Susan Griffin: Feminine and Masculine

A discussion on war and conflict with eco-feminist author Susan Griffin

Susan Griffin is a poet, essayist, and playwright. She was born in Los Angeles California in 1943. The Second World War and the holocaust are events that have had a lasting effect on her thinking, threading in and out of many of her books. Her writing has been described as a body of work which “draws distinctions between the destruction of nature, the diminishment of women and racism, and which traces the causes of war to denial in both private and public life”. Her book Woman and Nature has become the pivotal and founding text of eco-feminist ideas. At the same time, Women and Nature is a prose poem that moves away from traditional conventions of sociological writing. Her book about memory and war, A Chorus of Stones, incorporates new combinations of memoir and biography. A Chorus of Stones was a finalist for both the National Book Award as well as for the Pulitzer Prize. Ms. Griffin has been named by Utne reader as one of the 100 most important visionaries for the new millennium. She has also been the recipient of a Macarthur Grant for Peace and International Cooperation.

Pulse: Reading your book Women and Nature (1978), and being of the generation that grew up after that book was written, it can seem that the challenges women in most Western societies once faced have changed. Many of our experiences as women in the West have been free and full of opportunities due to strong and clear voices like yours that came before and paved the way for us. While we sense the power in your writing and thoughts, there is also a part of us that has a hard time seeing women through this book’s lens. Have things really changed, or are we naïve to react in such a way?

Griffin: Largely because of the women’s movement, there has been a great deal of progress. But we cannot take that change for granted. Not that many years ago the idea that women are equal to men was ridiculed and yet many also denied that women were facing inequality. Now, in the same way that racism has ceased to be socially acceptable, so has sexism. But in many cases, the change is only on the surface. You need to look at real indications, such as pay scales and boards of directors and the number of women in powerful governmental positions and even more importantly, from my point of view, how great an influence feminist values and attitudes (as opposed to the traditional values of masculinity) are being heard in the public arena.

Would you describe the relationship between women and men as one of conflict?

I don’t feel women and men are, on a deeper level, in conflict at all. We have been placed in conflict by history and various institutions. But that is not the real story. Instead we are both suffering from a system of values that is called masculine but really only serves might and power.

We need to look at the question of how discrimination against women is connected with environmental destruction, which is the subject matter of Woman and Nature. Both philosophically and psychologically, the denigration of women is tied to the denigration of matter, of the material world and the earth. This denigration is founded on the separation of spirit from matter. Once nature (matter) and women (who are associated with matter) are stripped of spiritual meaning (which is to say any meaning at all) we become raw material to be used or abused with impunity. These ideas are deeply embedded in our culture. They are consciously believed by some and unconsciously by many others, both men and women. If we want full equality we need to address and change these ideas, which are also, by the way, psychological structures that encourage denial (so dangerous in the age of global warming) and scapegoating of all kinds, including racism.

Do you think it is idealistic to imagine that one day we might be able to see ourselves as both feminine and masculine, that we might be able to recognize that those two things are distinct parts of being human and that each human knows them both?

I don’t think that is idealistic. In fact, it is realistic because that is who we really are. And until we begin to see that what we call masculine and feminine are social constructs that contain qualities that we all have, that are human, we will continue to suffer both individually and as a society from a kind of fracture, a painful and destructive split, in which our reason is not really reasonable and in which we do not learn from our emotions.

Expanding on this a bit: in reading your work, one understands that perhaps it is man’s own emotion that he sees in women, and it is this that he both wants to access in himself and yet also fears. It is a state of „no control” and so he craves to be seduced by it and yet finds it difficult to accept. What are your current thoughts are about this, and, as women, don’t we do this too?

Yes. I expand on this at length in a book I wrote on pornography which is called ‚Pornography and Silence‘. It is not a book that calls for censorship so much as a deeper understanding of what is really going on in pornography, which as a genre provides a classic example of projection. I suppose I ought to write something about this apart from the subject of pornography because some people have misread that book as being anti-sexual. In fact, it is pornography that is anti-sexual, covertly expressing fear (if not terror) toward sexual experience precisely because one cannot be in control of sexual desire, pleasure or orgasm. This explains the appeal of all those corny chains and restraints etc.

Do you see ways in which denial is related to this idea of man fearing emotion, and women being taught to fear it too?

