Remediating Writing

What happens when writing enters the electronic age? We turn to that question, and turn into a critical exploration of the problem (raised by Birkerts and a range of other critical writers/thinkers we will be exploring over the remaining weeks of the term. Do we lose something that writing, particularly literary writing, has or should represent? Do we gain something in the process?

In her book Writing Machines, the critic Katherine Hayles, a specialist in the field of writing and new forms of media, argues for something she calls “media specific analysis.”  She emphasizes a simple point: the medium matters in whatever text we are reading–and so recognizing and understanding the differences among media should matter as well. A book is not a film is not a website–though these days, all three may interact in significant ways. For example, consider this webpage for The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Or, take a look (if you haven’t already) at The Medium is the Massage, the text we will turn to shortly. Hayles writes of “material metaphors,” symbolic moments in a text when the image or idea in the text (in verbal or visual form) reflects something of the material basis of the text. In other words, the medium. In other words, the subject of our reading or viewing turns into the object of our reading/viewing as well.  The eye in Blade Runner, it seems to me, is a material metaphor; so is the eye in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And it may well be that both return us to the eye in Frankenstein: are we also looking at ourselves when we look at Victor or the creature or even reading Shelley’s language, implicated in what creation and creativity means?

This critical focus on thinking critically about a medium–be it writing, film, computer, etc–owes something to a well-known media theorist from the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan. For some useful background on McLuhan and one of his signature concepts, “the medium is the message,” browse this wikipedia entry. [by the way, as you may or may not realize, Wikipedia is a digital remediation of the print encylopedia].

As an example of McLuhan’s assertion that the content of every medium is the medium itself–ie, the real message lies in how any message is conveyed (its mediation) not what the content or message is–we could take this Wikipedia entry. MM would argue that the real effect on those who read this entry comes through the way the ideas (in this case, some background, initial description of ideas, further links and resources) are conveyed and not the ideas by themselves. There is no idea apart from its medium for MM. And so the nature of a wiki–its ways of conveying content, of linking, of the kinds of writing and reading experiences it emphasizes and enforces, is the message.

He also distinguishes two types of experiences we can have with a communication medium: hot (or high definition) such as film–where our attention needs to be focused, absorbed; and cool (or low definition) where the active participation of the viewer/participant is more crucial to the experience, such as with a book (turning the page, re-reading, etc).

The phrase ‘remediation’ comes from the authors Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin who build upon McLuhan to argue, further, that every new medium builds upon, repurposes and remediates an earlier and existing medium. Thus the medium is the message also implies that there is no new media apart from ‘old’ media. Bolter and Grusin take this even further (which is to say, take our new media all the way back to MM’s older view) in suggesting that the content of every new medium is the act of remediation itself: how the new medium relates to and reuses the old.

So film reinvents (or remediates) the writing of a book. But a book also reinvents the presentation of a film. In a couple weeks, when we look at some literary texts developed for electronic environments, we will encounter both, and more.


Editing: stitching a more fluid essay

http://www.exophagy.com Frankenstein (1910 film)

Image via Wikipedia

In addition to being a poor reader and reviser (see last post on the threading of a thesis), Victor Frankenstein, Shelley’s stand-in for the creative artist, the writer, the one who toils in the workshop of filthy creation, appears to be a bad editor. Think of it: if he had taken a bit more time to consider the presentation of his creation, the work that he had stitched together from parts (as any creative work is), might he have saved himself some heartache?

This editing workshop focuses on how we control and create the fluidity (often called ‘flow’ by you) of an essay that is not naturally or originally there. It is made, not born. And one key place we control and create this fluidity is through control of our sentences.

