Error Messages: Night Thoughts Inspired by James O’Donnell’s Avatars of the Word Anthony Grafton
Book Reviewed: James J. O’Donnell, Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).
Published in boundary 2 28:3, 2001. Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press.
American intellectuals have always come, like American athletes and musicians, in every imaginable shape, size, sex, and color. But for the past century and more, they have all taken part in one vital activity: the one that medieval scholastics called translatio studii, the transmission of learning. Teachers usually passed the baton, at least in the first instance. Great professors such as Meyer Schapiro, Lionel Trilling, and Hannah Arendt instructed, challenged, and provoked. They served as models of hard thinking, of minds in vigorous motion, and of continual engagement with the world. And they portrayed art and literature, history and politics as the last sacred things in a secular time, even as they disagreed sharply on how to understand them. To learn from teachers such as these amounted to an initiation into mysteries—and enabled one to join in what became an argument without end.
The work of the classroom, necessary but
not sufficient, found indispensable support from magazines. The
young had their first contact with these as student readers: symbolically, as
children, eavesdropping at the far end of the long dining room, baffled and
excited all at once. Here’s Cynthia Ozick, as a
Eventually, students and readers grew up. They became writers. Often
they started out by playing both roles at once, as reviewers.
But new teachers and periodicals were full of life. We read Joan Didion and Elizabeth Hardwick, Carl Schorske and Lawrence Stone in the New York Review of Books. We scanned the Village Voice and the weekly underground papers to explore new arts, learn new ways of talking about them, and hear new voices. As our interests became more refined and technical, new quarterlies responded to our fascination with Heidegger and Said as the old ones had fed our elders’ hunger for Kafka and Sartre, for Modernism with a big M and politics with a small p. For more general purposes, we also had the old New Yorker, which brought us the world—a little too barbered and chastened, but varied and detailed and rich beyond what .ction could imagine. Anyone who wanted to burn with a modern version of Walter Pater’s hard gemlike flame could easily find a writer with a match.
Nowadays—well, nowadays, as humanists regularly grumble, the
classrooms may still be full, but the students who fill them seem able to read
only a fraction of what students used to master every week. A generation ago,
repeated doses of How Does
a Poem Mean? infused some
interpretative skills into every kid who planned to attend a good college.
These rarely manifest themselves now, even among literature majors. Few can
write a cogent explication de texte—much
less scan a poem or decode an image. Students who read books not assigned for
courses undergo questioning from their friends about this odd habit. The Gothic
buildings sometimes seem to be inhabited by real Goths. And not many of the
eager conversations and sharp exchanges in which mentors and pupils engaged from
the turn of the century onward echo through the old hallways now. As to the
magazines—they line the faux-wood shelves at Barnes & Noble, looking much
more colorful than they used to in the grimy drugstores of our youth.
High-concept designs and bright colors vouch for their up-to-date glamour. And
it all belongs to us. We write the magazines, edit the magazines, read the
magazines. The cultural and literary pages of serious periodicals—including
this one—are mostly written by and for what might as well be a single person: a
fifty-year-old, moderately well-off male professional.
A stack of plain-covered Partisans—an
unattractive little magazine packed with closely printed type—on a coffee
table, half a century ago, pulled the young forward like so many magnets
pulling iron filings. None of our miracles of design have that effect—or even a
fraction of it—now. The kids walk right by us and all our works on their way to
the cappucino machines and the computers. And that’s the little problem that
has me worried in a big way, oh my friends and only hearers. When we write as
‘‘public intellectuals,’’ we’re talking only to ourselves. The young don’t want
to deal themselves into the game we play. And at this point, it’s the only one
in town. Not all of the young have become quiet refuseniks, of course: No
system as big and complicated as our culture industry, no population as varied
as ours, works in a simple way. Every year, a back issue of Salmagundi or Ruminator Review bites
a few kids, infecting them with the disease of letters. Thereafter they can’t
rest until they have become interns (or managing editors) of similar magazines.
A smaller number even want to hear the arcane, forgotten gossip of insults and
blows passed at cocktail parties on the
A historian’s comfortingly materialist explanation for the problem leaps to mind. The new technologies of the word and image—the Internet and the World Wide Web, real-time conferencing and on-line magazines, virtual chat groups and on-line comix—have transformed everything, from the way we keep up with friends and relations to the way we look up a word in the OED. The young use these new media—so it seems—by instinct and from birth, and do so deftly, while we fumble along behind, calling pitifully for a helpful teenager when trouble develops. Is there some connection, direct or indirect, causal or correlative, between the rise of this new world of messages and what looks like the fall of an old one of texts and readers? Who can tell us? We need an informant who knows people across the age groups, media across the ages, the humanities, and the computer.
