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.

the medium is the workshop of the message

I mentioned in our visit to the print shop Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a famous book from the 1960s by a so-called media guru. I want to follow up the reference in order to think a bit more about how/why I am hearing in Shelley’s “workshop of filthy creation” echoes of the medium of writing and print.

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 the initial pages of 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 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.

Does Victor make a similar mistake? What do you think?

welcome, whoever you are

I look forward to meeting you in class. By the time you are looking at this, this right now, it is already days after I am writing this, this right now, and most likely I have met you, in the first class. So let me say, rather, I look forward to getting to know you.

[Whitman was really on to something, the way we do travel through our writing medium, like a voice from beyond, like a ferry that crosses over and back: check out his great poem“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to see what I mean. It has been on my mind recently as I have worked on the course and began setting up this digital ferry. More on that later]

This site, Comp\Post, is part blog and part course web. I will use Blackboard, as you know, though mainly to collect and maintain, in virtual presence, your finished writing projects. For day to day updates and thoughts, including more from my own glogging (what’s that?), and hopefully lots of input from your own, this will be the place to go. I also have plans for you to help me build a writing resource wiki for this course and for everyone in English 101.

The point of all this? Well, as you begin to fathom from the syllabus, and perhaps from some of what I said thus far in class, this is a course that uses these various technologies as tools and media of writing, which they are (and you already know them, even if you haven’t considered them writing media). That may be unavoidable. But since we are focusing more deliberately in this course on writing (and learning to write more deliberately), and since the topic of the literature we are reading has something to do with writing and technology, with (borrowing from Katherine Hayles) writing machines, we want to do more than just not avoid the implications of writing and mediation. We want to think more specifically and robustly and imaginatively about the medium (and media) of our writing.

So, there it is. This site and other experiments with writing and remediation (a term to be explained), including your own experiments, will serve a purpose. I hope that purpose leads you, someday, you whoever you are, back here or perhaps back to your blog or to your final publication from this course and see that you have realized in your writing more than you supposed.

a short history of writing and printing

I borrow from Wikipedia (one of our newer writing machines) to give us some initial and useful historical context for thinking about writing and the printing press as technology–as we head into the print shop at the Literary House. Birkerts (I presume) would be surprised to find that his own writing and book making would have been viewed in earlier times as responsible for making our minds lazy and stupid–a workshop of filthy and distracting creation long before Facebook. Ironically, there is deeper historical context for the history of writing offered in these two brief entries of Wikipedia than in Birkerts’s Gutenberg Elegies–an irony worth considering.


The nature of writing has been constantly evolving, particularly due to the development of new technologies over the centuries. The pen, the printing press, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological developments which have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. Particularly with the advent of digital technologies, namely the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making the physical motion with the hand. Written communication can also be delivered with minimal time delay (e-mailSMS), and in some cases, instantly (instant messaging).

The nature of the written word, too, had evolved over time to make way for an informal, colloquial written style, where an everyday conversation can occur through writing rather than speaking.

Also, writing creates the possibility to break spatial boundaries and travel through time, since a word normally spoken could only exist in the time and space it is spoken in. It creates a certain immortality, that could not be experienced without writing.

Socially, writing is seen as an authoritative means of communication, from legal documentation, law and the media all produced through the medium. Neil Postman further addresses social issues surrounding the written word in his article The Judgement of Thamus. [4]

The Judgement of Thamus addresses the ‘dark side’ of writing, by illustrating it with Socrates’ story about the Egyptian god Thoth. It tells the story of Thoth, the inventor of writing, who came to see king Thamus for a royal blessing on his invention, so it could be widely available to Egyptians. The king told Thoth:

“You, who are the father of writing, have out fondness of your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.”[5]

This shows that though writing might give us wisdom, how to obtain it in a world full of so called ‘truths’ has become more difficult with the advent of writing. The story of Socrates also tells us that writing made the human mind lazy, since we are committing things down to paper, instead of memorizing it.

