Sunday, July 25, 2010

Webtext Aesthetics and the Reproductive Identity of the Postcommercial Banal

The aesthetic use of a technology - the theatrical use - explores a technology in its abductive capacities - it reels through the experimental aspects of coexistence between the agent and the technical object. The use of written language then - already subject to these precepts - spreads to the different medial forms integrated into the web, and is there challenged in its reception (on the part of the artist-creator as well as the speculative reader-viewer). In this assumed immersion, the entirely virtual is presented as web aesthetics, which favour certain concepts in use, from which is selected the idea of the neo-oral. In arbitrarily isolating letters from pictures (letters are pictures, quite simply), the discussion will be on the assumed forms "literature" might take. Neo-orality, then, takes those "oral" aspects of what internet literature might be - or rather, we could state the affair as its coincidence with an oral form of "literature", instead of with printed literature, in manuscripts, books, and so on.


A book presents itself as a finished work, something contained in itself - a story told by a story-teller might be a comparable "piece", yet that story will change even within the teller's own telling, and without recording methods, will never retain the same form. The content will change, the names, the references, it will pass through the hands of different speakers, its content will evolve through different agents, through a dialogue of multiple voices that continually reform it based on what a community might prefer to hear at a given time. Writing on the web often takes the form of "books" and articles and so on - that is, the same form as they take in print. Yet, to talk of writing *specific* to the web, that is, writing which differs from what is in books, we find a "literature" that has more in common with oral-traditional practice. Comments, chats, small posts, now twitters, microblogs, status-postings - all these range from "conversation" to statements whose existence awaits replies, additions, comments and so on. These are not exclusive terms (academic exegesis for instance, represents a kind of literary dialogue, though among a much more limited group), the argument is merely that with more writers, more responders, more writing in general and a closer connection between what should be written and spoken exists in web literature versus print publications.

In this way, web literature is an entire environment unto itself. Like the oral world, there is no material distinction between the literary tale and the banal conversation, or the literary work and the personal message in the case of the web. This pseudo- or neo-orality is of course quite different from oral culture, the virtual space it "talks" in is created by the action of a technological infrastructure and community whose material byproduct is the illusory "space" it creates.

Of course this aspect of the web, what could be called the user-oriented web, is something that has come bit by bit since bbs's and the early graphical web, to the current world of facebook and twitter. The latter are two instances of what has come to be known as Web 2.0, a term which has utility to discuss a web that is increasingly oriented to more and more users. The web 2.0 paradigm, a paradigm where users interact in a more technically friendly environment than early webpage builders and coders, is one that assumes a commercial infrastructure (say, the database code and design for the facebook site) before a user can use the space. In this sense, Web 2.0 can be described as a postcommercial space. In describing web literature (and the web itself) as something moving increasingly toward what has been called the democratic aspects of web 2.0, I am suggesting a different way of organizing what in this sense is called electronic literature - or perhaps electonic net literature (this does not consider cd-rom works, pre-net works, or anything meant to be read alone on a computer or other electronic device). This looks instead to define web literature as something existent in a space whose definition can be approached through the concepts surrounding web 2.0, which may retrogressively affects past categorizations of net literature, electronic literature and its cousins (this in turn, extends to resituate - in relation to itself - general aesthetic categories utilized in reference to an internet age). As the web 2.0 model becomes the dominant organizing force in shaping both the web and computers, so it will alter how the literary arts (and arts in general) are defined in relation, opposition or combination with it.

One method of graphing out a concept - in this case the neo-oral as a model to describe writing on the user-oriented web, and the extension of its compass to conceptualize a certain type of literature - one method to graph this is to analyze the work of certain authors that illustrate important aspects of it - that is, aspects that serve to illustrate its comparative difference as a definitional concept and contrastive presence. In the question of analyzing an author's work, there is the question of doing justice to it which I reject - I do not think a second literary work can exemplify a first literary work better than the original itself. With this qualificatory assumption in mind, it could be considered that I am engaging in critical appraisal - this possibility could also be rejected if a different type of critique is considered better, or more accurate or complete. Regardless of its status as generically acceptable critique, this additionally (or primarily - depending on the previous decision) will be a dual exploration of aspects of these authors in relation to my generalized concept of neo-oral literature, and how that theoretical system can serve to elucidate their work in what might be a new way.

