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).


the medium is the workshop of the message

I mentioned in our visit to the print shop Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a famous book from the 1960s by a so-called media guru. I want to follow up the reference in order to think a bit more about how/why I am hearing in Shelley’s “workshop of filthy creation” echoes of the medium of writing and print.

McLuhan defines media in that book as “extensions of man.” Contrary to someone like Birkerts, who neglects the medium of the book and tends to view media only as the new, the electronic, McLuhan understands that a medium 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.

In the same book, McLuhan repeats a saying he made famous (perhaps you have heard of it): the medium is the message. He means in large part that the significance of any  medium  is the mediation it provides; he also means that a new medium contains aspects and traces of the old medium it supposedly replaces. A bit later in the course we will get back to this idea that has come to be called “remediation.”

Perhaps another way of putting this is to say that  a medium such as writing (print or electronic) is significant and meaningful in part (McLuhan a bit more boldly might say entirely) for the way it pulls back the curtain on the communication (or extension) it provides. This foregrounding of the medium is on my mind in the readings this week. We have Birkerts who is focused so intently and intensively on the privacy of print and writing, on the qualities of a book to be a medium of transport and self-extension–yet thinking very little about the medium (machine) of the book or even the writing that goes into it. At the other end, with Hayles the initial pages of Writing Machines, we find an author similarly transported by literature and the private life of reading, yet who insists upon the material encounter with the medium of writing, of print, and of electronic text. And in the middle, Frankenstein. A story, it seems to me, about the mediated nature of creativity, authorial and biological; about being consigned, as humans, to the workshop of filthy creation.

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.

Does Victor make a similar mistake? What do you think?