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.”

Birkerts: countering, counterargument, conclusion

Sven Birkerts concludes The Gutenberg Elegies by focusing on an opposition between “the solitary self” and “the collective.” For Birkerts, a true self is solitary and a true sense of self exists only in solitude; this condition of selfhood is cultivated best through the pages and linear lines of books. Birkerts sets against this condition of solitary selfhood the “condition of connectedness” that he associates with what he terms “the ever-expanding electronic web.” “They are not only extensions of the senses,” he argues about the technological improvements of the electronic age in his “Coda,” “they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others.”  In other words, the problem is not so much that we are, in the age of overwhelming information, overloading our senses by extending their range and reach; more troubling for Birkerts, we are extending ourselves and our senses into and among the extended senses of others. “Others” is the real pejorative term here (224). Birkerts fears contamination through connection.

This is where I disagree most strongly with Birkerts’ understanding of the “amniotic environment of impulses,” to use his telling metaphor of the web. I think Birkerts aptly characterizes the effect of this environment of impulses. He gets the technology right; the uncited echo of Marshall McLuhan’s defintion of technology as the “extensions of man” brings that home. We have, as McLuhan shows, always used technology to extend our senses–long before the age of electronic communication. Birkerts could be more precise in recognizing that such “extensions” would include the technologies of writing and print and bookmaking that informs the books that thus inform the selfhood he fears we are loosing. Books are part of an earlier hive of information and communication network. But no matter; he elsewhere in this book admits that his beloved book is, of course, a form of technology–even if that view is kept to a minimum. Birkerts gets not the technology wrong nor its implications (the extension of senses); he misses the point in fearing the connection to others. That is to say, I am troubled most by the “condition of connectedness” that Birkerts, it seems, forbids the act of reading. Why is connectedness the problem and solitariness the goal of our selfhood or of the creativity of reading and writing that informs it? Why must we think of creation in solitude?

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before it, indicates that Birkerts’ problem is in seeing connection as the problem. Rather, in connecting to others, literary texts connect readers to writers and written words they create. And, when we consider an electronic text, we find in many cases, the connections are even stronger.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems lurking in connectivity. I would agree with Birkerts to the extent that he worries about the loss of authority in multiplicity. However, I think he goes too far in arguing that only the individual author, domineering over the individual and solitary reader, can count for what it means to be a reader (or writer). In my view, creativity can only come through connection that exists beyond the self. The result, I understand, may be a literary text that undermines what we think of as a traditional novel or poem. Consider, for example, “This is Not a Poem.” That title might remind us that this re-visioning of the traditional relation between reader and writer (the reader here becomes a writer, even rewrites the writing) or between artist and viewer has been going on for some time. For further reading consider On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, by Rick Prelinger: A recent article that takes up the problem of originality in the digital age, and proposes that we think instead of collage and patchwork. He speaks of orphaned works of creation and quilts: the echoes of Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl are noticeable–as are the concerns of Plato.

[The text above is my example of a critical application of Birkerts, stitching in, through paraphrase and direct quotation, a key idea from his conclusion to then set up the focus I will use to read Patchwork Girl: in effect, using Birkerts’ own terms and language (connectedness vs. solitariness) for my own thesis, though reversing his view, drawing distinctions. Also, entertaining counterargument from Birkerts.]