Currency and Incompletion

Dave Humphrey has recently posted an interesting and thoughtful response to my discussion of Writing for the Web and Echographies of Television, arguing that what I perceive to be the speed and brevity of writing for the web is actually a kind of incompletion that is itself a request for others to join the discussion. I do not like to disagree with Dave, so I am glad that in this case I am in agreement with him. I would affirm that what is best about teletechnologies is their capacity to invite and accommodate the response of others. They enable dialogue and interactivity in ways that traditional media does not, and this is the very reason why I do choose to write through the medium, even though I write in ways that sometimes run counter to some of its tendencies.

When I argue that writing for the web is characterized by speed, brevity, and utility, I am not precluding the possibility that it is also characterized by openness and invitation, and Dave does well to make me recall these aspects of the medium. I am only suggesting that good writing on the web must find ways to disrupt the medium’s obsession with speed and currency, must affirm its possibilities for hospitality, because it is these possibilities, as Dave argues, that enable the web to be such an effective disruption of traditional print media, putting in question traditional ideas of authorship, scholarship, ownership, disciplinarity, etcetera.

The possibility that the web enables, and that Dave rightly affirms, is that we might write and think differently in a public space, without the restrictions of the academic institution or the publishing industry or the physical page. The danger is that the loss of these restrictions will encourage us to stop writing and thinking at all in disciplined ways, in ways that take whatever time and space is required to do their subjects justice.

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2 comments
  1. Christopher said:

    Luke,

    With one eye on my increasingly active daughter, I will try and express my thanks and my response to your thoughts on email and blogs as forms of writing.

    My initial feelings upon reading your post were gratitude and delight. I am thrilled that you have put yourself ‘out there’ and taken the leap involved in this blog (which is, as you say, not a blog). I am always refreshed by your thoughts and by the beauty of your expression. My experience of reading your words convinces me of your argument almost as much as your argument itself.

    Of course, I am also delighted by Dave’s observation that there is a sense of openness and incompleteness in internet writing which must be cherished. As with many things we contemplate, there are many facets to be seen in recent technologies.

    For my part, I have just finished reading David Cayley’s Ivan Illich in Conversation. Some of Illich’s thoughts were therefore resonating in my mind as I read your thoughts and Dave’s further observations. I wonder at Illich’s claim, “So far, I have been able to recognize every book that was composed on a computer.” He says this is possible because the computer fosters a kind of writing in which paragraphs don’t “come out of an inner flow. It’s like organizing a river….”

    This is an experience of which I am profoundly aware. It is perhaps even more acute at this very moment because I am responding to such carefully and beautifully expressed thoughts. It is the reality of self-revision, whereby the computer enables me to say, resay, erase, restate, and rearrange my ideas to such an extent that I myself can begin to wonder where they come from and which part of my soul they reveal, if they truly reveal any part at all. Thus, the loss of certain restrictions might lead to a loss of disciplined thinking and writing, but it might also lead to new risks, especially the risk of expressing myself in a permanent medium without the self-revision normally associated with computerized writing. Words, as we all know, slip away as quickly as they are spoken; but they endure in writing. Even though they may not be cherished quite the same way as books and letters, emails and blogs remain permanent records of someone’s thoughts. Blogs, to a greater extent than books and letters, permit scrutiny as well as offer hospitality.

    Of course, ultimately, it is up to the individual how things are said and to what extent they are censored and revised. But as with all aspects of discourse, what is appropriate in a given medium is cultural. It is my experience that our culture permits within electronic communication a relatively greater degree of that spontaneous flow which is characteristic of spoken discourse but which is, in many contexts at least, inhibited by written modes.

    One way of capturing this is to say that email permits me to say what I say with a lesser degree of concern for how it will be critically received. Insofar as we strive to make our discourse an invitation which invites response, we should give thanks that our culture has opened up the possibility for risky, transparent, and spontaneous dialogue to take place across time and distance.

    I will be honest and say that the most troubling part of this, for me personally, is the extent to which the internet changes my understanding of my audience. To whom do I write this comment? I am responding to you, Luke, but I am conscious that Dave is also a partner in this dialogue. Even more, I cannot escape the haunting feeling that there are ghosts encircling our little chat; people whose faces I cannot see, and whose presence I may never truly acknowledge. Part of me clings to the possibility that this permits an ’empty chair.’ But part of me still feels as though I am displaced and unsettled in this context, uncertain of who my audience is. The internet, in this sense, feels inhospitable.

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