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.


The Rhetoric and Poetics of Emerson’s Sentences

Some Critical Insight on the Rhetoric of Emerson’s Sentences:

David Robinson, a scholar of Emerson, provides an insightful critical reading of the ways Emerson’s essays work–which is also to say, the way Emerson works the reader through the essays. This can help us grasp Emerson’s philosophy of the essay, while moving us out to a broader understanding of the rhetorical effects (and effectiveness) of essays–our focal point in the next section of the course.

Here is what Robinson writes about Emerson’s “Experience” in his book Emerson and The Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work.

The pattern of continual doubling back, in which every new idea or perspective develops its opposite, recurs even here, when it seems as if the problem of alienation had been settled by dismissing it as frivolous. Each step toward resolution in “Experience” generates a further complication. The hidden negation revealed by each successive affirmation forces the essay into successive turns of direction. The structure of the essay’s argument thus reflects the structure of the essay’s subject. The structure of “Experience” is the structure of experience.  [63-64]

Robinson’s point is that Emerson’s apparent contradictions in the midst of his essays–this is something he is known for, and often blamed for, the lack of consistency–entail a rhetorical purpose. They are rather complications: ways that he pursues the complexity of the experience, and the thinking, that he is after. Here, then, is how Robinson characterizes the nature of an Emerson essay as a version of what Jeff Porter calls “thought thinking”:

The tensions in Emerson’s thought are apparent when one attempts to specify his intellectual position in a given essay, but to write such an essay off as contradictory misses a larger value, its ability to take the reader into an exemplary act of thinking…. They emphasize the living out of ideas. [12-13]

We will see this at work in “Quotation and Originality,” where Emerson pursues a deliberate contradiction of his earlier and more famous essay on originality, “Self-Reliance.” Or rather, pursues a seeming contradiction. Or rather, shows thought and ideas to emerge out of differences that somehow relate. Emerson enacts a counterargument–a deliberate contradiction that serves a rhetorical purpose–and does so in an argument for the necessity of ideas always to be countered. Or, to use one of the keywords of that essay: recomposed.

Some Critical and Practical Insights on the Poetics of Emerson’s sentences:

[1]F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), p. 65

“The sentence was his unit, as he recognized when confessing sadly to Carlyle (1838) that his paragraphs were only collections of ‘infinitely repellent particles.’ It is significant that he said the same thing when reflecting on society as an ‘imperfect union’:  ‘Every man is an infinitely repellent orb, and holds his individual being on that condition.’ The sentence was the inevitable unit for the man who could say, ‘A single thought has no limit to its value.’ He was at his best when he could give both release and embodiment to one of his thoughts in a plastic image; but though he talked about the unexampled resources of metaphor and symbol, his staple device was analogy. As he said, ‘All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy.’”


[2]Robert D. Richardson, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process (2009), pp. 55-57.

“He liked sentences that had a little bite or pop, a flash-point, and he had several different ways of achieving this effect, which we may distinguish as the whip-crack, the back-flip, the brass ring (hole in one), and the mousetrap.”

Whip-crack sentence: the final word/phrase makes the sentence snap.

“…something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar.”

Back-flip sentence: energy comes from a surprising reversal, putting the verbal energy at end, like German puts verb at end of sentence.

“Every hero becomes a bore at last.”

“Temperament puts all divinity to rout.”

This reversal can take the form of the subject of the sentence being delayed or lost–contrary to grammatical norms. For example this one from “Experience”: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks from this one, and for another moment from that one” (CW 3: 34).

Brass ring: come up with unforgettable phrase that remain in English ever since.

“Hitch your wagon to a star.”

“The eye is the first circle.”

Mouse-trap sentence: baited with Latinate abstraction and sprung with plain Anglo-Saxon.

“A foolish consistency is the hobogblin of little minds.”

“…and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.”

Hearing and Seeing Emerson’s rhythm:

I have lately been hearing a certain rhythm and tone of Emerson’s sentence-poetics, and in particular the devastating sentence from Experience that follows the revelation of the death of his son, in the rhythm of the Bon Iver song “Holocene.” We will be exploring later in the course the poetics of voice and style in essay writing. This is toward some initial grasp of that, how with Emerson and what he described as the “infinitely repellent particles” of his sentences we need to grasp not just what they say but how they sound. For Emerson, the philosophy (the idea, the sentiment, the argument, the “intellect”) is conveyed not just through the sentences, but in them. The sentences in “Experience,” it seems to me, offer syntactical and poetic renditions of: surprise, provocation, temperament, balance, mediation. They move us through the series of the essay, much as he argues we move with these ideas through the series and surfaces of life.

Here is the sentence, rendered with breaks to notice the rhythm and repetition we can hear:

So is it with this calamity:

it does not touch me:

some thing which I fancied was a part of me,

which could not be torn away without tearing me,

nor enlarged without enriching me,

falls off from me,

and leaves no scar