Coda and Collective: a critical application

Sven Birkerts concludes The Gutenberg Elegies by focusing on an opposition between “the solitary self” and “the collective.” For Birkerts, a true self is solitary and a true sense of self exists only in solitude; this condition of selfhood is cultivated best through the pages and linear lines of books. Birkerts sets against this condition of solitary selfhood the “condition of connectedness” that he associates with what he terms “the ever-expanding electronic web.” “They are not only extensions of the senses,” he argues about the technological improvements of the electronic age in his “Coda,” “they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others.”  In other words, the problem is not so much that we are, in the age of overwhelming information, overloading our senses by extending their range and reach; more troubling for Birkerts, we are extending ourselves and our senses into and among the extended senses of others. “Others” is the real pejorative term here (224). Birkerts fears contamination through connection.

This is where I disagree most strongly with Birkerts’ understanding of the “amniotic environment of impulses,” to use his telling metaphor of the web. I think Birkerts aptly characterizes the effect of this environment of impulses. He gets the technology right; the uncited echo of Marshall McLuhan’s defintion of technology as the “extensions of man” brings that home. We have, as McLuhan shows, always used technology to extend our senses–long before the age of electronic communication. Birkerts could be more precise in recognizing that such “extensions” would include the technologies of writing and print and bookmaking that informs the books that thus inform the selfhood he fears we are loosing. Books are part of an earlier hive of information and communication network. But no matter; he elsewhere in this book admits that his beloved book is, of course, a form of technology–even if that view is kept to a minimum. Birkerts gets not the technology wrong nor its implications (the extension of senses); he misses the point in fearing the connection to others. That is to say, I am troubled most by the “condition of connectedness” that Birkerts, it seems, forbids the act of reading. Why is connectedness the problem and solitariness the goal of our selfhood or of the creativity of reading and writing that informs it? Why must we think of creation in solitude?

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before it, suggests that Birkerts’ problem is to see connection as the problem…

This is not to say that there aren’t problems lurking in connectivitiy. I would agree with Birkerts to the extent that he worries about…. However, I think he goes too far in arguing that….In my view, creativity can only come through connection.

My example of a critical application of Birkerts, stitching in, through paraphrase and direct quotation, a key idea from his conclusion to then set up the focus I will use to read Patchwork Girl: in effect, using Birkerts’ own terms and language (connectedness vs. solitariness) for my own thesis, though reversing his view, drawing distinctions. Also, entertaining counter-argument from Birkerts.

It is worth noting that I have only recently discovered a thriving community of blogs out there that focus on books–passionate readers of books who blog about the books they are reading, want to read. A community of readers using the “condition of connectedness” of the web and blogging technology to extend their interest in book reading. What would Birkerts think? Here is a link to one such blog, So Many Books, which offers in its blogroll quite a list of book blogs. I look at this blog with interest in the social connections it makes between readers and books, through its “amniotic environment.” I am overwhelmed not by the electronic impulses, but by the reminder of the sheer number of books out there that we can, it seems, never catch up with and fully read.

On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, by Rick Prelinger: A recent article that takes up the problem of originality in the digital age, and proposes that we think instead of collage and patchwork. He speaks of orphaned works of creation and quilts: the echoes of Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl are noticeable–as are the concerns of Plato.

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Critical Application: Stitching Birkerts

Critical Application: Stitching Birkerts into our thinking and writing.

Birkerts concludes The Gutenberg Elegies focusing on an opposition between “the solitary self” and “the collective.” For Birkerts, a true self is solitary and a true sense of self exists only in solitude; this condition of selfhood is cultivated best through the pages and linear lines of books. Birkerts sets against this condition of solitary selfhood the “condition of connectedness” that he associates with what he terms “the ever-expanding electronic web.” “They are not only extensions of the senses,” he argues about the technological improvements of the electronic age in his “Coda,” “they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others.”  In other words, the problem is not so much that we are, in the age of overwhelming information, overloading our senses by extending their range and reach; more troubling for Birkerts, we are extending ourselves and our senses into and among the extended senses of others. “Others” is the real pejorative term here (224).

This is where I disagree most strongly with Birkerts’ understanding of the “amniotic environment of impulses,” to use his telling metaphor of the web. I think Birkerts aptly characterizes the effect of this environment of impulses. He gets the technology right; the uncited echo of Marshall McLuhan’s defintion of technology as the “extensions of man” brings that home. We have, as McLuhan shows, always used technology to extend our senses–long before the age of electronic communication. Birkerts could be more precise in recognizing that such “extensions” would include the technologies of writing and print and bookmaking that informs the books that thus inform the selfhood he fears we are loosing. Books are part of an earlier hive of information and communication network. But no matter; he elsewhere in this book admits that his beloved book is, of course, a form of technology–even if that view is kept to a minimum. Birkerts gets not the technology wrong nor its implications (the extension of senses); he misses the point in fearing the connection to others. That is to say, I am troubled most by the “condition of connectedness” that Birkerts, it seems, forbids the act of reading. Why is connectedness the problem and solitariness the goal of our selfhood or of the creativity of reading and writing that informs it? Why must we think of creation in solitude?

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before it, suggests that Birkerts’ problem is to see connection as the problem…

My example of a critical application of Birkerts, stitching in, through paraphrase and direct quotation, a key idea from his conclusion to then set up the focus I will use to read Patchwork Girl: in effect, using Birkerts’ own terms and language (connectedness vs. solitariness) for my own thesis, though reversing his view, drawing distinctions.

