Editing Workshop: Signals for Argument

When you make an argument in writing you are participating in an ongoing conversation. One of the primary ways that conversation takes place in writing is when you quote other critics and views, bring them into your argument, and in some way work off them: come to terms, forward, counter, take an approach. Because this conversation is taking place in your writing, it is important that you clearly identify things such as: who is speaking, which part of the argument you agree with, where you would disagree. These signals are words and phrases that you can revise and edit into your essay. I adapt the following templates from the book They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.

Introducing Quotations: X states (argues, believes, asserts), “………..”

Explaining Quotations (a way to begin your follow up): In other words, X believes…..

Signaling Agreement/Disagreement

[Disagreeing with reasons] X’s claim that  ___________ rests upon the questionable assumption that _________.

However, by focusing on ________, X overlooks the deeper problem of ___________.

[Agreeing with a difference] X’s view of ____ is useful because it sheds insight on the difficult problem of __________.

[Agreeing and Disagreeing] Although I agree with X up to a point, I cannot accept his overall conclusion that __________.

My feelings on the issue are mixed. I do support X’s position that ________, but I find Y’s argument about _________ equally persuasive.

Entertaining Objections

Of course, many will probably disagree with my assertion that _________.

Yet some readers may challenge my view that _______. Indeed, my own argument seems to ignore _________.

Yet is it always true that ________? Is it always the case, as I have been arguing, that __________?

Although I grant that _______, I still maintain that __________.

In classical rhetorical, this introduction of a counterargument is called Procatalepsis or prolepsis–refuting anticipated objections.

Useful Metacommentary (ways of talking more directly to your reader about your argument)

In other words, _________.

Essentially, I am arguing that _________.

My point is ________.

My conclusion, then, is that __________.

Saying why your argument matters (template for larger implications/resolution)

This argument has important consequences for the larger issue of ___________.

Although X may seem of concern to only a small group of _______, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about ________.

A poorly signaled argument can often lead problems with logos (evidence, logic) known as logical fallacies. We have focused on counterargument with the third writing project as a way to strengthen our logos, our handling of evidence. Recall that “countering,” as Harris terms it, doesn’t mean simply letting “the other side” have a say or merely disagreeing with an opposing view. That may be how argument on cable television (unfortunately) works these days, but it isn’t what academic argument is about. Rather, countering means locating a thread or idea or implication in another’s argument that will be useful to the development of your own argument. This oppositional or contradictory thread may be useful in locating a potential weakness of your own argument–a point that your reader might expect you to consider and possibly refute. The thread may well point to a weakness in the other’s argument that you can use to elaborate your own. In other words, you might find language in an argument that you don’t agree with but can put to work.

Given this view of countering, I have suggested that focusing on counterargument can serve as an effective revision strategy. After completing a draft that focuses on developing your argument, you can revise your argument by giving more time to the terms of another’s argument that contends or contradicts your own. One way to evaluate this other argument–and by extension, to reconsider the structure of your own–is to pay attention to its logic. Below are some common errors in logic that you might find in another’s argument (and therefore useful for countering) or may well find in your own. These errors are known as logical fallacies:

Ad hominem: At the man; attacking the person instead of his or her argument.

Ad populum: At the people; appealing to the people’s emotions, prejudices, etc.

Ad Authoritate: Appeal to authority; using a celebrity rather than expertise as authority.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: After this, therefore, because of this; faulty cause and effect, jumping to conclusions.

Non sequitur: It does not follow; conclusion does not extend from the argument.

Circular logic: Begging the question; using a statement to prove itself.

False dilemma: Giving only two options in a situation when others may be possible.

False analogy: Argument based on incomplete comparison.

Faulty generalization: A conclusion that inappropriately makes a claim for all based on conclusions about a few.

Hidden premise: An unexpressed assumption, hidden agenda.

Reductio ad absurdum: (reduction to the absurd); argument in which a position is refuted by following its implications logically to an absurd consequence.

