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Friends,

Carrying on the topic of Internet experiences, specifically worlds of words and digital images, I report on a talk I heard at the Library of Congress at a meeting of the Washington Area Print Group (members of Sharp, a book history society), taken from a coming book by James Farman, “Waiting for the Word: How Message Delays Have Shaped Love, History, Technology and Everything We Know.” Farman’s previous books include the The Mobile Story and he is an Associate Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Prof Farman studies the history of message exchange in (or across) time. Usually I report on talks like these on my Sylvia blog (see Harlequin Romance in Turkey), but I thought this topic had such general and immediate significance for everyone who writes on the Internet, who communicates a lot in cyberspace today. It’s really an aspect of a yet broader topic, the anthropology of social media (“why we post”) be it through digital or post office or smoke signal means.

Prof Farman began by suggesting if the time of anticipation is significant, this will transform the experience of the message once it is delivered. Waiting is the interpretive moment made up of fear, anxiety, longing, hoping, boredom. From the earliest of historical records we find people have been trying to gather knowledge of one another from a distance. Also to authenticate the message came from whom it declares it is from. Very early modern Europe sees the first development of the seal. The first and on-going continuing success or letters arriving at their destination has come through the institution of a post office. The first reliable service in Britain begins in the later 18th century; the first non-corrupt (no bribes, no opening letters for most people) begins in the middle of the 19th. That late. Literary Victorians are famous for the volumes of letters they wrote and preserved (or burnt). The first rapid communication is the pneumatic system of cylinders underground in the US. The telegram, the telegraphic (these are not intimate exchanges), and lastly the telephone (this is or can be) reigned supreme for speed until the arrival of gmail.

A good deal of Prof Farman’s talk was about his adventures doing extensive research in British archives of all kinds to find out how the early modern world’s powerful people sent messages down to the ordinary person on the Internet today. He was allowed to research into the High Court Admiralty in London, a treasure trove of thousands of messages never sent. Thwarted communications. How did you authenticate the message as really coming from you? From well before pre-early modern monarch, Henry VII, seals were used. How do you mark something with your identity? What does a face show except you are still alive, you exist. A king might send a letter and expect it will get there but there is no other sure-proof way except a faithful paid messenger. The changing of the post office to regard letters as private sacrosanct communications between particular people took 250 years. Censorship and reading of the mails only very gradually ceased. In the later 18th century, members of Parliament had a seal to frank a letter with, showing their considerable know-how — and power over others. What people want is certainty, speed, privacy. They also want a response and to be able to respond and to know they are heard.

Authentication is repeatedly the basic concern: passwords were invented on the net to authenticate who you are. Somehow seals have taken precedent over signatures, and Farman said he had done a lot of research into different seals. In early modern times a letter could have several seals attached to it, showing through whose hands it had gone. He shows us pictures of these. In later times a person who had power could frank a letter. Now all of us can buy a stamp. We begin in history where only one numinous person has a seal; nowadays in Japan most people carry seals to authenticate themselves.

Farman suggested human instinctive reality has not been totally able to accept bodily absence. Face-to-face is what’s wanted by most people still. Skype won’t do either — unless you knew the person before in the flesh, in physical actuality. People seem to have a need to be with another person; they believe they know you only after they’ve seen you. It’s true a lot of information is left out from letters and email communications, from photos (which are set up), but there is something else going on here. Farman sees this demand as coming out of that need to authenticate. Uncertainties of geography, rank, social network leaves the known and unknowable existence unauthenticated. People continue to create modes of linking our bodies to messages too — through photographs, emoticons. People try to personalize their messages. But the power of the document, of the extant document over time, in court, as a record, can become more or seem more important or make human viscerally physical contact seem irrelevant (marginalize it, especially if you are a good writer or maker of videos) so we live with and thrive upon texting and emailing.


A cat playing with an ipad

Yet there is nothing like a human hug. Or the cat on your lap.

It was at this point he moved on to waiting time — the person producing the response has the time to choose when he or she will respond — that his talk fascinated his audience most. When it’s a case of a letter or card sent through the post office, I expect if I’m lucky, I may have an answer or reciprocal card in a month. On the Internet, that week, before 6 days are gone. Electronic cards invite the receiver to respond immediately. A good deal of the talk in the audience afterwards and questions were about power relationships through withholding response. One’s relationship with someone is changed, when one is made to wait. Time is not distributed evenly; more powerful people more respected people are given more time. Who gets to define temporality (how much time a person has) is the more powerful person most of the time. Sometimes someone can prefer to wait in the hope of a better response or prefers not to know. There is software which tells someone whether the person receiving your message has read it so the person cannot pretend not to have gotten the message.


