From Reality to Digitality
The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, ed. Houman Barekat, Robert Barry, David Winters, OR Books, 2017 (Paperback)
Blind Spot, Teju Cole, Faber & Faber, July 2017, 352 pp., £20.00 (Hardback)
The first published use of the word ‘hypertext’ occurred in 1965, in a paper by the computer scientist and philosopher Ted Nelson. Significantly, this means that ‘hypertext’ predates the word ‘internet’ by around a decade, with Tim Berners-Lee’s coinage ‘world wide web’ lagging by a further fifteen years. Nelson was trying to theorize a kind of open-ended set of virtual ‘pages’ - a potentially infinite ‘book’, wherein individual words or phrases could open out towards other ‘hyperlinked’ pages. This should sound familiar: when the internet did arrive, it was indeed structured as a hypertext, at least on the user-friendly end. We might say, then, that from before it was a dream, let alone the ubiquitous and all-encompassing reality that it now is, the internet was being conceived of as a literary work – probably the most ambitious literary undertaking in history. And seen as a kind of book, it is hardly surprising that the internet has irrevocably altered our notions of literature, criticism, and publishing.
Comparisons between the internet and other major leaps in publishing culture (e.g., the invention of the Gutenberg press) have become commonplace, but they can only go so far. The internet is an advancement in printing, publishing, promoting, disseminating, and critiquing texts all at once, as well as the bringer of broader cultural changes still. It has altered the flow and distribution of information, the control over knowledge, the fixity of categories like ‘truth’ and ‘fact’. It has drastically affected both the quality and quantity of writing, and it has blurred to indistinction the line between writer and reader. To understand the present we can’t simply
look to the past here, but we need new ways of thinking about the net. It is in this context that Digital Criticism: Literary Culture Online is a greatly valuable and timely book. Across seventeen essays and through multiple perspectives it turns over the question of the internet’s role in modern literary practices, taking up topics as diverse as the proliferation of amateur reviewers and critics, the new economies of internet writing, the relative roles of academic and ‘para-academic’ criticism, and the impact of the net on traditional literary forms, including the novel and the long-form essay. It is a rich and multifarious overview of the written word online.
By ‘Literary Culture Online’ the book’s title mainly refers to the new (I hesitate to say ‘alternative’) structures of literary criticism supported by the internet, as they exist in relation to institutes from academia to social media. Many of the book’s contributors, as well as the book’s editors, are connected to this world, and the book itself is a product of an event hosted in 2015 by the editors of the online magazines Berfrois, 3: AM, and Review 31. For the most part, the writers are concerned with the way the traditional gatekeeper of the literary canon – the critic – has or has not been transposed from reality to digitality. Luke Neima, in his essay on ‘Fragmentation and Aggregation’, observes that ‘reviews and criticism in the traditional form are being supplemented, and to some extent supplanted, by endless streams of user-generated Amazon and Goodreads reviews’. A leading question here, then, is: what becomes of writing when anyone has the capacity to be reader, writer, critic, or all three? Answers are several.
For Neima, the ‘boundaries between these roles have dissolved’. For Jonathan Sturgeon, in his piece ‘Confessions of a 21st-Century Hack’, such a dissolution explains the fast-paced world of the ‘daily literary critic’ – the writer of clickbait articles, listicles, and the (very) occasional piece of real literary merit. For Michael Bhaskar, the ease of writing and publishing online has led to a ‘textual superabundance’, one that requires the reinstatement of the critic and his or her ‘acts of management, of filtering, and of positioning’ to cut it down to size. And Laura Waddell, in ‘Digital Currency’, is concerned with the way the explosion of ‘usergenerated content and data-driven personal profiles’ is affecting writing as
a professional, paid activity. In an age of literary overabundance, it seems words no longer hold the value that they once might have.
