Recent piece by Margaret Atwood in the New York Review of Books. Posting this mostly because it’s a lovely read. One question it raises though is whether the Twitterverse that Atwood describes is more a broadcast medium than a mechanism for many-to-many communication?
MediaCommons yesterday unveiled The New Everyday, an experiment in “middle-state publishing” being undertaken as part of a two-year project undertaken by the New York Visual Culture Working Group, housed at NYU and funded by its Humanities Initiative. The New Everyday is working, as its editor, Nick Mirzoeff has noted, to explore the location of the everyday “in the era of globalization, migration, outsourcing and global media,” asking “what work is done by and as the everyday, where and by whom?”
The project has launched with a cluster edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff considering the murder of Jorge Steven López Mercado. The pieces that form this cluster are open for discussion, and are intended to be seen, both collectively and individually, as remaining somewhat “in process.” We hope that you’ll join the discussion within this cluster, and that you’ll consider curating a future cluster as well.
This month’s Wired has an article by Steven Levy on the expected impact of the iPad. The article includes a sidebar with thirteen comments from various people including me. The editors cut my first paragraph which contained some crucial context so I’ve reproduced the whole thing here:
Although we date the “age of print” from 1454, more than two hundred years passed before the “novel” emerged as a recognizable form. Newspapers and magazines took even longer to arrive on the scene. Just as Gutenberg and his fellow printers started by reproducing illustrated manuscripts, contemporary publishers have been moving their printed texts to electronic screens. This shift will bring valuable benefits (searchable text, personal portable libraries, access via internet download, etc.), but this phase in the history of publishing will be transitional. Over time new media technologies will give rise to new forms of expression yet to be invented that will come to dominate the media landscape in decades and centuries to come.
Twenty-five years ago, when I founded the Criterion Collection and Voyager, my imagination reached only as far as multi-media — enabling authors to express ideas with a more complex palette that included audio, video, text and graphics. The CD-ROMs of the early nineties hinted at these possibilities. However, with the advent of the internet, particularly the web browser, it’s now clear that locating works in a dynamic digital network promises even more fundamental changes.
Although we grew up with images of the solitary reader curled up in a chair or under a tree and the writer alone in her garret, the most important thing my colleagues and I have learned s from a series of experiments with “networked books” is that as discourse moves off the page onto the networked screen, the social aspects of reading and writing move from background to foreground. This transition has profound implications for readers, writers, and publishers, as traditional hierarchies flatten and online communities proliferate. A book is on its way to becoming a “place” where readers congregate, sometimes with authors. Lest this sound far-fetched, Motoko Rich, who covers the book industry for the New York Times, took note of this trend on January 24th, writing that “Reading might well have been among the last remaining private activities, but it is now a relentlessly social pursuit.”
The arrival of the Apple, Android and Nokia tablets ups the ante for publishers. Simply moving printed texts to the tablets (as they have with the Kindle) will be of value, but within five to ten years the most successful publishers will have enthusiastically embraced new multimedia-based forms. More importantly, they will have figured out how to structure these works as vibrant communities of interest.
My sense is that this time around it’s not going to take humanity two hundred years to come up with the equivalent of the novel, i.e. a dominant new form. Not only do digital hardware and software combine into an endlessly flexible shapeshifter, but now we have gaming culture which, unlike publishing, has no legacy product or thinking to hold it back. Multimedia is already its language, and game-makers are making brilliant advances in the building of thriving, million-player communities. As conventional publishers prayerfully port their print to tablets, game-makers will jump on the immense promise of these shiny, intimate, networked devices.
Buried in the middle of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, a book digressive in exactly the right way, is an astonishing argument about writing. Lévi-Strauss considers what the invention of writing might mean in the history of civilizations worldwide, arriving at a conclusion that still surprises:
The only phenomenon with which writing has always been concomitant is the creation of cities and empires, that is the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system, and their grading into castes or classes. Such, as any rate, is the typical pattern of development to be observed from Egypt to China, at the time when writing first emerged: it seems to have favoured the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment. This exploitation, which made it possible to assemble thousands of workers and force them to carry out exhausting tasks, is a much more likely explanation of the birth of architecture than the direct link referred to above. My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery. The use of writing for disinterested purposes, and as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, is a secondary result, and more often than not it may even be turned into a means of strengthening, justifying or concealing the other. (p. 299)
An idea this inflammatory is perhaps one that can only appear deep in a book like this, where the reader will find it only by mistake. But this is an argument that I haven’t seen resurrected in all the present talk about what’s happening to reading and writing in their present explosions. One sees on an almost-daily basis recourse to the position of Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus – technology, no matter how simple, inevitably leads to a lessening of human facilities of memory – but this is something different, and one that I think merits consideration. Periodically, I wish that someone would present a cogent argument against reading, rather than the oft-regurgitated pablum that “at least the kids are reading.”
