Going through the McLuhan and considering the ideas of medium as message, and that content of a medium is always another medium, I couldn’t help but think about Writing Surfaces. Our conversation from last week always circled back on how do we “read” this book. Can it be read? Is it just visual art that we misinterpret as literature?
I felt like we had no conclusions in our discussion, only further possibilities. That opening of possibilities feels like a moment of disruption. Part of the resistance we felt to that text was that it came packaged as a book. Its perfect-bound, glossy cover, its pages, all provide an expectation of how we should treat this object. We read books, right? But what happens when that book can’t be read in a traditional sense. The sense of disappointment some of us experienced when we cracked open Between Page and Screen also creates this disruption.
If, for instance, the pieces in Writing Surfaces appeared on canvases, on walls in a gallery, we’d be less resistant, I think. We’d experience collage, not fail to experience literature. I wonder if Writing Surfaces were designed less like a collection, and more like an art textbook with the pieces interrupted by glosses and interpretations, maybe even histories, if we’d be more open to it. The division between text and image would become far more apparent. It would keep us from feeling that resistance. We’d look to the text and say, “Yes, text. This is conveying something through language.” Then we’d look at its images and say, “Yes, visual art. This is conveying something through its use of line, motion, space, etc.” What we couldn’t reconcile ourselves could very well be explained by the gloss written by the author, the editor, the critic, etc. In other words: a less interesting book.
By presenting this work as a book1, we face these questions and fail to come to easy conclusions. The medium is no longer in control—or at least not as fully as before. The end result may be that the message, such as it is, is no longer coherent or transcribable. We can’t summarize everything in Writing Surfaces partly because we can’t determine how we should. What terms should we use?
If the medium is the message, then part of understanding that message is by understanding the medium. But if the medium gets used incorrectly or in some counterintuitive way, the whole system breaks down and we’re left poking in the dark for some resolution.
This, I’m pretty sure, accounts for my students’ frustration with poetry, especially contemporary work. They expect language to function in a very specific, clear, and coherent way. When it refuses to do that, I hear complaints about poetry being “nonsense” and “meaningless.” Those claims can be refuted, and I attempt to do so multiple times a semester. I keep saying that the confusion is good. The disruption of expectations frees us, even if only for the length of a fourteen line poem.
Curiously, as I was writing this, I popped over to Facebook for a second where someone had posted this Bataille quote, which neatly summarizes everything: “What we have been waiting for all our lives is this disordering of the order that suffocates us.”
1. The Kindle version does present a challenge to this, as the essential “bookness” is gone, and it obscures some of the text’s readability with poor resolution, making the reader more of an observer.