This was 14 years ago

Reply to D's comment:

Comparing media always becomes problematic, and even more so when you compare media across large leaps of time. So how exactly are we supposed to work at a piece of writing the way an amateur musician once did? I think you've mistaken active involvement with social, vocal, or corporeal involvement, because more than ever is the notion of interactivity prevalent: we can 'respond' to youtube videos with our own videos or have the Wii register even our clumsiest of motions.

Hains and Villegle's solution during the 60s was decollage in which they celebrated (and framed/sold) publicly lacerated posters of advertisements, but if you think about it, ends up as some capitalistic autophagic hypocrisy, so maybe that's not the best example. Decollage was also about active but silent rebeliion, the aggregation of chance moments of aggression, not so much about skill.

What Smith is referring to is the increased value of the work with the increased skill of the audience. Shouting at a Stravinsky concert is not very different from a youtube response because it does not make the piece any more fulfilling or worth more. Every Christmas a chorus of amateurs, the Oratorio Society of New York, congregate to practice and perform Handel's Messiah--this is what she is talking about. So how do we apply this to text? Perhaps what she is suggesting is to not read for plot or "the good bits" (because few musicians will jump to their favorite sections or play enough to simply get a rough idea of the piece) but to struggle with all of it, internalize it, ponder the multiplicity of the words, to have it become a part of your own discourse and dialog with existence, and the more we do so, the greater the pleasure and the value.

Thanks for the Hains and Villegle reference - I hadn't heard of them. I also completely agree with you about Zadie Smith, and what she says..

What I mean in terms of involvement in a medium is the navigatability of the medium -- the action I do to "play" the piece. The (physical, mental) action I take to play an artist's film is to sit back and watch, but the action I do to 'play' a sculptor's labyrinth is to physically walk through the piece, looking for an exit. I feel as if the difference between the action I take to involve myself with a book (versus a videotape, or a concert) is more of an active one, like Smith says. Not only is there a relationship between skill and value, there's also a sense of progress that is created by the self: the words won't create sentences unless you read through them, and the pages won't turn unless you turn them. A book is a series of static words/sentences, separated by spaces, in which the adventurer has to go forth and climb, jump across these textual and mental gaps in order to traverse it.

And in that sense, you're right on about the Wii (but less about the youtube videos -- the involvement of a video response is a contextual one, and not within the media). The intoxication of the videogame comes partially from the sense of power and influence created, as a direct result of action done onto the controller expressed in a reaction on the screen.

The Oratorio Society is a great example, but when they perform they become the performs of that medium, which was something different than what I was thinking. When we read books, we read them for ourselves, so the effect of interacting with the medium is that I struggle with it and internalize it, as you said. The Oratorio Society puts on a performance for others to enjoy. If they were all about singing for themselves in an enclosed room, with the motivation of truly enjoying the sheet music, that would be more akin to Smith's example, but by performing, they become creators as well.

In other words, I was thinking more about content that (traditionally) flows from creator -> appreciator: a creator creates the piece and gives it to the reader, who enjoys it. In some ways, music and film (and audiobooks!) are completed when they are given to the viewer, perhaps because of the dimension of time they contain. They flow and run, and the viewer's process of appreciating is partially about keeping up; the viewer is being engaged and (almost forcibly) progressed, and is the one being played. (An object, not an agent.) In contrast, books, sheet music, and video games are all played by the viewer; the creation comes semi-completed to the viewer, who takes part in the creation of literature, music, and interactivity by directly engaging and controlling the creation.

Having said this, I feel that interactivity -- content, experienced through co-creation -- has just been created very recently, in the last two decades or so. A while back, there was once a time when Smith's amateur musicians existed, before record players rendered them relatively obsolete. After that, there was a long in-between period in which economies of scale and yet-limited technology meant that content flowed one-way, from the creators to the audience. Smith talks about reading-as-amateur-musicianship, yet that sort of appreciation process is one that's sort of obsolete in a sense. It's akin to the idea of shouting at Shakespearean theatre, or the black church-going experience that many point to as the origin of call-and-response within jazz: a sort of community call-and-response with the creation. I don't mean to say that the former amateur-musician-era is necessarily a better method of appreciating media. What I really mean is that it's fitting that books are transmedialized into audiobooks: more than a technological conversion, it's almost a historical transition from the age of private chamber music to the age of professional recording.

The next step of interactivity applied to literature perhaps, is books as websites; with the equivalent of the promotional websites for movies. Maybe, an interconnected tangle of narratives without time, pointing to each other, mixed and uncomfortable and meant to be experienced simultaneously, like a piece of Trafalmadorian literature. Say, yeah, like Slaughterhouse Five, or Infinite Jest...