Hacking the Essay

Ander Monson’s “Essay as Hack” is a sort of hypertextual, new media essay about the essay as hyperactive text. He writes print essays that are in some ways, minimally, linked to the web. This one, you notice, has a hyperlink to another essay from his first book (Neck Deep), that is now included in a website that is somehow (not entirely clear) part of those essays. He does something similar with his recent book Vanishing Point–a print book of essays with adjoining or complementary or further reading available on the web at his main site, Other Electricities. But Monson has in mind not just the essay in new media forms, the essay updated for new technologies. He is thinking about the essay itself as a technology for thinking.

And so the futuristic and new in Monson’s mind returns us to the old medium of Montaigne’s essay, theater of the brain, thought thinking. For example:

Each essay we read is as close as we can get to another mind. It is a simulation of the mind working its way through a problem. This is not to suggest that every essay is good, revelatory, successful, fruitful, interesting. But stepping into an essay is stepping into the writer’s mind. We are thrown into the labyrinth, a huge stone rolling behind us. It is a straight shot of the brain in all its immediacy, its variety, strands of half-remembered text, partly-thought-through ideas, images below the surface of memory. We are thrown into process: of thinking, which is like an algorithm, a machine for replicating or simulating thought….

The essay is a thinking and writing machine; or more to Monson’s point, to essay is to hack one’s way through the process of thinking: the essay as hack is a technology repurposed to solve a sort of problem. Monson’s essay returns us to our starting point: the essay on the essay, the philosophy of the essay. But it also pushes us forward in developing its rhetoric, the effects of its argument, by way of its  poetics. The essay as technology or machine or hacking of our thinking machinery emphasizes the importance of the “process” by which essays are made. Process, as we have been hearing, is a keyword and interest of the new media essay. And it is what Emerson has in mind, surely, in “Circles,” where every truth written is a witness to its process of becoming undone.

And so, for the experimental third writing project, the purpose is for you to explore and consider more directly the process (and by extension, the processing) of the essay. For a complement to Monson’s sense of the essay as hypertext, consider Shelley Jackson’s essay on hypertext narrative (she’s the author that writes the hypertext memoir, “My Body”). There she argues for a version/vision of hypertext narrative that sounds something like the argument for the lyric essay–or perhaps, the original essay: collage, nonlinear, paratactic (rather than linear and hypotactic), creatively responding to “constraint” (one of Monson’s keywords). We might think of Jackson’s hypertext essay “My Body” as a hack of the personal essay, or a hack of the body. Or both. It brings into focus the rhetorical and poetic device we discussed earlier in the semester, metonymy. Consider this other project of Jackson’s for an even more metonymic version about writing on the body.

Consider this related perspective from Andrew Piper, who argues for an understanding of literature and books and essays that includes their longstanding interests in what we now associate with computers: numbers, gaming, algorithms.

When we read a digital text we are not reading a static object. We are reading one that has been generated through a set of procedural conditions that depend on our interaction with them. Digital texts are never just there. They are called forth through computation and interaction, whether by a human or a machine. This is what makes them dynamic, not static objects. It is this feature that marks the single strongest dividing line between the nature of books and that of their electronic counterparts. (Book Was There, 132)

The understanding of texts as dynamic and interactive and not static objects: though the specific reference here is to the digital text, we can  also think of this as a fundamentally social and rhetorical nature of writing. When we read and write we rewrite; we hack our way into what has already been said and written. That’s the algorithm. Emerson called that “recomposition.”

What do you think of this idea of literature–the experiences of reading and writing–interacting with the logic of numbers, of playing, of computation? The argument from Monson and Jackson and Piper seems to be that literature, and specifically the essay, has always had an element of play, long before the invention of digital mediation. Would you agree? Do these essays return you to Emerson or Montaigne? Enhance or even improve upon what those older essays do? Or fail to engage your attention?

