The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Richard A. Lanham. Chicago Expanded Book [software design by The Voyager Company, 1992]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. 2 1.4 MB diskettes for Macintosh computers with 2 MB of RAM minimum (4 MB recommended), System Software version 6.0.7 (or later versions, including System 7), and HyperCard 2.1 or HyperCard Player 2.1 (or later versions). $19.95.
Reviewed by William H. O'Donnell, University of Memphis (from Text, volume 9).
Lanham's radical enthusiasm for the volatility of electronic text has an unexpected source--his advocacy of active, practical rhetoric at the expense of static, idealized philosophy. I can easily imagine that the genesis of this book might well have bee n a startled observation that the active role available to the user of computer-displayed text is parallel with the dramatic, engaged activity of a classical student of rhetoric. For both the modern computer user and the ancient student of rhetoric, playfulness is an inescapable adjunct to their activity. In the opening section of an earlier book The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976), Lanham championed the Sophists' "rhetorical" view of life as a dramatic, social engagement with the actual world, rather than Platonic philosophers' "serious," isolated pursuit of a sublime, immaterial ideal. Plato's utopia would have no rhetoricians, but here on earth those rhetoricians embarrass the philosophers by recognizing that even the most serious philosopher cannot escape using language and rhetoric. The "serious" philosophers flatter mankind with the prospect of their goal, an identity outside of time and impermanence. As Lanham explained in his 1976 book and as he underscores in the present volume, the "rhetorical man" is "not pledged to a single set of values and the cosmic orchestration they adumbrate." Instead, the & quot;rhetorical man" gains "the tolerance, and usually the sense of humor, that comes from knowing he--and others--not only may think differently, but may be differently. He pays a price for this, of course--religious sublimity, and its reassuring, if breathtaking, unities" (1976, p. 5).
Those who oppose rhetoric as morally empty, theatrical techniques that can be applied with equal effectiveness in the service of good or evil, would prefer to use language in a manner that aspires to absolute clarity or transparency, a style "which is looked through rather than noticed" for itself (1976, p. 1). In The Electronic Word, Lanham reminds us that the printed book's evolved design of type faces and page layouts aspires to an ideal of visual boredom, seeking to draw as litt le attention as possible. It shuns eye-catching (and hence distracting, LIKE THIS) variations of type styles and is available in only one color, black (like Henry Ford's Model "T").
With hypermedia, the "user" is invited to make choices among a variety of often simultaneous displays of text, sound, colored illustrations, animations, video, notes, alternative versions of the text, related texts by the same author, and texts by other authors. Even with the less expansive resources of hypertext, the user can choose to read in the straightforward linear manner of a printed book, or can use the resources of electronic linkage and searching to read only those portions of the text that are of particular interest to that reader at that time. The text is used interactively. Lanham seizes on that characteristic of volatility, and then, in passages that to textual editors will be equal parts flattery and threat, he comments: "After all, establishing the fixed text has been the humanistic raison d'être since the Renaissance. To nail it down forever and then finally explain it, that has been what literary scholars do. All our tunes of glory vary this central theme, even our current endeavors to show once and for all why nobody can once and for all explain anything" (7). But before you get too comfortable, he suggests that to make a text available in electronic digital display is to "volatilize" it and thus
In the "Expanded Book" digital version of Lanham's book the reader is modestly limited to changing the font used for screen display and the choice of whether to look at one of the short auxiliary supplements, a few of which are animated with arrows and flashing words. The preface to the electronic version emphasizes that the design if functionally indentical to a printed book. The pages are turned electronically, but otherwise the familiar tasks of browsing, using the end notes or index, a nd making marginal notes are the same as with a printed book.
Lanham claims: "Electronic readers . . . can genuflect before the text or spit on its altar, add to a text or subtract from it, rearrange it, revise it, suffuse it with commentary. The boundary between creator and critic (another current vexation) simply vanishes" (6). But he does not persuasively explain how even the most active reader of an electronic text is different from a sophomore with a pencil and photocopier (or, more dangerously, a yellow highlighter and scissors). Lanham could profitably have focused instead on the hugely significant increase in the tools available to the editor/writer for the selectable, simultaneous display of multiple versions of a text and associated information. And with hypermedia texts, where the reader has access to such additional elements as sound, animation, and multiple texts presented simultaneously, then there is little profit in making direct comparisons with a printed book since the difference is potentially as great as that between a docum entary film and a painted portrait.
