Mega-Processors, Advanced Peripherals, and Robert Penn Warren Audubon

By Burris, Sidney | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Mega-Processors, Advanced Peripherals, and Robert Penn Warren Audubon


Burris, Sidney, Studies in the Literary Imagination


1. REVERIE AMONG THE MACHINES

I'm writing this essay on a computer. I'm even writing it on a laptop computer (though it's not positioned on my lap), which means that I'm writing this essay on a distillation of a computer, the most intensified, a-little-goes-a-long-way, grain alcohol of computers. Although I know better, I still associate laptops with hard-core computer junkies. To me, the laptop is the kind of machine that appeals to those who've uncritically embraced the laser-fast, connected world of information technology, and I don't over the course of an average day see myself as belonging to that particular group of people. There are times when I'm proud of having accomplished an arcane task with my word-processing program. But, as a computer jockey, I'm minor-league, double-A, particularly when I compare what I know about them to what my students know about them (who now, by the way, are occasionally asking me how to use the electric typewriter that we've exiled to the Xerox room in the office). I can tell, though, that my enthusiasm for having discovered another feature of my program exposes me in their eyes as an amateur, embarrassingly giddy and overly impressed by my newfound and ordinary knowledge. Still, here I sit with my laptop, delighted to feel a part of the younger generation, thankful that life hasn't passed me by; wondering, in fact, if I'm not a little cooler than my less-with-it, laptop-less colleagues.

As Americans, we have a peculiar relationship to our pasts, because the older we get, or the farther our lives stretch back into the past, the less cool we become--or the more outdated, a label we're taught to fear deeply. America, as the elderly tell us, is no country for old men or for old women either. Robert Penn Warren, nearly a decade after he'd published Audubon, which charted one version of an American past, wrote:

 
   In a deep sense, the mission of America has been to make all things new. 
   This continent was a new Eden in which man would miraculously assume his 
   prelapsarian condition, and the movement west-ward was a perpetual baptism 
   into a new innocence--or at least a movement into a territory where the 
   sheriff couldn't serve his warrant. (Warren, Essays 32) 

How do you read a national history that wants to write itself as continually new? Continually reborn? Movement toward a new land and a new promise is an important theme in American writing, but one that has troubling undertones. Auden once remarked that Americans solve their problems by moving, a peripatetic solution to mental health. And it's true: there are no sheriffs in Audubon, only Regulators, the free-ranging representatives of an ad hoc system of justice. So, in Warren's Eden, there were no legal traditions in place because there were no legal precedents to cite; there was no legal history to consult. You don't have to know much about our past to see that American history suffers perpetually from a kind of mid-life crisis, because, as it continually reveres the new, the youthful, the innocent, it's yearly accumulating traditions, practices, and citizens that aren't new, that aren't youthful, that can't be innocent, and that are in fact historical, old, even venerable. But I'm an American, and I love my laptop because, when I have it by my side or in my lap, I feel new, youthful, innocent. Not so outdated. That's a blessing.

My son, Samuel, who's ten now, has a natural facility with the computer, particularly with games that require a cartographer's sense of landscape. He never gets lost. What most impresses me is that he seems to understand the inner logic of the games. If we're looking for an object, a magic sword, say, and if it might be in one of several places--in a chest, behind a waterfall, stowed away in a boat, buried beneath the palm tree--he inevitably chooses the correct place first, while I'll waste time searching out the places that seem logical to me. …

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