Literary Readings In The Internet Age

1. Res Gestae—Things Done

[1.1] I chose as the name for this blog “res gestae,” or “things done,” which in history is the thing that is studied, just as archaeology studies the physical things left behind. In addition to its legal meaning, the term also alludes to Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a funerary inscription for the Emperor Augustus (63 BC–AD 14). The Wikipedia entry for the latter text notes, “By their very nature the Res Gestae are less objective history and more propaganda for the principate that Augustus instituted.” Augustus, like Everyman, in the end, has only his deeds to accompany him after death. Yet the inscription puts a spin on his deeds: they may be objectively true, but they are not the whole story. The title of the blog foregrounds my interest in the construction—the spin—of a narrative meant to link together elements of the trace.

[1.2] What follows is the bare bones of a longer paper I’m writing about truth claims, authority, and analysis. I argue that the Internet may best be read not as a text with a truth claim, but as fiction. These fiction-interpreting strategies may be the best ones to bring to bear on Web texts in the aggregate because of the contested notion of truth claims. I use the LiveJournal blogsphere as my practical example. I consider it a huge, sprawling novel-like text that tells me something about the culture it’s embedded in.

[1.3] This work will be coupled with another project I’m starting that’s about constructing “truth” when it’s possible to continually delete, alter, and rewrite pages, thus altering the trace. I will probably use Fandom Wank (and an associated wankfest) as my practical example.

2. Amateur, Professional, Truth

[2.1] In the Web 2.0 world, truth claims are particularly hard to uncover, especially because notions of authority have come to mean less and less. The catch phrase for this has become “the cult of the amateur.” Lately, the uninformed amateur has come to be valorized over the expert, turning the usual notion of authority on its head. The Web has taught us that anybody can generate content, not just trained professionals—and that some of this content is pretty good. Nicholas Carr, in The Amorality Of Web 2.0, privileges the expert over the amateur because of the checks and balances in place for quality control and accuracy:

[2.2] They can hire and pay talented people who would not be able to survive as sole proprietors on the Internet. They can employ editors and proofreaders and other unsung protectors of quality work. They can place, with equal weight, opposing ideologies on the same page. Forced to choose between reading blogs and subscribing to, say, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Atlantic, and the Economist, I will choose the latter. I will take the professionals over the amateurs.

[2.3] Andrew Keen discusses the fraught space of the amateur versus the professional in more detail in his new book, The Cult Of The Amateur (New York: Currency, 2007). The overabundance of content, with no way to sort the chaff from the grain, results in an inability to find the truth, or worse, a confusion about what sources have authority and what sources do not:

[2.4] Blogs have become so dizzyingly infinite, that they’ve undermined our sense of what is true and what is false, what is real and what is imaginary. These days, kids can’t tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they read on joeshmoe.blogspot.com. For these Generation Y utopians, every posting is just another person’s view of the truth; every fiction is just another person’s version of the facts. (5)

[2.5] Also distressing to Keen is the likely eventual collapse of the structures currently in place to create and disseminate truthful knowledge. His fear is that age-old one: the structures that underpin making meaning will collapse, and thus so will our very civilization.

[2.6] Contrasting with Carr’s and Keen’s anxieties about the inappropriate valorization of the rabble are those take the opposite tack: those who valorize the meaning created by aggregates of people. Such truth claims have the weight of numbers behind them, but are numbers really the way to go when constructing a text meant to confer truth? Web 2.0 has changed the way we view construction of knowledge because the expert and the amateur exist side by side, each with valid points of view.

[2.7] Larry Sanger, cocreator of Wikipedia, argues in Who Says We Know that “It is particularly the aggregation of public opinion that instituted this new politics of knowledge.” With hundreds, even thousands, of people working on constructing a single text, some kind of truth claim will emerge by consensus, creating a “collective authority.” Yet for Sanger, there’s a place for the expert: “I believe experts should share the main responsibility of articulating what ‘we know’ in encyclopedia projects; but they should share this responsibility with the general public. For Sanger, there’s room for both, and together, they will create a truth that has the weight of consensus.

[2.8] This two-sided argument is really all about authority, of course: “Why should we believe anything put up on the Web?” Carr and Keen may well wonder, to which Sanger’s response might be, “Because the consensus will result in meaning.” I want to take this one step further: the consensus will result in meaning, but not necessarily in factual or truthful meaning, however those terms may be construed. I want to consider not the truth claims themselves, but what underlies these truth claims.