Yes. As a culture we often respond to loss and death by denying feeling and with attempts to exert power and dominate. This may seem rational until you see how often we respond like the Bush administration did to 9/11. After being attacked by Al Qaeda, he launched an invasion of Iraq, a country that in fact was itself in conflict with Al Qaeda. An analogous situation would be when a man loses his job and then beats his wife. I am not saying that you should just sit around ‘feeling’ and do nothing in response to a crisis. But until you allow yourself to know your own emotions, you cannot respond in a constructive way.

Your work is about moving beyond the boundaries of form and perception. Do you think these boundaries are real? Do we set our own limits? Create our own forms?

We are always creating forms and repeating the forms we have been given. Even the most creative forms are made from old forms. Take jazz for instance which mixes African music and Spanish rhythms with classical opera and African American spirituals: jazz itself constantly creates new kinds of music.

Are boundaries real? Some are. The walls of the human cell constitute a very intelligent boundary that can detect what will be nutritious or what will be harmful. Those walls only let in the good stuff. One of the reasons that toxic radiation is so harmful to the body is that in addition to being harmful to DNA and cellular functioning, it destroys cellular boundaries. So some boundaries, as long as they are not rigid, are vital to our survival. But other boundaries are imagined. The idea that women are inferior in math and science is a boundary we need to move past. There was a well known author who served on the board of NEA for a while who openly said he would not give grants to women writers because he said we had inferior minds. That is a boundary that we need to get past. Having the courage to cross such boundaries is important. But boundary crossing can also become a fetish; it can become empty, as in a product such as Proctor and Gamble’s “all new” detergent.

Do you think it is sometimes necessary to go to extremes in order to break these delusions of denial?

I have to know what you are calling extreme to answer that question. In other words, I can’t answer it in the abstract. One person’s extreme is another person’s bright idea. If you are talking, for instance, about using violence toward other human beings for social change, I would say I am against that. Though I am not against self-defense. It’s sometimes very hard to draw that line and one should never draw it abstractly as in ‘that person or country or company or organization’ is going to harm me one day so I’d better initiate an attack. Abstraction will lead you to do things you will regret and that are, in the flesh, often cruel if not immoral.

Is seeing a situation clearly and specifically sometimes a matter of accepting it, of looking at it without judgment? Do we have to do this before it will change?

Acceptance does not imply stupidity. Acceptance means that you have simply taken in the reality of what is, and though this may seem easy, it is not. Depending on how traumatic or painful an event or a situation is, it can take years to accept the reality of it. Judgment often gets in the way of acceptance. It’s a covert way of appearing to master a situation. But I am not categorically opposed to judgment. I believe some actions — the abuse of children, the bombing of unarmed civilians, torture — are wrong and those who do these things ought to be brought to justice. We must declare collectively that these actions are wrong, as we did in the Nuremberg trials. In fact, bringing perpetrators to justice often helps bystanders or even victims to accept the reality of painful events. Acceptance, not without but separated from judgment, can be important if you want to understand larger social patterns that create immoral acts. And added to this mix, discernment is crucial. To refine your perceptions, to look carefully, to use the same intelligence the walls of your cells do in differentiating one thing from another.

Do you think we create conflict as a way of finding knowledge?

I don’t think we create conflict in order to know. I think conflict can arrive from ignorance. Then conflict is just reality knocking. And in this way, a conflict can create us, at least if it gives us an opportunity to know ourselves.

How do you see the relationship between living from this place of radical honesty and our ability to widen our boundaries, increase perspective and understanding in our private lives and perhaps also in the wider world?

I like this phrase “living from a place of radical honesty.” Authenticity. It’s much like the experience of hearing a note that is right on pitch. In that state, you often open your heart, feel more deeply, and see more clearly. So of course you do widen your boundaries: It’s a natural part of that state of mind.

Would you say this is the main meaning of our lives? To awaken like this?

Yes. And to love.

You write that the word secret has an erotic edge. If we live in this kind of honest and lucid state, without secrets, is there still eroticism? Is there still mystery? Isn’t this something we need as well?

Of course. The world is an erotic place. We are fields of energy. We are always exchanging our selves, our breath, our consciousness, with trees and air and the sun and water and other people and the food we eat. Every sound we hear vibrates in our own bodies. Every thing we see becomes part of us. The more we are honest, which means being present to ourselves, the more alive we are to the world, the more we feel this Eros. So of course there is mystery. The mystery of otherness which comes from respect, from really taking in existence. The mystery that a tree exists, for instance. All the science I have ever learned about trees does not erase the mystery of its being. Nor has that science erased the mystery of my own being either. But I love these mysteries. They are not the same as secrets. Because you feel them and know them and even swim in these mysteries. They do not occlude love (as secrets do), they invite it.