Lévi-Strauss is presenting a hypothesis rather than a complete argument, a suggestion quickly offered before he travels elsewhere: and I need to add the caveat that I’m not sufficiently versed in anthropology to know whether this was generally thought to be historically accurate in 1955, when the book was written, or whether this can be historically supported today. One needs, as well, some context: Tristes Tropiques is a rambling book in which Lévi-Strauss considers his travels in search of anthropology: in this book, he questions whether meaning is to be found in academic work or in personal experience, dipping freely into both. It’s a book informed as much by anthropology as it is by Surrealist prose and the recent experience of World War II. Lévi-Strauss is making his hypothesis on the origin of “writing for disinterested purposes, and as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure” in the midst of a book that functions in precisely that way. He argues from the literary position. But following his ideas, Gutenberg’s invention of movable type leads directly to the excesses of European colonialism. Elsewhere in his book, Lévi-Strauss visits the last remnants of indigenous tribes in the interior of Brazil, peoples who are being wiped out by the encroachment of civilization; the sadness of his title is due in part to his realization of his culpability in this loss.
Lévi-Strauss’s argument bears thinking about now, at the dawn of a new era of writing. What happens now? Already our ideas about privacy are radically different than they were a decade ago. We are increasingly dependent upon the web: living without Google’s various incarnations for even a week would be extremely difficult for most people I know. This isn’t, to be sure, slavery – we don’t yet live at the pleasure of Google or Apple – but these are new mechanisms of control which we can’t really claim to entirely understand at present. Lévi-Strauss was writing in the aftermath of WWII – his detainment escaping Vichy France is a major thread in his narrative – which might account for his heightened tone.
Lévi-Strauss invites us to consider literary freedom (or, more generally, “book culture”) as a spandrel in the sense that Stephen Jay Gould employed the term: something that evolves not towards its own end, but because it doesn’t impede (and may in fact support) other forces. I think Lévi-Strauss’s hypothesis is interesting to consider because it posits our present book culture as an exception, rather than something that naturally happens because of the flow of economic or historical forces. Amazon, Apple, or Google aren’t going to preserve book culture for us because it’s in their economic interests; rather, it doesn’t impede their economic expansion. This makes our position clearer. In Gould’s view of life, humanity’s existence is a happy accident: evolution isn’t teleological and doesn’t automatically lead to us. We are an accident – a happy one, to be sure, but an accident nonetheless. There’s a grandness to this idea: with all the forces of chance stacked against us, we still exist. I think a similar argument could be made for book culture: it doesn’t have to exist, and, indeed, its existence may be entirely accidental.
Lévi-Strauss, like Gould, is looking backward, surveying history (or prehistory). But a better understanding of the past may make us better prepared to understand the present or the future. We can’t change the past, only our understanding of it; but we can act on the present. The future of the book is not something that can be counted on: left to itself, the market may solve the problem of distribution, but it’s not going to solve the problem of culture. We can do that.
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I found myself reading Lévi-Strauss because of an exhibition by Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim here in New York. For a piece entitled “This Progress,” Sehgal emptied the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim of its art: the visitor ascending the ramp was met by a small child, who asks you to explain what you think progress is. You do this as best you can; there’s a back and forth, and this conversation carries on up the spiral. At a certain point, you’re met by a high school student, who continues the conversation; then a young adult; and finally an older adult, who walks with you to the top-most point in the Guggenheim. There’s a great deal of careful choreography going on, so the conversation breaks and remakes itself across your offerent interlocutors – but what’s centrally interesting about the piece is that the visitor is engaged in a sustained conversation with strangers about the idea of progress. There’s something deeply strange about this: post-college, we so rarely engage in conversations about abstract ideas. It’s equally odd to be engaging with people who aren’t your age: the way on talks to a six-year-old is necessarily different from the way one talks to a sixty-year-old. This can be deeply engrossing: on a visit a few Mondays ago, my friend Nik and I went up (with others) and down (together) five times in four hours.
