Rather than an extension of our old texts of granite, solid and unwavering, what we have gained, through new media, is a 'book of sand.' As in the Jorge Luis Borges story, it is now impossible to find the first or last page, or to return to a page one has found before. Or, at least, to be sure it is exactly the page we saw before. Text has lost its solidity, textual scholarship its underpinning. You may think I'm stretching the analogy, but think again—by the time you do, the world will be different. And text will be different, too.
Not that text, even in pre-Internet days, was ever as stable as we like to imagine. The 'urtext' was always something of a chimera, at best. Today, not only is it illusory, but it may well have been shown to be irrelevant. Remember the 'intentional fallacy'? Maybe that will soon be married to a 'textual fallacy,' a belief that text itself has an unchanging aspect to its identity. If “author” once seemed to fade in significance, so may “text,” as we have long understood it, also fade and then reconfigure.
Be that as it may, even deciding on the primacy of a particular text has always been difficult. The science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick authored a short story, “The Unteleported Man,” that appeared in 1964. A longer version became as a book in 1966. In 1983, an “uncensored” version came out—after the death of the author. A fourth version, called Lies, Inc., was published the next year. Which to focus on? The question was relatively or comparatively simple, pre-Internet. Today, for new-media era texts, it can be a monster.
Not only is Dick’s book rather unstable, but it contains in it a most peculiar fictional book. Freya Holm, on being handed it, “at once she turned to the index and sought out her own name. Two citations in the first part of the book; three later on” (168). A couple of lines later, one of the people who had given her the book says, “'Better get the book back from her again... I still think she's reading too damn much” (169). That's from the later version of The Unteleported Man. In Lies, Inc., another character also consults the index—or, as we would do today, Googles himself: “After the entry Ferry, Theodoric, he found virtually unending citations” (182). After reading a bit, “'Listen,' he said severely…, 'my private life is my own business; there's no valid reason in the galaxy why my doings should be listed here.' I ought to bust this outfit, he decided. Whoever these people are who put together this miserable book. Eighteenth edition? Good lord” (183). The book is up-to-date and constantly changing. Like Borges' 'book of sand,' it may be a more accurate vision of what a text is today than just about anything else we have—even in new media. Not surprising, the book's title claims it as “True and Complete.” It is this ‘truth’ that we grapple with today. To succeed in our struggle, we are beginning to understand that we have to develop a vision of text different from that which grew, post-Gutenberg.
In 1971, as a young man at loose ends, I contracted to print a small book for a literary magazine. I had access to an old Chandler and Price clamshell press, sufficient type fonts, and a saddle-stitching device—and knew how to use them. All I needed was ink and paper, readily available.
The process wasn't simple. I had spent years learning and practicing typesetting—taking each single letter from a job case, transferring it to a composing stick, filling in the line, justifying it with variable spacing for the necessary consistent tightness, inserting a line spacer, and then starting on the next. When each page was completed, I ran proofs using a small flat-bed press specific to that purpose. Changes were made, lines re-justified, and a new proof produced. When the proof-reader was satisfied, I locked two completed pages into a chase specific to the press using variously sized wood blocks and tightening quoins. Once again, a proof was made—this time (generally) for the editor (even the author) and not just my composing room proof-reader, for this was the last chance for change before production of the product.
Next, the chase went onto the press. After adjustments made using pins to insure that the placement of the ink on the page would be correct, I took an initial impression to determine if the type was hitting the paper evenly and with the requisite pressure. Adjusting this was a tedious and time-consuming process. Not only did it involve the look of the final product, but its consistency. If pressure was uneven, the type wore at differing rates, changing the look of the page later in the run. Printers want to keep wear to a minimum anyhow, for the fonts need to be protected for re-use.
On a press such as the one I was using, the actual 'run' takes much less time than composing, especially for an experienced pressman. Decades after my last print job, I can still feel the motion of paper to platen to product and could probably still feed a Chandler & Price 10x15 press at a reasonably high speed without injury—a key component, by the way, for the press is unyielding and can easily destroy the fingers and hands of the careless or unwary.
