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.”

Andrew Piper, who takes a different view of the idea of playing literature as a game, refers to The Apostrophe Engine in his chapter “By the Numbers.”

Advertisements

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).


Birkerts on privacy and process

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.