Old Questions from New Media



by Jen Phillis

Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media,
by Jessica Pressman,
Oxford University Press, 240 pp.

Jessica Pressman’s Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media examines the aesthetic, thematic, and political lineage between modernist literature and criticism and electronic literature. The works she has selected are perhaps not typical of the genre, because they “resist the alignment of electronic literature with hypertext, evade reader-controlled interactivity, and favor the foregrounding of text and typography, narrative complexity, and an aesthetic of difficulty” (81). In this, they are distinct from earlier works of electronic literature that exploited their digitality: novels that “promote[d] nonlinear, or more accurately multilinear, reading paths,” poems that exploited the multimedia possibilities of Flash animation, and other works that depended on a close association with “e-commerce and popular technoculture” (6, 9). The authors Pressman considers resist these associations and “rebe[l] against this cultural situation and the affective mode exemplary of it—interactivity—by returning to an older aesthetic of difficulty and the avant-garde stance it invokes” (9).

Pressman centers each chapter around an idea that seems new, or newly possible, in the digital era while simultaneously demonstrating digital literature’s connection to modernism: the Kindle and iPad are prefigured by Bob Brown’s Readies (a combination of poetry and cinema); the contemporary debate over “the relationship between interpretation and information, between reading and data” appears as a structural element inUlysses; the possibility of computer code’s linguistic universality shares both its utopianism and its problematic politics with the appearance of the Chinese ideogram in the Cantos.

This is not to say that Pressman’s point is that contemporary electronic literature rehashes the problems of modernism; Digital Modernism is decidedly not a book-length rumination on that old saw that there is nothing new under the sun. Rather, the surprising connections Pressman draws between Steve Jobs and Bob Brown, between Judd Morrissey and James Joyce, between Erik Loyer and Ezra Pound remind us that the modernist exhortation to “make it new” persists. And, by putting these archives of literature and criticism that span the last century in conversation with each other, Pressman gives us a new way of seeing both.

The present review will not attempt to contextualize Digital Modernism in the wide field of digital humanities; it is not my field, and I would surely bungle and mangle its claims and contributions. I will hazard to say that Pressman’s book offers an answer to the recent criticisms of digital humanities in David Allington, Sarah Brouillete, and David Golumbia’sNeoliberal Tools (and Archives). There, they point to the connection between some versions of digital humanities and the neoliberalization of the university. But as I shall argue here, Pressman’s most important argument in Digital Modernism posits that digital literature can be a powerful site of resistance to neoliberalism.

The question at the heart of Digital Modernism is why we read literature, especially difficult literature, at all. Pressman offers two overlapping answers to this question: first, literature has a pedagogical function, in that it prepares readers for critically engaging with the world; the second, and (on my account) better answer, is that we should read these works because they are, fundamentally, cool: they do something only literature can do.

In the introduction, Pressman writes that her “polemic and purpose” is to demonstrate that “close reading… supports and enables critical thinking” (21). As such, Digital Modernism refutes the “media studies perspective” that critiques close reading and the New Critics who created and popularized it “for not expressing interest in media, materiality, and other more tangible aspects of a work’s context (history, politics, publishing history, etc.)” (16). This understanding of literary criticism posits that what we teach in the classroom and model in the monograph should be applicable to the world outside.

Pressman demonstrates that Marshall McLuhan, the “Oracle of the Electronic Age,” is himself committed to formal close readings, which enables her to show the understudied connection between the New Criticism and contemporary media studies. She highlights especially the “pedagogical style” of McLuhan’s books, where he asks readers to practice the techniques he models by providing them with a list of questions or statements before providing his own take on the material (40). Pressman’s reading of McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride ends with this quotation of the text and Pressman’s gloss on it: “ ‘Effective advertising gains its ends partly by distracting the attention of the reader from its presuppositions…’ Precisely because ads seek to distract, one must pay particular attention to how they operate, to the techniques they employ” (42). Close reading is, at its heart, a teaching tool, one that has been marshaled to provide readers with the tools to recognize and evade the use of text and images to mask their ideological underpinnings. As a result, the impetus for Digital Modernism is as much ethical as it is literary, because close reading “is a pedagogical means of training students to read not only specific literary texts but also to learn to evaluate and judge culture more broadly” (21).

Instructors know this intuitively to be true. We can all cite a number of moments in which a student’s encounter with a text opened her up to ethical and political problems outside the classroom. This is at the heart of the defense of a liberal arts education: that while students may never be asked, post-graduation, to explain why a poet chose a certain metrical arrangement, the skills of close and critical reading are easily transferable to engagement with advertising, political rhetoric, and journalism. Pressman provides her own anecdote: by asking her students to close read the Google home page, she gets them “to see this web page, which they have encountered hundreds of times before, as text with complicated poetics—one which deserves to be analyzed” (21).1

One chapter of Digital Modernism shows how the close reading of a difficult digital text can lead its reader to a critical stance about the digital world in general. “Reading Code” focuses on Erik Loyer’s Chroma, a story about the quest for a universal language. In Chroma, the fantasy of universal language is revealed to be fundamentally anti-universal, itself encoded with specific ideas about race, gender, culture, and class. The story revolves around three young people who are sent into the realm of “mnemonos,” “where the things of the mind appear as real as anything your five senses perceive” (Loyer, qtd. Pressman 128). A problem arises, however, when the three explorers discover that they cannot communicate with each other while inside mnemonos. One suggests the creation of avatars to solve the problem; another—the only non-white female character in the novel—objects, “pointing out the cultural, not just technical aspects of the situation and the political ideologies that undergird” the plan (133).Chroma, in direct reference to the utopian promise of the Internet, calls such utopian thinking into question by reminding us that it is founded on the exclusion of certain subjects. Pressman reveals the extra-literary importance of this problem, explaining that “English signs, abbreviations, and transcriptions permeate computer operations in fundamental ways”: the coding languages used across the web, from HTML down to the assembly language, use English as their base (150). That is, the problem of universal language takes on new weight and urgency in our digital moment, because the “programmable universal language” required for the global network to function is deeply particular. “Reading Code” enacts the promise of Pressman’s introduction, showing the ways in which digital modernism comments on contemporary culture more broadly.