It is worth noting that I have only recently discovered a thriving community of blogs out there that focus on books–passionate readers of books who blog about the books they are reading, want to read. A community of readers using the “condition of connectedness” of the web and blogging technology to extend their interest in book reading. What would Birkerts think? Here is a link to one such blog, So Many Books, which offers in its blogroll quite a list of book blogs. I look at this blog with interest in the social connections it makes between readers and books, through its “amniotic environment.” I am overwhelmed not by the electronic impulses, but by the reminder of the sheer number of books out there that we can, it seems, never catch up with and fully read.

On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, by Rick Prelinger: A recent article that takes up the problem of originality in the digital age, and proposes that we think instead of collage and patchwork. He speaks of orphaned works of creation and quilts: the echoes of Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl are noticeable–as are the concerns of Plato.


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.


Postmodern Prometheus

The New York Times has a review of The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, by Peter Ackroyd. It is a new novel that re-imagines and retells Victor’s story in a more authentic context: that is, the one in which the author creates it. So, Percy Shelley shows up in the novel, for example. This sort of ‘postmodern’ version of Frankenstein, stripping away the stereotypes from the film history, is another version of what Shelley Jackson pursues in Patchwork Girl. In both cases, the stories seem to take off from Mary Shelley’s introduction, where she puts her own authorship up front, weaves it into the story: her hideous progeny is the writing, the creation of her novel. As you will see, Shelley Jackson runs with that strand. But she also remediates the novel with digital technology: in the way that all the various strands of story and history that inform or influence her vision of the novel are brought into her version, rather than edited or hidden.

Perhaps it is something like an essay that has been revised many times, but in which the final version contains all the versions in one. Why do this, you might ask?

But it is also worth asking you: have you also, before Patchwork Girl (and even if you have never before read such a text in digital form), read or viewed or played a text that was non-linear, that offered lots of material and options for reading, that had more than one place to go? That, at some level, in some form, invited the reader to become a writer? If so, then you have experienced what can be called “hypertext.”

For more on Shelley Jackson, you can go to her web site, Ineradicable Stain.


Birkerts: process and privacy

Birkerts emphasizes the privacy of reading. We recall this from the autobiographical experiences he offers in the beginning of Gutenberg. Toward the end, as he turns to the “electronic millenium” that (he fears) we have rushed headlong into, privacy returns as the thing that is lost: the waning of the private self that, he argues, reading books (though he doesn’t always use the object ‘books,’ often just assumes reading) cultivates. As such, I assume that he would vigorously object to the understanding that Shelley Jackson invites: I want piratical readers, plagiarists. In Birkerts’ politically tinged language: readers as social collectivists. For some further thoughts on plagiarism and the notion of ‘recombination’ and ‘recombinant’ that Hayles begins to introduce in “Flickering Connectivities,” consider this blog posting on Plagiarism.

In addition to the reiteration of privacy, what I notice most in reading through chapters 8-11 of Gutenberg is the word process. Birkerts turns to the word particularly in the chapter “Hypertext.” To further his definition of hypertext generally speaking (or electronic communication) in contrast with “the page,” he offers the binary process vs. product. I think he is quite right in associating digital writing (let’s use that phrasing) with process–as in word processing, one of the terms he wants to echo, pejoratively; as in writing that has been processed–and book or print or traditional writing with product. Where I think he is wrong is in the conclusion he draws about the impact of process over product.

Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. [158]

Process is foregrounded, revealed, no longer hidden; the sewing signs of the writing process are kept in view. As we have seen and begun to theorize in relation to Patchwork Girl. How ugly, how feminine, how interesting, how distracting; how processed. But the point, I presume, is that we loose the whole in favor of ever shifting or sliding parts. So I think he misses the point. And more to the point, I think neglects the pedagogical implications of this digital shift to the process of writing. We learn to write by viewing the parts of the process; as I have put it (with an eye to the Wizard), by looking into the machinery behind the curtain. I take it that Birkerts doesn’t like the idea of a machine. Fine. But here I see that he throws out with his distaste for the machine of writing (the age-old technology that writing represents, through which it represents) the possibility of learning to become a writer. Another pejorative he offers for the problem of writing in the fluid process of the digital screen: “provisionality.”  But such is the character of education. How else are we to learn?

In the end, I don’t think Birkerts wants us to learn to be writers, if we aren’t writers already. He wants writers to have their readers. Yet, ironically for this writer who loves to read, he doesn’t want the one to intersect (might we say, interface?) with the other. The process of learning is, it seems to me, many of the things that Birkerts fears we are becoming in our world of networked communication and distributed subjectivity, what he refers to as a hive: messy an social; messy, because social. I don’t mean social merely in the sense of exposure, of the loss of privacy. This seems to be Birkerts’ reduction. Rather, I understand learning to be social in its process. We can’t learn what we don’t need or want to communicate; our learning can only exist in its communication. It seems to me the greater solipsism lies in his vision of some sort of reading or learning environment that is entirely private, cut off from the world in which the learning must live if it is to be vital. We can keep quiet or keep things to ourselves. Such a life might involve fewer distractions, less noise. But if we are going to learn, if we are going to be changed, we will need to get outside ourselves through the learning. We will need, to use two words that Birkerts cites in his coda, the first from McLuhan, the second from Benjamin (both of whom I have cited before), extension, reproduction.