The Word Made Pixel


by Joe Linker

The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online,
Edited by Houman Barekat, Robert Barry, and David Winters,
OR Books, New York and London. 203 pp.

What is it about the predicament of digital writing and reading that has so many literary provocateurs abuzz? “Mies van der Rohe said, ‘The least is the most.’ I agree with him completely,’” John Cage wrote in his diary. “At the same time, what concerns me now is quantity.” Cage was becoming more concerned with social activities rather than music. He was reading Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and Norman O. Brown. Cage was “concerned with improving the world.” He was beginning to think that “the disciplines…must now be practiced socially” (A Year From Monday, 1967).

A review of the literature concerned with the effects of the internet on literacy might begin with McLuhan’s The Guttenberg Galaxy (1962). McLuhan explains how print technology was responsible for ideas of personal privacy, mass reading in the vernacular, nationalism, marching bands, military parades, private ownership, footnotes and the MLA. Reading, however, does not necessarily make people smarter, just different. It’s not that we should encourage illiteracy, but that we might look at non-literacy as a way of being afforded advantages over literacy. Literacy erases many of the skills and knowledge characteristics of a non-literate culture. Members of a non-literate culture have no need for notes, let alone footnotes, when trying to remember something. Literacy rearranges the sensorium, the eye becoming dominant over the other senses. To be human means having balance in society and nature. It means helpful engagement with others, daily consensus without undo worry or fear, joyful work for the body and mind. Reading might make us less human.

Move forward to the cause and effect arguments of the questioned reading crisis making the news a decade or so ago. Around the same time, three popular and influential works explored the decline in traditional reading habits: a New Yorker article by Caleb Crain, “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?”; “Reading Crisis?,” a Congressional Quarterly Researcher study by Marcia Clemmitt; and Nicolas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic. To help answer Crain’s question, we might review McLuhan’s analysis of what life was like before people started reading. From The Medium is the Massage (1967):

‘Authorship’ – in the sense we know it today, individual intellectual effort related to the book as an economic commodity – was practically unknown before the advent of print technology… the invention of printing did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. Mechanical multiples of the same text created a public – a reading public… the idea of copywrite…was born…As new technologies come into play, people are less and less convinced of the importance of self-expression.

Clemmitt’s study collected seemingly every viewpoint on the subject available at the time, but only two real possibilities of effect emerge. One takes root with Carr, suggesting that declining reading skills is the equivalent of a pool table appearing in the soda shop on Main Street. The other possibility suggests that new reading and writing technology requires new reading and writing habits. New skills and new definitions. If we are to take Carr’s question seriously, we must first decide on the definition of stupid.

Cage’s diary is a mosaic. It’s non-linear (in a paradoxical sense it’s even non-literate), yet follows a given (chance derived) method. Much like Cage’s music, his diary calls for new appreciative methods. Whereas traditional music was about keeping sounds out, Cage sought to let all sounds in. The sounds of a noisy trash truck picking up cans outside a piano recital room are not distractions from the music. The trash truck becomes an accompanying instrument.

On 17 June 2008, Crain posted to his blog, Steamboats are Ruining Everything, the text of a talk he’d recently given on the subject of the internet and something he called literary style. He began with this:

Good evening. In my talk tonight, I would like to raise the question, How is the internet changing literary style? The question has at least two aspects. First, Which traits of style change when writing goes online? Second, What are the forces that cause these changes to come about? There is a third aspect, a moral one, which I will try to defer answering until the end of my talk but which shadows the first two, namely, Are these changes an improvement?

Move forward again. In The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, seventeen contemporary writers are given equal space to discuss questions similar to those mentioned above. Kasia Boddy summarizes the current working thesis in The Digital Critic’s  “Foreword”:

If we’ve rightly grown suspicious of the authority of ‘universality’ assumed by professional tastemakers, we should also be skeptical of the more recent authority of immediacy and self-expression.

It seems that there’s a new kind of publish or perish attitude pervading digital literary activity, what we might term say something or remain invisible. Not only that, but also keep saying something or disappear again. A gratuity might be added: don’t say anything unless you get paid for it.

Some of the arguments in The Digital Critic seem to presuppose a golden age of writing, editing, publishing and reading. Such a golden age might be characterized by a writer’s wholly original work being accepted on its own merits by a bona fide publisher whose mission is to improve the world. The book assigned an editor whose only job is to ensure the work wins an award. The book easily discovered by the common reader in a marketing campaign designed and paid for by the publisher. And the writer’s work credited in staid reviews read in the usual trustworthy places. The first paperback edition following the fanfare of the hardback launch would include multiple blurbs from the imprimatur of the initial reviewers. A reading and signing tour scheduled and paid for by the publisher would include timely, locally placed newspaper interviews. Tenure, a movie deal, a late-night TV appearance would all appear on the dessert menu. Nothing was remaindered or would ever go out of print. And, to top it all, the writer would get paid.

