Category Archives: Uncategorized

Video Discussion of Corinne Wasmuht’s Bibliotheque CDG BSL (7/2018)

A video discussion of Corinne Wasmuht’s painting, Bibliotheque CDG BSL, on display at the exhibition “Chaos and Awe: Painting for the 21st Century” at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum (June 22 – September 16, 2018), curated by Mark Scala:

Here’s a transcript of this discussion:

“Libraries aren’t what they used to be. Not long ago, we considered them as temples of deep knowledge and learning, designed to study what held the world together. Libraries aspired to preserve the greatest achievements of human thought and creativity. Our age of digital media and information shows little patience with the former mission of libraries. Thousands of books now easily fit on the silicon chip of a personal computer. Wikipedia offers more knowledge than you ever desired, refreshed day by day. Instead of traveling to libraries, we make them travel to us—and with us. Instead of leafing through card catalogues and wandering through dark stacks, we swipe and tap mobile screens to follow our curiosity.

Reading today, many lament, isn’t what it used to be either. Previous centuries celebrated reading as a very intimate affair. Good readers understood how to immerse themselves into the universe presented on page; they had no problems fending off possible interruptions. Readers today are believed to be fundamentally distracted and inattentive. They are unwilling to follow the arc of an argument across multiple paragraphs, have no time to pause and ponder the shape of a beautiful sentence. Today’s readers read on the go, allow hyperlinks to carry them from one text fragment to another, scroll up and down to skim possible meanings, in fact empower computers to do the reading for them.

Corinne Wasmuht’s painting Bibliotheque/CDG-BSL explores this new world of unbound knowledge and reading with great precision. The work’s title references one of the great libraries of the world, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris—frequented over the past centuries by many famous intellectuals, poets, and artist. The painting’s subtitle refers to the airport codes for Paris and Basel, Switzerland: places of transitoriness, of ceaseless commotion; spaces no one calls home and scholars label as non-places. Wasmuht’s library is everywhere—and nowhere. What her painting shows is a free-flowing site of information designed for readers on the move, readers who have come to recognize the virtual reality of their screens as the primary portal to the real.

But here it is, the painting, right in front of us, based—as so often in Wasmuht’s work—on imagery found online and assembled into one untidy compilation, its elements pushing against the borders of the frame. Different layers of paint make it difficult to identify what we see, invite us to explore the work’s texture like a detective looking for clues. The painting’s enormous size begs us to inspect its busy surface at close range, to step sideways to investigate separate regions without ever being able to contemplate the whole. In this, Wasmuht encourages us to see her painting not just with our eyes, but with our feet as well, our entire bodies. Like today’s virtual libraries, the painting’s frame no longer pretends to preserve and hold everything together. Like today’s readers, we skip from one area to another and best experience the painting in a state of ongoing motion. And yet, Wasmuht illuminates that not all is lost amid the non-places of unbound knowledge and reading in our contemporary world. For this new world, as depicted in Bibliotheque/CDG-BSL, still offers one of the greatest pleasures good readers have always pursued: the pleasure of getting lost, of straying away from beaten paths, of expecting the unexpected and welcome it with a sense of wonder.”



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Other Europes (MLA 1/2016)

Other Europes
Presentation at the MLA Conference in Austin (January 2016)
Panel: “Other Europes: Migrations, Translations, Transformations”

Europe in early 2016 no longer resembles the Europe many presumed to be under construction even a year ago. The influx of millions of refugees from the Near East and Africa over the past year has not only triggered embittered distribution battles among different member states of the European Union, but led to the invalidation of the Schengen agreement, a resurgence of preservative cultural nationalisms, and the construction of materials walls and ideological fences both Stalin and Donald Trump would be proud of. In light of these dramatic developments, as well as ongoing threats of possible Grexits and Brexits, it has become commonplace among pundits, scholars, and public intellectuals to bury the idea of Europe altogether. Quick to presuppose that the political in the 21st century has no alternative but to follow the dictates of biopolitics and ongoing  states of emergency, many see little reason to believe that the institutional structures of the European Union have the ability to prevent renewed national partitions and create better conditions to meet the challenges of this unprecedented wave of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.