Like a magical creature from the ancestral world of Irish fable that he likes to evoke, James O’Donnell has materialized on cue, ready to provide some answers. He has all the qualifcations. No one can play the traditional intellectual better than a classical scholar, trained at Princeton, Trinity College Dublin, and Yale, whose expertise lies in the last centuries of the ancient world and the first ones of the Middle Ages, and more particularly in that sublimely patriarchal field, patristics, the study of the Church Fathers. O’Donnell is not just a ‘‘good enough’’ scholar, moreover, but a great one, in the strictest technical sense. Scholars and students will still be wearing out the library binding and disfiguring the worn pages of his massive, meticulous, humane edition of the Confessions of Augustine a century from now, when my books and many better ones are dust.
Yet no one who grew up in the far-off sixties could understand the new
world of culture and media in the nineties better than a vice-provost for
information systems and computing at the
O’Donnell grants that the Great Conversation I just tried to evoke is entering a radically new stage. In fact, he says it loudly and, on the whole, happily. Traditional teaching, he points out, assumed the presence on each campus of a set of professors who possessed Knowledge: unique Knowledge, solid Knowledge, Knowledge as massive and heavy as the stone libraries and metal book stacks that contained it. Such Knowledge, unavailable from any other source, professors imparted in long, formal lectures to students who squirmed on hard oak benches, in hot rooms full of floating chalk dust. Traditional scholarship, traditional literary life, revolved around the production of a single, highly finished piece of work: the best an individual could do, supported by the small army of editors, copy editors, designers, and printers, who make a writer into an author. In the world of scholarship, the flagship of the literary fleet was the monograph: heavily armored, mounted with big guns, ready to fight off all critics. Around it skirmished flotillas of journal articles. Like monographs in style, but far smaller in scale, they filled the learned journals and were usually read by an average of four people before subsiding into oblivion.
Occasionally the same scholar who pontificated in the lecture hall might also write, in a general magazine, for one of the artificial communities of readers formed by loyalty to a charismatic editor or a brilliant staff. But the artistic and literary media outside the academy worked much the same way as the erudite ones within it: Novels, stories and articles, as finished as they could be, served as its standard currency. Firm genres, solid communities, slow, heavy texts that were built to last, like the first diesel locomotives—all of this made the natural product of an educational and literary system that aimed, at the end, to turn out individuals who worked alone and, by writing at their highest pitch of skill and intensity, could call communities of readers into being and provoke them to argue.
That was then, O’Donnell says; but this is now. In the new world of incredibly efficient information storage, retrieval, and transfer, none of us— even the most erudite—can keep up with the proliferation of scholarship, the vast daily expansion in the range of sources and databases—or the parallel, and almost equally rapid, growth of new methods and questions. We can, however, engage in discussions, in real time or with delays, with colleagues and students around the world. Monographs and journals of the traditional kind have become enormously expensive to produce and store—so expensive that libraries cannot buy all the ones their users need or store the ones they do buy in a single, orderly collection. But texts of every kind can be stored and made available very cheaply, for a while at least, in electronic form. Lectures have become a pointless, inefficient, boring way to transfer data, inaccurately, from one mind to another. But distance learning can connect hundreds of eager, isolated students around the world with a teacher anywhere and can encourage each side to respond to the other through considered written messages, rather than setting up one pompous authority figure to babble while dozens of hearers desperately scrawl.