Whilst the plural perspectives in this book amount to a broad picture of online literary culture, it is pleasing that there are also, in some areas, more questions generated than answers. One of these is the nature of criticism itself. Do Amazon reviews and GoodRead recommendations count as criticism, or is criticism (as Bhaskar suggests) the thing that saves us from drowning in a sea of inexpert opinions? Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between professional and amateur critic. But even in the professional sphere, ‘criticism’ is an overloaded term. Bhaskar’s main example of a useful act of gatekeeping that is at risk in digital culture is traditional publishing, as a ‘profound form of literary criticism’: ‘by the time critics of any kind get to work, it has already been critiqued: by the publisher’. The critic is also Sturgeon’s ‘literary hack’, the ‘cultural curator’ in the age of social networks (as Anna Kiernan puts its, in her essay discussing publishing’s ‘ability to produce beautiful material objects’), or, as in Ellen Jones’s superb and optimistic essay ‘Digital Palimpsesting’, the critic is composer and editor of new literary translations online, ones that are accessible to those with only one language. And that’s without mentioning the plurality of essays that deal with academia and academic criticism, from a contribution on teaching creative writing (and reading) in the digital age from the novelist Will Self, to Marc Farrant’s discussion of contemporary critical theory online. In a piece on ‘topical criticism’, Louis Bury even includes the content of some tweets –‘hot takes’ and the like – as critical acts, of a kind. The Digital Critic is thus useful in thinking about the nature of criticism in the digital world, but also about the vast and varying nature of ‘criticism’ in general.
Bury’s inclusion of tweets as a kind of criticism lies at the heart of a question, in the book, over academia’s relevance in the new digital age. Bury contrasts the ‘temporal horizons’ of academic and online criticism as, respectfully, reflective and reactive modes of writing and thinking. However, Bury’s tone clearly indicates which he prefers, as he sets off ‘the timely provocations of the quick take’ against ‘the lumbering didacticism’
that is ‘the scholarly ideal’. This kind of characterisation of the academy, as out of step with the pace of the digital world, isn’t unique to Bury’s essay – which is strange, given that around half of the contributing writers to this book have academic affiliations. Marc Farrant even quotes the philosopher Graham Harman, who suggests that the reason academia doesn’t like the (largely online) culture of ‘speculative realism’ is that such web-based activities threaten traditional academic structures. An alternative, and often-quoted, view can be found in the one-time speculative realist Ray Brassier: ‘I see little philosophical merit in a “movement” whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity’.
Academia-bashing is a popular sport, and one that is quite easy to play, but that in itself doesn’t devalue academic scholarship. Harman is probably wrong that the academy feels threatened by theory online, and many ‘traditional’ scholars are increasingly embracing blogs, Twitter, and other online media. Nor does academia desire to be reactive, or to provide quick takes. Better on this subject is Lauren Elkin’s essay, ‘The Digital Critic as Public Critic’, which discusses the implications that open-source, online publishing might have for academia and the wider public – ‘to open the door to ivory tower’. ‘Para-academia’, in Elkin’s analysis, is not set up as a rival to the slow-burn approach of the academy, but as its complement – as a bridge in communication between professional researchers and nonspecialist readers. Indeed, the book in general puts forward an excellent argument for the continued existence of publications like the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review ‘Daily’, Cabinet, and others, which cater for academic writers who want a wider audience for their work and the inquiring readers who seek such writing, whilst avoiding pay-walls or bombardments of advertising.
That last point, about the online writing as a commercial activity, is a crucial one, and it is at the centre of both Elkin’s essay as well as one by Sara Veale, entitled ‘Economics, Exposure, and Ethics in the Digital Age’. Veale asks if it is enough for a writer to expect to be paid in clicks and followers rather than cold hard cash within these new structures of publishing. But in my view the best essay in this volume, Robert Barry’s ‘A Media of One’s
Own’, ties together the concepts of gatekeeping, online mediation, and commercialism. Barry begins with a line from an interview he conducted with Sonic Youth vocalist Thurston Moore, on internet culture: ‘You have your own media now.’ The claim – that the internet is a democratizing force that has removed the gatekeepers who stood between artists and the public – is implied elsewhere in The Digital Critic, notably in Scott Esposito’s essay on literary blogging and ‘the immediacy and brevity imposed by social media’. We should perhaps be suspicious of claims towards any ‘immediate media’, and Barry’s essay expertly picks apart the illusion of the net as a brave new world for artists and writers.
For Barry, we’re not the ones in control of what we post on the net, whether on blogs, social media, magazines, or elsewhere. Rather, all of this ‘content’ is the direct property of a complex and barely visible network of ‘Internet service providers, web hosting providers, domain name registrars, search engines and search engine optimization companies, recommendation algorithms, ad servers, content discovery platforms, online identity managers, and social networks’. Barry concludes that ‘the web quickly turns out to have produced an overwhelming profusion of new kinds of gatekeepers’, and that these new replacements for publishers and critics are tech firms and marketing departments. He ends his essay by returning to the phrase ‘everyone’s a critic’, a recurrent idiom in The Digital Critic: ‘For now, criticism as a compulsory activity carried out by all people equally is inextricable from the circuits of consumption and exchange. Online, everyone is a critic – but only insofar as everyone is also a consumer’. These are the words which, for me, echoed most loudly after reading this searching and insightful collection.