(It’s worth noting that I’m not entirely a disinterested participant: among the adults working in the show were Bob Stein, McKenzie Wark – author of Gamer Theory – and Ashton Applewhite, who’s been hovering unobtrusively in the margins of the Institute since its beginnings. The piece is set up, however, in such a way that the visitor always ascends the spiral with strangers. The show is now over, so it can now be pointed out that the Bob in the New York Time review is our Bob.)
One quickly discovers that what happens when one ascends the spiral is different every time, though the structure is constant. Some conversations are interesting; some are less so. Some are over quickly; some carry on so long that you worry that you’ve fallen out of the piece entirely. While some of the rules can be easily understood – the small child always attempts to explain what you’ve said to the second person, and the introduction of the third person always seems like an interruption – some aren’t so obvious. After the child asks what progress is, none of your other conversation partners use the word “progress”. A sense of recurrence comes up: observing carefully, one can get the idea of what your conversation partners are doing behind the scenes to create this sense. Going up the spiral with a friend doesn’t work as well as you might expect: the dynamics of a conversation with a stranger are very different from a converstion with a stranger and a friend.
It’s difficult to know what to say when asked by a small child to explain what progress means. One quickly discovers the limitations of language: progress, we think, is the idea that things move forward, but that doesn’t explain why something in front of something is naturally better: it’s simply a structure of our thought that we construe things in front of us (or above us) as things we aspire to in some way. It’s hard not to think in this way when ascending a ramp, though weirdly the ramp as metaphor doesn’t seem to arise. Progress, I argued on a second time through, is a construct, a narrative that we impose upon the world though it doesn’t appear in nature. Or progress might be the idea that things can get better than where they are now: but to live in hope of the future is to deprecate the present. The form of the Guggenheim is circular as well: from life we understand that there are sometimes cycles in the way we move through the world. Things sometimes get better, but they sometime get worse: but a world is which things constantly improve isn’t realistic. The Guggenheim’s spiral, astonishing work of architecture that it is, doesn’t go on forever. At a certain point you have to stop and turn around. Is it better to look down from the top of the Guggenheim’s spiral or up from the bottom? Convincing arguments can be made for both.
Have things gotten better over time? A few turns into my time at the Guggenheim I started asking the older adults this question. One often hears from older people how great things were in the past; but it’s more rare to hear a qualitative judgment about whether things have improved or not. Responses varied, of course: some thought there were upswings and downswings, some thought that there had been tremendous improvement over their sixty years though they thought that was a historical anomaly they were lucky to have lived through. On his last time through, my friend Nik found himself with a professor Greek: how, Nik wanted to know, were we essentially different from the Greeks? Could we be said to be happier than the Greeks – or they happier than us? Hard to say, said the Greek professor; Nik, who is a reporter turned politician and familiar, from both sides, with such attempts at elusion, kept hounding him for an answer. The difference, the man finally confided, was that the Greeks didn’t have our idea of progress. He thought they were probably happier because of that.
It’s an apt time for a discussion about progress: everyone seem to agree that we’re in a worse place than we were a decade ago, despite now having Facebook, YouTube, and all the pirated music and movies anyone could ever one. Technology has moved along. But the world doesn’t seem to have followed suit. We’re not a more just society because self-publishing online enables everyone to have a voice, despite the pontificating of people like Wired and TED. In America, fewer people control more of the wealth than they did a decade ago. While it would be foolish to suggest that everything has gotten worse over the past ten years – the argument can certainly be made, for example, that we’re a more tolerant society than we were – there’s a palpable disappointment in the air.
After I left the Guggenheim, exhausted from so much talking, I realized that I hadn’t managed to ask a very obvious question: why was there the this in the piece’s title “This Progress”? Perhaps it’s because progress only exists as an idea when we lend credence to it: our own personal idea of progress rather than something that exists naturally. Awareness of this is important. We need to interrogate the idea of progress, both in terms of what we believe and what society around us believes. Too often we’re simply swept along by the flow of time. The power of the idea – the power of the thought experiment, whether Lévi-Strauss’s questioning of the goal of writing or Sehgal’s questioning of progress – is that it allows reclamation of agency.