Reading and Writing in An Electronic Age

What happens when writing enters the electronic age? We turn to that question, and turn into a critical exploration of the problem as raised by Sven 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 encyclopedia].

As an example of McLuhan’s assertion that the content of every medium is the medium itself–i.e., 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. When we will read (browse, play, view?) some literary texts developed for electronic environments, we will encounter both, and more.


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