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Burgess—Nation, Book, Medium

Nation, Book, Medium: New Technologies and Their Genres

by Miranda Burgess

[Burgess, Miranda. 2009. “Nation, Book, Medium: New Technologies and Their Genres.” In Genres in the Internet: Issues in the Theory of Genre, 193–219. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing.]

Points

  • This essay “treats genre less as a self-evident proposition than as an analytic category that is undergoing (re)definition, a scholarly mode that has itself become the object of study”
  • “In arguing that the self-reflexive discourse of new media shares both a history and a form with the scholarly discourse about new media, this essay makes the case for the utility of genre theory in charting the process of media succession and in examining the experience of media change” (193-94).
    • emphasis is on experience, defined here as “the interface between history and the subject, or the perceptual and analytic exchange between the flow of events and their narrative rendition” (194).
  • “relatively few have sought to remake genre theory as what Cohen calls “a theory of behavior” (Cohen 2003: iv). By attending in a specifically historical way to what I will be calling the genre of new media history, this essay aims to propose, if not a general theory of generic motivation, then at least an account of genre formation in the context of the experience of change” (194).

Genre, Model, Method, Theory

  • “Marshall McLuhan addressed the citation of older media by newer ones in his famous aphorism that “The ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan 1964: 23) (195).
  • “N. Katherine Hayles characterizes the relations between contemporaneously existing forms as a “medial ecology”: all media, and thus all mediated works, are to be understood in a context of interaction within and against one another (Hayles 2002: 33).”
  • “I wish to emphasize the pragmatic character of genre in my own account of new media history, which will argue for the recognition of genres in process where a common ground of what I will call, for lack of a better term, narrative form can be found among writers and new media producers. But I want, at the same time, to underline the role played by genre both as an experiential reflection and a motor of historical change” (197).

New Media Histories

meta-media:the scholarship on new media 1991-2000

  • “In the Anglo-American world of the 1990s, salons and newspapers rang to the clash of competing voices as academics, journalists, politicians and public intellectuals argued about new media […]
  • “Jean Baudrillard and Jameson, were engaged with a corresponding set of problems, which they characterized as a loss of cultural depth, of a sense of location, of a historical sense, of a sense of the real (Jameson 1991; Baudrillard 1988).1” (199).
  • the new media histories of the 1990s reference a past whose characteristic modes of social organization (the nation) and of writing and reading (the book) exist in an analytic proximity—indeed, an intimacy—that yields to a slippage between them.”

New media: The net.goths and their websites in the 1990s

  • “The slippage of nation and book that typifies the meta-media of the 1990s is even more apparent in new media practice itself: in the social networking websites produced by net.goths at the end of the twentieth century” (203).
  • “As in Rheingold’s account of the WELL, the participants in Nola-Goth.org envisioned their use of electronically mediated communication as a way to establish a form of direct democracy, which they described as a characteristic American public practice of the past and represented as having been lost. As in Doheny-Farina’s more skeptical analysis, however, they conceded the technology’s inadequacies by meeting in person to socialize and debate, and their electronic interactions remained nostalgic for the same material spaces: the town hall, coffeehouse, and tavern” (205).

New media and meta-media, 1790-1820s: Walter Scott’s situation

  • “conjunction of (old) books with nations may well be an inherited expression of crisis, one that is not, however, transhistorical, but rather post-Romantic: a form of crisis founded at the historical moment when print becomes ubiquitous (St Clair 2004: 10–13). In this context, it may be seen that the old book that is an apparent generic requirement of new media history does indeed “come from” another genre, a precursor narrative of media change in which old books and new compete on the battleground of national community” […]
  • “The “Net.Goth Directory book,” in particular, is a visibly, even exaggeratedly antiquarian object […]
  • it resembles an earlier book: the “Mighty Book, With iron clasp’d, and with iron bound,” belonging to “the wizard, Michael Scott” in Walter Scott’s 1805 narrative poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel (Scott 1805: 2.21.8–9; 6.26.25). The antiquity of the Directory’s book thus refers doubly to its history: to the hypermediated forms of Romantic nationalism associated with Scott as well as to the interlocking conceptions of literary and national tradition on which new media history from the turn of the nineteenth century to the turn of the twenty-first has drawn in its nation—and canon—making” (208).
  • “Scott’s poem intervenes, moreover, in a context that forms a striking parallel to the emergence and spread of new communications media in the 1990s: that of the widening of reading audiences and growth in periodical writing at the turn of the nineteenth century that William St Clair has termed the rise of the “reading nation” (St Clair 2004)” […]
  • “The wooden frame of the press was replaced by iron, hand- fed broadsheets were succeeded by the mechanized feed of continuous paper, and, after 1811, the hand-worked press began giving way to steam (Steinberg 1959: 198–206)” (209).

    Page 221, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “As these examples suggest, new media debate at the turn of the nineteenth century shares with the new media discussions of the 1990s a governing oppo- sition between materiality and dematerialization, substance and insubstantiality, in which the nation and old books serve as reassuring ballast.”

The genre of new media history

  • “These distinct situations share not only a narrative arc and a metaphoric register but also, I would suggest, a set of causes. To read the writings of new media historians from the turn of the nineteenth century is to find an explicit argument about the dependency of nations on literacy and the subjection of nations to the vagaries of reading. To some extent this Romantic argument may have been self-interested, rooted in very personal anxieties about the fate of literature, and poetry in particular, in what seemed to be the coming age of mass literacy and ephemeral written forms (see e.g. Keen 2000; Siskin 1998: 130–152). In this way, it parallels the hinted but rarely voiced concern of late twentieth-century commentators, academic and otherwise, about their own displacement by new media and new content—from the depopulation of academic courses and the corresponding loss of intellectual property to the tabloidization and disappearance of newspapers in the new day of the blogosphere (see Noble 1998; Liu 2004: 30; Angwin & Hallinan 2005)” (213).
  • the emergence of genre is a behavioral response to change. It is the outcome of the mingling of purpose (a response to the experience of history) and of purposiveness (the subject’s self-consciousness about his or her encounter with the forms in which history is understood and narrated) with a narrative response that, broadly, shares a common form, an arc, figure, or set of references” (214, italics and bold added).
  • “to what extent can it be suggested that genre as a category, at once a hallmark of continuity and a register of evolution, is a writer’s (failed?) response to subjectively experienced agonies of change (as a loss of agency)? (215).

Conclusions

  • For Scott and for others, the nation and the book, whether figured as the traditionary objects of nostalgia or as threatened ideals in need of restoration or defense, serve as compensatory objects in the face of medial and social history. Both are always already superseded; the question is only whether they should or can return, and in what form. For these writers, … however, genre itself—the shape of the mutually metaphorical narratives of nation and book and its function as a common ground of reference, conversation, even understanding—is the real recompense for change, even as it helps to make visible the workings and experience of history” (216).

Abstract

This essay examines some ‘new media’ practices of the 1990s together with late twentieth-century critical commentaries on computer-mediated communication and electronic textuality. It compares both with discussions of changes in communications technologies and readerships from the turn of the nineteenth century. Based on observations about narrative form—especially the mutual metaphoricity of the nation and the book—in conjunction with the associated qualities of self-consciousness about sociability, historicity, and mediatedness that emerge from this study, I propose an understanding of genre formation as a characteristic, and under-recognized, response to the experience of media change and outline the possible contributions a more self-conscious theory of genre could make to existing theories of media, mediation, and media succession.

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