Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, Virginia Heffernan


Virginia Heffernan’s book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art (Simon and Schuster, 2016) has by and large made its reviewers happy.[1] It’s easy to see why: it has the capacity to make people feel good about the Internet again, while inoculating people against naïve liking. The reviews call out different features (her “dexterous” writing, her redemption of the Internet as a source of optimism, her ability to make technology sound human). But the subtext of all those reviews, and indeed of the book itself, is just how much intelligence, wit, wisdom, graduate training in the humanities, tech savvy, long personal history with the Internet, and raw time spent participating in and writing about Web cultures one has to deploy in order to sustain even a guarded optimism about the Internet. And Heffernan’s optimism is guarded. That’s signaled in the book’s title. Maybe “guarded” is the wrong word, for the denouement of the book comes when Heffernan the biographical subject finally lets down her guard, leaves academia, and learns to see the Internet as art—compromised, astonishing, and ultimately ineffable.

The book’s formal and phenomenological descriptions of design, text, images, video, music (these are the main chapter titles) are historically expansive, far more wonderful than their objects taken on their own. These descriptions at the heart of the book neither reduce nor over-inflate the operations of technology. They are affectively sensitive, attuned to both subjective experience (and its constructions) as well as social structure (and its conditions of possibility). Heffernan has absorbed much of what contemporary Media Theory and Art History have to offer while neither employing those idioms nor dismissing them as just so much theory (there is a moment in the final chapter where Heffernan seems to imply that cultural theory of the sort that I suppose characterizes my own essay is: “A mind-waster, a time-waster, and a life-waster…,” (p. 232) but we could all agree to understand this as part of her own pragmatist spirituality and not something that she is pushing on her readers—that would probably be right). The book is never ignorant of the relevant literatures, even while it self-consciously runs against the grain of much cultural theory and received wisdom. It is critical without ever giving up on the world, retreating into nihilism. It wants to live and not be swallowed whole by the vocabulary that would come along with a critique more attuned to commodification and the Internet’s data industries than to magic and loss.

Magic and Loss will be and should be talked about as a kind of paradigm shift in the cultural critique of the Internet. It is critique not as caviling, and not as nostalgia, and not as pure negativity, but as the generous work of struggling to understand, to give an historical account of the Internet that means to inflect history rather than pretend that history can simply be reflected. It is also, along the way, a defense of cultural critique itself, an assertion of its renewed necessity in the context of an Internet that she argues should be understood as art.[2] Heffernan knows how to learn both from philosophy and Beyoncé, the Judaic intellectual tradition and the iPod. The book aims to be both a history and an ethics of the Internet, nothing less. The absurd scope of its ambition derives its authority not from reduction and generalization—it never arrogates to itself the imperial distance of the outsider—but from precision, a keen sense of exemplarity, and a vast knowledge of both the Internet’s technologies and its cultures. It shows us how we live on the Internet while giving us a vocabulary adequate to the new stresses of those lives. It’s easy to generate high hopes for what this book might accomplish. I also fear it comes at exactly the wrong time, the moment when the Internet pivots away from and becomes indifferent to precisely the kind of incandescent, human, and ultimately personal historical consciousness offered by Heffernan in her book. I want to be wrong about this.

Heffernan’s eventual mantra, synthesizing ethics and aesthetics within an encompassing and personal pragmatism, is this: “It works even if you don’t believe in it.” The quote comes from Niels Bohr, by way of physicist Frank Wilczek and a tweet that Heffernan found one day after reading one of Wilczek’s books. One of the biographical threads of the book is Heffernan’s lifelong struggle to grow comfortable with her own spirituality, to find peace, as she puts it. Peace finally comes in the wake of Wilszek’s tweet and a conversation with a mathematician who describes how he sometimes “loses himself” in math, feeling for a time “in concert with natural laws” (238). Bohr was responding to a question about his use of a lucky horseshoe. Wilczek used the quote to introduce a video that he took to be transcendent: a gospel performance by Wintley Phipps of “Amazing Grace” sung in a pentatonic scale, ‘the “slave scale” of just the black notes.’ (240). It works even if you don’t believe in it is, finally, the phrase the lets Heffernan reconcile with both spirituality and her lifelong love of the Internet, to understand them as part of the same big ineffable thing. In the language of the book’s title, magic works even if you don’t believe in it, even if you’re also keenly attuned to loss, even if it can’t be put into words, even if it can’t be explained. The intimacy between magic and loss is, in the end, Heffernan’s definition of art. It is why YouTube is art as much as Dante and Twombly. Magic is that which astonishes while escaping language; astonishes precisely because it escapes language, codification, historical awareness. Like affect, magic is something that happens to us. Loss is its concomitant, its ghost. Loss is our resistance to change, the undertow of history. Fredric Jameson’s haunting slogan, “History is what hurts,” is a more weary version of Heffernan’s own. It is what her slogan would sound like if the book cared more about capitalism.