Printing press

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Printing press from 1811, photographed in Munich, Germany.

printing press is a mechanical device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a medium (such as paper or cloth), thereby transferring an image. The mechanical systems involved were probably first assembled in Germany by the goldsmith Johann Gutenberg around 1439,[1] based on existing screw-presses used to press cloth, grapes etc., and possibly to print woodcuts, which were printed in Europe before Gutenberg. Although both woodblock printing andmovable type printing press technologies were already developed first in ancient China and then later in the Chinese vassal state of what now Korea in East Asia several hundred years earlier, Gutenberg was the first in Western Europe to develop a printing press.

Printing methods based on Gutenberg’s printing press spread rapidly throughout first Europe and then the rest of the world. It eventually replaced most versions of block printing, making it the most used format of modern movable type, until being superseded by the advent of offset printing.

Part of the series on the
History of printing
Woodblock printing 200 CE
Movable type 1040
Intaglio 1430s
Printing press 1439
Lithography 1796
Chromolithography 1837
Rotary press 1843
Flexography 1873
Mimeograph 1876
Linotype typesetting 1886
Offset press 1903
Screen-printing 1907
Dye-sublimation 1957
Photocopier 1960s
Pad printing 1960s
Laser printer 1969
Dot matrix printer 1970
Thermal printer
Inkjet printer 1976
3D printing 1986
Stereolithography 1986
Digital press 1993


Finely crafted books—like the 1249 Song Dynasty Bencao (materia medica) shown here—were produced by woodblock inChina as early as the ninth century, the earliest known being theDiamond Sutra.[2]

The overall invention of Gutenberg’s printing method depended for some of its elements upon a diffusion of technologies from China(East Asia), primarily the Chinese inventions and innovations ofpaperwoodblock printing, and possibly Bi Sheng‘s movable typeprinting press technology—in addition to a growing demand by the general European public for the lower cost paper books, instead of the exorbitantly expensive parchment books.[1] By 1424,Cambridge University library owned only 122 books—each of which had a value equal to a farm or vineyard.[1] The demand for these books was driven by rising literacy amongst the middle class and students in Western Europe.[1] At this time, theRenaissance was still in its early stages and the populace was gradually removing the monopoly the clergy had held on literacy.[1]

While woodblock printing had arrived in Europe at approximately the same time paper did, this method was not as suitable for literary communication as it was in the east.[1] Block printing is well-suited to the ancient written Chinese because character alignment is not critical, but the existence of over 100,000 ancient characters and hieroglyphic symbols made the ancient Chinese movable typetechnology somewhat inefficient and economically impractical, in terms of profits for the ancientChinese book publishers.[1] With the Latin alphabet, however, the need for precise alignment and a much simpler character set positioned movable type as a great advance for the west.[1]

The use of a press was a key technological difference provided European book publishers increased profits over their ancientChinese counterparts—the screw-based presses used in wine and olive oil production.[1] Attaining mechanical sophistication in approximately the year 1000, devices for applying pressure on a flat-plane were common in Europe.[3]

[edit]Gutenberg’s Press

In this woodblock from 1568, the printer at left is removing a page from the press while the one at right inks the text-blocks

Johannes Gutenberg‘s work on the printing press began in approximately 1436 when he partnered with Andreas Dritzehn—a man he had previously instructed in gem-cutting—and Andreas Heilmann, owner of a paper mill.[1] However, it was not until a 1439 lawsuit against Gutenberg that an official record exists; witnesses’ testimony discussed Gutenberg’s types, an inventory of metals (including lead), and his type molds.[1]

Others in Europe were also developing movable type at this time, including goldsmith Procopius Waldfoghel of France and Laurens Janszoon Coster of the Netherlands.[1] However, they are not known to have contributed specific advances to the printing press.[1][4]

Having previously worked as a professional goldsmith, Gutenberg made skillful use of the knowledge of metals he had learned as a craftsman. He was the first to make type from an alloyof leadtin, and antimony, which was critical for producing durable type that produced high-quality printed books and proved to be more suitable for printing than the claywooden or bronze types invented in East Asia. To create these lead types, Gutenberg used what some considered his most ingenious invention, a special matrix enabling the quick and precise moulding of new type blocks from a uniform template.