  • Sentence Variation:
    1. look at your sentence length: hit return at the end of each sentence in one or more paragraphs: turn your prose into poetry; the point is to bring out the buried voiced (the origins of poetry, of writing) of your sentences.
    2. we are after variation: not all long/complex; not all short and sharp–a fluid movement between the two.
      1. think both Hypotaxis and Parataxis.
      • Close-Up
        • Experiment with using the power of shifting to a short, sharply focused sentence as a way to highlight your thesis statement. It is like moving in for a dramatic close-up on your critical vision. It can tell your read: pay attention to these keywords and ideas throughout the essay–a way to provide the thread the reader takes with them.
      • Sentence Combining: fluidity and variety in sentence style derives from a more specific grasp of the kinds of sentences and sentence parts we have at hand. You can combine shorter, simpler sentences in several ways, including compounding and subordinating. For more practice, visit the Sentence-Combining page of Guide to Grammar and Writing.
  • Transitions
    • between sentences within a paragraph (the point from above), and between paragraphs. Look at the transition sentence (the first sentence of the next paragraph). Work on weaving the reader’s path (or the thread of your thesis) into the next paragraph.
      • use transition signals (think of the way we need to do this with a speech or public presentation): “Yet another example of this irony of dark creation is evident in the creation scene.” Or by contrast: “Unlike the darkness of creation we see with Victor, the creature presents a vision of light…”
  • Weave your quotationinto the paragraph: quotations need to be effective, not just accurate.
    • remember to provide context/introduce the quotation (don’t throw quotations at the reader)
    • leave the page number for the parenthetical citation; don’t introduce the quotation with the page number.
  • Meta-Commentary.
    • We will be returning to this in later workshops. For now, think about places where you can add in a sentence that will help clarify things for your reader by letting the reader know what you are thinking.
      • “in other words”; “By irony of dark creation I mean…”; “Let me reiterate the point made earlier:….”; “What do I mean by …?”
      • also think of transition words: however, although, despite, that or this [point, idea]
  • Specificity.
    • Edit out phrases that leave things the argument or idea or specific reference vague. Sometimes this is a matter of selecting stronger verbs and more complex nouns; sometimes, this is a matter of substituting for some of the pronouns we use too frequently (it, he, she) or too loosely (this, without a reference to what this is: this idea of creation…). It is also a matter of editing for more specific verbs. Consider, as one tool for getting a better grasp on the implications of words (as well as relations, synonyms), using Wordnik.
    • For a good poetic example of specificity that matters for an argument, read Robert Pinsky’s “Shirt.”

Revision Workshop: threading a thesis

Our focus in the second project is on close/slow reading: reading for the implications in a text–and effectively getting implications into our own writing. The texts we read are more complicated than we might think; we want our own texts, our writing and response to those complicated texts, to reflect that level of complication. Our first step in workshop will be to do close reading to develop/refine/revise our thesis. As an analogy for what slow reading means, how it emerges through rereading and revision, consider two film moments: the shower scene from “Psycho”; the scene in Blade Runner when Deckard closely reads and analyzes the photograph.

The second step will be to make sure that our revised thesis is threaded through the essay.

Students often say they need to work on their organization. It is, however, not always clear to them what organization means–or more to the point, how it is stitched and structured into an essay. I emphasize organization as a matter of revision and, in many cases, of some simple stylistic choices that “thread” an argument: keywords (beginning with a title), basic transition words that signal continuation while also emphasizing–this idea, this passage, but, however. A critical essay, we know, needs a thesis; an effectively organized essay often just needs more conscious attention to its transitions and keywords–to the ways the writer can move the reader through the essay. For an example, consider this review in NYTimes Book Review of Edward Hirsch poetry by Peter Campion. Here are the first few paragraphs:

Between Ordinary and Ecstatic

Contemporary American poetry is sometimes panned for being mundane. With all the splendor and terror in the world, why should we care about some guy’s memories of high school, or the quality time he spends with his cat? Glancing over it, you might suspect that Edward Hirsch’s poetry would lend evidence to this view. Hirsch will begin a poem with a line like “Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater” or “Traffic was heavy coming off the bridge.” Neither opening seems to burn with that hard, gemlike flame.

But in Hirsch’s work, things are not always what they seem. Certainly, his poems work to dignify the everyday. But they do more than that. What makes Hirsch so singular in American poetry is the balance he strikes between the quotidian and something completely other — an irrational counterforce, the “living fire” that gives its name to his new selected poems.

