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?

Taking up that question as critical readers and writers over the next several weeks, we will focus on two related rhetorical moves. To use Joseph Harris’s terms: countering, or responding to and acknowledging the arguments of others (and by extension, the limits of our own arguments); and remixing, or creating a text by borrowing and reworking the texts of others. I would argue that these are ways that we rhetorically remediate older ideas and put them into newer forms.

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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.


Thesis/Remediation

Conference reminder: I will be expecting each of you to meet with me for an individual conference (about your writing, your to-do list, the third project, questions from the reading) at some point before Friday April 3. You can stop by during my office hours or schedule a time to meet with me.

For the third writing project, ‘Remediated Wreading,’ we will continue to focus on developing and maintaing an effective and provocative thesis in our essays. With that in mind, you can go back to your second project and think now about how you might remediate the thesis–revise it, make it stronger, state it more clearly. One way to play with this: go to thesis builder and input the relevant information for your second essay; see what kind of thesis and essay structure it comes up with. It is a template, not the only way to construct a thesis–but for the purposes of learning, might be useful in highlighting some key components that might be missing from your thesis.

Another way to learn, to remediate, is to look at other, relevant models. Don’t forget to browse some of the essays from your peers (by way of the blogs). 

A third remediation we will be working on in the third project: how a new medium (film) takes up and ‘remediates’ an older medium (writing, print novel). The focus of the third project is to explain the ‘thesis’ (a key argument or idea or interest) that you see in the film you have chosen (its thesis about Frankenstein) and how the film, as a film (and not a book) shows/develops/elaborates that thesis.