If you were to ask me what comes next, the best answer is that I do not know. But if I try to reason through the question, I tend to divide the problem into parts. On the one hand, one of these parts, the personal facet, is what’s to come after my present literature. Or, rather, what will I be writing, what will the next books be like, or even more importantly, how will I relate to them. The other facet is related to literature in general, what comes after the present, or what comes after the “great crisis” of literature, presumably imminent; a great crisis with several ways of making its symptoms felt—that’s what brings us here today—but that, perhaps, is not actually a great crisis.
I think that a writer’s question about what to write in the future is central. Central because it allows writers to imagine, beyond the plans they may have or not have regarding projects, plots, titles or drafts, their own trajectory when this is essentially blurry. The question of the future, for a writer, should be a question of decomposition: the moment when the struggle between legibility and illegibility is set forth. But in general this question is formulated in the inverse: the question of the future tends to place writers in a comfort zone, to the extent that they lean on the past to answer it.
My approach might be a bit arbitrary, in the sense that it is also personal. I will refer to my experience with writing, in electronic formats, and to my relationship with electronic editing. I will also present some examples and points of view about the, in my opinion intriguing, relationship between textuality and simulation that emerges from electronic formats. I am going to propose, if only partially, some general ideas, although I hope that these paragraphs might be useful for thinking about scenarios that, in the future, will be tied to literature.
1. One day I was talking with a writer for whom word processers had always been his exclusive writing tool. We spoke of what each of us was doing. At some point the usual question about writing came up: how one manages the act of writing. In general these are things people run through quickly; schedules, habits and quirks are mentioned. I said that I prefer to write with a word processor. From my point of view it most closely approximates writing by hand in terms of the text’s flexibility and also in terms of immediacy. Writing with computers is more intimate and involving.
That comment must have awakened my friend’s curiosity, because then he wanted to know how people wrote before computers. Unexpectedly, his question unleashed a series of memories and contradictory impressions. And one of the most curious things for me was my interlocutor’s complete ignorance (which became apparent as I answered) of aspects, details and procedures tied to writing that pre-dated the computer, as if he were glimpsing abstruse and eccentric aspects of the past.
I explained that I had gone through several kinds of machines in only a few years, constantly trying to maintain my place in a race whose destination was far from clear, but that I felt was feverous. I started writing with old typewriters, sinking my fingers into white porcelain keys. And with electronic ones, the latest technology at the time, prematurely ancient and incomplete anterooms of what would be computer’s virtual writing. They printed thanks to a system called the “daisy wheel.” Among the mechanical typewriters, I went from the older models to the portable ones, via the light brown Olivetti desk machines, which were then considered medium-sized, the natural inhabitant of any Argentine desk in the 1970s and ‘80s. All of the typewriters had two-toned ribbon spools, and thanks to a button you could opt for the red or black (or sometimes blue) band.
Facing the surprise of my friend, who had surely not formulated his question expecting a detailed response, I made reference to the typeset that during the bookbinding process became deformed in a sublime and particular way. I said that the typewriter for me was a mechanical obstacle that could only be gotten around through an assortment of minor devices, and only with the computer did I discover the simplicity and naturalness of writing by hand—without writing by hand. I also went over my experiences with the “golf ball” typewriter, the heavy IBM Selectric, voluminous like an industrial souvenir, whose writing was sorted out by a metallic sphere crammed with characters. The sphere moved laterally to the ink roller, now immobile, and turned with every strike to the keyboard and immediately stamped a mark thanks to a quick blow to the type ribbon.
After the IBMs, as I said, the new era belonged to the electronic typewriter. They were squat, but quite light. And the top part of the keyboard had a digital screen where text appeared as you wrote. The “daisy wheel” itself was a small plastic plate, with a serrated hole in the center fit onto the top of the typewriter arm that moved along the inkroller, also immobile. The daisy had multiple “petals,” that is, flexible rods at the end of which were stamped characters (a lowercase or uppercase letter, a number or a letter symbol). Therefore, if you wanted to change the typography, the daisy had to be reset with a new family of letters.
This world of the past was vague and unknown to my friend; in the face of the reconstruction that I offered he oscillated between displaced nostalgia and incredulity. On the domestic side of the conversation, writing took me back to a series of old rituals that now seemed outdated but that in their time had been signs of culture. Sometimes I think of myself as a disseminator of knowledge in the process of extinction or dissolution—is this perhaps what literature is about?—and this was one of those moments. Like smokers that detail individual rituals as they share cigarettes, the associated paraphernalia and the typical smoking scenes, the contexts and the procedures, etc. Once we began using machines, that is, typewriters, typing was reinvested with artisanal rituals. Now the processing of words is ritually manual.
2. The act of writing today has less physical aspects and relates in a different way to our ideas and premises regarding its condition. My memory of the struggle with typewritten manuscripts is of a tortuous artisanal process where a good number of tools intervened. In contrast, my impression today as regards the processing of “electronic manuscripts” is, in the first place, that these manuscripts do not exist on their own, but rather as a reflection of a source that cannot be localized in any verifiable place. The intangibility of what is written sometimes reverts back to the unstable relationship that writing establishes with what it seeks to say.
