Hypertext is Bad (bad meaning good) Writing

There is a line from the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in the 19th century (in his essay “Nominalist and Realist”), long before digital hypertext, that makes me think of some of the issues raised and provoked by Shelley Jackson. Here is Emerson:

“No sentence will hold the whole truth, and the only way in which we can be just, is by giving ourselves the lie; Speech is better than silence; silence is better than speech;–All things are in contact; every atom has a sphere of repulsion;–Things are, and are not, at the same time;–and the like”

This notion of truthful fragmentation is where I start to make some sense of Patchwork Girl: Jackson’s interest in hypertext writing as a resistance not just to traditional views of narrative or novel, but to conventional definitions of writing as such. In “Stitch Bitch” Jackson connects her understanding of the feminine, “banished body” at work in hypertext and at play in her novel with “what we learned to call bad writing.” So hypertext is a kind of writing that traditional (masucline) literature has edited out: a body and its loose aggregations.

This suggests to me that we are supposed to spend our time looking at this body (and multiplicitous embodiment) of writing; and are greatly helped in resisting the tendency to look through it, which is to say, look past it. She goes on to use the word ‘composite’; think how this resides in ‘composition.’ Jackson also links this in to the machinery of argument: where traditionally readers are not to be given a choice.

In a text like this, gaps are problematic. The mind becomes self-conscious, falters, forgets its way, might choose another way, might opt out of this text into another, might “lose the thread of the argument,” might be unconvinced. Transitional phrases smooth over gaps, even huge logical gaps, suppress contradiction, whisk you past options. I noticed in school that I could argue anything. I might find myself delivering conclusions I disagreed with because I had built such an irresistable machine for persuasion. The trick was to allow the reader only one way to read it, and to make the going smooth. To seal the machine, keep out grit. Such a machine can only do two things: convince or break down. Thought is made of leaps, but rhetoric conducts you across the gaps by a cute cobbled path, full of grey phrases like “therefore,” “extrapolating from,” “as we have seen,” giving you something to look at so you don’t look at the nothing on the side of the path. Hypertext leaves you naked with yourself in every leap, it shows you the gamble thought is, and it invites criticism, refusal even. Books are designed to keep you reading the next thing until the end, but hypertext invites choice. Writing hypertext, you’ve got to accept the possibility your reader will just stop reading. Why not? The choice to go do something else might be the best outcome of a text. Who wants a numb reader/reader-by-numbers anyway? Go write your own text. Go paint a mural. You must change your life. I want piratical readers, plagiarists and opportunists, who take what they want from my ideas and knot it into their own arguments. Or even their own novels. From which, possibly, I’ll steal it back.

Some unconventional stuff for a writer to write, sure. But at the same time, there is in this, strange as it sounds, the hear of what we do in the conversation of academic writing.

Hayles, in her analysis of the novel and in her contextualizing of its interest in 18th century discussions of authorship and copyright, provides a rationale for understanding the body of writing and the body of bodies. She connects Jackson’s interest in the (multiple) bodies of her text (author, character, novel, computer) to her argument for media specific analysis: it matters, Hayles asserts, which textual bodies we are dealing with when we write and read. Jackson goes even further: the bodies we write and read with matter as well.

I am curious, reader. Do you also view bad writing as bodily–as those elements of your writing that are in some way too physical, in need of surgery? Do you think, as Jackson seems to think, that we read with a body I wonder, certainly, where this finds us: we, in a composition and literature course, working on our writing and reading. And I wonder, I speculate, that engaging Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, with better attention to this sense, these senses, of an embodiment of writing and reading, will allow us to make more sense of the text. I would suggest that this way of making sense is one version of what Hayles means by “cyborg reading practices.” This is not about becoming plugged in, as in the cyborg of film; it is to recognize that we already are. In other words, I think much of what we experience today with ‘web 2.0’ (as it has been called), the read-write capability of many digital applications and sites, can be likened to the characteristics of bad writing as traditionally viewed.

And, Birkerts, in his use of ‘process’ as a pejorative, as something that good writing should not reveal, would agree. See my next posting: process and privacy.

So, if you think Patchwork Girl is in some form bad writing and are having difficulties with it, you might be on to something.

By the way, for those interested, here is an electronic copy of Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz, one of the many sources/intertexts/bodies that are taken up in Jackson’s composite. [thanks to Joannafor the reference] There is an original copy in the Sophie Kerr room, if you want to browse through it.