Perhaps a crucial distinction between written literature - particularly as conceived in its post-gutenbergian western form - and oral literature lies in the concept of plagiarism. In the case of oral literature, to copy another story-teller or speaker is integral to the practice of story-telling itself. If there is a measure of "proper copying" (in a print analogue the distinction between lawful citation and unlawful theft) it is, if anything, the subjective measure of an audience member as to the quality of the performance ("how good it was"). There is no idea of specific human sources (though maybe there is an abstracted sense of an extramundane "gift" that inspires, allows or gives place to the tale - namely, the a priori presence of language and characters beyond an individual experience) and since there is no specific human inventor of a story, there is no proper or improper way of referencing that author to give them due credit. If there is an aesthetic hand at work here, it is - as previously intimated - the hand of the performer - the question is not of a given human creative source, but of an immediate performative interpretation, this is where the creative aspect lies. In other words, the question of plagiarism is essentially non-existent, or conversely entirely assumed as integral to the oral "literary" process - the competition and general prestige accorded to those who play the game well is not given according to scholarly breadth (number and type of authors included and synthesized) and orthodoxy - the game shifts to one of performance and entertainment competition, to oral rhetoric, the acting ability in capitivating and bringing material "alive".

In western print culture as it has evolved up to the internet's beginnings, plagiarism has come to occupy what is either the most, or one of the most taboo positions in literary practice. This is the corollary to the appreciation of the author being accorded through ownership of the text* and how valuable that text is (some gauges might be number of readers, number of citations it inspires, number of high quality reviews). The only thing this author has for all his or her unquantifiable labour in conceiving and creating the text, is in the value of that text itself - that text then is forced into the surrogate position of what was the value of the oral performer (consider the oral performance of the western writer - this is made possible by a text of a given standing, and refers to it as the reason and ultimate reference of its oral performance - the central nature is transferred from the spoken words to the text's writing). The text takes the place of the author, or the text is considered *as* the author - in the same way that every person is an individual, and one person is distinct from another, or some collective sense that we want to value that given person/author and their work: in a literate society this increasingly gets accorded to the textual creations which also can have more presence in a larger more complex society (a book can be in multiple places at once, can travel more quickly) and this increased presence leads to a gradual focus on the book and less on say, how the author describes his theories to a friend, or even to a group of people (which again, more and more takes the form then of "discussing his/her new book on _____"). With the increased domination of the textual creation's presence over that of the author, rules must be created to protect the author him/herself, whose literary-intellectual existence is increasingly dependent on the value accorded to their technical creations. To accord value to a technology can be consistent insofar as a given group takes up and re-relates it to the individuals of that group. To early medieval Christians a work of Hellenic Philosophy was distractive to moral purposes (ie. the most moral decision may be to have rid of it, to burn it) whereas in other periods it may be regarded as central to be cherished, honoured and had as required reading. The same technical artifact - this philosophical work - is the epitomy of moral degeneracy, or the epitomy of moral upbuilding - depending on the group considering it. Thus the moral value of a book is an invention of the people that use that book - from burning it to honouring it to anything in between: what and when to read it, what and when not to read it, how to read it, how not to read it, how to re-relate it to others (cite), how to not re-relate it to others (plagiarize), and so on. Like the question of whether the book is immoral or moral in itself, the question of the proper use thereof is - like the question of its moral value - a question decided upon by a group that use it. Thus on a macro, extra-societal scale, the decisions of proper etiquette in regards to using and relating that technology are arbitrary (that is, another culture or group could well decide on a different method and be practically as well off), but within that group form a game that creates prestige and acceptance, or alternatively denigration and illegitimacy - and insofar as this game creates a place for a given author, it enables the possibility of receiving merit in relation to collectively valuable labour - ideally the same kind of respect that might be accorded to the worthy performer. In the performer's case, it is immediate and fluid in its rules of appreciation, in the case of the literary work, the fixity of the technology demands a fixed set of rules that - when followed - will potentially produce collective appreciation: my earlier statement that the "text replaces the person" is only to say this much - that the gauge to measure literary value is in the oral system in the performance of the person's body (which is categorically indistinguishable from audience interruption, breaking character, "real" conversation etc - it is part of that person's fated, given material life) - whereas the gauge to measure literary value in literate culture is tendentially in a given text (which presents a form that suggests an author-separation whose endpoint is contained in the structuralist notion of authorial death, the alienation of oral presence to where the spoken originary is reframed as an essentialist ideal that must be deconstructed). In increasingly complex and widespread literacy (and widespread publishing) in a culture, there is an increasing tendency to reconstruct a kind of technoliterary agency - more and more, what has agency, power, and human influence is the technology itself - therefore how to read, share and cite that literature becomes increasingly controlled and regimented so as to ensure benefits for those that play the game - those that ideally deserve social status and accreditation for their contribution to a given context. However the more that these rules are applied to a technology (that in itself, is not a human), and the more that technology proliferates in complex relation to a society, the more probability there is for a misrelation between an object's technical success and the merits or abilities of a given creator of that object. Thus while the idea that a text has no author is simply nonsense, it highlights a condition where the proliferation of objects gives more and more over to an illusory agency of the object (creating the imaginary structuralist that argues that texts give birth to themselves**). What accompanies this is an ever-persistent idea that the text (an object in and to itself, independently existent in illusion land) must - in its fixity have corresponding rules that designate right and wrong, the honourable and dishonourable use of that technology. The examples we are using of this type of rule is the idea of re-relating a work to and/or from another work, which in its rule-abiding form is called citation, and in its rule-breaking form plagiarism.