If Lanham here is provocative without being persuasive, I will be quick to point out that this book is full of material that is much more successful. And, as he announces early, he looks eagerly at the electronic future: "Unlike most humanists discussing[?--DT] technology, I argue an optimistic thesis. I think electronic expression has come not to destroy the Western arts and letters, but to fulfill them. And I think too that the instructional practices built upon the electronic word will not repudiate the deepest and most fundamental currents of Western education in discourse but redeem them" (xiii). Echoing Aldous Huxley's maxim (recently spotted on the Internet) that experience is not what happens to you but what you do with what happens to you, Lanham exhorts us: "The basic implications of electronic technology may be inevitable but what we make of them certainly is not. We are free to think about, and plan for, literary creation and literary study in ways more agile, capacious, and hopeful than any generation has possessed since literature began to figure in human life" (26).
He describes his purpose thus: "I argue in these essays that the change from book to screen, the emergence of electronic text, puts the major questions of our current intellectual agenda into a new relationship and sheds new light upon them. I've gathered these essays, several of which have been published earlier and in scattered places, into a book to elicit just this interrelationship. I think they strengthen and clarify and expand each other. They share a common focus, the change from book to screen and the intellectual context needed to understand that change" (xiii).
The opening chapter gives an overview of the changes that accompany the electronic display of literary texts, recognizing the importance of that shift from book to screen, although as I have already suggested, focusing too exclusively on textual volatility rather than on the introduction of an entirely new form. Those changes are viewed in the context of the visual arts, as the apotheosis of Italian Futurists' dissatisfaction with conventional printed books at the start of this century, and as being particularly well-suited for a postmodern outlook on art and culture. An emphasis on the significance of playfulness -- the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa to expose and overturn the ruling notion of passive admiration of cultural icons -- is reinforced in the third chapter. The best parts of this book are when Lanham is doing just what he ascribes to Duchamp's deconstruction of high culture: ". . . not so much an attack on the artistic canon as a meditation on the psychology of perception that canon implies" (38).
The middle chapters focus on the opportunities that the electronic word could hold for teachers and students. He calls for a change more thoroughgoing than the selection of some new set of canonical great books. First we must figure out why books are valuable -- "what books do to and for us" -- apart from their physical format. Only then can we go on to discover how to make sure that those qualities survive the inevitable transposition to an electronic screen. "Books will endure for a long time but . . . a powerful tide is carrying us from printed to electronic expression"(99). Lanham points to the democratizing possibilities of using the electronic word in cultural education, and he would welcome a return of oral rhetoric to a central role in university education of students whose world has become largely electronic. His ideas command our interest, even if not always our agreement and even if the technological basis of some of his pronouncements is at times insufficiently r igorous. As when he announces, "Digitization has made the arts interchangeable. You can change a visual signal into a musical one" (130). Certainly digitization has made reproductions of the works of art more easily portable and has improved their quality, so that access to those reproductions is much more convenient. But digitization of reproductions in "0"s and "1"s does not make the arts any more interchangeable than does, say, the shared presence of carbon molecules in printer's ink, artist's paint, and sculptor's stone.
In chapters seven and eight he assesses, first, a group of books from the culture wars, E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, Gerald Graff's Professing Literature, and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, among others. Then he turns to Marshall McLuhan and six books that variously oppose, question, and celebrate the growth of electronic technology. O. B. Hardison in Disappearing Through the Skylight (1989), Alvin Kernan in The Death of Literature (1990), and Myron Tuman in Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age (1992) express concern, while the more optimistic voices are George P. Landow in Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992), David Bolter in Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (1991), which Lanham admires as "the best general discussion of electronic text that has yet appeared" (213), and Gregory Ulmer in Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video (1989).