That’s beautiful! To realize that mystery invites love, and secrets occlude it. In that sense, secrets also lead to denial. And in politics, as you suggest, it is often denial that people follow because it gives them a false sense of control. In accepting the truth and the mystery, in not denying it, are we left feeling unsafe?

Well, yes. When you give up denial, you will feel unsafe. But then another kind of safety builds. It is more like a state of trust. Not in fate or some god who will always make things go your way but in existence itself, the depth and profundity of it all. This is a far more realistic sense of safety, and you realize over time it is also more reliable and you don’t have to sacrifice either your intelligence or the full dimensionality of your emotions to have it.

You write: “There are events in our lives that we cannot understand because we keep a part of what we know away from understanding.“ Would war be impossible if we didn’t keep this part away from understanding? Is this the same idea as not denying the masculine and feminine within ourselves?

Yes. But who is the “we” here? War is not an event caused by individuals. Our part in it may be just to have relinquished power to a dictator or an unwise leader—such as we had on 9/11.

I can’t answer your other question here because it would take too long. I wrote a whole book about it (Chorus of Stones). Only I will say that gender is basically a system of denial and it’s a system that I believe came from war and in turn helps to aid and abet war. Briefly, the qualities which are supposed to be masculine are really the qualities of a good and loyal soldier—not feeling, denying fear, being tough, aggressive etc. You need to make men into good solders if you’re going to build an empire. So our idea of masculinity got invented to make soldiers. Our ideas of femininity I think got invented from the separation I mentioned between meaning and matter, but also from the need to keep the home fires burning, to have someone to create a place that is peaceful, yet at the same time stripped of any meaning in the polis or public sphere; a place that doesn’t threaten the war makers, where the wounded, tired soldiers can go to repair. And where we can preserve that which is really at the core of human experience – feeling, sensuality, mutual sustenance, nurturance.

As you write, the desire to avoid humiliation and shame plays a very big role in politics. Is this the biggest cause of conflict?

No. But it is underrated. Especially among political leaders. It inhibits courage. And it’s a common feeling in a society based on competition and rank and domination. We all have it.

William Blake talks about how brothels are built with the bricks of religion. Do you think it is our suppression of emotion that causes us to have to contend with humiliation and shame? If we were living honestly, in touch with our desires and emotions, would there even be any such thing as shame?

That’s a great question. I think it should stand by itself, speak for itself. The question is true.

As we discussed our questions for you here, I began wondering what your thoughts are in terms of the role or existence of paradox. It comes up a lot in your work: the way both one thing and it’s opposite is somehow true: war is about tradition, but it is also the way we advance (physically, technologically); we want to connect to the world and people around us and yet fearing this connection, we see ourselves as alone…

I actually love paradoxes. I remember when I learned this world as a girl, I tried to use it as much as possible. And probably still do. Paradoxes are not intrinsically bad. I believe our current view of the physical universe is paradoxical – that matter is made of both particle and waves at the same time. War is a tradition yes, but it is also an orientation, an approach. It is in us, in a sense, and we live in a culture that supports that tendency or that possibility more than others. For this reason, I don’t think the innovation that comes from war and the tradition of war is a real paradox. They belong to the same intent.

Freud talked about paradoxes being explained in the unconscious. But also, opposites are attractive (and attract each other as in positive and negative charges). Two strong colors against each other are very exciting to behold.

In your books, you write very beautifully about Germany and its history. I’m wondering if the subject of war led you to Germany, or if it was your experience with Germany that led you to the subject of war?

War came first and then Germany. I grew up in a generation shadowed by the holocaust, which was still happening in the year I was born, 1943. So ever since I learned about the holocaust, which was when I was about 7 years old, I turned my thoughts to this history, with anguish but also with the desire to learn. This must have been intensified because I was adopted by a Jewish family. Most of my family of birth came from Scotch, Irish and Welch backgrounds, but there were some German ancestors and some who were probably Jewish though they “passed” as gentile. Probably because of the war, no one talked very much then about German ancestry. In that period many people demonized Germans, including me. Once I began writing about nuclear weapons, I naturally wanted to know if there was a connection between these weapons and the holocaust and I found one in concentration camp Dora. After that I made several trips to Germany and made deep connections with several German men and women with whom I felt empathy in response to the stories they told me. So in a sense war brought me to demonize, whereas trying to understand war brought me to connection and compassion.