But sadly and symptomatically, it works even if you don’t believe in it might also serve as the motto for the businesses that have effected the transformation of cyberspace (full of promise and not full of ads) into the World Wide Web (full of ads as promise). This is a transformation that Heffernan mourns in passing, although she never grants it the epochal, end-times significance that other Internet critics and denizens often do. In the hands of the data industries that Heffernan mostly decides not to discuss, the motto offers the same reassurances, although it would have different reference points. “It works” would refer to data collection itself, that alchemical transformation of life into data and thereby into capital (money or the promise of money). That aspect of the Internet works whether we believe in it or not, care about it or not, know about it or not (this indifference to awareness is why ideology isn’t quite the right word for it—ideology is predicated on some kind of duplicitous relationship). It is true that the more we (“citizens” is what Heffernan calls us) believe in the magic of the Internet, the better it works (the more posts and tweets and likes and clicks it can consume). But even if we don’t believe in it, even if we now hate it, disparage it, relentlessly ironize our relationship to it while writing under sardonic pseudonyms, it works in precisely the minimal way it needs to work to sustain itself. And in sustaining itself, however minimally, its aspiration and effect is to remake the world as someplace that is more accessible, more personalized, more tailored, more individualized—always iterating, always better, more to hand. This is the experiential register of the now-ineluctable process by which life becomes data, which is what the Web 2.0 Internet does at its economic, technical, and cultural heart. That is its own art. And the mode of individuality it is in the business of addressing and so fashioning is itself—endemically, technically—a form of collectivity predicated on modes of belonging, norms, social codes that are implemented entirely off stage, in databases and other clearing-houses for lives lived online. Whatever Heffernan’s vision is for how the kind of pragmatist personal ethics she espouses aggregates into a collective ethics—and this is a major unasked question in the book—it is not the same as the way the Internet industries nest collectivity inside individuality. Heffernan is more interested in recuperating the Internet’s singularity and its singularizing capacities, which commits her to a more familiar kind of subjectivity, a subject whose experiences can be converted into wisdom with enough introspection, with not just the accumulation of experience but the organization of experience in the kind of beautiful prose that is so much on display throughout the book.

It’s probably not as obvious as it should be that this is not the data industry’s vision of personhood, which logs all actions as preferences rather than experiences, and does so in order to make predictions rather than reflections. For some, that will be the resistant, prophylactic aspect of this book. Heffernan is also committed to an individualized pragmatism because she is careful about not speaking for others—the book ends with a chapter, the one in which she first comes to and argues for the book’s eventual thesis, that is frankly autobiographical, whereas the preceding chapters might have passed for cultural criticism that sometimes employs a self-reflexive first person voice. The distinction between the autobiographical and the critical is not a distinction the book believes in, but it is relevant to the question of collectivity that Heffernan never asks, and that the Internet answers, confidently and efficiently, at massive scales, every nanosecond. It works even if you don’t believe in it.

Heffernan’s lack of interest in questions of collectivity, in how personal pragmatism adds up to something, is closely related to her lack of interest in the Internet’s capitalism story. The financialization of cyberspace that created the WWW, which in turn created Web 2.0, is a muted presence throughout the book, never more than ambient. It’s not clear if this is because Heffernan thinks the capitalism story is overblown, overplayed, wrong, or so right that it’s not worth discussing (“It works even if you don’t believe in it” is closely related, for Heffernan, to a lesson she learned from studying Wittgenstein, summed up in Wittgenstein’s assertion: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” [223]). In any case, it works even if you don’t believe in it, seems to arrive in the final chapter precisely to overcome the kind of skepticism that a discussion of the Internet focused through a capitalist vocabulary would seem to prioritize.