Gutenberg is also credited with the introduction of an oil-based ink which was more durable than the previously used water-based inks. As printing material he used both vellum and paper, the latter having been introduced in Europe a few centuries earlier from China by way of the Arabs.

In the Gutenberg Bible, Gutenberg made a trial of coloured printing for a few of the page headings, present only in some copies.[5] A later work, the Mainz Psalter of 1453, presumably designed by Gutenberg but published under the imprint of his successors Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer, had elaborate red and blue printed initials.[6]

[edit]Historical Impact

See also: History of typography in East Asia

Printing as developed in East Asia did not make use of a printing press as in Gutenberg’s case. Although the invention of movable type in China and Korea preceded Gutenberg’s printing press, the impact of East Asian movable type printing presses was not as influential as it was in Western European society. This was likely due to the enormous amount of labour involved in manipulating the thousands of porcelain tablets, or in the case of Koreametal tablets, required by the use of written Chinese characters. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of books, on subjects ranging from Confucian Classics to science and mathematics, were printed using the older technology of woodblock printing, creating the world’s first print culture.[7].

In contrast, the impact of Gutenberg’s printing press in Europe was comparable to the development of writing, the invention of thealphabet or the Internet, as far as its effects on society. Just as writing did not replace speaking, printing did not achieve a position of total dominance. Handwritten manuscripts continued to be produced, and the different graphic modes of communication continued to influence each other.

The printing press was also a factor in the establishment of a community of scientists who could easily communicate their discoveries through the establishment of widely disseminated scholarly journals, helping to bring on the scientific revolution. Because of the printing press, authorship became more meaningful and profitable. It was suddenly important who had said or written what, and what the precise formulation and time of composition was. This allowed the exact citing of references, producing the rule, “One Author, one work (title), one piece of information” (Giesecke, 1989; 325). Before, the author was less important, since a copy ofAristotle made in Paris would not be exactly identical to one made in Bologna. For many works prior to the printing press, the name of the author was entirely lost.

Because the printing process ensured that the same information fell on the same pages, page numbering, tables of contents, and indices became common, though they previously had not been unknown. The process of reading was also changed, gradually changing over several centuries from oral readings to silent, private reading. The wider availability of printed materials also led to a drastic rise in the adult literacy rate throughout Europe.

Within fifty or sixty years of the invention of the printing press, the entire classical canon had been reprinted and widely promulgated throughout Europe (Eisenstein, 1969; 52). Now that more people had access to knowledge both new and old, more people could discuss these works. Furthermore, now that book production was a more commercial enterprise, the first copyright laws were passed to protect what we now would call intellectual property rights. A second outgrowth of this popularization of knowledge was the decline of Latin as the language of most published works, to be replaced by the vernacular language of each area, increasing the variety of published works. Paradoxically, the printing word also helped to unify and standardize the spelling and syntax of these vernaculars, in effect ‘decreasing’ their variability. This rise in importance of national languages as opposed to pan-European Latin is cited as one of the causes of the rise of nationalism in Europe.

[edit]The art of book printing

For years, book printing was considered a true art form. Typesetting, or the placement of the characters on the page, including the use of ligatures, was passed down from master to apprentice. In Germany, the art of typesetting was termed the “black art,” in allusion to the ink-covered printers. The Black Art Press & Print in Baltimore, MD adopted their name for this reason. It has largely been replaced by computer typesetting programs, which make it easy to get similar results more quickly and with less physical labor. Some practitioners continue to print books the way Gutenberg did. For example, there is a yearly convention of traditional book printers in Mainz, Germany.

Some theorists, such as McLuhanEisensteinKittler, and Giesecke, see an “alphabetic monopoly” as having developed from printing, removing the role of the image from society. Other authors stress that printed works themselves are a visual medium. Certainly, modern developments in printing have revitalized the role of illustrations.