The 'net -- dragging us nowhere?
The literary critic Michiko Kakutani has an interesting New York Times article, "Texts Without Context," speculating on where the internet is taking us, apparently nowhere, and we'll all be unreal nowhere-men in a dystopian monadological universe of discourse. Well, that's my rather imprecise, metaphysically solipsistic take on Kakutani's argument, so there may be some irony to what I'm doing in this post.
What Kakutani actually says, among other interesting points that she makes, is that our "snip here, paste there" approach to writing -- as with David Shields's recent book Reality Hunger, consisting of "618 fragments, including hundreds of quotations taken from other writers" -- has been made so easy by the internet that it is simultaneously altering our method of reading by making radically subjective deconstructionists of us all:
As for the textual analysis known as deconstruction, which became fashionable in American academia in the 1980s, it enshrined individual readers' subjective responses to a text over the text itself, thereby suggesting that the very idea of the author (and any sense of original intent) was dead. In doing so, deconstruction uncannily presaged arguments advanced by digerati like Kevin Kelly, who in a 2006 article for The New York Times Magazine looked forward to the day when books would cease to be individual works but would be scanned and digitized into one great, big continuous text that could be "unraveled into single pages" or "reduced further, into snippets of a page," which readers -- like David Shields, presumably -- could then appropriate and remix, like bits of music, into new works of their own.This isn't a danger only for journalists, musicians, artists and filmmakers, and I'm curious what Carter Kaplan and Michael Moorcock might have to say on this point with respect to literary authors, given Kaplan's permitted use of Moorcock's characters, concepts, and topics, for this sort of overlap seems already a step in the deconstructive direction. But I won't expound on that excursus. I merely wish to mention it and quickly return to my own point of noting that not only journalists, musicians, artists and filmmakers face oblivion in the subjective appropriation of their material. Despite the ubiquitous footnoting in scholarly works, scholars also confront this oblivion:
As John Updike pointed out, Mr. Kelly’s vision would in effect mean "the end of authorship" -- hobbling writers' ability to earn a living from their published works, while at the same time removing a sense of both recognition and accountability from their creations. In a Web world where copies of books (and articles and music and other content) are cheap or free, Mr. Kelly has suggested, authors and artists could make money by selling "performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information" and other aspects of their work that cannot be copied. But while such schemes may work for artists who happen to be entrepreneurial, self-promoting and charismatic, Mr. [Jaron] Lanier says he fears that for "the vast majority of journalists, musicians, artists and filmmakers" it simply means "career oblivion." (page 3)
And online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking. (page 2)No one reads scholars' entire texts anymore! One need only note the scholarly use of Google Books and Google Scholar to see this at work. I know firsthand -- from my own use of these specialized search engines -- of the tendency to find only what one is already sure of, for a sharpened search often takes one precisely there. Conflicting findings are not ignored; they are often not even seen! Even the immediate context to a nugget of information is too often ignored, scarcely to mention the larger context, and the scholar who constructed the entire text is thereby also lost. Arguments and the person who made them no longer exist as scholarship grows ever more solipsistic.
Being aware that this often happens, as an artifact of the search-engine process itself, enables one to circumvent the danger of self-fulfilling investigations. I can if I really try, but I was schooled in research before the digital age and have read widely enough to a degree of depth sufficient to have provided me with a bit of judgment in evaluating what I find.
What of the younger, digital generations, though. Do they read entire books? Or is nowhere now here?