Arguing the Web (3): Post-Text

Walter Benjamin once claimed that in the future books would be entirely compilations of quoted material pulled out from other contexts. He did not necessarily think this was a bad thing. A recent NY Times article by Michiko Kakutani touches on this future possibility in its present reality: a book by “onetime novelist” David Shields called Reality Hunger, which consists of 618 fragments including direct quotations from literary bighitters that in some cases he’s revised. The anxiety here doesn’t seem to be quotation but revision, distortion, and the ultimate destruction of the centrality of the author’s original text. Perhaps this would’ve concerned old Walter, but we’ll never know. Perhaps Kakutani hasn’t read Barthes’ “Death of the Author” essay? I’m sure she has, but since what was once academic titillation about text is now manifest in the behavior of the ‘readers’ of cultural texts it’s not so fun anymore.

While the article focuses on literature, the real anxiety is the popular fuss about what the internet is doing to the old forms of media and their authorship. The issues at hand: Mashups and art appropriation, the word count of commentators overwhelming the word count of published authors, and who owns what in this culture of self-centered, distracted readers who forgot the MLA guidelines for correct citation. The real interest lies in criticism about the growing culture of subjectivity that puts feelings before facts, and feelings about material from questionable sources. Once again, the sloppy scholarship of the layman and how the internet fuels his curiosity is under attack. That’s why I like what Gibson has to say about new technologies that are decried as agents of mediocrity:

Writing in a 2005 Wired article that “new technologies redefine us,” William Gibson hailed audience participation and argued that “an endless, recombinant, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of creative product.” Indeed, he said, “audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.”

Gibson’s wording is a bit extreme. What we are an audience to has just expanded, and this is overwhelming. But we still can choose what we give our attention to. The great thing is though, if you actually are curious enough, you can find an analogue tape player, or a real film camera, or even a record. Gasp. New technologies arrive every day but many old ones remain. (I mean, really, how much can you improve on the bicycle?) What seems to be lost in the constant eulogy for the old guard forms of cultural content and dissemination is the fact that we have just as much agency to get off the computer and become archeologists of an analogue past.