of transient superficiality.
You don’t have to be middle-aged to talk like this – some of my younger colleagues, both in and out of creative fields, yearn for the world to be simpler, more poetic, more meaningful, richer, better. The way it used to be. You know, in the 1980s.
Photographers, composers, writers, all kinds of people who work in creative fields – or critique the creative fields – have felt the change the “digital world” has brought about, and it’s easy to forget it’s not just about the tools, it’s about the work. Would Faulkner have been any less good a writer had he used a quill rather than a typewriter? Why bother even asking.
It does not help Wieseltier’s case that his style of writing is all about letting us know he’s a highly cultured and deeply-read guy. His flowery language and extreme erudition insists he must be taken seriously, using a hammer where a gentle nudge would do. It weakens his already not-terribly-strong or original argument by setting the challenge that you’re only qualified to argue against him if you’re educated to his level. That’s a pretty thin argument if what you’re trying to suggest is that the whole culture is going down the tubes (it leaves out a whole lot of culture).
This story of digital has been going on for several decades now, so these critiques serve as a reminder how hard it is to grasp where you are in the river when you’re floating with the current. The world is changing, the world is always changing, the world will always change.
To quote the great Don Henley: Get Over It.