Jonathan Simons on Analog Sea, Neo-
Romanticism and ‘the contemplative gap’
Jonathan Simons is the founding editor of offline publisher Analog Sea and its literary journal, The Analog Sea Review. An advocate for ‘offline culture’, a quick internet search reveals little about Simons. He says he has made a career ‘between academic work and work as a writer, and for many years as a touring singer-songwriter’ from the late 90s onwards. In 2016 he published his poetry collection Songs of Waking with Analog Sea.
The Analog Sea Review, the publisher’s offline journal, is a pocket-sized review which collects together poetry, essays, fiction, illustration and fine art for those ‘wishing to maintain contemplative life in the digital age.’ Editions are only available in print and exclusively in bookshops. All correspondence with the publisher is conducted by post rather than email, and their readers keep updated via their free publication, The Analog Sea Bulletin, delivered directly to their door. Subscription to the news bulletin is obtained likewise by snail mail.
I met with Simons to find out more about Analog Sea, their Neo-Romantic ideals, and the accidental benefit of what he calls ‘the contemplative gap’.
You’ve described yourself as an activist. What is Analog Sea’s mission statement? And as an ‘offline journal’ what are you hoping to affect in readers?
We want to make incredible books that are beautiful aesthetic objects. We want the writing to be impeccable, we want the production aesthetic to be too. But that’s just the publishing part. We’re also becoming an institute, and as an institute we’re encouraging people to think a little bit deeper about the world we’re creating.
If you learn about Analog Sea, and you want to experience our editions yourself, you have to seek out a human being. At minimum, you have to walk down the street to a bookshop, and walk in, and practise chatting with someone. Something, might I say, millennials don’t stereotypically love doing.
No, and social anxiety is skyrocketing.
There you have it. The thing about digital utopianism is that we tend to be a bit blind in our optimism sometimes, but we’re in a period right now where a lot is being defined. At the beginning of our project – if we weren’t being accused of being ‘mindless hipsters’, mindlessly objecting to something just because it was popular – for us not to use social media, not to make ourselves into an online virus, not to list on Amazon (which, by the way, is almost impossible not to be on), the accusation was, ‘if you’re not online, you don’t exist.’
An accusation I was going to level at you. The journal has almost no online presence. What do you say to those people who claim you’re burying your head in the sand?
I wouldn’t have said much to begin with, because I didn’t know at first what to expect, and I had my own doubts. It’s only been about two and a half years, and I can only begin to tell you the response we’ve had. We don’t publish an email address. People can only reach us through the post, and we’ve gotten thousands of printed letters from people, who express a lot of appreciation for us, simply saying that things of value must exist offline.
If the prevailing sentiment is that everything should be mediated, not just by screens and apps, but by these massive corporations that are surveilling everyone and mining all of our data, thoughts and images, we’re much deeper in it that we realise.
Did you jump on the social media bandwagon when it was taking off?
No, I’m not on social media. But I was quite a technologist back in the day. I definitely had my utopian ideas of what the internet could do for music. Along with everyone else, I was really excited about that. And I had the first iPhone. The confession that I love to make — I was one of these ridiculous individuals waiting in line in Oregon, outside the Apple store. And then once you get inside, after waiting for maybe an hour or something, they clap for you. I was one of these idiots.
You’ve fallen quite far.
Well for me, it’s not like I’ve chosen a club to be in, an offline club. As I learned more and more what I find to be meaningful and valuable, I find society is moving in the opposite direction. So that concerns me.
The jargon of social media is that it’s a form of connectivity – rather than a breach of privacy. Are you saying that, for readers at least, to disconnect has value, that we shouldn’t be afraid of doing so? You mentioned solitude in one of your editorials. Reading, as a solitary activity, is presumably under threat because quiet is hard to come by.
I define solitude in different ways. Most of us think about physical solitude – and sure, of course, physical solitude can be romanticised. Historically, human beings have existed in tribes, and us seeking now virtual tribes, that’s not surprising. But I also think there’s such a thing as intellectual solitude: if you eliminate physical solitude, that’s one topic of solitude; but to eliminate intellectual solitude means to eliminate critical thinking.
That’s the equivalent of being in a library, perhaps?
I would go beyond that. I would say that up until recently – up until the almost authoritarian place that we’ve given these devices and these apps, even for people that have very busy lives – there was what I refer to as the ‘contemplative gap’, meaning accidental solitude. It may not even be physical solitude, it may be ten minutes walking between very busy active social engagements, or parties, or between work and home; and this is ten minutes where the individual is at least flirting with thinking about those basic existential questions: Why am I here, and where am I going?
