Birkerts on privacy and processPosted: November 12, 2009
Birkerts emphasizes the privacy of reading. We recall this from the autobiographical experiences he offers in the beginning of Gutenberg. Toward the end, as he turns to the “electronic millenium” that (he fears) we have rushed headlong into, privacy returns as the thing that is lost: the waning of the private self that, he argues, reading books (though he doesn’t always use the object ‘books,’ often just assumes reading) cultivates. As such, I assume that he would vigorously object to the understanding that Shelley Jackson invites: I want piratical readers, plagiarists. In Birkerts’ politically tinged language: readers as social collectivists. For some further thoughts on plagiarism and the notion of ‘recombination’ and ‘recombinant’ that Hayles begins to introduce in “Flickering Connectivities,” consider this blog posting on Plagiarism.
In addition to the reiteration of privacy, what I notice most in reading through chapters 8-11 of Gutenberg is the word process. Birkerts turns to the word particularly in the chapter “Hypertext.” To further his definition of hypertext generally speaking (or electronic communication) in contrast with “the page,” he offers the binary process vs. product. I think he is quite right in associating digital writing (let’s use that phrasing) with process–as in word processing, one of the terms he wants to echo, pejoratively; as in writing that has been processed–and book or print or traditional writing with product. Where I think he is wrong is in the conclusion he draws about the impact of process over product.
Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. 
Process is foregrounded, revealed, no longer hidden; the sewing signs of the writing process are kept in view. As we have seen and begun to theorize in relation to Patchwork Girl. How ugly, how feminine, how interesting, how distracting; how processed. But the point, I presume, is that we loose the whole in favor of ever shifting or sliding parts. So I think he misses the point. And more to the point, I think neglects the pedagogical implications of this digital shift to the process of writing. We learn to write by viewing the parts of the process; as I have put it (with an eye to the Wizard), by looking into the machinery behind the curtain. I take it that Birkerts doesn’t like the idea of a machine. Fine. But here I see that he throws out with his distaste for the machine of writing (the age-old technology that writing represents, through which it represents) the possibility of learning to become a writer. Another pejorative he offers for the problem of writing in the fluid process of the digital screen: “provisionality.” But such is the character of education. How else are we to learn?
In the end, I don’t think Birkerts wants us to learn to be writers, if we aren’t writers already. He wants writers to have their readers. Yet, ironically for this writer who loves to read, he doesn’t want the one to intersect (might we say, interface?) with the other. The process of learning is, it seems to me, many of the things that Birkerts fears we are becoming in our world of networked communication and distributed subjectivity, what he refers to as a hive: messy an social; messy, because social. I don’t mean social merely in the sense of exposure, of the loss of privacy. This seems to be Birkerts’ reduction. Rather, I understand learning to be social in its process. We can’t learn what we don’t need or want to communicate; our learning can only exist in its communication. It seems to me the greater solipsism lies in his vision of some sort of reading or learning environment that is entirely private, cut off from the world in which the learning must live if it is to be vital. We can keep quiet or keep things to ourselves. Such a life might involve fewer distractions, less noise. But if we are going to learn, if we are going to be changed, we will need to get outside ourselves through the learning. We will need, to use two words that Birkerts cites in his coda, the first from McLuhan, the second from Benjamin (both of whom I have cited before), extension, reproduction.