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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My Body: material metaphor

A “wunderkammer,” the subtitle of Jackson’s hypertext My Body, is a cabinet of curiosities. The cabinet is an invention of the Enlightenment age: an encyclopedia that collects and represents the variety and vastness of nature in small pieces, specimens. Think of it as Wikipedia, or indeed, the entire web, before there are computers.

That said, we might begin to think of Jackson’s admittedly strange text as both very new and all too familiar. The new is the digital mediation. A hypertext is one in which the narrative has multiple pathways, is non-linear, and some sort of linking mechanism. In digital format, this is most any page on the web; Wikipedia, again, is a massive hypertext encyclopedia. In print form, one version of a hypertext would be the ‘choose your own adventure’ series of books.

But isn’t this text, in its interest in collecting and representing the life of the author, in its most immediate and essential place, the body of the author, also classically autobiographical? Here is Jackson’s description of the cabinet “metaphor” she uses to organize her text:

In the course of writing these reminiscences, I increasingly began to conceive of my body as a great cabinet of curiosities. Some of those many recondite drawers slide easily out and whack you on the shins, some need a little wax and sandpaper. Inside the drawers are folded sheets of cheap blue-lined paper, pages from journals or school reports, with pictures and diagrams pasted in. There are drawings, biological specimens with neat labels, inscrutable items with no labels, stains from bygone experiments, stoppered bottles and broken vials and their spilled, dried contents, in which a squadron of tiny fruit flies met their sticky deaths. There are slips of paper referring you to other drawers, unlabelled keys (you may despair of finding the locks they fit), and there are drawers within the drawers, behind sliding panels or false bottoms. I have found every drawer to be both bottomless and intricately connected to every other drawer, such that there can be no final unpacking. But you don’t approach a cabinet of wonders with an inventory in hand. You open drawers at random. You smudge the glass jar in which the two-headed piglet sleeps. You filch one of Tom Thumb’s calling cards. You read page two of a letter; one and three are missing, and you leave off in the middle of a sentence.

Intricately connected. No final unpacking. This is a point where Jackson’s metaphorical discussion of her writing about her body (her body represented as a cabinet of specimens) blurs into a focus on the intricate relation between her writing and her body. And that relation, we see, extends to our reading and to the form, or medium, in which we view/receive/read the body of writing. The critic Katherine Hayles, who writes about hypertext and other forms of digital literature, refers to this as “material metaphor.” It seems to me a synonym would be metonymy. So one way to make sense of Jackon’s text is to consider its (her) considerable interest in the materiality of a body being represented materially in writing.

Jackson elsewhere, in an essay about her hypertext novel Patchwork Girl (a revision and remediation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), discusses her particular interest in hypertext writing in terms of her inability to write in conventional ways, where logic is ordered and sequential, where things are final and contained. So, I envision this interesting but equally odd autobiographical text to be representative of her writer’s mind and body.

Benjamin Franklin, you might recall, does the same–not as much discussion of bodily fluids, to be sure. Is Franklin’s how-to guide of an autobiography (how to become Ben Franklin) in publishing oneself so different from the self-publishing potential of the web today? Consider the web project Collected Visions. Here the medium is both older and new: photography and digital mediation. And so is the idea: imagine yourself in someone else’s experience.

Jackson’s “My Body” is archived along with lots of other electronic texts of various sorts and genres (texts, in other words, created with and for some sort of computer mediation) at the Electronic Literature Archive.