Why not, then, substitute new ways for old? The proud, isolated individual scholar can make way for the interdisciplinary and international research team. The old-fashioned seminar, which trained students to work in isolation on their individual research papers, can turn into a task force of students working in collaboration. The traditional lecture and discussion section can mutate into Web-based readings and chat rooms. And the expensive published book and journal, with their deceptive appearance of finality and perfection, can transform themselves into the provisional, Web-based report, designed to elicit criticism and to evolve over time in response to it. Some of the dinosaurs—like the old-fashioned journals and magazines —will die off, and with them the imaginary communities they underpinned. But we can probably do without them. A literary world without dozens of little communities might well be more democratic—and could hardly be less fragmented—than the one we now inhabit. In place of the little, cramped intellectual spheres we now inhabit, we might create a much larger, genuinely public one. In place of the old individualist lessons, which no longer fit the workplace, we can teach intellectual cooperation. In place of the old lecture—and the old culture, in which one generation lectured the next—we can set new forms that emphasize feedback and exchange. All of this, in fact, is already going on: The old world has already been undermined, and the charges will go off any moment. O’Donnell urges teachers as well as writers to adapt, to learn to use —and criticize—the new technologies. Hold office hours—but do it virtually, in a chat room, as well as or instead of doing it the old-fashioned way, in a particular place. Have papers written—but have them composed and submitted by multiple rather than single authors, and electronically rather than on paper. Separate teaching from grading, the provision of guidance from the passing of judgment. Down with the dead institutions, such as the lecture, and the dead notions, such as Knowledge with a capital K and Culture with a capital C. Up with the new ones, such as the electronic community. And as to that old-fashioned conversation that doesn’t seem to be taking place anymore—don’t worry, for a new civility and rhetoric of the electronic word will replace the old in due course. O’Donnell evokes, with a passion and precision that reveal what a dedicated and effective teacher hemust be, the new kinds of teaching and learning that can replace the old: cooperative, reflexive, drudgery-free. Accurate, legible e-mail messages can make an appointment for a conversation or a meal, convey a bibliographic reference or answer a query, better than scrawled, illegible notes on napkins and half-heard oral recommendations. Open-ended electronic conversations on Web sites, clearly embodying multiple voices, can replace the old, authoritative essay. The new media can enhance and deepen, rather than detract from, intellectual relations between the generations.
Avatars of the Word makes this
polemical case in an agreeable and effective way. Unlike such enemies of the
new order as Sven Birkerts, O’Donnell knows the thing he describes from the
inside; unlike them—and many of his allies—he does not go in for unqualified
advocacy. He says flat out that the new world of electronic media will bring
losses as well as gains. Impersonality and distance will grow, as human contact
takes place through tapping keyboards rather than flapping tongues. Many wrong
bets and choices will be made before the best ways to use the new techniques
establish themselves. And over time, as Birkerts argues, readers probably will
become more expert at skipping from link to link than at making the
hermeneutical dive to the bottom of such oceanic texts as Augustine’s Confessions
and City of
But recognition of these unpleasant truths does not dismay the intrepid scholar—and with good reason. O’Donnell knows the history of books and writers, from one end to the other of the so-called Western tradition. He teaches a pioneering course on the subject at Penn and writes with authority, in the essays gathered here, on many phases of it. In fact, his book amounts to a short, informal, and highly informative survey of the history of texts and readers in the West, from the rise of writing in ancient Greece through the replacement of the roll by the codex to the invention of printing. All scholars—as J. H. Hexter pointed out long ago—understand the present through the past: They use their knowledge of the lost institutions and customs of earlier centuries, to which they have devoted their lives, as the basis from which they interpret the present, which they read about superficially in newspapers or hear about in passing from broadcast news.
O’Donnell, for all his commitment to the new, exemplifies the amiable,
old-fashioned habit of mind that Hexter described. To understand the
transformation of media in the present, he looks backward. And what he sees
comforts him. Readers’ experiences of texts have undergone many severe changes,
he notes. But none of these has proved quite so final, no break
so radical, as such pioneering modern scholars as Eric Havelock have
claimed. The rise of alphabetic writing in
Authorial self-fashioning—the universal desire to present oneself not only as the creator of a particular text but also as a figure of a certain dignified kind, working in a proper study, surrounded by the correct props—all came into existence not in the 1980s, or indeed the 1480s, but in antiquity itself and developed over the centuries with the technologies that carried and preserved the word. Libraries didn’t begin to develop gaps and experience storage problems last week. Every material library—even Widener or the New York Public or the British Library—is a partial embodiment, but only a partial one, of the complete virtual library that exists only in the imagination of writers and architects. Culture is complicated. Habit is strong. Change takes place to the tune of ‘‘One step forward, two steps back.’’ Even the awful revolution at the end of the ancient world, in the fourth through sixth centuries A.D., produced not a zero-base culture but a new, educated Rome elite, one dedicated to preserving and teaching a canonical set of texts and skills—or, to put it more precisely, a set of classics. Come the revolution, in short, we won’t all lose our heads any more than our predecessors did. There will still be room, at least for a while, for the diehards who refuse to adapt at all; and some of the old skills and interests will survive the transition from the printed to the electronic library.