So much is clear for now: the figure of the refugee is and will become central, not only to the geographies of everyday life across Europe, but also to its cultural production and academic scholarship. Shot in Berlin, season 5 of the Showtime series Homeland features a Syrian refugee professor at Berlin’s Technical University who helps engineer a jihadi attack on the German capital; by no means a religious fundamentalist, his role in the strike against his new home is motivated entirely political, namely to punish Germans for their allegiance with contemporary Israel. Jenny Erpenbeck’s 2015 novel Gehen, ging, gegangen profiles a freshly retired German classics professor who stumbles into the bureaucratic maltreatment of African refugees in Berlin and, while pondering the cultural foundations of his intellectual belief systems, ends up housing—illegally—a dozen asylum seekers to protect them from imminent deportation.

The aspirations of these two fictional Berlin-based professors could not be more different, the first meant to project latent fears about the potential unreliability of the refugee, the second staging a becoming foreign of the cultural insider in face of the failure of his society to circumvent the procedural coldness of the law. Both scripted before the full impact of last summers’ refugee crisis, both academics have been—one might argue—already overrun by the historical process itself given the fact that, with 1 million refugees having entered Germany in 2015 alone, the fabrics of German and European society have already changed irreversibly and the question of the refugee is no longer one of whether and how to allow the other to enter, but how to move forward in face of the becoming other of Europe itself, of how to reinvent the present to accommodate a significant de facto change of the population. Yet both texts, whether timely or untimely, continue to raise the larger question regarding the role of the academy vis-à-vis the tremendous inflow of refugees, and how to adjust scholarly practices and epistemological frameworks in response to the becoming other of Europe.

On a conceptual level, scholars might find themselves drawn to harvest the insights of recent exile studies, and with a certain twist of historical irony, the rich work on German refugees during the Nazi area, to map the ubiquity of displaced persons in central Europe today. And yet, as Erpenbeck’s novel itself actually shows with great urgency, the most pressing questions for contemporary refugees are not those of symbolic loss or renewal, of blocked transfer or cultural hybridization–questions that have been at the heart of recent exile studies and have triggered the development of demanding theoretical frameworks to produce compelling answers. No, the first and foremost issue for today’s refugees is a legal and political one, a question of human and civil rights, of how political infrastructures implement legal mechanisms for asylum seekers and are willing to adjust their operations if real-time events overwhelm their factual architecture. Cultural theorists may at length speculate about how the massive presence of refugees may change the cultural, normative, and symbolic textures of Europe, and what kind of theoretical framework might best be suited to theorize such changes. In the end, however, what matters most right now is to reflect on the structures and stipulations, the procedures and policies that guide processes of asylum and the integration of refugees into their new host countries.

A lot can be read in newspapers about protests against and attacks on refugees in Europe these days, including in particular in the Eastern parts of Germany. While criminal attacks of course need to be persecuted, it’d be foolish, though, and politically utterly naïve and self-defeating, to expect individual countries or cultures as a whole to speak or act in one voice in this matter. The possible articulation of dissent is part of what makes certain countries desirable targets of refugees in the first place. In the current situation, academic uses of the figure of the refugee as a portal to deeply reflect about the meaning and cohesion of so-called European values, of the overarching unity and significance of “Europe,” are merely the flipside of how populist leaders seek to stir affects to warrant cultural identity. What is truly needed, instead, are scholarly interventions that explore, question, and enhance the democratic legitimacy of legal structures and political procedures—scholarly perspectives whose readings of refugee texts, films, and images unfold against the background of a solid understanding of human rights discourses and their differential implementation in various member states of the European Union.

This fall witnessed the publication of a small booklet, entitled “Deutschland: Erste Informationen für Flüchtlinge” (Germany: First Information for Refugees), presented in both German and Arabic, also available as app for download. This handbook, for various good reasons, received some bad press in Germany for its extremely abbreviated guide to navigate everyday life in Germany today.It is easy to critique the stereotypes at play in such a guide and simply see it, from the academic armchair of criticality, as a cunning mechanism of interpellating the other into normative concept of the same. What is—assuming a somewhat more generous perspective—quite remarkable about this text, however, is the fact that it starts out, not with a deep contemplation of German culture, geography, and life, but rather with a rather dry description of the political system, the constitutional form, and the federal organization of contemporary Germany. Dry: but more than apropos, given the fact that no refugee will be able to settle in without navigating various legal and constitutional hurdles, but may very well do so without knowing anything about the appeal of German poetry, music, cars, or the Bavarian alps.