3. Representing Reality

[3.1] Students of both literature and history realize that objective reality is a difficult thing to get at. In history, eyewitness accounts may need to be married with the same event captured, say, on surveillance tapes, or from another competing source with equal validity. The historian then sorts through everything and constructs a text that is meant to represent a truth. In literature, the writer creates a fictional world in order to say something about our own world, and the tension between the two constructs a new truth, which readers imbue with meaning. But none of this means anything without the inferring mind making connections. Hayden White was the one to famously consider history to be literature, with historians using literary strategies to construct their texts in order to bring about a way of reading. Literature, history, and the Web are presented to us through text, and thus it is not reality itself, but rather a representation of reality, mediated by language through the mind of the writer.

[3.2] To accompany our reading of texts with subjective or objective truth claims, we need flexible interpretive strategies. It’s too simple to say, “The New York Times published this news report. They are reputable. Therefore, what they say is true.” To me, the more interesting question is, “The New York Times published this. What does this tell me about the New York Times or the person who wrote it? What is the agenda here? Why does the NYT think that I, in this historical moment, in this context, would find this interesting? What is it about it that makes me think that it is true? And if it is true, what is the implication for me, for my family, for my country, for my culture?”

[3.3] These are the kinds of questions that I think need to be asked more frequently. They’re big meta questions that attempt to place something specific into the realm of the general, then think about how the meaning resonates. As a practical example, let me apply this reading strategy to a blogsphere where I spend a lot of time: LiveJournal (LJ).

4. Reading LiveJournal

[4.1] LJ is the place to go for media fans, with well-established fan communities available for almost everything. My on-again, off-again relationship with LJ ebbs and flows according to the amount of work I have to do: the more work I have, the less LJ I can fit in. Whenever I have to return after time away, it takes me a while to catch up. People disappear or change their names; people I like find new fandoms and go off on new tangents; new pairing-specific fan fiction communities spring up and I have to decide whether they’re worthwhile. While at a recent conference, as my friends and I chatted about LJ over dinner, it struck me that we were having the same conversation we’d have about a film, say, or a novel. “Did you see…” one person would begin, and another would exclaim, “Yes! Let me tell you what I thought of that.” And off we’d be, as if someone had said, “Have you read the latest Anita Shreve novel?” or “What do you think of the whole D.C. Madam thing?”

[4.2] LJ is one huge text all by itself. It’s a text that those of us who blog over there are invested in keeping up with. Sure, LJ is fractured. I can’t say that I know much about what is on LJ other than the stuff I’m interested in. I’m there for the fannish bits, and I keep up mostly with the people and communities who share interests in common with me. Increasingly, I find I’m keeping up with people I feel like I know, even though our interests have diverged. That’s the beauty of blogs as opposed to targeted newsgroups, such as Yahoo! groups. With blogs, the personality, the persona presented, is really the topic. I keep up with news, but news as it applies to my friends, or the TV programs I engage in the fandoms of. It’s a microcosm of my fannish engagement.

[4.3] This text—and I’m not even going to call LJ a metatext, because, recursively, it meta’s itself—should be read like fiction, with all the implications of truth-claim and reading strategies that the word fiction implies. Reading LJ requires specific strategies, and one thing that is not included in this way of reading is a presumption of truth. LJ is like a huge, sprawling, multiauthored, unfocused novel, Tristram Shandy going down a flight of stairs, only to take his fancy elsewhere for two chapters, rules of narrative storytelling tossed to the side:

[4.4] Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs? for we are got no farther yet than to the first landing, and there are fifteen more steps down to the bottom; and for aught I know, as my father and my uncle Toby are in a talking humour, there may be as many chapters as steps:—let that be as it will, Sir, I can no more help it than my destiny:—A sudden impulse comes across me—drop the curtain, Shandy—I drop it—Strike a line here across the paper, Tristram—I strike it—and hey for a new chapter.

