In the last few weeks a number of people have sent me a link to Michael Wesch’s video meditation on the evolution of media and its likely impact on all aspects of human interaction. One of Wesch’s main points is that the development of XML enables the separation of form from content which in turn is fueling the transition to new modes of communication.
Paradoxically Wesch’s video works precisely because of the integration of form and content . . . possibly one of the best uses of animated text and moving images in the service of a new kind of expository essay. If you simply read the text in an RSS reader it wouldn’t have anywhere near the impact it does. Although Wesch’s essay depends on the unity of form and content, he is certainly right about the increasing trend on the web to decontextualize content by making it independent of form. If Mcluhan was right about the medium being a crucial part of the message, then, if we are looking at content in different forms are we getting the same message? If not, what does this mean for social discourse going forward?
In response to Bob’s post on atomisation, Jesse Wilbur talks about how his college-era faith in Great Books seems to have largely given way to the sporadic appreciation of 30-second YouTube snippets.
That started me thinking about the literary canon. All those Great Books. There were huge critical quarrels about their validity, how they came to be great and so on: how bound up its measures of ‘quality’ were with historically-specific class and cultural assumptions. And all that.
Thinking of it as contingent and biased and so on makes it hard to think of the canon with anything like the reverence I felt towards it as a teenager. And yet, you don’t have to be T S Eliot to mourn that reverence, and everything it implied. An agreed-upon body of cultural matter that could (notionally, at least) be shared by all. Cultural cohesion externalised in print form. It’s hard not to find that a seductive idea. Cultural capital, shared frames of reference and implicit association with the elites, all easily communicable to a stranger via a few arch quotations.
And yet, if I know this body of supposedly eternal literature is the product of the collective privilege of a bunch of mostly-heterosexual dead white European males, do I really want a shared body of cultural reference framed by those assumptions? Etc, etc. This is an old debate. The question is very literally academic these days. The literary canon is the hobby of a few; new ‘literary’ books are still produced, but it seems increasingly that we are offered a choice between unacceptable (because obviously stacked in favour of the usual contenders) canonical elitism, ham-fisted revisionism, and deadening lowest-common-denominator populism. Given those options, I for one would rather stick to fooling around on messageboards.
So if the canon is this problematic, either adopted or rejected, then what replaces it? Aimless fooling around on messageboards? This atomised culture in which you cannot ever assume that you have any points of reference in common with anyone? Perhaps. Perhaps ’twas ever thus, and the literary canon was a convenient (body of) fiction papering over the cracks.
But if (and yes, I know this is a big if) the best thing the literary canon did for us was to provide a shared frame of reference for at least some, then are there other ways of achieving the same end? Stultifying elitism, PC revisionism, and drooling populism are all, in different ways, heavily invested in the idea of canon itself, which rests on the assumption that cultural content is produced by others for us to consume. This is a big assumption, and one that Alex Itin , the denizens of YouTube and a zillion other Web fora are busy prodding as we speak. It may be that fooling around on messageboards is not aimless at all.
So what does user-generated content do to enable new shared frames of reference? I’m not convinced that YouTube provides more than, as Jesse says, the occasional giggle, nor am I convinced that the ephemerality of messageboard chat is enough for a culture to chew on. But I think new art forms are beginning to emerge. For example, what I like about Itin’s work is that it moves between online and offline spaces, and involves physical exchanges of objects in real time, between strangers or friends. If (again, this is a big if) the aim of co-creation were to begin to reassemble shared points of reference amid a tundra of media atomisation, then stuff that at least in part actually happens in the physical world is infinitely more powerful than on-screen interaction.
There is huge potential in play, social algorithms, games, creative collaborations and as-yet-undiscovered open-source social codings to enable the creation of shared cultural content that can mitigate media atomisation. Computer games, ARGs and the like are beginning to explore this, but there’s much more to investigate. How might it work in textual form? How do you move between online and offline elements? How can such activity be captured? How archived or communicated? Is there a poetics of social algorithms? I can imagine a future in which the development of social algorithms within which co-creation can fruitfully take place – both on and offline – becomes an art form in its own right. And (perhaps fancifully) I imagine our current state of cultural entropy at least mitigated, if not reversed by such a distributed culture of co-creation.