Queequeg’s Coffin: A Sermon for the Digital Human

Sean Michael Morris

How I long for a time when text ended at the page. When it didn’t follow. Me. Through the streets and the hallways and under the blankets of my bed. 

~ Anonymous

The digital has breached the screen. Text fails to tell whole stories. We can no longer accept the division between our lived experiences and the texts we produce. Instead, the two now copulate — unfamiliar but desperate lovers — to create versions of stories that are both entirely not lived and only ever real.

Storytelling has changed. Stories are no longer told to audiences, but by audiences. And this goes way beyond collaboration. It’s dissemination. It’s the question Anna Smith asks in “Your Voice in Mine,” “How can I hear my own voice unless it bounces off of yours?” It’s a massive game of “telephone” played every day by every connected person in the world, reinterpreted and remixed, shared appropriately and inappropriately, NSFW and rated-T-for-teen, with every passage from one mouth to the next ear changing the message in sometimes imperceptible ways. This is Miley Cyrus’s world now. We are all in her book. If we find that appalling, we shouldn’t. Because as much as we are her audience, so too we are her authors. We make what we hear, we say what we’re told, and we improvise endings, outcomes, characters, and love affairs in the time we have between red light and green.

You are what you write; and what you read, you write. You are the consumer and producer simultaneously, making the news by tweeting the news as you read it. The boundary between reading and writing has shifted. Editing is no longer enough to keep the leviathan under. Ratings, SafeSearch, and follower-blocking does nothing to keep the stories at bay. The digital will never echo the care you take with it. It’s just around the corner always. The corner you’ll turn. The corner you’ll always turn.

We are at our most laughable when we imagine we have control over text. When we do that, we are twice foolish. Text is not what needs taming; it is the whole of the story which has slipped our grasp. We reach to amend our words, our phrases, our first-person present-tense; but in doing that, we overlook that form itself lies exposed. Genre is an aged lion, run down by his awful, lifelong predation upon authors who, rather than holding the whip, obeyed the tooth and claw to avoid an untimely censure. No longer able to discourage forays upon his territory, now genre falls prey in the open field. He was sleeping when the digital came. And we are he, standing upon the African veldt, wondering what’s become of our invention.

The writing of academics is today among the most risible, for our genre has expired. Our own fierce, tamed beast has died the way all the lions have perished. The opportunity for a new digital scholarship has emerged, but it requires a determination and risk that writing has not demanded of us since the dawn of the university. Now to write as academics are accustomed is to copy by hand in the age of the printing press. Speed, movement, alteration, collaboration (in the moment, sirs, not in offices and coffee shops, but in the digital), these have killed the academic genre. The digital is personable, unique and individual. The cloning done in the labs of the academy fails to embrace the thriving, thrashing, teeming world of digital language, symbol, and sign. The lobotomized salmon does not spawn. Not in these waters.

And so there must be a change — in degree, in kind, in the hides we wear — if writing is to remain productive. To which I myself respond, “I’ve read my Derrida. You’re saying what he’s already said.” Which would be true enough, but now the very hegemony of the page upon which Derrida wrote has ended. Dreaming there is a center does not make it so. Imagining ourselves the conquerers of a landscape wild and torn will not win us the prize. “Think, think of your whale-boat, stoven and sunk! Beware of the horrible tail!” The more we grasp at control of the words we disperse, the greater our folly. And this is why we can no longer accept the division between our lived experiences and the texts we produce. Do we pepper our conversations with citation? Do we not use contractions when we speak? Do we not all have holes in our socks?

The life an academic leads is not a life of genre, but a life of fear and mystery, a life of dread and discovery, insolence and compassion. But what of that drips into her writing?

It is the fiction writers, and the poets, and the manuscript illuminators, and the tellers of their own stories who may survive upon the digital writing landscape. Because it is they who remember: Writing is invented as it’s done. The very best writers have never had a lesson. They do not know their grammars, their see-spot-run. They know the melodies of nursery rhymes and the musical language of fairy tales, and ghost stories improvised around a fire. Improvisation is key to writing in the digital. If you are not prepared to make it up as you go along, then you belong to a mustier party, where the cheese is old and the wine has breathed its last. Improvisation is key because play is the mode of digital writing.

Getrude Stein says in Tender Buttons, “Act so that there is no use in a centre. A wide action is not a width. A preparation is given to the ones preparing. They do not eat who mention silver and sweet. There was an occupation.”

Kenneth Goldsmith responds, “words today are cheap and infinitely produced, they are detritus, signifying little, meaning less … The blizzard of language is amnesia inducing; these are not words to be remembered.” (Uncreative Writing)

Once, speech was irreversible, but today, it is exactly reversible. Erasure as common as speaking. So much so, that we can now consider the act of deletion a part of the act of writing. “The best-performing writers with the highest grades were massively more likely to use the backspace key,” Clive Thompson notes. But erasure does not only happen in the mid-stream, mid-sentence edit made possible by word processing softwares, but afterward — after publishing, after upload, after dissemination. So that even that which has been heard and seen can be unheard and unseen. Relics may float, disembodied from their original textual and narrative relationships, bits and pieces of pages that remain cached somewhere else, but the original can be gotten rid of. And so when we write, we must consider we are writing in fragments and deletions. Self-conscious Sapphos, all. Constructing the de Milo with, but also without, her arms.

All this because the medium of our writing is impenetrable to us. Even if we are coders, even if we host our own sites and move image, music, text where we like, our efforts are the same as sailing the Pequod upon the world’s seas. We cannot know when what storm will hit, we cannot know when we’ll encounter the Jeroboam. The ocean has a will of its own, and so the digital, and so the texts we make and offer out to the waves.

What’s the answer? How do we write? We write by admitting that our lives and our words are entwined. We make this that, that this, all things all things. And so I stare into my computer and I type these words, knowing one day they shall be divided like pennies, some of them erased, even as my fingers age and my bones grow more brittle. The screen no longer separates me from what I write. There it is, floating soft and dirge-like, but there it shall not remain.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Sean Michael Morris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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