By Abby Kluchin
A response to a public conversation with Gary Shteyngart on November 10, 2011.
I put off writing about Gary Shteyngart’s conversation with McKenzie Wark about technology, religion, and literature—well, mostly because I had to write a conference paper. And then I went to San Francisco for the conference and I put it off again, because I took a side trip to Facebook HQ in Palo Alto—metonymically, at least, the epicenter of everything that Shteyngart’s latest novel Super Sad True Love Story laments—and I had to reconsider my reaction both to the book and the conversation.
As Ujala Sehgal and Sephora Markson Hartz have already noted on this blog, Shteyngart spoke eloquently at the talk about his encounter with books as the only religious experience available to him. He didn’t hammer home the solid, satisfying ‘object’-ness of a book as opposed to an e-reader, as opponents of such technologies frequently do, including Super Sad’s protagonist, Lenny Abramov—“the last reader on earth!”—who delights in his wall of real books in a not-too-distant future in which such “bound, printed, nonstreaming Media artifacts” bring down one’s “PERSONALITY rankings” and are primarily known for their repulsive smell. Rather, he remarked that a physical book is a ‘rudimentary technology.’ You can’t, he observed, use a book to order other things; it has only one function. There is something about this rudimentary technology that in the hands of an undistracted person (should we be able to locate one) can give rise to an encounter that enlarges the parameters of ordinary selfhood, that creates a space in which something can occur, something can arrive.
In person, Shteyngart didn’t seem ready just yet to mourn the death of the possibility of this encounter, although Super Sad is certainly, among other things, an elegy for its vanishing. The question that Shteyngart, deliberately fiddling with what he called his ‘iTelephone,’ asked is, should he, as a writer (and, I sensed, equally as a reader), stick to his guns about the importance of this encounter with this singular rudimentary technology, or should he adapt? Super Sad suggests in its very form and its engagement with social media, albeit primarily in the mode of blistering critique, that Shteyngart will adapt, though, certainly, he will not go gentle into that buzzing digital night. But the conversation, as well as the audience, was filled with nostalgia. Shteyngart didn’t bring up E.M. Forster, but I thought repeatedly, as he spoke, of Forster’s famous, poignant plea from Howard’s End: “Only connect . . .” And then I went to Palo Alto.
Walking around Facebook HQ with a colleague (yes, we ‘checked in’ on Facebook, or rather he did, because I am still afraid of smartphones) was fairly surreal. It was also remarkably like an exercise in reading Baudrillard. “Look!” I said, “There’s Mark Zuckerberg. He looks exactly like Mark Zuckerberg.” At the time, this seemed like a meaningful observation. We were in the midst of the physical space that produces the digital space that feels to me, I realized, very much like home (somewhere a little Mark Zuckerberg angel just got his wings). But this ‘original’ physical space was, in fact, deeply alienating, a wide-open space of connected workstations, walls plastered with faux-agitprop wall posters in all caps: “move fast and break things”; “done is better than perfect”; “eventually everything connects.” Someone asked us if we were technologists. No, we replied, we’re humanists. She laughed. Wait, we said, we’re serious. She smiled nervously and walked away.
It is the thesis of thousands of articles and essays that all of this enhanced and continual ‘connectedness’ is making us increasingly disconnected. The bolder variations on this theme claim that it is actually altering our subjectivity, our experiences of the world, our sense of what constitutes meaningful interaction. Some see this as a loss to be mourned and/or staunchly resisted; others view it as an inevitable change to be accepted or even embraced. And both views—the fresh-faced techno-optimism of Facebook as well as Lenny Abramov’s near-fetishistic attachment to smelly books and his doomed, quasi-analog love for the totally digital character of Eunice Park—underscore a common commitment to Forster’s imperative: a relentless drive to connect. I walked away from Shteyngart’s talk and Facebook HQ with the sense, however, that we conflate these forms of connection at our peril.
Shteyngart’s choice of religious language to characterize the encounter with the text was not coincidental. By setting apart the textual encounter, implying that the question “is it possible, now, to read well?” is a religious question, he invokes a host of attendant associations: the sacred, the singular, the irreducible. And he does it in a mode, made clear throughout his conversation with Wark (a self-proclaimed atheist), that is distinctly Jewish. Religion, here, is figured as and through a textual encounter, not as a profession of faith. Shteyngart’s fear is not the absence of the transcendent or the death of God; rather, it is the passing away of this encounter, the loss of the reader, the loss of the book.
Abby Kluchin is a doctoral candidate in philosophy of religion at Columbia University and teaches at the Cooper Union. You can follow her on Twitter @counter_factual.