But the parallel universe that the data industries inhabit continues to insist on its own voicing of Heffernan’s redemptive motto. Like all speech acts online or in close proximity to the Internet, Heffernan’s is profligate, uncontrollable—every statement is an address to everyone and no one; all personal pronouns sound both intimate and bereft. It works even if you…. The “you,” scaled up from the pragmatist individual to the database, would also refer to the data industries themselves. And the “it” in that case? Us, we users, believers and nonbelievers alike: it is we who work, are made to work. In other words, the data industries don’t need to believe in the magic of selfhood, or fandom, participation or democracy (nor the loss of selfhood, it probably goes without saying). But in fact, complicating many possible attitudes of moral superiority, they often do believe: Internet scions, invariably iconicized as men, are liberal and broad-minded (Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page) as often as they are culturally conservative and have terrible labor politics (e.g., Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos). They do believe. And not just in the magic of profit. Google’s desire to digitize and organize “the world’s information” might actually, in some hearts, maybe even Brin’s and Page’s, be motivated by a desire to distribute the world’s resources.

But they needn’t believe. Do or don’t, it’s a matter of indifference, which would also follow the spirit of the motto: you don’t need to believe in order for it to work. One of the best things about how Heffernan frames her book is the deft, attentive, intelligent way that she keeps magic and loss together, not dialectically, but as the melancholy pairing without which there could be no magic, no belief (in the “Video” chapter, she argues that television, like YouTube video today, is powerful, is in fact art, precisely because it is feared and loathed and has been since its first mass dissemination after WWII). This is also the hardest thing about the book, its cruelest optimism.[3] For an ongoing humanist tradition, the tradition in which Heffernan self-consciously writes, “magic and loss” are a redemptive pairing. They recall us to our humanity, our mortality, our instincts for art and authenticity and whatever makes us each fulfilled…enough anyway. In this way, Heffernan writes in the long tradition of pragmatist American art lovers, of Walt Whitman, of Dave Hickey, of Greil Marcus, of every pop song ever.

But does that tradition actually provide insight into, and at best a bulwark against, the new tradition of the data industries? Does it abet those industries? What if, worst of all, that most important of all of critical thought’s decisions—abet or resist, coopt or undermine—no longer matters? The data industries work even if you don’t believe in them. Even if you do. Even if you don’t care, or care too much, or long ago ceased caring while hopelessly looking for a way to care again. One of the hardest critical positions to occupy is indifference. Agamben’s “whatever” takes up this position: in his hands, indifference is a form of love.[4] Leo Bersani and John Paul Ricco see something like in-difference as a form of personhood not predicated on the eradication and subsumption of the other.[5] The data industries occupy indifference effortlessly, automatically, not as an ethics or an erotics but as code. It is not their attitude but their protocol. They automate indifference, not of us to our various humanist faiths and hangovers and recuperations (this they often foment), but of data and data collection to our various stances toward it.

Ultimately I fear “magic and loss” (the motto if not the book) is version two point whatever of sentimentality: the genre of right feeling. Harriet Beecher Stowe exhorted readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that:

There is one thing that every individual can do,—they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race.[6]

In the context of the data industries, the sentimentality of “magic and loss” is part of a vast mechanism by which indifference becomes automated and installed as a social, cultural, and political matrix, the substrate on and from which worlds grow. No person or thing or corporation embodies this indifference or needs to. Each person, even Internet CEOs, will feel as intensely melancholic, optimistic, or cynical as he, she, or it will. The digital is often said to be the great synthesizing medium, and that is true. It is also the great bifurcating medium.[7] “Magic and loss” both sit on one side of that bifurcation, our side, however we gather them into an ethics. On the other side is data collection, its mechanisms and deployments. Nothing we can do (nothing we can believe) impacts the ongoingness of data collection, even while everything we do is precisely what the data industry accumulates—an odd bifurcation then, not spatial or technical so much as abstract and political. This is not a paradox or a contradiction. It is a social structure, one that is parallel rather than intersecting. When the bar for the conversion of life into capital is so low that attention alone counts as life, whatever its interests, intensities or spans (a click, a like, a glance, less even), then what we do and how we do it matters far less than we would like. It all counts, it all works, it all attracts ads and feeds recommendation algorithms. It all, subtly or not, inflects the world in the direction of personalization, of tailored search results, of permanent archives. Data begets a world made by data, not necessarily smaller or narrower, but with a greatly diminished capacity for the kind of subject position that Heffernan advocates to matter.