Somewhat strangely, the word Europe does not appear in the initial pages of the book, and yet—as I would argue—it was nothing other than the process of European integration since the 1950s that enabled Germany to define its identity, not simply in culturalist or ethnic terms, but in terms of certain legal and political achievements—achievements that include the very legitimacy of constitutional structures that allow and inspire even conservative politicians to pursue policies toward refugees that run counter to populist sentiment on the street. However flawed factual practices on the ground may be, books like this can serve as a powerful reminder that what we need is more rather than less Europe to respond to the massive influx of refugees, more rather than fewer transnational structures backing the legitimate rule of local law rather than the frenzy of the nationalist mob; more rather than less scholars developing their reflections on cultural identities against the background of both the incomplete project of the European Union and the dire need for post-nationalist institutionalizations of human rights; and more rather than less trained academics stepping in to teach linguistic, legal, and cultural skills to refugees, not in order to remake the other in the image of the same, but on the contrary simply and pragmatically to provide what it takes to navigate the day-to-day challenges of exile and asylum within contentious environments most effectively.

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Chancen und Herausforderungen der neuen Medien (8/2015)

Chancen und Herausforderungen der neuen Medien für die Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaften (Impulsreferat)
Lutz Koepnick (Vanderbilt University)
XIII. Kongress der Internationalen Vereinigung für Germanistik (Shanghai, August 2015)
Plenarpanel: “Multimodalität, Intermedialität – Chancen und Herausforderungen der neuen Medien”

Eine der vielleicht prekärsten Effekte dessen, was zumindest im angloamerikanischen Raum immer mehr als spezifisch deutsche Medienwissenschaft verstanden wird, ist, dass sie oft kaum daran interessiert scheint, was real existierende Mediennutzer und –pädagogen wirklich alles mit den Produkten gewisser Medienumbrüche anstellen. Je mehr die kategorische Differenz zwischen Soft- und Hardware in Frage gestellt wird, je mehr kulturelle Praktiken als bloße Effekte technologischer Veränderungen begriffen werden, je häufiger Mediengeschichte und -archäeologie als reine Technikgeschichte mit naturwissenschaftlichem Objektivitätsanspruch getrieben wird, desto geringer die Möglichkeit, jene sozialen, politischen und kulturellen Modalitäten ins Auge zu rücken, mit den heutige Mediennutzer Altes und Neues oft unentschieden oder gar kreativ nebeneinander laufen lassen. Die These, dass digitale Technologien in den letzten zwei Jahrzehnten ein Regime menschlicher Kommunikation, Sinnlichkeit und Sinnhaftigkeit radikal gegen ein anderes ausgetauscht oder im Namen der Virtualisierung zu einem Ende des humanistischen Subjekts geführt haben, mag oft beeindruckend und gar sexy klingen, übersieht aber immer wieder, dass die Neuigkeit neuer Medien nicht allein von ihren technischen Konfigurationen bestimmt wird, sondern von dem, was Gesellschaften mit ihnen machen. Wie jeder weiss, der hier in den letzten Tagen dem Great Firewall begegnet ist und vergeblich versucht hat, einen Google search auszuführen, in der New York Times über den Shanghaier Börsencrash zu lesen oder sein Twitter, Facebook oder Instagramkonto einzusehen—technologische Infrastrukturen wie die des Internets allein laufen selten auf automatische Veränderungen, gar Liberalisierungen, der Verständigungsverhältnisse hinaus, wenn autokratische Traditionen und Strukturen die Software und die Schnittstellen der Mediennutzung effektiv zu regulieren verstehen. Das neue dessen, was wir heute neue Medien nennen, liegt weniger darin begründet, dass sie digitale Pixel analogen Repräsentationsformen, mobile Bildschirme statischen Informationsdisplays, Interaktion und Vernetzung der Einbahnstraße früherer Massenkommunikation entgegen setzten. Vielmehr liegt es darin, dass digitale Medien der Gegenwart multimodal operieren, alte und neuere Medienpraktiken und -geschichten miteinander hybridisieren und immer mehr auf die Konvergenz dessen setzen, was einst eher separat als Bild, bewegtes Bild, Ton und Text, Rezeption und Produktion, Arbeit und Spiel galt. Neue Medien sind neu, nicht weil sie der Geschichte radikal entsagen, sondern weil sie diese in neuen und oft pluralen Konfiguration auffrischt und rekonfiguriert. Neue Medien sind neu, nicht weil sie klare Brüche produzieren sondern zu oft genauso produktiver wie angsterfüllter Unübersichtlichkeit führen und gerade so Strategien ab- oder neu ins Leben rufen, mit denen derartige Unübersichtlichkeit navigiert oder kontrolliert werden kann. Die Frage, ob neue Medien Tradition oder Innovation unterschreiben, ist von daher irgendwo auch falsch gestellt, da das Neue neuer Medien zumindest potentiell immer wieder das gesamte Verhältnis von Innovation und Tradition neu kalibriert, also das was überhaupt erst als Tradition zu verstehen ist. Nie war es von daher vielleicht wichtiger als heute, Medien nicht als Teil eigenläufiger Technologiegeschichte sondern als Ort zu verstehen, an dem Technik, sinnliche Wahrnehmung und Bedeutung auf kontingente Weise miteinander verhandelt und um die Zukunft der Gegenwart und Vergangenheit gerungen wird.