That phrase appears in “Wild Gratitude,” the title poem of Hirsch’s 1986 volume. On its surface, the poem seems to be about, well, a guy spending time with his cat. But as he listens to her “solemn little squeals of delight,” he begins to remember the 18th-century English visionary and madman Christopher Smart, who in his most famous poem, “Jubilate Agno,” venerated his own cat, Jeoffry. The memory leads to a chain of associations, and the poem ends in a nearly epiphanic moment:

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry — and every creature like him —
Who can teach us how to praise — purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

This passage could stand as an emblem for all of Hirsch’s poetry. Literary and allusive, but also domestic and intimate, as it rises toward praise, Hirsch’s voice resounds with both force and subtlety.

One of the pleasures of reading the new selected poems is the chance to see that voice develop and then range freely and surprisingly. Most poets are hot one minute and cold the next, depending almost on the day of the week. But Hirsch is worth reading chronologically. He not only gets better with each new book; he also provides a kind of model for the growth of poetic intelligence…[goes on in the next paragraphs to review briefly those books included in the selected poems.]

One strategy to test for this thread: use the highlighting tool. Highlight in yellow the words/phrases of your thesis (somewhere from your introductory section). Then read through the draft and highlight in green wherever key statements/reiterations (in other words, threads) of that thesis show up in the body of the essay and in the concluding section. Next, using yellow, highlight parts of the body and/or conclusion where the thesis/argument is being extended: that is, keywords of the thesis are not being repeated, but the argument is being developed, elaborated. Finally, go back and highlight in red any phrases and passages in the draft that seem to wander from the focus, that seem to be a different or new argument–not a reiteration or extension of the original argument.

Another practice technique to make the signals and structure of your argument more transparent to the reader, consult this discussion from Harvard’s expository writing program on “Signposts and Structure.”


Organic Monsters

Is the monster a monster? In other words, according to the novel, what’s monstrous, what’s a monster?

I have suggested that one way to think about close reading, and to begin to think about the complications of langauge, is to use the OED. Here is an entry for “organic” that I looked up today (some cross-fertilization; for my course on Environmental Writing). Notice one of the uses is taken from Coleridge (the author of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) from 1817, the year before the novel is first published.

6. Of or relating to an organized structure compared to a living being.

a. Of, relating to, or characterized by connection or coordination of parts into a single, harmonious whole; organized; systematic.

1817 S. T. COLERIDGE Biographia Literaria I. xii. 237 The fairest part of the most beautiful body will appear deformed and monstrous, if dissevered from its place in the organic whole

What catches my eye here is that the organic becomes monstrous–in effect, inorganic–when it is cut off from a larger whole, system; when there is a loss of relationship, connection. In this sense, the monstrous is not the opposite of human, it is when the human is separated from the larger context of humanity, or when humanity is dissevered from its place in the organic whole of life. Monsters, in this sense (it seems to me) are neither made nor born as such; they are neglected into being. Consider also the OED entry for monster.

This view that the monster is or begins as organic and beautful, but becomes inorganic (or ugly or inhuman, etc), shows up in some recent retellings (or extensions) of Frankenstein in film. One version in particular we will explore: Blade Runner. The lesson there is that the monsters seem more human than their human creators. Its an extension of the novel, by way of science fiction and visions of cyborg replication. But it is something that Shelley also has in mind. As we have seen through some close reading of the novel, Victor is giving birth to his creation–something parodied in this recent New Yorker cartoon (with thanks to Jeremy for the link). However, as usually is the case with such parody, the joke seems less on Victor or the novel, and more on the contemporary reference to parenting–what to expect when you’re expecting.

Based on your reading of the novel, particularly with the implications you see raised (answered and unanswered) by the end, how would you forward Shelley’s Frankenstein into a contemporary reproduction? What would your text (film or multimedia or print) emphasize? How would it illustrate, borrow, authorize and extend Shelley’s version?

By the end, I pay particular attention to Victor’s use of the word species (as on 184: my duties towards the being of my own species) and the use of the word being. Is the creature a human being? What does that mean for the novel? When thinking about such keywords, I find it helpful to track the places where the word appears–something that I do more and more these days using Google Books (sorry Birkerts–it’s a research tool). I find that there are 66 appearances of the word “being.”


