Professor Gideon Burton
7 June 2012
The Social Text
“The one will kill the other…. It was the presentiment that human thought, in changing its form, would also change its mode of expression; that the leading idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same material in the same fashion” (Hugo 169-170).
One of my first experiences with literature and digital media came when I listened to Moby Dick by Herman Melville on audiobook. Parts where I felt like my eyes would have glanced over, instead, I could hear and connect it with other parts of the book. The narrator’s voice was engaging and helped bring the story to life in a way that reading the book would not have done. I felt like I had a valid experience with Moby Dick even though I experienced it in a nontraditional format. In an English class I took, my professor was looking for someone who had read Moby Dick. I was the only one to say anything. My professor scoffed at me saying that listening to it “did not count”. Now, it is an indisputable fact that reading the actual, textual volume of Moby Dick is not the primary medium in which most people experience that work of literature; my professor had not even read or listened to Moby Dick. That aside, however, my professor had a point. There are things the reader gets from a textual edition of a work that does not come from the audio; however, just as this is true, the inverse is also true.
My experience with Moby Dick was an authentic experience of the text even though it was not in the traditional fashion. The world is increasingly experiencing literature through multimedia, and that is not a bad thing. The world of the traditional primary text is being replaced via digital media by what I will call a “social text”. What I mean by a social text is two fold: one, it is social because a work of literature cannot be read isolated from other people (posting on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, texting about a work, etc.), and two, a text is social in that it cannot be isolated from other mediums (films, plays, translations, audiobooks, etc.). A medium is defined in its simplest terms as “that which remediates,” or in more detail “that which appropriates the techniques, forms, and social significance of other media and attempts to rival or refashion them in the name of the real” (Bolter 65). Multimedia of literature is the social application of the traditional primary text. Without the social proof we even doubt the completion of the experience. This trend has extended into the literary canon as it is closely linked now to a medium canon, creating a new conglomeration of a socialized canon. Furthermore, being exposed to a work of literature within the framework of a social text provides validity and authenticity to our experience.
It is common now for people to have read a work of literature in eBook format downloaded onto their Kindle or Nook, or to have listened to the audiobook version from Librivox. Many people’s first experience with a work of literature came first from reading a summary on an online resource like Sparknotes, seeing the play or movie adaptation, or perhaps reading a graphic novel or children’s book adaptation. Some people are first exposed to an adaptation of these kinds through social media sites like YouTube. Each of digital media derivatives provides layers that make up the social text, and it is affecting the way people experience literature in new and unique ways.
The digital age has revolutionized the way that people interact with literature by widening its sphere of influence through various avatars to the point that one cannot read a work of literature separate from its social text. Furthermore, one medium within the social text of a work can become so naturalized that it is seen as the primary medium. There is no way to read any work of literature in isolation anymore. The various mediums act as vehicles to spread the textual work abroad to larger and larger audiences. These factors have created an appendage to the literary canon, a format canon that has started to gain a hierarchy in itself by ranking the various mediums within the social text. The necessity to incorporate the various digital media resources in the study of literature is becoming more and more apparent. Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame gives excellent insights into how this revolution of mediums has happened before and how to visualize the changes occurring to the study of literature due to the digital age.
Victor Hugo describes in detail the cathedral of Notre Dame, which is the focus of the novel. He describes the archdeacon’s anxiety that “the one will kill the other” meaning that the printing press will kill architecture. Hugo describes this transformation when he says “that the book of stone, so solid and so enduring, must make way for the book of papers still more solid and enduring” (Hugo 170). The Hunchback of Notre Dame is set in 1482, at the heart of the transition between the middle ages and the Renaissance. The Gutenberg printing press has emerged and is gaining power that competes with the power of the church:
Human thought discovered a means of perpetuation, not only more durable and more resisting than architecture, but also simpler and easier. Architecture was dethroned…. The invention of printing was the greatest event in history…. It was the renewed and renovated form of expression of humanity; it is human thought laying off one form and assuming another. (Hugo 176)
At the heart of all this revolution and recreation is the transformation of mediums into a tightly knit social text that has replaced the traditional view of the primary text.
