No exit

One of the advantages of embedding culture in nature, of requiring that works of reason and imagination be given physical shape, is that it imposes on artists and thinkers the rigor of form, particularly the iron constraints of a beginning and an ending, and it gives to the rest of us the aesthetic, intellectual, and psychological satisfactions of having a rounded experience, of seeing the finish line in the distance, approaching it, arriving at it. When we’re in the midst of the experience, we may not want it to end, we may dream of being launched into the deep blue air of endlessness, but the dream of endlessness is only possible, only has meaning, because of our knowledge that there is an end, even it is an arbitrary end, the film burning in the projector:

Long before Gutenberg forged his little metal letters in Mainz, the media of writing, being necessarily physical, had clear beginnings and endings. The scroll was more open-ended, more continuous than the tablet that preceded it and the page that followed it, but even a reader rolling through a scroll could see, and feel, the end approaching, had a pretty clear sense of what was left. Beginnings and endings predated the written word, of course — Odysseus returned home — but the forms that writing took in the world reinforced what seems to be our natural desire to start in one particular place and finish in another.

Digital media, particularly hypermedia, blur beginnings and endings. Everything is in the middle. No one other than an absurdist would ask where the web begins and ends; the web goes forever on. This is exciting in a way. When you’re used to having beginnings and endings, removing them can feel liberating. The inventors and promoters of hypertext and hypermedia systems have always celebrated the way they seem to free us from the constraints of form, the way they seem to reflect the open-endedness of thought itself and of knowledge itself. Said Ted Nelson: “Hierarchical and sequential structures, especially popular since Gutenberg, are usually forced and artificial.” He did not mean that as a compliment.

But even though we read “forced” and “artificial” as negative terms, there’s much that’s praiseworthy about the forced and the artificial. Civilization is forced and artificial. Culture is forced and artificial. Art is forced and artificial. These things don’t spring from the ground like dandelions. And isn’t one of the distinctive glories of the human mind its ability to impose beginnings and endings on its workings, to carve stories and arguments out of the endless branching flow of thought and impression? Not all containers are jails. Imposing form on the formless may be artificial, but it’s also liberating (not least for giving us walls to batter).

There are, as designer Craig Mod points out in an article on the future of magazines, practical angles here. What should give us pause about the shift from page to screen, Mod argues, is not the loss of paper but the loss of boundaries:

I miss the edges — physical and psychological. I miss the start of reading a print magazine, but mostly, I miss the finish. I miss the satisfaction of putting the bundle down, knowing I have gotten through it all. Nothing left. On to the next thing.

The very design of a physical magazine tells a story (sequential and, yes, hierarchical), from cover to table of contents to front matter to features to the last page with (typically) its little valedictory essay, textual or photographic. That’s a hard story to tell when entryways are everywhere and exits are nowhere. When there’s no way out, we get nervous. We start to feel trapped in our freedom:

While a stack of printed back issues of National Geographic may seem intimidating, it is not unapproachable. The magazines may be dense, but you know where you stand as you read them. But what about staring at an empty search box leading into the deep archive of …

Magazine websites, like the World Wide Web itself, open one up to continuous exploration through links and related content. There’s beauty in that, if one is up for total immersion. But it’s easier to become overwhelmed, or lost. … The question “How deep does it go?” is one that that nobody had to ask the printed edition of Newsweek. It’s not so clear. It’s why we love “Most Popular” and “Most E-mailed” lists — they bring some relief of edges to the digital page.

We may yearn for boundlessness, but to be granted it is to be cursed.  “Thought,” wrote Robert Frost, “has a pair of dauntless wings,” but “Love has earth to which she clings / With hills and circling arms about.” The web needs to find its bounds, and its bonds. It needs to come back to earth. That’s the challenge now.

Tout va bien, Jean-Luc Godard, 1973

5 thoughts on “No exit

  1. Deborah

    I have been re-reading Persuasion by Jane Austin lo, these past few days.

    On my Kindle DX no less.

    I keep glancing at the percentage bar to tell me of my progress. Oh there’s a beginning and an end. But I can’t put my finger to hold my place and tip the book up to see how far I am in centimeters of pages. It’s ever so much more satisfying to find one’s place this way.

    Percentages don’t belong in Jane’s world. And never mind that they don’t match my reticule or pelisse either.


    Though here I am, typing away on my little flat Apple keyboard that I love using so much… writing about this on the endless WWW.

    Alas, such is the cognetive dissonance of life in 2012.

  2. Trevor Miles

    I can only imagine that much of this same discussion took place after the advent of the printing press. Even now there are differences between version of the Bible between the original Aramaic and any one of the various languages into which it has been translated since, and I presume this is true of all religious texts. I am quite sure the Catholic Church was horrified by some of the ‘inaccuracies’ in the original translations into German and other languages, ignoring the ‘inaccuracies’ introduced through the translation from Aramaic into Greek and from Greek into Latin.

    I am the first to admit that I get very irritated very quickly with the techno-nirvana crowd. Posting a family photo on Flickr is not ‘creative’, nor is it ‘innovation’, nor is it adding to the ‘collective consciousess’. And, yes, I still read a book in paper form, because I am in my mid-50s.

    But I can’t help wonder if there is too much emphasis on the negative effects and not enough emphasis on the positive effects of the modern electronic age. As much a Nathaniel Hawthorne may have decried the ‘shriek of the locomotive’, would any of us really advocate returning to a pre-rail period? Were there not many ‘luddites’ who gained a lot from their ability to experience and explore regions which were inaccessible in the past, and who may have had a fleeting glimpse of Hawthorne’s inspiration?

    There was much lost through the development of the printing press, not the least of which was ignorance on the part of the general populace and power on the part of the church. But we also lost the communal spirit of tribal history passed on through story telling, and the long term emory that instilled and promoted. We lost the intimacy of the fire pit throught he advent of electric lights, but we could also read long into the night.

    So, while I you, Nick,for fighting against a lot of the euphoria and downright nonsense written about the electronic age, I do wonder if you are perhaps cherishing the past without celebrating the future.

    And I cannot dismiss out of hand the business model argument that Clay Shirky makes.

    I would say that the world is better informed than we were before the electronic age. And we have lost much in the process. But on balance I would say we are better off.

  3. pqbuffington

    To your inclusion of Hellman’s masterpiece…what of these outliers…were the Driver and the Mechanic any closer to Washington DC, or any end for that matter, then they would be today?

    The last scene, the one you embed, at an abandoned airfield (a well-defined stretch of tarmac, no more and no less), what of this? Endlessness all the same as our heroes will never escape as their cars will never take flight.

    Is hypermedia the new road, as some say, or mere superlative? Can one infinity be greater than another?

    I might flip your first sentence of this post and claim we imbed nature, to the best of our feeble ability, in our culture and this gives us a most necessary illusion, if not anymore the road’s endlessness then hypermedia’s.

    Speaking of the Odyssey, next time, embed the scene from Cockfighter where WO loses it all…before he gets it back.

  4. Mark

    I think, although I can not be sure, that giving up the book for the screen is another iteration of our abandonment of the body. We have rehearsed the limitations of favoring the mind and making this separation in our critique of the enlightenment. And we are now still in the midst of disentangling ourselves, and trying to save ourselves from the environmental consequences of not honoring the body of the earth. Abandoning the book seems like another iteration of somewhat careless, somewhat Prometheus driven, utilitarianism. This discussion of the loss of beginnings and endings is in my estimation a clear symptom of disembodied living. What do you think?

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