Article Details

In: KulturPoetik 2013, Issue 1


Yra van Dijk


The creativity of the in-between: how texts and screens interact
Kiene Brillenburg-Wurth (Ed.), Between Page and Screen. Remaking Literature through Cinema and Cyberspace. New York: Fordham University Press 2012. 330 p.



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In Japan, cell-phone novels about high-school loves are pushing print novels out of the best-seller lists. In Spain, book sales now dropped by 40 percent in a single year. It is no news, and no exaggeration to say that the printed book as we know it is coming to its end.
We have many different ways at our disposal to approach this situation. Cultural pessimists for example live their finest hour now that we seem to be steering away from the culture of Enlightenment and Letters. A more historically aware scholar will point to the fact that the book as a stable, fixed, and authorized cultural product is itself only two hundred years old – before that, humans found other ways to disseminate ideas.
All this implies an awareness of the fact that language will use ever changing media to be able to communicate. Such a more nuanced stance is taken by many contributors to Between Page and Screen. Remaking Literature through Cinema and Cyberspace. Their interdisciplinary background allows for a thorough and critical approach to the relation between the page and the screen. As the editor Kiene Brillenburg-Wurth states in her introduction: »Literature no longer has a single material location, and one may wonder if it ever had one«.
›Between‹ is the operative word here: the book is not addressing a move from the page to the screen, but the effects of mutual influence instead. The binary opposition, the ›animosity‹, between page and screen is deconstructed, starting from the idea that they were holding each other in a tight embrace all along. Thus the editor hopes to come »to an understanding of the ways in which pages have operated as screens, and screens in turn have adapted to or resisted the ›tyranny‹ of the page« (p. 2). In the trace of this deconstruction, the other key oppositions in literary studies are eroding as well: human and machine, self and other, author and reader, product and process, script and film, text and image. A rethinking of the literary starting at the question of its materiality, or lack thereof, sweeps up all of these oppositions in its undermining track.
Samuel Weber, in the opening chapter, brings the medium back to the central and Romantic idea of an ›Absolute Self‹. After rereading Walter Benjamin and Schlegel, he argues that this Absolute Self still tries to undermine the ›transformative potential‹ of media: their singularity. Every media-event is a repetition with a difference, Weber argues, it is this difference that implies a certain violence towards the original, but it does produce a ›new singular event‹.
Even though not always in the same terms, this seems to be the starting point of most chapters in Between Page and Screen: the event is produced by the creativity of the liminal space ›between‹. This space is theorized here mostly in terms of ›materiality‹: itself more of an event than a quality (in the definition of Johanna Drucker, one of the first to address the materiality of literature, but to whom the book does not refer).(1) The digital, in this viewpoint, is material too. This takes the form of the writing of code (which we may read as a text in itself, argues Federica Frabetti here), interacting with interfaces, the workings of drives and disks in interaction with humans: the humachine.
The emphasis on this hybridity of subjectivity as well as on the consequent singularity of the media-event makes the chapters, in which sameness and identity is defended, the weakest of the book. When Joanna Zylinska applies Foucault’s practice of self-writing to blogs, she argues that his is »precisely« the materialization of life that Foucault had in mind when he talked about writing the self. Apart from the fact that »precisely« points to the kind of theoretical closure and uncritical technophilia that is so elegantly avoided in the rest of the volume, it seems rather essentialist to claim a distinction between »good and bad narcissism« in bloggers (p. 68), to conclude that good narcissism is a sign of »biotehics«: an ethics of becoming and self-creation. If we keep in mind Weber’s warning of the Absolute Self that is always threatening the transformative potential of (mass-)media, we can be more suspicious of the success of ›good‹ narcissism.
A more subtle approach is found in the older field of adaptation studies, to which the third part of the book is dedicated. The rather stale question of fidelity (of film to novel) is rejected, focussing on the film, the written script or the novelization as new and singular events. All contributions demonstrate that it would be an oversimplification to speak of a transfer from textual to visual culture. Again, it is the mutual influence of the media that is the common ground for all of these chapters. Most convincingly, this becomes clear when the cinematographic nature of the novel and the narrative nature of film are demonstrated. Hardly a new observation when it comes to avant-garde poetry and the concept of montage, but an eye-opener when the case is, as it is here, postmodern prose like Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or visual novels like the Raw Shark Text: visual novels that occupy ›an in-between space‹ where visual, textual, and graphic figurations interact. In her discussion of such cut-up novels Brillenburg-Wurth refers to the ground breaking work of Katherine Hayles (who authored a chapter on »Intermediation« in the book) and her conception of the post-human as the end of a dominant conception of the human »that privileges sameness, identity and mastery« (p. 76). The visual novels »involve rethinking the basis of subjectivity as radically heterogeneous« (p. 75). The advantage of this position is that we stay clear of the idea that literature, under the regime of the visual, is like the historical avant-garde. Such an a-historical view, still held by quite many scholars in the field, implies that the electronic text is a culmination of the project of the avant-garde. Not a very helpful thought – we can not read Burroughs’ cut-ups as a mere anticipation of digital montage, just like we can not read Gottfried Benn that way.
Such a traditional view ignores the art world to which avant-garde reacted, and it reduces the difference: the specificity of the digital medium. Katalin Sandor seems to fall into this trap in her contribution, when she tries to reread visual and concrete poetry from the perspective of the contemporary, calling them ›proto-hypertexts‹. When Sandor claims that »Digital poetry [...] is visual poetry in print plus time and intervention« (p. 147), she gives a definition that covers only the conservative and traditional beginning of the field of digital poetry. A field she then goes on to criticise for its hermetic and self-referential quality. In the last 5-10 years, however, we see a growth of works, by Jason Nelson for example or the Dutch Tonnus Oosterhoff, that more radically reform the literary and that seek for affect and new subjectivities. Their work seems to be exactly the kind of digital literature that Sandor is pleading for at the end of her article: »an open display of the materiality of language is used to expose [...] the discursive and medial conditions within which we play our political language games« (p. 156).
In order to read and understand such multi-medial and critical work we need a new sort of literacy – an educational problem that is approached in more recent studies on new media textuality.(2) The last part of Between Page and Screen is dedicated to this issue, opening with an overview by William Uricchio who sees »a shifting set of competencies« (p. 235) that is needed, pleading for trading the concept of literacy for literacies – the plural indicating that the hierarchical domain of literacy needs to be rethought.
By then, the immensity of the paradigm-shift has dawned on the reader. That digitality, after speech and writing, is the third large turn in the history of cultural production, becomes more than clear, just like the fact that has radical consequences for our way of thinking the subject, the medium and the text. Rather than the restrictions of the digital, we see the affordances for the literary, and rather than the mass consumption of it, we read about critical and singular examples. The book is dead, long live the literary!

Dr. Yra van Dijk, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Department of Dutch Studies, Spuistraat 134, 1012 VB Amsterdam; E-Mail:


(1) For example in Johanna Drucker, Figuring the Word. Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetry. New York 1998; or more recently in Johanna Drucker, Entity to Event. From Literal, Mechanistic Materiality to Probabilistic Materiality. In: Parallax 15 (2009) 4, p. 7–17. [zurück]
(2) See for example Peter Gendolla/Jörgen Schäfer/Roberto Simanowski (eds.), Reading Moving Letters. Digital Literature in Research and Teaching. A Handbook. Bielefeld 2010. [zurück]