A famous and memorable scene from toward the end of The Wizard of Oz. As far as I recall, it is my earliest memory of watching a film. I recall great relief when the curtain is opened and we see a man, just a man, behind the curtain–nothing scary. There is an analogy to be pursued, I will argue this semester, with learning about writing and critical thinking–in particular, the kind of writing and thinking we do as academics. What makes our writing–or more broadly, literacy, since this can include the experience of reading such writing–compelling and engaging? This course will provide some answers, some of the names for which can be found in the Rubric we will use throughout to guide our study and your writing (and my feedback): critical thinking, complexity, rhetorical knowledge, coherence, language, revision, and others. By the end of the course, you will demonstrate your grasp of these tools, and that grasp will be stronger, more confident.
Let’s do a thought experiment as a way to begin, before we learn more about these concepts. Think of a memorable experience you have had as a writer or reader (keep in mind, as in my case, reading can be expanded to include “reading” film, which is also a text): what characteristics made that writing and/or reading compelling and engaging? Or same question from the reverse angle: what was missing in the writing or reading experience that failed to be compelling? In effect, before you have a better grasp of this term, how would you define “rhetorical knowledge”–what does a writer or reader need to do to be rhetorically effective?
These various tools of literacy and rhetoric indicate that writing is a kind of machine and invention (and film is yet another writing machine, as we will explore later in the term). Rhetoric is an art or technology (in the Greek sense, techne) of creating impressive image and sound and persuasion (think of the great and powerful Oz); but it is learned by focusing on what goes on behind the curtain, on getting better at knowing the tools to use and the levers to pull. So, we are going to pay more attention to the man and woman–and the moves, the rhetoric--behind the curtain of the reading and writing and thinking and conversing we will be doing throughout the course. The work we do daily and weekly gets us behind the curtain: responding to a reading assignment, bringing your notes and thoughts into the conversation of a class discussion, working further on those thoughts in your weekly blog post, then working and re-working them into a Writing Project (with lots of revision and further reworking), and so on. The Writing Projects, and particularly the final project, where you will return to earlier work and do even further revision, is the place where we close the curtain, step out from behind it, and become writers, great and powerful–or at least, more powerful than when we began the course. That’s the overall goal, in keeping with the four learning goals of the W2 writing program requirement which serve as the learning goals for this course.
In the meantime, I invite you to explore this site (Comp|Post) and to get a sense of the kind of work you will be doing in English 101.
After you have set up your free blog at WordPress.com, you can link me and your classmates to your blog by posting your address here. Copy the blog url/address into the comment box, and include your first name.
Each time a blog post is due on Friday, you then don’t have to send me anything. I will follow this link and read the post on your blog.
Putting it All Together: The Rhetoric of Creative Reading
Revision, as we have emphasized in each of the writing projects this term, is not so much “fixing” our writing and reading as taking it further. In that sense, writing represents a continual feedback loop of experimentation and recombination. There is more we can do, or might do, or should do, or would do–if only we had more time. The final project obliges you to take that time. This is your final exam. The components are:
- Essay: You will write a 5-7 page (double-spaced, standard 12pt. font, etc) essay that revises and expands upon something you have already begun in one or more of your previous writing projects.
- Learning Focal Point: Revision. Your task is to revise this essay: go back and go further with your reading, your thinking, your writing. The revision should reflect substantial development and change, not merely editing. Revision involves taking a risk with your thinking and writing.
- Proposal and Presentation. To guide your revision, you will update your to-do list and propose a revised abstract for the final project revision and identify a writer from the course who you select as a mentor. You will also identify one key rhetorical or logical element of your writing and one grammatical or stylistic element of writing that you will revise and improve. To conduct this further reading, consult resources such as Guide to Grammar and Writing, Purdue OWL, and others listed on right side of this blog. To identify these rhetorical, logical, and grammatical elements of composition, refer back to our Rubric and the keywords and concepts from our readings (Rewriting especially) and our class discussions. You will post to your blog a Proposal (300-500 words) that includes the following:
- revised abstract of your argument
- Writing mentor: indicate which writer from the course (anyone we have read) you would select as your writing mentor, and why: what aspects of writing do they demonstrate that you would like to develop? Be specific in making reference to the writer and elements of the writer’s writing, argumentation, style, etc.
