This past week's writers conference was a pretty spectacular event. I managed to attend several of the lunchtime sessions and a few other events. I wish I could have done more. Even with that somewhat limited exposure, I came away with innumerable impressions and ideas that I hope can somehow influence my thinking and work over the next year.
1. Writing as Performance. Saul Williams, whose poetry is as much about performance on stage as it is about language, made the point that he regarded the page itself as a performance space. I am not sure why I was surprised by this. In the previous days panel entitled "beyond the screen", a number of the participants described the creative process in performative terms. One work discussed in this panel was a collective called Collaborative Furtures created a single book over a week period. The act of writing was as much the final product as the book itself. It got me thinking about blogging as a kind of performative writing. The time-based aspect of the blog -- with the date of publication forming the primary organizing principle -- represents writing in a way that centers more on the way that ideas develop through time and careen off one another than any one central theme, argument, plot, or even space. The time based component of the blog draws inspiration from the practice of writing journals which seek to capture the immediacy of experience. I think this relates to our somewhat erratic efforts on the Punk Archaeology blog where we have (I think tacitly) abandoned any plan or argument or even rhythm to our posts and introduce ideas as they come to us. In effect, blogging (even my rhythmic, daily, inscription) performs the act of writing by insisting on the temporal dimension of its practice. Like working papers, blog posts are showing the work that final drafts of academic and professional writing obscures behind a find layer of polish. Blogs represent ideas as events in the process of development.
2. There is no New Media. One of the themes of the writers conference was the New Media and one of the really obvious outcomes of all the panels that I attended is that the very notion of the New Media has outlived its purpose. First off, we probably can't call many of the things that are traditionally associated with the New Media "new" any more. After all, the internet as we know it is 20 years old and computer based media actually predates widespread access to net. Like any once-new medium for communicating ideas, any effort to produce a common definition is bound to be inadequate to describe the work of artists and writers across such varied platforms as interactive fiction, web-based video, digital music, installation art, and multimedia arguments. In fact, if there is any complaint that I have about the writers conference is how little common ground there was between the people on the largest and (to my mind) potentially most dynamic panel -- Beyond the Screen -- which featured new media pioneers and masters across mutiple fields: Cecelia Condit (film), Mark Amerika (film and literature), Nick Montfort (literature), Stuart Moulthrop (art and literature), Scott Miller (music). While we can all accept that a lack of easy definition can suggest the existence of something profound, in the case of the New Media it may indicate, instead, that whatever moment in time the newness sought to capture and define has passed. The New Media no longer has a center around which ideas are coalescing. In other words, whatever middle ground once existed which allowed authors and artists to share ideas has now once again dispersed and we must find new paradigms to understand how former "New" media works relate.
3. Anxiety and the Book. The first panel I attended was provocatively titled: "Are Books Obsolete?". The title alone suggests the anxiety surrounding the coming of the ebook reader, the speed and fluidity of the web, and the end of the page as a basic unit for measuring writing, reading, and certain basic intellectual accomplishments. While there were plenty of opportunities to celebrate the "new" opportunities made available through the hypertextual medium of the electronic "page", the underlying anxiety persisted. In this context, all of the sometimes incredible power of books came to the fore: their ability to capture attention, to stimulate pleasure through their weight, forms, and even scent, to structure narrative through conditioning interaction, to create better, more thoughtful readers, and to sustain the creative arts by protecting the intellectual property of the author. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I appreciate the role that objects play in creating relationships between individuals, but all of the anxiety about the end of the book seems strangely overwrought. There is no denying there importance of books to the Western intellectual tradition, there is also no denying that most people in history did not read books. And more than that, even most people who could read did not necessary read books. I'd even argue that today, most of us spend more time reading newspapers, magazines, loose papers, and letters than books. It's not that books aren't important (and I suspect that they will continue to be), but that their impact has always been focused on a particular groups and particular circumstances. Perhaps it's just the historian in me who noticed the lack of historical context for the significance of the book. This is not to suggest that a dose of "historical reality" will alleviate fears that the end of books as we know it will swiftly bring about the end of Western civilization, but it certainly would make the extent and significance of the book as an object and technology easier to understand.
Any event that causes me to think is a good event (even if the only thing that I think is "who is that guy and why is he doing that?") and, with this broad definition, the Writers Conference qualifies as a good event. It was exciting to hear people talk so freely and to speculate so widely about the life of the mind on a campus and in a community where such talk is not always readily accepted. I'm already looking forward to next year, and if you have a few bucks, give something to help the Writers Conference continue to stimulate the minds of the northern plains.