Sunday, December 20, 2009

Writing new media.(Book review).

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Groundbreaking multimedia artist Brion Gysin famously uttered, "Writing is fifty years behind painting. I propose to apply the painter's technique to writing; things as simple and immediate as collage or montage." (1) In sensing this gap during the 1960s, Gysin attempted to push writing into the present with his cut-up compositions with William S. Burroughs. Mark Amerika's book, META/DATA, works from an even more radical premise that writing not only lags behind avant-garde visual composition but fails to encounter the literary potential of new media that experimental writers are only beginning to survey.

Yet, despite the perceived lag, Amerika's book stands in 2007 at the crest of over thirty years of innovation in the digital humanities and experimental literature, such as word processing, hypertext, and digital library architecture. Also, writing itself certainly should not be taken as the laggard falling behind media. For decades it has served as the spark plug and driving wheel of film production and has cut across every aspect of contemporary media production from literary adaptation and scripting to criticism. In this more inclusive sense--writing as an embedded, communicative process--Amerika's book stands at a critical juncture where we can take stock of how far writing has come in the age of new media and how far it has yet to go. The book itself demonstrates how Amerika's diverse style over the past decade stands in anticipation of many unexplored avenues of writing. META/DATA offers lucid opinions and demonstrations of the practical and theoretical potential of writing in relation to new media. It may even show the way toward a new condition of "new media writing." As such, Amerika reimagines writing as a hybrid media/textual spectacle in an attempt to rewrite writing itself through media-inflected methods of composition and distribution, the fictional identity of the writer, and the paradoxical status of the book itself within media culture.

As a metacommentary regarding the new condition of language and literature, the overriding concern with writing and composition is shot through each of the six sections: Spontaneous Theories; Distributed Fictions (short creative prose); Academic Remixes (pedagogical proposals and essays); Image Ecriture (graphic illustrations of his hypermedia and net art); Net Dialogues (interviews with other writers and Internet artists); and Amerika Online (pieces from his column at and other online forums). As diverse as these sections are in style, they all operate by Amerika's primary compositional principle of "surf-sample-manipulate." Each of these three phases suggests a more fluid, dynamic research and composition process, breaking down data and reassembling it into something new. Surf, of course, involves exploring the Internet and its waves of kaleidoscopic information and opinion. Sample derives from the digitization process itself: breaking continuities into discrete bits, pieces, and modular components. Manipulate reworks the material, of course, but more importantly opens up writing to the dimension of rhetoric: the capacity of communication to move people and ideas and consequently transform the world. Methods of writing bent toward rhetoric expand the purpose of writing for Amerika. Appropriately, his own rhetorical style centers on hyperbole: to inflate and expand materials and energies of a new world of cyberspace that deserve our attention and participation.

Amerika's rhetoric therefore strikes at everything "hyper"--not just hyperbole but hypertext. In his rhetorical universe, the fast-forwarding linkages of signs in networks are a built-in feature of the world and always at the ready. So ingrained is the logic of hypertext and hypermedia to his compositional practice that Amerika even dismisses it somewhat off-handedly as one set of approaches among others. In so doing, Amerika's writing methods suggest a post-hypertext state of affairs. His methods are more allied to the avant-pop writers of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Kathy Acker, Julio Cortazar, Raymond Federman, and Ron Sukenick who deployed multiple strategies to open nonlinear options for printed texts. Similarly, Amerika utilizes lists, dialogues, and various medleys of theory and practice involving the conflation of document and fiction. Going back to "surf," in his three-part method, his post-avant-pop and post-hypertext rhetorical style has a quality of "flow" that melds stream-of-consciousness effects with theory and reflective commentary. Sometimes the flow is so exuberant that Amerika seems possessed by a kind of hypergraphia, a compulsive urge to write out the new possibilities of writing. In any case, Amerika hardly suffers from writer's block and offers no council for those who do (like polio, writer's block is ignored as a disease of the past). Instead, he offers methods for controlling and governing the torrent of words that appear as part of a fluxuating landscape.

Here, META/DATA's control methods and flow effects suggest a more abstract kind of writerly action than physical inscription. Like other fields of contemporary media production, the professional artist now operates on a higher level of production and design. Somewhat like the graphic designer who designs graphic tools for do-it-yourself publishers, the professional writer must now create systems and procedures for generating text. Online forums, such as, make publishing and distribution a method of writing, a collective compositional practice rather than an outcome of fixed, printed texts. Here, META/DATA offers interesting reflection and suggestions for workable strategies of new media writing such as the methods of "procedural authorship" involved in multiuser games and multiuser dungeons where writers are more like architects building the rules and protocols into the media environments within which writing occurs. META/DATA points to more abstract, almost algebraic methods involving the writing of X where X can contain many forces and gestures of content including seeing, thought, image, and, most notably, questions of identity.

