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New Media Technologies In Literature

Updated on August 18, 2014

A New World To Write About

It is commonly said that with the invention of the camera, Impressionism was born. With the relatively simple production of lasting mirror images, artists were not asked to paint portraits as often and many no longer felt the need; with a source of perfect replicas available, what was the point of trying to paint perfectly? Artists were not only free to explore different subjects, they were, by and large, forced to find something new, portrait work having slowed. Switching focus, artists flung themselves to the outdoors, to the beauty of nature, an altogether more challenging subject, one much more open to interpretation. “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but its surroundings bring it to life – the air and the light, which vary continually”…(1891) Claude Monet, perhaps the most prominent Impressionist artist, comments on the then experimental nature of his art. This cause and effect of innovation begetting innovation is not a unique phenomenon. With the inception of new technologies and ideas, artists and engineers alike forge new paths so as not to be left in the future’s wake. Portraits from Gauguin or Picasso give new life to portrait painting, with interesting interpretations of the human face and form. Likewise, awe inspiring photography of landscapes and the abstract developed from experimental movements, of which Impressionism helped lead the vanguard. While photography drove artists to experiment by making their current style conventional and commonplace, new media technologies have and are forcing literature to branch out. Because the idea of a narrative has been shown in so many ways, television, cinema, and the internet, writers are in a position where they can explore the world of writing and find new formats and styles. One might even say that writers are forced to experiment to compete and stand out. Contemporary writers are up against the common narrative being diluted by television and social media. But Impressionism was not a revolt against portrait painting or photography, one fed off of the other, each strengthening the other and provoking more experimentation. The relationship between new media and literature is the same. Today we often picture technology as the enemy of literature. Literature is, in our minds, books, physical paper, and the internet its death. On the contrary, new media technology drives new works in literature by changing the world and inspiring those of a new generation to push barriers. New media simultaneously expands a universe that somehow seems more infinite now than ever, while creating a concrete base, a jumping off point, for literature to experiment further. In so many words, by changing the way we see and view the world, technology gives writers the inspiration to experiment further as well as a greater pool of experience to draw from.

New technology creates the feeling of a new era. It is a period and a capital letter, something you can look to and think “OK, this is the start of something new.” It inspires. We, as a society, often think that we are special and in some ways we are right. Each generation believes it will change the world and each generation does. New media cultivates this belief. Just as F.T. Marinetti in his “Futurist Manifesto” uses the new technologies of his time as inspiration for a new mode of thought, we can see the interconnectivity of the world and new formats of narrative provoke change in, not only the subjects of literature, but the way literature is presented. Marinetti looks at recently invented cars and airplanes and it stirs in him the feeling that he is living at the beginning of a new world. This kind of thought still provokes innovation today. Not only is it logical that in a new world there is new literature, but the excitement and the desire to not be left out, to not miss the opportunity, is a catalyst for experimentation. “We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind...?” Marinetti takes new technology as a sign of things to come, of speed in all things. Likewise, new media technologies expand our known universe and in doing so, inspire experimentation in literature.

While it is not necessary that technology be invented to be written about (e.g. time travel) when the technology actually exists it gives a concrete base for new ideas and offers different angles on subjects. It allows the initial shock of an idea to wear off. The “what if” aspect that often prompts literature is informed by experience. The idea of time travel has been vastly explored literarily but if actual experiences informed the fiction, how much richer could the stories be, how much more varied and diverse? When a reader or an audience has a place to start from, a personal experience from which to draw, how much more powerful that work becomes to him or her. Burroughs’ in his “Electronic Revolution” creates vivd imagery of orgiastic festivals with flashing sound and alternating videos of “sex films, films of...festivals... cut in with live TV broadcasts and shots of the crowd. ...thousands of fans portable recorders recording, and playing back.”(6) Today the imagery is perhaps more vivid now than when it was written, considering the increased opportunity to experience seizure inducing music videos and flashing light raves. For good or bad, the reader of the Electronic Revolution today has a realer idea of what that sensation would be like, and may even feel the anxiety that Burroughs predicted, simply from reading his words. Because of real life experience offered by new technology, writers are prompted to go further into experimentation in pursuit of the uncommon. Because new media technologies give us and show us more things that we might not even have imagined before, writers have more subject matter to play with, to compromise, exaggerate and push beyond.

A perfect example of the relationship between new media technology and literature is shown in the relationship that the short story ‘Memento Mori’ and the movie Memento share. Written respectively by brothers, the two works can be considered brothers as well. While ‘Memento Mori’ came first, the two are similar, but not at all the same. Memento takes from the short story a basic plot line, but must experiment to best communicate the switch from first to third person narrative. Certain aspects of the short story seem made for cinema, specifically third person lines like: “EARL OPENS HIS EYES and blinks into the darkness. The alarm clock is ringing.”(4) are perfect for new media. On the other hand, the first person sections are extremely difficult to show in cinema without it seeming expositional and boring. The issue of backstory and inner monologues are dealt with in new and interesting ways, the simultaneous backward and forward narrative coupled with the confessional like phone calls in the movie. This relationship exemplifies the connection new media technologies have with literature, one drives the other, altering ideas birthed from one another. It is like stepping stones, new ideas and ways of portraying narratives inspire and give base for experimentation in literature, which in turn gives material for new media as well as pushing boundaries for new media to jump off of. A game of leapfrog comes to mind.

While paper book sales drop off and publishers vanish, it is easy to believe that things like social media and television are the enemy of literature. On the contrary, new media technologies drive innovative literature to expand and branch out, creating a symbiotic relationship by making more of the impossible possible. We in the literary world can take this to imply that while advancements in technology continue, so too will writers advance and probe the world beyond the commonplace and known.

Works Cited

K.E. Sullivan, “Discovering Art, – The lifetime and work of the World’s greatest Artists, MONET”; Brockhampton press, London 2004, p. 56.

Marinetti, F.T. "The Futurist Manifesto." The Futurist Manifesto. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Burroughs, William “The Electronic Revolution” Expanded Media Editions, 1970.

Nolan, Jonathan. "Memento Mori." Esquire Mar. 2001: n. pag. Print.

Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Newmarket Films, 2001. Online.


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