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The Culture of Information
ENGL 25 Winter 2003, Alan Liu
Notes for Class 12

This page contains materials intended to facilitate class discussion (excerpts from readings, outlines of issues, links to resources, etc.). The materials are not necessarily the same as the instructor's teaching notes and are not designed to represent a full exposition or argument. This page is subject to revision as the instructor finalizes preparation. (Last revised 11/18/03 )

Preliminary Class Business

  • Course password for restricted online materials

  • Readings for Wednesday: Ed Falco, Olia Lialina, and "hypertext literature" (essays by Vannevar Bush, George Landow)

  • Four-page paper due in lecture in Class 15 (Mon. Feb. 10)
  • Midterm Reading Exam, Wed. Feb. 12
    • Short-answer questions
    • Multiple-choice questions
    • Identification questions (full credit for first + last name)
    • Bonus questions about instructor's lectures

Literary and Artistic Responses to the Information Revolution

  • The Literature of Information
    Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)

  • Toward a New Media Literature
    William Gibson, Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) (1992)

  • Digital (Hypertext) Literature
    Ed Falco & Olia Lialina (1996-99)

  • Graphic Arts, Digital Art, & Network Art in the New Media Age
    David Carson, April Greiman, advanced Web design, George Legrady, Lisa Jevbratt

Lev Manovich on "What is New Media?"
(from Notes for Class 8)

The role of the computer in media: "new media" results not from the mere presence of the computer in the "production, distribution, and communication" of media but from new ways of working with, organizing, and thinking about media made possible by the computer.

Principles of New Media:

Micro- or Machine-level Principle:

(1) digitization and "numerical representation" (sampling/quantization [also packetization]).

Mid-level Formal or Procedural Principles:

Box (2) "Modularity"

(3) "Automation"

(4) "Variability"

Example: "layers" in a Photoshop image (screenshot)

Higher-Level Psychological, Social, or or Cultural Principle:

(5) "Transcoding" (cf., McLuhan on media as an "extension of man")

New Media Operations and Forms Built on These Principles:
  • "Operations" (e.g., compositing, teleaction)

  • "Forms" (e.g., the database vs. narrative)

Application of Manovich: Stages in the Evolution of New Media

  1. Partial adoption of new media principles, operations, and forms
  • Digitization
  • Modularity
  • Automation
  • Variability
  • Transcoding
  1. Threshold moment of synergy among new media principles

  2. Full adoption of new media principles by the author

  3. Readers' adoption (or resistance) to new media principles

William Gibson and Dennis Ashbaugh, Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) (1992)

Photo of Agrippa mock-up
Photo by Megan Boody; reproduced here temporarily for use in instruction

[description from Peter Schwenger's article, pp. 617-18]

Agrippa as a "missing link" work in the evolution of new media:

Digitization partial
Modularity yes
Automation yes
Variability no
Transcoding partial
partial= (partial)

[from Kevin Begos's letter on the origin of Agrippa]

A Comparison: William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" (1798)

  • A poem about identity (who am I? who am I as a writer?)

  • The problem of identity is discontinuity:

    • Biographical circumstances of poem: 1793 ---------> 1798
      ("Five years have past; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!")

    • The biographical, social, philosophical problem of discontinuity in Wordsworth's poetry

  • The solution to the problem of discontinuous identity is memory:

    • Memory is a "picture of the mind":

           And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
      With many recognitions dim and faint,
      And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
      The picture of the mind revives again:
      While here I stand, not only with the sense
      Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
      That in this moment there is life and food
      For future years.                        (ll. 58-65)

    • Memory composites or layers together the discontinuous moments of time in a single, fused continuity (in Photoshop-speak, it "flattens" the "layers"):

      Five years have past; five summers, with the length
      Of five long winters! and again I hear
      These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
      With a soft inland murmur. —Once again
      Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
      That on a wild secluded scene impress
      Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
      The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
      The day is come when I again repose
      Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
      These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
      Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
      Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
      'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
      These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
      Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
      Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
      Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
      With some uncertain notice, as might seem
      Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
      Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
      The Hermit sits alone.