- rhetorical/logical element of your writing you will develop: with guidelines, examples to explain; provide a link/citation to the resource
- grammatical/stylistic element of your writing you will improve: with guidelines, examples to explain; provide a link/citation to the resource
- in a brief (2-3 minute) presentation in class, you will teach us what you have learned and how the rest of us might learn from your further reading
- Publication: Portfolio. You will publish your final project on your blog, in a new post called “Portfolio.” This portfolio will include: your final revised essay, the earlier version of the writing project you are revising, plus a 2 page (approximately 500 word) Preface [this preface is in addition to the 5-7 page revised essay]. You will also submit a final version of the project (along with the preface) to Canvas.
- Preface: Your preface is an expanded abstract and self-reflection, serving as the introduction to your portfolio. After providing the abstract of the argument in a short paragraph (as you have done with each writing project), you will reflect on the work that went into the revision–what you have attempted to do with the essay, why and how you revised it, what you believe you have achieved with this writing. You should pinpoint 1 or more of the key aspects of the revision you have pursued. The Self-Reflection should also reflect on your progress and achievement as a writer and reader this term overall–what you have worked on (that to-do list I keep talking about), what you have achieved, what you want to keep working on in the coming semesters at Washington College. In other words, what does this portfolio represent of the work you have done this semester and the writing and critical reading you plan to continue in the coming semesters?
Student sample: consider this argument from Project 3 by a former student, revised and extended for the final project. (And note the digital extension at the end, Part II).
[Project 3, revised and expanded for Final Project]
Part I: Hypertext Literature’s Influence on the Modern World
Technology has been causing a shift in the way that people process information and deduce meaning from everything, especially when it comes to literature. Many, like outraged author Sven Birkerts of “The Gutenberg Elegies”, are concerned that the transformation that is occurring in our society may even spell out the death of the book and a decline in the amount of meaningful literature being created. While there is no extensive evidence as of yet, it is also widely believed that the changes occurring in the processes by which we read and absorb information may actually be causing the reshaping of the neural circuitry of our minds. Troubled author Nicholas Carr asserts in his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” that the accommodations that our brains have been making to assimilate new technologies may also be altering the mind’s ability to create and detect meaning in classical literature, (np). While it’s indisputable that technology has been causing a transformation in the world of literature and elsewhere, it’s very important to note that it is far too early in this new age to be passing judgment. These technologies are still incredibly young, not yet perfected, and are simply the result of the natural progression of literature. They cannot be and should not be written off before their untapped resources are explored. In fact, the internet–and the hypertext and multimedia literature that has been borne of it–may be opening us to a whole new world of untold possibilities.
Janet Murray–a humanities professor in the “world-class electronic toy shop of MIT”, a Victorian enthusiast, and an education-focused software designer–explains in the introduction to her novel, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, that not everyone is as wary about the transformation. She remarks that the projects that her “cyber-literature” students are coming up with are proving that the medium of technology may give authors–fresh-faced and seasoned alike–an opportunity to express themselves in a medium that does not limit them to just the printed page. Murray believes that multi-media literature has opened the door to untold possibilities in the world of literature, “The combination of text, video, and navigable space suggested that a computer-based microworld need not be mathematical but could be shaped as a dynamic fictional universe with characters and events,” (6). Murray sees the internet as an extension of our own capabilities, and as an incredible tool–still in its larval stage–that can bridge the gap between our desire to share and our limited ability to do so; to express both the most inner workings of a single individual and the vast complexities of the collective world simultaneously, “I see glimmers of a medium that is capacious and broadly expressive, a medium capable of capturing both the hairbreadth movements of individual human consciousness and the colossal crosscurrents of global society,” (9). She, like me, believes that the tools the internet continue to provide may allow authors and creators alike to reach previously insurmountable expressive heights.
In another particularly powerful moment, Murray points out after a wearying battle with an impassioned Shakespearean scholar that “we cling to books as if we truly believed that coherent human thought is only possible on bound, numbered pages,” (7). We wouldn’t limit ourselves and our thoughts to one medium in the three-dimensional world, so why would we treat literature–the brainchild of thought–any differently? And she’s entirely right to use the word “bound” here, as words printed on the page are completely static, and their meaning entirely dependent on the reader’s ability to infuse their own meaning into them. Hypertext literature allows its readers to explore its intended meaning straight from the source; as often the authors themselves are the puppet master behind every element of the story, including the coding of the text. As long as there are stories and as long as there are people to listen to them, every story will have as many different meanings as it does listeners. However, what the author gains with this new technology is the ability to make certain that their own meaning is not drowned out by the wayward interpretations of others. There will always be room in a story–hypertext or not–for a reader to infuse their own context, that is the root of accessibility, but with this new type of literature, readers will be building only on the foundations that the author has laid out for them. I truly believe this ongoing shift from printed to multimedia literature indicates that we are on the precipice of a revolution, one that will prove to promote innovation, creation, ease of use, efficiency, and countless forms of new technology that will mark the evolution of literacy, not the destruction of it. The death of the book is, after all, neither welcomed nor expected by the growing acceptance and use of these new mediums in our world. Common ancestors do not die out when they propagate new life, and in such the same way, multi-media will grow of the book, not away from it. The introduction of multimedia and hypertext literature will not nullify the achievements of printed literature, but will instead expand on them.