Special Pleading: Basically, invoking a double standard–arguing that a particular case is an exception to the rule based on an irrelevant characteristic that is not in fact an exception.

Tu Quoque: Turning the criticism back onto the critic.

For a comprehensive listing, see Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies. Also this discussion of Logos and Logical Fallacies from Purdue OWL.

The conversation of your argument ends with the conclusion, of course. But as we have seen throughout the semester, it is important for raising implications that both reiterate the argument and give the reader somewhere to go, to take your argument into their next project (and thus continue the conversation when you are gone).

Here are some additional ways to think about weaker and stronger conclusions (borrowed from an Inquiry and Analysis (AAC&U) that applies equally to the sciences and social sciences as it does to the humanities.

Very Strong: Conclusion presents a logical extrapolation from the inquiry findings

Strong: Conclusion responds specifically and solely to the inquiry findings.

Average: General conclusion presented that applies beyond the scope of the inquiry findings because it is so general.

Weak: Ambiguous, illogical, or unsupportable conclusion regarding inquiry findings.

 

Some additional digital tools for editing to consider–ways to go hyper with your text!

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Workshop: Counterargument

In addition to our reading into countering in Rewriting, this page from Harvard’s writing program on some of the basics of counterargument is useful. If countering in general terms means challenging or resisting or–as Harris puts it–finding the useful limitations of a critical perspective or assumption, then counterargument is when the writer turns the countering onto his or her own perspective. It is a rhetorical move in critical writing–useful in exploring, anticipating, and answering the limitations of one’s own argument.

An argument, as we have seen, in effect is a counter to a previous argument (or view, idea, understanding, position) that you believe is limited, in need of further thinking, if not rethinking. Thus, counterargument helps us clarify our argument and its stakes–the problem that we are addressing and responding. For a reminder, recall this discussion of stakes in an argument, and the ways that you might counter others, as well as counter your own argument toward clarifying and strengthening what you are arguing for:

1. Challenge an initial read.

2. Challenge a published view.

3. Explain an inconsistency, gap, or ambiguity.

4. Explain unexpected conclusions.

5. Intervene in a debate.

6. Point out how a piece of evidence encapsulates a larger issue.

7. Point out how an insignificant moment is actually critical.

8. Point out the limits of the existing literature.

9. Point out a problem others don’t usually see.

 

We also have as a model for countering the three basic moves that Harris identifies in his chapter in Rewriting:

  1. Arguing the other side
  2. Uncovering values
  3. Dissenting

Here is an example of counterargument (placed as last body paragraph) by Shana, a writer from a previous class.

For this project, counterargument is an element that needs to show up in your essay, a rhetorical element we are developing. However, counterargument can also be useful as a composting and revising strategy, as you move from ideas, to outline, to draft, to revised draft. It gets at one of our 4 revision questions: What Else? Imagine another perspective that is out there, or a different perspective from yours, or a perspective that your emerging argument responds to (a basic need for any argument or thesis). In other words, considering counterargument can help you sharpen the focus, purpose, stake of your argument and essay. So use the counterargument exercise (what’s the opposite of my argument? who disagrees with me and why?) to go back to your thesis and refine; to draft out an introduction; to revise one or more of your body paragraphs (strengthen by further complicating); potentially, to find a different and stronger argument.

If the opposite of your initial thesis/hypothesis turns out to be stronger or more compelling than your thesis, that’s a good thing–and a good thing to know in time to revise and change your essay and argument.


Electronic Literature: polymorphous possibilities

In the electronic poem “the dreamlife of letters,” the phrase “polymorphous possibilities” floats and twirls around the screen. The poem is grouped in the Ambient text section of the archive. This type of text is described in this way:

Work that plays by itself, meant to evoke or engage intermittent attention, as a painting or scrolling feed would; in John Cayley’s words, “a dynamic linguistic wall-hanging.” Such work does not require or particularly invite a focused reading session.

