Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society
Author: Steven Shaviro
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003
Review Published: July 2006
First, I would like to thank RCCS for reviewing my book Connected. and all three reviewers for their generous responses to my text. In what follows, I will try to respond to the main issues that the reviewers raise.
The largest point that all three reviewers make has to do with the networked, or hypertextual, nature of Connected. Meredith Tromble says reading it "is like nothing so much as surfing the Web." Jarice Hanson wishes for "an accompanying DVD … along with audio and video examples." And Kathleen Fitzpatrick wishes that the book had been published electronically, networked, or "published through a database engine of the sort that supports blogging."
I am pleased that the readers saw the book in this way, because it means that I have succeeded at least to some extent in having the book participate in the dilemmas that it endeavors to describe. And indeed, part of me wishes that I had in fact done what Fitzpatrick recommends, and "published" the book (if that is still the right word) online, in an interactive form on the Web, that would have allowed for various paths through the text, as well as allowing readers' responses to be incorporated alongside what I wrote.
It may be that my failure to do so was partly a lack of nerve: it's still true that, in academia today, far less credit is given to web projects than to books that are formally peer-reviewed, and published by prestigious academic presses. This is something that needs to change in our information-overloaded, post-Gutenberg world. But for now, it remains the case that I wouldn't have gotten as much "academic capital" if I hadn't published Connected in the traditional manner, with an academic press. Without conventional publication, I probably wouldn't have gotten the job I have now, at considerably higher pay than my previous academic position. Such crass material considerations need to be taken into account when we look into matters of changing media and modes of publicity.
There's also the question of the degree to which my book itself is "networked," as all three reviewers note. My use of separate paragraphs, each with its own title, means that Connected is not as rigidly linear as many critical or theoretical books are. Often a given paragraph presents ideas that lead off in a number of directions, and that could plausibly have been followed by a number of alternate sections. And indeed, as I was writing the book, I did experiment with a number of different possible orderings of the text. At the same time, Connected is not really as nonlinear as it might at times appear. It's digressive, sure; but there are still sustained arguments that reach across multiple paragraphs, and that wouldn't have worked in a different order. I'm not entirely sure this is a good thing: deep and "sustained argument" might well be overrated, as compared to the ability to make connections in breadth, and to affirm the divergence and diversity that actually exist in the world, especially in our complex and hypermediated world. I consciously tried to overload the text with as many citations and extrinsic reference points as I could; if the web of references had been denser, then the argument might have been less limited by linearity.
Lev Manovich argues, convincingly, that the database has displaced the narrative to become the predominant mode of organization in our electronic, algorithmic culture. The question for me then becomes whether it is possible to write critical and speculative theory in a database form rather than a narrative one. To write an encyclopedia, as it were, rather than a treatise. In fact, I've toyed with the idea of writing in a database program instead of a word processing or text editing program (this would probably also involve employing some form of XML). So far, my results have been inconclusive, and I continue to write more or less linearly, using LaTeX.
The problem, really -- which I only partly "solved" in Connected -- is how to address the realities of a multimedia, full-immersion-environment world using only literary or textual means. I mean, I'd love to play with sounds, and images, and page design, and so on, rather than just with words. I think that such a multifaceted approach would be closer to what I am trying to discuss. But I am only good with words, really. It would be easy enough to hire a designer to work out better ways of presenting my words on the page, or on the screen. And that might well be worth doing. But it's not the same thing as a collaboration that would be multimedia from the get-go. The latter is much more difficult and challenging, and much more restricted in terms of what sorts of personalities could mesh together and really make a thing like this work.
In the meantime, and absent such a collaboration, my hope for Connected (and also for what I have been writing since then) is that, at the same time that its (partially) networked, nonlinear structure is recognized, it also gets a certain degree of power and perspicacity from the fact that it is, in a certain sense, archaic: that it still uses literary and textual means to describe a situation that is very much post-literary and post-textual. Its very backwardness, I hope, creates a kind of delay, that allows for a kind of alienation-effect, and thereby for a different sort of reflection than would be possible using more adequate (i.e. multimedia and polylinear) means.
I fear that Jarice Hanson is right to complain that, at certain points, "many of the sections suffer from name or idea dropping, with too little exploration to tease out their meanings." This is a result of the fact that Connected falls between two stools: it is caught somewhere in between conventional conceptual writing (from which it is trying to break away) and a newer form, more fully attuned to the realities of the network society (which it fails to fully attain).
It remains to say that this defect could perhaps have been averted if I had been able to be freer with hypertext citations outside of my own words. All my textual citations, of novels, philosophical treatises, etc., are covered by generally accepted "fair use" guidelines; but the standards for sounds and images are different. Even small soundbytes, and images like movie stills, let alone movie scenes or other moving images, are considered to be fully copyright-protected, and unavailable for outside use without special permission (and often large cash payments as well). The insidious privatization of "information" is one of the things that I write about in Connected; and the book would have been more capacious and complete -- and more a multimedia document than just a book -- had I been able to make the DVD that Jarice Hanson wishes for, and to have included music and video samples as well as (fair-use-protected) textual samples. What really makes a book like Connected -- or, really, any book, or any work across a number of media -- more than just the expression, or the property, of its ostensible "author," is less the ability of readers to interact with it and comment on it -- though that is also important -- than the multiplicity of voices and sources and citations and points of reference that it already contains.
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