Monday, August 25, 2008

Ones and zeroes

Short Schrift has a great post on the possibility of the digital novel. Most interestingly, Tim observes that The Sopranos is a really interesting model of a "TV novel" not just because of its extended, in-depth characterization and plotlines, but because it is, at least in part, designed for DVD viewing.

Shows like The Wire [and The Sopranos] almost seem to work against their broadcast format -- until you realize that the show is watched almost as much on DVD, in a digital download, or on cable On Demand as it is by viewers who dutifully sit on the couch every week. It's a show designed to be watched a disc at a time rather than an hour at a time; the one-hour divisions are just convenient chapter breaks, giving you a chance to take a breath and get a drink before you sit back down and click ahead to the next one. (Also, like the novel's chapter and page, it gives you a convenient way to reference moments in episodes when you're talking about them.) Lost gives you cliffhangers; The Wire gives you catharsis.

I think that this is an important observation. One of the great innovations of the printed narrative is the control that it gives the reader over the experience of the narrative. The oral epic is something that is received—with the possible exception of the storyteller's patron, the audience is not in control of the time or manner of the telling, and since recitation is dependent on a number of mnemonics, moving back and forth at will within the text is difficult if not impossible. I would thus describe the "conventional" broadcast serial—as per Short Schrift, think Lost—as analgous to the oral epic. The audience is given bits and pieces at the storyteller's will, and is largely dependent upon a single specific broadcast schedule in order to recieve narration. Premium cable series like The Sopranos pointed to an alternative model even before DVD release, as episodes are broadcast multiple times in a short time frame (as opposed to once a week, and then possibly much later in rerun), giving the viewer much more opportunity to watch at will, or, even more importantly, to re-watch. (It must, of course be noted that a Lost/Sopranos broadcast/DVD opposition is far from pure, as any devotee of the Lost DVDs will rightly observe, but I think it remains accurate to observe that there is a way in which Lost is serialized and sequential that does not entirely apply to The Sopranos.)

As a writer with avant-garde ambitions (although, again, I certainly have more ambitions than accomplishments), I'm deeply interested in the idea of the digital novel. I think that one of the great challenges of contemporary narrative is the creation of the 21st Century novel in the way that Proust, Stein, and Joyce created the 20th Century novel. I've been amazed at the seeming inability of the internet, for its revolutionary impact of the way that we communicate and share information, to make more than a sidelong dent on literature, and I think that Tim's discussion and Robin's comment hint at why that may be.

The internet has absolutely replaced print as a repository of general reference information (even if Wikipedia has problems, why in the world would anyone buy an encylopedia, and even the OED has announced that it will stop updating its print edition), and it threatens to do the same for immediate information sharing (ie, it's close to killing the newspaper). Digital media has also revolutionized video creation and sharing. While the costs of creating even a digital video shouldn't be understated—you need a computer, an internet connection, and some sort of a camera—those costs are dramatically less than conventional film.

What the internet has largely not done is to change narrative or video in themselves. Digital media makes video creation and editing cheaper and more accessible, but it hasn't created new forms, especially long forms. Short format video has exploded, but it isn't exactly new. Likewise I think that a great deal of the enthusiasm for "hypertext" (such enthusiasm itself, it seems to me, a phenomenon largely of the early to mid-90s) is based upon a misperception. I would not be the first to observe that all text is linked text. The idea of the "endless chain of signifiers" is itself an early to mid-20th Century formlulation. I would like to make an argument that HTML hyperlinks are in fact a poor actualization of the idea of hypertext. Referentiality in the "ideal" hypertext is infinite. An HTML hyperlink leads only to a single location. There is no way for a hyperlink to enfold the infinity of referentiality. Imagine a hyperlink that led to a different location every time it was clicked, and you would a have a good idea of what would be required to make a start. (The hyperlink, perhaps, as the Google search term.) In this sense, even an index listing multiple sources is preferable to a single embedded hyperlink with a single embedded destination.

Either way, the internet does not really offer, in this sense, new capability to text. Although, in all fairness, neither does Ulysses. The question is really what the internet has to offer narrative, and while I'm eager to explore the possibilities, I'm also a bit skeptical. After all, be it video or text, the internet does not seem to be friendly to long format narrative.


Tim said...

Smart post. I hadn't really thematized the idea that what's common to the novel and the DVD is the reader's control over the narrative.

In addition to orality and print, you could also talk about the scroll vs. the codex -- if cinema is a scroll and television an endless scroll, then the DVD with its chapter and episode structure is roughly analogous to the codex book. Likewise the CD or mp3 vs. the gramophone record and the radio.