Sadly, however, hypertext literature has been confronted with just as much skepticism as its conduit. According to people like Sven Birkerts, hypertext literature cannot be considered “true” literature and therefore cannot be worth reading because it lacks the depth present in classic literature; but that simply cannot be true. While beauty is in the eye of beholder, it is widely believed that art–and literature as a facet–are successful only if they evoke something in their audience; some emotion, a hard-to-describe feeling, anything. And the hypertext poem “Faith”, written by Robert Kendall, does exactly what Birkert’s claims it is incapable of: it inspires. Kendall’s poem garners its very meaning from the use of technology. With the use of coding and magic, Kendall guides and inspires his readers through a step-by-step journey of his own writing process. In fact, without the use of movement on the screen–entirely credited to his use of the tools that these new technologies have provided–the poem would not have been nearly as poignant. I got so much more out of this poem by physically watching it unfold word by sentence by thought then I would have had I simply read it in its entirety printed on a page. Kendall uses technology to take his readers on an adventure from the birth of his idea to the final executions of the language he uses to shape, flesh out, and express it. The problem with a lot of poetry is, after all, that the author’s meaning, what he or she actually set out to express, often gets lost in the muddied interpretations of its readers. With this multimedia poem, Kendall’s true meaning rings out loud and clear. This poem is not read, it is experienced. Multimedia literature–as made evident by this poem and by thousands of others like it–provokes as much thought, evokes as much emotion, and involves the audience as much if not more than any classic literature I have ever read. And by meeting those standards, set out by perhaps hypertext’s most vigilant critic himself, it proves itself worthy.
However, my personal experience with multimedia literature doesn’t do much in the way of convincing, and as Murray points out, “The birth of new medium of communication is both exhilarating and frightening. Any industrial technology that dramatically extends our capabilities also makes us uneasy by challenging our concept of humanity itself”, and that seems to ring especially true with the opponents of hypertext literature. But what everyone seems to be conveniently forgetting is that technology is what started it all, especially when it comes to literature. The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, decades before even the American continent was discovered. At the time, thousands of people were wary about the infusion of literature into the everyman’s experience, as literacy tended to breed uprisings and all kinds of problems for the ruling class. But what no one could have predicted, however, was the absolutely enormous influence the printing press would have. It changed every single aspect of life for the people of the world. All of the sudden, entire populations were learning how to read, expanding their minds, inventing, exploring, discovering, creating, and all in the active pursuit of knowledge brought on by easy accessibility to the printed word. The invention of the printing press sparked the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and led to so many countless new technologies, theories, and efficiencies that I couldn’t even begin to name them. This is the natural progression of our species; we sit and think on some problem for a great long while, we finally make some solution happen, nay-sayers and worshippers alike cry out, and then, often regardless of the public’s reaction, that new technology makes a shift in the world. Eventually, those changes have all proved to serve us and to improve our quality of life. The internet and hypertext, multimedia literature are simply in their “outcry” phase. I believe that once the dust settles, we will be left with a tool just as mighty and powerful as the printing press before it, we are simply following in the footsteps of our own ancestors before us.
All that being said, there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who are still unsettled by the shift occurring in our world right now. And to be entirely truthful, those concerns are not completely unfounded. For example, Nicholas Carr, a kind of spokesperson for the healthily open-minded and skeptical, believes that if we make efficiency and immediacy our priorities with literature, we “may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace”. And he’s got a point; the types of long, verbose novels that have come out of the invention of the printing press are definitely getting a little tougher to swallow. But I think the cause of that problem is a lot simpler than it may at first appear: just like a child’s favorite toy will inevitably be passed up for a newer, shinier version, so will it always be harder for a reader to engage in a long, complex, linear story printed on a page when they have experienced other complex worlds–co-authored by both writer and technology–that allow them to experience the same story with more than just their imaginations. Technology has made way for a way new kind of story-telling: an experience of the senses. Anyone who has embraced these new technologies has become accustomed to being completely engrossed; eyes, ears, and minds, into the worlds that are being created for them by a medium that uses multiple forms of media. Over time those changes in the way we experience our content have reflected themselves as changes even in the way our brains process new things. It makes absolute sense that people would have a hard time concentrating on and engaging with novels, because they are simply not as engaging as the new types of literature readers have been experimenting with.
