A Review of Books in the Age of Their Technological Obsolescence

Joseph Tabbi

To introduce an electronic book review, in the very medium that is reducing book technology to a museum piece, is to confront some of the more persistent cultural contradictions of the past few decades. This is the late age of print we're in, when all the books worth saving are being scanned into digital archives, and the very conception of the book as a fixed object is giving way to the hyperreality of letters floating on a screen. For those writers who are committed to working in the new electronic environments, such a "review" might better be named a "retrospective," a mere scholarly commemoration of a phenomenon that is passing. "The death of books" has spawned a rather lively academic discourse of its own, following in the wake of post-history, post-structuralism, post-feminism, and the various postmodernisms that have worked to undercut the authority of original authorship. The argument has been made that technological change represents a happy "convergence" with developments in literary theory; yet new technologies and media of reproduction are pervasive enough to have themselves produced the cultural climate that gave rise to the theory. As the critic and media theorist William Paulson has argued, there's a technological subtext to the declining prestige of authors and literary canons. To bring that subtext to the surface will be part of ebr's agenda.

From our perspective, what has changed is not the book per se but the way that books can be read now. The end of books is more accurately the end of academic readings that isolate texts from the larger media ecology. In those media still given to publishing reviews, one is likely to find fewer essays centered on particular books and authors; the work of critique will have more to do with locating, and less with preserving, interesting texts. That doesn't necessarily mean that the book as an object of knowledge will be devalued. New technological achievements do not have to mean the forceful displacement of older media; their recombination is at least as likely, and the pressure of new media is sometimes necessary to push the old toward the higher complexity of a new evolutionary level.

Such is the view put forward by Paulson, Niklas Luhman, Friedrich Kittler, Avital Ronell, Katherine Hayles, Gregory Ulmer, and other followers of continental media theory ( a field that will gain greater currency, we hope, through ebr). Yet cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling makes much the same point in a recent article on "dead media" that appeared in the fringe culture zine, bOING bOING: "Radio didn't kill newspapers, TV didn't kill radio or movies, video and cable didn't kill broadcast network TV; they just all jostled around seeking a more perfect app." There is always the chance that books will go the way of long-playing records and 8-track tapes. Yet Sterling considers it at least as likely that the Internet itself will end up a dead medium -- a fate all but settled if it develops without a sense of its own recent history, or worse, if it conceives of these various media singly (the way the FCC now conceives of Radio, for example, as a single entity, whereas a media critic such as Allen Weiss, promoting a pirate ethic, tends to think in terms of "a multitude of radios" [Phantasmic Radio 2]).

If the Internet does indeed represent the end toward which communications media have been developing, it is preceded by a long line of technological "hopeful monsters," mutants slightly before their time that foretold new species, but never quite made it to species status themselves. Sterling has assembled a list: "The phenakistoscope. The teleharmonium. The Edison wax cylinder. The stereopticon. The Panorama. Early 20th century electric searchlight spectacles. Morton Heilig's early virtual reality. Telefon Hirmondo." In Sterling's view, the lessons to be learned from once-hyped media demand extended treatment in nothing less than, well, a book. Not a book that he alone will write, however. Abdicating his legitimate copyright to this proposed book of the media dead, Sterling invites readers to pool resources at his web site.

The serious message behind Sterling's half-serious project is that the way to evolution is through collaboration and recombination. Variability, not competition, is the key to change through natural selection: a proliferation of connections within existing systems, not progress toward a better, more inclusive system. Such points are often missed in this age of neo-social-Darwinism, but not by those who are drawn to the net for purposes other than moving capital around the globe at will. Even the fighting words of zine editor Jeff Koyen point toward a kind of technological entente between media: In an issue of Factsheet 5 devoted to electronic zines, Koyen holds that, "While many futurists long ago foretold the death of print, far many more point to the relationship between television and radio: They each serve a purpose and neither is dead yet. So too will electronic publishing on the Internet and traditional print fight one another as they redefine their roles as legitimate media." Koyen's move from paper to plastic, from CRANK to CRANK-E, is part of a larger transformation that has multiplied possibilities for literary publishing; generally speaking, independents have not sought to replace former possibilities with a more limited set (or to deride what's gone before as "primitive" in comparison to the new media).

