The Social Author #2: Our Multimedial Beginning Print E-mail

8538173826 d6ac51c851 z(Guernica September 30, 2013)

Always, however far we travel back in time, we surmise other forms behind the forms which captivate us.The Voice of Silence, Andre Malraux

Here’s a word—and an idea—which, as I develop this series on the social author, I sense arcing across the axons of every writer: transliteracy, one’s ability to interact with others using many platforms and media, from reading and writing to digital communication. The word’s intent is to move past the literate, move, maybe, where we literates don’t want to go. I already hear the author’s grumbles. Where is this beyond beyond literacy is asking we get to? What could be more highly prized than reading and writing, the languages of law, literature, journalism, scholarship, history, as well as religions and their founding documents? Who among the writerly class feels unfulfilled because she’s not transcended literacy?

And yet, like overnight cities in China, the trans- keeps growing. It seeks to add to the literate world the realms of graphics and orality, of video and digital multimedia, of texting and social networks, so that we are skilled in the broadest array of technologies available, “speak” within the electronic hive. In technology’s new platforms transliteracy resides.

At first glance, the project of enlarging literacy appears new, of the incandescent now. But that’s not so. The first age of the transliterate is preliterate—clay and bone art, epic storytelling, improvised music, ritual dance, forms commingled and orally transmitted. Five hundred years ago, print began to overlord the long-lived oral, particularly in establishing state and church hierarchies. Along the way improvised and memorized music was written down and lost their ubiquity; the rights of males changed from bull-horned decree to published tracts; and the Bible, its myths collected, translated, and printed, was given an “author” whose singular voice helped shape his supremacy. Within most civilizations, the choir had to let the soloist sing. But oral traditions neither withered nor disappeared. Instead, the oral is the hand-to-hand, mouth-to-ear default setting of the majority of communicators, the most voices, who jockey to be heard while the self-anointed literate dominate. (Think newspaper editors, school boards, legislators: it’s a mistake to valorize literate as literature). In our authority-leveling multimedial world, orality is reasserting its power, lessening reflective literacy and amplifying immediate interaction. This is why a tweet sounds the alacrity of speech (first thought, best thought), seldom the shapeliness of writing.

To explore the origins of transliterate culture, I want to use Werner Herzog’s 2011 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams as a lens. The subject is Chauvet cave, discovered in southern France in 1994. Deep inside the limestone cavern are wall paintings of bison, bear, ibex, lion, rhinoceros, and horse, and the red-ochre handprints of the artist. The darkly etched charcoal drawings were made in the cave’s several echoing sound chambers, their walls rounded and pocked from water’s eonic hollowing. In the space are also pudding-like towers of calcium drips, whose conical shapes record the geologic heaping of age. The sketches, done about thirty-two thousand years ago, are the earliest known images our artist forebears made.

In the first ten minutes of the film, Herzog deliberately enters his subject—hiking up a rock face to, then descending through crawls spaces to the cave. The group dons hardhats and tests flashlights, then review the rules for entering. The film itself acts as a torchbearer with a platoon of contemporary artists and paleontologists elucidating the cave’s sanctuary. Herzog uses two sound guides: the eerie, improvised evocations of cellist-composer Ernst Reijseger and his own voiceover commentary. Like a choirmaster, Herzog’s soft, German-inflected, baronial English talks us in. To what? That which is sonically and architecturally seducing him. He warms and mystifies the often claustrophobic space of the movie’s inwardness. He’s like a nurse, voice-coddling us during an MRI with a present-tense narrative. Here we go. “We have one hour.”

In the cave, with film crew and archeologists, Herzog, who was the first and, apparently, only commercial filmmaker allowed in, lingers on the vibrantly drawn images. Illumined by lamps, the two-dimensional animals seem to lope, companion, pose. A few males contend. The texture and curve of the walls add muscle to the figures as do the artists’ brushwork. A group cast often emerges, as though we’ve stumbled on a sumptuous vale of mammalian life. This species multiplication mirrors their abundance during Europe’s last ice age. Most striking, Herzog says, the images are drawn in motion, a cartoon-like running of feet. Under firelight, they animate. He wonders whether this is the first motion picture.

As cave artists painted, they were probably accompanied by music. Small flutes were found, made of bird or cave-bear bone with three to seven holes. These were held and blown clarinet-style and tuned to a pentatonic or five-tone scale, whose mesmeric melodies are common to human groups. In addition, oval bone instruments with a hole at one end were still on the cave floor: whirled on a string, these make a high whining hum. Batons made of bone may have been drumsticks. The paintings’ animation may also issue from “aural” brushstrokes, hand-and-arm alive to the sounds of flutes and drums and drone instruments. Images convoyed on sound seems to have led the artists to fashion their subjects realistically and evocatively.

