English 248-002: Literature and Contemporary Life
December 2, 2013
Here we are, folks. The home stretch of the semester. This week, we will tackle the final reading of the class. John Barth and Kenneth Goldsmith stage a debate about how literature should respond to the condition of information overload. Barth (writing in 1967) calls this condition "exhaustion" or "ultimacy," and it's the defining sensibility of postmodernism. Goldsmith also describes the sense of exhaustion that comes with postmodernism, but for him (writing in 2011) the feeling is inescapable now that we're confronting "the Web's blizzard of language" (CR 216). These two authors will disagree sharply about what the next phase of literary expression should look like, and we might say their attitudes define the differences between two generations of writers, or maybe between literature 1.0 and 2.0.
Looking ahead, a 2-page (minimum) draft of your final paper is due in class (hard copy form, two copies, stapled) on December 10.
Finally, here is the Goldsmith page [.pdf file] that is missing from the course reader. Not sure how that happened, but it's an important page!
The internet is made of cats.
November 19, 2013
For all of time (well, since 1993 or so), cats have held a special place in the internet's heart. From Nyan cat to LOLcats like those mentioned in Clay Shirky's presentation, the aloof, playful, easily distracted nature of cats is a fitting mascot for devout internet users. We begin the third and final unit of the course by discussing the history of the internet and the personal computer (Hal Abelson and Neil Postman) and then exploring a particular theme in internet culture: the notion of a gift economy (Bruce Sterling and Shirky). Out of everything we could study in the huge galaxy of internet culture, looking at how and why people make and share things on the internet is important for literary studies. If LOLcats count as legitimate cultural production (rather than a waste of time), what does that mean for the institution of literature (which people like Nick Carr and Neil Postman seem eager to protect/defend)? What does this say about the blurring of high and low culture (or is that distinction even relevant)?
Response 9 is due on Thursday this week.
November 14, 2013
In her poem "Opus Seed Iris Omega", Ashley Opheim writes:
I have abandoned billions of pixels of myself.Opheim verbs the world wide web as a site of writing and also a process of digital fragmentation. In many ways, the act of writing becomes the act of using the internet, as we will see with Opheim and Janet Holmes. No clear line exists between their activity online and their activity as "serious" writers of literature. They draw on the internet as a source, but as a questionable source: Opheim's identity is "pixelated" and scattered across the web; in her poem, that condition is not necessarily a productive one. We might also read Holmes as critical of "life online," where face-to-face interaction is not only unnecessary but also unwanted. By "critical" here, I mean these poets want awareness from their readers. The bring the medium of the internet to the surface so that we might recognize its function in our social lives. I'll be curious to hear how you like Spahr. 9/11 might be a fuzzy memory for some of you, so be attuned to how her many mentions of current events accrue as you read, building up in your head, especially in the poems with dates.
Entire galaxies of pixels.
I am tripping on pixelated wind peace now.
Disorder: can't live with it, can't live without it
October 17, 2013
Now that we are more than halfway through the course (!), we turn our attention to the mid- to late-19th century: World War II, the rise of digital computers, and the emergence of "information" as an obsession, a measurable unit, and a word that defined an era. In different ways, Vannevar Bush, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo tap into the experience of having too much to know, too much to perceive, and too much to process. This general sense of malaise has been linked with post-World War II stress, the prolonged crisis of the Cold War, and postmodernism in general. We'll touch on these themes in class, both in discussions of historical context and the readings themselves.
You'll have Response 6 due on 10/22 and Response 7 due on 10/31. If you missed class on 10/17, I provided some context for the birth of computing in the late-18th and early- to mid-19th centuries. Here are the images from this overview.
Seeing things differently
October 1, 2013
In his introduction to Gertrude Stein's writing, Carl van Vechten (her advocate and close friend) writes:
If Picasso is applauded for painting pictures which do not represent anything hitherto seen, . . . why should an employer of English words be required to form sentences which are familiar in meaning, shape, and sound to any casual reader? (xxi-xxii)
Put this together with Walter Benjamin's observation of abrupt and sweeping technological change, and you've got a pretty good understanding of modernism. This movement began in the arts around 1900, when there was a feeling of discontent with traditions of realistic representation. Rather than try to depict things in a pure or completed ideal form, one tenet of modernism was to draw attention to processes of cognition, creation, and perception. Thus, you'll see Stein begin again. And again. And repeat again. And again. Just as Picasso wanted to show his viewers a new and shocking kind of reality, Stein strives to capture the way we come to know things and people gradually. The most accurate portrait would not show a person sitting still, since that is not how we come to know people, nor is that how people move through life. The most accurate portrait would express the whole person unfolding imperfectly and continuously.
If you missed it, here is the review sheet for the midterm.
Image from PBS.org
Putting the phony in telephony
September 25, 2013
The readings for 9/26 and 10/1 are focused on telephones and telephone-like technology. We already saw that it was difficult for people in the 1850s to wrap their heads around the telegraph because (for one thing) it separated the message from the paper. This was totally new and required a "mental readjustment" (Gleick 150). Think of the man who went to send a message, and after watching the telegraph operator tap out the message, the customer "complained that the message had not been sent, because he could still see it hanging on the hook" (150). The disembodied voice coming out of a telephone receiver was equally jarring. The texts we're reading for 9/26 play with the "creepy" side of telephones, while E.M. Forster's story for 10/1 imagines an extremely alienating form of futuristic long-distance talking. Some of the characters suffer from "overload" of phone-related symptoms, while others nurse paranoia about not having enough information.
