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.
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. McLuhan, who years before began the process of making an “inventory of effects” of the electronic age on our minds and culture, argues “No.” Substantial changes are happening, for McLuhan, but he is more optimistic that they are leading to something positive he calls a “global village.”
I suggest Carr’s essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” offers some updating of Birkerts’ concerns, but also some possibility for countering. 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. Toward the end of the essay, Carr provides a very good model for how to present an effective counterargument.
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 further reading 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.
Gibson, article in Wired on writing as cut and paste remixing.
Harris’s chapter on “Remixing” refers to the scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick and the digital versioning of her later print book Planned Obsolescence. See it here. Does this type of reading counter Carr, or provide further evidence for his concerns?
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.
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 accompanied The Medium is the Massage.
A documentary film about McLuhan and his argument in The Medium is the Massage.
Two critical readings that forward McLuhan: The essay “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert” and Sven Birkerts’ counter to this argument, “The Room and the Elephant,” both focus on the ideas of Marshall McLuhan. The links above provide digital versions of these two articles that include some of my annotations.
Some things to consider as we also engage with the Print Shop at the Literary House and think further about the machinery of writing.
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
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.
Our focal point in the first project was developing ethos through reflection. There are two places you can see this critical reflection emerge in an essay and think about, going into the next project, how you can continue to develop it: a strong set up of your argument, its clarity and complexity (a statement in brief form of your argument as a response to a problem, a focused and arguable thesis); strong coherence of that argument as it moves through your body paragraphs (the elaboration of the problem/response and your keywords or terms–in other words, how you support, complicate, and reiterate the argument through critical and personal reflection ).
Some examples to consider from a selection of writers from past classes; these are not the only way to do it, but they offer some good models for practice.
Clarity and Complexity of the Argument
- Keita: Note how the title initiates the “problem” that the first sentence also wraps into the given. By the end of the first paragraph, the key term “conversation” identifies the essay’s response to the problem.
- Valerie: Example of a two paragraph set up, beginning with a narrative (placing the reader in a detail from the story), then pulling back for the statement of the problem and response.
- Kassie: Note the development of reflection in the second paragraph (first body paragraph), spending time (not racing through nostalgically) a particular experience, then using a critical quotation to reiterate her key terms.
- Jacob: a good example of using a critical quotation (first Birkerts, then Graff) in a body paragraph to elaborate and complicate the argument. Take a look at the second body paragraph where he uses Birkerts as part of his conversation–both to agree initially with him, but then to take his argument toward a different view of intellectual reading. This is a good example of what we will work on in the next project–forwarding someone else’s text.
- Alicia offers a good example of developing the critical reflection to elaborate an example within a body paragraph that also supports/reiterates/complicates the argument and thesis. Paragraphs 3-5 are particularly strong–and notice the ways she uses the critics (Harris and Birkerts) to develop the personal reflection.
- Strong example from Jillian–notice how she moves out from her argument with a new image/scene, but in doing so reiterates the argument. This helps send the reader from her particular argument with thoughts of other places/implications for the argument.
- We are talking about complicating our critical and rhetoric–developing the layers of our argument. That sort of complication is a good thing in our writing. In terms of grammar and style, we also want to give some attention to clarifying aspects of our sentences that might be confusing. This is something for you to consider when editing. For some useful guidance on confusion in writing and grammar, see this section of the Guide to Grammar and Writing on Eliminating Confusion.
Next Monday at the Literary House there will be a discussion of great relevance to our course conversation: Blogging about Books. The event is at 4.30 pm. Though you are not required to attend, I highly recommend it. It is perfect timing coming off our initial inquiry into what it means to be a reader/writer–how that compares and contrasts with the vision of Birkerts, in particular. I wonder what he would have to say about the Book Lady, one of the bloggers participating in the discussion. Later in the course we will be exploring further the ways that digital media have transformed reading and writing. So, this is a very relevant conversation.
My sense is that the Book Lady doesn’t believe that reading–or the reader–should be hidden.
Sven Birkerts has been our central guide in the argument against the transition from print to digital forms of reading and writing. We are also thinking about ways to counter an argument–our own as well as others.
We found one example in Carr’s article: recall when he turns toward the end and admits that he might be worrying too much and invites us to be skeptical of his skepticism. That is a basic form of counterargument, located at the end; in effect, it is his last section of the argument, leading in to his conclusion.
Janet Murray’s introduction to Hamlet on the Holodeck, “A Book Lover Longs for Cyberdrama,” presents the whole of the argument as a counterargument. Note how she sets this up with her title and the epigraph, quoting Birkerts. She then extends counterargument by also entertaining an objection toward the end (much like Carr does): admitting (p. 7) that new technologies can be frightening, despite (or in counter to) her own argument that the computer is a “thrilling extension of human powers” (6).
For another example of countering the argument that the electronic age represents a “Frankenstein’s monster,” consider Robert Darnton’s “5 Myths About the ‘Information Age’.” There the approach is to counter, point by point, and very strongly, assertions made by the likes of Birkerts regarding the influence of the information age on reading and books.