Print as Phantom and Fetish

Sven Birkerts. "Hypertext of Mouse and Man" in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994).

Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. […] The expectation is no longer that there should be a single best way to say something; the writer accepts variability and is more inclined to view the work as a version. […] The printed page was an objective, immutable thing; the book was an artifact. With the divestment of the creator's authority and the attenuation of he stylistic ideal, the emphasis in writing has naturally moved from product to process. The work is not intended to be absolute, nor is it received as such. Writing tends to be seen not so much as an objective realization as an expressive instance. A version. Looking from the larger historical vantage, it almost appears as if we are returning to the verbal orientation that preceded the triumph of print.
The arc of history here is inaccurate. No matter how tempting the narrative of reversion to pre-print modalities in the electronic era, it is false on two fronts: orality was never totally superseded by the the arrival of print nor is electronic communication devoid of aspects of print.

Variants occur in printing. They are not a phenomenon isolated to manuscript culture.

"Book" is indeed but one instance of "text". Why should this be an occasion for lamentation? Take for instance this ecumenical and optimistic approach to text as described by D.F. McKenzie "Forward" to Bibliography and The Sociology of Texts (1999 reprinting the 1986 printing of the 1985 Panizzi Lectures)
The familiar historical processes by which, over the centuries, texts have changed their form and content have now accelerated to a degree which makes the definition and location of textual authority barely possible in the old style. Professional librarians, under pressure from irresistible technological and social changes, are redefining their discipline in order to describe, house, and access sounds, static and moving images with or without words, and a flow of computer-stored information. By contrast, academic bibliography has only recently begun to find fresh stimulus in those developments and to tap the new experience and interest of students for whom books represent only one form of text.
Birkerts offers in a sense a "print elitism". He is haunted by the spectre of democratic textualism.

And so for day 1717

Re-storying Authority

The influence of McLuhan is pervasive in the approach Sven Birkerts takes to writing via electronic means. ("Hypertext: Of Mouse and Man" The Gutenberg Elegies)

Yet now it is computers, in one sense the very apotheosis of applied rationality, that are destabilizing the authority of the printed word and returning us, although at a different part of the spiral, to the process orientation that characterized oral cultures.

Not at all clear as to how a "process orientation" is incompatible with authority structures.

There is authority at play in oral cultures.

See Lesson Module 1.1C "Oral Tradition" in the Open School British Columbia resources for B.C. FIRST NATIONS STUDIES 12
In some cultures, the storyteller is the keeper of the story. In other words, certain individuals own the right to tell that story (a kind of oral copyright); only the individual who owns the right to the story can choose to whom he or she will tell it; and only the person who owns the story can give permission to someone else to re-tell it.
More on permissions …
Kaylynn TwoTrees (1997), a Lakota storyteller, taught me elements of living story. “What is the Lakota penalty for changing a story, telling a story wrong or without permission?” I asked. “It is death,” TwoTrees replied, “because the story in an oral culture is the entire living history of the community.” She stresses three aspects: First, living stories not only have relativistic temporality (i.e., bridging past and present), there are times when a story can be told (e.g., seasons). Second, living stories have a place, and places have their own story to tell. Finally, living stories have owners, and one needs permission to tell another’s story of a time or a place. This is similar to what the Navaho say about story—living embodiments of Navaho reality, living dramas, language that creates reality, not the reverse (Toelken, 1996). Not getting the story straight has its consequences; stories that were told badly by Toelken, and perhaps without permission, in the wrong place and time, were affecting his “mental and physical imbalance” (p. 55). There is a crucial point here, the idea that story is more than interpretation, and a living story transforms the “real.”

David M. Boje "From Wilda to Disney: Living Stories in Family and Organization Research" in Handbook of Narrative Inquiry: Mapping a Methodology edited by D. Jean Clandin
TwoTrees, Kaylynn. (1997). Stories with mind. Session presented at the April, 1997, International Academy of Business Disciplines conference, Postmodern Organization Theory Track.

Toelken, Barre. (1996). "The icebergs of folktale: Misconception, misuse, abuse". In C. L. Birch & M. A. Heckler (Eds.), Who says? Essays on pivotal issues in contemporary storytelling (pp. 35–63). Little Rock, AR: August House.

