Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Print, Stupidity, and #rhizo14

I've just listened to a TVO audio lecture by Don Tapscott, in which Tapscott "refutes the belief that the internet is turning today's youth into 'the dumbest generation'". The 55 minute lecture is worth listening to in its entirety, but the relevant section for this discussion starts near the end at 41:18 where Tapscott recounts a meeting with the academic leaders at Florida State University which is on a mission to become a premier 21st century institution. He basically tells them that they must change the way they deliver instruction and relate to students and to other institutions. A dean asks a student attending the meeting what he thinks about Tapscott's comments, and the student agrees, ending with the salient observation that he doesn't read books. Intrigued by the student, Tapscott later learns that he is a straight-A student of incredible accomplishments including an upcoming Rhodes Scholarship. And he doesn't read books.

As I listened to the student talk about how he approaches information, I realized that he basically treats books as Web documents: he links to what he needs, when he needs it. He says that he never reads a book straight through from start to finish, but locates the book on Google Books, finds the relevant bit, and reads just that. Needless to say, he doesn't buy books, either.

Those familiar with Deleuze and Guattari's 1980 book A Thousand Plateaus, which first gave us the concept of the rhizome, will not find this approach to reading a printed book unusual. In his introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, translator Brian Massumi compares reading to playing a vinyl record:
How should A Thousand Plateaus be played? When you buy a record there are always cuts that leave you cold. You skip them. You don't approach a record as a closed book that you have to take or leave. Other cuts you may listen to over and over again. They follow you. You find yourself humming them under your breath as you go about your daily business. … The reader is invited to follow each section to the plateau that rises from the smooth space of its composition, and to move from one plateau to the next at pleasure. But it is just as good to ignore the heights. You can take a concept that is particularly to your liking and jump with it to its next appearance. They tend to cycle back. Some might call that repetitious. Deleuze and Guattari call it a refrain. 

The best way of all to approach the book is to read it as a challenge: to pry open the vacant spaces that would enable you to build your life and those of the people around you into a plateau of intensity that would leave afterimages of its dynamism that could be reinjected into still other lives, creating a fabric of heightened states between which any number, the greatest number, of connecting routes would exist. Some might call that promiscuous. Deleuze and Guattari call it revolution.
It is easy to see print texts as linear and limiting, or as Dave Cormier say in this week's Rhizo14 challenge: print moves toward objectivity and distance and remove and impartiality, something that is less participatory, that moves toward the definite and not toward the relational. Dave is quite correct, I think, that this is how most people have viewed printed texts. It is the way most of us were taught in school to write texts (beginning thesis with supporting details that leads logically and inevitably to a specific conclusion, and all that), but I don't think we must view texts this way.

I think it is quite possible—in fact, I think it is inevitable—to view even printed texts rhizomatically, as a function of complex, multi-scale networks. The Rhodes Scholar in Tapscott's lecture is viewing print that way: he enters the text from the arc of his own trajectory, his own interests and needs, not necessarily from the beginning, and he takes from the text what he needs, and he at last reconnects and recombines what he's taken with any variety of other sources and types of information.

Print has rendered language static in some ways, such that one of the big literary tasks of the 20th century was to uncover the definitive text—say of Shakespeare's Hamlet—but that is an aberration of reading that appealed to only a few dilettantes. No one today expects a text to remain static. How many of us will return to a website more than once if it remains the same? Rather, we now expect a text to be dynamic.

While a printed text does possess a kind of permanence simply because it is so difficult to change once printed, this doesn't mean that the text is not dynamic. All of my books contain massive marginalia that modify my book from that of any other copy. Indeed, if there are not marginal notes, I probably didn't like the book and gave it away. The books I keep become mine, really mine, with my thoughts there on the page alongside Deleuze and Guattari's.

Moreover, a text is NOT simply the printed words, the physical thing that you acquire and hold in your hands. It is your reading of it, then your discussion of it with others, and the links and interconnections among your readings and other readings. It's how the text ripples through a social group, or doesn't. It's how it lies dormant for decades or hundreds of years, as Keats' poems did, before emerging into full bloom in more receptive climates. The highly focused New Criticism of the 20th century taught us how to look at a text as an artifact, but that reading ultimately obscures the larger, more rhizomatic reading of a text across a society and over generations. The extreme focus of New Criticism simply cannot explain why we can read the same stories and poems again and again and get new meaning out of them. Where does that meaning come from if not from the multiplicity of interconnections among the printed text and its readers and critics? All texts—certainly electronic texts, but even printed texts—are rhizomatic.

Consider this very post, for instance. People will read it (for which I am thankful), and some may comment on it. Those comments add to the text. Others may link to this post, or follow the links in this post to other texts. The ideas in this post may emerge in other posts in other words. All texts can behave this way, do behave this way.

This said, I do think print will become less important day-to-day as we move it to its electronic forms, but I don't think we will totally do away with it, as we still use handwriting. The printed word does, unfortunately, encourage fundamentalist, restrictive readings, but it doesn't have to. I insist that all printed texts, even the most sacred, are vastly enriched by a rhizomatic reading, the kind of reading that Deleuze and Guattari force us into in the printed book A Thousand Plateaus.
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