In den Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaften kreisen Debatten um das neue neuer Medien immer wieder um die Frage, ob der Durchbruch digitaler Medien traditionelle Methoden der Textproduktion im Sinne einer poststrukturalitsichen Aufsprengung von Werkgrenzen und konzentriertes Leseverhalten im Namen einer zutiefst dezentrierten Aufmerksamkeitsschwäche ersetzt haben. Dass heute Literatur immer schon von digitalen Technologien geprägt ist, ob im Produktions-, Vermarktungs-, Vertriebs- oder Rezeptionsprozess wird in derartigen Debatten oft genauso übersehen wie die Tatsache, dass Digitalität den Schreibenden wie Lesenden oft im phänomenologischen Gewand des Analogen begegnet, Oberflächen also, die diskrete numerische Einheiten in durchaus kontinuierliche und nicht-numerische Wahrnehmungsgehalte übersetzen. Ob der Umstieg von Print zu Bildschirm, Analogem zu Digitalem wirklich so drastisch ist wie oft gepriesen oder gefürchtet, ist von daher genauso fragwürdig wie die Annahme, dass Schreibende wie Lesende sich heute einem manichäischen Entweder-Oder gegenüber sehen und nicht einer oft stimulierend konfusen Vermengung, Überlagerung und Parallelität von Altem und Neuem, nicht-digitalen und digitalen Infrastrukturen und Schreib- und Leseformen.

Literatur, die heute mit elektronischen Plattformen aktiv experimentiert, wird oft weiterhin eines gewisse Anerkennung gerade im akademischen Bereich abgesprochen. Vielen gilt sie einfach als Spielerei. Was derartige Experimente jedoch immer wieder zum Vorschein bringen ist zweierlei. Einerseits lässt sich eine deutliche Anreicherung der Schriftlichkeit mit bewegten oder stillen Bildern und choreografieren Tonelementen beobachten, die sich oft nicht länger mehr linear rezipieren lassen und anderen Zeitkünsten ähnlich mit Lesern rechnen, die bereit sind, zugleich dem Zeitfluss eines Werkes zu folgen und sich—wie Besucher einer Videoinstallation—die Dauer eines Werkes umzuarrangieren und vielleicht gar mit Hilfe mobiler Bildschirme wortwörtlich durch Raum und Zeit tragen. Andererseits lässt sich kaum übersehen, dass die Figur des Prosumers immer mehr auch auf das Einfluss übt, was als Literatur im digitalen Zeitalter zu gelten hat. Dies beinhaltet nicht nur, dass Leser immer häufiger zu Kritikern werden und ihre Kommentare, Annotationen und Einsichten zu gewissen Texten über öffentliche oder halb-öffentliche Plattformen miteinander austauschen. Es meint auch, dass immer mehr literarische Texte den Leser aktiv dazu einladen, den Schreibprozess durch eigene Interventionen zu komplettieren. Elektronische Literatur verdeutlicht heute immer wieder, dass neue Medien der Gegenwart traditionelle Grenzziehungen zwischen Akten des Schreibens und Akten des Lesens immer mehr einebnen. So wie der narrative Verlauf von TV-shows heute immer mehr auf die auf dem Bildschirm sichtbaren live-Tweeds ihrer Zuschauer mittel- und langfristig reagiert (zumindest in Kulturen die Twitter nicht blockieren); so wie Photo- und Videoprogramme es uns immer einfacher machen, Mashups existierender Filme oder eigene Varianten populärer Musikstücke zu produzieren und zu verbreiten; so entstehen heute auch immer mehr Literaturen, in denen das Schreiben des Lesenden Texte mitproduziert, die Geschlossenheit eines klassischen Werkbegriffs in Frage stellt und den Akt der Lektüre als zutiefst performativen neu verstehen lässt.

