Saturday, November 05, 2011

Jane Austen in the Information Age

Technology and Jane Austen

“It is only a novel... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” 
― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

A lecture with the title, "Sense and Sensibility in the Age of Technology: Will Jane Austen survive?", suggests to me that I will be treated to a discussion of the latest ways that Jane Austen's novels have been morphed into electronic tidbits for our information age.  I remembered that in Jane Austen's day information was sent by letters, but this lecture informed us about the technology of our day - the internet and what changes that technology has spawned. 
The topic was presented yesterday by the lucid lecturer on Austen and the humanities, Elisabeth Lenckos - Instructor in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago,  and I was not disappointed in the result of her presentation.  In the introduction to the topic she surveyed the changes wrought by technological progress in recent years including the growth of the internet and its impact on the creative urges of human beings as they have progressed beyond the age of homo ludens.  The body of the lecture featured a brilliant answer to the questions of the title with variations on the theme of technology and its impact on our reading of Jane Austen. The lecture quickly provided the answer that most attendees were no doubt expecting to the titular question.  It was a resounding yes.  But the answer only led to further questions about how and why this must be true.  Rather than relying simply on the the beautiful and economic prose style of Miss Austen, which is without doubt part of the answer, Ms. Lenckos turned to the philosophical foundations of Austen's novels.  She identified empiricism as evidenced by the importance of experience and observation in Austen's work along side rationalism as evidenced by the intuitive nature of the important characters.  The ability of "good" people in the novels (Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood) to identify and understand the "frauds" (George Wickham or John Willoughby) was possible because they would observe and learn from their experience.  
I especially appreciated the lecturer's take on what readers may learn from Austen's novels;  that is the strength that comes from personal observation, independence of thought demonstrated by the characters, and the importance of reliance on informed intuition. The potential of these and the many examples from the novels on future human relationships is reason enough for the continued popularity of Austen's novels.  Finally the lecturer suggested that Jane Austen would likely embrace modern technology and engage in self-publication.  No matter how much our world is changed by the information age and the pervasive impact of modern technology classic texts which display universal truths such as we find in the novels of Jane Austen will continue to delight and inform readers everywhere.

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