Radiant Textuality

Jerome McGann’s book presents a refreshing perspective to the debate over digital vs. traditional modes of reading. He implores the humanities to break away from such questions as “will the computer replace the book?” and instead ask how these digital tools can “improve the ways we explore and explain aesthetic works”. I appreciate that he refuses to choose one camp or another, but rather pushes us to accept the reality of our current world—these machines exist and they aren’t going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon the traditional interpretative procedures that allow for the “human ambiguities and incommensurables” that we love about the humanities either.

I also appreciated McGann’s take on how our current moment relates to the history of criticism and textuality. While Flusser’s text often seemed to draw out the distance we have put between ourselves and traditional modes of writing, book-making, reading, etc., McGann is careful to remind us that though the technologies of our time may be new, this isn’t the first time new technologies have changed the way humans interact with texts. He points to the Arts and Crafts movement, the Renaissance of the Book, and even the rediscovered “grotesque” art of the Middle Ages as moments of similar panic about technology.

I found McGann’s stance on this issue to be especially poignant for challenging my initial mindset entering into this class. On the first day, Kathleen asked us to think about how we liked to read, and I felt myself to be very defensive of reading books in traditional forms. In reality, though, without access to the digital resources we now have access to through libraries, online journals, archives, etc., my scholarly journey would probably have been far more limited. Reading McGann has caused me to ask myself some deeper questions about my interactions with digital sources as a scholar in the humanities. How can I engage with digital texts and resources in a way other than simply to augment the traditional methods of research and reading I am already doing?

Semester Project Proposal

Scholarly work on the modernist period has long revolved around “the death of the book”—the notion from the period that the rise in technological advancement after the turn of the century (from the increased popularity and dissemination of photography and film, to the widespread use of telegraphs and phonographs, to the mass accessibility of automobiles and telephones), threatened literature and its cultural role as documenting moments in history. Among other scholars, John Lurz has suggested that this anxiety surfaces throughout modernist novels in scenes of reading, wherein texts emphasize their own “bookish embodiment” and exhibit an awareness of the temporal limits of textual materials. Martin Hagglund’s recent work posits that modernist writers such as Proust and Woolf seek to radicalize notions of temporality through the use of a nonlinear chronology in their narratives. In order to avoid the “death of the book,” Hagglund asserts that many modernist texts work to transcend the pursuit of “eternal timelessness” in favor of survival, marking time and history within their own stories in unique and nonnormative ways.

In my semester project, I will venture to situate these ideas about the temporality and materiality of modernist texts within the context of queer theory, anchoring modernist attempts to mark time through their materiality to the notion of queer time in an effort to track how the material nature of texts affects queer experience. How does the queer subject document their experience? How important is materiality to the “survival” of a queer history? How does the queer subject’s relationship to temporality through material texts construct new formations of modernity?

These are huge questions which will hopefully become more manageable and specific as I further explore this topic. I am interested in utilizing a text outside of the traditional canon of high modernism, and am currently thinking about Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. I’ll be examining other alternatives in the coming weeks, so if anyone has suggestions on novels from the modernist period that mark time and textuality in non-chronological or queer ways, please let me know!

Deciphering Flusser

Reading Flusser’s work directly after reading Pynchon really impacted my experience with Does Writing Have a Future? I couldn’t help but see echoes of The Crying of Lot 49 in Flusser’s sentiments. Flusser’s reliance on etymology brought to mind Pynchon’s temptation to the reader to engage in etymological investigations of his character’s names. On page 88, Flusser writes about letters as ciphers of a code, and even goes on to describe the inherent secrecy of the postal system on page 104. However, Pynchon especially came to mind in Flusser’s description of the different types of decipherers/readers on pages 89 through 92.

I moved through each of these types—the commentator, the obedient, and the critic—attempting to relate them back to our discussion of Pynchon and our modes of reading him. However, Pynchon somewhat disproves Flusser’s assertions. Flusser’s first type, the commentator, seems to be involved in meaning-making alongside the author as they “think with the writer to think through what has been thought, to lengthen the lines of the text to a conclusion” (90). When reading The Crying, the reader is not safe to comment because everything in the novel is elusive—as soon as we think we have grasped it, Pynchon pulls the rug out from under us. In fact, Pynchon seems to have formed the novel so that it could not be commented on with much sincerity, instead of being “made in the expectation of being completed” (89). The notion of an obedient reader is also challenged by Pynchon. The Crying seems to be working very much against the idea of writers as “authors and authorities,” and even if we wanted to obey any sort of model of conduct we perceive Pynchon to be upholding, the message of the text is so complex and unreliable that we could not safely enact obedience to it (90). Furthermore, Pynchon also seems to be pushing back against Flusser’s third reading type, the critic. While our skeptical reading of The Crying may have led us to believe “the writer is always a criminal because he always lies,” our attempts to read “against the lines, into him, into his context, into his unconscious” are ultimately mocked by Pynchon, who asserts no absolute truths and resists being condensed into any single ideology (91). We aren’t even sure Pynchon takes himself seriously in this novel, so how can we possibly perform a serious analysis of his politics/context/philosophy?

In light of this, I’m wondering how we can read Flusser in relation to Pynchon’s distinctly postmodern context. Do Flusser’s reader types genuinely understand the reader’s relationship to author and text in a postmodern context, or are they overly-prescriptive? Are Flusser and Pynchon asking some of the same questions and addressing some of the same concerns about the future of writing, language, reading, knowledge, etc.? Or does Flusser represent what Pynchon is parodying?

What is an “interface” anyway?

In light of our first class discussion and my (admittedly somewhat broad) understanding of the purview of this course, I’ve been attempting to parse through how The Crying of Lot 49 functions as an interface. For the sake of transparency, I will admit that I had to look up the term “interface” in order to even begin to understand how to approach the text in this way. Heavily influenced by the Merriam-Webster definitions, I am currently understanding an interface as a surface/space where two or more bodies converge to achieve a new kind of interaction or mode of communication that would otherwise be impossible for them to achieve on their own. I realize this is somewhat vague, and could potentially be an idea we could talk through as a class—how are we understanding the term “interface”?

With this in mind, I am working through how Pynchon is constructing an interface through this novel. And furthermore, what specific kind of interface is it? From my initial reading of the text, I was immediately struck by the multiple modalities it transverses—theatrical plays, TV shows, art, pop radio shows, movies, music, poetry, and others appear throughout. These, coupled with the abundance of cultural references Pynchon employs seem to be creating a very specific type of interaction through the interface of the novel, as well as a particular kind of experience for the reader. I can imagine the effect of this constant shifting through mediums and layering of cultural references perhaps serving to capture a distinctly postmodern moment in time that Pynchon is attempting to critique? Postmodern society, in Pynchon’s moment as in ours, was inundated with communication overload, to the point of producing a kind of cultural schizophrenia and profound cynicism toward authority figures such as the media. I know my experience reading this book undoubtedly began to feel somewhat schizophrenic at times.

Pynchon certainly seems critical of technology and the media, practically making a farce out of news reporting and radio. Who could forget the absurd moment when Mucho mispronounces his own wife’s name as “Edna Mosh” to allow “for the distortion on these rigs” (p. 114 in my copy)? It also seems significant that the mysterious, underground operation in question is a postal system—perhaps the most analog, concrete mode of communication there is—and not a phone system or otherwise technology-dependent system. The exchange of documents is especially important in this novel, leading me to question whether this text is meant to function as a kind of archival document in itself. I wonder what others in the class might think of this, and welcome other interpretations!