Ich bin mir nicht sicher, dass unsere Profession sowohl in analytischer als auch didaktischer Perspektive allzu gut auf derartige Transformationen vorbereitet ist. Zum einen werden wir zukünftige Studierende viel besser methodisch auf narrative Situationen vorbereiten müssen, in denen Schrift, Bild und Ton in zugleich vorstrukturierten aber auch vom Lesenden zu konstituierenden Ensembles miteinander interagieren, in denen weder die semantische noch die physische Einheit des Textes oder des Lektüreakts gewährt ist, erzählende Literatur sich vielmehr als multimodales Ereignis begreift, das die Konvergenztendenzen digitaler Produktion- und Distributionsplattformen systematisch zum Einsatz bringt. Weder bewährte Begriffe des offenen Kunstwerks, der experimentellen Literatur, der konkreten Poesie oder gar des Gesamtkunstwerks scheinen ganz angemessen, um komplexe Schrift-Bild-Ton-Praktiken wirklich zu analysieren oder gar dem Faktum Rechnung zu tragen, dass Medienkultur heute immer mehr als ambiente zu verstehen ist, als eine, die kaum noch mit jenen konzentrierten Lesern, Zuschauern und Zuhörern rechnen können, die wir ins unseren Interpretationsmethoden schlichtweg voraussetzten. Zum anderen wird die Literaturwissenschaft im Zeitalter neuer Medien viel stärker die Tatsache in Betracht ziehen müssen, dass kreative Medienpraxis heute immer mehr integrativer Teil analytischer oder theoretischer Arbeit ist, dass in einem Zeitalter, in dem sich Schreiben und Lesen in mutimodalen Environments verflechten, kritische Arbeit am Text auf unterschiedlichste Medienkompetenzen zurückgreifen muss, um dem was als Text gelten mag überhaupt erst auf Augenhöhe zu begegnen. Zukünftige Literaturwissenschaft wird das Herstellen komplexer digitaler Medienobjekte nicht nur als analytisches und theoretisches Äquivalent einer klassischen Monographie begreifen müssen, sondern Studierenden in ihrem Studium curricularen Platz einräumen müssen, ihre Fähigkeiten auszubilden, zu kompetenten Text-, Bild- und Toneditoren zu werden und Onlineinhalte gestalten und programmieren zu lernen. Statt alles auf die Karte eines verengten Begriffs der Digital Humanities zu setzen, in dem digitale Resources derzeit vor allem dem Versuch dienen, Zonen humanistischer Ambiguität zu überwinden und die scheinbare Objektivität von Datensätzen zu loben, liegt die wahre Chance neuer Medien in Literatur wie Literaturwissenschaften heute darin, neue Methoden der produktiven Visualisierung und Sonifizierung, des kreativen Kuratierens und Resampelns, also eines radikal erweiterten Konzepts des Schreibens zu entwickeln. Methoden, die stolz auf ihre spekulativen, idiosynkratrischen und ästhetischen Elemente sein können und Studierende zugleich auf wissenschaftliche und nicht-wissenschaftliche Karrieren im Wissens-, Ausbildungs-, und Unterhaltungssektor vorbereiten können, von denen wir, ob wir uns am klassischen PrintBuch ausrichten oder technologische Entwicklung als Eigenlogik begreifen, wirklich noch keinen Begriff besitzen.

