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.

 

 


Revision Workshop: Development and Arrangement

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–thereby enhancing the pathos of our argument. 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 work on the development of the argument–and then using that development to refine and revise the thesis. As an analogy for what slow reading means, how it emerges through rereading and revision, consider an example from film: the shower scene from Hitchcock’s “Pyscho,” one of the most famous scenes in cinema history; you can also look at this close reading of the shower scene from “Psycho”. This is where we look closely, and look again, for what’s working in a passage as well as for what else we might see/argue (which is also to say, what else we are not seeing or thinking). Looking and reading closely also means reading slowly. I think of this climactic scene from Blade Runner and notice how patient the film is in slowing down at this important moment.

The second step in revision will be to make sure that our more developed thesis is effectively threaded through the essay–an aspect of the arrangement of 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 Topic Sentences and Signposts.


Final Project

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).

Caitrin Doyle

[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.

Part II

Works Cited

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


Project 2: Reverse Outlining

English 101 | Professor Meehan

Reverse Outline | Writing Project #2

Read and respond to the draft by filling in the structure below with specific information from the essay.

Act 1: Introduction/Set UP

Given:

Critical Problem:

Response/Thesis:

Act 2: Complications/Examples/Evidence for your thesis [for this size essay, around 2-4, also known as supporting paragraphs]

Complication #1:

[Passage that is forwarded]

Keywords/ideas that relate back to the thesis [how the writer is extending the passage and argument]:

Complication #2:

[Passage that is forwarded]

Keywords/ideas that relate back to the thesis [how the writer is extending the passage and argument]:

 

Complication #3:

[Passage that is forwarded]

Keywords/ideas that relate back to the thesis [how the writer is extending the passage and argument]:

Complication #4:

[Passage that is forwarded]

Keywords/ideas that relate back to the thesis [how the writer is extending the passage and argument]:

Act 3: Conclusion

Resolution: final answer to question/solving of problem—where writer reinforces the thesis:

Implications: What’s next—where this argument leaves the reader; larger implications reader might take from this argument and apply elsewhere.


Reading Birkerts: the how as well as the what

When we pick up an essay such as “Hidden Intellectualism,” or a book of essays such as The Gutenberg Elegies, we can expect an argument. One familiar way of putting it: the author will present a “thesis.” A better way of phrasing this, I think, is to recognize that we are entering into a conversation in which the author seeks to move us toward his or her understanding of the given topic. And the reason, the motivation, for this movement or persuasion is that our current or given understanding of the topic is in need of rethinking or revision. The author seeks a change, a new understanding. Or to use language we will discuss further this week: the author raises a problem or question that seeks to move us from the conventional or given understanding of the topic. In responding to the problem or answering the question, the author changes our understanding.

In the opening pages of The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts focuses in on a way of thinking about reading (and as he points out, reading/writing, since the two go together) that we are going to explore and exploit throughout the course. Basically, what he does, and what we will do as we continue to read him and other authors, is foreground the process of reading and style of writing that he has in front of him. He pulls back the curtain, as I have suggested (to use the Oz image), on the mechanics and craft (for me, mechanics need not be a bad word; it might be for Birkerts, however) of the writing. This is particularly relevant to Birkerts’s argument; Birkerts converses with us about his primary concern that our ability to read books has fundamentally changed in the electronic age. How Birkerts writes and how he argues is relevant, then, to what he is arguing for. This is also true for our writing.

We see this focus on “how” vividly in the opening of his first chapter, in his focus on Virginia Woolf and her ‘stylistic verve’; on the ‘how’ of her writing rather than the ‘what.’ So, this is a useful starting point for us, since we are also interested in exploring the craft of writing (and its relation to the thinking that goes in to critical reading) and want, also, to develop the verve (vivacity, vitality) of our style. A basic definition of style in writing I would suggest is the how that informs the what; the method and mediation that shapes the message.  I wonder what your sense of style is: what the word means to you, in regard to writing and also to other acts and arts. I also wonder what your sense of your own style is.

And so, as we continue to read Birkerts, in addition to developing a grasp of his ‘message’ and pursuing a critical reading of this text, we also want to use him to think about his style and our style. We will often talk about the “how” of his writing in addition to the “what.” To use a famous phrase we will encounter later in the course, we will explore how the medium of his writing informs his message. We want to see what we can learn as writers,what we can borrow from his example.

To give you one example: in his introduction, Birkerts offers all of us (I include myself in this, a writer who still struggles at times in setting up a focus and thesis for a project–particularly larger ones) a useful, decent model for an introduction: declaring ‘straightforwardly’ his ‘premise’ and ‘focus’ and working towards a full statement of his thesis:

As the printed book, and the ways of the book–of writing and reading–are modified, as electronic communications assert dominance, the ‘feel’ of the literary engagement is altered. Reading and writing come to mean differently; they acquire new significations. (6)

We will work throughout the course on ways to develop our own introductions and how to set up our focus and thesis more effectively. So, consider this introduction as a useful example to get back to when you are working on your own essays. We will talk more in class and workshops about what is useful and what is effective in how Birkerts introduces his argument and the ways we can learn from his “how.” One thing we see right away that I would suggest is effective: Birkerts tells us at key points what he is arguing, highlighting key words that signal to us something important: premise, focus. He talks to us as readers of his writing–as though he is having a conversation with us.