I think this particular text, and this kind of text (ambient), represents something larger about electronic literature that you are likely to experience as you explore this new media type of literature this week. “Dreamlife” is interested in “letters.”  All verbal texts are, to some extent. Some texts more than others. This one takes its interest more deliberately, and perhaps (so I might argue) more fervently, than many others. When you read–or watch–this poem, you witness the polymorphous possibilities of language. The poem reminds us, it seems to me, of the fact that any poem, any text, is made of such things. And made from the possibility of making and unmaking words and combining and moving letters.

It doesn’t “invite a focused reading session.” This is true. And yet, poetry is hard for many people, readers and non-readers alike. Consider the poem “Poem” by Charles Bernstein–a well-known, academic poet (and a co-founder of the Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY Buffalo). Is it so different from “Dreamlife”–except that it is static? Might we think of reading “Dreamlife” more like listening to a song: moving and morphing along? Does the poetry (or more broadly, the literary) reading experience need to be difficult? Must it be a focused reading session? What about, instead, an experience of reading? “Ambient” suggests that the environment and the experience of the text and its reading (its watching, its playing…) matters more than a conventional view of focusing on the meaning within a text.

Focus is a concern for Sven Birkerts; it point to a difference between linear print texts and many, if not all, of the electronic literary texts available at the archive. But what if focus implies, or derives, from participation rather than concentration? Isn’t poetry difficult, in part, when we are sitting too quietly or silently, waiting for it to speak to us? Consider some of the Oulipoems [constraint-based texts] which invite reader activity while also working something like a mad-libs game. It might surprise you, but these computer-generated texts are based on print poems from the mid-twentieth century, including the famous “Hundred Thousand Billion Poems” by Queneau. Andrew Piper refers to this group of poets in his chapter “By the Numbers.”

Can or should the experience of reading literature be something like a game? Or an algorithm? Can composing literature–poem or story or essay or argument–be processed like information, combined and re-combined like numbers or letters in a slot machine? What if it already is?

Or, perhaps hypermediacy means the hyperactivity of print culture, rather than its disappearance. Recall what Murray says–electronic text is the child of print culture. Here is one text, as sort of nightmare of digital communication: Out of Touch.

A text by Moulthorp (the hypertext author Birkerts reads in his chapter) titled Radio Silence–showing an interest in the ideas of play (rules for reading) and the interest in pattern.

A well-regarded hypertext–that emphasizes a different kind of linking nonlinearity: The Jew’s Daughter.

For links to other literary hypertexts, visit HTLit: Literary Hypertext.


Birkerts, Murray, and the Process of Narrative

In his chapter “Hypertext,” Birkerts continues his exploration of the differences between print and electronic texts, between words on a page and words on a screen. In “Into the Electronic Millennium,” he emphasizes the difference as one between linearity (print) and association (electronic)–earlier in the book, this opposition was described as  depth versus shallowness. Here, turning his attention to a literary hypertext created for a digital environment (Moulthorp’s Victory Garden), he continues the opposition, focusing it on a difference between process and product. As he puts it succinctly,

Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. (158)

Moving forward from page to screen, he believes, we move backwards from the book as a product to the process of writing and producing it. Along with this “profound” and “consequential” shift from literature and product to writing as process, Birkerts argues, “provisionality” is promoted and the traditional goal of the writer (he mentions the French novelist Flaubert) is lost. Attending to this loss, the reader of the book, turned into “process” at best, at worst a “sophisticated Nintendo game,” loses his or her sense of the private self (164).

These are familiar  keywords Birkerts uses in his argument: process, product, privacy, provisionality, perfection, potential. My criticism and concern for the implications of his argument might best be focused by adding another ‘p’ word to his list: pedagogy. It seems to me that in worrying about the ways that writing’s process becomes, potentially, revealed in a digital or electronic environment, Birkerts really worries the potential that anyone might become a writer. Here, my disagreement with Birkerts sharpens most into focus. In my view–recall, I am a teacher of writing, and a writer still learning my trade, as every writer does–provisionality and process are necessary ingredients for learning. One learns by learning the process; one writes by producing writing, not by having written, by having a product. The reader is always ready to turn into a writer, as Walter Benjamin put it in his essay on the “Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” We thus participate in writing. And participation is yet another concern, and another ‘p’ word, that Birkerts discusses. Instead of that, he wants to return to a time when the author perfected his writing by creating books that, in Birkerts’ phrasing, overpowered the reader.

