Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 21, 2008

Beginning to Now: e-‘L’it

Filed under: Discussion — Jacob Burch @ 7:49 am

To close my thoughts on this class, I thought it would be interesting to (not only post something not about wikifallacy) but talk about the Miller quote that PJ and Kevin and what it reminded me of a few hours later–which, in fact, happens to be the very first epigram I ever read on electronic literature.

For posterity’s sake, here is the Miller quote in question:

“The end of literature is at hand. Literature’s time is almost up. It is about time. It is about, that is, the different epochs of different media. Literature, in spite of its approaching end, is nevertheless perennial and universal. It will survive all historical and technological changes. Literature is a feature of any human culture at any time and place. These two contradictory premises much govern all serious reflection ‘on literature’ these days.” (1) J. Hillis Miller, On Literature (2002)

The first thing that jumped out from this quote isn’t so much its content, but the contradictory nature that embodies it and that seems to embody e-literature as a whole: it is the new trying to be old, the constantly advance but always out of date, the internet is the future, the internet won’t be the internet in two years flat. When I began to understand Miller as demonstrating that no matter how much the materials of literature (and literary studies) change, an art-making species cannot escape the art of language, the art of literature. Whether it be the object going from paper to magnetic encoding– narrative blowing up to complete a-linearization; blog owners becoming authors, authors becoming blog owners–readers and writers still cannot separate themselves from the long held practices that is instinctual to their creative core. In shorter form, as long as there is language and the urge to create (and moan and argue about the inferiority and canonical nature of other’s creations), there will always be literature.

The more I tried to work this tone into what Miller is actually saying, the more I was reminded of the first piece of new media theory I ever read–the introduction essay to Kate’s new book, “E-Literature: What is it?” To begin, Kate lays a scenario of the evolution from scroll to book:

“The Scriptorium was in turmoil. Brother Paul, the precentor in charge, had detected a murmur from the back row and, furious that the rule of silence was being compromised, strode down the aisle just in time to see Brother Jacob tuck something under his robe. When he demanded to see it, Brother Jacob shamefacedly produced a codex, but not one that the antiquarii of this monastery had copied — or of any monastery, for this Psalter was printed. Shocked as much by the sight of the mechanical type as Brother Jacob’s transgression, Brother Paul so far forgot himself that he too broke the silence, thundering that if books could be produced by fast, cheap and mechanical means, their value as precious artifacts would be compromised. Moreover, if any Thomas, Richard or Harold could find his way into print, would not writing itself be compromised and become commonplace scribbling? And how would the spread of cheap printed materials affect the culture of the Word, bringing scribbling into every hut and hovel whose occupants had hitherto relied on priests to interpret writing for them? The questions hung in the air; none dared imagine what answers the passing of time would bring.”

In a scenario not to different from this Student Jacob being caught playing Tetris mid-study-session, Kate lays out a more formative, less contradictory version of Miller’s scenario. The death of literature is a death of literature as “we” know it–and a failure to recognize what is new because, as Delilo suggests, we do not have the words.

In a time and medium where buzzwords–hypertext, interactive fiction, blogs, DHTML–come only to lose their power and clear definition. New media is a a medium who has yet to truly root its lexical roots, something so necessary for the lovers of words, the students of literature, to truly get a grip on what they now must accept as Literature–capitol L and all.

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