A while back, the conceptual writer Kenny Goldsmith wrote something really high-concept:
with the rise of the web, writing has met its photography
I actually can’t find the original 2007 blog post where Kenny wrote this — the link above takes you to . But luckily, he reformulated it in July in a comment on Ron Silliman’s blog:
As I’ve said before on the Poetry Foundation, with the rise of the web, writing has met its photography. By that I mean, writing has encountered a situation similar to what happened to painting upon the invention of photography, a technology so much better at doing what the art form had been trying to do, that in order to survive, the field had to alter its course radically. If photography was striving for sharp focus, painting was forced to go soft, hence Impressionism. Faced with an unprecedented amount of digital available text, writing needs to redefine itself in order to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.
When we look at our text-based world today, we see the perfect environment in which writing can thrive. Similarly, if we look at what happened when painting met photography, we’ll find that it was the perfect analog to analog correspondence, for nowhere lurking beneath the surface of either painting, photography or film was a speck of language. Instead, it was indexical — image to image — thus setting the stage for an imagistic revolution. Today, digital media has set the stage for a literary revolution. In 1974, Peter Bürger was still able to make the claim that “[B]ecause the advent of photography makes possible the precise mechanical reproduction of reality, the mimetic function of the fine arts withers. But the limits of this explanatory model become clear when one calls to mind that it cannot be transferred to literature. For in literature, there is no technical innovation that could have produced an effect comparable to that of photography in the fine arts.” Now there is.
Ninety percent of me is so sympathetic to everything that Goldsmith says here. And it sounds familiar, right? Digital tech has revolutionized reading, spun off all sorts of new writing process, and poses the potential to continue to revolutionize writing. I agree with all of this.
It’s that ten percent of me — that part that thinks about the nineteenth century more than I really ought to, which is also the part that takes analogies way too seriously — that can’t let it go. Not for the claims, but for the analogy used to make them —
web: writing :: photography: painting
— which I love for its rhetoric, its purity, its lightning flash, but can’t accept as an historical analysis.
I think the analogy can be fixed by changing one word. Instead of “writing,” say “publishing.” Even though I know Kenny means “writing,” that he, like me, is really concerned first and foremost with writing and less with other kinds of media, I want to say that he really means “with the rise of the web, publishing has met its photography.” Let me explain why.
First, painting is fundamentally different from photography in ways that writing is not different from the web. As Kenny points out, the web IS writing — an unprecedented amount of text. The web is not only writing, but writing belongs to the web in a way that painting does not and could not belong to photography. For Goldsmith to keep “writing” and “the web” distinct, he’d have to define “writing” in traditionalist literary terms he wouldn’t want to accept, or “the web” in terms that likewise make it quite foreign to text, and he can’t do that either.
It’s important to remember that photography didn’t only pose a crisis for painting, but for all of visual art. That’s where Goldsmith’s conceptual predecessor Marcel Duchamp comes in with his ready-mades. Photography also transformed theater, journalism, bookmaking, advertising… There’s no reason to single out painting.
Likewise, writing isn’t the only kind of cultural production that’s been upended by the web. Television, movies, still photographs, telecommunication — everything that fits under the increasingly wide banner of “content delivery” is affected by the web according to much of the same logic that the web has been affecting writing.
In short, “the web” is not a medium — at least not in the same sense that photography is. It is a content delivery system, that not only represents and reproduces content but also stores and delivers it. For most people, this change in content delivery has offered remarkable change, but has not posed a crisis of the same sort felt by painters and sculptors and playwrights in the wake of photography. It’s not writers who face a crisis, but publishers.
web:publishing* :: photography:visual culture**
*in the 20th/21st century
**in the 19th/20th century
Maybe that isn’t quite the lightning bolt as Goldsmith’s original formulation, but I think it’s closer to the truth.