A British Perspective on the New Modes of Writing

Fascinating things are going on in the world of representation. It used to be that communicating through symbols was a straightforward task. It involved what were usually relatively distinct domains: writing, drawing, painting, sculpture, music, or performance.

But now that is all changing as a result of digital production and distribution. Over the last few years, each art form has begun to bleed into the others. Whether it’s art based on information technology or immersive performances that engage all of the senses, it has become increasingly necessary to be able to wield a range of skills drawn from different domains, either individually or in groups. As a result, media have not so much become mixed as have started to produce new, more permeable forms. Games are the obvious example, but there are many others, too.

I don’t want to exaggerate these changes—after all, text and other forms of symbolic communication have been bleeding into each other in the form of illustrated novels and comic books for a long time now, and that is to ignore a tradition like Tristram Shandy or A Humument. But what I think is different is that we can now start to see them affecting everyday academic practice.

We can start with something that has already happened. It won’t be long before multimedia presentations of novels and poetry and key texts become the norm for classes. We can already see apps appearing that bundle whole sets of visual material together relating to a particular poem or novel, as well as the original text. Just recently, I downloaded The Waste Land app. It includes the basic poem, more versions of the poem, a filmed spoken performance, and all kinds of extra material like photographs. But there are many other literary works coming down the line in this form, from A Clockwork Orange and On The Road to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I am sure that we will soon see even more ambitious productions based on what the iPad can do.

Then, something that is happening now. Academic books will increasingly become artifacts of a process of composition which itself is visible. The Internet has already meant that academic books and papers are routinely built with extensions on the Web, whether they be blogs, extra data, color diagrams and maps, or other extra material of all kinds. But now we are seeing books appearing which are much more than this. They are designed to have a parallel presence as part of their inception and as a way of producing a continuing evolution of the work. This is best shown in Bruno Latour’s latest “augmented” book, Enquête sur Les Modes d’Existence, which has been built up–and continues to be built up—through layers of commentary.

Then, something which will happen soon. Key academic books will begin to be deconstructed and brought back to life in different forms. They will increasingly be modularized, by making different trails through them that are at the disposal of teachers and students to build into their own courses as they like and which address the book in different representational registers. Each module will be available simultaneously translated into many languages.

Finally, something which will happen but will take a bit more time. We have only just seen the glimmerings of what might occur if a text knows where it is. But the location of texts will gradually become much more important. Books, now reconfigured in electronic form as Kindles and the like, will start to have capabilities which allow them to “see” their readers and what they are doing and where they are. No one can know exactly what the acquisition of these capabilities will mean, but it is difficult to believe that they will mean nothing for either form or content.

According to some, all this is an attack on the academic book or paper. I think it is more of an extension. So as the island of print merges with the other islands of representation, we’re not going to see the death of the academic book or paper. But they will change shape, increasingly becoming produced by teams with different skills—with a subsequent loss of  individual “authority” of the kind foretold in China Miéville’s recent talk at the Edinburgh World Writer’s Conference—and read by audiences which, through MOOC-like arrangements that allow syndication on an unparalleled scale, are plural and far removed from what Miéville delightfully calls the current “middlebrowmageddon.” It will be a wider world in which academics will have less natural authority but, paradoxically, more ways of establishing that authority.

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