Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art

A Review by Wayne Johnson

Virginia Heffernan’s Magic and Loss (Simon & Schuster, release date June 7, 2016) simply defies categorization. When selecting it as their #1 New Release for this week, Amazon’s curators classified it as “Philosophy Aesthetics”, in dizzying company with the late Umberto Eco’s History of Beauty. As Professor of Semiotics at Bologna University, Eco taught and wrote about signs, symbols and syntax, which it turns out has a lot to do with aesthetics.

While aesthetics is principally about apprehending taste and beauty, the discipline also explores light and shadow, discerning edges, texture and color. Heffernan appears to move effortlessly from discussing with childlike wonder her first email address, to witnessing her first online video, the iconic Funtwo upload titled guitar, to the transition from what she terms parataxis – “all that black space” – to hypotaxis, the Internet screen that is completely filled out and planned for us, the users. When we consider that Funtwo posted that video only ten years ago, on January 25, 2006, and that at the time YouTube was only three months old, it is understandable that we might not have yet looked back upon the immersive experience, to consider what exactly it was we were experiencing. It turns out that along with being an entertainment venue, job market, soap box and coffee klatsch, the Internet is also a giant work of art in progress.

The concept was so odd to me that I did not at first understand it. I was distracted by Heffernan’s prose, at once both careful and exuberant. More than once I was reminded of Marilynne Robinson, and was not surprised to find a reference to her on the next to last page of Magic and Loss. There are differences, to be sure. The city technology writer and the Iowa novelist. While Heffernan occasionally uses the language which younger women seem to get away with, in her discussion of Robinson it’s clear that she is attracted by the Pulitzer Prize winner’s overt Christian themes. And they are both very gifted at the art of essay.

Heffernan, some may recall, sent the literati into spasm when as the science and technology writer for Yahoo she announced one day that she simply could not accept the evolutionary account of creation. It mattered not that her objections were largely for aesthetic reasons. The denunciations were, as expected, immediate and unqualified. It was widely predicted that she was through as a critic and writer and would “never work in this town again.” The fact that she currently writes a language column for The New York Times Magazine stands as mute testimony to the folly of those predictions. She was, and is, simply too smart to be dismissed, and far too engaging as a writer. She is by most accounts one of the best prose writers in English, although you don’t grasp that at first, because she writes in a way that you understand and, well, that seems like cheating.

In The Portrait of a Scholar and Other Essays Written in Macedonia 1916-1918, Robert William Chapman eulogizes “The Death of Syntax”, and with it English prose. (“What has been admired or derided as the style of Charles Dickens does not deserve to be called a style. It is a mere collection of indifferent tricks. Anthony Trollope, who is free from mannerism, is entirely without style. His writing is not offensive, and at its best it has an attractive simplicity; but at its worst might also be called illiterate….”). The critiques are withering, and we stand in awe that the language has survived to the present day despite this century old post mortem. Elizabethan English had “juvenile elasticity”, but as the language reached its zenith, all that was left to Chapman was to observe here and there the beauty in its decay.

Though Chapman was a gifted and even entertaining critic, he sold English short. Nowhere is that more obvious than on the Internet, where literally everyone can join the conversation. The laboratory of linguistic growth and change that Chapman saw in everyday speech, and which he thought was by its commonplace incapable of effecting linguistic change within the social circles that mattered, has suddenly come into its own as laboratory and as art-in-progress.

Explaining how this came about is Heffernan’s task as she walks us through the early moments of the Internet, from its anti-graphical keystroke driven blackness, to pallet and connectivity. We learn about the battles over design, text, images, video and music. Who won, and who lost. And though it is a history of sorts, it is a story told by a docent who seems almost lost in awe at the works she describes – almost. She never leaves the reader, and is never at a loss for words. We do not object when she digresses, as she does in a chapter called “Reading is Lurking” in which she grants permissions that we want and need.

After confessing that in the early years online she read voraciously “websites devoted to parenting, consumer electronics, celebrity gossip, furniture design, health anomalies, and real estate…To the sites’ message boards, which I used to follow avidly, I contributed a total of three overwritten comments. They sank like stones.”

“Was lurking a violation of web ethics” she asks, “or a return to luxurious nonparticipatory reading?” Lurking she explains, is what we used to call reading. “When I lurk, I relax, fall silent, become a cosseted baroness whose electronic servants bring her funny pictures and distracting tales. I have no responsibilities. I’m entirely on intake. If I were reading Knausgaard or Anita Shreve this way, I’d be an NEA-certified exemplar of civilization.”

So there.

Those of us who work in the digital world must consciously stop and take note, since we are hard-wired to move fast and live in the moment of a digital environment always in flux. It turns out that it is worth stopping. It is worth taking note.

Wayne Johnson is President of Gateway Media, a national digital media agency based in Sacramento, CA. He is also Editor of the history quarterly Leben.