But many of the texts she considers and readings she produces resist connections between the work of art and the world. For example, in “Reading the Database,” Pressman discusses Judd Morrissey’s The Jew’s Daughter. The name is taken from the “Ithaca” section of Ulysses in which Stephen Dedalus sings Leopold Bloom an anti-Semitic ballad called “The Jew’s Daughter.” There are other connections between the two texts:

Like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, Morrissey’s protagonist is an “Irish-Jew” who wears a hat as he meanders, physically and mentally, through his urban landscape. Morrissey’s main character is a merger of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus—he is a writer and a student of literature who walks the streets of Chicago, visiting a coffee shop, bar, library, and subways station, all the while carrying a notebook and making up little rhymes. During his ambulation he encouners people and visits places that stimulate his memories and meditation on a relationship fractured by infidelity. (109)

And, just like Ulysses, The Jew’s Daughter is very hard to read. Each screen of the novel is formatted to look like the page of book, but contains one “very unprintlike element. A single blue word stands out from the rest of the paragraph as a visual and recognizable sign of a hyperlink” (107). But, unlike the hyperlinks that “open a new window, lexia, or IRL,” clicking on the blue words of The Jew’s Daughter does not take to you a different section of the text:

Instead, the screen refreshes and somewhere within the present paragraph, often within a sentence, the text changes. The change is subtle, and the effect disorienting. When the next flashing replacement of text occurs, it happens in a different place onscreen. Expectations of reader-controlled navigation promoted by allusion to hypertext quickly fade, and the reader is left uncertain about how to proceed in reading. (107-108)

To track these changes, Pressman printed out each screen and, using an array of highlighters, indicated which sentence was altered from the previous page and which sentence would be altered on the next. The labor required to work through this text is reminiscent of books like Terrell’s A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound or Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, which are indispensible when trying to perform close readings on such difficult texts. At the same time, it subtly undoes the claim that critics are “just reading” texts when their close readings eschew connection between the text and political or historical discourses: the apparatus Pressman devised to understand The Jew’s Daughter is far more complex (not to mention labor intensive) than “just reading.”

The conclusion Pressman draws from her close readings of Joyce and Morrissey is that they explore the same theme: namely the representation of cognition. The Jew’s Daughter sequence in Joyce, Pressman writes, “is very much about how cognition works, specifically about how memory operates and retrieves stored information” (112); “The Jew’s Daughter usesUlysses to pursue posthuman cognition” (115). Digital literature “experiments with representing consciousness as its subject becomes posthuman and its medium becomes digital” (125). Linking this to the history of experiments with stream-of-consciousness writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century reveals the durability of a very literary concern: can a mediated work of art—no matter if it’s native to the page or to the screen—imitate immediate experience?

What ethical conclusion readers should draw from this digital experimentation remains unsaid. Instead, the chapter ends with a quotation from Morrissey regarding how he hoped readers would respond to the piece: “To read. To write. To repeat” (126). Morrissey’s aphorism reminds us that our attempts to connect complex works of art to extra-aesthetic concerns often circle back to the difficult and hermetic text itself. “To repeat” modernism is, in fact, to insist on the value of reading, writing, and repeating, even if these actions never refer to the world off-screen, that is, to insist on the value of an explication for its clarity, not its ethical or political utility.

This chapter demonstrates what some might see as a flaw in Digital Modernism, but that I see as its most important point. Because Pressman does not connect The Jew’s Daughter to a larger political or ethical question, the chapter doesn’t seem to serve the book’s stated “polemic and purpose” of demonstrating the utility of close reading practices in the contemporary classroom (21). But just because Pressman’s close reading of Morrissey’s text is not utilitarian does not mean it isn’t useful: it’s just that its utility is, in the contemporary moment, inexpressible.

Professors, critics, and writers are often called on to defend our work as utilitarian, classifying it under the same rubrics of productivity and profitability that guide the manufacture of computers, the advertising industry, and the logic of cost-savings that takes the form of adjunctification in our universities. Pressman’s reading of The Jew’s Daughter reminds us of the empirical (but perhaps not measurable) utility of training young people in close and critical reading practices. The point is not only to connect their engagement with works of art to their engagement with other discourses. It is also to show them that works of art work differently from other kinds of things: a poem is not a political speech, nor an advertisement, nor a home page. The best poems refuse and challenge the confining structures of these forms, even when they imitate them.

Digital Modernism reveals that even the most innovative contemporary works of digital literature wrestle with what some might see as old-fashioned questions: what constitutes communication? How does representation work? Or, more basically, how did this artist manage to put this thing—this difficult, inscrutable thing—together, and why did she do it? Our profession should—as Pressman does throughout Digital Modernism—refuse to subordinate these aesthetic questions to utilitarian measures and remember that reading, writing, and repeating all take critical stances toward contemporary culture and politics.

Piece originally published at Electronic Book ReviewCreative Commons License
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