My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The internet is more than a scientific and technical marvel or a communication channel, it’s also a cultural space, an art scene, and a work of art itself. In her book Magic and Loss, critic and journalist Virginia Heffernan offers an aesthetic history and appraisal of the internet. She looks at the various media of the internet’s multimedia in turn, reflecting on design, text, video, and audio. But she also looks at it as a whole, as a cultural movement with recurring trends and flows.
In the preface, Heffernan lays out her argument and invites you into her own experience. She offers personal view of the internet—specifically, her view over thirty years. Though she doesn’t belabor the personal versus public collapse that occupies many internet social scientists (something she implicitly disregards in the last chapter when she invokes Richard Rorty), Heffernan was personally and publicly transformed by the internet many times in her life. And for her, those moments are entangled with intellectual, affective, spiritual, and ultimately aesthetic currents.
She feels the internet in the same way she has felt literature and television, the high and the low cultural canon, and she also believes in it. Spirituality and aesthetics have always been entwined. And in the internet, Heffernan finds that the sum is greater than the parts. The irony of cultural progress, however, is one of “magic and loss,” which gives the book its name. The enchantment of the internet and its new pleasures necessarily come at the expense of something else—and these losses are tracked down and highlighted in the author’s critique. But what separates Heffernan from the other critics like Nicholas Carr is that she doesn’t dwell on the losses. She argues that they are part of the aesthetic experience.
For people familiar with the history of the internet, especially the web and internet culture through YouTube and Twitter, you might be quick to dismiss her retelling of it. But even an internet culture researcher like myself appreciated the way Heffernan brought out individual videos or forms of experience in new ways. She marshals a deep reservoir of literary allusions throughout the book that are refreshing and thought-provoking. For instance, a meditation on Twitter as poetry would seem obvious from the surface, but her rich dissection of the topic repeatedly surprised me. It helped me to think about art, as well as the internet, differently.
For some readers, the tone might strike them as odd. As it takes the formal literary criticism style of the New York Review of Books and applies it to the most mundane parts of the internet. What makes it work is her earnestness and her journalistic flow. She loves this stuff and is clearly excited to share that passion with her readers and fellow digital culture aficionados.
In the last chapter, she becomes deeply autobiographical. The book shifts from cultural artifacts to herself as evolving subject. You realize by the end that this is not only a work of criticism but also a memoir. This is the key to Heffernan’s argument that the internet is art. Because she illustrates the internet’s affect and effect on her in ways only a deeply powerful aesthetic experience can provide.
You might not agree with all parts of her argument or how she arrives at her conclusions. Even so, this book is a brilliant reflection on how the internet operates as a cultural space and how it has changed the way we experience art more generally. I highly recommend it.