Immaterial writing, like the writing that we see on screens when we work with texts, even texts of a varied nature that are not necessarily literary, proposes a statute of latency and even of reflexivity that these texts lacked in previous historical moments, when they appeared in a physical format and material writing was the only guarantee of preservation.
In an essay (“The Pensive Image”), Jacques Rancière pauses to examine the fact that certain photographs irradiate and propose a type of meaning that does not refer to the intentionality of the author. He calls that type of indecisive image a “pensive presence.” Rancière says, “A pensive image is an image that contains unthought thought, a thought that cannot be attributed to the intention of the person who produces it and which has an effect on the person who views it without her linking it to a determinate object. Pensiveness thus refers to a condition that is indeterminately between the active and the passive.” I like the idea of assigning a measure of activity to an object that is passive on its own, in the sense of being fixed and unmodifiable, albeit potentially eloquent, as is the photographic image. I would say that it acts like a nucleus of larval and invisible activity, in its way passive, as if it were casting indeterminable glances. I suppose Rancière gives this condition the name “pensive” because of the unstable meaning of photos, photos that in the cases analyzed respond to certain physical characteristics and that subject them to a regime of ambiguity; they are at the same time omnipresent and elusive. On the other hand, isn’t concealment perhaps the principle virtue of thought?
In the metaphor of the pensive image I found a notion akin to that of the immaterial writing that I am trying to define. The “pensativity” of the digital text comes from the conflict between the physical-typographical mark inscribed in all writing, including digital writing (since writing is understood as a system of signs that as such come from those that served as inscriptions), and a condition that is immaterial and of a provisional postulation, in the sense of unstable, that derives from the glint of the virtual. The way writing floats on the screen makes me think of it as possessing a form more distinctive and appropriate than the physical. As if the electronic presence, through its immateriality, better approximates the insubstantiality of words and the habitual ambiguity that they often evoke.
3. Several years ago I began to publish a blog in an offhand and careless way, and, one could say, I continue doing it in that way. But its presence, albeit peripheral, has changed the way I perceive my own writing. In my case, what is understood as a blog is a series of distinct kinds of texts. I do not use the page as a space to spill out opinions every day, or to reflect on activities tied to my books. I make use of the already defined templates and free space, inserting fragments, essays, and dispersed writing. Comments are not activated and neither are there links to other pages. In a sense the site is a bit autistic; it attempts to be as silent as possible. At one time I conceived the blog as a simple platform for reading, but I eventually adapted to the blog’s particular presence and temporalities that, if the blog doesn’t impose, it does encourage.
My impression is that on the one hand there is the printed word, primarily published in book format. And on the other there is the virtual, on digital screens. The printed letter adopts a fossilized presence; in libraries, books make up a visitable cemetery, silenced due to their material statute. The typical physical effects, for example the deterioration of paper and other marks of the passage of time, are circumstances that speak more to their expiration than to their permanence.
In my “blog” I assume that I can be my own editor, naturally in a different way than when I am with originals. The page on the internet allows me to avoid the book format and other related media, and also to combine texts of varying physicalities. Nothing impedes me from, for example, using the same title for textual fragments of a novel and photographs of handwritten fragments of the same text. The image of the handwritten “original” is more auratic than the corresponding text, but the homogenous virtual writing takes on a presence that is more enigmatic—I would say autonomous or self-sufficient—that protects it from physical harm.
I imagine virtual texts as if they formed cemeteries of sleeping beings. In contrast to printed texts, coagulated due to their materiality, texts hidden in the internet constantly emit a promise of immutability. They shield themselves in that promise to present, or rather to stage, a condition of constant available. Latency, somnolence, electronic writing promises a permanent and ambiguous access. I think that to a point these attributes better complement my writing than physical attributes. That is why I am tempted to post texts on the internet, because there they promise to have a continuous existence that in appearance is separate from its earthly avatars. A promise of oblivion and persistence at the same time.
4. In relation to what is digital itself, or rather, to the interactive aspect and dynamic consistency that is inherent in it, insofar as a digital text can never be declared completed and closed, I would like to consider if it is possible to insert the experience of certain areas of thought—specifically what is related to the so-called “digital humanities”— into literature. Digital humanities are a type of aggregated knowledge, or a tendency, that’s articulated around interdisciplinarity on the one hand and creation and circulation through digital media on the other.
When ideas and projects are circulated, they are texts in constant transformation. One of the most evident impacts of these formats, from one point of view, is the inadequacy and destabilization of the idea of the author, and, from another, of projects and documents. I ask myself if something similar would be possible in literature. I think the answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, I imagine, many of the things that are likely being done now under the rubric of “digital humanities” may be considered literature, insofar as they create their own reader. On the other hand, I am not sure that a precise subjectivity is constituted around those formats. That is, a subjectivity that permits us to configure an idea of a reader more or less convergent with that modality.