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German Art Cinema Now

Click here to read Sabine Hake’s (UT Austin, GSR editor) and my own contribution to the “Forum: German Film Studies” of the fall 2013 volume of the German Studies Review (36.3). My essay is entitled “German Art Cinema Now” and makes a plea not to overlook important contemporary developments  by constructing new wave filmmaking in Germany today according to older notions of the national and of film art.


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Berlin School Glossary (9/2013)

Berlin School Glossary: AN ABC of the New Wave in German Cinema. Bristol, UK: Intellect, August 2013

bsgBerlin School Glossary is the first major publication to mark the increasing international importance of a group of contemporary German and Austrian filmmakers initially known by the name the Berlin School: Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan, Christoph Hochhäusler, Jessica Hausner, and others. The study elaborates on the innovative strategies and formal techniques that distinguish these films, specifically questions of movement, space, spectatorship, representation, desire, location, and narrative. Abandoning the usual format of essay-length analyses of individual films and directors, the volume is organized as an actual glossary with entries such as bad sex, cars, the cut, endings, familiar places, forests, ghosts, hotels, interiority, landscapes, siblings, surveillance, swimming pools, and wind. This unique format combined with an informative introduction will be essential to scholars and fans of the German New Wave.

The volume grew out of series of conferences and workshops. It gathers the work of more than a dozen prominent films scholars and was edited by by Roger F. Cook, Lutz Koepnick, Kristin Kopp, and Brad Prager.

From the Introduction

The films of the Berlin School raise important questions about the relation of contemporary filmmaking to various avant-garde and neo-avant-garde movements of the postwar era. As importantly, however, it also urges us to think about the way in which filmmakers, film critics, and film scholars not only participate in ongoing conversations about the cinematic canon, but in these conversations constantly redefine what belongs, and what should not belong, to the canon in the first place. The films of the Berlin School are predominantly small and minor films. They rely on minimalist means and defy the grand narratives and sensory spectacles of mainstream cinema. As was to be expected, the rhetorical smallness and formal rigor of much of Berlin School filmmaking has quickly transformed their interventions into German film studies’ newest good objects: legitimate examples of German cinema worthy enough to be added to the canon of film art and therefore, for instance, shown in art-houses’ series or taught in college seminars. Though many of our glosses are written with considerable sympathy for the Berlin School’s experiments with sound and sight, it is the nature of the gloss to display a certain irreverence and indifference toward questions of canonization as well. As it freely cuts through and across recent German art cinema, Berlin School Glossary aspires to manifest some of this kind of critical irreverence. The primary task of the following glosses is to reveal and discover, not to enshrine heroic gestures and claim this cinema’s timeless qualities. In fact, for the contributors to this project to trace important tendencies of recent German filmmaking most appropriately means to suspend the usual work of canon-making and canon-unmaking. Rather than promote recent German filmmakers and cinematic works as members of a new canon, then, the glosses of this book understand the smallness and inconclusiveness of Berlin School filmmaking as good reasons to change our very thinking about the function of canonicity amid our increasingly postcinematic condition.

Table of Contents:



































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Learning to Read All Over Again (8/2013)

This is an essay I published in August 2013 in the new online Symposium Magazine. For the full text and five blogs posted in my role as guest blogger, please click here.

Learning to Read All Over Again

What produces better students – reading in print or reading on-line? The answer is both.

Lutz Koepnick

In the 1990s, many intellectuals and educators worried deeply about the presumed “visual turn” of contemporary culture. They feared images would completely replace text, and that we might loose our ability to read critically and write with proficiency. The last decade has proven many of these concerns unwarranted. No age has seen more reading and writing than the era of text messaging, social networking, smart phones, ubiquitous computing, and restless live tickers on ambient television screens. And yet, new fears have superseded previous ones.

Some argue that to produce text on the move, with the help of handheld electronic gadgets, makes a mockery of the true art of writing and inevitably leads to widespread dyslexia. Others fear that a culture of omnipresent media, of always “being on,” corrodes the possibility of focused attention and promotes agitated, albeit vacuous, forms of multitasking. In short, it obliterates what good reading is all about.

