Pushcart XLI: Angela Woodward, “New Technologies of Reading” from Conjunctions 10/20/15

William Blake: Plate 92, Jerusalem

William Blake: Plate 92, Jerusalem

One) 3-D Printing
Hard to say if the reading process is at all improved by this, but the figurines exude a degree of charm. These are produced not on a flat substrate but in three dimensions in successive layers: The ink is substrate and substance in one. The pieces with a religious purpose—eight million iterations of “God Is Good” extruded letter by letter and formed into a little stand-up Jesus—should remain tourist items. I was given a Santeria saint with her heart in her hands, which unfolds into a spell for binding love. From this incantation was designed and printed a splint made of the same biocompatible material that goes into sutures….
The process comes closest to fulfilling its promise in the wildlife series put out by Tasso. The text interlaces the natural history of the animal with its genetic code, or so says the accompanying booklet (with a scan of the reader’s wound, to determine how it might be fixed over time). Would there be blood beneath the fur? Would turning its pages wrench cartilage out of joint? Such a fantasy could be entertained at least.
Complete story available online at Web Conjunctions

So you read the title and think, Really? Someone’s just discovered ebooks and wants to complain about the decline of the paper variety? Or maybe it’s more of a neuro-semiotic approach, The Medium Changes Us as Well as The Message and we’re going to forget how to read. Maybe you, too, remember a college professor in literary theory announcing, back in the Reagan administration, that computer screens were responsible for the shrinking of the American attention span, ignoring the fact that pages have been around since antiquity.

But that wouldn’t even be close.

You keep reading and encounter the first section title, 3-D printing. What does that have to do with reading? Is someone printing books that way? If you know anything about 3-D printing, that strikes you as ridiculous, at least with current technology, but the first few sentences are fairly normal and describe the physical process accurately, and there’s something irresistibly highbrow about the phrase “ink is substrate and substance in one” so you trust the writer, the essay, a bit more (and you’re assuming it’s an essay because Pushcart includes “Fiction” in the byline for short stories and there is no such notation here).

But then everything goes to hell and you no longer know what’s going on. Who is Tasso? What, a heavy hitter slipped by you somewhere along the line, there’s another DeLillo or Calvino or Baker out there? Wait, genetic code? Oh, we’re in some other kind of thing now, where the book is the body and reading is a physical act upon a living being, in the case of Tasso, wildlife because who (other than Kafka’s Penal Colony Officer) would do that to people, and wouldn’t it be illegal? Talk about characters coming to life.

Oh good, another section, maybe things will settle down:

Two) Condensed Books
I’ve learned to avoid the pill versions. These are simply too strong. Often slow to take effect, suddenly the reader is drawn into an improbable romance involving a spy, a dermatology clinic, a girls’ camp by a lake. The smell of the old Reader’s Digest triple editions pervades the action, a clammy, mildewed dinginess at odds with the overall glitz. Note too that only the most staid of novels are available in this format, so that one feels violently ill and hallucinated while reinforcing gender roles long outgrown: his stubbly cheeks, the swish of her hair, the rewarded patience of the passive beauty. The last time, I woke up with my head throbbing, my mouth dry, carpet burns on my hips. I thought I could ingest a self-reflective arctic brooding, but it was all the most generic lust, him on top ruffling my bangs and calling me “baby.”
The charcoal versions I find fascinating, though also incomplete. I was ushered into one of the private rooms above Powells and given something the shape of a pencil box. The mechanism on the side ignites the contents. The reader controls the amount of fumes by opening or closing the lid. I let too much escape all at once. Before I had comprehended the complexity of the narrative, it had crumbled. I prodded the ashes and got only a few last puffs, goodbye, Sidney, I will carry your … it’s all so … refugee camp … two sisters … less able to … . built itself over the river, and was just as quickly razed by the … all confused in gray swirls of languid euphoria. The material once combusted can’t be revisited. This series makes use of mostly forgotten novels from the 1930s and ’40s….

No, not settling down. Ramping up, in fact. I’ve inhaled a few books, but only figuratively. Hey, embodied cognition is pretty much a neuroscientific fact, can embodied literature be far behind? Or is it here already, waw it here in the 19th century when Blake wrote, “They became what they beheld…”

Despite the craziness, there is a logic here, and a progression. Whereas 3-D printing – “printing” connects it semantically to printed books – only presented work and was accompanied by description, as we go along the material being read, through whatever medium, becomes more and more intrusive, until by the third section – Salves and Drones – we’re scraping the salve of stories off our skin and never quite getting it all and experiencing the torture that’s been committed in our names (if we are US citizens, though all countries have horror in their history).

And it’s all ironic, considering Bill Henderson’s longstanding mistrust of “new technology”, i.e., digital literature. The story is, by the way, available on the web-only version of Conjunctions.

I’m probably less sophisticated than the average Pushcart reader, so I was thoroughly confused for some time. Is this fiction or non-fiction? What label do I put on it? The editors seem to have classified it as non-fiction as I’ve noted above, and I’m perfectly happy to call it transgenre, but I suspect fiction is closer to the truth. Does it matter? Not at all. I went from confusion and frustration to respect and ultimately enjoyment. I went looking for the writer, wanting to know more (who is this?) and found her conversation with Jacob Singer at a literary blog called zoran rosko vacuum player:

No matter what the piece of writing, it’s created out of words. Writers are only working with words. That’s all we have. We don’t have ideas. We don’t have images. We don’t have scenes. We don’t have characters. The illusion of all those things can be crafted out of words, but those other things—the ides, the images—are by-products of language. Words in themselves have sounds and sense, and they shift and change in relation to the other words around them, both in their sound schemes and how they’re yoked grammatically….I’m not aiming to make a movie with my words. That’s just one approach.

~ Angela Woodward

I’m sure if Woodward could have sent us the pills, smoke, salve and drones, so we could experience literary invasion, she would have. But that just wasn’t practical.