And that may begin with distraction. So we’re talking about daydreaming and what leads on from that?
And we’re talking about boredom. I often write about this, and I can say pretty confidently, we human beings have always wanted to eradicate boredom. I make an anecdote about the Greek tragedies, that for 72 hours or more the Athenians would be engrossed in these murderous dramas. So the idea that we want to escape boredom is not new, but a lot of what we have now is just a deepening, or further achievement, of what we’ve always wanted.
The discomfort of boredom is never something human beings have liked, but reality and nature, and in the past, the lack of technology, or the rudimentary qualities of early technologies, pushed back on us. The friction that we want to eradicate is defined by boredom, old age, sickness and death, and we need these things to be human, and we need these things to have interesting, vital arts and letters as well.
There’s all sorts of dystopian literature that’s been written about societies. In Welcome to the Monkey House, Vonnegut talks about what happens when we live forever, and how the edges of our frailty and limited time push us into meaningful directions – it’s a quickening of the spirit. We’re eradicating boredom, and I think that has consequences.
In other words, the fear of boredom itself isn’t a bad thing, and is perhaps more productive – if that’s the right word – than eradicating boredom altogether?
Right. The discomfort of boredom leads to everything that we love in society. It leads to ideas, it leads to empathy, it leads to the kinds of dreams that lead to good storytelling. The thing about solitude is it’s a period when you don’t have to defend yourself. Solitude is a moment when you can just be what you end up being in that moment, which actually gives us a lot of license to think and feel. So I worry that we’re becoming more and more externalised, which is why I think that the internet has become super, super tribal.
How do you see internet tribalism affecting our capacity for interiority then? One wonders how ‘cancel culture’ shapes our understanding, for instance.
If one is very anxious about the possibility of being either ‘cancelled’ from his or her online tribe, or maybe not competing well enough for attention in that virtual tribe, then one becomes obsessed with embellishing his or her experiences and identity for the benefit of that online social relevance. And what falls by the wayside is just the very private awe of first-hand experience, of seeing that painting in the Louvre for him or herself.
And so, what’s happening now, increasingly as you go down in the generation brackets, is prioritising the documentation and sharing of the experience over the experience itself. I refer to this as secondary experience, versus primary experience.
Anecdotally, upcoming generations are more intelligent at navigating these environments. What ‘primary experiences’ do you think we’ve lost to the digital age?
So, for example, the ability to notice beauty serendipitously – that’s often something a person loses if they’ve suffered trauma, or they have too much anxiety, or they’re just working too much, and therefore incapacitating their faculties of attention. We can talk about the millennials and the digital natives and how they can multitask, and all these silver linings, and how great that all is, and most of it’s probably true. But if the new generation doesn’t notice, at a certain time in autumn, that the birds are moving south again, then maybe we have a problem.
You mentioned the ‘hipster’ label before. It sounds more like Neo-Romanticism.
That’s a good term. I use that term.
In a Wordsworthian sense?
It’s being redefined, or it needs to be redefined. My own take is, the most popular style of writing these days is what we might call hyper-realism. Romantic writing, of course, is the opposite of realistic writing because it’s trying to engage the complexities of imagination: subtlety, things that are hidden, transcendence. And as much as I feel that the conditions for imagination should be preserved, advocated for, and thought about, I think that along with that, Romantic writing, or some sort of Neo-Romanticism, should prevail.
What’s stopping a wider cultural analogue movement? Evidently you believe the type of artform we engage with is just as important.
I think we’re afraid of either feeling like we’re a hypocrite or being seen as one. Many of the big social movements and revolutions were individuals fighting back against aspects of society that those individuals were not involved in. But in this case, we’re all in bed with this technology — and I mean literally; it wakes us up in the morning, it tucks us into bed at night — and so it’s up to the individual to gain critical insight about what tools we want around us, and how best to spend our time.
An individual should sit down – maybe the holiday comes around, and you’re sitting on the beach, you have a novel in your lap — and you can’t read it. I have spoken to lots of people who say they can no longer focus on the novel as a form. If that happens to the individual, with or without Analog Sea, or others who are critical, encouraging them to question that kind of experience, something has to change. And so long as you don’t live in China, you can possibly pick and choose what your lifestyle is like.
I’m sceptical of doomsaying. Technology advances, we adapt. Take the word processor, for example: Umberto Eco marvelled at how easily he could delete passages of text without a trace. Writing longhand, you live with your mistakes as you’re writing. Perhaps the word processor inhibits reflection, so the argument goes, since you’re able to erase your thoughts instantaneously. Similar claims were made of the typewriter, that it was too noisy.