Most people would consider the physical book of The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be the primary text. There is a discrepancy with this assumption, however, because the book actually started as Notre Dame de Paris, in French. The English translation, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is actually a secondary text to that one. There are discrepancies between the French text and the English translation that illustrate this point because all the cultural nuances can never be translated fully across languages. This is made apparent by the discrepancies among the various English translations. For example, the second chapter of the fifth book in Notre Dame de Paris is entitled “Ceci Tuera Cela.” In the audiobook English translation read by Mark Nelson, translates this chapter to be “This Will Kill That”; however, in the textual, Barnes and Noble edition, “Ceci Tuera Cela” translates as “The One Will Kill the Other.” Now, arguably, these two translations vary little in meaning, but the fact still stands that the translations obviously vary depending on the translator.
My experience reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame brought me to this conclusion. I had not realized that when I prided myself in loving what I considered the original, primary text, that it was in fact not the primary text at all.
If we take this reasoning, of varying primary texts, out a little farther, the book itself is a textual adaptation of the actual cathedral in Paris. This illustrates Hugo’s point that literature killed architecture. By the time one reads the English translation, what would generally be known as a primary text, he or she has been exposed to at least three different mediums of the same subject. It goes to show in the case of the English translation, that a secondary, or even tertiary, medium can become so naturalized that it is accepted as a primary text.
To bring this point a little close to home, take as another example, the American antebellum novel Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. When most people think of Gone With the Wind, they do not think of the original text; they immediately envision the iconic embrace between Rhett and Scarlett of the 1939 movie with the charismatic Clark Gable and captivating Vivien Leigh. In fact, there are people having critical discussions about Gone With the Wind, but not in reference to the book, in reference to the movie. The movie is their first, and most likely only, impression of the story of Gone With the Wind, and it colors their perception of the book when and if they actually read it. Even those who did read the novel to begin with can hardly expect to talk about it with any number of people without referencing the movie. In a sense, it has become the primary text as it holds a forefront position within the social text. Few people read the book and watch the movie in that order. It is the movie that persuades people to tackle the massive textual edition. This demonstrates a very important digital principle: no one can read in isolation. Reading is no longer “a lonely activity” (Bloom 226). It is not just about the book anymore. In order to have a full experience with a work of literature, one has to have experienced or at least been exposed to it through several derivatives within the social text. It is the social text that opens the doors for more people to be exposed to the work.
There are several parallels that can be drawn from the detailed image Hugo presents of the Notre Dame cathedral in comparison with the social text of the digital age. Take the cathedral to represent the physical, textual book. As the single, primary medium, one would have to go to the city of Paris in order to experience it. By limiting oneself to one medium, it is like being limited to Paris when in actuality, it is possible to experience the piece of literature in the comfort of one’s own home, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. They are these other mediums, this social text, that open the literary work to the rest of the world. That is the beauty of the digital world. It makes interests, such as literature, accessible to people all over the world. Not only through, for example a movie, can the world of literature be brought to a larger audiences of the same cultural sphere, but also those movies can be translated into other languages, or even take on certain attributes of distant cultures that make the story pertinent to audiences outside a particular cultural sphere. Language, cultural, geographic, and special interest barriers disappear when it comes to digital media.
For example, take one of the most beloved and widely acclaimed Western pieces of literature, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This story has been translated into a number of languages, and has had been the framework for more than one movie adaptation. In 2004, Pride and Prejudice was taken by Bollywood and made into the Indian musical movie version, Bride and Prejudice. Now, of course the accuracy of the movie to the story is another topic entirely, but what stands is that now the story of Pride and Prejudice has been taken to a very wide audience who love Indian dance, music, and drama. These people may never have been interested in reading the English textual edition of a nineteenth century British romantic novel, but now they can get the same story but in a way that sparks their own interests. Perhaps then, having been exposed to the story in that way, one of these Bollywood aficionados would be interested in reading Pride and Prejudice. See how that works? By adapting the original novel into another medium, or in other words, by adding another layer to the social text, the same story gets circulated to a much larger group of people.