Amerika's talent and innovation of new media methods of writing lies in his capacity to "write himself into being" and to fashion a sense of identity as a new media construct. Identity here is plural and shifting as a stream in the composite faces of his discourse. As with other features of working methodology, he has a name for it: hypertextual consciousness. Many figures and concepts swirl around this identity construct including "cyborg narrator" and the "pseudo-autobiographical self." In addition to flow effects, these experiences of selfhood have in common the tension between impersonal machine processes and the fictional act of self-creation out of complexity. The first act of fictionalizing is self-invention, and it works both ways. This principle motivates the first item in his list of what it takes to become a net artist: "L invent a fictional identity." And he has demonstrated this proposition in adopting the name "Mark Amerika," which is more than a conventional nom de plume. It is a thoroughgoing establishment of fictional identity as the writing self. Tellingly, the Gale Reference of Contemporary Authors presents his name followed by a question mark; never his given birth name or the usual biographical information. Authors have adopted names historically for many reasons, including protection from persecution or for branding purposes in a whimsical marketplace. "Amerika" plays off of these traditions, but the rationale has more in common with online communication and new media culture.

Adopting fictional names or handles for citizens' band radio and list-serves is, of course, common practice. However, Amerika's name works more uniquely in his special work and identity as a "VJ," or video jockey. This figure epitomizes both interwoven dynamics of method and identity in his new media writing practice. Amerika, as VJ writer, is "out there" and immersed in the audio-visual scene as a global trendsetter; he writes standing up like a hip guitar player rather than sitting moribund behind a desk or cooped up in a library. The VJ writer's method resembles the disc jockey of hip-hop who composes on the fly and conceives texts as "remixes." Similarly, META/DATA is a composite work of "remixed" texts laid down by a VJ writer with a similar purpose to find both personal meaning and community in the media currents of the present and future.

In this way Amerika displays a curious allegiance to the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and yet he marks out another stage. His name refers doubly to Franz Kafka's Amerika (1927) as well as to the use of the term in manifestos of the 1960s' underground press. He draws strongly on the earlier meta-fictional writers and yet stakes his claim for a new generation of experimental writing and fiction. He cites as the governing difference the full immersion and naturalized status of media in the lives of generation X (or the "13th generation") when television and myriad-related forms of communication are not just technological disruptions but assumed features of the environment. As much as Amerika identifies with and exemplifies his generation, his far-reaching value as a writer lies in his ability to straddle various stages of modernity and to suggest bridges to new conceptions of postmodern writing fully integrated rather than crudely "adapted" to media.

In doing so, META/DATA typifies the complexities and paradoxes of writing at this historical moment somewhere between print literacy and online literacy--a juncture crystallized materially by the paradoxes of the book itself. All of the text's power to envision a model of "new media writing" in terms of online texts and VJ spectacles do not dispel the reality of the book in our hands, albeit a rather plain, conventional book. META/DATA, in terms of print technology, is an octavo-sized, hardcover book typographically set without too much flair in Minion and Syntax. There is no obvious physical attempt to emulate the audio-visual writing that appears at the heart of the book's content. What images exist appear in the Image Ecriture section that decidedly falls short of demonstrating any kind of new media writing. In its album-like form, it resembles a typical photo-section that might illustrate a standard autobiography--important to developing a sense of human interest but subordinate to the surrounding narrative text. When the snazzy dust jacket emblazoned with screen-images from GRAMMATRON (2) falls off, there appears a reddish-brown tome, somewhat like an anachronistic technical manual. Would it be too cynical to wonder if the purpose of Amerika's book is to offer conventional publishing "outcomes" for his academic career advancement? Regardless, the paradoxes unleashed by the book suggest that there is more to it than that.

The book coexists with the many strands of Amerika's writing practice that still actively play online and on the festival circuit. The sense of more ephemeral online texts being mixed down to print suggests even odder cases of the transient forms of literature metamorphosing between new media and print. For example, the popular 1990s computer game "Myst" derived its images and ludic structure from bookish motifs, but ironically came full-circle in the publication of a conventional novel based on the game. Similarly, there is a sense that META/DATA, the book, stands defiantly at the end of a process that parodies and negates conventional print culture. The book works more deviously, coming full-circle and doubling back to call forth the online flows, sampling, and remixing that are the wave of the future.

The situation of new media writing is indeterminate enough that it will take considerable back and forth movements between print and online text before Net literacy comes into its own. For now, Amerika's META/DATA makes a valuable contribution in envisioning the next stage of possibilities, and I would place it alongside Alexander R. Galloway's Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (2004) (3) and Paul D. Miller's Rhythm Science: The Art of the Mix Creates a New Language of Creativity (2004) as the most engaging scholarly demonstrations to date of the emergence of new media writing. Whereas Galloway theoretically X-rays the infrastructure of the Internet to reveal its hidden layers, Miller more performatively innovates a hybrid breed of soundimagetext that expresses how a freestyle imagination can unleash language in multimedia. META/DATA builds on these possibilities by showing how the new media writers of the future will recursively write themselves into being.

CHRISTOPHER BURNETT, former director of the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, is currently associate professor, Center for Visual Arts, University of Toledo. He is co-editing a book on the literary dimensions of new media, Image Process Literature, to be published by Visual Studies Workshop Press.

NOTES 1. Kuri, Jose Ferez, ed., Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003). 2. Amerika's GRAMMATRON project is an Internet "public domain narrative environment" available at The hypermedia epic "depicts a near-future world where stories are no longer conceived for book production but are instead created for a more immersive networked-narrative environment ..." 3. Alexander R. Galloway's Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization was reviewed in Afterimage Vol. 33, no. 6 (May/June 2006).

Named Works: META/DATA: A Digital Poetics (Book) Book reviews

Source Citation
Burnett, Christopher. "Writing new media." Afterimage Sept.-Oct. 2007: 37+. Academic OneFile. Web. 20 Dec. 2009. .

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