class discussion: 9/5

Among our discussion of the mixed reading from Birkerts, the beginning of Frankenstein, and the beginning of Hayles’ Writing Machines, a very interesting focus on Hayles and thestyle of her writing and the book. Several noticed the way she brings technology into the book–or as I emphasized, back into the back. Reminds us that the book is a technology–and indeed, that digital writing technology, for all the talk of the replacement of the book, is interwoven with print. Somebody suggeted in a glog that Hayles lets the book speak more. I think that is on to something. Several noticed her style–how she seemed more comfortable with herself as a writer, a comfort that shows up in her writing style.

the medium is the message

After my 9.30 class Friday morning, I stopped in the library to browse some books. I went there looking for a book titled Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace and while in that section of the stacks (roughly, media and language studies, some history of writing mixed in), I cruised a few other titles–something I enjoy doing in libraries, as I enjoy doing in Google books or other online databases of books; both take up time and can be refreshingly distracting. One book I brought back with me was Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a famous book from the 1960s by a so-called media guru. I got it to browse a few items that I felt would be worth bringing into our discussion. 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 and the reading we start for Friday (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 is neglecting 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.

What do you think?

Gutenberg Elegies: duration and distraction


Right away as I begin the reading (my second time–I read the 1994 edition earlier this summer) I hear and see in the new introduction lots of oppositions and antinomies, phrases that indicate and figure what reading is (for SB) vs. what technology has done to reading. I am going to list a few here as I keep reading, then go back to one or two and dig in, see what I notice about these oppositions.

digital bit vs. material atom

life hurried and fragmented by technology vs. life slow and frustrating, vivid in material totality (xii)

deep transformation in the nature of reading: shift from focused, text-centered engagement to far more lateral kind of encounter (restless, grazing, clicking, scrolling): xiv

duration vs. distraction; counter-technology (anti-technology) vs. technology

page vs. screen


I am noticing a fairly narrow defintion (and from this, narrow view) of ‘technology.’ The phrase “counter-technology of the book” raises a problem. He is so sharply defining things in terms of the binary opposition book vs. technology, he neglects historical perspective on book technology. The book is a technology–as is the writing it contains. Indeed, he glides over the fact that book publication was a major technological invention and innovation; and that the digital revolution is often thought of as the most transformational invention since the printing press. I first went to this book (and thought it would be helpful in the course) wanting more historical perspective on what “Gutenberg” means for literature and reading–in other words, what the technology of reading/writing books is about and how that compares/contrasts with more recent technologies of reading and writing in digital environments. Thus far, I don’t see much historical perspective on what “book” means; rather, see him taking the object of a book for granted–and assuming that its main difference from the ‘electronic’ text (screen, etc) is that the book is an actual object whereas the other is not. But books are made from printing technologies–and still made from printing technologies that have migrated to digital formats and still involve electronic components [a point that Katherine Hayles will make]. And aren’t digital technologies such as computer screens objects?


On page xiv he defines “Literature” very narrowly as fiction–then asserts that fiction is under assault by nonfiction. What’s up with his view of nonfiction? Is he adding fiction vs. nonfiction to the reading vs. technology list of binaries? Is nonfictional somehow more technological and fiction more artful? This is where these binaries get interesting because they start to slip and slide. One of the things I particularly wonder: he includes ‘memoir’ in his definition of nonfiction–yet his own book (also nonfiction) relies on autobiographical perspective and experince, as he tells us in the introduction. His focus is on something he calls “private self.” A contradiction?

Does the ‘digital bit’ have material atoms in it?

What does he mean by reverie?