A RhetNnet Conversation:
Against Speed

Gerard Donnelly-Smith
19 May 1996


For_speed: Sunday morning 10a.m., West Coast, USA, he enters his office and finds nine emails; five on Native American Children's Literature which gives him titles to order for the library; one from this week's visiting poet who asks for direction clarification for the educational MOO; and an intersting post from Eric Crump.

10:10a.m: after clarifying MOO address, and reading against_speed on the World Wide Web, he sends himself Scott Olsen's essay via email, closes netscape, opens Pegasus Mail, waits 5 seconds for delivery, opens Olsen's essay, hits reply, return for include message in reply and begins typing a response.

[Author's note: This was an oral presentation as part of a panel on Electronic Publishing at the AWP Conference in Atlanta, April 1996 (it would look different if I'd prepared it for a journal).]

Isn't it nice that I can mimic orality, creating a dialog with this oral presentation within the space of secondary orality, (that paradigm shift Walter Ong first noted), reply to this graphic depiction of Olsen's breathe within the text itself, within what Gloria A. might call a "safe house", creating a hyper-log.

Let me begin with a problem, a contradiction.

Indeed Scott has, for the act of reading/writing this text contradicts former notions of text as singular act, and of reading as singular act, forces one to forgo the notion of the egocentric author whose words are pressed forever into clay tablets. Creates an infinte act of revision, not only for the author, but for the reader as well. Indeed contradiction surround us because

By providing a seemingly infinite potential space before ink hits paper, the computer has freed us from the insistent and premature feeling of permanence before the story or poem or essay is actually done. Simply put, the advent of the computer has made the writing process easier, which we can hope will lead to better writing.

However, this contradiction is not due to a "seemingly infinite potential," rather the cause is the real infinite potential. Moreover, the freedom from "premature feelings of permanence" becomes a reality only when one no longer desires the final "authoritative word", when the mutibility of a text has been replaced by the immutible, the impermenent, and those determinate canonical readings and interpretations of said texts become indeterminate. The reading of these hypetexts that are stages for immediate writings are not final words, but INVIVO: embryonic and organic musings to be re- engaged. The engaging act becomes the lesson in reading/writing and the re-reading the lesson in writing and reading.

We all practice one shared pedagogy, no matter what other philosophy or writing we hold: writers learn to write by reading the writing of good writers and by engaging in a dilogue with that text we also increase critical thinking. Indeed, this will "lead to better writing". Thus the lesson of Duffie's "The Owl and the Mole" is not the irrelevance of the story's merit, but the judgement value that has been placed on the irrelevance of the storytelling itself, by Mr. Olsen. Though Duffie is not a "shaman, priest" or whathaveyou, he did write a story. A story I myself visited, read, and enjoyed not because it was either good or bad but because he wrote it. I only now realize what I should have done and will do when I am done writing this reply: engage him, point him to a better reading/writing experience.

I have no idea what the future of writing/reading will be, but I do know that any text I produce will be a wave in the sea and the wake rather than the wave, the importance. I made a critical error during the design of my first on-line course. I tried to control the dialogue too much, rather than allow for an organic flow, I let the gods of determinacy direct my design. The sense of community, shared experience and safety I wished to create was stifled by my fear of losing control, of not "teaching" good writing about good reading.

I learned that everything my students wrote was good writing, that they had read slowly and carefully, that they written slowly and carefully. They had only lacked a map and a map-maker. Once the map was created, they could have helped each other make connection, find directions. The good writers would have taught the weak writers, and I could have simply clarified the map as needed.

Next time I teach the course, I will not worry about "good writing" vs. "bad writing" or "slow reading" vs. "fast reading," nor will I worry about the correct critical interpretation of the literature. The nine students found their own ways through the text, and singularly they reach legitimate interpretations that they were encouraged to post back to the larger group. They read, not because they had "temporary interests" but because the map made was interesting to follow.

I won't worry if _The Heart of Darkness_ ever gets read by 10,000 serfers in one day, but be amazed that 22,000 people encouaged Mr. Duffie to write something else just by visiting his space. If only .05 people commented on his story, he would have received more feedback than most students get on their writing during their fulfillment of most schools' communication requirements.

Yet, here's the contradiction. While I believe the process has become a great deal easier, the development of computer technology now stands as the single greatest threat to good writing I can imagine.

The sense of shared, communal standard making will be helped rather than hindered by technology, and what we call writing, itself, may change.