Obviously I am committed to the idea that the notion of "hypertext" and digital text as such is more a variation on a late 19th-c formation of knowledge than a clean break.

History doesn't give us a lot of clean breaks, and cultural history even fewer. I like Raymond Williams's idea of dominant, emergent, and residual phenomena. It's less about new capabilities or formal strategies as such as identifying works that take the best advantage of their forms or which owe something of their success to them. And usually there's one or more wildly successful works that seem to put it all together.

Robin Sloan said...

Great post. Lots to think about, and I agree w/ most of what you've written.

Although I am decidedly *not* skeptical. As Kevin Kelly says, the internet challenges us to believe in the impossible:

And while you could read that as a sort of hippie maxim, I think it's actually very practical, and VERY challenging. It's really difficult to wrap your head around where this new mega-medium might take us -- that's why we're writing all these posts!

But at this point I don't think hypertext is the cool thing. And the digital novel isn't going to look very much like a novel.

But I *do* think there are decidedly new kinds of narratives ahead -- and not all bite-sized blog posts and YouTube videos, either.

I think ARGs are a helpful pointer, e.g.

Gahhh I have so much to say about this!-- but have to get back to work.

Tim said...

Coming back to this, I would contest this point:

Digital media makes video creation and editing cheaper and more accessible, but it hasn't created new forms, especially long forms. Short format video has exploded, but it isn't exactly new.

in part because I think I've shown that the HBO-style series is new, and really does have to be thought of as a new long-form digital video format, and not just a new genre of broadcast television (like, say, competitive reality shows).

[NB: I forgot to include TiVo in my earlier analysis of The Sopranos, and that changes how we watch ALL TV.]

Also, yes, short-form video exists -- but democratized, lo-fi, shoot-it-yourself-on-your-phone short video is different from a short you submit to a film festival to get some money to make a movie. And it is a mistake to look at production alone; we have to look at transmission, consumption, cultural context, etc., aka the full social life of video which has changed enormously.

You could have made a short film or you could have made a music video or you could have made a home movie and found audiences for all of these. But the potential of internet video is that it mixes and matches all of these, along with TV clips and commercials and little news items and gawd knows what.

The future of serial digital video seems to be with things like Green Porno or Midwest Teen Sex Show, that aren't really narrative at all, but topical. Note the convergence here: sex + knowledge, identifying the hidden threads linking the encyclopedic urge to know with the voyeuristic urge to be titillated, wrapped up in a post-ironic winking self-awareness that embraces both celebrity and amateurism. The perfect form for the Google Age.

Gavin said...

I think that there's a burden of proof as to the newness of short-form video that neither of us has yet met. The internet has changed the way video gets "published," but people have made stupid videos of themselves on 8mm home movies as well as camcorders. Likewise "short you submit to a film festival to get some money to make a movie" doesn't really encompass short-format filmmaking even before the internet. Since it was before our time, it's easy to forget that short films and newsreels, and not just feature-length films and previews, used to be an integral part of the moviegoing experience. There's been an Oscar for best short film and best short documentary for ages, even though I'm not sure where all the films came from. :-)

Clearly you're correct that by expanding the availability of short-format video, the internet has had at least some effect on how those videos are made. I'm simply arguing that the impact is less revolutionary than it might first appear—there's more, but not that much that didn't exist before. (Of course, this is not to discount that which is not new. Ulysses is in the same way not new, it's just a novel. But what a novel!)

And to echo your comment on mashing, insofar as I think that Green Porno is interesting, I think it's interesting as narrative. There's not much informational value to it, but that's not why it's interesting anyway. It's interesting for the way the "natural" becomes a story, and the way that the animal body becomes hybridized with the human body and simultaneously a puppet, a prop.

And Robin, I think that you're exactly right that the 21st Century novel, if it has to take advantage of the innovations of the internet, will have to be a video game&emdash;the only contemporary format that combines image, narrative, and interactivity.

Tim said...

Again, I think that focusing just on the producer/author is a mistake. The important variable may not be "how videos are made" but also "how videos are distributed" and especially "how videos are watched."

The screens matter, the numbers matter, the potential matters. And at a certain point, the intention or the work behind the document vanishes. Lawrence of Arabia on an iPhone isn't the same as Lawrence of Arabia at a grand old movie house. It isn't even close. Likewise your short movie at the movie theater or on your VCR isn't the same as your short movie on YouTube.

You can't say "oh, we had bibles WAY before codices! what's so new?" I mean, you could say that, but you'd be wrong. A bible on a scroll is a different object, even if they're both in Hebrew (which they usually weren't).