I do think this book makes us smarter about the Internet, smarter about our own investments and desires, about the ordinariness of ambivalence. I suppose I also believe it distracts us from another kind of problem. But it’s not even distraction because being undistracted would hardly be better—serializing this very essay on Facebook, or Twitter, or wherever, would just teach the data industry how to market books that were sympathetic to whatever it takes my view to be. It will be a contribution if the book does nothing more than put a stop to the pseudo-politics of loss that saturate so much critical thought about the Internet.[8] Heffernan doesn’t mean loss as a preference for the preceding period, lifestyle, mode of attention, style of intimacy, or form of collectivity, where what precedes the present does so precisely and only insofar as it feels untainted, unfallen. The point of loss for Heffernan is not to erase the present under the pretense of false science, false psychology, false sociology; it is to recommend that we each invent an ethics for living loss, inhabiting it precisely to find our own forms of magic (in whatever sources, including the Internet).

It will be something more melancholic, maybe indifferent, maybe worse, if Magic and Loss encourages people to recuperate their faith in the power of belief, in the power of the self, at precisely the moment that such personal ethics become relegated to a hived off realm precisely so they can be made to more efficiently produce the forms of attention (e.g., readership) that make belief, magic, loss a matter of indifference to the data industries. For them, digitization isn’t so much a synthesis of everything (magic and loss) as it is a transformation of everything into data that remakes the world in its own image (magic or loss or…whatever).

I’ve been careful throughout this essay to refer to the data industries rather than to the Internet when referencing my own concerns. Heffernan, for her part, is careful to refer to the more expansive Internet, which means that in a certain sense I’m responding to a book that she didn’t write. But can we think about the Internet without thinking about the data industries? I genuinely don’t know. This essay plays out a suspicion that the answer might be no.

I think Magic and Loss makes it obvious how Heffernan would respond to this review. I hope she’s right.


[1] Here’s one from poet Michael Robbins (an occasional contributor to this journal): “Heffernan’s rhetoric is so dexterous that even digital pessimists like me can groove to her descriptions of ‘achingly beautiful apps,’ her comparison of MP3 compression to ‘Zeuxius’s realist paintings from the 5th century BC.’ And Heffernan is subtly less optimistic than she at first seems—she knows that magic is not the opposite of loss, but sometimes its handmaiden. She’s written a blazing and finally wise book, passionate in its resistance to the lazy certitudes of a cynically triumphal scientism” (quote from the book jacket).

[2] Heffernan both defends and dismisses academic training in the humanities (she herself has a PhD in English from Harvard), so it’s hard to know if she would consider her own writing a better version of cultural critique or somehow different in kind.

[3] To borrow Lauren Berlant’s way of phrasing the impasse of labor, love, desire, and fantasy in contemporary capitalism. Lauren Berlant, “Cruel Optimism: On Marx, Loss, and the Senses,” New Formations 63, no. Winter (2007): 33–51.

[4] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (Minneapolis, MN.: The University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

[5] John Paul Ricco, The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes (University of Chicago Press, 2014); Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2009); Leo Bersani et al., “A Conversation with Leo Bersani,” October 82, no. Autumn (1997): 3–16.

[6] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly (Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1852), 317.

[7] Seb Franklin has recently reminded us that digitization is a logic of exclusion as well as synthesis. Seb Franklin, Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic (MIT Press, 2015).

[8] Of the “people don’t read books anymore” and “the Internet has made us stupid” variety. For example: Nicholas G. Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” The Atlantic, August 2008; Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, vol. 1 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010); Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).