ebr version 1.0: Winter 1995/96

ebr version 1.0: Winter 1995/96

1995-12-30

From the start, the editors made it clear that the electronic book review would be about more than reviewing books.

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 Luhmann,
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.”

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 a 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 her 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 presumptuous 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,
href="http://www.hydra.umn.edu/fobo/index.html">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.