It's going to take some work to keep Internet culture from going the way of TV and commercial radio, however. We will have entered a post-history in the worst sense if the net realizes its commercial ambitions of becoming the only medium, swallowing all others,and reducing print, image, and sound alike to an array of interchangeable bits reaching the individual household via fiber optic cable. The extension of the net to "the last ten miles," to resisting local markets in the former town and inner city, threatens to produce the first (and last) media monopoly of truly global proportions.

Resisting homogenization won't be easy. Already, those looking to the net for something completely different, an automatic liberation into a self-contained virtual world, are bound to be disappointed--especially those who come to it with some measure of literary training. Here, for example, is Richard Powers in his novel Galatea 2.2, on first looking into the web and experiencing "yet another total disorientation that became status quo without anyone realizing it":

The snap of a finger, a satellite uplink, and I sat conversing with a mainframe in my old coal mining ex-hometown seven time zones away. I could read the evensong schedule from off a digital valet in Cambridge, download Maurya painting, or make a Cook's tour of New Zealand. In seconds, I could scroll through dinner menus in languages I could not even identify.
Powers is capable of marveling at the wealth of data his host machine houses (at an "enormous new Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences"): "clues to mental illness and immunological disorders, cathedrals of supercomputer engineering, insights into complexities from market turbulence to weather." But no literature? The omission of literary knowledge is glaring, or should be to people reading this passage while holding a printed novel in their hand. The offerings appear to have been less than satisfying for Powers. No sooner does he defamiliarize the net than he loses interest in it. Even in the most naively utopian of futures, when the First, Second, and Third Worlds are all hardwired and access to the web is universal and free to all, "we'd still have nothing to say to each other and many more ways to say it." It's possible that the net could offer little more than an improved means to an unimproved end, as Thoreau said of the magnetic telegraph in the middle of the last century.

The premise of this troubled and elusively autobiographical novel is that the protagonist "Richard Powers" should undertake the task of training the Center's complex network of interlinked computers not only to read, but to pass a test on, the great books of western literature. This unlikely project produces a case study in the irrelevance of traditional literary values to the media in which they are newly immersed. Small wonder, then, that "Powers," token Humanist-in-Residence at the blockbuster Center, is prepared to throw over the novelist's self-chosen discipline for state-directed, collaborative research among the scientist-engineers. In a novel that conceives of literature as a Master's reading list, an archive of old books and Bartlett's treasury that academics quote from memory for the purpose of impressing one another--in this milieu there's no reason why literature could not be reduced to pure information, a configuration of texts and their authorized commentaries, with the net functioning as "the emergent digital oversoul," its infrastructure the skeleton key to a collective mythology supported by consensual hallucination.

Fortunately for American literature, "Powers" is set straight eventually by a graduate student and somewhat dogmatic social constructivist, a young woman (called "A." in the novel) who tells him about the language that people actually read and listen to nowadays. "Helen" is the name they have for the computer network-in-training. (Unlike the two main women in this novel, the computer gets a name.) "Has she read the language poets?" A. asks about Helen. "Acker? Anything remotely working class? Can she rap? Does she know the Violent Femmes?" The hopeless task that the novelist had set himself--based on a reading list 10 years out of date and an insistence on memorization that would be deemed in poor taste in any graduate English program today--is a task that serves mainly to dramatize a conception of literary culture that is irrevocably past. "Powers" fails not because he is unable to complete the education of this cybernetic pygmalion, but because he succeeds too well. No longer a passive Galatea content to return the gaze and reflect the mind of their trainer-creator, Helen begins to know knowledge's politics. As the network both expands and discovers significant connections within itself, "she" starts to reflect on her own dimensions, the book-cluster from which she's been built. Can this richly layered book-memory even be shared with other minds? The human population continues to explode, but not as fast as the backlist. People die, the archive is permanent; and rather than cultivate actual minds, the modern research university is concerned mainly with expanding a data base, perfecting "an understanding never vast enough to comprehend itself."

