English Matters Literary Technology Introduction

Text | Technology | Literature
Kenneth Thompson for the editorial collective

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I would like to introduce this issue of English Matters by looking back at a debate which occurred almost ten years ago.  At the end of 1994, just as what we now think of as the dot-com bubble was taking off, Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies:  The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age was published.  Birkerts' book was a lament for the passing of the print era and an attack on electronic communications.  It stimulated a lively debate about technology and the future of literature.  While some elements of this discussion may now seem dated, I think the larger issues Birkerts raised are still with us.  In particular, the question of whether technology by itself is undermining the place of reading in our culture remains a key point of departure.  It provides a useful framework for looking at literature's past as well as its present and future.  If we assume, however, that what Horkheimer and Adorno called the culture industries began at least as far back as the industrialization of print in the 19th century, and that concomitant with that development a complex and troubled relationship between what we call literature and emerging forms like journalism and commercial entertainment began, then Birkerts' focus on technology qua technology is misplaced.  Instead, we need to focus on particular uses of technology in a variety of social settings if we want to understand the impact of electronic communications on the way literature is produced and consumed.  The articles in this issue of English Matters look back to the emergence of this dialectic in the 19th century and touch on continuing ramifications in the 21st. 

In The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts repeatedly argues that books, printing and the written word are the proper domain of literature.  Without drawing distinctions between the different elements of print culture, he argues that books stimulate reflection and private contemplation, depend on syntactic and linear logic, and require active and thoughtful readers.  Electronic communications, on the other hand, are by definition evanescent, produce passive audiences, and are structured in terms of association, not logic.  Like postmodernism, electronic media undermine the distinction between art and popular culture, undercut the authority of tradition, and marginalize authors.  For Birkerts, modern electronic media, by making all expression provisional, render the individual's struggle for artistic perfection unnecessary and replace the stability of print with endlessly proliferating versions and linkages.  (Ironically, an editorially unreliable selection from his book is currently available online.)  Instead of providing a space for reflection and learning, modern media disperse our attention and make choice unnecessary.

Reviewers were quick to point out that Birkerts failed to distinguish between different kinds of electronic media, concentrated on the novel at the expense of poetry, and ignored the fact that printing and the written word were themselves technologically mediated.  Matthew Kirschenbuam, for example, in Postmodern Culture (one of the first online scholarly journals), noted that Birkerts ignores scholarly uses of electronic media and bases his whole conception of print culture on "a familiar canon of novels" that "forms only one constellation in the Gutenberg galaxy" (The Cult of Print).  After observing that Birkerts' "thoughts on electronic media lack focus and originality, Dean Blobaum of the University of Chicago Press, pointed to two primary weaknesses in Birkerts' argument:  1) he "excludes nothing" and lumps together broadcast, point-to-point and interactive communication; and 2) he uses terms like technology and the written word imprecisely and assumes that novels establish direct connections between readers and authors.  (As if to confirm Birkerts' factual claims about the destabilizing effects of the web on authorship--although not his judgment on the phenomenon--Blobaum's review is currently available on the old website of an academic who is now the Provost of Georgetown.) 

Perhaps the most interesting early response to Birkerts was by Wen Stephenson, then the online editor for The Atlantic.  In The Message Is the Medium:  A Reply to Sven Birkerts, originally published in The Chicago Review, Stephenson sees Birkerts as a "nostalgic modernist" who "erects . . . the printed word as a levy against the flood" of electronic media.  He argues that whatever the weaknesses of Birkerts' argument, he speaks to the core anxiety of postmodern literary culture:  the marginalization of serious literature "by the communications technologies that are transforming the mass media and mass culture."  Contrary to Birkerts, Stephenson  believes that the web and multimedia forms are expanding the audience for poetry and other forms of literature, but he takes seriously the problem Birkerts addresses. 

In a subsequent issue of The Chicago Review, Birkerts responded to Stephenson's critique by emphasizing what he saw as their real point of disagreement:  "that the medium through or by which the word is transmitted" fundamentally changes the nature of language and literature.  In his reply, Stephenson returns to the issue of literature's place in society.  He sees their debate as akin to two branches of the same religious sect "arguing over the fine points while the foundations of their faith are under assault and beginning to crumble."  Instead of an all or nothing choice between books and computers, Stephenson points to the increasing marginalization of literature in contemporary culture and argues that "the choice we face . . . . has little to do with the nature of new media such as the World Wide Web and CD-ROMs, and everything to do with the nature of well-established mass media such as radio, television and film, and the commercialized mass culture these media have promoted and sustained for decades."  Technology, in other words, is less important than the uses to which it is put by particular actors and institutions.  The implication of this point is clear:  electronic communications--which are far from monolithic--cannot be judged apart from particular configurations of genre and media.  Different groups (Walt Disney or MIT's Open Courseware project, for example) speak in different voices and have different interests and needs.  Consistent with this view, Stephenson sees both opportunity and peril and argues that the Web makes possible  alternatives to commercial mass culture.  A revitalized literary journalism, for example, drawing on the resources of "multimedia publishing," could expand the public for "serious literature" just as the journalism and the novel did in the 18th century.   (The exchange between Stephenson and Birkerts is available on The Atlantic's Digital Culture Archive). 