Interview by Andrea Hiott, 2010.


Brandon Boyd & Andrea Hiott: Creativity And Intention

Interview from 2009.

Brandon Boyd, lead singer of Incubus, discusses the ways truth can be a form of liberation

pulse: You’re most well known for your music, but you’ve recently published your second book of drawings and writings, From the Murks of the Sultry Abyss. How is this book connected to the other work you do?

Brandon Boyd: The intentions I had in making the book are the same ones I have when I’m writing or creating music: I’m doing it because it’s what feels right, creating and expressing, letting my experiences and my individual life come out in whatever form or medium they want to take. When I was really young, it was always in drawing that I found that expression. Then I started playing music and writing when I was a teenager… It’s always been this kind of natural progression.

It sounds like it’s easy for you to trust that creative impulse in yourself?

Yeah, most of the time it is. Which doesn’t mean I don’t second-guess myself. I think that’s sort of part and parcel to creativity though, that vulnerability, that moment before you give it over, where you’re like ‘Ok I’m going to publish it now’ or ‘I’m going to put this out as a record’, that moment where you start second-guessing everything and thinking ‘This might be the worst thing I’ve ever done!’

Taking those kinds of risks seems to have been rewarding for you; How do you think your creative process, or your way of accessing that internal creative place, has changed in the midst of so much fanfare and praise?

I don’t think I ever really anticipated that anyone would like anything I’d created. I really started out doing it for merely self-indulgent  purposes. A lot of it I did because it almost felt like a necessity, especially with writing, I felt like if I didn’t write these things down they were going to consume me and force me into some kind of tough shell that I wouldn’t be able to crack out of. In that sense, a lot of the writing has been therapeutic, me just trying to get my ideas out. When the praise starts to come I try to just look at it as surface flattery; I try not to take it any deeper. I have a pretty good understanding of the fleeting nature of these things, of the fleeting nature of success, and so I understand that our fame is merely a moment in time and soon someone else will take that place.

But have you always had that perspective? Or was that something you had to learn through experience?

Somehow I think I always kind of knew that fame was something temporary. As a kid I was always fascinated by artists and by music; so by looking at these people’s lives it was pretty easy for me to come to the understanding that if fame did come to me it would probably be fleeting. We’ve had so many teachers before us – whether it’s rockstars or artists or authors – these people who’ve gone completely off the deep end believing in the praise and become megalomaniacs in their approach to life. When you look at these people you can see that it’s usually when they start believing in all that stuff people are saying about them that their art, or whatever it is they’re creating, really starts to suck. (laughing)

Right. Sometimes there’s a blurry line between having the determination and confidence to follow your dreams and, on the other hand, that possibility that you’re taking yourself and your whole place in the world a bit too seriously. Is that a harder place to negotiate once you start to get a lot of attention?

Well I guess there are certain people who get involved in creative forms because they want to be creative and expressive and they want to have truth and purity in their lives; people who do it because they want to be able to continually express themselves. Then there are other people who are attracted to creative forms because they want to be famous.

So maybe it’s more about intention?

In my opinion, so much of it is really about what you had in mind when you got into it: was it only that you wanted to be a rockstar and see your name in lights? I never really had those kinds of dreams. I knew I loved music and I knew that when I sang in a certain way it made my chest and my whole stomach tickle and I liked it. It still does that same thing to me; I know I’m doing it right when it makes my core tingle a little bit. I get the same feeling when I’m painting a picture or when I get into that almost hypnotic state of writing – those things are incredible and those are the kinds of things that attract me to creativity. Which reminds me of a second thing I wanted to say in response to your question, and that’s that there are all kinds of psychologies inherent in all of this that play a big role as well. You have to consider the way people were brought up for instance, their birth order or their rivalry with their siblings, because all of these things also matter. They can all add up to either inflated egos or deflated egos. It’s not really ever black and white or one way or the other when it comes to what makes a person creative or what makes a life creative or true.

I just had this discussion with a bioethics professor and he said that about half of our personality is stuff that we’re just born with, then about 25% is environmental and psychological, like you were saying, and then the rest of it is just kind of open, it’s what we make of it.