All this suggests that these early creations were—from the get-go—multimedia. The drawings were, no doubt, done by artist-specialists; they employed calligraphic-like brushstrokes on the walls’ gritty surfaces. Unlike much “primitive” cave art, the animals are fluid, feel instinctively present. Such adroit work may be the first record of ineluctable talent. But, more important, the art was rendered via the communal, the ceremonial, the incantatory—the foundation of animist ritual. Such collaboration releases the energy of the male ibex’s mighty curved horns into the person, the tribe, a woman giving birth, an old man dying. How good that must have felt, to possess the vitality of the ibex.

Rituals in the cave relied on this ensemble of intimacy, in which one’s usefulness to the group is a mark of one’s ability to enjoin the aesthetic conversation. In individual terms—many etchings in Chauvet cave were made by a man whose crooked finger, seen in a handprint, shaped several images with his “style”—the animal figures express the tension between subsuming oneself to the whole and asserting one’s talent within the whole. In a word, operatic.

The incantatory also may have been its own end: sound effects, human cries and gasps, possessed bodies, the quick-etched wall figures became the language of rendering events, real and imagined—mixed and collective media enacting tribal democracy and, eventually, the hero’s tale. Much like team sports, film, a website, a political campaign, a bluegrass festival—all site-specific and collaborative—the group’s dynamism was unlocked by the cave’s reverberant rooms. This passage from John Pfeiffer’s book, The Creative Explosion, describes the antiphonal resonance of that venue.

Think of the acoustic effects that can be produced in caves, sound waves like surf rolling and ricocheting through winding passage-ducts, sound waves trapped and bouncing back and forth off jagged reflecting surfaces in natural echo chambers, sound waves muffled and scrambled and reverberating . . . A song sung inside a tube-like corridor would not be heard until someone passed directly in front of the opening. . . . [Such] sound can be used in many ways to arouse emotion and control movement, to frighten and confuse and steer people, to make them stop short, turn around, come closer, back away.

Chauvet, then, offers up narrative’s narrative: the media used is inseparable from the site; the site creates the media by which the site is expressed.

When words (themselves images) arrived, the space, sound, and visual stimuli of the cave (or hut, kiva, campfire) bred how a word was used and how it meant what it meant. The metaphoric arose simultaneously. From several origins (Old High German, Old Norse, Old English), bear meant the sound people made calling to each other as they ran; bear meant the brown animal; and bear meant the heaviness of its hide, worn for warmth, in grief, or as mask. Language developed in this set-aside, sound-enabling, image-animating locale. We can see its echoes in the popularity of the TED talk today, with its multi-sensorial cast, transmissibility, and cave-like venue.

What does this multimedial spelunking mean for the writer?

In cave art is the aural/visual seed of language, born from its bridging artist and participant and the artist/participant in oneself. That seed of exchange resides in the memory of spoken and written words—our tonal nuances, our syntax, our whispers and screams, are instinctual in us. The human story is told with the drama of the tellers’ (note the plural) means. That messy, loud, overproduced, shared cave theater where tale-telling was yet another way to convene and bind the group. The emergence of art, and eventually of inscribing symbols and words, amalgamates venue and tool as well as ties artist to audience. In caves, the artist is the audience.

Such multisensory media is where the technologically outfitted human is returning to today—re-inscribing those dialogic languages and collective technologies that made us. It may be why the change from the private persona of the writer to the public persona of the multimedia author is so magnetic. Part of our contemporary calling as writers is to reseed that multi-sensorial realm, an out-loud language deeply etched in our species memory, even though print has restricted that realm to the silence of inscribed words.

It may seem that writers are coupling their print voices to speech-oriented technology because it’s trendy. But, in fact, the writer is reminded by film, TV, video, podcast just how limited her media is, and that art’s multimedia-bias is inherent in culture, waiting to be crowd-sourced again. Imagine, like an H.G. Wells short story, a world where a musician may only record his or her music, play only for a machine. That’s the condition, for a half millennium, the writer has been in with print. If the writer cannot feel this oral and site-specific retooling of literacy in our day and age, she is not living in our day and age.