Frankenstein: Intertextuality

We have seen that the complications–the layerings–of meaning in Frankenstein begin even before you finish the title: the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus.” This is where the intertextuality of the novel begins. (And it continues, as you know, with the epigraph taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Intertextuality can be defined as the presence in a literary text (in our case, the novel Frankenstein) of elements from other texts. That presence can be a direct or indirect quotation, an allusion, an implication, an echo–in some way, a previous text or story is forwarded into the text you are reading. In contemporary music terms–intertextuality is sampling. In  digital parlance: it might be viewed as the mashup.

For further reading on Prometheus:

“Hesiod and Plato on Prometheus.” An overview of the myth of Prometheus as evident in the classical sources of Hesiod and Plato, by the writer/blogger Neal Burton. Note that this extends the myth of Prometheus to the invention of the arts, most particularly the arts of discourse and reason, in Greek known by the word “logos.”

Plato’s Prometheus. Summary of Promethus myth, with links to Plato’s use of the myth in dialogues, including Plato’s “Protagoras.”

Another intertextual complication in the novel:

Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”

Other possible places to go with the idea of intertextuality (that is, dealing with the amalgam-like quality of the novel, the recognition that there are multiple layers in the novel): Dante, the author’s introduction, Paradise Lost, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” medieval science. Lots of places.

In the second project, you are pursuing a close (slow) reading of key parts of the novel; but you will still be making an argument–there is a problem of some sort that you are exploring and (in your thesis) attempt to respond to and resolve. You can think of the problem/response in this way:

Many people tend to think of Frankenstein in simple terms, as a story about ______; however, there is a more complex story suggested by the intertext–a complexity that I read as important in the larger significance of Frankenstein as a novel about _______.

A link to the full poem of “Mutability.” And another, different poem also titled “Mutability” by the same poet.

Some ‘machines’ you might find useful in your intertextual reading of Frankenstein:

Electronic Paradise Lost (Milton, 1667).

Electronic Bible (from UVA’s Electronic Text Center)

Electronic Frankenstein.

And a final reminder, a resource useful for close reading, and for thinking more critically about keywords and terms in the reading–as well as in our writing–is the OED. It focuses on the inherent intertextuality in our language by highlighting the etymology and evolution of our words.


Project 1 Review

Our focal point in the first project was developing ethos through reflection. There are two places you can see this critical reflection emerge in an essay and think about, going into the next project, how you can continue to develop it: a strong set up of your argument (a statement in brief form of your argument as a response to a problem, a focused and arguable thesis); strong development in your body paragraphs (the elaboration of the problem/response–in other words, how you support, complicate, and reiterate the argument through critical and personal reflection ).

Some examples to consider from some of your peers (current and past); these are not the only way to do it, but they offer some good models for practice.

Argument Set-Up [Critical Thinking/Logic]

  • Keita: Note how the title initiates the “problem” that the first sentence also wraps into the given. By the end of the first paragraph, the key term “conversation” identifies the essay’s response to the problem.
  • Valerie: Example of a two paragraph set up, beginning with a narrative (placing the reader in a detail from the story), then pulling back for the statement of the problem and response.
Development of Reflection [Rhetoric]
  • Kassie: Note the development of reflection in the second paragraph (first body paragraph), spending time (not racing through nostalgically) a particular experience, then using a critical quotation to reiterate her key terms.
  • Jacob: a good example of using a critical quotation (first Birkerts, then Graff) in a body paragraph to elaborate and complicate the argument. Take a look at the second body paragraph where he uses Birkerts as part of his conversation–both to agree initially with him, but then to take his argument toward a different view of intellectual reading. This is a good example of what we will work on in the next project–forwarding someone else’s text.
  • Alicia offers a good example of developing the critical reflection to elaborate an example within a body paragraph that also supports/reiterates/complicates the argument and thesis. Paragraphs 3-5 are particularly strong–and notice the ways she uses the critics (Harris and Birkerts) to develop the personal reflection.
Conclusions [Grammar/Style]
We will be working on conclusions that go beyond merely repeating/restating what was already argued; instead, I want you to think of larger implications–give your reading something to think about beyond the essay, what follows from this new or different way of thinking.
  • Strong example from Jillian–notice how she moves out from her argument with a new image/scene, but in doing so reiterates the argument. This helps send the reader from her particular argument with thoughts of other places/implications for the argument.

