Review by Laurie Alfaro, DePaul University
Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media
New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014. 240. Non-Fiction.
Jessica Pressman’s book Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media (2014) examines what the author has termed “a second generation of dynamic, visual, and animated” (p. 7) forms of electronic literature. The first generation consisted of digital hypertexts created on computers—texts which were intended to be read on computers. The second generation of electronic literature utilizes technologies such as Adobe Flash to add interactivity, animation, sound, and interactivity to the text content. Pressman analyzes several examples of such second-generation electronic literature using a framework established by the New Criticism movement in literary studies.
Pressman begins chapter one by discussing New Media guru Marshall McLuhan, the “Oracle of the Electronic Age” (p. 28). The author argues that to fully understand the works of McLuhan, one must evaluate them within the context of the New Criticism movement. McLuhan, a Catholic whose conservative values underscored his criticism, studied at Cambridge under I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, both pioneers of the New Criticism movement in literature. Central to this New Criticism movement was the idea of close reading literary verse as a framework for analysis. From this close practical reading, broader conclusions could then be drawn about the cultural environment in which the literature was produced. McLuhan’s innovation was to apply this literary education to new electronic media as a means of analyzing the cultural environment. In addition to Richards and Leavis, McLuhan’s theories were strongly influenced by modernist writers Ezra Pound and James Joyce. Pressman explains, “McLuhan identified simultaneity as a central facet of modernism” (p. 53), and close reading enabled McLuhan to break down this simultaneous electronic communication into its component parts.
In McLuhan’s book The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), he applied this close reading methodology to advertisements to determine what they revealed about the companies which produced them, as well as about society as a whole. McLuhan’s example “serves to remind us that we too can and, indeed, must renovate traditional critical practices” (p. 54) of emerging new media.
Reading Machines and Speed Reading
Next, the author takes us from Close Reading to Reading Machines. In chapter two, Pressman explores the tachistoscope, a machine which displays text or images at a rapid pace and is used for cognitive or psychological research purposes. Pressman offers the “Project for Tachistoscope[Bottomless Pit],” a virtual tachistoscope created in the Adobe Flash multimedia environment, as an example of poetry presented in a new media format. This format, in which single words or images are displayed in rapid succession, belies close reading. The words exist onscreen only for a moment, and it is not possible to pause the content for a close reading. In the case of the virtual tachistoscope, the medium truly is the message, since it “depends on the high speed of the reading machine for its communicative, and possibly poetic, effect” (p. 66).
Pressman explores another Flash-based web presentation in chapter three, “Speed Reading.” “DAKOTA” is another poem presented in a rapid-fire format, but unlike Poundstone’s virtual tachistoscope, there is the addition of sound: jazz drumming which punctuates the appearance of the words on the screen, visually picking up speed as the narrative progresses. Pressman explains, “‘DAKOTA’ uses speed to produce difficulty through illegibility” (p. 97); the words flash on the screen so quickly as to require the reader’s undivided attention. The content of “DAKOTA” is at times vulgar and offensive, and this rapid-fire text display adds to the emotion behind the work.
Also unlike Poundstone’s piece, which includes an exit button for the user, “DAKOTA” does not include any sort of user controls for interactivity. If the user’s attention should be drawn away from the words on the screen, there is no way to pause or rewind to review the missed text. This challenges the very notion of user-centered design; “DAKOTA” dictates how the user interacts with the text and not the other way around. Finally, after the last words appear onscreen, “DAKOTA” loops back upon itself, beginning the text all over again. Pressman argues that the lack of interactive controls and the looping playback both identify “DAKOTA” as a New Media object that exists separately from the interactive, hypertext-based World Wide Web on which the object exists.
Reading the Database
Next, in a chapter titled “Reading the Database,” Pressman discusses another Flash-based work of digital literature. “The Jew’s Daughter” is a poetic work which at first glance appears to be a traditional hypertext-based web document. Some words within the text are highlighted in blue; a reader might expect to click on the blue text and be taken to another web page or to another location within this same document. However, when one clicks on the blue link text, something unexpected occurs; parts of the story shift and change, at times shifting between the first and second person or attributing quotations to different characters. This causes the reader to wonder, who is speaking here? Pressman points out that the digital page numbers also change when the user has clicked on a blue text link; for example, what had previously been labeled page 34 now appears to be page 134. These are references to the frame numbers on the Flash authoring timeline where the content resides, and the effect is that one soon realizes that the reader is changing the story by clicking on the links. This results in a sort of virtual stream-of-consciousness writing generated by the user’s interaction with the interface.
Like the previous two examples, “The Jew’s Daughter” presents content that is difficult to read and absorb. “Project for Tachistoscope[Bottomless Pit]” and “DAKOTA” accomplish this by displaying text quickly. “The Jew’s Daughter,” however, presents its content through a recursive narrative process in which the user must read closely to determine precisely which text has changed on the screen. The chapter’s title, “Reading the Database,” is somewhat misleading because the poem’s content is not pulled from a relational database such as MySQL. However, if one views a database as “both a collection of data and also a way of structuring information” (p. 111), then certainly Morrissey’s unusual presentational structure qualifies as a database which the user can read.
In the fifth chapter, Pressman analyzes a digital novel called Chroma. Chroma was created in Shockwave, a multimedia-authoring software which predates Flash, and it incorporates text, animation, and sound to create an immersive multimedia experience. The user can access the text in one of two modes: Perform Text, the default mode, in which the reader is a passive observer listening to a narrator reading the text and watching animations on the screen; and View Text, in which the reader is presented the text to read in a single column with no other multimedia content.
An issue with Chroma is that the Shockwave authoring environment makes it inaccessible to many people. Shockwave is widely considered obsolete, and fewer and fewer computer users will have the plug-in required to access the content. Perhaps unintentionally, the obsolescence of the software, along with the dual Perform Text/View Text modes, serves to remind readers “that communication is multimodal, multisensory, and dependent upon specific media” (p. 131).
The text of Chroma centers around a Dr. Anders and his team of three researchers who find a way to enter a digital reality called the mnemonos; however, once in the digital realm, the team members discover that they are unable to communicate with each other. Again, perhaps unintentionally, the medium of Shockwave reflects this frustrating inability to communicate within cyberspace, since fewer and fewer computer users have the ability to access the novel due to the software’s obsolescence.
Finally, in chapter six, Pressman analyzes a printed book, Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski (2006). Unlike most traditional codices, in which pages are read from top to bottom, the pages of Only Revolutions are read by rotating the book 360 degrees. There are two narrators, Sam and Hailey. One can read Sam’s narrative, then rotate the book 180 degrees to read Hailey’s story on the opposite side of the page, upside-down. In keeping with this theme of a 360 degree circle, the book’s end leads into the beginning; after finishing the book, one can continue the story from the beginning.
This recursiveness—the end is also the beginning—is similar to both Poundstone’s “Project” (2006) and Chang’s “DAKOTA,” which both loop back to restart the text. However, other than this similarity to the two Flash media pieces, it is puzzling that Pressman would choose to include Danielewski’s book in a book about New Media.
Another interesting point is that nearly all of the electronic literature mentioned by Pressman was created using now-outdated technology. Shockwave is widely considered obsolete, and Adobe Flash is now falling into disuse thanks to the rise of HTML5 and CSS3. Perhaps this is the nature of New Media; once it is created, it is already obsolete. Regardless, Pressman presents some thoughtful arguments in relating New Media to the Close Reading and New Criticism schools of thought.
Laurie Alfaro, M.A., Ed.D., is an adjunct faculty member in the New Media Studies Program at DePaul University’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.
© 2015 Laurie Alfaro, used by permission