With many good reasons, educators at all levels of instruction frequently chime into this more recent swan song for reading, eagerly pointing at various symptoms of the decline of traditional reading. College students no longer consult library books or journal collections to carry out research, but expect on-line delivery systems to put the world of knowledge—in searchable format—at their fingertips. Young adults know how to process a myriad of text messages a day, yet find no pleasure in following the arc of a novel, let alone the intricacy of a well-developed written argument. Even kindergarteners today need touch screens to practice their first letters and are no longer invited to experience the sheer materiality of a book—the feel of its pages, the imprint of letters on paper, the traces of use and age, the disruptive and titillating sensation of turning a book from one page to another.

While educators of centuries past had their own worries about the future of reading, they tended to envision ideal reading as a highly spiritual, solitary, silent, and stationary communion with a text. Images from different ages and cultures present the perfect reader as an individual slightly hunched over a book, tucked into an interior’s corner or under the shelter of a tree, his or her gaze fully absorbed into what eludes our own view. In many of these older images, the reader’s hand serves as a curious site of transcendence. It holds the physical book firmly, and in doing so, allows the mind to access a self-contained and disembodied universe of thought, reflection, and imagination. In today’s parlance, we would call this meeting of hand and book an interface.

Today, it is hard to find any image that idealizes solitary and stationary reading. Reading today happens on the fly, as we are in motion. It is about sharing and networking rather than exploring utterly intimate and private spaces. It exists as one of many other media activities that we may carry out on one of various devices at once. And it is defined not by unsettling travels into the world of the spirit, but by our ability to process information efficiently and solve problems effectively as they come along, second after second.

Similar to most other debates about the cultural impact of digital innovations, the majority of conversations about the transformation of reading in the digital age are deeply Manichean in nature. Today’s culture of computing either liberates us from all possible strictures of the past, democratizes access, and opens up unknown opportunities — or it flattens important meanings and values, produces highly distracted users, and disintegrates essential structures of sociability. While presumed technophobes continue to battle with apparent technophiles and utter enthusiasm clashes with profound skepticism, participants in today’s debate often feel pressed to assume positions as if our only options were either to go fully digital or to stay entirely analogue. It is as if similar debates about the impact of technology on cultural practices had not occurred, whether it was about the distribution of paperbacks in the nineteenth century, the invention of the telephone, or the rise of cinema.

Although this divide might make for good arguments, its Manicheanism holds us back from appreciating a more nuanced assessment of the gains and losses, the continuities and discontinuities associated with the rise of new media and computer-based reading practices. It tends to present technological hardware as being in complete control over what we do with certain media, and it has little patience for ambivalence and multiplicity, the productive messiness that might ensue when historical revolutions change some, but not all, parameters of our existence.

In this new culture of information overload and electronic mobility, the competition for enabling and maintaining reader attention may become one of the century’s primary battlegrounds. Amid ambient digital screens and seemingly unlimited streams of texts and images, we face the question of what truly controls our ability to focus—what succeeds in controlling our awareness, in managing how we dedicate time to certain subjects while ignoring others, and thereby manipulates our sense of recall, anticipation, and presence.

Our ability to read well, to process and take pleasure in text will certainly play a significant part in the battle for attention. Reading may indeed no longer be what it once used to be. What we need to do, however, is to reflect thoroughly on how computing has changed or added to the concept of reading and its economy of attention before we propose viable perspectives about what to do about the rivalry between words on screens and words on paper.

You do not have to be a media determinist to see how reading conventional books is different from text on screen. And it would be foolish to deny that different media platforms enable different practices and temporalities of reading. Although we might at first think of the pages of a book as a window to the world generated by the text, as a transparent frame effectively transporting us into a different and imaginary time and place, such metaphors largely fail to address how books have historically managed to grasp a reader’s mind and attention. A book’s page can be a self-effacing looking glass onto a different order of things, but much depends on the reader and the context. Readers may find themselves fully immersed in what the letters on paper communicate to them, but at the same time they experience the physical turning of the page, the quality of the paper, or the material properties of the cover as something that deeply contributes to how they hold on to the book and allow it to move them forward in time.