Once this process is repeated for every two pages of the book (running each sheet through twice, for front and back, each representing four pages to the reader), the pages and cover are collated and run through the saddle stitcher for stapling and a paper cutter for trimming. Only then is an actual finished copy available—anything done before is nothing more than a mock-up, a vision of what the actual book is supposed to be.
It is important, today, to understand the complexity and finality of this process of the past if we are going to comprehend the attitude towards that printed text that grew in European culture from the time of Gutenberg to the dawn of our own era, a shift from orality to literacy of profound impact. Making changes, clearly, was difficult, the process lengthy and expensive. Through this, the text, the product, was raised to a height unknown before and unequaled since. Necessary care in production had led to veneration of product. As Walter Ong writes:
The orality-to-literacy shift throws clear light on the meaning of New Criticism as a prime example of text-bound thinking. Writing, it will be remembered, has been called 'autonomous discourse' by contrast with oral uterance, which is never autonomous but always embedded in non-verbal existence. The New Critics have assimilated the verbal art work to the visual object-world of texts rather than to the oral-aural event-world. They have insisted that the poem or other literary work be regarded as an object, a 'verbal icon'. (157)
Structuralism and deconstruction, following on the heels of New Criticism, have retained the centrality of 'text.'
Though veneration of text does remain to some extent, the care in production that led to it is gone—or no longer necessary. When a 'press run' can be of one, when change can be made at the click of a mouse, when composition contains flexibilities unimagined even a generation ago, there's no longer reason to view the product as 'the final word.'
The cultural change in our attitudes towards 'text' this portends is tremendous. The central place of 'text' as 'thing' in literary theory, for example, will surely change, with 'text' no longer elevated to a level equal to (or above) author and audience.
Journalist and professor Jeff Jarvis explains why:
When something is published on a blog and distributed over the Internet, it’s not finished. That’s just the beginning of the process. When I write something on my blog, oftentimes somebody will come after me and say, “No, you’ve got it wrong.” And maybe they’re right that I do have it wrong, so they copy edit me, which I well need….
So the blogosphere offers a much speedier cycle of correction than traditional media do. That happens because the audience is so much more involved in creating, fact-checking, and improving the content than they are with newspapers. (282)
Poets have always hated handing their work to the printer, feeling it is then calcified. Though changes were possible and new, revised editions frequent, the poem remained, an artifact available to anyone caring to find it, carrying with it the authority that printed product had attained. Today, as our reliance on static, paper product continues to decline, the poem becomes both more plastic and more within control of the poet (and not the producer of printed product). Lack of a 'paper trail' significantly changes the way a poem is presented and even studied.
More significantly, new media technologies both increase and narrow possibilities for consideration of audience. As Ong, again, writes:
Unlike members of a primary oral culture, who are turned outward because they have had little occasion to turn inward, we are turned outward because we have turned inward. In a like vein, where primary orality promotes spontaneity because the analytic reflectiveness implemented by writing is unavailable, secondary orality promotes spontaneity because through analytic reflection we have decided spontaneity is a good thing. (134)
Spontaneity, as my recounting of one of the more extensive processes of printing should indicate, is not something we find when the orientation is towards text-as-independent-object. In a new-media context, however, a text has the flexibility to be tailored to individual communication and/or to be presented differently to a broader or alternate audience. And change can be immediate.
The revolution we are experiencing today point towards an entirely new type of literary criticism, one that does not view the work of art as product, as a final and finished (for the purposes of the criticism) artifact but, in some way or another, as process. Some new framework, whether those of us born before 1990 like it or not, will be adopted. Our job, as scholars of literature and language, will be to develop the new paradigm, a foundation useful to us in a milieu where the text, the rock we used to stand on, is proving to be nothing more than sand.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Book of Sand.” Trans. Norman Thomas Di Giovanni. The Book of Sand. New York: Dutton, 1975.
Dick, Philip. Lies, Inc. London: Granada, 1985.
-----. The Unteleported Man. New York: Berkley, 1983 (1966).
Jarvis, Jeff. Interview with David Kline and Dan Burstein. In Blog!: How the Newest Media Revolution Is Changing Politics, Business, and Culture, David Kline and Dan Burstein, ed. New York: CDS Books, 2005.
Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 2002 (1982).