Which is really fascinating because it’s that whole idea of ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink’. I mean, you could bring a child up in the most creative and wonderfully expressive environment and all signs would point to them being a creative and expressive individual as well, but then there are these certain factors that you just can’t control; there’s always this chaos. So it’s really just a question that’s different for every individual. We have to ask what’s true for our own individual self.

Right. I always wonder how much control we have in that sense. For instance, if I have some kind of gene in my family that says I’m going to be an alcoholic, can I beat that? I want to believe most of us can; but it’s so much harder for some people than for others.

It depends on where you’re at in all those chemical and environmental percentages I guess. And I think that can be said not only about addictive behavior but also about behavior in general. Depending on our environment and our parents and the way we were raised it’s probably more likely than not that we’re going to repeat certain forms of our parents behavior and our parents’ parents behavior and so on. There are certain things, certain very basic psychological precepts, which are true maybe 96% of the time, but that doesn’t mean 100% of the time you’re going to repeat those patterns. You always have the chance to step out on your own and break the chain — sorry if I’m sounding cliché here — but it really is like there’s a chain of events that people usually follow through in their lives without really paying that close of attention to what’s actually happening. But every once in a while there’ll be this rogue who’s like ‘Fuck that’ or ‘I’m not going to let my boyfriend hit me’ or ‘I’m not going to be an alcoholic’ and the great thing is that once that cycle is broken it doesn’t repeat itself again; the kids those people have are going to be much more likely to live without those harmful patterns.

I wonder what it takes to be a rogue though, seriously, because sometimes I think it’s just a matter of information and option. Of course it’s also willpower, but isn’t some of it just being aware there are other options?

Well there are probably a lot of people who wouldn’t behave the way they did if they knew there was another option, if they had access to some kind of creativity, just to a typewriter or a paper or a canvas or some kind of way of expression. If people had more access to those parts of themselves they probably wouldn’t be as full of rage as they are about something in their lives right now. It’d give them another way, which might be all they’d need in the end to get to the truth of things, just a different perspective or some other angle or place where they could take a different look at things…


Maryanne Wolf: Deep Reading

interview by Andrea Hiott, 2009

Contrary to popular belief, Maryanne Wolf is not against new technology. Ms. Wolf, the somewhat controversial author of Proust and the Squid, merely wants us to be careful. Technology is a convenience we need not relinquish, she says. Still, sometimes in our rush to jump from desire to fulfillment, we miss the very thing we are looking for in the first place — the meaning.

Reading deeply does not mean being miserable. Quite the opposite: it means deepening one’s capacity for pleasure. Reading has implications on our brains that result in the ways we see and navigate our world, ultimately opening our lives to a richness and quality hard to quantify in charts or graphs. Wolf‘s work ultimately asks us to slow down long enough to realize this immense gift we‘ve developed, and thus to strengthen this capacity within our brains, rather than to become lazy and let it go.

Pulse: Why do you think some people have difficulty agreeing with your book, even as they feel compelled to discuss it?

Maryanne Wolf: Part of the reason people don’t always understand what I’m trying to say in the book is because of the tendency to think in a binary way of “either/or” rather than with the complexity that is the nature of knowledge. A complex way of thinking that holds both the “either” and the “or” at the same time has always been a necessary part of arriving at any real knowledge, but now that our awareness is expanding, this is an absolutely essential idea in a way it never was before.

You mean that to be able to see both sides of any issue without judging either of them has indeed become almost an urgent skill for us now? It’s not a new idea. I think of Emerson when he says…

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Right. Or think of F. Scott Fitzgerald who says, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I think that expresses very well one of the things that in academic life I’m always butting my head against. We deal with contradictory pieces of information all the time and we must navigate our own intellectual vessel through those contradictions rather than only go with the maelstrom.

Like how you say our brains were never made to read, and yet reading has become one of the most important things. How has reading changed, or how is it changing, our brains?

Our brain has beautiful genetic programs for all the basic organs of the body and for our basic structures which organize how we receive information and how we organize it. When I say basic structures, I mean things like vision, memory, auditory processes, and language – it’s all in there. But there’s nothing in there for reading. There’s not a gene and there’s not an organ. Instead, what you have in the brain is this miraculous capacity to take those older structures and create a new circuit, a new pathway, which results in reading.