Birkets was trying to link technologies of writing to degrees of versioning and thence to construction of the position of the author. Be it computer, pen or voice, the argument for technological determination doesn't hold because there are social practices at work.

And so for day 1716

Some of My Best Friends Gloss

Sven Birkerts (again).

We can expect that curricula will be further streamlined, and difficult texts in the humanities will be pruned and glossed. One need only compare a college textbook from twenty years ago to its contemporary version. A poem by Milton, a play by Shakespeare — one can hardly find the text among the explanatory notes nowadays. Fewer and fewer people will be able to contend with so-called masterworks of literature or ideas.
Hmmm. Mr. Birkerts in this essay ("Into the Electronic Millennium") in The Gutenberg Elegies equates the presence of a critical apparatus with a reader needing guidance and by implication that the lack of a critical apparatus with a reader or readers without need for guidance. Twenty years before his writing (1994) was also the era of Coles Notes still available 20 years after Birkerts's book appeared. Evidently there are other factors at work in the proliferation of texts with notes. For one as costs of producing annotated editions goes down we get more of them.

Fear not the call for unadorned text has been heard.

Enter Exhibit A

A lightly annotated version of Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour" (you can turn the annotations off)

And so for day 1715

How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?

Sven Birkerts "Paging the Self" in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age depicts a theory of reading that reminds one of Ricoeur's enlargement of the self through appropriation.

We don't entirely become Holden [protagonist of Catcher in the Rye], but we abide by the terms of the world he narrates to us, agreeing to its provisions at least for the duration of our reading. […] And as we read, we find that Holden's (or any character's) world manifests a kind of wholeness. We do not learn so much from the novel itself, the lessons of its situations, as we do from having strayed free of our customary boundaries. On return, those boundaries seem more articulated, more our own; we understand their degree of permeability, and this is a vital kind of knowing.
This schema appears to suppose a fictional world that is complete (and comparable to the actual world). However it is possible to understand fictional worlds as incomplete.
While minimal departure assumes that fictional entities possess the same ontological fullness as real objects, Doležel invokes PW [Possible World] theory in support of a semantic model that stresses the radical incompleteness of fictional worlds: because it is impossible for the human mind to imagine an object (much less a world) in all of its properties, every fictional world presents areas of radical indeterminacy. It is a waste of time to ask how many children Lady Macbeth had, because the number of her children is never specified. As can be seen from this example, such a lack of information constitutes an ontological gap inherent to fictional worlds.

Possible Worlds by Marie-Laure Ryan in the living handbook of narratology
Radical indeterminacy — I would venture to say that the incompleteness of fictional worlds makes us ready to question wholeness questioned and so too the transformation of the reader. What is at work is ongoing construction. The kind wholeness that Birkerts finds in the novel is a mirror of the wholeness he accords the self: the complete individual. But what if the self is an ongoing project? Do we then need worlds that manifest wholeness?

And so for day 1714

Lures and Sinkers

Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age) generalizes from his experience with hypertext to characterize the hypertextual environment as counter to sinking into receptivity which is what book reading does according to him.

For the effect of the hypertext environment, the ever-present awareness of possibility and the need to either make or refuse choice, was to preempt my creating any meditative space for myself.
Odd. This call to the space of suspended judgement which is meditation is fine in itself but to blame the potential of choosing for wrecking any affordance for meditation seems misplaced. Reading is about making decisions. To my mind exercising judgment is present in all types of reading. Exercising judgment requires a pause and all along the reading experience are micro-moments where the reader decides to enter into the world generated by the text, continue on exploring such a world or exit from the world exploration.
Independent Observations on Interactivity

There is reading and there is reflecting upon that reading: lures and sinkers.

And so for day 1713

Bang! Bang?

I like to follow the poet's lead in stretching a conceit to its limit. I especially like Mark Waldron with characteristic verve nibbling away a a sugary confection.

These are the concluding lines of "Guns in Films" in Meanwhile, Trees.