A book’s physical properties matter to our act of reading. They play a considerable role in seizing our attention and inviting us to enter a curious space of temporal negotiation: a space in which our own sense of time, a book’s story time, and the time it might take to physically read its letters and sentences in their prearranged order meet and take hold of each other. Books invite us to get lost, to lose ourselves within their pages, precisely because they provide something steady and permanent, as something we can touch as much as it can touch upon us.

By contrast, the “window and frame” metaphor is much more appropriate to describe reading text on a screen than in a printed book. Screens and reading software encourage us to scroll across, zoom in and out, travel across, scan and skip text similar to the way in which viewers might use a window to peruse distant realities at their own will. Unlike the printed word, digital text has no real existence or permanence unless users chose to endow it with such. Digital text allows vast possibilities of non-linear appropriation, whether we use search functions, follow embedded hyper-links, or in fact start to reassemble its form or order with the help of different software functions. Digital reading is closer to roaming. It empowers readers to meet a text on their own temporal terms and immerse themselves in their own ability to manipulate what appears in front of them rather than in the world represented by the words. Existing in some strange nowhere land, text on screen not only asks us to find or plod a way, but find or plod our way to define what we want to count as text in the first place.

The most important point, however, is not to develop an unbending claim that traditional books necessarily produce one kind of reader, while digital devices necessarily produce another. Rather, educators need to stress the value of print and digital reading in equal measure: that both the absorption of print readers and the willfulness of digital readers are necessary to face the challenges of an increasingly connected world. And there is no reason to think that we can only do one at the deliberate expense of the other. What we need are readers able to get lost in books as much as readers able to maneuver extended cartographies of words; readers who know how to follow narrative or argumentative arcs and readers who understand how to scan texts quickly, search for relevant information, and isolate central ideas from ornamental baggage; readers touched by the words on a page and readers eager to touch-up and reassemble what they see in front of their eyes. What we need, in other words, are readers who do not understand certain features associated with paperbound or screen-based reading as exclusive options, but who explore them as equally important elements of what reading in past, present, and future is all about.

Today’s debates about the cultural impact of advanced computing rarely provide enough space to emphasize the “and” rather than the “either/or.” Dominant voices in these arguments urge us to take sides and, energized by technological optimism about the “next new thing” or by horror at the speed of progress, they make us think of one media platform and media practice as the sole site of future meaning and development. Ever more often labeled as digital natives, today’s students need to be encouraged to practice the art of slow, paperbound reading so they can learn that our encounter with text is not solely for the sake of information processing. But they also need to acquire critical skills as screen readers because reading has never been solely about aesthetic pleasure and the overcoming of instrumental reason. Rather than lament the state of reading today, let us understand our times as ripe with opportunity—the opportunity to develop concepts of reading far more comprehensive and multi-faceted than anything we have known in the past. 


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Reading on the Move

pmla.2013.128.issue-1.largecoverRecent Publication: “Reading on the Move.” PMLA 128.1 (January 2013): 232-237. (Special Section on “Reading in the Digital Age.”)

There can be little doubt that reading over the past two decades has accelerated tremendously. In the 1990s academics hotly debated the so-called visual turn of postmodern society, applauding or lamenting how mediated images seemed to displaces speech or writing in communication. Yet no age has ever written and read more than the one nursed with text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook. And no age has witnessed a quickening in the production, delivery, and consumption of written text comparable with the one launched by today’s regime of compulsive digital connectivity and its stress on unconditional instantaneity and co-temporality. Think of the astonishing velocity with which texters consume and fire off their missives while reading texts on other screens around them. Think of the compression of publication times made possible by technology, the ever-faster turnover of bestseller lists, and the fact that newspapers and magazines in their online presentation no longer exist as fixed editions but undergo continual updating. Thanks to the wireless magic of our e-readers, we can access books on the fly (“Start reading . . . on your Kindle in under a minute”), at all times and from almost anywhere. Much about this mobilization of the written word raises legitimate questions about the future of pensive, contemplative, or absorptive reading. But instead of asking, Does the flux and noise of digital culture destroy the conditions for good reading?, this essay asks what I consider more productive—and in fact challenging—questions: How does the mobility of reading today change our concept of reading? What does it add to our understanding of how we read in the first place? And how does it invite us to see and revaluate past reading practices in a new light?

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