Book: Frank Hellemans 1 Jan 1996

Mediatisering en Literatuur

In his book Mediatization and Literature, Hellemans investigates how the poetics of the literary avant-garde, in search of modernization and renewal, employ or experiences impulses related to the technology of media.

Hellemans reconstructs the evolution of poetics and describes the developments in new media which run parallel to it. He also tries to embed both evolutions in a ‘perception-historical context’ of a modern perception which is primarily characterized by a discontinuous ‘shock experience’; I am largely paraphrasing Hellemans’ preface here. A bit further on he states that literature and (visual) media are, in my opinion, both exponents of a fundamental change in the structure of perception which has been occurring since the modernization at the end of the eighteenth century. It is thus a book in which the history of the literary avant-garde is considered from the perspective of the history of the media, in which literary criticism and media theory come together. Hellemans also asks, Could it be that modern literature is being eclipsed by her digital kid brother: electronic hypertext literature? All in all, this sounded to my ears like a book I had been waiting for.

Hellemans’ book certainly fills a gap; I enjoyed reading it and often filled the margins of the pages with half-treatises when I suspected that he was wrong. Hellemans deftly sketches a panorama of the literary avant-garde and the history of the media. These ideas are already well-known from the books of McLuhan, Kittler and Benjamin – the three pillars on which Hellemans’essay is based - and the history of the avant-garde is also familiar territory. But Hellemans offers a clear overview; the link between the histories of the avant-garde and the media had not yet been approached from the perspective of literary criticism and poetics.

Hellemans’ essay is a classic example of academic sampling: literary criticism as the summarizing, paraphrasing and embellishing of others’ articles, manifestos, statements, quotations. The literary critic’s task is to knit these small fragments together. Though the choice of the samples and the order of the knitting, a certain development is suggested. And this is just how Hellemans proceeds. He claims that there is a link between the coming into existence and development of the literary avant-garde, the development of (new) media, and the coming into existence of ‘modern perception, the ‘shock experience.’ He then goes on to illustrate this by discussing, for example, Van Ostaijen’s poetics, Goethe’s ideas on the steam engine, a short account of McLuhan’s ideas on orality, etc.

But his illustrations rarely become argumentation, which is unfortunate. Thus Hellemans gets mired in tentativeness when he doesn’t have to. He may call his book an essay, but it bears all the hallmarks of a (very thorough) lit-crit treatise, and in such a treatise I’d expect to see some argumentation.

The most compelling chapter is the one in which Hellemans addresses the link between Marinetti’s poetics and digitalization. Here Hellemans digs deeper, looks further than the thoughts of others. Here as well lies the core of his argument. The intersection between ‘new media’ and ‘poetry/avant-garde’ is not simply suggested, it is palpable, even graphic, and Hellemans manages to pinpoint the effects of technology on wordcraft itself. He describes the poetics of Marinetti via Marconi, the inventor of telegraphy. Marinetti’s notion of wireless representation plays a central role. Hellemans writes that Marinetti wanted, after all, an analogical literature without an analogical moment, whereby each image would simply leap into the next one. Hellemans connects this notion to digitalization: Such a logic of abrupt exchanges, in which the analogical element has completely disappeared, is what can be called a digital logic. And he wonders if Marinetti’s techno-poetics anticipates the digitalization of the perception of space and time which people are experiencing in today’s information society.

Analogue versus digital. It haunts in Hellemans’ essay. These concepts continually resurface; analogue, digital. And there’s something wrong with that. Hellemans’ opening gambit references Octavia Paz’ notion of poetry as being analogue. There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself; Hellemans plays this view against digitality. The problem here, in my opinion, is that the communications-based definition of analogue, which Hellemans regularly seems to use, cannot simply be compared with Paz’ use of analogue in his theory of poetry. And if this is indeed possible, then I believe Paz’ notion of analogy exclusively concerns communication on the semantic level, while the digital versus analogue contrast which Hellemans refers to concerns the syntactic level. In my opinion, it’s very possible, indeed wholly logical and obvious, that poetry is digital on the syntactic level and analogue on the semantic level. In other words, Paz’ notion of analogicalness is eminently possible in a digital medium. Letters and sound can be stored digitally, but to do so does not automatically preclude an analogue meaning.

