Down and In

by Ronald Sukenick
(c) 1995

The day I started using a computer, I knew that I was dealing with something radically different. A computer screen is not writing, it is a medium. It looks like writing, it can issue in writing but it is not yet writing. Writing is not a medium, it is a destination. A medium is a way of getting to a destination. Writing is an end, a terminal, static, out of time (unlike reading). It is print on page, spray on wall, scratch on rock, something on something. Writing is in surprising ways related to painting. You can have writing, for example, without language, as in the work of Cy Twombly. But a computer screen produces nothing but electronic impulses. Press a key and it's all gone, press a few others and it's radically changed. The material on the screen is held in suspension. It is easily interactive. Its fundamental character is transitional and provisional. The result of this quality is an expanded arena for meditation. The mental rhythm it encourages is not write Ü revise but improvise Ü elaborate. The screen mode is antithetical, like rhetorical or sophistic thought, and this is a mode much like narrative thinking, which like rhetorical thinking is continuously selfÜmodifying rather than definitive. Not being static, screen language reintroduces time as a factor, favoring not definitive thought but thinking as it evolves through time. As music does.

The computer keyboard acquires musical qualities. The experience must be something like that of a musician in a recording studio: play it then play it back. If you don't like it do another take. Or alter it electronically by fiddling with parts. Even concrete poetry was written in cement, as it wereÜÜthe computer screen is written on the wind. That is, it's not written yet. This is a technology that if used to the hilt actually expands our meditative capacity, our capacity for thinking and feelingÜÜas does writing to begin withÜÜby encouraging thought to play off feeling, thought to play off thought, in a space outside the mind but which is like an extension of the mind.

In a publishing atmosphere that is dominated by the big buck/fast buck mentality of the multinational conglomerates, also known as "the blockbuster complex," it is hard to tell what effect this new writing technology has already had on fiction. The conglomerate aura is certainly not favorable to the meditative. What can get published affects what gets written, and what can get published now is mostly the consequence of tastes formed by the fiction of fifty years ago in a different world. But some preliminary generalizations can be made about the development of fiction that is determined by a medium dominated technology rather than one that emphasizes outcomesÜÜor, for that matter, incomes.

Contingency. Electromeditative prose reenforces the sense that narrative no longer demands "the sense of an ending." Anything other than contingent resolutions are felt as falsification. Since the novel can no longer come to conclusions the novel in the traditional sense is no longer possible. We are all in the middle of something more like an endless short story.

Conductivity. Fiction has become a channel for data on the states of the psyche. This is part of the information explosion created by the electrosphere, placing the author in a more modest role than that of creator. The capacities of hypertext are humbling, the information available at the stroke of a key overwhelming. The contemporary writer is more like the traditional scribe. To a greater extent than ever before, fiction writers simply choose among data options and pass it on. This includes a lot of unpleasant material in the nature of violence, sexual brutality, stupidity. It is a trend that should not be mistaken as mass market genre exploitation.

Disoriginality. Obviously there are many writers today who simply feel they are the site in which already present elements of the literary culture get recombined and reÜissued in new and interesting ways. One think's of Raymond Federman's "playgiarism" with a y, or Kathy Acker. Also, the prime Modernist technique of collage has been replaced by what you might call Postmodernism's mosaic, the former juxtaposing disparate bits of data to create a new synapse of meaning, the latter using items from the museum of culture to create a new, if indeterminate, configuration. The ghosts of tradition are summoned in surprising ways. Press SEARCH followed by MOVE.

Detextualization. The location of fiction is less on the page than formerly. First of all, it can be put onÜscreen, becomes interactive and can be changed. Obviously, we have the huge influence of the reading circuit and the move toward the sonic. Furthermore, many factors (TV, internetthink, the massive onslaught of available information) have given rise to a new way of reading which you might call page surfing: never read a whole book unless absolutely necessary; skim, search, scatterÜread; look for the good parts (a practice once confined to erotic search); use abstracts. Finally the text is now established as an object that is not necessarily read but has influence as a presenceÜÜa benchmark, something to gossip about, a valorizing credential, a resource if you need it. It's important to have Finnegan's Wake on your shelf, even if you haven't read it.

Degenerativation. We live in an era of recombinant genresÜÜthey are breaking down, as they often do in times of radical change, and combining in new forms. AvantÜPop is using mass market genres for literary purposes, fiction is essentializing as narrative, the novel goes on killing itself as other forms replace it. Most radically, we are moving into a situation in which the various mediumsÜÜvideo, acoustic, graphics, printÜÜare all digital based, and CDÜROM does in fact combine them. Hard and fast genre limitations seem absurd given the fluidity of the electrosphere.

The overall result of these changes is that the place of the fiction writer in the culture is changing from smithy of the soul to messenger of the zeitgeist, phantasmal representative of the tradition, i.e., the dead, healer of cultural shatter and its psychic consequences. There is a word that comes close to describing all this: Shaman.