Confusion [Grammar/Style]

  • We are talking about complicating our critical and rhetoric–developing the layers of our argument. That sort of complication is a good thing in our writing. In terms of grammar and style, we also want to give some attention to clarifying aspects of our sentences that might be confusing. This is something for you to consider when editing. For some useful guidance on confusion in writing and grammar, in addition to Professor Harvey’s book,  see this section of the Guide to Grammar and Writing on Eliminating Confusion.

Frankenstein: It’s Complicated

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece ...

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. The novel was first published in 1818. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if you have never read Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, you know the name. The image of the monster (perhaps of the scene when it comes to life, lightning crashing, the mad scientist screaming, “It’s alive!”). Those of you who have read the novel know–and for first time readers, it won’t take long to see–that such images from film don’t match up with the original novel.  [more on the history of Frankenstein in film]

We don’t get to the famous creation scene until 5 or 6 chapters in. And, of course, by then we know that Frankenstein is not the monster; it is, rather, the name of its creator. And a bit later in the reading, we wonder how the monster ever became the green hulking, inarticulate thing from the movies. Hint: the monster reads Paradise Lost.

A keyword I will be using as we discuss the novel and explore it with our second writing project in mind (we focus on intertextuality and close reading of text): complication. We will work on complicating our reading of this novel. That doesn’t mean we will make it difficult or harder than it needs to be. It means recognizing that the novel, as a text, is already a layer of complications–stories and images and other texts woven and folded in to its narrative.

There are two marks of those complications (of text as woven materials) even before we begin the story. The first comes in the author’s introduction–where we learn of the complex origins of the story. And more to the point, it seems to me, we learn of the complication that our author, Mary Shelley, views her creation of the novel in very similar terms as those used by Frankenstein concerning his. She concludes the introduction bidding her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” The novel, apparently, is also a monster.

A second location of complication: the title page. Look at the intertextuality–the presence of one or more other texts within a text–we are confronted with before we even get past the title. As we will see, this is only the beginnings of a text that is woven by numerous connections, links, echoes, allusions to other texts.

The point I will be making in the face of this complication–of this multiplicity of texts and voices and narrators and stories–is that we need to do close reading not to find some sort of hidden meaning. I know that is what it often felt like in high school English. The problem of this novel–the problem that makes it compelling and engaging, it seems to me–is that there is too much meaning. It is hard to know what to do with it all.

By the way, speaking of this multiplicity, I wonder what you think of the Electronic Frankenstein site. It strikes me that it could help with the of kind layering of text that we start to get as early as the title page. One way to think of things–perhaps Shelley’s novel is a hypertext of sorts. Is it better to read the novel in digital form? At the same time, we can think about various “remediations” (remakes in other media, other versions) of the novel that are basic to this story–well before we get to the digital age. In particular, there is the incredibly rich film history (and before that even, theater history) in which Shelley’s story is, in a word, mashed up and retold. The first film is 1931, directed by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff as the ‘monster’. In addition to film, there are also variations on the story in print, such as The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein and The Case Book of Victor Frankenstein.  Another retelling and reimagining of the novel, from other perspectives, is the well-known hypertext novel (more on this later in the term) called Patchwork Girl.

Here is a recent article that notes some of these intertextual implications (the novel as creation myth), locating  the complications as early as the author’s introduction and in her biography: “Was ‘Frankenstein’ Really About Childbirth?” And finally, an article about “frankenwords,” our tendency to create words out of hyrbrids, including words with “franken” as a prefix, such as reference to a “frankenstorm.”

All of these retellings and remediations, from print to film to digital, I would argue, in fact build upon, and are inspired by, an original story that is already, and at heart, about the idea of remediation and the power and influence of telling (which is to say, retelling) a story. Like I say, it’s complicated. And that’s a good thing.


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