Your initial writing in response to our reading, the blog (which can and should lead to stronger writing for your essay projects), can begin to notice and focus more on this ‘how’ in addition to providing some summary of what a particular author has said. Notice how an author like Birkerts uses words like ‘premise’ or ‘focus’ or talks to you as a reader. In other words, notice elements of his critical thinking, rhetorical knowledge, and knowledge of conventions (from our rubric and learning goals of the course). I will continue to ask of each writer we read and engage with: what can we learn about our own writing from this writer?

And at the same time (of course) we are reading this book for the “what.” What interests me right away is to note the ways that this focus on how–and more generally on the “non-linear” style of writing/thinking that he appreciates in Woolf and wants to imitate in his own–sounds like a key characteristic of digital writing and the technological mediation of thought and language that he is trying to resist. He says in his opening paragraph: “All thinking is relative, relational, Einsteinian. Thinking is now something I partake in, not something I do” (11). At the end of the semester, when we get to electronic literature and digital writing, this quotation will seem very apt for how we “partake” in the thinking of “hypertext” and its Einsteinian relativitiy. So I suppose my question for Birkerts at this point: do you secretly wish, or perhaps by necessity, need to write (the how) in a way that contradicts the logic of your argument (the what: reading should not be relative, relational)?


Final Project Review: Further Revision Toward Publication

Some principles, concepts, and strategies from the course to remember and put to work in your final project…

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 recomposition of old and new ideas.

This final project in revised reading and writing tests your progress with the four main objectives of this course (remember those?): developing critical reading; developing rhetorical knowledge; developing effective writing process; developing your grasp of conventions, usage, style. Those objectives, of course, are ongoing; but your final project should demonstrate your development in those areas–in contrast, say, with the last ‘paper’ you wrote in high school or the first essay you wrote in this course.

The project also provides an opportunity for publication–what we do and want to do (in different forms and forums) as writers. For example, you might consider submitting this essay for consideration by one of the numerous publications on campus that highlight student work–and include critical writing, are not limited to fiction or poetry. Those publications include The Collegian and The Washington College Review. Alexandra Smythe’s essay, “I am a Reader, I am a Writer,” was published in the WCR–and was a final project from this course a few years ago.

The projects also provides an opportunity for you to put to work the rhetorical focal points we explored and practiced with each project. In a preface to a final project, a former student wrote this review of those focal points, informed by Joseph Harris’s terminology and our use of his book Rewriting:

When Coming to Terms with a text by another writer, I then make three moves:

  • Define the project of the writer in my own terms,
  • Note keywords or passages in the text,
  • Assess the uses and limits of this approach

In Forwarding a text, I begin to shift the focus of my readers away from what its author has to say and toward my own project:

  • Illustrating: When I look to other texts for examples of a point I want to make.
  • Authorizing: When I involve the expertise or status of another writer to support my thinking
  • Borrowing: When I draw on terms or ideas from other writers to use in thinking through my subject
  • Extending: When I put my own spin on the terms or concepts that you take from other texts.

Countering– Three main ways of creating a sort of critical distance:

  • Arguing the other side: showing the usefulness of a term or idea that a writer has criticized or noting problems with one that she or he has argues 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

Revising-My aim is instead to describe revising as a knowledge practice, as a consistent set of questions you can ask of a draft of an essay that I am working on:

  • What’s your project? What do you want to accomplish in this essay? (Coming to Terms)
  • What works? How can you build on the strengths of your draft? (Forwarding)
  • What else might be said? How might you acknowledge other views and possibilities? (Countering)
  • What’s next? What are the implications of what you have to say? (Taking an Approach)

Remixing: What are the affordances and constraints, or the uses and limits, of the medium I am using? How can I most effectively present my argument in the medium of my writing?

 


Your brain on the internet: project 3 debate and sample

We conclude Project 3 with a debate.

Claims/Questions for Further Debate: The influence of digital media on literature (and more broadly, on communication and thinking) have been harmful; we need to make changes, or at the very least be careful (Pandora, Frankenstein’s monster etc.). How do you respond? Additional claims:

  • These transformations have been harmful in our society and should be regulated. Harmful at the College. Give specific examples as to how/why they should or shouldn’t be regulated. 
  • If the we were to consult with a critic to guide our decision (to regulate or not the use of digital media at the College), who would you recommend and why? Birkerts, Barron, Carr, Turkle, McLuhan, Murray 

Some recent arguments that make these claims include “Our Love Affair with Digital is Over” and “How the Internet Fuels Paranoid Thinking”

And here is a recent op-ed by Frank Bruni that worries that the internet is not just affecting our brains (Carr) and our literacy (Birkerts), but our civic discourse. Frankenstein makes an appearance. “The Internet Will Be the Death of Us.”

And another op-ed by Bret Stephens, “How Plato Foresaw Facebook’s Folly,” that analyzes current problems with Facebook by forwarding Plato and the concern with writing–the critical insight we have seen forwarded now about 5 different times.