On Writing After the Death of Print

Curator's Note

Recently the Times reported that sales of digital books at Amazon had overtaken print. I think everybody saw this coming, but nobody thought it would happen so soon. On campus you can’t throw a rock into the air without hitting a symposium on The Future of the Book. At such events I hear elegies, mainly, about the death of print. As this grieving process continues, as we accept our digital fate, I’m looking forward to the next conversation. The one about literature, how it’s going to be shaped by technology.

That idea right there—technology shaping literature—it feels wrong, doesn’t it? Dead-eyed. Violent. I derive a measure of calm as I remember that Guttenberg’s press is technology, too, and far more destabilizing. Language, we sometimes forget, is technology—an encoding scheme based on some of the same principles that enable these accompanying video streams.

Digital can display and distribute text; digital is equally adept at conveying images and sound. And so I wonder: How long will we read and write on mobile devices equipped with cameras, mics and media authoring tools before we change our conception of what writing means? With the image as readily available to the author as language, how long before this fact registers in our literature?

Twenty years ago the essayist Phillip Lopate wondered, in print, why the literary essay didn’t find its way to the screen more often. One of the few works Lopate permitted himself to celebrate was Chris Marker’s 1983 masterpiece, Sans Soleil. The poetic force of this film resides in it’s heady use of language, but also—more so—in the distance between that language and its corresponding image. Sans Soleil is a difficult work. Viewers conditioned by commercial entertainment must lean forward to reap its rewards.

As do I when I see “That Kind of Daughter,” Kristen Radtke’s beautifully crafted video essay. This is a timely work that comes at you in a volley of language. Radtke appears unbothered by the fact that her predecessors—Agnes Varda, Ross McElwee, Su Friedrich—lace together their images with conversational speech. TKOD is short, songlike, holds up well to repetition. Of its many virtues, it answers the question I’m most frequently asked about the video essay:

Are images replacing language?

No. You’ll see.


Thanks for this post, John.  I share your sigh over the prolonged, end-of-the-book, hand-wringing, especially now that we’re decades in to exploring its techno-future.  For me, the turning point came on recognizing that all digital work is, in essence, a 1 or a 0.  What we experience as distinct media is, for our digital devices, an oceanic sameness of binary code.  Suddenly, crossing what I’d seen as boundaries didn’t seem so daunting: digitally, it had already happened.  So why not embrace that oneness (and zero-ness) as a given, a foundation from which to work toward literary ends?  Suddenly, the possibilities were limitless, as we see in Radtke’s stunning piece, where even a non-digital technology like an overhead projector folds into and charges the work.  Of course, limitlessness can also be overwhelming.  “Art,” as Flannery O’Connor wrote, “transcends its limitations only by staying within them.”  In Radtke’s piece, I feel that gasp of transcendence—so much better than a sigh—when Radtke suddenly appears in the frame as the manipulator of its silhouettes: she creates a powerful break in what I’d imagined were the rules or limits of her piece.  Perhaps in this dynamic of limit and possibility that’s internal to a work, Radtke shows us a more keen way of reckoning with boundaries in digital literature.

The other side of the print-is-dead coin is the tremendous burst of innovation and exuberance that many contemporary print works show.  It is as if print, released from the obligation to function as the default mode of communication, can now kick up its heels and explore the untapped potentials of the codex form. 

Jonathan Safran Foer's "Tree of Codes," for example, uses die-cut holes to partially "erase" its source text (Bruno Schulz's "Street of Crocodiles"), creating complex patterns of words-on-the-page interacting with words-seen-through-holes.  Mark Danielewski's "House of Leaves" uses innovative typography, extensive footnoting with symbols ranging from signal flags to alchemical signs, and a split narrative to explore the profound philosophical implications of an impossible but nevertheless existing object, a house whose inside is bigger than its outside.  His equally brilliant, but more formidable "Only Revolutions" creates complex topological patterns traced by the multiple reading paths offered by each page and each page spread, creating a transformation from a temporal to a spatial aesthetic.  Steven Hall's "Raw Shark Texts" uses flipbook images and a amnesiac narrator to re-imagine the codex as a distributed literary system extending beyond the print novel to pages distributed in translations of the novel into other languages, websites, and even physical locations. For a "dying" art, the print codex is remarkably vibrant. 

It is worth noting that most of these effects would be impossible to achieve in e-reader versions.  Then there are other works, such as Stephanie Strickland's V:Vniverse, that are conceptualized as a work distributed both across the print book and the Vniverse website. 

Jessica Pressman has written about the "aesthetic of bookishness," the aesthetic dedicated to exploring, recontextualizing, and re-inscribing the artifacts, traditions, typography, history and materiality of book culture.  The interesting paradox is that it took the perceived death of the book to bring the aesthetic of bookishness into existence.

"Are images replacing language?" I immediately agreed with No, as images are a kind of language, in that they are constructed, framed, etc.

John's commentary is a perfect segue to my piece for tomorrow, so I'll skip over some of my intial thoughts to something I wasn't able to fit into my piece, which is how video works such as these beg the question, how do we mark the difference between film and "poem" or "fiction" or "literature"? I love how new technology is calling our genre boundaries into question. Digital literature seems to remind us that behind all these different forms is the idea of "story," which seems part of a larger cultural phenomenon--the resurgence of oral storytelling (think of The Moth), the rise of slam poetry. At the Associated Writing Programs Conference a few years ago, there was a panel exploring the connections between poetry and music, as if academia were realizing poetry never stopped being popular oral culture.

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