From Re­al­ity to Dig­i­tal­ity

The London Magazine - - CHRIS TOWNSEND - Chris Townsend

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

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