The first interest in McLuhan’s ideas came not from academics or scholars, but from Madison Avenue. The television screen was a mosaic. The viewer had to fill in the dots, like scanning a cartoon. TV took one’s full attention. The content barely mattered. All one remembered was a jingle and a brand. The set behind, or within, the TV set was smartly cropped. The viewer became a part of the show. Your favourite soap opera characters were real in a way your neighbours or family never were. If it was turned on, you could not ignore the television.

We might have some idea of how a television works, but most of us could not build one, certainly not from scratch. Nor could we even fix one. TVs no longer have tubes. The local grocery store used to stock television tubes, tubes the size of baby bottles that fitted like prehistoric USB connectors into matching holes in the fuse board. You could fix your TV by identifying the blown tube and replacing it. In “Digital Currency,” Laura Waddell’s contribution to The Digital Critic, the reader’s knowledge of what’s under the typing fingers is challenged:

Our eager obliviousness to the systems that lie behind such transactions has formed the expectations and atmosphere of contemporary Internet usage. We are often oblivious to the mechanics behind Internet use in general, where one might blog their ‘reads of the year’ without truly understanding how it comes about that our words are formed neatly on a WordPress page but rely upon a user-friendly interface that simplifies the code behind it.

No doubt, but how many readers were ever very knowledgeable about how a traditional book came to market, from the writer’s garret through publisher and printer to the bookshop’s shelf? We don’t see past the shopfront façade, the Potemkin village of the film set. Something true of most technology. And we don’t know all of the effects. That’s the basis of theory, breaks in the text that reveal something of what’s going on behind the curtain, backstage, not to mention the front office. Most of us have little idea when we climb into our automobile where it came from, how it works, or where it’s going to end up. But we happily ride off on a drive through the country, cruise control set to automatic. And not only that, we would have no problem telling the mechanic how we thought the car handled or what we think might be wrong with it. Some of us might even become race car drivers, a pit crew to change the tyres, oil, fill the gas tank and keep the rig in good running condition.

“Some men will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen,” Woody Guthrie once said. Today he might say, “others with exposure.” Can one be both an artist and a professional? A professional artist? Is the term not oxymoronic? In sports, a professional athlete is one who gets paid for playing the game. Do pro baseball players complain about all the amateur players competing in softball leagues all across America? Amateur golfers can be held in high esteem. Isn’t publish or perish an invitation to participate in a ProAm contest? Put another way, who sponsors peer reviews? In “Economics, Exposure and Ethics in the Digital Age,” Sara Veale looks at “the nebulous relationship between pay and success.” She strikes a remarkable balance between the way things are and the way they ought to be:

Today’s young writers are at the mercy of an over-saturated, underfunded market and are fully aware it wasn’t always like this.

Nevertheless, would-be writers are still being scandalously duped by on- and off-line scams, while we remain skeptical that exploitation is a new phenomenon in any industry. What must life as a writer have been like writing for William Randolph Hearst? The ad’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the theory of the king.

One of the more patient pieces in The Digital Critic is Louis Bury’s “Topical Criticism and the Cultural Logic of the Quick Take.” Bury uses Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown” to examine a preference for deep research, reading and contemplation as prerequisites for critical determination. His piece might be read as an abstract to a much longer work and an advertisement for the art of the research paper. For one thing, the long look provides the necessary inclusion of multiple contexts the off-the-cuff comment simply does not. The best comments, of course, become historical aphorisms, but it takes the patience of the scholarly ideal, as Bury would have it, to unpack and fully explain the aphorism to the end of argument.

Where and how would such a book as Bury proposes be written? The title alone of Will Self’s piece in The Digital Critic offers a suggestion: “Isolation, Solitude, Loneliness and the Composition of Long-Form Fiction.” Self writes:

Conversation and the pram in the hall. They absolutely militate against the isolation that is key in my view to producing long-form fiction of any seriousness or integrity.

Yet, we are reminded of the working habits of James Joyce, sitting in the middle of his mussed bed all hours of the day and night writing on little scraps of paper, the kids dancing around the apartment, dunners knocking at the door, the writer engaged in any number of conversations simultaneously via mail and walks to the pub, dinners out, a constant stream of visitors and friends and Nora. Joyce worrying that World War II would distract readers from Finnegans Wake gives us some idea of the isolation he preferred.

Back to the reading crisis. Self discusses the ideal reader, also an isolationist hiding out in a garret. Where are these garret readers? How will publishers find them and persuade them to make a purchase? “The act of publishing constitutes a profound form of literary criticism that has been under appreciated by critics, scholars, and even publishers themselves,” writes Michael Bhaskar in his The Digital Critic piece, “Publishing as Criticism: Managing Textual Superabundance.” The concerns over a writing surplus must also consider a scarcity of readers.

