Birkerts: process over product

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.

Perfect, that is to say, completely finished, books might exist–though I haven’t read one. But even if they do exist, the problem becomes, for the writer, for the learner, how to get there while being imperfect? For learners, perfect books are dreamed of and always never written. Isn’t that what happened to Birkerts? These are some of the thoughts and concerns I take into the final pages of his argument and our initial exploration of electronic and hypertext writing.

I used Google Books, by the way, to do some keyword searching–for example, in Gutenberg Elegies. Here is an example (the word process appears 45 times).

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.”

Andrew Piper, who takes a different view of the idea of playing literature as a game, refers to The Apostrophe Engine in his chapter “By the Numbers.”


Reading (Playing, Navigating) Hypertext

Jackson Pollock/ the medium is the message?

Hypertext literally means “over text.” The connotation is a text that is somehow over-stimulated in being a text. In digital terms, it means an electronic text that has a linking mechanism in which a reader has some agency in going to related texts and choosing from multiple pathways through a text. The world wide web is basically a massive hypertext.

Luminous Airplanes is a hypertext–calling itself a “hyperromance” or hypernovel. Actually, we are reading the digital extension of a print book titled Luminous Airplanes; the digital version picks up from the print version and in some way (I think?) forwards and extends it. Before the reader gets too far into the reading experience, we are confronted by choices and challenges as a reader. How should we proceed? Which path should we take? There is a story here: there is a narrative, there is a narrator, an initial event or conflict that seems to motivate things (a given, a problem, with the response being the writing of this narrative). What might be different for some is that this narrative–and the reader of this narrative–is never merely background or taken for granted. There is an interest in the reader’s participation. This is where the linking mechanism comes in. We have choices to make. But it should also be noted that this sort of literary experience–a narrator talking about the book we are reading, the reader in some form participating in the book as though it is being written with us–is not new to digital literature. This is a quality of postmodern literature that predates digital hypertext. Digital hypertext–we can call it with an ear to Birkerts, the fate of literature in the electronic age–extends, through digital means, a desire to write and read stories or texts in which the medium is the message. A postmodern book (like McLuhan’s) makes the reader mindful that she is reading a book. La Farge takes it a step or two further by extending his book into digital space: we can read about Luminous Airplanes (the book)–and even buy the book online–while we read Luminous Airplanes (the hypertext).

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

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

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

This isn’t how we traditionally think of reading. But perhaps we need to find alternative verbs and participles for the activity we are doing. Perhaps it is better to borrow from other activities: navigating, playing, exploring, browsing, gaming. What else, what other analogies come to mind? And–my question for us to take up as we evaluate this literature critically: are these analogies for our reading completely beyond what we think literature and reading should entail?

 

Some other hypertext reading experiences you might consider….

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

Emily Short, First Draft of the Revolution

  • Links and Doubles. Note the ways this text from the beginning plays with the idea of a fluid text in which writing is doubled and linked. Have you read other texts–including texts that are not digital–in which the experience of reading is doubled or linked in some way? Unlike some hypertexts (following the logic of nonlinearity), this one does have an end.
  • Participation. The reader’s invitation to rewrite this text while reading it. Participating as a reader, but also as a writer–for example, asking for more information. Think about ways Joseph Harris’ Rewriting provides insight. Or Janet Murray on immersion. Or McLuhan.
  • Author’s Statement. For further reading on this text, see the author’s description and overview here.

Electronic Literature Collection [we will be reading from this collection next]

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

Some critical links

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

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

Some help with how to create links in Twine.

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

Some stories/games created with Twine:

“Howling Dogs” by Porpentine.

First Draft of the Revolution by Emily Short and Liza Daly

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

 


Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Image via Wikipedia

So, is Google making us stupid?

Sven Birkerts, years before Google emerges, says yes: the web is trapping us in a world of shallowness, a web that erodes language, flattens historical perspective, and destroys privacy. I suggest Carr’s essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” offers some updating of Birkerts’ concerns, but also some possibility for counter-argument. For our purposes, I would emphasize that Carr’s rhetoric (how he writes and presents his argument) is, at any rate, stronger than Birkerts in key places. It is more effective in what it does, how it develops and complicates the argument–even as it makes a similar claim for a dramatic shift in how we read in the electronic age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lanier, “Does a Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind”

“Inside the Google Books Algorithm”

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

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

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


McLuhan: The Message of the Medium

English: Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore: The ...

English: Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore: The Medium is the Massage (Spread from the book, page 34-35, original photo: Peter Moore) Published in 2001 by Ginko Press Inc., Corte Madera, CA, USA.

Both “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert” and Birkerts’ counter to Bustillos’ argument, “The Room and the Elephant,” focus on the ideas of Marshall McLuhan. [The links above provide  digital versions of these two articles that include some of my annotations]

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan (author of The Medium is the Massage) defines media  as  “the extensions of man.” Contrary to someone like Sven Birkerts, who neglects the medium of the book and tends to view media only as the new, the electronic, McLuhan understands that a medium (or a technology) is anything that extends the capability of a human who uses it. Thus any and all forms of communication tools are media, starting with language itself: writing, pencil, book, printing press, variety of computer mediated forms of writing and language. And in this book he extends this notion of extension: literally any tool that can be considered an extension: clothing, wheels, houses. Thus, in The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan writes about the “technology of the alphabet.”

