On Writing After the Death of Print
by John Bresland — Northwestern University
February 07, 2012 – 00:00
Recently the Times reported that sales of digital books at Amazon had overtaken print. I think everybody saw this coming, but nobody thought it would happen so soon. On campus you can’t throw a rock into the air without hitting a symposium on The Future of the Book. At such events I hear elegies, mainly, about the death of print. As this grieving process continues, as we accept our digital fate, I’m looking forward to the next conversation. The one about literature, how it’s going to be shaped by technology.
That idea right there—technology shaping literature—it feels wrong, doesn’t it? Dead-eyed. Violent. I derive a measure of calm as I remember that Guttenberg’s press is technology, too, and far more destabilizing. Language, we sometimes forget, is technology—an encoding scheme based on some of the same principles that enable these accompanying video streams.
Digital can display and distribute text; digital is equally adept at conveying images and sound. And so I wonder: How long will we read and write on mobile devices equipped with cameras, mics and media authoring tools before we change our conception of what writing means? With the image as readily available to the author as language, how long before this fact registers in our literature?
Twenty years ago the essayist Phillip Lopate wondered, in print, why the literary essay didn’t find its way to the screen more often. One of the few works Lopate permitted himself to celebrate was Chris Marker’s 1983 masterpiece, Sans Soleil. The poetic force of this film resides in it’s heady use of language, but also—more so—in the distance between that language and its corresponding image. Sans Soleil is a difficult work. Viewers conditioned by commercial entertainment must lean forward to reap its rewards.
As do I when I see “That Kind of Daughter,” Kristen Radtke’s beautifully crafted video essay. This is a timely work that comes at you in a volley of language. Radtke appears unbothered by the fact that her predecessors—Agnes Varda, Ross McElwee, Su Friedrich—lace together their images with conversational speech. TKOD is short, songlike, holds up well to repetition. Of its many virtues, it answers the question I’m most frequently asked about the video essay:
Are images replacing language?
No. You’ll see.