Reading and Writing in An Electronic Age

What happens when writing enters the electronic age? We turn to that question, and turn into a critical exploration of the problem as raised by Sven Birkerts and a range of other critical writers/thinkers we will be exploring over the remaining weeks of the term. Do we lose something that writing, particularly literary writing, has or should represent? Do we gain something in the process?

In her book Writing Machines, the critic Katherine Hayles, a specialist in the field of writing and new forms of media, argues for something she calls “media specific analysis.”  She emphasizes a simple point: the medium matters in whatever text we are reading–and so recognizing and understanding the differences among media should matter as well. A book is not a film is not a website–though these days, all three may interact in significant ways. For example, consider this webpage for The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Or, take a look (if you haven’t already) at The Medium is the Massage, the text we will turn to shortly. Hayles writes of “material metaphors,” symbolic moments in a text when the image or idea in the text (in verbal or visual form) reflects something of the material basis of the text. In other words, the medium. In other words, the subject of our reading or viewing turns into the object of our reading/viewing as well.  The eye in Blade Runner, it seems to me, is a material metaphor; so is the eye in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And it may well be that both return us to the eye in Frankenstein: are we also looking at ourselves when we look at Victor or the creature or even reading Shelley’s language, implicated in what creation and creativity means?

This critical focus on thinking critically about a medium–be it writing, film, computer, etc–owes something to a well-known media theorist from the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan. For some useful background on McLuhan and one of his signature concepts, “the medium is the message,” browse this wikipedia entry. [by the way, as you may or may not realize, Wikipedia is a digital remediation of the print encyclopedia].

As an example of McLuhan’s assertion that the content of every medium is the medium itself–i.e., the real message lies in how any message is conveyed (its mediation) not what the content or message is–we could take this Wikipedia entry. MM would argue that the real effect on those who read this entry comes through the way the ideas (in this case, some background, initial description of ideas, further links and resources) are conveyed and not the ideas by themselves. There is no idea apart from its medium for MM. And so the nature of a wiki–its ways of conveying content, of linking, of the kinds of writing and reading experiences it emphasizes and enforces, is the message.

He also distinguishes two types of experiences we can have with a communication medium: hot (or high definition) such as film–where our attention needs to be focused, absorbed; and cool (or low definition) where the active participation of the viewer/participant is more crucial to the experience, such as with a book (turning the page, re-reading, etc).

The phrase ‘remediation’ comes from the authors Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin who build upon McLuhan to argue, further, that every new medium builds upon, repurposes and remediates an earlier and existing medium. Thus the medium is the message also implies that there is no new media apart from ‘old’ media. Bolter and Grusin take this even further (which is to say, take our new media all the way back to MM’s older view) in suggesting that the content of every new medium is the act of remediation itself: how the new medium relates to and reuses the old.

So film reinvents (or remediates) the writing of a book. But a book also reinvents the presentation of a film. When we will read (browse, play, view?) some literary texts developed for electronic environments, we will encounter both, and more.


Writing and Reading Film

Our third project extends and elaborates our close/slow reading focus from the last project into a different medium. We do so not only to explore critically the way Shelley’s “hideous progeny” lives on in film, but also to explore and practice the ways we, as critical readers and writers, need to be specific about the medium we are reading and writing.

The reading assignment (“Writing About Film” from the Dartmouth Writing Program site) provides a basic introduction-as well as a glossary. I don’t expect you to become an expert film critic in the space of one reading assignment, or even one writing project. However, I do want to emphasize that we need to deal with the complexity of film–just as we have been dealing with the complexity and complications of Shelley’s print novel (language, intertextuality, multiple frames to the narrative, etc). Film, as the site informs us, has “elements of composition.” We need to read those–and as it suggests, pick one or two that seem particularly important. And we need to give our attention to writing about those elements in the essay, showing them to your reader in your effort to elaborate your argument. The site recommends annotating a shot sequence in a key scene you will be looking at. It is a good strategy; you might begin to use some of the terminology (jump-cut, etc.), but don’t worry so much about the terms. Pay attention to what you notice going on with the filming (and not just in the plot of the film). Be specific, as we have been emphasizing, with the medium.

As an example of a scene to do some media specific analysis–and notice the various elements of composition, consider the famous cyclone scene from .


Frankenstein and film

In our next project, we stay with Frankenstein but read it from another angle of vision. We will be thinking about the ways that Shelley’s “hideous progeny” has gone forth and prospered in film. In doing so, our writing and critical reading focal point will be something Katherine Hayles calls “media specific analysis.” This means that we will be thinking more specifically about film (and about writing) as a medium–thinking about characteristics specific to the medium and to ways that a story told in film is different than the same story told in a print novel. A related term I will use to explore this with you: remediation–the way a newer medium extends and relates back to an older medium, even as it would seem to replace it (for example: film and writing).

Frankenstein shows up in lots of film–and not just in films named Frankenstein. This has been one significant feature of the novel’s afterlife. Why it has lived on surely has something to do with the power of the story–its ability to be adapated and to evolve in different cultures and climates. (Sounds something like the creation, doesn’t it). I would hypothesize, more specifically, that one of the ways and reasons the novel prospers in film has something to do with the ways the story can be made relevant to the medium of film.

Some links to consider:

1910 Edison film (the earliest film version of Frankenstein)

Discussion of Frankenstein in film (Electronic Frankenstein).

Creation scene (It’s Alive!) from the 1931 film.

example of a film close reading (integrated into blog)


The medium is the message

For some useful and brief background on the thought of Marchall McLuhan and his concept, “the medium is the message,” browse this wikipedia entry.

As an example of McLuhan’s assertion that the content of every medium is the medium itself–ie, the real message lies in how any message is conveyed (its mediation) not what the content or message is–we could take this Wikipedia entry. MM would argue that the real effect on those who read this entry comes through the way the ideas (in this case, some background, initial description of ideas, further links and resources) are conveyed and not the ideas by themselves. There is no idea apart from its medium for MM. And so the nature of a wiki–its ways of conveying content, of linking, of the kinds of writing and reading experiences it emphasizes and enforces, is the message.

He also distinguishes two types of experiences we can have with a communication medium: hot (or high definition) such as film–where our attention needs to be focused, absorbed; and cool (or low definition) where the active participation of the viewer/participant is more crucial to the experience, such as with a book (turning the page, re-reading, etc).

It is with this understanding of media that I will emphasize that books are a medium–and that the notion of books vs new media is inaccurate since books are another kind of media. I will also emphasize, borrowing the term from Katherine Hayles (the author of Writing Machines) that as critical readers, we need to practice ‘media specific analysis’ whenever dealing with a medium–which is always.

When would we not be dealing with a medium, with ideas (whatever form or shape) that reach us through some form of mediation?

The phrase ‘remediation’ comes from the authors Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin who build upon McLuhan to argue, further, that every new medium builds upon, repurposes and remediates an earlier and existing medium. Thus the medium is the message also implies that there is no new media apart from ‘old’ media. Bolter and Grusin take this even further (which is to say, take our new media all the way back to MM’s older view) in suggesting that the content of every new medium is the act of remediation itself: how the new medium relates to and reuses the old.

We can think of this in terms of film, and will be doing so as part of our third focal point: the way film remediates the Frankenstein story.