However, Carr is right when he points out that “never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives-or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts-as the Internet does today.” But I don’t think he’s really considering the reasons why that would be happening. The internet is a tool that can make almost every single aspect of daily life go a little bit smoother. It’s a tool that can be used to do literally anything it is programmed to do. Could I sit in the library stacks, combing through text after text, running my finger and my eyes endlessly down the page searching for that perfect quote I read once in seventh grade? Absolutely. But, do I have the time or the inclination to be doing that on a daily basis? Not at all. The internet gives us the opportunity to explore whole world if we have a few minutes to kill. I know that the argument that Carr is making here is that that all that time spent doing one thing–like reading an 800-page novel–is incredibly valuable, and I think he’s entirely right. But should that mean that people should not also spend their time finding meaning in short little poems that quite literally sing and dance their way across the page? I don’t believe so. Time spent experiencing literature is incredibly valuable, but what Carr is missing is that literature doesn’t have to be experienced solely on the printed page.
Readers who experience hypertext literature are connecting sensory memories; like sound, and sight, with their thoughts and memories. With novels, you can only have thought. If anything, these new forms of literature are opening us up to deeper levels of contemplation. Birkerts takes Carr’s argument a step further: “[Hypertext forms of literature] are not only extensions of the senses, they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others,” (224). He is concerned that the Internet’s ultimate goal is to forge connections between every person in the world, turning the individual perspective into a global one. He goes on to say “The end of it all…is a kind of amniotic environment of impulses, a condition of connectedness,” (224), but I really don’t see a problem with that. He uses the image of an amniotic environment, and I think, like Murray’s use of the word “bound” to describe the words printed on a page, that he’s chosen a really appropriate metaphor. The internet and its brain children are still so incredibly young. The symbol he’s provided for us is one of growth, and one of hope. Absolutely endless possibilities have come out of this new form of technology already, and I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that Birkerts wants to stomp it out before it has even had a chance to grow. What might be happening is a sort of social adaptation, a change that will yield a possibly better world. To give all of that hope and opportunity away to revert back to our old ways would only seem to me to be simply barbaric and cowardly. It’s in our blood to move forward, to keep ourselves rooted in the past would be to deny our always striving minds.
So, to summarize: yes, changes are occurring. But are they deviating from the point of literature? Absolutely not. In fact, these new forms of literature are proving to be really promising mediums for expression. Just as a painting and a sculpture can be equally beautiful, a poem written with code and a poem printed in a book can elicit equally powerful responses in their readers, which is, after all, the point. The changes that technology is eliciting in our world–and their endless possibilities–may just yield greater opportunities for human expression than ever before. After all, shutting out and preventing change does nothing but assure that nothing better will ever come. Taking a chance with this new medium may leave us at square one or, as I believe, may take us much further than we’ve even been before. Kendall’s hypertext poem closes with the final line, “faith is nothing but a giant leap”, and I think it’s about time we make it.
Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994. Print.
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Atlantic 1 July 2008: n. pag. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Kendall, Robert. “Faith.” Faith. Cauldron & Net, 1 Aug. 2002. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Murray, Janet Horowitz. “A Book Lover Longs for Cyberdrama.” Introduction. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free, 1997. 1-10. Print
WC Honor Code: Caitrin Doyle 5/7/14
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…..
[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.
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. That’s where reference to logical fallacies (from our previous workshop/post) can be useful.
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!
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:
- Arguing the other side
- Uncovering values
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.
Further Reading: Logical Fallacies
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. In general, we engage in a fallacy when we move too quickly in our discussion, fail to qualify what we say, or admit that our own argument has limitations. Or worse: when we say or do something deceptive in our argumentation. In rhetoric, logical fallacies are bad for ethos, even though they can be good for pathos (for example, argumentum ad populum).
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.
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.
- Hypertext Fiction (diginarrate.net)
- Writer as Artist // ELO // Curating & Exhibiting Electronic Literature Workshop (hastac.org)
- Event: Electronic Literature Showcase at the Library of Congress (hastac.org)
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.
- 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.
- Uncovering values: Surfacing a word or concept for analysis that a text has left undefined or unexamined.
- 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:
- 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)
- 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)
- 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.