- Courtesy Of Michael Nagle
- Virginia Heffernan
"The Internet is paradigmatic magic," writes New York-based cultural critic Virginia Heffernan. "It turns experiences from the material world that used to be densely physical ... into frictionless, weightless, and fantastic abstractions." The author of 2016's Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art is one of three plenary speakers at this year's Vermont Humanities Council fall conference, to take place at the University of Vermont's Dudley H. Davis Center on November 17 and 18. This year's theme: "The double-edged sword of technology."
A central contention of Magic and Loss is that the internet may rival — and surpass — all previous forms of human creative production. In the book's preface, Heffernan outlines a grandiose task for herself: "My aim," she writes, "is to build a complete aesthetics — and poetics — of the Internet." (She prefers to capitalize "Internet.")
Her qualifications for this mission consist of many years writing for the New York Times Magazine, as well as ample contributions to major publications including the New Yorker, Wired and Slate. Heffernan started at the Times as a television critic in 2003 and transitioned to the role of internet columnist at that publication from 2007 to 2011.
In service to her aesthetic theory, Heffernan divides her book into chapters focused on the elements she's identified as the internet's central components: design, text, images, video and music. Her writing is accessible, darting quickly and casually (like the internet?) among personal anecdotes, wide-ranging literary references and broad reflections on media production. This is not a book of specifics, but rather a first-hand, optimistic and high-spirited jaunt through a major cultural transition.
"It seems to me that [Heffernan] has a pretty unique view," VHC director of community programs Amy Cunningham offered by phone. "She's approaching the internet from a spiritual and cultural connection, as a cultural critic, and as an art critic — and that's kind of mind-blowing to me."
Cunningham also noted that Heffernan's regional ties appealed to the VHC: Heffernan grew up on the Dartmouth College campus, as she notes in her book, and first encountered the primitive internet as a young teen hanging out with students there.
Armed with a PhD from Harvard University in English and American literature, Heffernan frequently seems to come at her subject matter from a defensive position — perhaps not surprising considering her academic background. She writes in her "Manifesto," published on her personal website, "What if, just for an hour or so, we suspended the assumption that the Internet is nothing but a public health hazard or a tool of the surveillance state or a means to a venal end?"
Considering the internet as a conduit of both magic and loss, Heffernan falls decidedly on the side of magic. She dismisses, for example, cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling's claim that "connectivity is poverty." Similarly, she does away with the anxiety pithily summarized by the fear that Twitter will "kill" poetry — and even ropes in Emily Dickinson to make her point. Edward Mendelson, of the New York Review of Books and a Columbia University prof, called the book "an ecstatic narrative of submission." Indeed, those wishing to be absolved of the guilt they feel for internet addiction will likely find a friend in Heffernan.
At UVM, she will share the spotlight with Northwestern University economics professors Robert Gordon and Joel Mokyr, who will offer the talk "Will Technology Save Us?"; and with Yale University English professor and dean of the Humanities Program Amy Hungerford, speaking on "Sociable Solitude" in the internet era. In addition to her November 18 plenary lecture, Heffernan will offer the breakout session "Optimizing Data," considering the uneasy relationship among statistics, the soul and the cultivation of well-being.
In a time when humans struggle to define their relationship — both as individuals and collectives — to the unwieldy, overwhelming power of the internet, Heffernan will certainly contribute to assembling pieces of that puzzle.