The first sentence in The Digital Critic is a quotation by the Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole: ‘I believe in life online the way a person in 1910 might believe in aviation, or a person in 1455 might believe in moveable type: with excitement and apprehension’. The book’s editors find something of the same ‘enthusiasm inflected with skepticism’ in the works
they’ve brought together. Cole is an especially apt starting point for a book on online literary culture. More than most, he has embraced the digital, and his progressive use of social media as literary media might be compared to the artworks David Hockney creates on his iPad. Cole has used Twitter and Instagram as tools for telling tales and writing essays, from his seven-tweet series ‘White Saviour Industrial Complex’, to the short story ‘Hafiz’. The latter was composed in 35 chunks of text and disseminated via the Twitter accounts of Cole’s friends and other writers; when Cole in turn retweeted each fragment, the result was an appearance of narrative structure and order materializing out of the maelstrom of text that is the internet.
However, Cole’s latest book-length project appears at first to be a pronounced departure from online literary culture. Blind Spot is a collection of around 160 photographs taken by Cole during his extensive travels around the globe, with a loose emphasis on blindness. As can be gradually gleaned through the snatches of text that accompany each image, Cole himself briefly and unexpectedly lost sight in one eye in 2011. Stemming from this, the images in the book frequently involve covered or masked objects, or else shadows and obscurity: a painting in Berlin can’t fully be seen past the reflective sheen of its surface; a building in Queens stands wrapped in cloth like a work by Christo; a series of figures elsewhere in New York are seen only from behind, their faces out of view. Other images try to refocus our gaze on everyday, familiar sights, as if with the return of departed vision: curtain runners in Zürich recall a ‘faraway wave seen from the deck of the ship’; a ladder leaning against a wall in Fort Worth, Texas, becomes ‘a shadow and its ladder crossing each other on the way to heaven’. The photos, it should be said, are not always beautiful, nor artfully framed, but that’s not the book’s goal – as Siri Hustvedt points out in her illuminating foreword to the work, ‘the photographs in this book have little to do with the glossy and gorgeous scenic images that weigh down coffee tables all over the world. They are not idealized “art” photos either’. Instead, Hustvedt finds, Cole’s book is an exercise in philosophical phenomenology: in the activities of seeing the world and being in the world.
The closer you read Blind Spot, the more that continuities between Cole’s
online projects and this photographic series begin to develop. For there are connections between the individual images in the book, and reading it cover to cover rewards you with an essayistic narrative concerning the nature of images and image-making. Sometimes an image will directly respond to one which precedes it, through a discussion in the accompanying text or as a silent visual reverberation. Water damage on a wall in Syracuse resembles paint on a glass door in Rhinecliff, NY. An image of a boy taken in Brazzaville is developed in such a way that ‘his eyes disappear’, part of the book’s meditation on blindness. However, the exact same image is repeated on the last page of the book, and this time the boy’s eyes are visible, and clearly fixed on the gaze of the camera lens: ‘all of a sudden’, Cole writes, ‘with slightly altered settings, I could now see his face, his eyes. Darkness is not empty’.
The cumulative effect here is a little like one of John Berger’s ‘pictorial essays’ – where a series of images is presented as a form of argument – and the spirit of Berger’s Ways of Seeing is in abundance. There’s a creeping awareness that Cole’s book weaves a meaningful narrative out of disparate images of the world and its inhabitants, in the way that ‘Hafiz’ takes ostensibly random (though actually pre-arranged) units of text and allows them to cohere within a social media timeline. We are reading the world as a hypertext, one whose links sit quietly, and do not call immediate attention to themselves. Cole’s narrative arises somewhere in the intersection between image, text, writer, and reader, as the world that, to paraphrase the poet Wordsworth, our eyes half create as well as perceive.
It is not, though, this Tweet-like structure that best connects Blind Spot to the essays and arguments of The Digital Critic. To compare the two might seem a stretch, given that Cole never talks about digital culture or screen time in his book. But that is precisely the point of the comparison. Hustvedt’s foreword draws our attention both to the sparsity of Cole’s prose, as well as to the use he makes of absences in his images in shadows cast by objects unseen, and allusions to artistic works without explicit reference. She suggests that if ‘one doesn’t take the time to uncover what lies in, between, and beyond the words and pictures’ in Blind Spot, ‘one will