If I understand the broad scope of literary history, when we were an oral culture, or planet, a Story was an act of community. While shamans, priests, whomever, acted as vehicles for re-telling the Story, the ownership of the Story was cultural, shared. Storytelling was an act of communal preservation. A way to preserve certain values, lessons, moralities.

Who are the shaman, priest and storytellers is really at issue here. Who owns the story is the "essential" debate that calls into question all our presnt values, lessons and morals. The ownership of the story has become a threat not only to the individual ego, but also to coroparate control of the media, and the production of knowledge; the guardians and makers of truth feel the most threatened because the diversity of voices and opinions makes of technological storytelling a communal act. Who would have published my response to Mr. Olsen's essay? Which academic journal would have lookedat my name and say, "Now there's a credible, academic voice who has something as important as Noam Chomsky to say. Let's publish him even though he doesn't write all that well." Even if some backwoods literary magazine had published this reponse, how many readers would my response reach, how many of those readers would take time to respond and how long those responses? How much bigger this community of readers/writers? How much more a lesson in value, this lesson of reading/writing?

When we moved to a print culture, our ideas changed. Story, over time, became owned by individual and identifiable authors. And, as storytelling became more private, the community act was now an act of interpretation, of judgement, of aesthetics and theory.

And how much good have these private acts of interpretation, judgement and theory actually done? Have these theories created a new sense of tribal community, have the theorist become the "new shaman" who dispense morals and taste in the name of deconstruction, post- structualism, structulism, new fomralist, formalist, new critical, critical (oh the list of true theory receedes into the past of ink and paper)? Hopefully, this technolgy will displace interpretation as the center of the storytelling community and the exegesis based upon aesthetics theories be replaced by a dialogue about the moral lessons within the story.

What scares me so much is that I believe we're at the brink of a change as large, and as radical, as the shift from oral to print transmission. Displacing both Story and Interpretation as the focus of our community discourse, is technology.

Though interpretation may, indeed, be replaced by dialogue (dial-a- log), technology in no way threatens to displace the story. Technology is only the medium for the story, and this reading/writing NOW is the story. And we have always used technology to tell our stories: grunts to cave paintings et.al.

To say that if all those of the same technological "ilk" finally do have

their way, [story/ineterpetation] would move finally away from any moral concern in writing at all to the structural variety of intertexual links

is "begging of the question" for it assumes that a wide "strucrtural variety of intertextual links" has NO moral concern, is infact, amoral. And my emotions are indeed moved by Shakespearian speech

Friends, if literature becomes fully web-based, and if we teach our children that it's perfectly ok to fast forward past the scary parts, or to chose whatever links best suit their temporary interests, then Heart of Darkness disappears.

However, I can't go down that slippery slope. Good writing will not disappear because we fast forward past the scary parts. To the contrary, we like the scary parts; indeed, if the media box-office weekly ticket take is accurate, the scary the better. Indeed rather than fast-foward past the scary part, our current culture lingers on those scary parts in slow motion, full-color detail.

However, _The Heart of Darkness_ will disappear if someone doesn't adapt that text to the multi-media paradigm shift now underway. If someone doesn't create for it a space that helps the "new reader" linger on the important moral parts. Rather than say the new publishing venue will kill the text, why not consider how the new publishing venue will help create a new readership for the text; indeed, it may create a new _Heart of Darkness_. The question then is whether a dead Conrad would care that that text with his moral message be changed so that it reaches those with "temporary tastes"?

I do not want anyone, or anything, in a flash. I want the slowness of reading well, the power of literature to become subversive, teaching me things about myself and my world I did not expect. Storytelling is sacred, and no technology holds an intrinsic merit.

I agree that "technolgoy holds" no instrinsic merit, but I also hold that no story is sacred in that it should not be revisited, revised, approach with doubt and speculation. Nor do I belive that the storyteller is sacred, to be approached as the bearer of truth, the divine word, or the last word in what is of value. This does not mean that I am an objectivist, my response bespeaks subjectivity. I, as does Scott Olsen, hold the act of storytelling as sacred, and conclude that this technology makes it more so, because it is not the story that is sacred, rather the community who makes and remakes the story IS. The larger the community making and remaking the story, the more sacred the act of storytelling.

The challenge for the new reader/writer is not in the act of interpreting the ongoing telling of the story, but in keeping one's sense of negative capability: to remain within "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" (John Keats, December 1817), the challenge is not to interpret the ongoing story, but to join the story. And to realize that the story is indeed, neverending.


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