So parts of our brain are communicating with other parts in new ways?

No matter what you do, both sides of your brain are communicating. I’ll use music as an example. When you deal with music you are using some aspects (she hums a little tune called Ode to Joy). When I first started whistling just then, you were using your right hemisphere because it was just a fun thing, you were just listening to a whistle. But then very quickly you heard the melody, and with that you started trying to place it, and then there were associations, maybe “Berlin”, then “Beethoven”, then “Ode to Joy, 9th Symphony” – and with such association, you were using your left hemisphere. So all of this information is easily integrated even in the act of listening to just a simple thing like a whistle. With reading, you use the left and the right for a few milliseconds because the right hemisphere visual sends it across to the left hemisphere and that connects it up with language and then, once you have become a fluent reader, there are many different parts of your brain being activated at the same time.

Can our brains create new neurons? Can we change our brains not only by establishing new connections between existing neurons but also by having totally new ones come into play?

Yes. It’s true. When I was going to school, it was considered impossible to create new neurons but we now know that isn’t true. One of my friends was very involved in work on the hippocampus which is a part of the brain that is heavily involved in memory and they suddenly found ‘oh my god the hippocampus is getting new neurons, this is not possible’ and of course that was the beginning of our understanding of how changeable the brain really can be.

Can we do this consciously yet? Can we consciously change our brain?

Everything changes your brain, but that’s different from neurons being developed. So you can change your brain in all kinds of ways when it comes to neural pathways between existing neurons. A five-year-olds brain when its first beginning to read and getting all this information is sort of firing in all directions – it doesn’t know what to use so it uses all these different parts at first — but as it goes along and gets better and fluent, things become automatic and certain paths get put down in the brain. Soon, it uses less to produce more. The important thing to understand is: once it is pruned, there’s actually even more comprehension.

Is that what you mean when you say that the most important contribution of reading is that it provides us with more time?

That’s it. When we are children, it takes us a very long time to decode a word. You might have one image that goes with various sounds, but basically you’re using a lot of brain activity to get that image. You haven’t gotten to that rich semantic process where “bat” can have multiple meanings. But let’s say you’re nine or ten and you’ve done some of this pruning so that now you have this basic idea of “bat” decoded. Well now you have time to comprehend all the other ways this word can be used – it’s multiple definitions, its ability to be both a noun or a verb, to become Batwoman or Batman or whatever. You begin to have time to connect all the variations of that word and then you can use it in a sentence and connect it to prior experiences and knowledge: in essence, you now have time to think. If you don’t have to think, you will not be able to proceed. And that’s a very basic problem with digital. It’s not that you don’t have the potential to have time, but it’s that the medium itself prevents you from using that time to think. There’s so much passivity that goes on because you’re receiving so much that you don’t actually pause and use those extra milliseconds for the richness that would otherwise become a part of the brain, as it does in traditional reading.

So it’s not a matter of not using the technology; rather, it‘s a matter of using it in a way that still allows for resonance. It’s about being aware enough to appreciate the experience itself.

Right. Being aware enough to notice the rest of the picture. And “the rest of the picture”, as you read, becomes what’s activated from that point on. So let’s just go back to “bat”: If you learn all this stuff about “bat”, every time you read that word, it’s all activated. So that means that it’s additive, it’s this cumulative brain that just keeps adding associations. Reading literally enriches the brain and that’s why there’s this paradox, this thing that requires you to hold to opposing ideas at once – it both prunes and makes you more knowledgeable and faster. It makes you faster for the purpose of richness, so that you have the time to bring together all the things you know about whatever the word or subject might be. When this happens, every time that part of your brain is activated, you get this extraordinary, embroidered, complex of association around any concept or word.

Can time in the sense that you use it be the same thing as awareness, so that you’re not only thinking, you’re also thinking about thinking? Does it give you the space to be aware of your thoughts? Is that part of learning as well?

In the sense of attention, focusing the attention, yes. Awareness is similar but I’ll use “attention” because it’s more cognitively precise in my research world. Time allows you the ability to focus your attention more broadly or more deeply or more narrowly and what you do with it is in some ways reliant on the medium. If the medium like a book permits and even invites you to go even more deeply, then that actually invites deeper contemplative processes. If the medium, like my computer, invites me to speed up, I’ll somehow end up focusing less deeply. My attention is then being drawn very quickly to the next and then the next and then the next.

