josebamorenoblog

Un blog divulgativo

Mes: noviembre, 2013

We are finally admitting that the reading and writing practices of our students are changing substantially, and also that the new models of literacy are not just an aberration but are gradually turning into the norm. As a matter of fact, the book is irremediably being displaced by the digital media as the main vehicle for the written word. Thus, more than ever, it seems more and more ridiculous to deny the incipient future of a digital formatted academia.

If art colleges’ faculty remain static, they’ll only get to increase the already existing gap between paper based and digital based cultures. Consequently, and honoring the —presupposed— open mindness of the humanities, we should start taking digital text and digital culture more seriously; because not admitting its validity is no longer an option, a choice or a personal stand. One of the main reasons being that screen text has become the main, if not the only, textual media for a great deal of students. And, leaving aside any kind of servilism, we need to  arrive to an agreement with the student body to try to avoid a conflict that renders any deeper understanding between the two parts impossible.

Katherine Hayles (How we think, 2012), pays special attention to the different modes of reading among students these days —deep reading on one side, hyper reading on another. On one hand, she acknowledges the important loss in the transition from one mode to another. On the other hand, she is completely aware that there is no way back, and points out the benefits of hyper reading and the possible benefits deriving from the hybridization of both practices.

The downside of hyper reading appears to be obvious after a brief analysis: flooded by data, hyperlinks and stimuli, the attention span decreases, leaving students only able to focus on a text for reduced amounts of time and having their understanding impoverished due to the over ambitious desire to know quickly and easily. The benefits seem less powerful, but we are not yet fully aware of them: students are able to skim through information quickly and they tend to find the data they need faster.

Apparently, we are experiencing the disease of extreme wealth, the indecision and  the overwhelm of an unlimited an non linear powerful medium.

Well, having reached this point, the obvious solution is to combine both mentalities and to try to change the new reading for the good instead of defending the old regime and offering a sometimes rather passionate and impulsive resistance to hyper reading. What should we get from each mode then? or maybe, What can we save from deep reading that can improve the new literacy?

Among all the things we need to save, merge and promote, there is one that affects the core of hyper reading: selectiveness of materials. One of the biggest problems of the hypertext is the abundance of contents, binging info can collapse our brains and make it very hard for us to grasp and to comprehend any of the materials read.

Critical thinking starts at a very basic level when we speak of web content. Internet is not like TV, we have to actively choose what we see —a cold medium in terms of Marshall Macluhan— which gives this medium way more possibilities of contrasting and offering more choices to adapt to our informative needs.

However, the internet is also full of useless and even pernicious and false information. Therefore, teaching students how to select and manage information critically, should be the main worry for teachers and potential docents.

Unsurprisingly, I cannot avoid connecting Hayles’ comment to the actual social status of digital culture and its day to day usage implications. If we applied the same selective attitude that we use for selecting recipes or news online to digital cultural objects, we would be contributing to the proper curation of online materials by discriminating the useful and valuable knowledge from the not contrasted and careless information than the miracle of the web allows. And only if the users adopt a critical attitude towards cultural objects and regulate the contents in a popular way, we will be able to claim the real democracy of the internet.

It was only after two semesters of graduate school when I started to develop a personal approach to writing my papers, my imprint became very clear after only four research papers were produced. It was also then, when the hurly burly started and I encountered one of those people with an individual office and a salary four times mine. Apparently, my approach was boring and old-fashioned, not original. It really sounds stupid and pretty silly, but I even had to deal with some sarcasm and mockery when I was told “go ahead, and good luck trying to present a paper on the intricacies  of the narrative instance.” I do not really want to give too many details on the topic of the paper, but I can tell you it was a highly formalist approach.

When I took my first literary theory class around 11 years ago, I remember being stunned by the ideas of the Russian Formalists, I was so innocent that I even had to be told what form was. Jakobson, Skhlovsky, Warren and Wellek, they were my inspiration for a long time. However, I soon realized their deficiencies, which did not keep me from  loving them.

When I came to graduate school, I started to discover deconstruction, gender theory, structuralism, and my universe broadened way too much. I was not able to understand how there could be such a contradiction between followers of different approaches if, after all, each of them is flawed, skewed and opportunistic —in the sense that we all distort images and manipulate concepts in order to make them fit better within our ideas. Nevertheless, I started to become familiar with more quantitative approaches to literature and to other humanistic disciplines. I had my doubts about such a “cold” method, but I understood that we actually needed to cool down a little bit, so that being impersonal was ok; and finally I started to look at this approach as I  look at gender studies and deconstruction: it was a genre.

That’s why I found Moretti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees interesting. In the graphs section, Franco Moretti studies the evolution of genres in history, their birth and their decay, and he provides some indicators to identify these movements that seem to be cyclical: they are the middle distance, placed in between the ‘event’ (the individual case) and the ‘longue durée’ (the historic long span form the annals school). Therefore, these cycles “constitute temporary structures within the historical flow¨ (14).