      (ll. 1-22)

                                And so I dare to hope,
      Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
      I came among these hills; when like a roe
      I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
      Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
      Wherever nature led: more like a man
      Flying from something that he dreads, than one
      Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
      (The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
      And their glad animal movements all gone by)
      To me was all in all. —I cannot paint
      What then I was. The sounding cataract
      Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
      The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
      Their colours and their forms, were then to me
      An appetite; a feeling and a love,
      That had no need of a remoter charm,
      By thought supplied, nor any interest
      Unborrowed from the eye. —That time is past,
      And all its aching joys are now no more,
      And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
      Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur, other gifts
      Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
      Abundant recompence. For I have learned
      To look on nature, not as in the hour
      Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
      The still, sad music of humanity,
      Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
      To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
      A presence that disturbs me with the joy
      Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
      Of something far more deeply interfused,
      Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
      And the round ocean and the living air,
      And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
      A motion and a spirit, that impels
      All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
      And rolls through all things.

      (ll. 65-102)

    • Memory is "natural" and "organic" (the "One Life")

William Gibson: "Agrippa"

  • A poem about identity (who am I? who am I as a writer?)

  • The problem of identity is discontinuity:

    • The 4 discontinuous biographical scenes of the poem:
      • Gibson's father's childhood
      • Gibson's own childhood in Virginia (his father died when he was six)
      • Gibson's young manhood in Virginia
      • Gibson's move to Canada to escape the draft

  • The solution to the problem of identity is memory:

    • Memory is not a "picture of the mind" but media: a photo album

      I hesitated
      before untying the bow
      that bound this book together.

      A black book:
           Order Extra Leaves
              By Letter and Name

      A Kodak album of time-burned
      black construction paper
                                 (ll. 1-10)

    • Memory layers the discontinuous moments of time—e.g., photos in sections I and III of the poem:

      A flat-roofed shack
      Against a mountain ridge
      In the foreground are tumbled boards and offcuts
      He must have smelled the pitch, In August
      The sweet hot reek
      Of the electric saw
      Biting into decades

      Next the spaniel Moko
      "Moko 1919"
      Poses on small bench or table
      Before a backyard tree
      His coat is lustrous
      The grass needs cutting
      Beyond the tree,
      In eerie Kodak clarity,
      Are the summer backstairs of Wheeling,
           West Virginia
      Someone's left a wooden stepladder out
                                                          (ll. 27-44)

    • But the layers of memory do not composite, flatten, or fuse. The inspiration of the work is not organic Nature but "The Mechanism"—a mechanism that is the very principle of discontinuity:

      The Camera:

      The mechanism: stamped black tin,
      Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,
      A lens
      The shutter falls
      Dividing that from this.
                                 (ll. 98-104)

      The Gun:

      Now in high-ceiling bedrooms,
      unoccupied, unvisited,
      in the bottom drawers of veneered bureaus
      in cool chemical darkness curl commemorative
      montages of the country's World War dead,

      just as I myself discovered
      one other summer in an attic trunk,
      and beneath that every boy's best treasure
      of tarnished actual ammunition
      real little bits of war
      but also
      the mechanism

      The blued finish of firearms
      is a process, controlled, derived from common
           rust, but there
      under so rare and uncommon a patina
      that many years untouched
      until I took it up
      and turning, entranced, down the unpainted
      to the hallway where I swear
      I never heard the first shot.

      The copper-jacketed slug recovered
      from the bathroom's cardboard cylinder of
          Morton's Salt
      was undeformed
      save for the faint bright marks of lands
          and grooves
      so hot, stilled energy,
      it blistered my hand.

      The gun lay on the dusty carpet.
      Returning in utter awe I took it so carefully up
      That the second shot, equally unintended,
          notched the hardwood bannister and brought
          a strange bright smell of ancient sap to life
          in a beam of dusty sunlight.
          Absolutely alone
          in awareness of the mechanism.

      Like the first time you put your mouth
          on a woman.
                                                           (ll. 105-144)

Agrippa as a "missing link" work in the evolution of new media:

Digitization partial
Modularity yes
Automation yes
Variability no
Transcoding partial
partial= (partial)

As we will see when we read Gibson's Neuromancer, the true "mechanism" for him is not old media or guns but the computer.

An updated "translation" of the beginning of Section 2:


The mechanism: stamped black tin,
Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,
A lens
The shutter falls
Dividing that from this.


The mechanism: injection-molded plastic,
Circuits on chipboard, bits of silicon,
A screen
The mouse clicks
Linking that to this.

Definition of "Composite"

Lev Manovitch, p. 136:

"Once all the elements are ready, they are composited together into a single object; that is, they are fitted together and adjusted in such a way that their separate identities become invisible. . . . The result is a single seamless image, sound, space, or scene."