Did they really mean that? (and does it matter?)

I am behind on blogging for a whole bunch of reasons (school, BAWS, getting ready for NCTE, etc.), and I will probably be catching up today and/or over the weekend. This post is one I meant to write days ago:

Via jill/txt I came across Nicholas Carr’s blog, where he writes about “McLuhan’s Web.” It’s an interesting read, and I think that Carr’s main point is that while a lot of people have rediscovered McLuhan’s work and reapplied it to the Internet, it doesn’t quite fit. Here’s a quote:

The internet does seem to represent the fulfillment of McLuhan’s vision, at least in some ways. As we’ve seen with the explosion of blogs, podcasts and homemade videos, the net encourages media participation on an unprecedented scale. If a global village is emerging, it’s on the web.

But it’s hard to imagine that McLuhan would be sanguine about today’s “electric media.� In fact, he’d probably have a hard time even recognizing them.

Television, which McLuhan saw as a cool medium, is rapidly turning into a hot one, with mammoth screens, high-definition images and surround sound. And computers, rather than freeing us from the printed word, have made text more ubiquitous than ever. Whether surfing the web, typing messages on our phones, or checking our BlackBerrys, we are wrapped in a cocoon of text that would have boggled McLuhan’s mind.

The internet doesn’t really fit into McLuhan’s “hot� and “cool� dichotomy. It is, as Scott Rosenberg wrote back in 1995, a “lukewarm� medium. It encourages participation but it also sucks up our attention and dominates our senses. When we gaze into a computer screen, we tune out everything else.

I’ve been thinking about this– the perhaps not completely application of previous theories with contemporary applications– with Barthes lately, specifically his notions of “writerly texts” as he discusses it in the opening pages of S/Z. Most often, scholarly-types refer to the first few pages to quote from Barthes on the definition on writerly (Barthes’ ideal text) of S/Z– here’s a good example of what I mean from what looks like a pretty cool site. Then most critics connect this to things like hypertext, or, as I am/will be doing with my project, blogs. But here’s the thing: most of what Barthes is doing in this book/essay is a really REALLY close reading of the Balzac story “Sarrasine.” The way I understand this then is that for Barthes, his act of reading this story and describing that reading in great and playful length in this book/essay, is what Barthes meant by “writerly,” or at least it is his example. So besides the fact that Barthes knew nothing of things like the Internet or hyperext (at least I assume that’s the case), it seems to me that the kinds of texts that Barthes is assuming that one engages with in a writerly fashion are literary. I know that Barthes writes about/studies plenty of non-literary-type texts though, so maybe suggesting that he means a writerly text to be a response to a “readerly” one is too much of a stretch.

In any event, I guess what I’m getting at is this: like what Carr is saying about McLuhan, I think a lot of folks have perhaps revived Barthes to apply it to kinds of texts he could not have even imagined. So when people say that hypertext or web sites or blogs or whatever are “writerly,” that probably isn’t what Barthes meant. At the same time, it probably doesn’t really matter what McLuhan or Barthes meant. Citing someone like Barthes to talk about the writerly nature of online texts is of course an appeal to authority: lots of people admire Barthes’ criticism, so referencing him means that the contemporary critic can also be found credible. But the appeal to authority is just a starting point; ultimately, what I think folks invoking the likes of McLuhan and Barthes are trying to do is to build new theories of things like “writerly.”

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