Over a period of a few days last week I posted a series of updates onto Twitter that, taken together, added up to less than twenty words. I dragged out across fourteen tweets what could easily fit within one. And instead of text alone, I relied on a combination words and images. I’m calling this elongated, distributed form of social media artisanal tweeting. Maybe you could call it slow tweeting. I think some of my readers simply called it frustrating or even worthless.
If you missed the original sequence of updates as they unfolded online, you can approximate the experience in this thinly annotated chronological trail.
I’m not yet ready to discuss the layers of meaning I was attempting to evoke, but I am ready to piece the whole thing together—which, as befits my theme, actually destroys much of the original meaning. Nonetheless, here it is:
Yesterday Dan Cohen, the director of the Center for History and New Media and my colleague at George Mason University, posted a thoughtful piece describing a major problem of scholarly publishing (and of book publishing more generally). Dan suggests that while the “supply” of written work has changed with the advent of digital collaborations, academic blogging, and interactive projects, the “demand” side—what readers, publishers, and rank and promotion committees expect—remains stubbornly resistant to change. To illustrate the dominant attitude of “most humanities scholars and tenure committees” toward digital work, Dan quotes a fantastic quip from John Updike:
The printed, bound and paid-for book was—still is, for the moment—more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.
I love this Updike passage. It’s so perfectly stated that I find myself nodding in agreement even as I recoil on the inside. We need go no further than the second sentence to see some of most pernicious misconceptions influencing what Dan calls the demand side of the publishing.
Reading a book, Updike says, is an encounter, in silence, of two minds.
Look at each of these three phrases. (1) An “encounter”? Well, that’s a nice vague noun and seems to include all sorts of interactions between reader and writer, but at its heart it’s an empty word that tells us nothing about the many ways this interaction can proceed: it can be sly, brutal, coy, frustrating, angry, joyous. The encounter can be all of those things, sometimes all at once. But more importantly, in new forms of publishing, the encounter can be something that you wouldn’t call an encounter at all. It can be a dance, an assault, a performance, a collision, a celebration. Using “encounter” to describe what can happen between reader and writer privileges one form of interaction, the most staid, monologic, conservative one at that.
Now what about (2) the “silence” in which this encounter supposedly occurs? Okay, yes, that’s how a lot of people read, but again, “silence” elevates one form of reading above all others. Let’s call it “polite” reading. What Updike really means by “in silence” is that any argument or meaning-making on the reader’s part must occur silently, safely firewalled far away from the writer. Safely firewalled far away from the rest of the world for that matter. The idea of a writer who either coaxes or bludgeons his or her readers into submissive silence would be abhorrent to most academics, yet that is the way the current social contract of scholarly publishing works. Peer review and letters to journal editors are merely other forms of polite reading. We applaud them as civil discourse, but in fact they are mechanisms to maintain a tolerable level of noise—by which I mean relative silence.
Finally we arrive at (3) the “two minds” involved in the silent encounter. Let’s break this phrase down even further. Two? Two? I’m not even going to bother to mention the value of collaborative research and writing, let’s just focus on Updike’s romantic vision of the relationship between a novelist and his or her reader. Two minds? What a sad, impoverished view of the world of letters. Even when it’s a single author and a single reader, more than two minds are always involved. Reading is a social activity. It is always a social activity, even when done quietly at night in an empty house. There are social contexts to writing, social contexts to reading. They are both situated activities—situated within a broader world, both requiring a wide range of supporting structures in order to exist in the first place. As for “mind,” I can appreciate that Updike sees reading and writing as intellectual endeavors, abstracted from our daily existence in the physical world. But I also couldn’t disagree more. We all know that writing is a physical activity, but we forget that reading is one too. Reading is an embodied activity. We read from within our bodies, our itching, bleeding, aging, page-turning, button-clicking bodies. Updike’s focus on the mind merely reflects that common scholarly view of the “life of the mind.” Which is just a way of ignoring the physical world.
I’d like to suggest that one way to begin changing what readers expect from scholarly publications is to deliberately invert each of these aspects of Updike’s formulation. We need texts that are loud, crowded, and out of control. We need to recognize the richness of what could count as a scholarly “encounter.” We need to encourage the opposite of silence—clamorous, public, raucous, messy discourse. We need to remember that two minds means essentially never mind; the true power of scholarly discourse lies in multiple voices, multiple bodies.
Are these changes even possible? Ian Bogost recently notoriously faulted the humanities for despising humanity, but I personally have hope. Even if it’s due to deeply ingrained habits of self-preservation, the humanities will have to change. But doing so requires an engagement with all those facts of the real world that most of us read books and retreat to libraries to escape from. Most of us don’t despise humanity so much as fear it, especially our own humanity. In an odd turn of events, it’s the affordances of the digital world that may help us renew our presence and involvement in the analog world. We have the means now to write in ways scholars could only ever dream about. So, write to be heard, write to be written back to, write to readers who are living bodies with voices of their own. Write to the crowd and let the crowd write back. Write publicly and publicly write. Write.
One of my friends from grad school, Tim Carmody, blogged a nice response to my recent posts on critical thinking and writing, and it got me thinking that I need to clarify one thing: I am not anti-writing.
As I wrote in my comment on Tim’s blog (and am copying here), I want to emphasize that I don’t think I’m any less committed to writing than anybody else in the humanities. After all, I do study literature, and somebody had to write that literature.
In fact, I would argue that writing should take precedent over reading. Don DeLillo, who is a touchstone for me in most areas of culture, has said that he writes to “learn how to think.” DeLillo goes on to say that “writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them” (Paris Review 128, Fall 1993, p. 277).
Writing comes before reading, and it even comes before critical thinking.
Cognitively, developmentally, artistically, this is true: we learn to write before we learn to read. I want to recover that dynamic in my teaching. I’m simply advocating that we broaden what counts as “writing.”