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 accompanies 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.
When we pick up an essay such as “Hidden Intellectualism,” or a book of essays such as The Gutenberg Elegies, we can expect an argument. One familiar way of putting it: the author will present a “thesis.” A better way of phrasing this, I think, is to recognize that we are entering into a conversation in which the author seeks to move us toward his or her understanding of the given topic. And the reason, the motivation, for this movement or persuasion is that our current or given understanding of the topic is in need of rethinking or revision. The author seeks a change, a new understanding. Or to use language we will discuss further this week: the author raises a problem or question that seeks to move us from the conventional or given understanding of the topic. In responding to the problem or answering the question, the author changes our understanding.
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. He pulls 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. This is particularly relevant to Birkerts’s argument; Birkerts converses with us about his primary concern that our ability to read books has fundamentally changed in the electronic age. How Birkerts writes and how he argues is relevant, then, to what he is arguing for. This is also true for our writing.
We see this focus on “how” 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 the “how” of his writing in addition to the “what.” To use a famous phrase we will encounter later in the course, we will explore how the medium of his writing informs his message. We want to see what we can learn as writers,what we can borrow from his example.
To give you one example: in his introduction, Birkerts offers all of us (I include myself in this, a writer who still struggles at times in setting up a focus and thesis for a project–particularly larger ones) 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 blog (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. In other words, notice elements of his critical thinking, rhetorical knowledge, and knowledge of conventions (from our rubric and learning goals of the course). I will continue to ask of each writer we read and engage with: what can we learn about our own writing from this writer?
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)?
Some principles, concepts, and strategies from the course to remember and put to work in your final project…
Revision, as we have emphasized in each of the writing projects this term, is not so much “fixing” our writing and reading as taking it further. In that sense, writing represents a continual feedback loop of experimentation and recomposition of old and new ideas.
This final project in revised reading and writing tests your progress with the four main objectives of this course (remember those?): developing critical reading; developing rhetorical knowledge; developing effective writing process; developing your grasp of conventions, usage, style. Those objectives, of course, are ongoing; but your final project should demonstrate your development in those areas–in contrast, say, with the last ‘paper’ you wrote in high school or the first essay you wrote in this course.
The project also provides an opportunity for publication–what we do and want to do (in different forms and forums) as writers. For example, you might consider submitting this essay for consideration by one of the numerous publications on campus that highlight student work–and include critical writing, are not limited to fiction or poetry. Those publications include The Collegian and The Washington College Review. Alexandra Smythe’s essay, “I am a Reader, I am a Writer,” was published in the WCR–and was a final project from this course a few years ago.
The projects also provides an opportunity for you to put to work the rhetorical focal points we explored and practiced with each project. In a preface to a final project, a former student wrote this review of those focal points, informed by Joseph Harris’s terminology and our use of his book Rewriting:
When Coming to Terms with a text by another writer, I then make three moves:
- Define the project of the writer in my own terms,
- Note keywords or passages in the text,
- Assess the uses and limits of this approach
In Forwarding a text, I begin to shift the focus of my readers away from what its author has to say and toward my own project:
- Illustrating: When I look to other texts for examples of a point I want to make.
- Authorizing: When I involve the expertise or status of another writer to support my thinking
- Borrowing: When I draw on terms or ideas from other writers to use in thinking through my subject
- Extending: When I put my own spin on the terms or concepts that you take from other texts.
Countering– Three main ways of creating a sort of critical distance:
- Arguing the other side: showing the usefulness of a term or idea that a writer has criticized or noting problems with one that she or he has argues 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
Revising-My aim is instead to describe revising as a knowledge practice, as a consistent set of questions you can ask of a draft of an essay that I am working on:
- What’s your project? What do you want to accomplish in this essay? (Coming to Terms)
- What works? How can you build on the strengths of your draft? (Forwarding)
- What else might be said? How might you acknowledge other views and possibilities? (Countering)
- What’s next? What are the implications of what you have to say? (Taking an Approach)
Remixing: What are the affordances and constraints, or the uses and limits, of the medium I am using? How can I most effectively present my argument in the medium of my writing?
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, indicates that Birkerts’ problem is in seeing connection as the problem. Rather, in connecting to others, literary texts connect readers to writers and written words they create. And, when we consider an electronic text, we find in many cases, the connections are even stronger.
This is not to say that there aren’t problems lurking in connectivity. I would agree with Birkerts to the extent that he worries about the loss of authority in multiplicity. However, I think he goes too far in arguing that only the individual author, domineering over the individual and solitary reader, can count for what it means to be a reader (or writer). In my view, creativity can only come through connection that exists beyond the self. The result, I understand, may be a literary text that undermines what we think of as a traditional novel or poem. Consider, for example, “This is Not a Poem.” That title might remind us that this re-visioning of the traditional relation between reader and writer (the reader here becomes a writer, even rewrites the writing) or between artist and viewer has been going on for some time. For further reading consider 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.
[The text above is 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 counterargument from Birkerts.]