For all O’Donnell’s insistence on continuity, however, he insists even more strongly on the need for the intellectual elite to move with the times. For changes in media will come, whether the intellectuals wish it or not. The rain of new devices, hard and soft, it raineth every day, and soon the streams will rise, joining in a single overwhelming flood. Intellectuals who wish to survive and flourish in the new, postdiluvial landscape must learn how to use the new technologies that will shape and dominate it. Professors must cheerfully remake themselves into little computer demons. No longer the authority figures of the old, heavy university, they must become smiling, agile guides to the riches ‘‘out there’’ in the great big electronic mall. ‘‘Just click on the professor,’’ says O’Donnell, accepting dematerialization with good grace, and he’ll take you where you need to go. Only teachers like this will find the courage to abandon the worn-out forms of the old university, the traditional ways of teaching and scholarship, such as the mass lecture. Only they can create new pedagogies—pedagogies designed to support lifelong distance learning. Alumni of the future will stay tuned, using a lifetime guarantee, to the institution that would once have paddled them as freshmen, handed them a diploma as seniors, and flung them into outer darkness—and greeted them only when they returned, cap and contribution in hand, for the largely symbolic good cheer of official reunions. Only intellectuals like this, finally, will realize the full potential of the new media, abandoning monologue for dialogue and giving up their old monopoly claim to cultural capital. The way to the new Great Conversation lies through your modem.
Unlike most of those who write about the cultural scene, O’Donnell speaks as an engaged participant. You can tell: The man doesn’t only talk about classrooms and dormitories; he teaches in the former and lives in the latter. He doesn’t generalize about earlier transitions in the life of the Western intellectual but analyzes them in depth. He rigorously lives by his own dialogical principles—the book version of Avatars of the Word is flanked and supported by a Web page that provides supplementary materials and allows for discussion. No wonder, then, that so many of his obser- vations, his stories, and his approaches feel fresh—even when he chews over that stalest of dry intellectual biscuits, the question of how to reform the university.
If O’Donnell is right, then we really have nothing to worry about. The millennium has come, and since Y2K failed to scramble our circuits, a new and more open brand of public talk will replace the old, hierarchical forms. Gaps in the conversation—like the occasional interruptions in our e-mail— are to be expected at this early stage in the proceedings. Soon communications will resume. The new talk already goes on; we need only learn to listen to it, in the chat rooms and elsewhere.
Everyone who takes any interest in the wide range of problems
O’Donnell attacks should certainly read his book and explore its electronic
twin. But his tidings of comfort and joy don’t allay my plentiful
worries. In the first place, his treatment of the new media errs on the side of
generosity. His world of e-mail, for example, is a constructive, democratic
community—not one of hostile strangers flaming each other. (Maybe Penn students
don’t do this; at
In the past few years, moreover, I have realized something else—
thanks to conversations of the old, familiar kind. My students have told me,
repeatedly, what they want me to do for them. They want me to guide them not on
theWeb but into and through a different intellectual and physical landscape:
In fact, of course, we’re nowhere near as old as they think (nobody could be)—and nowhere near as learned, for that matter. We’re not, as we guiltily acknowledge, a patch on the generation that preceded us. They, too, of course, were ordinary mortals, fallible and sinful, not the supermen depicted in recent, sentimental books by the likes of Tom Brokaw and Robert Putnam. But a special mold, a unique one, shaped them. They owed their education to those inhabitants of a truly lost world, the great émigré scholars of the thirties. Their adult life experience usually began with World War II. Heritage and environment enabled them to create the disciplines we still practice and the American literature we would like to preserve and enlarge. We obviously didn’t take in everything, or the most important things, that the generation of our teachers had to offer us—si monumentum requiris, circumspice. But we did learn some things from them, which we can pass on. We saw what real universities and real publications were, and we can tell the story even if we can’t create the reality. By doing so, we can keep up one part of a conversation—a conversation that requires memory, physical books, and personal contact.
In one sense, O’Donnell is perfectly right. To see to it that our teaching stays effective, to make the best use of resources that are becoming scarce, we have to practice much of what O’Donnell recommends: supplement conversation with e-mail, know at least some of the electronic databases, painfully master new skills. It’s not just a matter of efficiency. Adding new media to the old ones makes teaching more immediate and exciting, not less so. In the old days, students called up for help with a bibliography at on Saturday. Now the messages, and the scholarly juices, flow all night.
