Why does Sven Birkerts, in his essay "Into the Elecctronic Millennium," use so many words that allude to nature? Is this usage deliberate, or is our language naturally simply prone to these expressions?

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In his essay “Into the Electronic Millennium,” Sven Birkerts sometimes uses language derived from nature as he describes the growing importance of technology. Partly his use of such language may be deliberately ironic, but often it seems simply the result of a plain historical fact: for most of our history, we as humans have interacted mainly with one another and with physical nature. It should not surprise us, therefore, that much of our language contains terms that refer to nature. Many of these terms probably began as metaphors, but in various cases they now seem “dead” metaphors – metaphors that have been used so often that they have become almost clichés and have lost much of their metaphorical, figurative force.  This is not always the case in Birkerts’ use of language derived from nature, but it is the case fairly often.

Let us, then, examine some of Birkerts’ use of “natural” language in his essay about the growth of electronic technology. Consider these examples:

  • At one point, for instance, Birkerts writes of “Language Erosion.”  Actually, he mentions the term without fully defining it. The term “erosion” usually refers to a slow wearing-away of part of a landscape, under the influence either or wind or of water. The landscape is fundamentally transformed (think of the Grand Canyon), but the process may take centuries or millennia to unfold. Or such change may happen very quickly, as the result of something like a tsunami. Birkert seems to be discussing the latter kind of erosion – a relatively quick transformation in the nature of language under the influence of forces that seem immediate, pressing, and impossible to resist.
  • Birkerts uses another instance of language that apparently refers to natural phenomena when he writes that

The gulf between the academic and the man on the street, already wide, will become unbridgeable.

Here the word “gulf” suggests a huge body of water, such as the Gulf of Mexico – a comparison reinforced by use of the word “unbridgeable.” The word “gulf” here is a kind of metaphor, but it seems mainly a dead metaphor – in other words, a phrase that we use so often and so routinely that we rarely even pause to consider its metaphorical significance. Indeed, the phrase “unbridgeable gulf” is just as much a cliché as “gulf” by itself (perhaps even more so).  Thus it seems unlikely that Birkerts deliberately used a term associated with nature here as part of a consciously ironic treatment of technology.

  • Similarly, shortly later Birkerts offers this sentence:

The more we grow rooted in the consciousness of the now, the more will it seem utterly extraordinary that things were every any different. [bold-faced emphasis added]

The bold-faced words might seem deliberately to allude to nature; more likely, however, they are merely dead metaphors – words that have been used so often that they no longer possess any metaphorical freshness or vividness. Much of the “natural” language of Birkerts’ essay seems similar to this, as when he worries that “personality will disappear into an Oceanic homogeneity” (emphasis added).  Here the only really vivid, concrete, non-abstract word is “Oceanic,” and even that word is not especially vivid.  Birkerts does indeed use language, then, that often seems to allude to nature, but he doesn’t usually do so in a way that seems designed to stick in our minds and strike us as unforgettable.



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