Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The 'net -- dragging us nowhere?

(Image from New York Times)

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.

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)
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:
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?

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At 9:19 AM, Anonymous erdal said...

Having been in academia for much of my life, albeit only at intervals, this is what I think:

Students' grasp of facts and logic, their sense of interconnection, history and multiple meaning is way, way better than it has ever been. Both in depth and breadth. At least for normal and bright students. Way better, no contest! They're also less easily indoctrinated, and less subjective. They're inquisitive, yet polite, opinionated if pressed, but undogmatic. They know a wealth of stuff. Many are very eloquent but not agitators.

The downsides are twofold: 1) It has become much harder for the teacher to tell the difference beween students with a good grasp of their subject and those who who merely simulate it. The importace of written vis-a-vis oral testing or free dialog is down, or should be. 2) Everybody writes stylistically, methodically similar, and there has bean a true regression in this department. Individuality in writing is on its way out. A certain dullness reigns. (On the upside, clarity is better, fancy sociolect is 'out') Hence the importance of direct, spoken communication.

The new internet and library infrastructures and their possibilities seem to play a large part here. And, yes, reading whole books (at least monographies) is on the way out. The results are good so far, I'd say.

At 10:33 AM, Blogger John B said...

I thought the death of authorship happened in the 70's with post-modernism?

While scholars may not be reading as much, and accordingly ideas are not spread and exchanged through publication so much, on the other hand there seems to be much more opportunity for dialog. Academic blogs, the ability to email professors around the world, youtube-ing academic discussions, and cheaper air travel mean information and ideas can be bounced around interested parties much more easily than the past, when it was a matter of slogging piles of dense text.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger John B said...

Upon re-reading the post I think I might have missed the point, perhaps because I am of the younger generation of students. I entered the university when the internet was taking off, so I don't know an academe the predates JSTOR and Google. I do have stack of academic books lying around my apartment, but when I considered them closely I realized that none of them were publish after 1998, and most of them are dated from the 80s or earlier. Newer material consists of sheaves of printouts or the long lists of PDF files I've saved on my PC.

At 12:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, that's interesting to hear. I can't say that I've had the same experience, unfortunately, but I've been teaching in Korea most of my time since the internet revolution, and far too many of my students use the net to plagiarize more easily.

The internet, however, has helped me in my own research. I've managed to publish two or three articles per year since 2001, and all due to the internet, which enables my research.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The postmodern death of the author was part of the point of the original article, but that might not have come through in my summary.

Like you, I also don't buy many books any more, aside from novels, because I can access academic sources far more effectively through the internet . . . and I don't have to pay what academic presses charge.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:50 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Self-fulfilling investigations: While the net can confirm one's thesis, it can just as easily produce evidence/material that will overturn it. Selectivity still exists. Also, one can use books and articles to realize self-fulfilling investigations. It just talks a little more leg work.

I find the internet makes it easier to spot plagiarism because the students use the net as their source, and it is a simple matter to use google to find the material they have appropriated. Instant proof. Before the internet, it was more difficult to actually produce the evidence, and often you simply accused the student based on your judgement, and this more often than not led to a confession.

As for authority: authors still exist, I have actually seen them, talked to them, ate and drank with them, even exchanged e-mails with them.... ;-)

Tally-Ho, Cornelius! is a good subject for am inquiry into the nature of authoriety, the deconstruction of the "author function," and so on. Indeed, these issues form a deliberate theme in the novel. Jerry Cornelius, which Mr. Moorcock created as a sort of "share ware" trademark everyman character (see the wiki article) has been utilized by many authors over the years. This shared control over the character is part of his meaning, which plays upon a range of Continental ontological theories ranging from Rousseau to Foucault, meanwhile bringing to bear an incredulous "British" skepticism that, when it's all mixed together, produces fascinating literary/philosophical effects, as well as some unusual comedy. Oddly enough, what I found rather curious (and a lot of fun) when I was involved in the composition, was that the humor reminded me a lot of the aesthetic I find in Hawthorne and Milton, and I think often the reader can tell (perhaps it seems more obvious to me) that the writer--that is "I"--was evidently deeply impressed when he--"I"--read Paradise Lost and The Scarlet Letter, and so on. Significant to me as a reader, is how in the novel I discovered a greater appreciation for Milton and Hawthorne's humor. That is, I think Hawthorne and Milton are more hilarious fellows than most critics are willing to admit. I think this is true also of Gurdjieff--who is a capital joker, though you wouldn't necessarily get this from reading the people who write about Gurdjief.

At 4:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Carter, for a thoughtful, informative comment.

You're right about plagiarism being easier to prove with the internet. I'm continually surprised that students don't realize just how easy this is.

I'm re-reading your novel, so I guess that I'd better keep an eye out for allusions to The Scarlet Letter. Those must have gone completely past me the first time.

But I did pay more attention to the Blake allusions and now suspect that those provide a key to unlocking the 'mystery' of your novel's meaning. I don't actually know Blake's own work so well, but I've studied enough about Gnosticism to make a few connections.

Interesting point about Jeremiah Cornelius as 'share-ware' (which you mentioned in a previous email). Maybe I'll have to borrow him sometime . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:10 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Imagine what Strauss would've said if he were writing in the Google Age? :)

At 6:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If one could only Google-search subjunctive history to find out . . . though quantum computers might one day make this possible.

Jeffery Hodges

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