The best chapter of the book is a lively new essay saddled with an ungainly title, "Operating Systems, Attention Structures, and the Edge of Chaos." Lanham describes how rhetoric's keen attention to the dynamics of human attention makes it well-suited to the complex task of devising a new "operating system" for the humanities that will adapt and transform the "fixed and silent signal of the printed book to a richer but more volatile signal" of writing plus voice plus im age, on the digital electronic screen (227). This new kind of humanistic education will equip students with "a generalized ability to manipulate symbolic reality" in an electronic, multimedia format (229). He accepts the importance of playfulness, "the deep creativity built into technology, working" through "chance juxtaposition," and he sees the complexity of the challenge to humanistic culture as we now know it (241). John Cage's avant garde music incorporates chance occurrences that unsettles an audience schooled in printed scores superintended by musicologists, but at the same time the interface of electronics and music greatly facilitates musical transcription, and has the potential for expanding the ranks of comp osers to include persons who might never have had access to the long years of technical training needed to play the piano and write music. Lanham concludes this penultimate chapter with an enthusiastic look ahead to the near future: "We'll know what kinds of attention-structures we would like to coax, to persuade, into being in the minds of our students. We will then learn how to thrive on this new edge of chaos. This emergent understanding of where we stand, dangerous as it is, I find e xtraordinarily exciting and heartening" (254).
This apparently was planned as the conclusion to the book, and was so described in a headnote to the previous chapter (195), but then was bumped from that position of rhetorical emphasis by a much less successful "Conversation with a Curmudgeon," a twenty-page dialog staged between the two halves of Lanham's mind. If I were reading this book in some ideal hypertext form I would have relegated that "Conversation" to an appendix. But wait, you say, this book has a hypertext version for Macintosh computers equipped with HyperCard software version 2.1, and uses a specific application that was developed for the University of Chicago Press by the Voyager Company, a leading developer of intellectually respectable CD-ROM titles. That's true, and even though I ordinarily use an IBM-compatible computer, I did install and use the HyperCard version of The Electronic Word on a Macintosh SE30 in my department's computer lab. After all, Lanham's patience must have been nearly exhaus ted when the New York Times Book Review chose to have this inaugural University of Chicago Press "Expanded Book" be reviewed by an Englishman who owns an Amiga computer (great graphics, but not compatible with anything). The University of Chicago Press E-Mail help desk responded promptly when a line or two of text at the bottom of the HyperCard page remained hidden because the font I had selected was slightly too large. (So much for the radical power of the "user" to manipulate text.) I tried out the electronic version to see if I could find a definition of the puzzling word "biogrammar," which is not defined in the book, and is also absent in my desk dictionary and the up-dated Oxford English Diction ary. As I learned several days later, after an old-fashioned walk to the library to follow up a footnote reference that looked promising, "biogrammar" is a long-time favorite of Lanham's that he adopted from sociobiology ("genetically programmed behavior patterns," as he defines it in "Post-Darwinian Humanism," an essay in his 1983 collection Literacy and the Survival of Humanism, p. 136). In the index to the printed version of The Electronic Word I found two entries for "biogrammar" (in a matrix diagram on page 14 and in text at page 273), and while reading the rest of the book I found one other instance of "biogrammar," where the matrix is repeated (80) and two instances of "biogrammatical" (82, 84), but still no definition. The electronic search was disappointing because it simply replicated the printed index, without even finding the third instance of "biogrammar," let alone the two instances of "biogrammatical." The small amount of additional text in the electronic version is excluded from the electronic index but does include one instance of "biogrammar"--an animated sequence in which the matrix with the word "biogrammar" flashes on and off. Suffice to say that in a perfect world, the hypertext form of the book certainly would have included an earlier text to which Lanham refers in an endnote (27n14). I share Lanham's eagerness about the electronic future, one in which electronic books will contain more enhancements than now can be compressed on two Macintosh diskettes.
The electronic version of The Electronic Word is designed to be closely similar to the printed book, except that the reader presses a button to move from one page to another or to use the index, and the reader can copy passages and make notes on an electronic notepad. But conversely the printed book itself is very like hypertext, or, more accurately, the transcript of one reader's exploration of a hypertext document. We follow along, sometimes stumbling momentarily when we lack information that we will later find elsewhere in the book. We become increasingly familiar with a set of markers that we encounter again and again. The chapters are not arranged in chronological sequence, and the headnotes and essays deliberately repeat one another s o that individual chapters can stand alone. Even so, this is a book and is far from a collection of unrelated essays. It profits from the restatement of his earlier ideas, now seen in the fresh perspective of the electronic word.