Contrary to Jonathan Franzen’s recent claim that literature’s temple is being soiled by the barbarity of the Internet, the multimedia age does not necessarily bury the quietude of the writer-reader exchange. It may, instead, allow a vast array people to communicate—and speak directly to one another—in a revived oral culture far beyond anything we imagined. A book literally brought to life and writ colossally large. Of course, literature is about the intimacy of text and reader. But collective speech art, while of the moment, may also globalize audiences where multi-voiced communication is crucial. Might we be more aware of war’s toll via Twitter’s messaging and CNN’s video in place of, say, Ernest Hemingway’s novels? Not everything needs literary expression. If it did, literature would be our lingua franca. One more trifle. Who exactly is being wronged by these shifts in ways of reading? The barely one percent, who, after high school and Catcher in the Rye, continue to read literature? For them, change is hell. For the rest of us, it’s a dazzling new world.

Why was a filmmaker allowed into Chauvet as documentarian? Because the find is visual? Partly. But it’s more obvious. Film—the partnership of director, crew, production staff, guides, even the movie/TV screens where it’s shown—collects and transmits the sensorial vastness of our time just as the cave artists accomplished something similar in their time. Film best simulates our listening-seeing-feeling presence.

In addition, Herzog lets the film breathe by cutting to an interview or outdoors where his toy airplane-mounted camera glides over and records the landscape. And yet he returns, obsessively, to the cave images. Emphasizing Reijseger’s soundtrack, Herzog film-essays; he meditates on and intensifies the camera’s intimacy with the drawings. In a way he is authoring a film of a film: Chauvet cave is a concert inscribed on its walls. Via his directorial design the cave eventually retreats as the ostensible subject. The real matter becomes Herzog’s desire to link and document—perhaps to socialize—himself with the cave so that the film becomes a kind of self-sonogram. Herzog’s cavern of self, his soul if you will, feels like another surface on which the film and its images are etched.

For me, documenting Chauvet is as important as finding it. Herzog enacts this transliterate exchange, one we are eager to have with our artist ancestors. Cave art is the happy accident of space and song, of image and tool-wielding improvisation, similar to say Miles Davis during his Bitches Brew period, live and on record. By that I mean the Chauvet walls are a recording device, history’s tape delay system, a hieroglyph of theatrical space. They resemble the inner sanctum of a jazz club where a gloriously evanescent one-night stand is on tap each time we enter. There’s room and time for multiple grooves, multiple solos. As Albert Murray the great blues critic wrote, “Improvisation is the ultimate human endowment.”

Next time, I use the Bible to analyze the great collision between orality and print and how the “holy” book’s precarious position in the digital world exemplifies the writer’s dilemma.

Marshall McLuhan, in his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, explored how electronic media, especially television (a prototype of the computer), would push literature away from the linearity of print and return it to spoken and interactive forms. His famous line—“We shape the tools and the tools, in turn, shape us”—noted that any language is dependent on the medium of its expression, a medium that, invariably, the message must adapt to. In the age of digital authorship, this reads like a prophecy.

The work of the writer, published and engaged, is morphing from a self-conscious, learned, literary style to one performative, shared, everyday, heard, and instant—the speaker the equivalent of the writer. What I will examine, in this series of essays, is who and what is lifting writing off the page and making it auditory and multimedial, where this out-loud movement originated, how its performative character is developing, and to what end.

Technology is transforming the writer into an author—that is, the private persona of the print-based writer is being overtaken by the public persona of the multimedia author. To be heard in the news din of our culture (internet and cable TV), writers add audio, video, and, if possible, a TV presence to their kit bags. They target niches of the public and cultivate venues where they might speak their work aloud. Nowadays, writers search for stages where their voices can first be heard so they can then link audiences to their writing.

Pushing the writer to be “out” with his work are the readers—active, immediate participants in, and sometimes co-creators of, an author’s material. Writing is expanding to include broadcasting the writer’s speaking voice or using video to enhance his text, while reading is expanding to include hearing that voice or seeing text counterpointed by images and hyperlinks. Increasingly, readers are presented with the writer’s physical being, accompanying her page-bound words with the author’s sensory actuality.

The trailer opens up her honest, revealing nature—certainly one reason the memoir form continues to draw a crowd—and a sort of Elizabeth-Gilbert friendship, we hope, ensues.

Here’s an example: the book trailer for Dani Shapiro’s memoir, Devotion. It’s a classic soft sell in which we see pastoral images, hear New Age music, and feel the author’s self-presentation. Shapiro is sharing herself with us, making eye contact, projecting the persona of the thoughtful writer. (I’m not suggesting she’s faking it; on the contrary, the relational hominess is the point.) The goal, I think, is to warm her place beside the communal campfire, so we feel invited to cozy up with her book’s emotion.

