Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Reading (and) Culture Wars in the Twelfth and Twenty-First Centuries

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Reading (and) Culture Wars in the Twelfth and Twenty-First Centuries

Article excerpt

Our new century finds America still embroiled in some fashion in the culture wars that have characterized the past two decades. Conservatives still stand behind the banner of family values, Western civilization, the rule of reason, the canon of the "Great Books," and a vision of history that promotes the American dream. Their enemies are still regarded as postmodern nihilists and politically correct thought-police, who promote the gospel of multiculturalism and a revisionist history of the United Sates. Most critical discussions of this conflict merely add to the already heated polarization that exists or fail to provide any illuminating analysis that might lead to some kind of resolution.

Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies, clearly is biased in his disdain for the postmodern camp's influence within contemporary culture. While he admires some of their contributions,1 he is convinced that they have no desire to coexist with their conservative opponents, and that the latter can only have an increasingly diminishing influence in the years ahead.2 However, despite his own guarded pessimism, Birkerts does provide an analysis of this conflict that not only is quite shrewd and original, but contains the seeds for a possible resolution as well. Birkerts argues that these culture wars ought properly to be seen as "reading wars."3 He claims that we are becoming a people who no longer read "print" but electronic screens. Indeed, he identifies this shift towards hypertextual reading as being the root cause or symptom of the rise of postmodernism in the arts.4

I shall explore his thesis in this essay, but also try to dispel his apocalyptic concerns, for the benefits of hypertextual culture need not come at the expense of the loss of intensive reading. To support this claim, I shall suggest that our current culture war in America is simply the latest in a long line of episodes that scholars have referred to as the battle between the Ancients and Moderns. I intend to examine the first occurrence of this conflict in the Twelfth Century Renaissance as a mirror for illuminating the dynamics involved in our own contemporary battle. For it too was essentially a rhetorical fight over the preferable way to read and write. To understand this earlier conflict, though, I need first to provide the necessary context by examining Aristotle's influential theory of rhetoric. We may discover that our current war may also provide a mirror for understanding past ones as well.

Finally, following my exploration of this parallel battle of ideas, I shall then marshal my arguments for why linear and hypertextual reading can indeed coexist in our contemporary culture. One prominent contention that will be considered is that hypertextual reading has always coexisted alongside intensive reading, as evidenced by the existence of commonplace books in the medieval and renaissance eras. But first we must examine Birkert's complex thesis itself and assess its merits and weaknesses. The reader should note that the title of this essay is carefully worded to reflect that my aim is not only to "read" accurately the nature of culture wars, but that to do so we must examine the very nature of "reading" itself.

The Gutenberg Elegies

Birkerts knows that his contrasting the "stable hierarchies" of the page with the "rush of impulses" on the screen has implications for our understanding not only reading, but writing and literary criticism as well.5 His description of students today and their difficulty concentrating on dense prose, dealing with allusions, and accepting digressions from the straight plot, should strike a chord of recognition among every teacher in contemporary schools.6 He acknowledges the benefits of "electronic postmodernity": 1) an increased grasp of a "global perspective" and respect for "complexity"; 2) a capacity to deal with more stimuli "simultaneously"; 3) a relativistic "tolerance" for differences; and 4) a greater willingness to cope with novelty. …

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