There is also a very evident aspect of the digital world that puts pressure on literature; I’m referring to the technical protocols, constructive marks of digital media that are exported to conventional literary formats. That is why we sometimes see epistolary narratives constructed out of email, or by simulating Twitter updates, etc. In the reiterated headers that correspond to every message, we sense the excluding presence of the machine as a technical intermediary. These strategies are iconic and a little bit naïve from a certain point of view, it is true, and their innocence shows an uncritical passivity as regards these technical metaphors, from which they borrow, what we might call their constructive eloquence, and in this way are also a bit naturalistic.
From another point of view, I believe that immaterial writing, or rather, writing in virtual format, finds in electronic circulation its full realization as a non-material event. But the digital dimension places on the same plane texts that are much more segregated in physical publications, because they need the schema of a book, the institutional idea of bookbinding, to make themselves present as legible texts. I am referring to notes, diaries, incomplete and larval compositions, letters, private writing, etc. These types of writing can now circulate instantaneously; but in many cases their forms of writing and reproduction imply that they do not exist as such, in the sense that these marginal compositions, upon being written without a material support, come to be definitively ephemeral.
5. Accustomed to the electronic formats of writing and reading, sometimes an alchemical convergence occurs between the paradigms belonging to digital formats and categories of narrative representation. I would like to illustrate this with Agustín Fernández Mallo’s “Mutations” (In The Maker, by Borges (Remake)), published by Alfaguara in 2011. The plot consists of two trips organized as reconstructions of previous trips. One of them is made by Robert Smithson in his well-known essay “The Monuments of Passaic.” The other is Fernández Mallo’s, titled “A Journey Through The Monuments of Passaic 2009.”
The essay by Smithson describes a trip to Passaic, New Jersey, and developes a series of reflections tied to the landscape and the pictures taken there. Fernández Mallo’s account reconstructs Smithson’s journey, but also travels through the essay itself, making it the object of quotes, comparisons and both conceptual and physical references. Fernández Mallo undertakes the trip again, in the style of documentarians and contemporary researchers who retrace the steps of naturalists, explorers and seafarers. An important element is that Fernández Mallo’s trip is not physical, rather he uses Google Maps to carry it out.
This way, you realize in Fernández Mallo’s account that the series of narrative topics destined normally to describe sequences or important landmarks (preparations, route changes, coincidences, disorientations, discoveries, etc.) find themselves translated into the sphere of virtual coordinates and screenshots. Fernández Mallo as narrator moves with the screen, and in the small white hand that represents the position of the cursor he finds both a cultural signal and a cipher of his own subjectivity as a traveler. At the same time, the reproduced photographs oscillate between Smithson’s original images and those created by Fernández Mallo with his cell phone in front of the computer screen during his trip.
Among the several questions that the account poses, I am interested here in an idea tied to literature understood as machinery, subject to the rules of simulation. Simulation is a system of imitation in which elements and functions are taken from reality in a necessarily analogous way. Only if we limit the meaning of the word, may we say that it is a representation. To the contrary, simulation proposes a direct and never deflected tie to the world that it simulates, or imitates. Simulation can also recreate closed and nonexistent systems, but with the condition of being subject to the rules that govern them as if it were an outline of reality.
The idea of simulations has been extended into videogames and computers as a ludic or entertainment alternative, but many of them, in fact, propose specific syntactical narratives. In Fernández Mallo’s “Mutations,” I think we can find accounts of simulations, as far as these digital experiences (the computer as an observation tool, the digital map as real physical environment, the cell phone as recording artifact) are proposed as a substitutional yet non-representational schema of the real world, between icon and analogue, that is, of a geography where real things are organized according to the simulator’s description.
Fernández Mallo´s narrator repeats Smithson’s original trip; to this end, he is accompanied by captured images from two time periods and by the conceptual observations of the author, let’s say, the original. But it should also be said that, given the direct means to verify the original material, a new conceptualization is wielded from the moment this digital form is chosen as an approach. The result is a cartography that is sometimes ironic and sometimes literal, without ever fully becoming a reconstruction.
I have the impression that accounts like Fernández Mallo’s (discontinuous critical discourses? textual variations? conceptual versions?) reveal an increasingly common literary method, one that also pervades literature previous to it—since it operates through strategies of reading that exist in the present moment, not only on composition or verbal creation strategies. It would be something like a mode of simulation. Literature no longer as—or not only as—a strategy of representation but rather as a sphere of simulation, like the digital options present on online maps, or like videogames. Simulation offers the possibility of operating upon the represented universe; that universe represented on the screen is based on a group of analogue references.
Carried over to literature this system would be a new form of realism that finds in simulation the testimonial surface to propose new layers of sensibility where today’s subjectivity may present new scenarios
 Here I use Gregory Elliot’s translation from Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator (Verso, 2011).
Sergio Chejfec’s books include My Two Worlds, The Planets, and The Dark, all published in English by Open Letter Press. He has been a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. Jessica Gordon-Burroughs is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University.
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