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 scholar who studies 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, as we will see exploring examples of “hypertext” literature. You might 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.

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. But the problem, the question we will continue to explore, is the one we forward from Birkerts: when books and reading enter into the electronic age, do we lose something in the process?

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Frankenstein: It’s Complicated

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece ...

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. The novel was first published in 1818. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if you have never read Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, you know the name. The image of the monster (perhaps of the scene when it comes to life, lightning crashing, the mad scientist screaming, “It’s alive!”). Those of you who have read the novel know–and for first time readers, it won’t take long to see–that such images from film don’t match up with the original novel.  [more on the history of Frankenstein in film]

We don’t get to the famous creation scene until 5 or 6 chapters in. And, of course, by then we know that Frankenstein is not the monster; it is, rather, the name of its creator–though could also be the monster, since it is unnamed, and technically the son. And a bit later in the reading, we wonder how the monster ever became the green hulking, inarticulate thing from the movies. Hint: the monster reads Paradise Lost.

A keyword I will be using as we discuss the novel and explore it with our second writing project in mind (we focus on intertextuality and close reading of text): complication. We will work on complicating our reading of this novel. That doesn’t mean we will make it difficult or harder than it needs to be. It means recognizing that the novel, as a text, is already a layer of complications–stories and images and other texts woven and folded in to its narrative. As we will see in reading Mary Shelley’s original draft of the novel, the layers of complication include the fact that she is not the only one reading and writing, since her husband Percy Shelley edits the manuscript that would be published in 1818 (the second edition is published in 1831 by Mary alone).

A literary term for this condition of the layering of writing is “intertextuality”; for more on that, consult this reference from the University of Wisconsin. As we think more critically about the literary significance of intertextuality in Frankenstein–a focus for our next writing project–we will do so in order to think further about the rhetorical effect of intertextuality in our writing: the fact that in the texts of our essays and projects we use and transform the texts of others. Joseph Harris refers to this as “forwarding,” our critical focal point for the project. So, we will be reading Frankenstein as critical readers, but also as student writers, seeing what we can learn from Shelley.

There are two marks of those complications (of text as woven materials) even before we begin the story. The first comes in the author’s introduction–where we learn of the complex origins of the story. And more to the point, it seems to me, we learn of the complication that our author, Mary Shelley, views her creation of the novel in very similar terms as those used by Frankenstein concerning his. She concludes the introduction bidding her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” The novel, apparently, is also a monster.

A second location of complication: the title page. Look at the intertextuality–the presence of one or more other texts within a text–we are confronted with before we even get past the title. As we will see, this is only the beginnings of a text that is woven by numerous connections, links, echoes, allusions to other texts.

The point I will be making in the face of this complication–of this multiplicity of texts and voices and narrators and stories–is that we need to do close reading not to find some sort of hidden meaning. I know that is what it often felt like in high school English. The problem of this novel–the problem that makes it compelling and engaging, it seems to me–is that there is too much meaning. It is hard to know what to do with it all.

By the way, speaking of this multiplicity, I wonder what you think of the Electronic Frankenstein site. It strikes me that it could help with the of kind layering of text that we start to get as early as the title page. One way to think of things–perhaps Shelley’s novel is a hypertext of sorts. Is it better to read the novel in digital form? At the same time, we can think about various “remediations” (remakes in other media, other versions) of the novel that are basic to this story–well before we get to the digital age. In particular, there is the incredibly rich film history (and before that even, theater history) in which Shelley’s story is, in a word, mashed up and retold. The first film is 1931, directed by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff as the ‘monster’. This film includes the famous line (not from the novel): “It’s Alive!” In addition to film, there are also variations on the story in print, such as The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein and The Case Book of Victor Frankenstein.  Another retelling and reimagining of the novel, from other perspectives, is the well-known hypertext novel (more on this later in the term) called Patchwork Girl.

Here is a recent article that notes some of these intertextual implications (the novel as creation myth), locating  the complications as early as the author’s introduction and in her biography: “Was ‘Frankenstein’ Really About Childbirth?” And finally, an article about “frankenwords,” our tendency to create words out of hyrbrids, including words with “franken” as a prefix, such as reference to a “frankenstorm.”

All of these retellings and remediations, from print to film to digital, I would argue, in fact build upon, and are inspired by, an original story that is already, and at heart, about the idea of remediation and the power and influence of telling (which is to say, retelling) a story. Like I say, it’s complicated. And that’s a good thing.