McLuhan highlights for me the ways that Birkerts neglects to define and consider and reflect upon and understand the mediated nature of new media (instead of generalizing, too quickly brushing them off). And though he does do a better job being more deliberate and reflective regarding the media of print (all the reading and writing he discusses), there is still this problem. He gets, I think, the medium of print wrong. Consider this paragraph from McLuhan that evokes Birkerts’ senses of passivity vs. activity, except it locates the passive not with television but with the technology of literacy.

Western man acquired from the technology of literacy the power to act without reacting. The advantages of fragmenting himself in this way are seen in the case of the surgeon who would be quite helpless if he were to become humanly involved in his operation. We acquired the art of carrying out the most dangerous social operations with complete detachment. But our detachment was a posture of noninvolvement. In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner. [Understanding Media, 4]

I see a good bit of Birkerts in this image of detachment. Ironically, McLuhan gives us to imagine this scenario at home: parent yelling at child to put down that book, stop being so lazy, and get on the internet and do something real. Or in the case of Walter Benjamin, whom Birkerts will cite: we see that mediation–the changes in the technological reproduction of art, writing–enables readers to become writers.

All emphasize that the traditional relationship between readers and writers is changed by technology. Must that change necessarily be for the worse? McLuhan’s understanding of the involvement that the “environment” created by electronic media, in contrast with the detachment of print media, suggests a contrasting vision to that of Birkerts.

For a brief history of early printing.

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

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


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.


Pathos of Editing: stitching a more fluid essay

http://www.exophagy.com Frankenstein (1910 film)

Image via Wikipedia

In addition to being a poor reader and reviser (see last post on the threading of a thesis), Victor Frankenstein, Shelley’s stand-in for the creative artist, the writer, the one who toils in the workshop of filthy creation, appears to be a bad editor. Think of it: if he had taken a bit more time to consider the presentation of his creation, the work that he had stitched together from parts (as any creative work is), might he have saved himself some heartache?

This editing workshop focuses on how we control and create the fluidity (often called ‘flow’ by you) of an essay that is not naturally or originally there. It is made, not born. And one key place we control and create this fluidity is through control of our sentences.

  • Sentence Variation:
    1. look at your sentence length: hit return at the end of each sentence in one or more paragraphs: turn your prose into poetry; the point is to bring out the buried voiced (the origins of poetry, of writing) of your sentences.
    2. we are after variation: not all long/complex; not all short and sharp–a fluid movement between the two.
      1. think both Hypotaxis and Parataxis.
      • Close-Up
        • Experiment with using the power of shifting to a short, sharply focused sentence as a way to highlight your thesis statement. It is like moving in for a dramatic close-up on your critical vision. It can tell your read: pay attention to these keywords and ideas throughout the essay–a way to provide the thread the reader takes with them.
      • Sentence Combining: fluidity and variety in sentence style derives from a more specific grasp of the kinds of sentences and sentence parts we have at hand. You can combine shorter, simpler sentences in several ways, including compounding and subordinating. For more practice, visit the Sentence-Combining page of Guide to Grammar and Writing.
  • Transitions
    • between sentences within a paragraph (the point from above), and between paragraphs. Look at the transition sentence (the first sentence of the next paragraph). Work on weaving the reader’s path (or the thread of your thesis) into the next paragraph.
      • use transition signals (think of the way we need to do this with a speech or public presentation): “Yet another example of this irony of dark creation is evident in the creation scene.” Or by contrast: “Unlike the darkness of creation we see with Victor, the creature presents a vision of light…”
  • Weave your quotationinto the paragraph: quotations need to be effective, not just accurate.
    • remember to provide context/introduce the quotation (don’t throw quotations at the reader)
    • leave the page number for the parenthetical citation; don’t introduce the quotation with the page number.
  • Meta-Commentary.
    • We will be returning to this in later workshops. For now, think about places where you can add in a sentence that will help clarify things for your reader by letting the reader know what you are thinking.
      • “in other words”; “By irony of dark creation I mean…”; “Let me reiterate the point made earlier:….”; “What do I mean by …?”
      • also think of transition words: however, although, despite, that or this [point, idea]
  • Specificity.
    • Edit out phrases that leave things the argument or idea or specific reference vague. Sometimes this is a matter of selecting stronger verbs and more complex nouns; sometimes, this is a matter of substituting for some of the pronouns we use too frequently (it, he, she) or too loosely (this, without a reference to what this is: this idea of creation…). It is also a matter of editing for more specific verbs. Consider, as one tool for getting a better grasp on the implications of words (as well as relations, synonyms), using Wordnik.
    • For a good poetic example of specificity that matters for an argument, read Robert Pinsky’s “Shirt.”

Reverse Outlining: Three-Act Thesis Template

English 101 | Professor Meehan

Three-Act Thesis: Revision Strategy | 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

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

 

 

 

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