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Birkerts: process and privacy

Birkerts emphasizes the privacy of reading. We recall this from the autobiographical experiences he offers in the beginning of Gutenberg. Toward the end, as he turns to the “electronic millenium” that (he fears) we have rushed headlong into, privacy returns as the thing that is lost: the waning of the private self that, he argues, reading books (though he doesn’t always use the object ‘books,’ often just assumes reading) cultivates. As such, I assume that he would vigorously object to the understanding that Shelley Jackson invites: I want piratical readers, plagiarists. In Birkerts’ politically tinged language: readers as social collectivists. For some further thoughts on plagiarism and the notion of ‘recombination’ and ‘recombinant’ that Hayles begins to introduce in “Flickering Connectivities,” consider this blog posting on Plagiarism.

In addition to the reiteration of privacy, what I notice most in reading through chapters 8-11 of Gutenberg is the word process. Birkerts turns to the word particularly in the chapter “Hypertext.” To further his definition of hypertext generally speaking (or electronic communication) in contrast with “the page,” he offers the binary process vs. product. I think he is quite right in associating digital writing (let’s use that phrasing) with process–as in word processing, one of the terms he wants to echo, pejoratively; as in writing that has been processed–and book or print or traditional writing with product. Where I think he is wrong is in the conclusion he draws about the impact of process over product.

Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. [158]

Process is foregrounded, revealed, no longer hidden; the sewing signs of the writing process are kept in view. As we have seen and begun to theorize in relation to Patchwork Girl. How ugly, how feminine, how interesting, how distracting; how processed. But the point, I presume, is that we loose the whole in favor of ever shifting or sliding parts. So I think he misses the point. And more to the point, I think neglects the pedagogical implications of this digital shift to the process of writing. We learn to write by viewing the parts of the process; as I have put it (with an eye to the Wizard), by looking into the machinery behind the curtain. I take it that Birkerts doesn’t like the idea of a machine. Fine. But here I see that he throws out with his distaste for the machine of writing (the age-old technology that writing represents, through which it represents) the possibility of learning to become a writer. Another pejorative he offers for the problem of writing in the fluid process of the digital screen: “provisionality.”  But such is the character of education. How else are we to learn?

In the end, I don’t think Birkerts wants us to learn to be writers, if we aren’t writers already. He wants writers to have their readers. Yet, ironically for this writer who loves to read, he doesn’t want the one to intersect (might we say, interface?) with the other. The process of learning is, it seems to me, many of the things that Birkerts fears we are becoming in our world of networked communication and distributed subjectivity, what he refers to as a hive: messy an social; messy, because social. I don’t mean social merely in the sense of exposure, of the loss of privacy. This seems to be Birkerts’ reduction. Rather, I understand learning to be social in its process. We can’t learn what we don’t need or want to communicate; our learning can only exist in its communication. It seems to me the greater solipsism lies in his vision of some sort of reading or learning environment that is entirely private, cut off from the world in which the learning must live if it is to be vital. We can keep quiet or keep things to ourselves. Such a life might involve fewer distractions, less noise. But if we are going to learn, if we are going to be changed, we will need to get outside ourselves through the learning. We will need, to use two words that Birkerts cites in his coda, the first from McLuhan, the second from Benjamin (both of whom I have cited before), extension, reproduction.


revision: seeing things, again

douglass1Some further, if not final, thoughts about revision as you move headlong into the final project. As I mentioned last class, a key aspect of the revision project is a crucial component of becoming a stronger writer: reflection. For that reason, in focusing on revision even more deliberately than we already have throughout the course, your final project is your final exam. If, as you leave this course, you have a better sense of how to revise your critical thinking and writing to be more effective, thoughtful, and imaginative, then you have achieved the objectives of the course.

That said, here are some ways to grasp further what I mean when I say that a writer needs to take a risk when revising. If revision literally means “seeing things again,” then I suggest the key to revision is to focus on the “seeing things.” Go back to an essay or an idea, but consider what you didn’t see; consider, even, what may not be there. Try juxtaposition: for example, go back to an earlier reading of a text (say, Frankenstein, or your own autobiography as a reader) and see some things that aren’t there, but could be there–if you now put that earlier text/idea in the context of another text/idea. How might Birkerts’ notion of privacy and reading change your view of Frankenstein? Does it help you complicate your vision of the novel? Does the novel help you complicate your understanding of Birkerts? In doing this, in seeing some things that weren’t originally there, notice also that you start to combine the focal points we have worked on individually and weave them together: close reading, critical application. That should be an aspect of your final project that you consider and reflect upon: how you are able to see multiple elements of your writing (the four focal points, the various elements of our strong writing rubric) at work in your writing. Seeing things then blends into doing things.


sampling project 4

As you head into the final project, and work on producing your strongest writing of the term, consider (as I have been suggesting throughout the term) some ideas from your peers. You can browse through all the final versions of the most recent project (digital wreading) published on the class glogs. I have pulled out a couple for you to begin sampling. As you work on your writing to-do list–adding to it as well as checking items off–this is one way to learn and develop: experiment with or, as the case may be, imitiate something you see in another essay that catches your eye.

