I’m engaging with a work that plays with language, with distance, with engagement, with a train of thought. It is navigable—I can toggle between and among granular, proximate and distant levels of commentary, listening with whatever degree of focus the text provokes (and I grant it) to the concerns of form and content, the relations among and between reader, authors, editors, and the people about, to, and for whom the authors presume to speak. History, ideology, technology, translation, and labor are on the table, and I can map how these figure for the authors dynamically, and across many moments of the work.
I’m not reading the Vectors Journal editorial statement by Tara McPherson, Steve Anderson (and Raegan Kelly), I’m reading The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. The interplay among translator, editor and authors is legible across footnotes, introductions, bibliography, parenthetical asides, and notations inserted over the course of the work’s life from germination to the present moment in which it is being read by me. I’m taking a rhetorical stance here that obviously is reductive of the differences between the two, but I’m doing it because the Vectors editorial statement makes some peculiar, loud claims about the interactivity and potential of form, and I wanted to explore the limits of those claims with a counterexample.
The gist of my concern is this: I am resistant to the statement—however qualified—that the interactivity of the Vectors editorial statement is significantly greater, or less constrained than a printed text, even than one participating in the hoariest of traditions.
After all, nothing—in terms of form or content—about a printed, bound text prevents me from skimming, skipping, or skirting around whatever I please. Furthermore, the act of engagement with form and content in a printed text is voluntary, shifting, contingent. Strategies to entice engagement include provocation, play with language and with form, and beauty, all of which are deployed in the Vectors statement, too, but in a way that I’m not positive is so fundamentally different—or, perhaps, in a way that I’m not sure should be fetishized as fundamentally different.
I have engaged with a handful of Vectors projects, and found them thought-provoking, beautiful, and, on a basic level, truly exciting. My point of departure is not that these projects are not interesting. My hesitation derives from a sense that the Vectors editorial statement is overstating some claims and actually not doing certain things the way it seems to think it is. I think open source born digital scholarship is permeated with apertures that hum with possibility, but historicizing what the journal is doing is absolutely imperative; i.e., to assert that a work breaks with a tradition and radically redefines how we can think together isn’t at issue, per se, but to wipe the slate clean and declare departure without acknowledging “where from,” instead exclusively “where to,” is problematic. For example, the Vectors statement asserts that “The projects that make up Vectors create an active dialogue between creator and user, decentering the traditional hierarchy by allowing for an emergent interplay between creation and interpretation”, which is true in one sense: in the case of the editorial statement itself, the user must query the text to see the statement. But on the other hand, a reader has to query The Communist Manifesto to engage with it, too. The act of reading is voluntary, the sequence in which I consume a text is not necessarily unidirectional. Reading interlineally, ironically, oppositionally, or passively, empathetically, credulously are possibilities for both the Vectors statement and The Communist Manifesto.
In the introduction to the statement, Tara + Steve state that “the system requires user collaboration in the form of keyword input and selection, patience, curiosity and a willingness to assemble meaning from diverse forms of human- and computer-generated lexia. We believe it is in this interplay of thinly veneered binary arrays that some of the most suggestive potentials of allographic composition may be found.” Sure, but I just can’t get around the discomfort I have with the implication—that is, it seems, the engine of this editorial statement—that the innovations in form have liberated the content from the unfree dispositive that replicates traditional structures of power, labor, and expression. McKenzie Wark’s statements on class, power and hacking are so much more alive to the subtleties that shade “new,” “free,” and “potential,” and to the fact that hackers are people, too, and the issues of form and content cannot be considered outside, or abstracted from them.*
Here’s one way I managed to manifest one aspect of my discomfort. The limitations on possible queries are definite, in spite of the aspirations to open and fungible authorship: a search for “punk” returned a strident alert message in red text, the precise language of which speaks in a clear voice to what I am feeling.
Please try again to what? Try again to include yourself in the conversation that we predetermined. Try again to place your idea, interest, or concern inside the bullseye we drew? To me, this is a signal case in which the form of the Vectors statement is actually less free and dynamic than a printed text, in that I am not at liberty to insert punk into the Vectors statement discourse, but I am at liberty to insert punk into the Manifesto via one of the oldest tricks in/of the book: exegesis.
The difference between the two I’m trying to emphasize here is that both the Manifesto and the Vectors statement are interactive, but only the statement is actively prohibitive on the level of form. And my discomfort derives from the fact that hailing—but more than that: claiming—dynamism, possibility and invention on the basis that the form departs seems disingenuous, because a) it presumes that these are not already possibilities, and b) that the possibilities offered by this form are not as or more constrained than those of other forms. The query “transformation” returns the following statement: “The digital realm eschews the linear unfolding of traditional artwork that begins with inspiration and moves through to completion, with the final stage constituting closure, yielding a finite artwork resonant with the aura of originality.” I’m just not sure that’s true. For one, it is reductive: closure is not exclusively the property of “traditional artwork,” nor is it traditional artwork’s exclusive property. But I also didn’t experience that to be true of my interactions with the Vectors editorial statement. For me, this is troubling.
Did you find this to be troubling, too?
*The query “labor,” for instance, returns the following:
Like the media products that proceeded [sic] them, digital forms tend to conceal the labor that was necessary to produce them. The slickness of the digital can make it hard to remember the varied acts of labor that underwrite the ubiquitous technologies of the western world, rendering invisible code workers and chip makers alike. Vectors insists that labor matters and that a careful investigation of networked society can reveal and perhaps forestall our seamless incorporation into the uneven workings of post-fordist digital capitalism.
To me, this reads a little vague, but it does acknowledge that there are problems. It’s interesting, then, to look at where it appears in the bullseye: way out at around 11:59 on the clockface. Like it was an afterthought, snuck in before the carriage turns back into a pumpkin and the charges of abstraction and heedlessness can land. If we look at the self-defined heart of the editorial statement’s concerns, they are “process,” “transformation,” “form,” “content,” and “context.” These are surely proper to the notion of what a vector is in terms of semantic value: direction, magnitude. The editorial statement charts a course for the future with grand aspirations, but any gestures to the past from which it emerged and the attendant structures of privilege and power are out in the vague, fine print of qualifiers and disclaimers at the margins, if acknowledged at all. In this way, another semantic valence of “vector” feels close to the surface: the transmission of disease from a compromised source to a new host via an apparently healthy third party, not unlike the importation of historically oppressive structures into the future via a wide-eyed presentism that doesn’t critically reflect on ideology.