Nietzsche claimed that he was perturbed by how his thinking changed once he started using a typewriter.
Well, exactly. People adapt, is what I’m saying.
But this I label the historicity argument, the idea that things have always been this way; that we’ve had technology for a long time and survived it thus far. It’s true that the steam engine changed a lot, and it’s true that the typewriter changed a lot. Gutenberg changed everything, no different than gunpowder changed the state of warfare. But you can’t equivocate gunpowder and Hiroshima. Our impulses as humans may not change so profoundly over time, but how our technologies impact the individual and the planet certainly change over time.
I don’t really question – and I’m not surprised by – these basic human drives for constant stimulation: for example, the way in which a lot of what happens on the internet is the embellishing of virtual tribal connections. The virtual tribe has become very important. We’ve always had the drive to get to where we are now, but we haven’t been able to do it before.
Let’s say we continue in this direction, which we can compare with 10,000 years since the agrarian revolution. Will we naturally carve out time to think and to feel, to think without distraction and to feel deeply? Or could we become a species, based on all of these ancient drives, where we really become externalised? Could we lose interiority? And if the answer is maybe, then that leads to some questions that have a lot to do with boredom, imagination, the printed word, the singularity of the printed book compared to screen-reading, attention, and how we raise our kids.
So you believe that this kind of in-depth reading can’t exist online?
Theoretically yes it can, but not at the moment. I’m saying the internet could have turned out to be anything, and screens could have turned out to be anything. The internet was privatised in the 90s and it changed a lot. The first web browser was a public project – Al Gore helped fund the first graphical web browser, for example, Mosaic. The early history was an internet for the public good, and all the hippies were very excited about it.
I’m not going to go so far as to say one cannot read Tolstoy on a Kindle, I’m not going to say that. Of course, one can read Tolstoy on a Kindle. But what I will say, is there are some slow pages in Tolstoy, and if you have 69 other books one click away. . . Good luck.
I reviewed Lucy Ellmann’s novel Ducks, Newburyport recently, and the conclusion I came to is that it’s a very long book about emergency. It’s literally a burden to carry, but the irony of its length and seriousness of its themes were all the more forceful for its physical heft, for being in print.
I think my response relates to singularity. Things that we refer to as virtuous are often a product of singularity. For example, the more you and I can focus on just you and I, and less on the distractions around us, the more our conversation will have value. The power of a printed book is its singularity.
I’m in my forties now, and I have a foot in both generations, but all my formative years I had what I would describe as that Sunday afternoon feeling. There were no plans, there were no networks of friends to connect with. TV, by that moment in the week, had gotten a bit boring, Sunday afternoon TV was always horrendous, and so the silent room stretched out. The temporal quality of the day was kind of intoxicating in an interesting way, and to pull a book into that was perfect.
The thing about our lifestyles now is there’s so much fragmentation that no one individual thing commands our attention long enough for us to master it, to understand it deeply. We won’t lose writing, there’s more writing than ever — but will we lose complex writing, as T. S. Eliot talks about — ‘to boldly assume the existence of a public interested in serious literature’? Will we lose serious literature? If we don’t have serious attention, we might lose serious literature.
Perhaps I don’t hold as bleak a view, in terms of serious literature. That something like Analog Sea exists and can find an audience is encouraging.
Well, my bleakness is only meant to be in the form of a question. Will offline culture, as we refer to it in Analog Sea, become something that slowly disappears, or will it have its own authoritative place? I think that these are questions which will obviously take time.
One of the ways to define the health of a community is: are there professionals — human professionals trained in guiding curiosity? This is what librarians and booksellers do. Please, although we may want to replace taxis with self-driving cars, let’s not replace the humans that guide other humans’ curiosity with algorithms, any more than we will the doctors that help to diagnose humans with disease.
In other words, digital will answer a lot of questions, but we need to stop thinking that it can answer every question. It cannot answer every question.
Interview by Jack Solloway.
To receive a free copy of Analog Sea’s latest bulletin, send a letter or postcard to Analog Sea, Basler Strasse 115, 79115 Freiburg, Germany.
Jonathan Simons is the founding editor of offline publisher Analog Sea and its literary journal, The Analog Sea Review. To receive their latest bulletin, send a letter or postcard to Analog Sea, Basler Strasse 115, 79115 Freiburg, Germany.
Jack Solloway is a writer and critic living in London. He is the Online Editor for The London Magazine and former Assistant Editor of Voice Magazine. His articles have appeared in The London Magazine, the TLS and The Times.
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