the disembodied reviewer?

Let me return to my previous comments on Jason Kottke’s distinction between old and new forms of reviewing, and to other people’s thoughts. For instance, the question that my commenter Michael raises: “To what extent can reviews be docetic?” — a reference to the Christian heresy called Docetism, which claimed that Jesus was pure spirit who only appeared (Greek dokein) to have a body. Or this comment by Tim Carmody: “Some people — and I think Alan Jacobs articulates this POV excellently — think that a review should be, above all, an intellectual and aesthetic engagement with the transcendent work, removed as much as possible from the immanent details of the attendant capitalist transaction. (Let me quickly note that I never said that the “intellectual and aesthetic engagement” Tim describes is what “a review should be,” only that it’s what I try to do. And, implicitly, that it’s worth doing.)So I take it what what Michael and Tim are saying is that my practice as a reviewer risks a neglect of material conditions (I’m mildly surprised that the word “Gnostic” didn’t turn up) in its focus on the “transcendent” — the disembodied. I would disagree with these views on several scores, first (and maybe foremost) by insisting that there is a great deal of difference between the intellectual and the transcendent.But let’s think about this is a somewhat more practical way, along the lines of an earlier post of mine. In my class this semester on Christianity and Fantasy, we just finished reading The Lord of the Rings (and are now moving on to Philip Pullman). I had ordered a particular edition of the text, as we teachers always do; but this is a book that many of the students know well, and, reasonably enough, rather than buying the ordered edition they used the ones they already owned. So in the class I saw one-volume hardbacks, one-volume paperbacks, and various versions of the good old three-volume sets: large trade paperbacks and cheap mass-market paperbacks of various vintages.What I want to affirm is simply this: it makes perfect sense to say that we all read the same book. Or, to put it another way, the differences in the material forms of the various volumes are insignificant in comparison to the shared intellectual experience of encountering Tolkien’s story, a story which cannot be identified with any one embodiment. And when we start talking about Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy on Tuesday — another text a number of my students already own — the same will be true.There are of course exceptions to this rule, but for most of the books we read it will hold: differences in printing, binding, and illustration from one edition of a text to another are quite minor in comparison with the cross-vehicular integrity of the text itself.

suspiciously wiki

Wonderful post by Tim Carmody over at Snarkmarket about what I think of as a useful new word — or a new use of an already existing word. Someone had said of a piece of information given by someone else, “This story sounded suspiciously Wiki to me.” And as Tim points out, we all know exactly what the person means:

The obvious colloquial analogue would be “the story seemed fishy.” But note the distinction. A “fishy” story, like a “fish story,” is a farfetched story that is probably a lie or exaggeration that in some way redounds to the teller’s benefit. A “wiki” story, on the other hand, is a story, perhaps farfetched, that is probably backed up by no authority other than a Wikipedia article, or perhaps just a random website. The only advantage it yields to the user is that one appears knowledgeable while having done only the absolute minimum amount of research.While a fishy story is pseudo-reportage, a wiki story is either pseudo-scientific or pseudo-historical. Otherwise, wiki-ness is characterized by unverifiable details, back-of-the-envelope calculations, and/or conclusions that seem wildly incommensurate with the so-called facts presented.

I’m going to start using this word in commenting on student papers.I love Wikipedia — I use it every day — but it yields farfetched stories sometimes because people who write many of the articles rely on outdated information. Sometimes way outdated. For instance, in the generally useful article on the codex we find this passage:

The basic form of the codex was invented in Pergamon in the third century BCE. Rivalry between the Pergamene and Alexandrian libraries had resulted in the suspension of papyrus exports from Egypt. In response the Pergamenes developed parchment from sheepskin; because of the much greater expense it was necessary to write on both sides of the page.

No citation is given, and I found myself wondering where this information had come from and whether it is true. It sounded suspiciously Wiki to me. A day or two later, I happened to discover the origin of the claim: Pliny’s Natural History. Modern historians see no evidence for the story.

ut pictura poesis

Over at Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody is meditating — here and here — on Kenny Goldsmith’s claim that “with the rise of the web, writing has met its photography.” Tim rightly finds this statement pleasingly epigrammatic but historically inaccurate, and tries to come up with a better formulation. I think he does — it’s kinda complicated, so you should read his posts — but I think what he really should have said is that Goldsmith’s analogy goes wrong right from the start, because he’s confused about what photography did to painting:

Writing has encountered a situation similar to what happened to painting upon the invention of photography, a technology so much better at doing what the art form had been trying to do, that in order to survive, the field had to alter its course radically. If photography was striving for sharp focus, painting was forced to go soft, hence Impressionism. Faced with an unprecedented amount of digital available text, writing needs to redefine itself in order to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.

Is it really true that painting “had been trying” to do what photography came along and did better? If so, what exactly was that? Was it a matter of achieving “sharp focus”? That might account for some painters (George de la Tour, maybe, or Joseph Wright of Derby), but what about Turner? Or Rembrandt for that matter? There’s no doubt that photography came to supplant painting for some purposes, but even architectural painting did not disappear with the advent of photography, much less portraiture.Might Goldsmith be suggesting something else? When he mentions text he cites its “abundance,” so maybe he’s thinking that photography brought images into “the age of mechanical reproduction”. But that’s not right, either, because printing presses reproduced images as well as text, and by the time photography came along there were many techniques for the reproduction of images, via intaglio or relief.Moreover, “textual abundance” is not new. As Ann Blair has been showing us for some time, the printing press very quickly brought us more books than we could ever hope to read — and all the anxieties that accompany information overload.So, in short, while Tim provides an account that’s much better than Goldsmith’s, I think he would have done better to reject the image/text analogizing altogether. Both sides of the story are too complex for any epigram to be better than misleading. The advent of photography changed painting, but not in simple ways; and I would contend — though I can but assert the point here — that the printing press changed our relations to texts in far more fundamental ways than digital transmission has.

Kindle 2020

The smart guys over at Snarkmarket are thinking about how we'll be reading in 2020. I want to follow up on this later, but for now consider some of the questions they're asking:

• What kind of devices will we use to read? 
• What formats will be used to deliver documents? 
• What kinds of documents will be “read” - text, image, video, audio, hybrids? 
• How will documents be written and produced? 
• How will documents be bought, sold, and otherwise supported? 
• How will contributors be compensated? 
• How will reading work in different industries? 

They're hoping to do a presentation at South by Southwest Interactive. I hope it works out.

speaking in barcode

From Automata, which I learned about from Ministry of Type, which I learned about from Urge of the Letter, which I learned about from Snarkmarket. I don't remember where I learned about Snarkmarket. The important point is that all of those links lead you to smart posts which, in turn, link to other smart posts. Giving y'all some extra posts today (and some good links on the Twitter feed — see right) because I’ll be away for a few days, organizing my campaign to be named to Apple’s board. Namaste.

the appeal of digital textbooks

. . . to publishers, that is. Consider this a follow-up to last week's post about the Big New Kindle and its possible use for textbooks: Over at Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody makes an important and troubling point: "the only reason why publishers are really interested in electronic books is that they can use DRM to crush sales of used books beneath their foot forever." Probably true — but the publishers may be being shortsighted. If — sorry, when — someone cracks the DRM for any given textbook and converts it to a Kindle-readable format, the traditional used-book market won't benefit, but neither will the publisher. Consider in this light this NTY story about digital book bootlegging. It's kind of an individual thing right now — as Stephen King says about the book pirates, "most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer" — but if textbooks go digital then such bootlegging will become a full-fledged industry. Somebody will make money off it, but it won't be the textbook publishers.