With this self-offering, Shapiro hopes to involve herself in the reader’s experience in a new way. To experience her, prior to reading the text, is to smooth the way for what may be a distressing or painful endeavor. In addition, the author’s sociability is heightened. The trailer opens up her honest, revealing nature—certainly one reason the memoir form continues to draw a crowd—and a sort of Elizabeth-Gilbert friendship, we hope, ensues.

In book trailers, some writers are oilier, others softer, still others more mysterious than Shapiro. Most employ this video-audio presence to induce potential readers. A few may even do so as an antidote to the text. If an author’s style is “too” literary, academic, or experimental, making the writer likable may thwart her work’s stuffiness or difficulty so that its demand on a reader’s emotion and time becomes easier for that reader to bear.

Alongside book trailers are other spoken-text media—video book reviews, lectures and readings as podcasts, and the living author, like Dan Brown, who gets to discuss his new novel for twelve minutes on Charlie Rose. Many authors can articulately discuss their books; but those other photogenic qualities—youth, vitality, good looks—that accompany the media spotlight are often as important, in our celebrity culture, as the writing’s immersive appeal.

The personal text or tweet assumes a response, seeks to converse, initiates debate or dissent. Text and tweet initiate responses, which, for the medium to work, must talk back.

There’s something about the author’s actual presence that makes him authentic to readers, and more readable because of it. I think of my attraction to Sam Harris in 2005. His Book-TV lectures on atheism, featuring his distrust of Muslim fundamentalism, brought a huge audience, myself included, to his book, The End of Faith. I wanted to read him because I first heard him speak. It was the passionate evenness of his voice that led Americans, skittish about being overtly anti-religious, to access his message. His reasoning voice encouraged others to write, to speak out, and to read him.

Even texting, which seems quiet and internal, the reverse of public speaking, is closer to (or a simple recording of) written speech than it is to writing. It’s almost dialogic speech: the personal text or tweet assumes a response, seeks to converse, initiates debate or dissent. Text and tweet initiate responses, which, for the medium to work, must talk back.

Whether we engage in this dialogue or not, much of digital culture is already charged with the unique spokenness of an “I” who is telling a story, reporting, confessing. News, documentaries, video blogs, poem-image-music collaborations, podcasts, and much short fiction and nonfiction emphasize the delivery of the “I,” the voice of the speaker. Christopher Hitchens’s syntactic command with improvised speech pulled us in. We expected its provocation and wit, which his writing possessed but his speech seemed to risk far more often.

Multimedial books, for example, those created by Vook, build off of the author’s voice. The audible book is no longer an adjunct to printed texts, but rather a new beast of its own. Audible books—read by authors or actors—engage a busy public of subway riders and bicyclists who live in earbud space. Text read aloud captured the attention of the editors of The New York Times Book Review: in May the Review devoted much of one issue to critiquing audiobooks as performance, books that had already demonstrated, via prior reviews, high quality as prose.

I note the popularity of Byliner and Atavist where short and long literary works, fiction and nonfiction, are available as audio, text, and more. Each piece avails itself of a garden of technological options, as the illustration below shows.

The Atavist has many more ways than Kindle or Nook for consumers to interact with a story: read, listen, musically adorn, hyperlink, comment, resize, share, review, etc. What’s the point? In part, it’s to displace the notion that there’s only one way, reading, to imbibe a text. When text rattles this many bells and whistles, it becomes as multiple and distractible as we are. The presentation of the writing begins to resemble our various personas, which shift and adapt depending on with whom and how we’re communicating.

I have toggled back and forth from audio to text and to other modes with several Atavist pieces. I find this performative side of the literary equation, which the device offers and whose buttons I press, is doing a number on the writing side.

Though stand-alone works of long-form journalism, nonfiction, and fiction are still being published, these pieces have grown shorter than their predecessors, in the ten-thousand-word range. This shrinkage displaces some text for the spatial and sound enhancement of photos, audio, and video. Last year, at the San Diego Reader, where I’ve been a staff writer for 14 years, we got the editor’s memo telling us to beef up our stories with audio-taped interviews, photographs, and voice-over video—without upping our pay. (I note the Chicago Sun-Times has just laid off its entire photographic department; they’re asking reporters and the occasional freelance photographer to take the pictures.)

There are a couple of ways to think about these changes. Is writing becoming an adjunct to the creation of products begun in and emphasized by other media? Is writing integrating its voice with other media to accentuate and redefine the purely textual?