But to keep our morality and our morale intact, we need to refuse to
undergo the full transformation that O’Donnell recommends. The traditions of teaching
and writing, so many of which he rejects with the brusqueness of Churchill
dismissing the traditions of the navy, are every bit as old and irrational and
ritualized as he says. That doesn’t mean we can do without them. In my own
experience, at least, the old way has yielded the best conversations of the
last many years: reading hard texts together slowly, working through hard
problems face-to-face, pushing individual students who have just done something
very good to make it excellent. Most of the work that dazzles us— and much
student work does—comes out of old-fashioned seminars and takes the
old-fashioned form of research papers and theses. Sometimes computers play a
central role—as in the research on the earliest printing types carried out in the
last two years at
As to the wider world of conversation in the media—here, even more, we need to look away from the instruments to those who wield them. Frankly, the problem doesn’t lie with our periodicals but with us. We 68ers have plenty of places to bombilate on the Web—just call up Slate, for example, or Salon, and you’ll encounter the same concerns, the same style, and the same well-meant fatuities that drive the young away from our print media. Banner ads and nice graphics can’t breathe life back into dead turkeys. In this case, a historical analogy that O’Donnell doesn’t make may help us to understand the larger situation and maybe even to deal with it in a constructive way. A hundred years ago, American magazines were the World WideWeb of their day. Colorful and varied, Scribner’s, the Delineator, and the Saturday Evening Post carried messages rapidly across the whole country. Their neat, up-to-date design and pioneering, professional ads gave them a glamour that traditional media had lacked. Slick, attractive, reader-friendly, they responded rapidly to every change in the national mood. Indeed, they called a national readership into being. The only thing wrong with them was their content. Like most—though not all—Web sites, most of these magazines deteriorated with time, since the advertisers who paid the piper also called the tune.
The nineteenth-century magazine turned into the medium for a culture
of pap, a genteel stew of uplift, folly, and high sentence. They took their
codes of conduct and their models of high art from what their editors saw as a
more civilized foreign nation,
No observer of this scene in 1898 would have expected what came next. Out of the little newspaper of.ces on the great plains, and the quarterbuilt midwestern university campuses where Gothic towers loomed over .elds of mud, out of the cow colleges, the farms, the beer halls and the tenements, came rebels: the Dreisers, the Cathers, the Menckens, the Bournes. They founded new media—for example, the little magazines of the 1910s— and commandeered existing ones. In time, they consigned the professors and the Brahmins, with their ghastly, dull, good taste, to the oblivion they richly deserved.
Well, my masters, we have progressed so far in our enlightenment that
we have gone back to the future. It’s 1898 again. We—the proud public
intellectuals, the brave subverters of ‘‘late capitalism’’—maintain the genteel
culture of our own .n de siècle. We take our values and models from a
No change in the means of transmission can make ideas such as these sound serious—or attractive—to those outside our charmed Brahmin circle. Yet they .ll the echo chambers of our media with a mindless buzz. When the stables are choked, you have to call Hercules. Fortunately, hemay already be on his way to turn the river that will clean them out. The same kids who want us to be real teachers, not cheery gurus, while they’re with us eventually leave. And they go on thinking when they do. They’re sustained, to some extent, by the traditions we have helped them master—just as the new intellectuals of the Progressive Era found inspiration in the ideals they learned in college to confront and analyze the horrors of their own boom times. But they’re not, in my experience, infected by the ignoble rot of our gentility.
Nobody could have predicted, in 1898, what rough and smooth beasts
would soon slouch from
A century ago, the rebels turned to authority .gures who could not,
themselves, overthrow the genteel world they inhabited—but who afforded
essential help to those who would. Take Robert Morss Lovett, for many years
professor of English at a citadel of academic careerism and backbiting, but
also of dedicated research and teaching, the
We don’t .nd many students looking to us for guidance as Flanner and Farrell did. But Lovett didn’t either. Only a small group wanted to read their poems aloud at the Sunday evening at homes he held in his beloved apartment in Jane Addams’ Hull House (where he worked the switchboard to pay for his lodgings). But the few achieved an immense amount. It took only a few classicizing revolutionaries to touch off the energies of modernism. We need only a few now—and we have them, if we can only .nd ways to give them what they need without impeding their progress. It’s anything but certain that we can.
One point is clear: The new culture, like the new culture of a century
ago, will have some standards. And when standards are enforced, ‘‘not all the
candidates pass.’’ Most of us won’t. At best, they’ll need us for targets— as
Mencken needed his ‘‘geysers of pish-posh’’ so he could set .re to their shirts
and boot them into outer darkness. They’re out there, somewhere, in coffee