Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Poetry has left the building. Have books gone too?

Ever since I've watched it this past Sunday afternoon, I’ve been thinking about Darren Wershler’s talk about modernist avant-guard poetry, Marshall McLuhan and Christian Bök's Xenotext Experiment. I keep coming back to Darren’s post-mortem of poetry and his description that poetry is currently on the same scale, in terms of economics and impact, with making doilies for the church rummage fair.

The situation has been a little more than century in the making and has everything to do with media theory. To cite Friedrich Kittler again, whose thinking on the subject is heavily indebted to both McLuhan and Innis, before the second half of the 19th century, literature, especially romantic poetry, had a monopoly on the delivery of vivid cultural experiences. That changed in the mid-19th century when virtually every form of electro-mechanical media reached a mass audience within a few decades. For Kittler, from the era of silent cinema onward, film establishes immediate connections between technology and the body, which make imaginary connections unnecessary. Film exhibits its figures in such detail that the realistic is raised into the realm of the fantastic which sucks up every theme of imaginative literature.

When you compare the cultural force of film to poetry... well there’s really no comparison anymore, is there?

Now, are we ready to make a similar comparison between books and YouTube, videogames, Facebook, and text messaging and the rest of the digital realm?

No matter how relevant u THINK ebooks & ipads are to the community, video games are even MORE important to them #hcod

Now there’s been lots of hand-wringing over the future of the book. Heck, at this point there is an entire genre of books dedicated to the death of the book out there. But I don’t think we in the world of 26 character combinations has really come to grips that it’s not just poetry that has left the building.

Look at your own Twitter, Facebook, RSS, and email inbox. Count the number of references to videos, blog posts, and online newspaper and magazine articles. Now count the references to passages of books.  I work in academia... hell, I work in a library.. and the former dwarfs the latter by an order of magnitude. Or two.

Unless we are able to read, store and share books effortlessly online, books will die.

That is, unless they are already dead.

Possibly related:

I've overhead university kids talk about Pokemon as if it was the lingua franca of their childhood.

I've played an ARG called Snow Town in which the readers of the story became characters within the story and in doing so, changed the story's outcome. This and the real-time unfolding and telling of its unfiction, made Snow Town much more engaging and enjoyable than the remaining texts belie.

TED Talks. The TED speaking series is probably the best example that I can point to as a form of cultural idea transmission that might have surpassed books in terms of impact. And speaking of which...

Immediately after I saw Darren’s talk, I decided to catch up on some TED Talks and, having two preschoolers in the in the house, decided to watch Deb Roy's Birth of a Word:

Most of the talk is dedicated to an absurdly ambitious project to capture, using digital video, every interaction and sound within Roy's house in order to understand how his newborn son learns to speak. How a child learns to speak is fascinating unto itself but then, near the end of the talk, there is a brief description of a related project that hit me like a hammer.

Using the same parsing technology used to analyze the information captured in his house, his lab team processed thousands of hours of TV footage along with thousands and thousands of comment streams (from sources such as Twitter, one assumes) and then looked for assocations between one and another.

(It's hard to explain the visualization. You should see it.)

Just a like a small child who learns to associate the sounds of ‘WAH-TER’ with the sight of water, it appears that we are becoming something larger than our individual selves and this something is learning to speak to itself about the images it sees.

And we are not talking about books.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm not so worried about this. Books have been out of the mainstream since before the internet. The mass public has long since converted to audiovisual works and short-form prose. Long-form prose will continue to be patronized by those seeking deeper insights. Jon Stewart, for example, still regularly interviews authors of actual books. In any case, the digital availability of books will happen. The publishing industry has their digitized texts all ready to go as soon as they see a legal and technical environment that they can live with. They got close with the Google Book Search settlement; it won't be too long before a solution is found.