In the chapter on “Countering,” Joseph Harris identifies three main ways of disagreeing or creating “critical distance” with another idea.

  1. Arguing the other side: Showing the usefulness of a term or idea that a writer has criticized or noting problems with one that she/he has argued for.
  2. Uncovering values: Surfacing a word or concept for analysis that a text has left undefined or unexamined.
  3. Dissenting: Identifying a shared line of thought on an issue in order to note its limits.

In my countering of Birkerts above, I am engaged in parts of all three moves, though primarily #1, recovering the word “process” from the way Birkerts dismisses it. What type of countering does Murray present in her chapter?

As we explore more directly hypertext fiction and poetry this week, consider some basic background for hypertext fiction of the sort that Birkerts encounters. It is from that massive hypertext encyclopedia you know well, Wikipedia. Consider that as both the problem and potential of hypertext literary reading: what if novels or poems read like entires in Wikipedia: in what ways does that change literature? Here is the entry for Hypertext Fiction. We can also think back to McLuhan’s argument, one that I think Birkerts clearly has in mind, though he doesn’t directly quote from: the medium is the message; all media work us over completely. Birkerts believes that the author, not the medium, should be working the reader over. Hypertext, for him, is too much medium, not enough message. I assume he would say the same about the electronic literature archive–where the process, not the product, is on view in the ways the texts are described and categorized.

Do you agree? I agree somewhat. This means that I find both uses and limits in his argument that help me to think about ways to develop my argument by forwarding elements that I agree with, but also ways to complicate my argument by addressing places where I don’t agree–where I can anticipate how he would object and provide a response.

For a view and vision of hypertext literature that can be said to disagree with the vision of Birkerts (and strongly) by way of agreeing, consider Shelley Jackson’s essay “Stitch Bitch.” There she argues favorably that hypertext is “what we learned to call bad writing.”

Some rhetorical observations:

  1. Note the way Birkerts forwards the definition (from the Coover article he quotes) of hypertext promoting “co-learners” and “co-writers,” and then uses that to dissent. This is a version of counterargument that begins with the concession–giving time to what you don’t agree with or will oppose, before turning to the refutation, why you argue against it. (p. 153)
  2. Note how he forwards McLuhan and his “basic premise,” but then counters it (signaling it twice with the word “but) by asking further questions he goes on to answer: the screen is not a difference in degree, but in kind. (p. 154)
  3. Note the way Janet Murray forwards Birkerts in her epigraph, using it as a contrast to McLuhan. Though she never directly refutes Birkerts, his voice is part of the concession she later offers and then refutes when she emphasizes that the computer is not the enemy of the book, but its descendant.

Further reading link: Here is video of the debate between Birkerts and Murray on Literature and Technology that Janet Murray mentions in her updated preface.

 

 


Reading (Playing, Navigating) Hypertext

Jackson Pollock/ the medium is the message?

Hypertext literally means “over text.” The connotation is a text that is somehow over-stimulated in being a text–or to use the term from our study of Frankenstein, a text that is inherently intertextual, an amalgamation. In digital terms, it means an electronic text that has a linking mechanism in which a reader has some agency in going to related texts and choosing from multiple pathways through a text. The world wide web is basically a massive hypertext. Paul Larfarge, author of Luminous Airplanes, prefers the phrase “immersive text” over hypertext, as he explains in this short video on his site.

