October 4, 2000

Morrison Lectures on Digitization of Literature

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Toni Morrison MA ’55, the Nobel Laureate Pulitzer Prize-winning author and A.D. White Professor-at-Large, addressed a filled David L. Call Alumni Auditorium in Kennedy Hall last night.

Morrison gave a free public lecture addressing issues involving the globalization and the digitalization of information, stressing its implications on the quality, quantity and content of literature as well as its function in society.

Morrison began by defining globalization as a universal movement with ramifications reaching as far as imperialism and manifest destiny had on past generations.

“Globalism is hailed with the same vigor as was manifest destiny, as was internationalism, as was universalism and has reached a level of majesty in our imagination,” Morrison said. “Narrowly defined, globalism is intended to be an instant movement of capital and a rapid distribution of data and products operation on a politically neutral plain, shaped by multinational corporate demands.”

Morrison explained the capabilities of a more globalized community to bring information and affect the way people budget and esteem their time.

“The accumulation of those nanoseconds that the fastest, most efficient computer programs save is an accumulation at our disposal for some other time, for some other function or activity. The promised pleasure of [more time] is tantamount to having virtually more life. Or shall I say more virtual life. The promise of more life lies dormant beneath the surface of globalized digitalized time whispering seductively that the quality of life improves with its quantity,” she said.

However, Morrison criticized the availability of information as a result of digitilization, stressing that it could potentially lead to the dissolution of separate cultures.

“In this fearsome scenario we imagine under the impact of globalism indistinguishability, the elimination of minority languages, of minority cultures and we speculate with horror on what could be the irrevocable enfeebling alteration of major languages and major cultures in its sweep.”

Morrison then turned to the effect digitalization has had on literature and the position literature may play in the future, specifically citing the existence of online publishing companies to bring together all forms of writing.

Morrison was not concerned over the fate of literature in the digital world, but rather the continuing trend toward a more visual medium of expression.

“It seems that whatever its delivery system or its profit margin the practice of literature has certain traditional impulses that address and ameliorate the qualms that arise when contemplating its future,” Morrison said.

“I happen to believe that literature provides the experience and memory of a public contextual life, that it reclaims private life within an enriched cultural landscape, and it offers the best possibility of language doing its sacred memorializing work,” she said.

Morrison also noted a growing trend toward a desensitization of the public to violence and outrage.

“Not only are we not more engaged we are profoundly distanced less and less able to discriminate edit or measure our shock or empathy when confronted with rapid visualizations of catastrophe,” she said.

Morrison also urged those present to retain a sense of individuality and identity separate from what the media presents.

“We should not rely on the spectacle to hand us our identity. We become advertisements of ourselves, with logos instead of names and designer bodies instead of flesh, all under the pressure of the spectacle which confounds and mutilates the public-private dichotomy.”

Returning to literature, Morrison explored the nature of language as a cure to problems with racism, ignorance, and what she deemed as a “chasm” of lack of language.

“I do believe that literature offers us a way to document, to codify, to handle, to analyze the devastation created when no sufficiency in language expressive, or editorial is present to comprehend the trespass, whether it’s benign or traumatic,” she said.

Morrison also praised the effects literature has on the cultural betterment of a person, beyond that of the visual medium. She also praised the merits of literature as a means of intellectual and cultural growth.

“Literature refuses and disrupts passive or controlled consumption of the spectacle … it allows and even demands the experience of ourselves as multidimensional persons, and in a context where human memory is more than stored data and dreams are greater than upgrade,” Morrison said.

In closing, Morrison emphasized the still prevalent role of literature in today’s society beyond that of the digital world.

“In this new, almost completely, digitalized and globalized world … where language is becoming increasingly bankrupt in the rush to one-size-fits-all, literature it seems to me is needed now more than it has ever been.”

Archived article by Leonor Guariguata