Powers is possibly the one novelist of his thirty-something generation who is fully keyed to the implications of modern science. But he's not buying into the myth of accumulating knowledge that has legitimated science and deformed literary study in universities and academic review media. The notion of culture as an endlessly expanding hypertext, a postmodern nightmare of infinite connectivity and ever-increasing complexity, is one that writers and scientists would do well to get beyond. There is no future in further accumulation, the continued proliferation of information without narrative constraints. What's needed instead is a kind of fieldwork, the cutting of pathways through thickets of information and the creation of clearings that allow space and time for critical reflection.

And what might this conception of literary fieldwork mean for those media presumptions enough still to want to review the surrounding field? What, indeed, are the implications of media theory for a fledgling electronic journal? According to Paulson, "electronic colleges of theory and journals of postmodern culture" only add to the profusion of published scholarship and disembodied theorizing, for the most part advancing little more than the demands of an academic bureaucracy for increased productivity. To resist these demands, and to avoid serving as a credentializing organ, ebr makes no claims to the status and academic legitimacy of a peer review journal. As much as possible, the editors will avoid assigning novelists to review novels, poets works of poetry, professors works of academic criticism (although we welcome field reports from people engaged in ongoing projects; hence, in this opening issue, Peter Krapp riffs on his own web site, foreign body, Carolyn Guyer and Walter Vannini report on the electronic scenes they're helping to shape, and Mark Amerika writes about our Alt-X host site, which he established in the no-man's land between commercial, academic, and underground media). The ideal ebr review will not be an add-on to already existing texts. The task is rather to bring existing literary texts into a meaningful social and political context. Instead of always seeking out the new, essays should aim at a renewed imagination of elements that are already in place around us, in several media. The book, and literary narrative in particular, have always been hospitable to hybrids, and books ought to be capable of joining with digital media in the work of "mapping, rewiring, renetworking the same old pool of elements in new ways" (to cite the Seattle collective, In.S.Omnia, reviewed in this issue by Paul Harris).

In this spirit of recombination, ebr will go on reviewing books in print (preferably before they are out of print. By taking advantage of the more streamlined electronic production process, an electronic journal should get around to covering small-press, scholarly, fringe, and other small-run titles within the period of their limited shelf life). Yet the term "book" in our title cuts two ways, and the journal will also be, in large part, a review of electronic books: CD-ROMS, hypertexts, critical art ensembles, archived talk lists -- whatever comes to be written (and not just typed and slung around) in digital and electronic environments. In this issue, Linda Brigham and N. Katherine Hayles discuss the experience of hypertextual reading and how it could transform the fields of philosophy and literature, respectively. Michael Joyce indirectly counters the common fear that people on the net are becoming disembodied. Joyce's meditation on Janet, a web site for discussions of body art and body piercing, produces a review that is itself an experimental probe into the sensuous aspects of sentences, words, and textuality generally. His review confirms a suspicion that is gaining ground among media theorists and textual scholars: that the materiality of text will actually become heightened as we write in electronic environments.

To encourage more detailed reflections on the materiality of the new media, ebr solicits critical writing not only on, but in hypertext, where contexts change hourly, depending on how the hypertext book is linked up to other texts and contexts in the web (as is the case with the electronic version of William Mitchell's book, City of Bits, reviewed in this issue by Marcos Novak). We are interested especially in exploring narratives whose logic is as much visual as verbal. (Had we started a few years earlier, we would have been covering such works as The Residents's "Freak Show," Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse by John McDaid, and the computer game Myst.) To facilitate print/screen collaborations, and as a service to writers whose primary domain is print, ebr will regularly share reviews with ABR, roughly two per issue. Submissions are sought from critical writers of all stripes who are actively imagining the conditions under which a literary culture on the net might be possible.


Works consulted

Jeff Koyen, "Adventures in the Ezine Trade." Factsheet Five 56: 6-7

William Paulson, "The Literary Canon in the Age of Its Technological Obsolescence" (forthcoming).

Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1995.

Bruce Sterling, "Dead Media." bOING bOING 14: 28-30.

Allen Weiss, Phantasmic Radio. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.


Joseph Tabbi teaches courses in technology, media, and contemporary fiction at the University of Illinois, Chicago (jtabbi@uic.edu). He is the author of Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk (Cornell 1995).

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