Emily Trevelyan reading a letter to which she will respond (He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

As the man spoke and people asked questions, I found myself thinking about Anthony Trollope’s depiction of letters in his novels, his building up of epistolarity. As a postman or once postman he is preternaturally aware of how long it takes for a letter to get to someone, its path, how power can lead a person to get his or her letters quicker (a servant can carry it to the city) or leave someone suffering for a response (often a woman) in days of anxious misery. Trollope makes comedy out of this; irony over when a letter arrives. He may be unique in how often this kind of thing plays out in a story. He also uses forgery and shows us characters insincerely performing through their letters. The character who accepts what is written at face-value is at risk.

We know (or we ought to) everything we write here is under surveillance. In the Victorian and more recent periods if you are writing something seditious and it is found out and spreads and influences others it can cause you to be arrested. If a prospective or present employer/institutional affiliation finds out you have been writing what he or she does not approve of, you can lose a job or position or prospect of one. Prof Farman had researched into letters sent during wars, systems of communication among the powerful, in newspapers. Communications can decide whether a battle is fought, whether a war is carried on. Spies are all about discovering communications meant to be secret. Prof Farman suggested one could call this part of the study media archeaology.


Alec Guiness as George Smiley (master spy)

Ellen

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Gentle reader,

I am sure you are aware there is such a thing as an Internet Style. If you know this, I am even surer you have gone beyond the kind of academic or plain-talking, writing style I fancy I practice here (rather than the mandarin demanded by peer-edited journals) and your meditative, autobiographical and magazine blogger (not to omit fan fictioners). I imagine many readers revel in (get a great kick out of) or endure (as need dictates) that “in-group of savvy, sardonic media consumers” known as recap and commentary content-providers. Over the last couple of evenings, I’ve come across essays in traditional publications (from MLA publications to the venerable TLS and brilliant coterie left-leaning LRB) seeking to imitate and and define the style and outlook of today’s popular Internet Writing.

Tom Rachman’s “Like. Whatever” is the most fun (TLS, January 19, 2018). Reviewing Emmy J. Favella’s A World without Whom: The essential guide to language in the BuzzFeed age, and Harold Evans’s Do I make Myself Clear: Why writing well matters, Rachman is. Just. Hilarious. Not behind a pay wall. Embracing this new way of writing does not mean writing incorrectly or sloppily; the point is to be entertaining and avoid (Heaven Forbid) the pedantic. First abolish Whom. No semi-colons allowed. Talk your words, and stay cool, unfazed. Figure out how to write sarcastically without offending the reader. When to use the asterick. When “in” abbreviations (jk, Imfao). Rachman quotes Favilla deliciously: she declares the emoji “the most evolved form of punctuation we have at our disposal.”

I mean, what a time to be alive, seriously.

Evans is your gentleman from the Times, growling, irascible, the man with the impressive resume. Edited thousands of writers, the “complex thought processes” of such as Kissinger (mass murderers who consider themselves realistic, respectable, need complexity). Evans remembers typewriters and when “there was no meandering in cyberspace.” Evans does think the public is I mean seriously in trouble, confused. Someone is for health care but against the policy providing it. Induced bewilderment comes from the scuttling of credibility as a criteria altogether. Buzzfeed apparently has exposed important frauds amidst its attention-getting games.

Rachman does catch Favilla easily enough writing gibberish, gobbledygok. Citing Orwell’s irreplaceable “Politics and the English Language,” Rachman tells us Orwell was warning us against manipulative language, which Internet style is a new form of. What’s wrong with “It is what it is” or “whatever?”:  cynicism and passivity oozed together. Rachman says we must not hum loudly until the opposition has left the room. The better fairer writer will seem to take into account the other side of whatever it is. And there are still writers writing in the way Evans once did, especially for the better TV programming and films. Much of this writing is about TV and for fan communities lured by franchise-worlds of evolving film characters and story events.

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Susan Herbert’s Dietrich: Cool cat

What I liked about Christine Photinos in her “After Cliffs: The new Literature Study Guide and the Rhetoric of the Recap,” in Modern Language Studies: Beatrice, 47:2 (Winter 2018):64-73 (probably not available online or behind a wall of some sort) is Photinos explains the attitude of mind behind the Recap style and genre, the posturing wry or snark-filled blog. What these writers are doing is creating the experience of being a member of an “in-community.” The point of all the many allusions left unexplained to the latest meme, slang, fashionable shows and characters or actors is to pull the reader into a shared discourse where he or she will feel in a crowd where everyone knows everyone else, or assumes such easy contact.

