Birkerts v. Hayles: book v. mediation

Note on process: This posting represents an alternative approach for using the Glog in response to reading. In my first Glog on Gutenberg Elegies (focusing mainly on the introduction and first chapter), I used the glog while reading, taking notes, then spending more time with an issue I noticed and wanted to delve into. In effect, I finished the Glog when I finished reading. Those of you who like to read and take notes might try this. Remember that you needn’t write the entry live; you can if you prefer write in a notebook (I assume it would be digital in some form, ie a word document) and copy at a later point into your wordpress Glog. Another option would be to read an entire assignment, take some notes along the way in the book or a notebook, then sit down to reflect on the reading by writing your Glog. Experiment with the best way for you to glog. The purpose is for you to find the mediation of your reading (in effect, that is what we are doing; Birkerts would likely cringe hearing that word in connection to reading) that will best prepare you for class discussion and for your future writing. Overall, whether you write while reading or soon after, I do suggest that you never leave too much distance between your reading and your writing.

Why would Birkerts cringe? Because reading should be, as he sees it, a solitary act. The picture of reading I get thus far, particularly from the autobiographical perspective he provides in chapter 2, emphaszies what he calls his “hidden reading life” (38). Due to family dynamics that he explores, he learns to associate reading with “feminine” principles shaped by his mother and in some tension with his father. His father emphasizes the activity of doing and associates reading with passivity. I don’t want to psychoanalyze too much–though the way SB presents this, he does seem to invite this kind of analysis of psychodynamics. Is SB’s strong love of books (bibliomania) tied to feelings for his mother? I am not thinking Oedipus here so much as the way he associates reading so strongly with privacy, with the hidden, almost with an illicit activity (daydreaming in the middle of the day, inside, presumably was illicit from his father’s perspective). 

Mediation–in the form of digital reading, the screen–of this private and secluded activity thus violates not the object (the text, the book) but the subject of reading: the reading experience that Birkerts has with books. It makes the experience public; it pulls the books out of the boxes: recall his assertion that books are most alluriing when being packed up in a box (53). Digital mediation of reading and writing is lots of things; one of which is greater connection with a reading/writing audience. That is of interest to me. I wonder if others agree, are equally interested in the social aspects of digital writing (even something like Facebook). Birkerts is concerned about reading becoming too social. My concern is that his definition of reading and its significance is too narrowly viewed as private, as requiring privacy.

Thus far, Katherine Hayles presents a different view of the same picture. She, like Birkerts, is a great lover of reading and books as she grows up. The key difference is that books are examples of what she begins to define as mediation–and significantly, mediation that is not limited to books (thus, she also finds in the chemistry labratory). [We will talk more about mediation when we visit the printing press at the Lit House] For Hayles, the mediation of writing and ideas that a book represents is thoroughly material. To that extent, she is like Birkerts: she loves thinking about the material form of a book. But unlike Birkerts, she resists the “binary” (the either/or proposition) which then makes a book mutually exclusive with things in the material world, including social connections. Books, Hayles suggests to the contrary, can offer the experience of being both solitary and social. I see this in her explanation that her interest in literature and reading as with her interest in computers and how computers can mediate literature and reading–that her ‘hook’ in all this is how she can bring binaries (contraries) together.

Thus far, Birkerts and Hayles both sound similar to young Victor Frankenstein and Walton in terms of their reading histories: passionate readers. But the differences between privacy and social connection is a key; and further, how this difference comes out in Birkerts’ definition of a book as a private, almost sacred object (at least, books he considers worth reading) and Hayles’ view of a book as part of a larger “ecology” (her metaphor) of mediation in which symbolic come in a variety of material forms, including through the software and hardware of the computer you and I are using this very moment, right now.  


Writing Machines: the environment of writing

In our discussion (10/6) of Hayles’ notion of media specific analysis, we noticed that she wants us (critical readers and writers) to be specific about the materiality of the objects we are talking about: namely, the texts and books we read. When we first read Birkerts (and have no fear, we will return to him in a couple weeks to pursue a more direct comparison with Hayles), I suggested that he contrasts with Hayles in terms of materiality. For a book worried about the end of books, there is really very little focus on the materiality of the books he is thinking about. For Hayles, reading is not an immaterial act because langauge and communication–what one writes and reads, is always instantiated (her term) or conveyed or even reproduced in a physical medium: pages and books and ink and screens and computers, etc. Recall that Hayles tells us at the beginning of Writing Machines that she first learns about the materiality of media in science–then applies this to her engagement with books and literature.

We start to see this notion of a scientific materiality, applied to the more imaginative realm of language and literature (at least as conventionally viewed) when she refers to “material metaphors” and at the end of chapter 2 to medial ecology. Elsewhere, Hayles builds in compelling ways on this analogy from ecology and refers to the relationship between media and humans, machine intelligence and human intelligence, in terms of symbiosis. Her use of the word environment continues this thinking.

She writes: “computers are simulation machines producing environments” (48). No dobut you have experienced that in the simulation of a computer game, or have consdiered that in terms of virtual reality–even if only glimpsed from the vantage point of The Matrix (could that in some way, by the way, be considered a proto-Frankenstein film?). But what about boring and utterly familiar word processing, microsoft word? This, too, is the production of a writing and reading environment. So is all writing and reading an interaction through (hence the word medium, in the sense of a middle, a conveyance) an environment of some sort of mediation. So, what if we think more specifically and deliberately about the environment in which we read and write? Can we not, should we not, take an environmental perspective? For Hayles, an environmental perspective recognizes the specificity of the literary/media environment, just as an ecological perspective understands the specificity of relation. In ecology, generalizing yields disregard for the complexity of a system in which (as she reminds us) a change somewhere is a change everywhere. In literary ecology, failure to be specific with our environment and our tools renders flat text–the ones we write and the ones we wish to write about.

So, a lesson from Hayles and her own example of media specific analysis, carried into the third writing project (and, of course, beyond): we can learn to be more specific as writers and readers by giving more attention to the specificity of our writing medium. The medium matters. How does the medium in which you are writing (and thinking) inform your writing and your thinking? Consider this as you use your blog, or shift to handwriting in your notebook, or to Word on your computer. We can learn for our writing, from our writing.