In my own experience, it has often been other mediums of the social text that brought me to the textual work in the first place, or that took me back to the text had I already read it. For example, I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame in ninth grade and have always remembered loving the story, but I never felt inclined to pick it up again until just recently. I found the musical adaptation of Notre Dame de Paris, and I fell in love with it. Watching clips of it on YouTube, hearing the music and seeing the story unfold visually in that way brought me back to the work, and I read it again. I have contacted another who had a similar experience. Jess Nalbandian, the founder of the Hunchblog, came to the book because she too fell in love with the musical. The difference in our experience lies in the fact that she had not originally read the book. It was the musical that sparked her interest and persuaded her to read the book in order to compare the two (personal communication). All these layers within the social text play different roles and color the way we experience the story as a whole.
These layers can be applied to a new aspect of the literary canon. A medium canon has arisen closely linked and intertwined with the literary canon. Together, they have created a social canon. Though a social canon made up of all these media brought together through the digital world would be considered by most literary scholastics to be subservient to the traditional literary canon that does not undermine its authenticity because the traditional canonized works are just as much a part of the social canon as any other medium.
If we now move into the dynamics of this canon, we see a hierarchy not only of the adaptations from literature to a digital medium, but among the digital mediums themselves. Let us revert back to our Pride and Prejudice example. Many people think of Pride and Prejudice not in direct reference to the book, but in reference to the five hour-long A&E movie adaptation. In discussion, many Pride and Prejudice fans would swear by this movie version. No other movie adaptation is valid. The A&E movie with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle IS Pride and Prejudice. The Keira Knightly version, the Pink Bible version, and Bride and Prejudice are all disregarded. Many people get very passionate in their defense of that A&E version, but hold on a minute. Is not even the A&E version secondary to the actual novel? Critical discussion surrounds that movie as they compare medium to medium without reference to the novel whatsoever. Does this alone not signify the validity of digital mediums as primary texts within this larger framework of the social text?
Digital media has changed the way we approach, experience, and study literature. We have entered an age of the social text, where one medium is not and cannot be the dominant medium of experiencing a literary work. All the mediums work together in layers that create the whole experience. We cannot read in isolation; we cannot look at just one layer and attempt to see the whole picture. It is therefore essential to bring digital media into the classroom. Incorporating digital media into the English classroom will help us study literature more effectively. It is true, there is something lost if the text is cut out, but that is why it is so important to study the social text, with the literary work at the core that links this closely knit conglomeration of mediums. The other mediums bring many additional levels of information, expression, and emotion that add to the literary work. By teaching the social text by incorporating digital mediums into the classroom that the students experience despite any classroom discussion would put those other mediums into the proper light as they relate to the book and to each other. Just as the cathedral was a communal gathering place and was constructed of various mediums (stain glass windows, gargoyles, engravings, etc.), the digital world, as Dr. Kathryn M. Grossman says, “links texts and contexts” (483) providing a social link that connects all these different digital mediums into a social text. Not only does studying the various mediums bring more into the discussion of the textual work, but doing so addresses the condition of the digital age where there is no dominant medium. Exposing oneself to all the different mediums makes the literary work more than just a book; it becomes an entire experience to be seen and felt, layer-by-layer. It does not do in this digital age to limit oneself to the confines of Paris when one can experience the entire world.
Thank you to Dr. Gideon Burton, and my cohort: Emily Coleman, and Whitney Simons for their general contribution to the cohesion and comprehension of this paper.
Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999. Print.
Bloom, Harold. "Elegiac Conclusion." Falling Into Theory. By David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000. 254-233. Print.
Burton, Gideon. Personal Interview. 23 May 2012.
Coleman, Emily and Whitney Simons. Personal Interview. 22 May 2012.
Grossman, Kathryn M. "From Classic to Pop Icon: Popularizing Hugo." JSTOR. American Association of Teachers of French, Feb. 2001. Web. 19 May 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/399430>.
Hugo, Victor, and Isabel Roche. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. Print.