Thus we travel from oral literature which either assumes or excludes the territory of plagiarism - here it is either an a priori given or a non-issue - to written literature where the difference between proper and improper copying is pivotal to whether or not a written work can be classified as valid or not. The focus of this work is to delineate forms of literature on the web and what they differentially illustrate about the web as a location for literature versus a more self-contained practice such as the book (and, as can eventually be seen, electronic works which - on a relative scale - can be seen closer to print work and less illustrative of the differential qualities illustrated as descriptive of web literature) thus the description presented on a framework for viewing plagiarism will begin to inform an exploration of internet literary practice. In elucidating this argument, it will be argued that there is - in web literature - a shift back from the text as literary work, to a modified version of the oral work, or we could say, an increasingly oral set of characteristics begin to help describe what is literature on the net. This return from the literary back to the oral is generally described under the term neo-oral, as something which in some ways relates back to oral literature, and in others adds something new (or conversely retains literary characteristics).***

This entire pursuit could be termed as an exploration of the reproductive identity of the postcommercial banal. Identity as it pretends to sameness, yet not as the original, but as a similar copy (as in general assembly-line commercial practice). Thus the aesthetics thereof (in this case, with the focus on webtext - the textual portion of the internet) is one whose value hinges on the virtual silence if you will of a pseudo-oral exchange whose essence is banal (no matter how quotidian or relatively unsalient a task, it is game for a status update). The a priori condition - the condition to which an agent arrives - is the virtual-participatory condition of this given - it is here that the generalized tendency of the tragicomic is epitomized. It's just this quality which allows web aesthetics to form an ideal in the resituation of both an exemplar form and all other connected forms categorizable under the rubric of the artistic.

Following will be analyses of different functionally isolable concepts that hope to trace different authors and instances which illustrate my hypothetical stance, and help describe it.


*of course - as with all technobureaucratic processes - this ownership is more practically in the hands of those whose work is to engineer and coordinate those processes themselves, printers, publishers and the businesses that organize them into efficacy in this case

** one could frame Barthes in this situation several ways. You could see it in the obvious sense that he gives primacy over to texts and not embodied authors - or you could argue that my use of text equals his use of Author, both highlighting the abstracted quality of something that is less and less a case of the practical interaction of a writer or reader, and more and more an object-oriented codification of the value of a given Work - further you could see him representing an intermediary - highlighting the author's seeming death, the rise of the text, and the corresponding need for a refocus on readerly/writerly practice (the idea of practice could further be seen to relate to my idea of the progression from the seemingly completed literary work, to the more interactive and incomplete neo-oral nature of the web text.) (As always, much more is possible here - you could not see a relation at all, or you could see this particular Barthes, as is done, as a post-structuralist voice, not a structuralist one).

*** the ramifications of this can be explored in different ways. In one sense, there is nothing new in web literature under this definition - many past works display these characteristics. Another path would be to reject the validity or worthy existence of such works, which may clash with past criteria for what constitutes a quality work of literature. What might oppose this rejection(and link back to the first statement) is a re-evaluation of what is and isn't classic or worthy in past literature, using to some varying extent the ideas put forth in the descriptions of these current strains of writing. In the same way that scholars have rediscovered works for their computational characteristics, so would it be possible to find works which match descriptive categories applied to web literature - in this way, it is new yet not new, and the delineation of a particular practice is a reorganization of past practice, innovation complements ignorance, while a historical view complements a reconfigured history of noteworthy works.