In “The Aesthetics of Bookishness,” Jessica Pressman explores the emerging forms of the literary text in the 21st century, through a case study of The Raw Shark Text. She argues against the supposed “death of the book” that has been threatened through many points in history, instead suggesting the medium “needs the threat of its demise as stimulus for its defense” (466). The physical book is evolving with the revolution, maintaining its novelty, so to speak, through continual interactions (and combinations) with digital literature.
Pressman begins by examining the importance of the book as a physical entity in modern fiction. Increasingly, writers are interested in “depicting books as characters and focal points,” through quests to find books, books as setting, and books as the living material of information. She connects the fears of “death of the book” to our fears of what it means to be posthuman—that is, the emphasis on ways in which “information loses its body” (469). The main character of The Raw Shark Text suffers from “disassociative condition,” a state in which his ideas are no longer fully attached to his material body—instead, books and writing provide a physical space for his memories and ideas. In the posthuman age, the struggle of the physical book is deeply connected to “the value (or lack of value)” of our own “materiality and bodies” (469).
Instead of fearing disembodiment through technology, Pressman argues that we ought to “explore and exploit the interstices between the digital and the bookish” (477). The fear in the 21st century of “information [living] invisibly and [spreading] virally” (469) is shown in The Raw Shark Text by two villains: the Ludovician shark and the disembodied Mycroft Ward. However, the true villain of the two is Ward, but he is only to be feared by virtue of his separation—the “content” of his being is fully separated from “material instantiation or formal presentation,” rendering him a fully isolated “network,” without the “discourse” (471). Instead of being a fearful representation of our possible posthuman future, Ward is a construct encouraging us to think “beyond dichotomies” in the here and now, rethinking the ‘death of the book’ (480).
The book as a technology depends on continual transformation in order to keep its novelty. That is why Pressman argues for “combating…the claims about the death of the book,” rather than “the digital world,” because claiming books could ‘die’ implies that books may only inhabit a single form or cultural context. Instead, books should be viewed as “spaces in which to explore, critique, and challenge the changing world” (480). Indeed, far from existing as isolated objects in the digital network, books provide links to “every previous reader and any applications of the text,” serving “as part of a system of distribution that connects to the large network culture of our digital age” (479).
A passage I was particularly interested in was Pressman’s explanation of the Ludivician shark as a “living afterlife…[containing] ‘memory families’ made from ‘generations of shared knowledge and experience.’” The shark was viewed by Native Americans as part of their “cultural history,” as well as a “valuable archive” (472). Cultural context aside, her description made me think of Facebook more than anything: my dad reconnected through Facebook with friends from the Navy he hadn’t seen or spoken to in almost 40 years, recreating that memory-place. What other forgotten memory places might the Internet reveal in time?
On a semi-related note, Pressman seems to be arguing the ultimate downfall of Mycroft Ward came in his relentless development of “efficiency” (476). I couldn’t help but recall Mak’s explanation of the importance of “white space” on a page for use in exploration, continuation, and even disagreement with, ideas presented in text. It is necessary to explore, to fail, in order to learn; just like the “white space” on a page, children need time free from outside stimulation/obligation, in other words boredom, in order to develop creativity, but I can’t help but wonder where we get that chance for white space, for boredom, when we can block out every lonely instant of the day with BuzzFeed or Netflix? Or are these seemingly purposeless platforms simply an evolution of white space?
Pressman continues this theme on 478 with the exploration of “un-space,” as it exists as a safe place in the universe of The Raw Shark Text. Un-space, white space, and boredom, then: are they all calls to the same thing, to continuing exploration, the freedom to imagine, to create without fear, without the interference of/concern with dichotomies?