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.”

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 refute. 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.
  2. 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.

 

 

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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.  And by the third page, we are invited to “get lost” in the text–which, we learn, exists in multiple formats. (Think back to the multiple layers of texts in Frankenstein). 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.

 


Birkerts: process and perfection

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 Millenium,” 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. 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 mentioned using Google Books to do some keyword searching–for example, in Gutenberg Elegies. Here is an example (the word process appears 45 times).


Reading Birkerts: what and how

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. Pull 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.

We see this 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 not the what of his writing but the how. And do this to see what we can learn as writers, borrow from his example.

To give you one example: in his introduction, Birkerts offers all of us (I include myself in this, myself who still struggles at times in setting up a focus and thesis for an essay) 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 glog (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.

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)?

By the way, Birkerts does–it may surprise you, sometimes post a blog. Here he is on the Kindle.


Hypertext is Bad (bad meaning good) Writing

There is a line from the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in the 19th century (in his essay “Nominalist and Realist”), long before digital hypertext, that makes me think of some of the issues raised and provoked by Shelley Jackson. Here is Emerson:

“No sentence will hold the whole truth, and the only way in which we can be just, is by giving ourselves the lie; Speech is better than silence; silence is better than speech;–All things are in contact; every atom has a sphere of repulsion;–Things are, and are not, at the same time;–and the like”

This notion of truthful fragmentation is where I start to make some sense of Patchwork Girl: Jackson’s interest in hypertext writing as a resistance not just to traditional views of narrative or novel, but to conventional definitions of writing as such. In “Stitch Bitch” Jackson connects her understanding of the feminine, “banished body” at work in hypertext and at play in her novel with “what we learned to call bad writing.” So hypertext is a kind of writing that traditional (masucline) literature has edited out: a body and its loose aggregations.

This suggests to me that we are supposed to spend our time looking at this body (and multiplicitous embodiment) of writing; and are greatly helped in resisting the tendency to look through it, which is to say, look past it. She goes on to use the word ‘composite’; think how this resides in ‘composition.’ Jackson also links this in to the machinery of argument: where traditionally readers are not to be given a choice.

In a text like this, gaps are problematic. The mind becomes self-conscious, falters, forgets its way, might choose another way, might opt out of this text into another, might “lose the thread of the argument,” might be unconvinced. Transitional phrases smooth over gaps, even huge logical gaps, suppress contradiction, whisk you past options. I noticed in school that I could argue anything. I might find myself delivering conclusions I disagreed with because I had built such an irresistable machine for persuasion. The trick was to allow the reader only one way to read it, and to make the going smooth. To seal the machine, keep out grit. Such a machine can only do two things: convince or break down. Thought is made of leaps, but rhetoric conducts you across the gaps by a cute cobbled path, full of grey phrases like “therefore,” “extrapolating from,” “as we have seen,” giving you something to look at so you don’t look at the nothing on the side of the path. Hypertext leaves you naked with yourself in every leap, it shows you the gamble thought is, and it invites criticism, refusal even. Books are designed to keep you reading the next thing until the end, but hypertext invites choice. Writing hypertext, you’ve got to accept the possibility your reader will just stop reading. Why not? The choice to go do something else might be the best outcome of a text. Who wants a numb reader/reader-by-numbers anyway? Go write your own text. Go paint a mural. You must change your life. I want piratical readers, plagiarists and opportunists, who take what they want from my ideas and knot it into their own arguments. Or even their own novels. From which, possibly, I’ll steal it back.

Some unconventional stuff for a writer to write, sure. But at the same time, there is in this, strange as it sounds, the hear of what we do in the conversation of academic writing.

Hayles, in her analysis of the novel and in her contextualizing of its interest in 18th century discussions of authorship and copyright, provides a rationale for understanding the body of writing and the body of bodies. She connects Jackson’s interest in the (multiple) bodies of her text (author, character, novel, computer) to her argument for media specific analysis: it matters, Hayles asserts, which textual bodies we are dealing with when we write and read. Jackson goes even further: the bodies we write and read with matter as well.

I am curious, reader. Do you also view bad writing as bodily–as those elements of your writing that are in some way too physical, in need of surgery? Do you think, as Jackson seems to think, that we read with a body I wonder, certainly, where this finds us: we, in a composition and literature course, working on our writing and reading. And I wonder, I speculate, that engaging Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, with better attention to this sense, these senses, of an embodiment of writing and reading, will allow us to make more sense of the text. I would suggest that this way of making sense is one version of what Hayles means by “cyborg reading practices.” This is not about becoming plugged in, as in the cyborg of film; it is to recognize that we already are. In other words, I think much of what we experience today with ‘web 2.0’ (as it has been called), the read-write capability of many digital applications and sites, can be likened to the characteristics of bad writing as traditionally viewed.