My hack of Monson’s hack as essay (my digital annotations) is available here. Monson also does some video essays. For example one he calls an “essay-dispatch” titled “Silence in the Former Indianapolis Airport.”

For those interested in creating a hypertext essay or narrative for Project 3 (or possibly the Final Project), in the style of Monson or Jackson, Twine is an online site that provides the software to do just that.

I suggested that Monson’s and Jackson’s hacks  of the essay present us with examples of the paratactic nature of the essay. Recall in our introduction to the poetics and history of the essay, reference was made to the essays paratactic style. Read here for more on parataxis–to use a paratactic feature of the digital age, the hyperlink.

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Poetics of the Essay: thought in the making

The poetics of the essay: what does this mean? Poetics is surely related to poetry. In studying the genre of poetry, you will give a great deal of attention to the poetics of the form, how a poem is made. But in this etymological sense of the word, poetics–the making; poem is a “thing made”–concerns the making of any writing, poetry or prose, poem or essay.  Thus the three elements of our essay exploration can be categorized in this way:

  • Philosophy: What an essay is, what it is arguing for, what its ideas and concerns are.
  • Rhetoric: How an essay and its ideas and argument are working; how the essay organizes and focuses the attention of the audience and moves the reader through the sections and paragraphs.
  • Poetics: What the essay is doing and how it is made; the creative role of the language and form in making the essay an essay; how individual sentences, lines, and words turn (verse= turning) and focus attention.

This listing should remind us that any of these elements can’t exist entirely alone. There is no essay that is all poetics, no philosophy and no rhetoric; the poetics, what the writing does, correlates with how the argument (philosophy) works (rhetoric). Furthermore, as I mentioned in a previous discussion, poetics and rhetoric have long been viewed as fluid and in some cases indistinguishable: metonymy, metaphor, irony, for example, can be classified as both rhetorical figures and poetic figures of speech.

However, there are texts where one element seems more at play in the meaning of the essay. And so, as we turn our attention to more recent and still emerging contemporary forms of the essay–mutlimedia essay, lyric essay and other types of creative nonfiction forms of the genre–we will have an opportunity and obligation to focus in on the creativity of the essay. These are essays; but given the forms of their presentation (and the tools that go with the media), we might say, with a nod to Marshall McLuhan, that the message (or philosophy) of these essays is in the medium.

When we watch an essay (is this the appropriate verb?) or listen to one, we are challenged to give some attention to what this essay does in this unfamiliar form. Take Rankine’s “Zidane.” I recall when she visited Washington College a few years ago, and shared this essay, I said to her: if high schools presented this as a type of essay, as an example of what a writer might do with an essay, think of all the students (particularly disaffected male students, too cool to be smart) who would be begging to write essays. The transcript for the “text” in the essay is included in her recent book Citizen (from which she read when she visited us again in September, 2015). For additional video essays (or moving poems as she calls them) that she has made with her husband, the filmmaker John Lucas, consider the series “Situations.” She includes the prose versions of these essays in Citizen. And one of the original video or film essays, according to John Bresland, is Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil.” You can watch the opening 2 minutes in this clip.

Does the addition of the visual and the audio to the more familiar verbal experience of an essay in Rankine’s example enhance the essay? Does it add immediacy that would have been lacking in a print version? Does it do the opposite, engage (or is it distract) because it presents us with a hypermediated (multimediated) reading experience? Is it too much, or too little, or just right?

Marshall McLuhan, media theorist who argued that “the medium is the message,” might be considered an early-adopter of the lyric/poetic/new media essay. In The Medium is the Massage, he defines any medium/technology as an extension of a human faculty. And so the book, he argues, and shows, is an extension of the eye.

He goes on to suggest that the new forms of electronic literacy emerging in the 1960s suggests that books also want to be, or to become, extensions of the ear. This is one way to get a handle on the new media forms of the essay we will be exploring over the next week, using (more deliberately) our eyes and ears.

Now we are talking and thinking poetics.