There are three primary ways the publisher reaches out to readers, each a kind of practical criticism, explains Bhaskar: “editing, design, and pricing.” Now that publication is possible outside the traditional industry framework, publishers must consider more openly and transparently their own self-serving breaks in the text: “If publishing is a form, it is a critical form. It is as interpretive as it is creative.” He closes his piece with:

We’ve always created systems for managing information and texts – in ancient Rome, Baghdad, Constantinople, and Kaifeng. And we are familiar with the systems of ‘search’ being created in places like Silicon Valley. Yet we are perhaps less attuned to how, in a world of open and available publishing, that act becomes an act of interpretation: and how, in a context of excess, acts of interpretation are necessary acts of management, of filtering, and of positioning.

It’s a long view. Still, would there be too much writing if there were enough readers? And at what point might publishers ask writers to embed messages of advertising into their books? Have they already? During the scare produced by American conservative radio back in the 60’s, the idea that recording artists might be implanting secret, subconscious messages into their recordings, Alice Cooper said he has no idea how to go about doing that. But if he did, his message would be, “Buy more records.”

Orin Gat claims, “We read more today than ever in the past, especially due to the amount of information we consume online” (“The Essay and the Internet”). But Nicholas Carr would not consider that reading. Gat understands that and speaks of “the anxiety over the online essay going unread” (to say nothing of the anxiety of tweets dropping down the timeline unseen, unread, unliked). “There is a lot at stake in conversations about the economies of attention online,” Gat says. What is reading? To assay, to essay, is an attempt to find something by wandering. To browse is to try. The common ad is not meant to make a sale, but to establish and fortify brand, recognition. How do we read a logo? When the MTV logo was introduced as ever-changing, morphing letters, it went against the rules of advertising, but it was itself a video, a moving logo, perfectly suited to on-line viewing. It was made for TV, not print. How do we read an ad? If we include seeing or hearing ads as reading, Gat is certainly right that we read more today than ever before. And why would hearing, or listening, not be considered reading? McLuhan said every new technology takes its first content from a previous form. An example he uses is vaudeville appearing on new radio, then radio appearing on new television. It took time for radio and television to create their own, new content.

We see the body of the text. We are taught about the body of a paragraph. Print text a corpus, a corpse. The body of a paper, onion skin thin. The book is dead. The digital text is alive, alit, aglow. Illuminations. An illuminated manuscript, by hand, written and read by hand. By the fingers, as Russell Bennetts and Jeremy Fernando point out at the close of The Digital Critic. From Love’s Body, by Norman O. Brown:

The identification of God’s word with scripture, the written or printed word; somewhat to the neglect of the word made flesh. The book is a materialization of the spirit; instead of the living spirit, the worship of a new material idol, the book.

That book disappears online, becomes invisible. The ink and pages don’t smell, don’t yellow with age. From Love’s Body again: “Meaning is in the play, or interplay, of light…Meaning is not in things but in between; in the iridescence, the interplay; in the interconnections; at the intersections, at the crossroads.” When Jesus says, “This is my body, given up for you, broken for you” (into paragraphs, chapter and verse), do his words become flesh, metaphor? From Love’s Body again: “In the iridescence is flux, subverting the boundaries between things; all things flow.”

The Digital Critic’s final chapter features an interview with Legacy Russell:

The history of criticism is indeed deeply biased as it is co-dependent on the existence of the art or literary canon, and the idea of the canon exists within a white, heteronormative, hegemonic, trajectory. While the Internet is far from perfect, and certainly reflects many of the flaws of that which takes place offline, the importance of it is, in part, that it provides an opportunity to shatter the structure of The Critic and The Canon.

And the Body, as the Body of the Text becomes unfixed, moves in flux, along a spectrum of light. From Love’s Body again:

Symbolism is polymorphous perversity, the translation of all of our senses into one another, the interplay between the senses, the metaphor, the free translation. The separation of the senses, their mutual isolation, is sensuality, is sexual organization, is bondage to the tyranny of one partial impulse, leading to the absolute and exclusive concentration of the life of the body in the representative person.

The Digital Critic will serve for some time as a resource and reference book. A resource for online reading suggestions. References to topics of interest regarding the industry and pastimes of reading and writing. Blogging versus academic writing; publishing as criticism, advertising and criticism versus scholarship; the Tower of Babel the people might be building; translation and new entrants; literary gerrymandering; book group, text volume, theory and self-publication; exploited exposure; free press; non-traditional; long form; “for the Internet”; the quick take; markets; open access; samizdat and zines; housework and writing; readers creating meaning; topical criticism; content, comment and context; ongoing conversation; intent and types of critical judgment; scandal; gatekeeper; content and the ball and chain of the cloud; the filter of infrastructures – to suggest a few keywords.


About the Author:

Joe Linker has written and published three novels, Penina’s Letters, Coconut Oil and Alma Lolloon, and a children’s book, Scamble and Cramble: Two Hep Cats and Other Tall Tales, and Saltwort, a collection of poetical writings. He blogs at The Coming of the Toads.