McLuhan: Medium of Print

English: Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore: The ...

English: Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore: The Medium is the Massage (Spread from the book, page 34-35, original photo: Peter Moore) Published in 2001 by Ginko Press Inc., Corte Madera, CA, USA.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan (author of The Medium is the Massage) defines media  as ” the extensions of man.” Contrary to someone like Sven Birkerts, who neglects the medium of the book and tends to view media only as the new, the electronic, McLuhan understands that a medium (or a technology) is anything that extends the capability of a human who uses it. Thus any and all forms of communication tools are media, starting with language itself: writing, pencil, book, printing press, variety of computer mediated forms of writing and language. And in this book he extends this notion of extension: literally any tool that can be considered an extension: clothing, wheels, houses. Thus, in The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan writes about the “technology of the alphabet.”

McLuhan highlights for me the ways that Birkerts neglects to define and consider and reflect upon and understand the mediated nature of new media (instead of generalizing, too quickly brushing them off). And though he does do a better job being more deliberate and reflective regarding the media of print (all the reading and writing he discusses), there is still this problem. He gets, I think, the medium of print wrong. Consider this paragraph from McLuhan that evokes Birkerts’ senses of passivity vs. activity, except it locates the passive not with television but with the technology of literacy.

Western man acquired from the technology of literacy the power to act without reacting. The advantages of fragmenting himself in this way are seen in the case of the surgeon who would be quite helpless if he were to become humanly involved in his operation. We acquired the art of carrying out the most dangerous social operations with complete detachment. But our detachment was a posture of noninvolvement. In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner. [Understanding Media, 4]

I see a good bit of Birkerts in this image of detachment. Ironically, McLuhan gives us to imagine this scenario at home: parent yelling at child to put down that book, stop being so lazy, and get on the internet and do something real. Or in the case of Walter Benjamin, whom Birkerts will cite: we see that mediation–the changes in the technological reproduction of art, writing–enables readers to become writers.

All emphasize that the traditional relationship between readers and writers is changed by technology. Must that change necessarily be for the worse? McLuhan’s understanding of the involvement that the “environment” created by electronic media, in contrast with the detachment of print media, suggests a contrasting vision to that of Birkerts.

For a brief history of early printing.

For the audio recording that accompanies The Medium is the Massage.

Some things to consider as we head to the Print Shop at the Literary House and think further about the machinery of writing.


Hacking Literature

Ander Monson’s “Essay as Hack” is a sort of hypertextual, new media essay about the essay as hyperactive text. He writes print essays that are in some ways, minimally, linked to the web. This one, you notice, has a hyperlink to another essay from his first book (Neck Deep), that is now included in a website that is somehow (not entirely clear) part of those essays. He does something similar with his recent book Vanishing Point–a print book of essays with adjoining or complementary or further reading available on the web at his main site, Other Electricities. But Monson has in mind not just the essay in new media forms, the essay updated for new technologies. He is thinking about the essay itself as a technology for thinking.

Each essay we read is as close as we can get to another mind. It is a simulation of the mind working its way through a problem. This is not to suggest that every essay is good, revelatory, successful, fruitful, interesting. But stepping into an essay is stepping into the writer’s mind. We are thrown into the labyrinth, a huge stone rolling behind us. It is a straight shot of the brain in all its immediacy, its variety, strands of half-remembered text, partly-thought-through ideas, images below the surface of memory. We are thrown into process: of thinking, which is like an algorithm, a machine for replicating or simulating thought….

And a line I would forward to put into direct conversation with, and counter to, Birkerts: “This is not to suggest we shouldn’t attempt it. The attempt is glorious, and attempting rewires the brain. It moves the circuitry around, attaching a new conclusion to an action, reconstructing self. In a way, thinking about the self hacks it.” My extension from this: it sounds to me as though Monson is also describing the fundamentally rhetorical nature of reading and writing–we do it to change and be changed.

And note the ways he links this to algorithm, to gaming, in ways that correlate with Piper’s perspective:

“We are thrown into process: of thinking, which is like an algorithm, a machine for replicating or simulating thought…”

 

My digital remediation/hack of Monson’s hack as essay (with my digital annotations) is available here.

 

A key idea from Piper’s argument in “By the Numbers”:

When we read a digital text we are not reading a static object. We are reading one that has been generated through a set of procedural conditions that depend on our interaction with them. Digital texts are never just there. They are called forth through computation and interaction, whether by a human or a machine. This is what makes them dynamic, not static objects. It is this feature that marks the single strongest dividing line between the nature of books and that of their electronic counterparts. (Book Was There, 132)

The understanding of texts as dynamic and interactive and not static objects: though the specific reference here is to the digital text, we can (with Joseph Harris added to this conversation) also think of this as a fundamentally social and rhetorical nature of writing. When we read and write we rewrite. That’s the algorithm.

What do you think of this idea of literature–the experiences of reading and writing–interacting with the logic of numbers, of playing, of computation. The argument from both Monson and Piper seems to be that literature has always had an element of interactivity, long before the invention of digital mediation. Would you agree?

Some electronic and computational or algorithmic texts to consider, in response to Monson and Piper.

Piper argues that “playing with texts has always been at the heart of reading” (140).  Has playing been at the heart of some of your reading experiences? If not, could you argue that reading texts is at the heart of gaming? What does it mean to game? How is that similar to, and different from, reading or interpreting?


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.


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