Handouts from these class periods:
Photo by Flickr user moylek
Schedule change and class today
September 19, 2013
I am making a change to the reading schedule and cutting Whitman's 1855 preface. So, you do not need to read this for Tuesday 9/24. Though, if you want to peruse it, it's a rewarding essay that you might find enjoyable. For the next class period, please be sure to read "A Song for Occupations" and get caught up on any reading you missed over the last week.
Also, here is the link to the Google doc we'll be working on today in class.
In case you missed it (or should I say ICYMI? Morse code joke...), here are the notes from the mini review I did in class on Tuesday, September 17.
"a certain free margin"
September 17, 2013
In Specimen Days, Walt Whitman writes:
You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness--perhaps ignorance, credulity--helps your enjoyment of these things. [...] I repeat it--don't want to know too exactly, or the reasons why. (112, CR pg. 50)Again and again, you'll notice Whitman scorns printed matter and the kind of knowledge learned in churches and lecture halls. He praises the "kosmos" of identity and pursues the "endless discovery of inner otherness," as Michael Warner writes (xxxii). Whitman sometimes seems like his own printing press, churning out an "encyclopedia of myself."
Whitman's affirmation of unfiltered experience and "mere existence," no matter how lowly and trite, can lead to the feeling of sensory overload on the part of the reader. But recall the above passage from Specimen Days. The "free margin" is like a breath of air or a clearing that comes from a lack, not an overload, of knowledge. This conclusion has big implications for the texts and concepts we've been dealing with so far in class. Whitman is the first author we've encountered who suggests that knowledge is detrimental when it comes from technologies of mass reproduction. Whitman does discover knowledge, but it's a different kind that contradictorily resembles vagueness more than facts.
Also be sure to scrutinize the word "self" and "I" as you read. The "My" in "Song of Myself" is not the "My" of MySpace. (If you forgot about MySpace, look out because Justin Timberlake is bringing it back as mentioned in class on Tuesday.)
I will be scoring responses no later than Friday. I am a little behind on my original goal because of some travel this past weekend. You don't have any writing due this week. Response 3 is due on Tuesday 9/24. Also here are the notes from the mini review I did in class on Tuesday, September 17.
The printing press as problem and solution
September 10, 2013
Our readings this week suggest that the book, both as a manuscript and a printed text, supported a whole new array of information management techniques and tools. But this revolutionary technology also created feelings of overload for readers and scholars living during this time period. The dual identity of any new technology -- it fixes some things and breaks other things -- comes up in Clay Shirky's presentation and in Victor Hugo's chapter. Any major new technology is both a problem and a solution. Spending a little time with the historical context of print culture will prepare us to read Whitman in week 3 through the lens of information overload. This historical work will also set us up for what's to come later in the course and help us to see technological developments as anything but inevitable and natural.
Your second response is due on Thursday this week. I graded Response 1 and emailed comments to you.
Update: Office hours on Thursday 9/12 will be from 11:15-12:15 instead of 2-3pm.
A tale of two networks
September 5, 2013
In class today, we'll try to better understand the arguments that Nick Carr and David Weinberger lay out. We'll cover how the authors view the current moment and the future of knowledge, and we'll complicate their perspectives. Paperclips are involved.
If you're wondering how these two guys fit into a literature course, today's class should clarify that. However, if you still wonder, try substituting "authors" or "creative writers" when Carr uses the word "we." Here is an example:
These functions are, not coincidentally, very similar to the ones performed by computers, which are programmed for the high-speed transfer of data in and out of memory. Once again,
weauthors seem to be taking on the characteristics of a popular new intellectual technology. (Carr 142)
For our next class, you'll be reading about medieval (ca. 1100-1450) and early modern (ca. 1450-1750) information management tools and watching an entertaining presentation by contemporary media scholar Clay Shirky. Ann Blair and Shirky aren't an agree/disagree pairing. Even though the subject matter and methodology of each is very different, they complement each other in ways that will be productive for us. Also, please complete your review of the content filtering website I assigned to you today, 9/5. If you missed class, just pick one of the websites on the schedule for 9/10 and follow the bullet-pointed instructions.
FYI here is a link to the Prezi from Tuesday 9/3, in which I gave an overview of the course.
September 3, 2013
Literature and information. These might be really strange terms to put together. Information is practical, like data, statistics, facts, details. When we experience TMI, we've gotten too much of this stuff. But literature isn't "data," right? And it's not always communicating facts. Is literature even communicating anything? Or is it expressing? Singing? Recording? Repeating? These questions will keep resurfacing as we explore:
- Literature as engagement with themes of information overload (IO)
- Literature as a response to the feeling of IO
- Literature as a shelter from IO
- Literature as IO
These will rarely be distinct categories, and we'll work with that overlap to talk about how some texts are hazarding more than one effect or project at once. In today's class, we'll review the syllabus and take a broad look at the scope of the course. I'll hack through a micro-history of information overload and explain how the readings on the syllabus are scaffolded. Response 1 is due before the beginning of our next class period. You will need the course reader to complete this assignment.