It is impossible to remain oblivious to the impact of new technologies on contemporary culture when heated debates about music downloading and intellectual property, violence in films and video games, and identity theft online are so pervasive.  At least until recently, however, the investigation of technologies like printing and the book took place on the periphery of literary studies, in specialties like bibliography.  Literary training often encouraged resistance to contemporary culture and cultivated a nostalgia for the past (17th century poetry for T.S. Eliot; romanticism for the Yale critics).  Birkerts' celebration of reading reflects this approach, but from a position of crisis.  Sensing literature's social and material infrastructure as under assault, and the dominant genres and conventions of the past open to question, he turned his attention to technology without a clear sense of its multifaceted role in the past or possibilities in the present.  Reviewers like Stephenson were quick to note the deficiencies of his account while acknowledging that literature was indeed under assault.  This issue of English Matters addresses several of the questions raised in this debate.  We explore the complexities of literary publishing in the 19th century, examine emerging relationships between literature and popular entertainment, and look at a precursor to multimedia in early illustrated periodicals.  We also address issues of ownership and regulation and provide an example of one way new technologies today are creating opportunities as well as perils for writers. 

Roger Lathbury's essay, The Avaricious and the Intransigent:  A Match Made in London,  demonstrates how fluid and unstable cultural hierarchies were in the 19th century.  He reminds us that unscrupulous business dealings, dissimulation about authorship, and unreliable texts are all compatible with great literature and long predate the Web.  As a publisher himself, Professor Lathbury is well acquainted with the economics as well as the artistic side of literary production.  His account of Emily and Charlotte Bronte's dealings with the rogue publisher, Thomas Cautley Newby, may shock students used to reading "approved" editions of 19th century novels.  But Newby's edition of Wuthering Heights, made a highly controversial work available for the first time and in a format associated with serious literature, the three-volume novel.  If a great work of literature can be released under such circumstances, we should pause before assuming--as Sven Birkerts does--that electronic publication necessarily debases culture.  The Newby/Bronte "match" may have been made in London, but it still benefits us today.

Kenneth Thompson explores a different area of 19th century literary history with analogies to the present in Dickens in Many Voices.  Just as the web has decreased publishing costs in recent years, improvements in paper making and printing--as well as new distribution arrangements and expanding literacy--meant that cheap editions were economically possible by the early 19th century.  Stanhope's Iron frame press, could print larger sheets than earlier wooden frame devices.  This was only the first of many developments in the speed and efficiency of 19th century communication technologies.  But until Dickens and his publishers Chapman and Hall came out with Pickwick Papers in shilling monthly numbers, few had taken advantage of these opportunities to release new copyright fiction for the expanding middle and lower-middle class.  Dickens' works were still too expensive for many poor and working-class readers, however, and a significant number of Victorians got their Dickens second hand, through cheap plagiarisms put out by entrepreneurs like Edward Lloyd. Lloyd went on to publish original fiction in penny weekly installments, setting the pattern for much of the so called slum fiction of succeeding years.  Just as we see today with electronic publication and distribution, the proliferation of cheap forms of entertainment like Lloyd's in the 19th century led to questions--indeed often panic--about the low quality of such work, its reliance on re-circulated stories and images, and its dangerous moral effects on the young.  

Cynthia Patterson's essay, Imag(in)ing Class and Race in the Philly Pictorials, demonstrates that mixtures of text and image long predate the rise of multimedia and our current preoccupation with visual rhetoric.  Her wonderfully illustrated essay teaches us that the technology making illustrated monthlies possible did so in combination with other social forces.  Rising immigration, for example, contributed to a desire for well  defined and widely distributed norms of proper behavior.  Starting from Gramsci's ideas about hegemony (cultural leadership or coercion) her essay analyzes the specific mechanisms of this process in 19th-century periodicals.  She shows how new techniques of illustration (woodcuts, lithographs, mezzotint engravings) made it possible for the Philly Pictorials to create a "civilizing rhetoric" that incorporated a variety of visual forms in a "polyvocal" relation to written material.  At a time when "few Americans owned original works of art," the Philly Pictorials "served as a means of dissemination," just as electronic presentation and distribution do today. 

In Give It Away Before Someone Takes It, Dean Taciuch brings us back to the present and an issue that should concern all teachers and students of literature.  His immediate focus is on legislation passed in November of 2002, the so called TEACH Act.  Intended to "harmonize traditional . . . classroom uses of copyrighted material with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act" the TEACH Act has consequences far beyond the realm of distance learning it initially appeared to address.  Cheap printing and new distribution arrangements led to decades of negotiation over ownership and control in the 19th century.  Similarly, digital technologies have opened up a whole range of questions about the ownership of electronic materials today.  What makes Dr. Taciuch's article so timely is that a concept central to the production of new knowledge, "fair use," is seriously threatened by recent legislation.  A monolithic, "all-or-nothing" approach to copyright could easily close off the kind of intellectual and artistic exchange central to art and science.  But as the article also points out, organizations like Creative Commons, provide less restrictive alternatives to current copyright laws.  By setting up a variety of licensing options, Creative Commons balances property rights against the value of free exchange. 

A key test of new literary technologies is the kind of creative work they make possible.  While some artistic endeavors originally conceived in multimedia formats end up circulating on the web in more traditional forms, others seem hard to imagine apart from their electronic realizations.  The first version of William Gibson's Agrippa:  A Book of the Dead, for example, included a computer disk that self-destructed after one reading while the poem now appears on the web in quite different form (compare the images with the text).  Stuart Moulthroup's work, on the other hand, is hard to imagine apart from its current form.  In conjunction with this issue of English Matters, we are pleased to announce Mathew Kirschenbaum's lecture on Gibson's poem at 3pm on April 1st in Sub II, rooms 5 & 6.   We are also pleased to include in this issue a new poem by Todd Pitt, Plum Flowers that makes creative use of Java programming with its Pseudorandom Poem Generator.  Employing technology to explore new possibilities for the poetry of witness, Plum Flowers raises important historical and moral questions.  An learning module based on the poem is also available in this issue. 


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