To characterize that community’s discourse, Photinos close-reads their tones, terms, conventions, and she finds at core the idea that valuing the material at hand, taking seriously whatever judgements are going on, is dismissed. The stance of arch mockery implies indifference to what is being peddled; summing up what is presented as obviously and all the time a cliche and nothing more turns serious thought or protest into something futile and childish (“take that”), or non-existent, a pretense.

A very few examples out of many cited by Photinos: Silas Marner is basically dismissed in the phrase “Time for a Montage!” For War and Peace, we read “Prince Bolkonsky has him sitting with the family as some kind of lesson about all people being equal. Or something”. “Ma Joad throws a hissy fit” sums up a chapter in Grapes of Wrath. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof summary: “[We] discover Big Daddy has been sick, however, and that he and his wife, who is known as Big Mamma (we’re not making this up), have been … ” It’s a trivializing: “Get ready for some excitement: next, Thoreau describes how he planted and cultivated his bean-field. Wow” (Walden). Lots of “in” terms from film and media art (“cut,” “pan,” “close-up”) are part of a shorthand that performs a chiding of anyone for sensitive emotion. We are not supposed to lose control, never ask for or feel sympathy. “Blanche starts rambling maniacally” (Streetcar); “Chill out, Jimmy” (Lord Jim). Lots of reassuring hedge language (“kind of”). Much of this is dressed-up cliffnotes in burlesque.

We need to attend to this insulation of the reader from vulnerability.

Photinos says this is also a an assumed male-male discourse (references to “bro” abound) presented as gender free. The recap discourages commitment to the material, any sustained inquiry into the ideologies at play that “critical reading would call into question.” So there is a pretense of evaluation. Not all recaps or commentaries are like this but enough are. She includes a list of other articles on the new writing. I recommend the whole of this issue of Modern Language Notes. Beautiful illustrations of Dante and other Beatrices, and good poems scattered across the issue.

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Jennifer Howard brings up the important issue of pay: the gig economy underlying much of this content production “doesn’t pay the rent.”: Again for TLS, this time March 23, 2018, is a review of a book about online culture and practices: Houman Barkat, Robert Barry and David Warner, edd. The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (see many articles by her). Howard begins 15 years ago when she wrote for Book World, a stand-alone pull-out review section of the Washington Post,and admits that many of the litbloggers who replaced her kind have morphed into “familiar bylines with publishing deals to match their strong opinion.” In the early years of writing on the Net, an appealing worthy writer could become “known to people of power and influence” who opened doors for him, so he could skip jumping off from an MFA and slogging through different underling jobs.

But there is now “an spirally galaxy;” the old hierarchies have replicated themselves on the Net but a “snappy Twitter feed, a good pitch and some connections” can help a writer to progress to the head of the line. One problem is the demand for perpetual content: how can you provide seven good posts a day or even week? Superabundance accompanied by “quick takes” preclude genuine critical thinking. When Howard turns to writing as “pay-by-exposure,” (the payment you get is the exposure your writing attracts, she writes about writers without a steady income. Not all causes paid in the days of sheer newspapers, and still don’t. You will have to work your way up through lesser genres to the editing desktop.

Howard ends on an essay from Digital Connection where Will Self laments the loss of solitude, isolation, loneliness, and the time to compose “long-form” fiction and essays. People online are surrounded by endless input/output, making it “hard to have the quality time alone with writing as writing.” Howard’s last remarks remind me of what I used to say to students as writing teacher: “we write alone but to pursue a career as a writer you become a social animal.”

Writing I would say is a social act. So there is a deep contradiction between what goes into the act of writing and how it has to function in the worlds of others. I like her hope that “perhaps counter-intuitively, the ties enabled (by online interaction), social media, web-based publication have a reach or tenacity that match or exceed what came before.” You are after all easily in more contact.

One online writer, Esposito writes that “so many of my primary literary relationships occur primarily by screens,” and the contacts in his case have been “durable.” Still, there is the qualification,that “who pays and who reads remain open questions” (I think) much more for someone online than someone off.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader.


Cat circa 1904-8 by Gwen John (1876-1939) Purchased 1940 by the Tate

Ellen

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