If we apply the definition to our own case, it is not difficult to parallel literary genres with literary criticism genres. And even more, if we believe in these historical cycles, we can easily claim that the Formalists are trendy again, simply because their ideas fit better in the newer realm of DH and quantitative studies. Moretti points to Skhlovsky and his theory of the rising new genres, based on the obsolete”artistic usefulness” of previous genres: “because as long as a hegemonic form has not lost its ‘artistic usefulness’ there is not much that a rival form can do: there can always be an exceptional text, yes, but the exception will not change the system”(17).

Although Moretti states that this is not enough of a reason to explain the whole process, I would like to explain what came to my mind concerning gender studies, theory and digital humanities. In the first place, critical theory, as a genre of the literary studies always seem to lack a down to earth approach, what they do is   fancy and they sound even fancier; I actually do like them, they practice a sort of spiritualism that really fits literature and its characteristics. However, they were proved more of an obscure discourse and a scholarly trend after Alan Sokal’s quasi artistic contribution to Social Text Journal, in which he pretty much denied the existence of a singular real world outside the individuals. That is totally a “monstrosity,” as Moretti calls these productions of older genres (17).

The case of gender studies is also similar. Although the need to explore literature and art in the way women or queer studies did, they have a very finite source of inspiration, which is the human body. For this purpose we can look back to the  80’s and 90’s and see how the artists had a strong focus on sex, and the social roots of genders. This is all true and relevant, useful for younger generations, but it may seem a little accessory to emphasize these views too much, given the actual social panorama of material scarcity.

As of today, the world is involved in a serious material crisis, in which we are seeing social wealth being threatened by the unmeasurable desire for maximizing profits and speeding up production processes that a small privileged social sector is imposing. This is the reason why, in my opinion, the measurements, quantities and maps pose one of the most appealing contribution to the academic scene. The general public and also the specific audiences are demanding a more concrete down to earth discourse, and we cannot ignore or disregard the disconnection that  exists between humanists and humans. And that was  just a personal opinion, but  the universities are hiring professors who can offer courses on digital competency and who have ongoing  material projects; and that is not me, it is the numbers talking.

The middleman

482px-Baldassare_Castiglione,_by_Raffaello_Sanzio,_from_C2RMF_retouched

One of the most important concepts that we find in Software Takes Command  (2013) is that of ‘media’ -medium, maybe? However, after a good deal of the reading being done, the term ‘media’ starts losing some of its meaning. That’s why it might be of extreme convinience to stop and reflect briefly about the pressence and meaning of this key element of our cultural production and social organization.

Personally, I understand the idea of ‘media’ or ‘software media’ in the most material sense. When it comes to think about the two ends relation that we establish -as humans- with a source of information, it is impossible not consider the effects that the intermediary is going to have in our understanding and comprehension. Manovich clearly directs his attention towards the influence that software has on our understanding of the digital, and as he is going to point out, the software medium is not a simple channel with no influence on the content. Nevertheless, software presents to ourselves as  high content bearing media -what we could rephrase in MacLuhan’s terms saying that the “medium is the message.”

In fact, the influence that software has over the process of creating  information seems to overpower the influence attributed to the digital environment. The main difference that we could find if we were to compare the two “media” -and the use of this term is prone to become abusive and meaningless- is that software is some sort of comsuption media, while the digital is what could be consider storage media. If we stick to these ad hoc definitions, the distinctions become clearer: the digital environment constrains the types of information, while the software influence is going to be more focused on the way of arranging and consuming that digitally  stored information.

Personally, I would place Manovich’s reflection on the broader discussion about the effects and influence that the mere idea of mediation has brought to modern society. To have a clearer idea, we could include other concepts such as the narrator in literature, the middleman and money in business or the courtisan code in society. Those instances of intermediation are elements which have drastically shaped the modern world.

The narrator, the unreliable one, of course, is one of the main facilitators of the literary discourse. Without his skewed perception, the story would be reduced to a series of happenings, not necessarily interesting and meaningful. If the properties of the digital are defined by the particularities of the software, the properties of the literary come to definition by the particularites of a given narration. A variation on this intermediary role, but one that serves to the ilustration of my point, can be found on a early modern Spanish play called “La Celestina.” In this work, more of a dialogued novel than an actual play, we can see how the information is totally mediated by the matchmaker character, whose mission is to get as many benefits as possible from her love business. The most striking feature of this work is that we do not have a stated narrative instance, there is no third person narrator. However, it is not hard to demonstrate that the character of the old Celestina is a sort of  narrator. The greedy woman is a mediator in every sense, she meddles between the lovers, interpreting and manipulating the information, phrasing it on her own terms, and then she mediates between the actions displayed and the reader, reinterpreting the happenings for us in monologues scattered throughout the text. As a software, she incorporates an specific language for an specific environment with specific constrains. I honestly believe that we inhabit a highly mediated space in general, and the beginning of this mediation or codification has been brought by what I consider two of the most important elements in the consolidation of our actual practices and behaviour: the apparition of money and the codification of the european courtisans during the renaissance. If we think about it, the latter appears to be a mediation at a very basic level, one that pertains the person itself and the human mind and body when cultural transmission was highly oral and personal. So maybe, in the same manner than Davis began his Universal Computer dating back to Leibniz, we could consider the idea of wirting a history of media, and starting with a chapter on Castglione’s The Book of the Courtisan.