Maybe I’m not expressing this clearly but what I mean is the difference between „having your attention taken by something“ and „being aware of what your attention is on“.

I see. Interesting.

Because then it makes sense for me when I hear you say that you want to get people to think about how the expectation of the medium affects the quality of their days or lives.

Technologies are like anything else. They’re a tool, and they can be used for good or for bad. I’m saying: we must understand more about the tool than we do right now.

You want us to take the time to understand the relationship between thought and technology rather than just –

To lurch. We tend to lurch into these things. My hope is that we will take the time necessary to think through the implications of what each medium promotes and fosters and threatens. I think where we are now is kind of a dangerous moment in time because we have it within us to be very thoughtful. And the capacity for just the opposite. Because of the research I do on the preciousness of the reading brain, I smell a great threat and I want to alert everyone to the possibility for good and ill when it comes to this precious commodity, reading, and our new digital culture.

I don’t think we can live without the arts, and without what I think “reading” for you represents. It’s how we learn what is possible. I think everyone knows this but doesn’t think about it. You’re trying to get us to think about it. This is necessary. And I understand your worry, but I don’t think these things can go away. Change, yes, but not disappear.

I hope you’re right. But I will say that I was unpleasantly shocked when I read the Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making Us Stupid? In that article, the writer used part of my book as well as an interview with me in which I called all these processes “deep reading” processes. He used this term “deep reading” in his article. As a result, the encyclopedia Britannica had a Blog on this topic and people wrote things like “Who cares about War and Peace? Who cares about Tolstoy? This is too long and we don’t need it. It’s boring.” So the kinds of responses to these questions were more often than I would ever have believed possible, reductionistic, a thought bite and sound bite mentality and not appreciating what you are now saying about how important art and writing are for our culture. I could not agree with you more. That’s what I believe too. But I’m seeing evidence that a portion of society that believes that it can get along very well without it.

Point taken. But I would suggest that it’s actually not that the idea that we’ve just expressed that has changed but rather the sources. Young people still need books, they still crave stories. Think Harry Potter. Think Twilight. Now this isn’t exactly heady stuff. But there’s heady stuff out there too. And some of the heady stuff of the past wasn’t considered so heady either when it first came out.

It’s very true. There’s a lot of it there. My question though, is whether the richness that we talked about in the beginning of the interview is being reduced.

It‘s true we can get so caught up in wanting the next hit, the next high or the next stimulating point, so that we have no idea what we’re really reading or experiencing at all. That’s one level. The level I think you say is dangerous. But then there’s another way to live today, too, isn‘t there? We can step back and see all this in a wider way and then anything that comes in can be read quite deeply, can‘t it? Harry Potter or War and Peace.

That‘s true. But about whom is that true? And is the percentage for whom that’s true narrowing in our societies? I have been accused in this whole discussion of being an elitist. On these radio shows and whatever, people say to me “Well you’re talking about a very small percentage of the population and who cares because these people will always be reading these books” and my evolving response to that is: I’m really wanting the next generation to be better than us. I’m not thinking about percentages. I’m thinking about the young. I’m thinking of how we can develop more and more of the potential of more and more of the young. So to talk about elitism is merely missing the point. I want the best for every person and that means a lot of diversity. When when people talk about deep reading being possible in these other forms such as graphic novels, I can understand. My son Ben (who is dyslexic) is an artist and for him, the narrative is visual. He and I couldn’t be more different. He is a product of a beautiful feature of human species and organization which has diverse brain organization possibilities. I think the digital and literate cultures reflect some of that diversity. And what I don’t want to have is some of that diversity thrown to the side or discarded.

Do you ever think when people tell you things like “your views are elitist” that it’s coming from fear? The same fear that we’ve always had, that we’re not smart enough or that because we haven’t read all these classic books we’re somehow unworthy? If they really understood what you meant by “deep reading” they would probably feel a real sense of common purpose with you on it.

Right. It’s probably not that the things we want are different, we’re just speaking different languages. If I were to really sit and talk with them, it might come out. If I were to ask them what they truly want for their children. They would want their children to experience the fullness and the richness that is possible in life. I think what you’re also expressing is the fact that there are anti-intellectual forces always about and that’s part of the diversity but I would just want to talk to the person who seems anti-intellectual and eliminate the fear factor or the inferiority factor and just try to make it clear that we could all work together to make the best for the next generation. That’s the point.

photo credit: Tufts University