The next issue presented, the last in Hellemans’ book, then becomes irrelevant: To what extent (can) traditional, analogue growth of the text ... be transformed into a digital form of ‘wireless’ communication? In other words, are literature and media-technological communication ultimately compatible, or just how ‘dynamic’ and ‘wireless’ can literary style actually be? (p. 166).
Admittedly, Hellemans’ presentation of this question goes further than I make it appear. The question he actually means to ask, namely, is whether an analogue means of perception and analogue literature are possible in a world in which digitality has become the basis of the means of perception and the comprehension of the world. Is poetry possible in such a world? And this is a fundamental and meaningful question.

In Hellemans’ view, this all concerns a ‘revolution’ in how people perceive their environment. If they used to do so in an ‘analogue,’continuous way, over the course of the 20th century it has gradually become a digital way. The shock, the collision between elements, is what creates meaning in the modern means of perception. This shock is also the basis upon which the structuralists’, post-structuralists’ and deconstructivists’ theories of meaning are founded. The ‘shock’ has been the constituent element in the new media ever since the telegraph, the digital media; the shock plays a central role in theories on the modern means of perception, in Benjamin, in the various avant-gardes and an impulse towards this direction can be detected even as far back as the 18th century.

If the core of Hellemans’ essay is his rendering of Marinetti’s ‘crypto-digital logic,’ then for the crux he reaches for Lacan’s theory of metaphor. He uses it to explain the futuristic paradox of an analogy without an analogical moment. In brief, if the meaning of language is based on a web of arbitrary relationships, then language, according to Hellemans via Lacan, is in fact founded on a digital logic. Thus an analogical logic without an analogical moment should be possible.

Helleman's referencing of Lacan in order to interpret Marinetti’s idea of the metaphor is to the point. He then navigates all kinds curves in order to demonstrate, via Lacan, the difference between syntax and semantics within a digital system (and thus within language as well). He then arrives at a distinction which is exactly the same as the communications-based distinction between the syntactic and the semantic levels of communication. Child’s play, then, which hardly requires a detour via Lacan, right?

Hellemans needs Lacan in order to forge the link between digitality and the shock experience, the constituent element of the avant-garde aesthetics: The shock experience... is, in Lacan’s digitalizing point of view, internalized to the pre-eminent moment in which meaning is produced in the computer’s integrated circuit, or in the just as integrated network of language. In other words, Lacan says that meaning, in language, in a network, comes about in the ‘shock’ (Lacan’s ‘scansion’) between two elements. Thus the shock has become, even in the ideas regarding the production of meaning, the element on which everything depends.

Unfortunately, it all goes wrong in the final chapters, where Hellemans ventures into hypertext and VR as possible extensions of an avant-garde poetics. Hellemans’ knowledge of hypertext and VR comes up short, it seems, as he gets stuck in gnawed-on clichés which he fails to embellish. He rehashes what his colleagues have already rehashed, without pausing to consider if it’s even true. A missed chance.

Thus Hellemans discusses only the utopia of hypertext. Arriving, after two sparse pages on hypertext, at the observation that the network construction within the hypermedia (multimedia computers which are connected to one another) brings to a practical solution Lacan’s dynamic-digital solution for the aporias of a non-analogical, or a wirelessly operating, analogical logic, may well be correct, but failing to add anything to this observation strands him at the same point where George Landow et al. already stood in 1987, while much as happened in the intervening ten years. There’s no shortage of theoretical ponderings on hypertext, yet there is a shortage of analyses of what happens when you read or write a hypertext. Not theory-speak à la Lacan, but a pragmatic analysis.

This makes the conclusion of Mediatization and Literature disappointing, and leaves the book as a whole unbalanced. There are already enough examples of hypertext available for Hellemans to have said something more about it.

Yet, as this review confirms, Mediatization and Literature is not a superfluous book. And not least of all because it challenges to a contrast of opinion and provokes further thought. And that, too, was Hellemans’ intention.


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