And, Birkerts, in his use of ‘process’ as a pejorative, as something that good writing should not reveal, would agree. See my next posting: process and privacy.

So, if you think Patchwork Girl is in some form bad writing and are having difficulties with it, you might be on to something.

By the way, for those interested, here is an electronic copy of Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz, one of the many sources/intertexts/bodies that are taken up in Jackson’s composite. [thanks to Joannafor the reference] There is an original copy in the Sophie Kerr room, if you want to browse through it.


Hypertext is Bad Writing

This is where I start to make some sense of Patchwork Girl: Jackson’s interest in hypertext writing as a resistance not just to traditional views of narrative or novel, but to conventional definitions of writing as such. In “Stitch Bitch” (I am reading ahead for next week, but also following up connections that Hayles makes in “Flickering Connectivities”; Hayles cites this as well) Jackson connects her understanding of the feminine, “banished body” at work in hypertext and at play in her novel with “what we learned to call bad writing.” So hypertext is a kind of writing that traditional (masucline) literature has edited out: a body and its loose aggregations.

This suggests to me that we are supposed to spend our time looking at this body (and multiplicitous embodiment) of writing; and are greatly helped in resisting the tendency to look through it, which is to say, look past it. She goes on to use the word ‘composite’; think how this resides in ‘composition.’

Hayles, in her analysis of the novel and in her contextualizing of its interest in 18th century discussions of authorship and copyright, provides a rationale for understanding the body of writing and the body of bodies. She connects Jackson’s interest in the (multiple) bodies of her text (author, character, novel, computer) to her argument for media specific analysis: it matters, Hayles asserts, which textual bodies we are dealing with when we write and read. Jackson goes even further: the bodies we write and read with matter as well.

I am curious, reader. Do you also view bad writing as bodily–as those elements of your writing that are in some way too physical, in need of surgery? Do you think, as Jackson seems to think, that we read with a body I wonder, certainly, where this finds us: we, in a composition and literature course, working on our writing and reading. And I wonder, I speculate, that engaging Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, with better attention to this sense, these senses, of an embodiment of writing and reading, will allow us to make more sense of the text. I would suggest that this way of making sense is one version of what Hayles means by “cyborg reading practices.” This is not about becoming plugged in, as in the cyborg of film; it is to recognize that we already are. In other words, I think much of what we experience today with ‘web 2.0’ (as it has been called), the read-write capability of many digital applications and sites, can be likened to the characteristics of bad writing as traditionally viewed.

And, Birkerts, in his use of ‘process’ as a pejorative, as something that good writing should not reveal, would agree. See my next posting: process and privacy.

So, if you think Patchwork Girl is in some form bad writing and are having difficulties with it, you might be on to something.

By the way, for those interested, here is an electronic copy of Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz, one of the many sources/intertexts/bodies that are taken up in Jackson’s composite. [thanks to Joannafor the reference] There is an original copy in the Sophie Kerr room, if you want to browse through it.

 

 

 

 

 

Also, here is an excerpt from an interview with Shelley Jackson, when she has a print book of stories come out after Patchwork Girl. Notice how she is not attached to any particular medium–and also notice how she seems to want a collective writing experience (contrast with Birkerts on privacy).

You are somewhat well-known in the world of electronic literature for your work, The Patchwork Girl. How does it feel to have a book of stories out, something that, while not necessarily read front-to-back, is very different from a hypertext* work?
[Hypertext literature is kind of like reading on the web, where the narrative structure is defined by reader (rather than the writer) and the act of reading and following links.]

The Third PolicemanOddly, it feels kind of hypertextual. It would scarcely be in keeping with the shifty nature of hypertext to maintain a fanatical attachment to one medium, even if that medium was hypertext. I feel dispersed, but in a cheerful and intentional way, like one of those spiders who let their offspring set out on the wind on little silk parachutes.

What media do you find most satisfying (or dissatisfying) to work in?

I like black ballpoint pen in narrow lined college notebooks. Is that what you meant? I am a faithless but passionate person, and I love all my trades. Though I have to confess that I sometimes think writing a novel is an absurd and doomed enterprise, much too much work for one person to do alone. You really ought to get a group of friends together with sandwiches and beer and sleeping bags and put it together over a long weekend.