Luminous Airplanes is a hypertext–calling itself a “hyperromance” or hypernovel. Actually, we are reading the digital extension of a print book titled Luminous Airplanes; the digital version picks up from the print version and in some way (I think?) forwards and extends it. Before the reader gets too far into the reading experience, we are confronted by choices and challenges as a reader. How should we proceed? Which path should we take? There is a story here: there is a narrative, there is a narrator, an initial event or conflict that seems to motivate things (a given, a problem, with the response being the writing of this narrative). What might be different for some is that this narrative–and the reader of this narrative–is never merely background or taken for granted. There is an interest in the reader’s participation. This is where the linking mechanism comes in. We have choices to make. But it should also be noted that this sort of literary experience–a narrator talking about the book we are reading, the reader in some form participating in the book as though it is being written with us–is not new to digital literature.

This is a quality of postmodern literature that predates digital hypertext. Digital hypertext–we can call it with an ear to Birkerts, the fate of literature in the electronic age–extends, through digital means, a desire to write and read stories or texts in which the medium is the message. A postmodern book (like McLuhan’s) makes the reader mindful that she is reading a book. La Farge takes it a step or two further by extending his book into digital space: we can read about Luminous Airplanes (the book)–and even buy the book online–while we read Luminous Airplanes (the hypertext). La Farge also discusses the idea and history of hypertext, reminding readers that there are print books that can be viewed as hypertextual.

I think of the painter Jackson Pollock as an analogy–not only for how La Farge operates and what his artistic interests are, but also for how we as readers engage with this work.

We have choices to make. By the second “page” of the narrative, we have multiple choices, choices that suggest we are in some way participating in the writing/rewriting of the very story we are reading.  And by the third page, we are invited to “get lost” in the text–which, we learn, exists in multiple formats. (Think back to the multiple layers of texts in Frankenstein). But even that isn’t exactly the case, since we have a choice to navigate by way of a map–rather than go in the direction of pages, we can get rid of the “book” analogy entirely and follow a map that exists “outside of time and space.” One of the critical terms we will encounter for understanding the effects of digital hypertext is immersion and immersive text. It is no accident that Luminous Airplanes has a page titled “Immersive Text” and has its readers think about this concept while reading. And there is intertextuality (something now more familiar to us as readers), which in the case of the reference to “Rip Van Winkle,” suggests how the dismembering (and remembering) of various pieces of the story is also a theme within the story. In this way, the medium is part of the message.

The author Paul La Farge talks about immersive text in this short video interview found on his webpage.

This isn’t how we traditionally think of reading. But perhaps we need to find alternative verbs and participles for the activity we are doing. Perhaps it is better to borrow from other activities: navigating, playing, exploring, browsing, gaming. Some upcoming essays (by Murray and Piper) will argue further for literature as game.  What else, what other analogies come to mind? A good way to pursue this is to take up the psychological idea of “affordances and constraints” that Joseph Harris discusses in his chapter “Remixing.”

It is not valid to dismiss Luminous Airplanes (the hypertext) for not being a book, since it is not trying to be a book. Rather, we need to ask: what does the experience of reading Luminous Airplanes in this medium afford the literary experience of a novel, and how does it limit that experience? Doe the constraints or limitations outweigh the uses?

Some other hypertext reading experiences you might consider….

“The Museum” by Adam Kenney, a hypertext novella that plays upon the idea of navigating story as an analogy for navigating a space such as a museum.

Emily Short and Liza Daly, First Draft of the Revolution

  • Stretchtext: Spastext[Stir Fry Text]  Material metaphor: focusing on writing, on the role of the reader.
    • Another of the Stir Fry Texts, Correspondence–identifies the real materiality of language that the writers are interested in; think Jackson Pollock with painting. What are the paintings “about”? Some art critics would say: about painting, the paint, the painter’s (and viewer’s) interaction with this medium.

A remix of Frankenstein: Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.

