everybody knows: the computer spoils our style. At least it spoils mine. Without the risk factor (the risk to be forced to retype the whole text) and the physical effort involved in writing with a mechanical typewriter, we miss what we abolished: we miss resistence. Everybody knows: resistence improves your style. In general it seems harder but easier to create a good sculpture out of extremely hard stone than out of soft stuff. Unless we impose new kinds of criteria, adopt new challenges and difficulties, we'll end up paying for the new comfort with a bad style.
(I admit: I am no exception: I write more quickly since I use the computer, and I write more, with this blinking cursor, teasing and seducing me like playmates in the schoolyard: challenging me to catch him - and I'll try and try but never never will get hold of him.)
By now, from the mass of writers who shifted from pen or typewriter to the computer and who tried, for many years in vain, to convince me to do the same, I hear only appraisals of the new ease and comfort in writing. No one told me of new difficulties and challenges yet, which would allow me to guess in which direction new criteria of style and quality could be found.
Of course, hard stone, or hard ways of writing never guaranteed a good result. But they at least created a certain natural limitation of overproduction and chattiness. Now we have to create these limits within ourselves. How?
I think we have to look for the new criteria of style, new, self-imposed limitations there where the "power" of our electronic writing is coming from: from electricity, and from silicon and plastic.
First of all we have to look: where did our effort go. The effort to move the mechanism of the typewriter is now delivered by electric power: we do not see where it comes from: nuclear plants, cole or oil burning, wind-, water or sun-power. Most of them are polluting considerably. But this we all know (and ignore). In the given context I want to consider the fact that most of them are sources related to fire and explosion. We fuel our communication not with the burning of carbohydrates in our muscles, we do the burning, in grand style, elsewhere.
What causes our bad chatty style is, in the first place, the fact that electricity is far too cheap: we do not really pay for what we get because we do not pay for the real use of resources, the ecological damage, which is also a use of "future", i.e. a reduction of future options for these same, limited, resources. So perhaps we should introduce a kind of word (or sign/image) tax which should go to ecology programs which help to restore some of these reduced options. But these are just external ways of control, and non-existent ones moreover, for the present time. Let's not expect too much relief from that side...
Getting back to our quest for the electric style. (The curser on my screen, that electric little phantom rabbit keeps pulling me off my track into the jungle of my unthought thought - many of them not worth being thought, but they are waiting for their chance to jump onto my distracted tracks and appear on the screen...)
One of the big assets of computer-aided writing, more important than the lack of physical effort, is the ease with which we can correct a text. But do we really make optimal use of this? Doesn't that ease rather seduce us to consider everything as a temporary version, as preliminary. It does it to me. Sometimes I find myself correcting a letter or manuscript after I have sent it off...But in a way, I could also like this ephemere quality, as long as I consider it as a separate genre.
We have to turn vice into virtue: all quality is achieved through this trick. So perhaps we have to highlight and radicalize the transitory quality of our products. A selfdestructing device in texts perhaps? And how should it be done? I don't think that many writers would adhere to that. It goes against the grain of writing itself which is supposed to provide us a substitute immortality, fixating the wind of the spoken word onto a more durable material carrier. Now, paradoxically, by fixing and fixing the fixing more and more, we came full circle; the carriers of writing became more and more immaterial: now the matter is electricity and light. Unfortunately still encased in plastic and some rare metals. So, how can we counteract the alienation that has taken place, between the act of writing and the material consequences?
One thing would be: to deliberately write less. Perhaps we need some new rules of ettiquette. Nobody likes people who only talk and never listen. Perhaps we should fix a ratio for ourselves, of the time we spend with listening/reading, and the time we spend talking/writing. It seems quite obvious to even the most arrogant writer that there is more interesting stuff to read than one has interesting stuff to write.
Nevertheless, this moralistic appeal to economize is not meant as discouragement to anyone to express themselves more easily and spontaneously: to the contrary. Everybody is unique and irreplaceable in experiencing a world inaccessible to anyone else, and this justifies any attempt to communicate from our personal monadic world with any of the others. Most likely the problem of mere overproduction will self-organize its own solution somehow, by forcing us to be more selective. (I wrote about that earlier. We will select more by instinct or intuition, i.e. by style, than by rational information-procession, i.e. by content, because that is too slow.)
We have to quit something in order to get space for the new. What kind of texts do we sacrifice for the new text-genres? I think we should grant more time to the more unique personal visions and styles. So the individualized electric style could compensate for the boring unification and massification of our electronic society.The past ("patriarchal" early industrial) culture was obsessed with unification,with sameness (of individuals of one group as against the members of another group). One thought that sameness or similarity is a prerequisite for accepting and understanding the other. Of course this reasoning is sometimes correct and sometimes very mistaken. How can we understand the "other" if otherness itself is denied any right of existence? The trick to achieve or enforce samenes where it is lacking is abstraction: abstracting from the difference, abstracting from the concrete and bodily separateness. In this culture it was very important "to be right". That's why argumentation took such an important place. It was said that rational argument is so wonderful because it replaces physical violence. But who says that everybody is so eager to kill. Argument can also be a boring substitute for physical contact or for artful patience in percieving the otherness of the other. For empathy, the most difficult of arts and the most sought for good in our time.