At random, I found online The Five Love Languages: book, e-book, audio, DVD, free study guide, and mobile app. The author, Dr. Gary Chapman, a Christian, offers the product on an all-things-to-all-consumers website. One dropdown menu says, “Interact”—blog, podcast, videos, stories, links. Why the multiplicity? My sense is that he and his production team designed a lifestyle worthy of electronic proselytizing—and the book is just one part of that sell. If you want to read about these “love languages” in-depth, here’s the book. But these other tacks are just as valid. (As of late August, 2013, Chapman’s book is number one on The New York Times “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous” print bestseller list.)

The writer must lean in to an audience whose communication devices are either already set or quickly expanding. The writing must adapt because in digital storytelling scenic writing can be videoed and sounds can be sounded.

This broadening of text and voice and image is indicative of the social author (who works in any media) who is encouraging social reading (by any social media available) with an audience (ears as wide as eyes) who may be interested in the author’s writing, but is probably more drawn to the multi-channels of the author’s delivery.

It’s not that the writer writes less—or less passionately. It’s that the writer must lean in to an audience whose communication devices are either already set or quickly expanding. The writing must adapt because in digital storytelling scenic writing can be videoed and sounds can be sounded. We now expect the writer/producer to include such admixtures.

I watched the recent HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, about the embattled love affair between Liberace and Scott Thorson. Such a biopic dramatizes the summarizing voice of the biographer, and a TV series, like House of Cards, challenges the singular voice of the novelist. Both are spectacularly economic narratives. In Candelabra, I marveled at the filmic use of the actual cars, costumes, homes, and jewelry of the real Liberace, which, in turn, carries the description for the screenwriter and for the audience. And does it instantly.

What has this done to the novelist’s placing of a character into a descriptive milieu, of having her interact with that milieu for the sake of verisimilitude? It’s unsettled the visual authority of the writer and driven the author inward.

I don’t mean that a writer can’t elaborate details of place and era; of course, she can. But because of the all-at-onceness of film, the capacity to move and detail objects, the author seldom feels the need for such depiction. The fact that rival forms today accomplish what narrative writers once had to do—the arduous job of scene-painting and context-creation, erecting such epic stages as Sister Carrie’s Chicago or the Joads’ trek from Oklahoma to California—is pushing them to plumb other wells of literary art: the inner world, the meditative, the analytical, the linguistic. And the collage. Each of which is scenically and sensorially magnified with video and image.

E.L. Doctorow once said that “the whole enterprise of literature is writing in silence and reading in silence.” While many writers still work this way, others use audio and video to highlight the inner, the meditative, the analytic elements to which writing is uniquely prone.

Kristen Radtke is an intriguing—and young—video essayist. In “That Kind of Daughter,” she reads a fragmentary prose poem, in three parts, while the video slowly assembles recognizable images, in herky-jerky silhouette, the whole taking six minutes. She builds her images by constant addition or subtraction—fingers one by one form a hand on which a bird appears and is held and then disassembles.

The options for expression technology also expand the idea of authorship. The new author can choose to socialize his ideas and voice with technology as well as with new venues and new audiences.

Watching and listening, I experience the spoken words and the erected images in counterpoint. Words and images merge and resist merging, the ensuing structure a kind of “visual voice.” On occasion, text and video fuse and harmonize. But it’s never simple. The spoken words push the visual puzzle into known images that do and do not illustrate the text. Once those images suggest a meaning for the words, they begin to dissolve. Radtke achieves a kind of levitating effect: the video defers to and buoys the voice, the unchanging tone of which, in turn, keeps the jittery images anchored.

The writer is quickly being socialized by technology, forced out of Doctorow’s cloister and into the mediated arena where silence is not allowed. Writers are fashioning new forms from the easy availability of companionable technologies. Ten years ago, the novelist or the nonfictionist had no access to such interplay: the door to imagining collaborative possibilities for new pieces had neither been built nor unlocked. Suddenly, such teaming-up makes the writer as enhanceable as the writing is. The options for expression technology also expand the idea of authorship. The new author can choose to socialize his ideas and voice with technology as well as with new venues and new audiences.

It’s important to remember that I am not implying the abolition of print-exclusive prose, literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. What I am suggesting is that the vast sea writing has filled for five centuries is, with our eyes and ears, swelling anew, becoming multimedial and multidimensional—its practitioners, in a word, transliterate. The writer better find his oars, for his dinghy is small, and the waves are splashing over the gunnels.