Some critical links

  • Birkerts’s concern with hypertext as too much fluid process, the loss of authorial product, seems an obvious connection to most if not all of these hypertexts. Yet they also suggest to me an implication of fluid process that SB doesn’t address, one that I would consider to be a valuable and crucial aspect of literary reading, deep and otherwise: the reading is dynamic, it moves.
  • For a contrasting view of hypertext as valuable, if still messy, in its process, consider Shelley Jackson’s discussion of her own hypertext, Patchwork Girl.
  • Rhetorical Devices for Hypertext

Here is a platform called Twine that we can use to create a hypertext–that is, a non-linear, linked narrative, poem, essay or other sort of literary work you might conceive. In other words, a narrative that we might treat more like a game. [Thanks to Aaron for pointing me to this site]

Some help with how to create links in Twine.

Is playing with a text, as a writer and/or a reader, analogous to writing and reading a text? In what ways is playing comparable to writing and reading? Would you argue that these activities, playing and writing/reading, should remain distinct?

Some stories/games created with Twine:

“Howling Dogs” by Porpentine.

For links/discussion of other literary games, see Aaron’s post on The Museum.

And for some further thinking of remixing as it relates to music, see this discussion by DJ Spooky on remixing the Beatles.


Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Image via Wikipedia

So, is Google making us stupid?

Sven Birkerts, years before Google emerges, says yes: the web is trapping us in a world of shallowness, a web that erodes language, flattens historical perspective, and destroys privacy. McLuhan, who years before began the process of making an “inventory of effects” of the electronic age on our minds and culture, argues “No.” Substantial are happening, for McLuhan, but he is more optimistic that they are leading to something positive he calls a “global village.”

I suggest Carr’s essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” offers some updating of Birkerts’ concerns, but also some possibility for counter-argument. For our purposes, I would emphasize that Carr’s rhetoric (how he writes and presents his argument) is, at any rate, stronger than Birkerts in key places. It is more effective in what it does, how it develops and complicates the argument–even as it makes a similar claim for a dramatic shift in how we read in the electronic age.

The scene from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the one discussed in the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The computer HAL being dismantled by Dave.

The article also refers to Plato’s “Phaedrus,” part of the section that opens up counter-argument. It reminds us that various technological changes stretch far back–and that writing was once the “Google” of ancient Greece. You will recall that McLuhan also refers to this famous dialogue, as does Birkerts and Joseph Harris and Dennis Baron.

Does my ability, or my desire, to access these ideas from the essay–I might call them, to use a loaded term, these links–in digital form, from the same screen with which I read the essay, constitute deep or shallow reading? Perhaps the problem is we need some different terms to describe what I am doing.

Think back to The Medium is the Massage and our discussion of the way that this print book extends or mediates the traditional book, one could say “hypermediates” the conventional form of an argument.   Is this also something to fear–or does this return us to something more crucial and fantastic in storytelling or literature? Would lots more types of books like The Medium is the Massage make us stupid?

Carr has turned his article into a book titled The Shallows. Here is a review from the NY Times.

Some further reading links to consider–and return to as you develop your argument for the third writing project:

A recent argument that cites Carr, but offers a more interested, hopeful vision for the ways digital reading is creating and influencing fragmentary readers and writers. “Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age”

A review of, and argument with, Carr’s book The Shallows (the book that emerges from his Google article).

A NY Times review of some new children’s books that blend print and digital; the reviewer suggests it as an updating of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

Lanier, “Does a Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind”

“Inside the Google Books Algorithm”

Gibson, article in Wired on writing as cut and paste remixing.

Harris’s chapter on “Remixing” refers to the scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick and the digital versioning of her later print book Planned Obsolescence. See it here. Does this type of reading counter Carr, or provide further evidence for his concerns?

And here is Birkerts himself writing in response to Carr’s book The Shallows.

As you can see, we are participating in a critical conversation with lots of forwarding and countering going on.


McLuhan: The Message of the Medium

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.

Further Reading:

For a brief history of early printing.

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

A documentary film about McLuhan and his argument in The Medium is the Massage.

Two critical readings that forward McLuhan: The essay “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert” and Sven Birkerts’ counter to this argument, “The Room and the Elephant,” both focus on the ideas of Marshall McLuhan. The links above provide  digital versions of these two articles that include some of my annotations.

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