Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 10, 2008

Metamedia Narrative

Filed under: Discussion — moorekc @ 12:24 am

The experience of the technological mishap during my Tristram Shandy presentation on Tuesday, and my disorientation in its aftermath, has been haunting me since it happened. Oddly, the failure of my wireless card itself did not seem at the time to be a serious problem. After spending the morning with various university IT staff trying to resolve a different unforeseen issue with wireless access and my UCLA net account, I made a point to ensure I could describe the two Tristram Shandy websites mentioned in my presentation by memory if necessary. In fact, after spending some time reviewing the websites, I planned the talk without a computer; I made my notes sitting on a bench in the sun behind the Powell Library. In literature seminars, and also in the undergraduate classroom, I’ve often described and analyzed texts in their absence; it seemed, at first, no different to do so in the context of a new media theory seminar. Nevertheless, once my laptop began to punish me, once I was off and running in my blind description of the websites, I slowly became aware–and then too aware; distracted–that others in the class had already loaded the sites I was attempting to interpret on their own computers. “The University of Milan site has an image of nine, clickable, leather-bound volumes, corresponding to the nine volumes of the original novel,” I said. But looking out of the corner of my eye, trying to count and confirm this on the screen beside me in class, I began to question my memory of the website, and then, more alarmingly, my memory of Sterne’s novel itself.

Today, a technological failure is a type of formal failure, and the responsibility for presentational form has always rested upon the presenter. But something felt incongruous on Tuesday. I’ve attended my share of grueling conference presentations in which technology has seriously misfired, and know the palpable awkwardness such scenarios generate that never fails to prompt a chorus of savvy audience members offering technical assistance. To follow that impulse is clearly, at the core, a gesture of goodwill. Yet it also seems to mark a new potentiality for the academic presentation: that the already tense presenter/audience relationship can degenerate into a chaotic rhetorical feedback loop if a computer misbehaves. Whereas a formal failure on the level of argument provokes questions of approach at the end of the presentation, a formal failure involving technology requires immediate resolution. Perhaps it is a simply matter of changing authority: when members of the audience apparently know more about the form of a project than the person we used to call the author, perhaps they become coauthors, and the entire project implicitly collaborative. But haven’t academics always tried to argue that case, even in scenarios where academic presentational form, not to mention academic writing, was painfully predictable?

What I wanted to bring to the discussion on Tuesday was simply another way of reading the chaotic body of print and electronic media from which contemporary literary artists and scholars are forced to make meaning. Humans have certainly encountered in the past technological crises as disruptive and exciting as those we face today, and my sense remains that we can learn in particular from how early novelists happened upon a coherent, traceable, self-conscious genre because of and in spite of other media forms. But it was a mistake–and a little ridiculous–to try to tell in ten minutes that probably untellable narrative, especially after the formal collapse in my presentation. I realize now that I should have been addressing the role of narrative in all this, period. I should taken more seriously how Shandy’s narratological confusion as an early figure for the novelist differs from twenty-first century narratological confusion in the context of rapid technological innovation simply because he is a stable (if fictitious) narrator.

One final thought. As we discussed in class, Crary posits attention and distraction on a continuum. He does this, I think, as an explanation for his earlier claim on the “noncoincidence of attention and consciousness” (44), and to offer an alternative to the “modern dream of autonomy” with which “attention finally could not coincide” (46). What now seems interesting to me is that Crary’s term “continuum,” which could easily have been the more limited “spectrum,” strongly implies the presence of a temporal dimension in the attention/distraction system. For this reason, I wonder if Crary’s “continuum” could be a new domain for literary narrative, perhaps even for the print novel. In light of the social pressure on old media artists and scholars to conform to the still relatively ambiguous forms of new media, perhaps the metamedia story of that conformation–written in the terms of “attention” and “distraction,” but  detached from the value judgments historically attendant to those terms–remains somehow tellable.[1]

[1] In Neuromancer, cyberpunk novelist William Gibson describes a future world by way of a narrative logic that sometimes seems to exemplify this possibility. Take, for example, this astonishing line from near the beginning of the book: “The Japanese had already forgotten more neuroscience than the Chinese had ever known” (4). Here, a national history of attention and distraction is narrated in a single, tightly-coiled sentence, which functions as a key provocation for the reader of this coolly unaffected novel of a plausible cyborg future.


  1. At the time, I could not access the Tristam Shandy site you were having problems with either. Does this complicate anything, as the site of the problem is no longer the computer itself, but something else entirely. Does this abstract the problem, making it less formal than theoretical? It does strike me that there is always stigma and blame associated with unforceable/unstoppable internet meltdowns. But it brings out the various unknowable and “other” qualities of the web, it all seems very postcolonial to me.

    Comment by JCohn — February 11, 2008 @ 5:52 pm | Reply

  2. I think you’re right; it does seem to have a postcolonial dimension. Or at least an abstract power dynamic of the sort social theorists have often used to talk about international politics.

    Comment by moorekc — February 12, 2008 @ 2:38 am | Reply

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