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.”

McLuhan: The Message of the Medium

English: Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore: The ...

English: Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore: The Medium is the Massage (Spread from the book, page 34-35, original photo: Peter Moore) Published in 2001 by Ginko Press Inc., Corte Madera, CA, USA.

Both “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert” and Birkerts’ counter to Bustillos’ argument, “The Room and the Elephant,” focus on the ideas of Marshall McLuhan. [The links above provide  digital versions of these two articles that include some of my annotations]

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan (author of The Medium is the Massage) defines media  as  “the extensions of man.” Contrary to someone like Sven Birkerts, who neglects the medium of the book and tends to view media only as the new, the electronic, McLuhan understands that a medium (or a technology) 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. Thus, in The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan writes about the “technology of the alphabet.”

McLuhan highlights for me the ways that Birkerts neglects 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 real. Or in the case of Walter Benjamin, whom Birkerts will cite: we see that mediation–the changes in the technological reproduction of art, writing–enables readers to become writers.

All emphasize that the traditional relationship between readers and writers is changed by technology. Must that change necessarily be for the worse? McLuhan’s understanding of the involvement that the “environment” created by electronic media, in contrast with the detachment of print media, suggests a contrasting vision to that of Birkerts.

For a brief history of early printing.

For the audio recording that accompanies The Medium is the Massage.

Some things to consider as we also engage with the Print Shop at the Literary House and think further about the machinery of writing.