Friday, June 09, 2006

A rose by any other name... isn't a rose.

You can always count on someone proclaiming that such-and-such art form is dead and this-and-that art form is the way of the future, which is why the brouhaha of late over Kevin Kelly's New York Times Magazine piece "Scan This Book!" didn't seem to faze anyone much. Gomes' article concerns an online movie-editing company that allows the user to create his/her own edit from preselected scenes:
The short cinematic pastiche we saw is an example of what has come to be called a "mash-up," and for a big part of the tech world, these sorts of mash-ups are becoming the highest form of cultural production. This is most clearly occurring in books. Most of us were taught that reading books is synonymous with being civilized. But in certain tech circles, books have come to be regarded as akin to radios with vacuum tubes, a technology soon to make an unlamented journey into history's dustbin. ...Imagine a long email message with responses and earlier messages included. We'll have those in lieu of "Middlemarch" or "The Corrections." Picking up on the theme, another writer suggested that traditional books "are where words go to die."
So far, so good, except the mash-up method is hardly new; William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin were experimenting with cut-up techniques as far back as the 1950s, by slicing up preexisting manuscripts and splicing them back together in an attempt to create a different associative web, an approach that eventually gave birth to beat hallmarks like Naked Lunch.

This is another "old wine, new bottle" situation, but then again, you could make the argument that mash-up/cut-up techniques don't really fall under the same umbrella as writing or filmmaking; you're dealing with preestablished works, not creating them from scratch, which resets the playing field. There's little, if any, difference between cut-ups, mash-ups, and the mix tapes your friendly basement DJ slaps together. Conversely, you could argue that writing is just an assembly of preexisting stories, structures and even words (which calls the mind the ancient maxim, "Originality is determined by the obscurity of your sources"), which is a semantic argument someone else is welcome to engage themselves in until the end of time as we know it.

I don't think that web-based media is going to be the death of storytelling, which is where Gomes seems to think it's headed; it's just that the vessel for it will change. Literary storytelling has survived a lot of different permutations in technology over the course of human history, and I doubt the Internet will bring about its demise. More often than not I attribute the attitude that new technology will mean the end of one form to the arrogance of those who are at its forefront; the myopic conviction of the true believer.

Elsewhere in the piece, Gomes also says this:
Watching a good movie is "passive" in the same way that looking at a great painting is "passive" -- which is, not very; you're quite actively lost in thought. For my friend, though, the only activity that seemed "active," and thus worthwhile, was when a person sitting at a PC engaged in digital busy work of some kind.
True, but only in the sense that there's no motor function involved, only thought. Think about all the forms of art that are out there; of all of them, literature is the only one that requires your active participation. Pages don't turn by themselves. (Not yet, anyway.) Film, dance, art, music; to experience them you don't need to do anything. You just sit there and let it wash over you. Hopefully, your mind is engaged with what you're seeing/hearing, but this of course is not always the case. This is not to say that passivity on the part of the moviewatcher or concertgoer or museum-walker in any way places them below those that read. But tech geeks around the globe would benefit from the realization that they have more in common with the average reader than they might think; reading is, at its core, an interactive experience. Which is probably why people are always sounding its death knell; it takes actual effort.

Ah, well. I swear, in the future, to get their entertainment people will just sit and stare at a strobe light and complain that the pace is too slow.

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