Hacking Literature

Ander Monson’s “Essay as Hack” is a sort of hypertextual, new media essay about the essay as hyperactive text. He writes print essays that are in some ways, minimally, linked to the web. This one, you notice, has a hyperlink to another essay from his first book (Neck Deep), that is now included in a website that is somehow (not entirely clear) part of those essays. He does something similar with his recent book Vanishing Point–a print book of essays with adjoining or complementary or further reading available on the web at his main site, Other Electricities. But Monson has in mind not just the essay in new media forms, the essay updated for new technologies. He is thinking about the essay itself as a technology for thinking.

Each essay we read is as close as we can get to another mind. It is a simulation of the mind working its way through a problem. This is not to suggest that every essay is good, revelatory, successful, fruitful, interesting. But stepping into an essay is stepping into the writer’s mind. We are thrown into the labyrinth, a huge stone rolling behind us. It is a straight shot of the brain in all its immediacy, its variety, strands of half-remembered text, partly-thought-through ideas, images below the surface of memory. We are thrown into process: of thinking, which is like an algorithm, a machine for replicating or simulating thought….

And a line I would forward to put into direct conversation with, and counter to, Birkerts: “This is not to suggest we shouldn’t attempt it. The attempt is glorious, and attempting rewires the brain. It moves the circuitry around, attaching a new conclusion to an action, reconstructing self. In a way, thinking about the self hacks it.” My extension from this: it sounds to me as though Monson is also describing the fundamentally rhetorical nature of reading and writing–we do it to change and be changed.

And note the ways he links this to algorithm, to gaming, in ways that correlate with Piper’s perspective:

“We are thrown into process: of thinking, which is like an algorithm, a machine for replicating or simulating thought…”

 

My digital remediation/hack of Monson’s hack as essay (with my digital annotations) is available here.

Link to a Final Fantasy Walkthrough/FAQ

 

A key idea from Andrew Piper’s argument in “By the Numbers”:

When we read a digital text we are not reading a static object. We are reading one that has been generated through a set of procedural conditions that depend on our interaction with them. Digital texts are never just there. They are called forth through computation and interaction, whether by a human or a machine. This is what makes them dynamic, not static objects. It is this feature that marks the single strongest dividing line between the nature of books and that of their electronic counterparts. (Book Was There, 132)

The understanding of texts as dynamic and interactive and not static objects: though the specific reference here is to the digital text, we can (with Joseph Harris added to this conversation) also think of this as a fundamentally social and rhetorical nature of writing. When we read and write we rewrite. That’s the algorithm.

What do you think of this idea of literature–the experiences of reading and writing–interacting with the logic of numbers, of playing, of computation. The argument from both Monson and Piper seems to be that literature has always had an element of interactivity, long before the invention of digital mediation. Would you agree?

Some electronic and computational or algorithmic texts to consider, in response to Monson and Piper.

Piper argues that “playing with texts has always been at the heart of reading” (140).  Has playing been at the heart of some of your reading experiences? If not, could you argue that reading texts is at the heart of gaming? What does it mean to game? How is that similar to, and different from, reading or interpreting?


Writing Machines

In his distinctions between book and computer, page and screen, reading and browsing (or some other form of digital doing), Birkerts consistently views the book as pre-technology–and everything that comes in the 20th century and after as technological interruptions of the book-based world. We have seen in some places, particularly the beginning of chapter 3, that he opens the door onto the view that books themselves are a product of technology–that Gutenberg’s press is a powerful machine. But doesn’t spend much time looking through that door.

This recent piece from the New York Times on Learning Machines in the classroom reminds us that, indeed, various writing technologies and machines have long been a part of our learning–because writing and reading is always technological in some form. The pencil, for example, or the chalk board. Technology doesn’t mean it has a plug. The implication from the slide show is that the iPad may well be the slate/chalk board, remediated. We will return to this idea in coming sections of the course–particularly when we think about film as a remediation of a novel.

So, as you work on drafting and revising and editing your first writing project, recognize that you are working on machines: not just the computer you are using for word processing, or the blog I am asking you to post the work to–but the writing itself, and the book you have been reading and are responding to. All of these are part of a machinery and technology of information and ideas we call literacy. That doesn’t mean, however, that your writing (or reading) can only be ‘mechanical.’ In fact, as I am suggesting to you, good, thoughtful, imaginative, and rhetorically effective writing and argument is all of that because the writer has learned how to use the machine and get behind the curtain.

Consider, as an example, this other piece from the Times, an argument for use of technology in learning by Jaron Lanier: what I notice is the effective narrative style of the argument, guided by his use of personal reflection. The mechanics of the writing (moving from paragraph to paragraph) enable the argument to seem–well, human, rather than mechanical.


Medium-Specific Messages

Our third focal point in the course considers something called ‘media specific analysis.’ The phrase comes from Katherine Hayles–a point she emphasizes and embodies in her book Writing Machines. We will be exploring this in terms of the way films remediate the novel Frankenstein.

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 encylopedia].

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.


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.