A particlar aspect of Hannah’s project caught my eye: the way she experiments with a very lively introduction and returns to this frame (the metaphor of the playground) in her conclusion.

Nick’s project displays an effective use of the critical application, borrowing from Birkerts and Jackson. I noticed in particular how he manages to combine or weave (dare I say stitch?) that critical insight with his own argument and story.

Mary’s essay displays a strong statement of her thesis–her critical vision. I noticed that this explicit statement was also signalled in her subtitle–not a bad idea for a critical essay, kind of keeps you focused right away on her vision. She also effectively uses the keywords of her critical vision/thesis (metaphor and abstraction) throughout the essay.


Process and Privacy

Birkerts emphasizes the privacy of reading. We recall this from the autobiographical experiences he offers in the beginning of Gutenberg. Toward the end, as he turns to the “electronic millenium” that (he fears) we have rushed headlong into, privacy returns as the thing that is lost: the waning of the private self that, he argues, reading books (though he doesn’t always use the object ‘books,’ often just assumes reading) cultivates. As such, I assume that he would vigorously object to the understanding that Shelley Jackson invites: I want piratical readers, plagiarists. In Birkerts’ politically tinged language: readers as social collectivists. For some further thoughts on plagiarism and the notion of ‘recombination’ and ‘recombinant’ that Hayles begins to introduce in “Flickering Connectivities,” consider this blog posting on Plagiarism.

In addition to the reiteration of privacy, what I notice most in reading through chapters 8-11 of Gutenberg is the word process. Birkerts turns to the word particularly in the chapter “Hypertext.” To further his definition of hypertext generally speaking (or electronic communication) in contrast with “the page,” he offers the binary process vs. product. I think he is quite right in associating digital writing (let’s use that phrasing) with process–as in word processing, one of the terms he wants to echo, pejoratively; as in writing that has been processed–and book or print or traditional writing with product. Where I think he is wrong is in the conclusion he draws about the impact of process over product.

Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. [158]

Process is foregrounded, revealed, no longer hidden; the sewing signs of the writing process are kept in view. As we have seen and begun to theorize in relation to Patchwork Girl. How ugly, how feminine, how interesting, how distracting; how processed. But the point, I presume, is that we loose the whole in favor of ever shifting or sliding parts. So I think he misses the point. And more to the point, I think neglects the pedagogical implications of this digital shift to the process of writing. We learn to write by viewing the parts of the process; as I have put it (with an eye to the Wizard), by looking into the machinery behind the curtain. I take it that Birkerts doesn’t like the idea of a machine. Fine. But here I see that he throws out with his distaste for the machine of writing (the age-old technology that writing represents, through which it represents) the possibility of learning to become a writer. Another pejorative he offers for the problem of writing in the fluid process of the digital screen: “provisionality.”  But such is the character of education. How else are we to learn?

In the end, I don’t think Birkerts wants us to learn to be writers, if we aren’t writers already. He wants writers to have their readers. Yet, ironically for this writer who loves to read, he doesn’t want the one to intersect (might we say, interface?) with the other. The process of learning is, it seems to me, many of the things that Birkerts fears we are becoming in our world of networked communication and distributed subjectivity, what he refers to as a hive: messy an social; messy, because social. I don’t mean social merely in the sense of exposure, of the loss of privacy. This seems to be Birkerts’ reduction. Rather, I understand learning to be social in its process. We can’t learn what we don’t need or want to communicate; our learning can only exist in its communication. It seems to me the greater solipsism lies in his vision of some sort of reading or learning environment that is entirely private, cut off from the world in which the learning must live if it is to be vital. We can keep quiet or keep things to ourselves. Such a life might involve fewer distractions, less noise. But if we are going to learn, if we are going to be changed, we will need to get outside ourselves through the learning. We will need, to use two words that Birkerts cites in his coda, the first from McLuhan, the second from Benjamin (both of whom I have cited before), extension, reproduction.