The most revolutionary writer of the beginning of this century, Gertrude Stein, made an incredible discovery (incredible: still nobody believes her): the most interesting thing to listen to is the repetitions all people seem to produce: those things a person keeps saying over and over again characterize that person in such an exact way that we can perceive it as a kind of portrait of that person. That means: she discovered that information is not the point. What do we do with this, in our socalled information-society? If information is not the point, not the main point at any rate, how do we transport something that is not "information" by information technology? Well, this sounds more contradictory than it is. We transport meaning, including the meaning of style; and meaning is not the same as information. Meaning is happening when a writer writes and when a reader reads. Informationtechnology transmits meaning-potentials wrapped in language wrapped in machine-information. When we unwrap it, we consider some of the stuff we recieve as (human) information, some of it have more to do with contact. Electricity clearly makes a different kind of contact than paper. My computer buzzes, paper doesn't. Electricity plus computer create impermanent patterns of light on a screen. If electricity makes a new kind of contact, it will create a new style.
What would that look like: to write really "electrically"? We know what good paper-writing is. Now what is electric writing? I think some writers of this century already prefigured this kind of liquid and instable writing. They still did it with typewriters (often helped by typists, which again are closer to the computer than to oldfashioned pen-writing. To mention Gertrude Stein again: just look at The Making of the Americans, and you know what I mean. But also Musil's Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Doeblin's Alexanderplatz, Joyce, Proust....It is very well possible that they might have used a computer had they had one. I think the "soft-ware" in the sense of content is always there before the hard-ware. We create the hardware around something that we already can imagine.
But then: what is the problem with electric-electronic writing?
The problem number one in our society, obviously, is alienation. Alienation is the inevitable price for the increase in indirectness between exprerienced cause and effect in our everyday life world. But then we have art. The purpose of art is to fight alienation. If we want to have our cake and eat it too (accept technical progres and not become too alienated and polluted) we have to become more artful: artfully aware of our situation and resources, artfully inventive, artfully considerate. And most of all, we have to reinstall the rights and pleasures of the physical body, - literally before = in front of the computer. Cartesian, western mainstrean thought produced a culture called "materialistic", but the body was somehow left out of the picture, because it didn't fit the division between res cogitans and res exatensa. My body resists this partition because it is a borderline and link between the two, having both matter = extension (oh yes, for many of us even a bit too much) and consciousness. My body, this complicated interface in the centre of my world, is the only place where I can find refuge from alienation, because nothing is more real to me. While the abstract academic writing ideal of the past strived for a text cleansed from traces of the writing body, the ideal of our time is or will be to welcome these traces.
But then: where to draw the line? Does the fact that I am hungry now or my hickup have to resonate in my text? I don't think so. (Or perhaps sometimes, - I am generalizing too quickly, in the good old abstract style.) Neither do I believe in the conscious cultivation of a personal style, designed after a self-made self-image or self-delusion. As, again, Getrude Stein noted (in What are masterpieces and why are there so few of them), good writing has nothing to do with that self-created socalled identity. Rather, it comes from complete lack of (constructed) identity during the proces of writing, from spontaneous, yet disciplined presence of awareness. Electricity somehow . Instantaneous. Buzzing. Fluid. Light.
A suspicious lightness sometimes. We are so used to the fact that up to now good art and good artists had to be tragic. And it was so. With a few exceptions, Mozart's art for instance. The frivolously light operas Cosi fan tutte and Die Hochzeit des Figaro are no less profound than Die Zauberfloete.But then his life in (purported) poverty and his early death made up for this unbearable lightness.( Is that a rule particularly for men: that great men, heroic men have to be tragic beings? ...) Somehow electric-electronic writing seems to lack the aura of tragedy and heroism that pen and paper still seemed to emanate to a certain extent. Where did the tragedy go? Is it only hidden in the increasing alienation and pollution ? Or was it just a kind of addiction in a certain cultural framework?(For those of you who still read books I want to refer to Italo Cavino's Six Memos for the Next Millenium .This legacy of a writer, writing about what should be cherished about writing, fits amazingly well into the electric framework: the stylistic virtues he elaborates on are: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. Isn't this a proof of the visionary quality of a good writer (or good artist) qualitate qua? He is mostly writing about writers of long past times and not writing about new media at all.)
I am stuck here. How to get back to my track of reasoning? Was there a track at all? Of course I have been jumping up and down and back and forth in this text of which you get only a neatly stacked uplinear result. (Again the curser has carried or rather pulled me away...)
I have to admit: I do not have an answer to the question where to draw the line in allowing space for personal style. And I should not have an answer in general terms. The problem is that we always want general (note the military connotation) answers to questions which can only be answered case by case, moment for moment, with context-sensitive awareness.
This text is clearly written on electricity. It would not have been written on a typewriter. It is spontaneous, wordy, sloppy. Yet, probably not electric enough yet. Containing quite a few generalizations and pseudo-argumentation. O.k. I fell into my own trap. We are living in a transitory time inbetween periods, after all (are there ever any others?), so I am just mirroring the situation. I know no way out tonight.
Perhaps tomorrow I'll feed the trash-bin generously.
(Sorry, reader, I didn't)