[4.5] The deuce of any other rule have I to govern myself by in this affair—and if I had one—as I do all things out of all rule—I would twist it and tear it to pieces, and throw it into the fire when I had done—Am I warm? I am, and the cause demands it—a pretty story! is a man to follow rules—or rules to follow him? (chap. 2.XLV)

[4.6] LJ is constructed by its users, who use LJ’s tools—its posting interface, its ability to embed artwork, its user images, its handy way to refer to other LJ users, its ability to lock a post so only a particular readership can access it—to engage with one another. Online texts like LJ lead us to toss aside the rules of reading because we are distracted by things like threaded comments, the ability to hyperlink, and the expectations of genre—because we are distracted by intertextuality and metatext. LJ is a blogsphere, and implicit in the notion of a blog is the idea that somehow, someone is stating a subjective opinion, or telling the objective truth, or presenting fiction with no truth claim at all, and all of this is meant to be consumed and commented on. If you wait long enough, everything old becomes new again, and we need to return to an old way of viewing texts instead of being seduced by new forms. LJ should be read as a fiction that tells us a truth, not a truth whose form causes us to read it like fiction.

[4.7] We aren’t changing the world. We aren’t really even creating it. We’re expressing our relationship with it by constructing a huge text, into which we code all our worries, fears, wishes, loves, and desires. Here’s what the novel of LJ tells me: in this particular time, space, and culture, people all over the world are constructing meaning out of visual texts. Films, TV shows, and popular music provide us with something to interpret that is relevant to our culture and our construction of things like good and evil. LJ presents derivative texts, such as fan fiction, that bring the writer and the reader joy—but the construction of the derivative texts is itself a creative endeavor worthy of acknowledgment and study. Authority is still conferred, and quality is still valued. Genre distinctions are maintained. Sexuality and gender are overtly constructed. Each of these things—truths?—deserves an analysis of its own, with an expert deconstructing why we do what we do, because of what it can tell about us in this particular historical moment.

[4.8] A hundred years from now, or even ten years from now, a scholar will analyze LJ as a relic indicative of a particular historical moment. She will use hindsight to place it into a larger context, a moment we can’t understand because it’s still becoming. We at LJ may move on to the next big thing, whatever thing that will be invented that comes after blogs, just like we moved away from mailing lists and hard-copy circular mailings. It’s hard to interpret something when you’re in the middle of it, when you’re standing on the stair, telling two chapters of a story as you descend a staircase.

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5 thoughts on “Literary Readings In The Internet Age

  1. Pingback: amateurs 'r us « ephemeral traces

  2. It’s very fascinating to me that you’re comparing LJ to a novel, and more precisely, to a fragmented novel like Tristram Shandy. I think that concept could be usefully applied as well to fanfiction, or rather the fantext as a whole – I’ve compared it to fragments myself, in the German Romantic sense of a self-referential and recursive collection of fragments that only collectively makes its meaning. You’ve given me much food for thought here – thank you!

  3. In response to Dora T.: I agree that the realm of fanfic (or fanfic including all the extratextual referents, like comments and community threads) can usefully be read using strategies that consider self-referentiality and recursiveness. My favorite exemplar for such a text, other than Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, is of course Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine. Maybe the Internet will give us our All-Seeing Eye.

    My idea is that reading strategies used to read literary texts can usefully be brought to bear on collectively authored texts meant to represent reality. This idea can be expanded to fit the whole Internet, or collapsed to refer to a single fantext.

    Thanks very much for your kind note. Your approach shares much in common with my friend and coeditor Kristina Busse.

  4. Wow. What a brilliant description of LJ. I absolutely agree with this notion that we can best read LJ as a vast fiction that tells us truths about ourselves–and that we use to explore our relation to those truths. This perspective encompasses all the diverse ways people use LJ too, for there is a vast LJ world out there that’s not media fan focused or fandom focused at all. Indeed we could take this perspective to myspace or xanga or hell, wordpress as well. And yet of course the specificities of media fandom are especially compelling.

    Thank you for the wonderful post. Looking forward to reading more here.

  5. In response to lstein: Thanks for your comment! I agree that any one aspect of the blogsphere can be taken out and read as fiction. The other example I have in the longer essay I’m constructing is Wikipedia—which is one huge multiauthored novel in its own, but one concerned with matters of authority in a way that examples from media fandom perhaps are not.

    Lately I’m all about the meta. For anything I read, I ask, “What’s the point? Why should I care?” I’ve found that asking the big questions, tying something small to a huge realm (such as economics, or authority), makes me look at things in new and fruitful ways.

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