A gun in a movie is not the jam in a donut; it is the pip
in the jam in the donut, the jam being
the character's motivation, the dough being the script,

the donut's surface being the scene's location, and the sugary
coating being you in the cinema,
sprinkled-on-a-seat, wanting everything.
I like how construction and consumption are simultaneous.

And so for day 1712

Last Lafs

William Carlos Williams draws a parallel between the "stubborn man" and the "rocks" in "The Seafarer".

[…] They strain
forward to grasp ships
or even the sky itself that
bends down to be torn
upon them. To which he says,
It is I! I who am the rocks!
Without me nothing laughs.
It was in hearing the poet read the work that I became aware of the echo of "last" in the last line. It is the American pronunciation that betokens the semantic echo of the last laugh. The other (British) pronunciation rhymes with "scoff" and here takes up a partial rhyme with "rocks" but doesn't convey the phrase "last laughs".

See the Cambridge Dictionary:

PennSound houses a recording of the poet reading the work Reading and Commentary at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA Poetry Center, New York. January 27, 1954 in a set of recordings compiled and edited by Richard Swigg.

And so for day 1711

Collections, Series, Etc.

It's a lesson in humility and a lesson on the power of drawing to draw us to contemplate infinite series hence the humility.

Roland Barthes. all except you Saul Steinberg (Galerie M æght, 1983)


L'énumération des choses du monde s'étend tout le long de l'œuvre ; à première vue, c'est une énumération plate : variée par glissement d'une image à l'autre (une encyclopédie n'est pas objet métaphysique). […] Tel est bien le malaise inlassablement exprimé par Steinberg : le monde se suffit à lui-même, le monde n'a pas besoin de moi : « All except you. »

Listings of things is found throughout the work; at first glance, the listings are flat: varied by the slide from one image to another (an encyclopedia is not a metaphysical object). […] This is indeed the malaise expressed without a break by Steinberg: the world suffices unto itself, the world doesn't need me: "All except you."


Qu'est-ce qu'une collection, un défilé ? C'est quelque chose que je regarde. Et ce que je regarde, c'est ce dont je suis exclu. Le spectacle m'attire et me rejette tout à la fois. D'une part, je ressens un mouvement de solitude à l'égard de ce qui défile, et, d'autre part, je perçois, au loin la grande paix de tout ce qui se répète et se rassure de n'être pas seul. Une voix incessante parcourt l'œuvre de Steinberg ; on n'entend qu'elle et elle dit : All except you. Et de cette exception je tire à la fois profit et douleur.

What is a collection, is it a parade? It is something I look at. And what I look at excludes me. […]


[…] Le défilé et la file sont infinis, les deux infinis se croisent et se renforcent : c'est comme si, à un degré second, le « etc. » lui-même était répété, réverbéré par deux espaces différents.

[…] the parade and the line are infinite, the two infinities overlap and reinforce each other: it is as if in a second degree of meaning the "etc." itself was repeated, reverberating through two different spaces.
Loose translations, partial translations, and translations in the mathematical sense of transpositions, etc.

And so for day 1710

The Taste of Truth

Victor Hazan's tribute to his late wife Marcella in the dedication to Ingredienti

This guide is the testament of a woman who based her cooking life on the truth of every dish she cooked and taught, the vigorous truth of clear, uncluttered taste, taste that arises neither from obeisance to dogma, not from a craving for attention, but evolves inspired by, and respectful of, the ingredients that nourish it. To that woman I dedicate this work.

To Marcella.
A for instance, her tomato sauce with just three ingredients: tomatoes, butter and onion. The recipe calls for discarding the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta. But it is so flavourful from simmering with the tomatoes that the frugal enjoy the onion on its own. Respecting both sauce and ingredients.

And so for day 1709

Is the Punctum a Perpetuum Mobile?

Fulcrum and vanishing point.

Alain Badiou on the prose of Natacha Michel.

We can see how, in the absence of spectacle, the rhythm decides that any place, no matter how stable it may be, no matter how anchored in ritual and childhood, is never anything but the occasion for a journey of thought and, in this sense, takes place only once.
Still not clear on rereading several times as to why the "occasion" takes place only once.

Is there a universe of prose where sets of rhythms intersect and the question of origin is put paid to?

And so for day 1708