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Published on October 14th, 2012 | by Thompson


The Floydian Text

“It is music which can invade and rule the human psyche with a penetrative strength comparable, it may be, only to that of narcotics or of the trance” (Steiner et. al Elbow, 652).  I, for one, subscribe to this idea.  Music is the only “text” I can think of that can get you out of a slump in life.  Scientific studies suggest that music can enhance physical recovery from illness and injury.  (I once cut my leg from my knee to my left butt cheek on a concrete median travelling 80 mph on my crotch-rocket and recovered faster than anyone my doctor had ever seen.  When he asked me what I did, I said “ I’ve been walking since you discharged me from the hospital, and I’ve been listening to a lot of 2Pac.)  There are a few films that hold the same power over me, but music certainly has therapeutic properties just as writing does, so why is it we can’t organize our academic writing to the beat of Pink Floyd, or The Cure…or The Menzingers for that matter? Again, it seems, Peter Elbow has won me over.  Not because he reaffirmed his love and affection for freewriting, but because his “The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing” actually makes me question my own organization of writing.  I’d like to think some of my best writing could have musical, or dynamic, organization, but even if it doesn’t adhere to Elbow’s standards, just thinking of writing being formed “musically” is so damn romantic…much more romantic than Thoreau and his pencils. Though I enjoyed Denis Baron’s historic revelation of the early pencil industry in his “From Pencils to Pixels,” and I like the idea of Thoreau being “an engineer and marketing expert,” I couldn’t help but feel that I was repeatedly being reminded that writing with pencil is technological, and needless to say, I needn’t be reminded.  Perhaps his essay lacked a “temporal dimension” Stanley Fish and Peter Elbow envisioned.  The essay is a good source of historic information, information of a time or era, but I don’t think it is representative of a time or era, which I think is what Elbow is after. “Music tends to bring us to a state of final satisfaction by way of a journey through nonsatisfactions, half satisfactions, and temporary satisfactions: degrees of yearning and relief – itch and scratch” (Elbow, 623).  The song I think most embodies Elbow’s notion of music, a constant yearning for relief from an itch, is below.  It’s over 24 minutes long and continues to urge the “reader” along by providing multiple itches and minimal scratching.  It also has a catchy, bluesy hook, which I was surprised Elbow didn’t mention in his essay.  “Skilled writers have always known about the value of starting with a problem of hooking readers with an itch or dilemma.  The term hook has become a cliché in journalism – which is where it probably starter – and also in writing classes.  But it’s usually applied to personal, informal essays” (639).  It’s also a musical reference to part of a song that catches the listeners’ ears or sparks interest.  It’s most apparent in popular music, but I’m sure even classical music has its hooks. Though music is a great example of how we should try to reshape our writing, I think there are genres in which this sort of organization is already in use.  I was hoping Elbow would focus more on cinematic approaches to writing because I feel they have the best chance of providing his temporal dimension, but since he didn’t I guess I’ll let Manovich.  “If we believe the word cinematograph, which means ‘writing movement,’ the essence of cinema is recording and storing visible data in a material form” (24).  Writers of screenplays must consider time when writing, not just because of expected length, but to keep the text moving.  This movement aspect of screenplay writing forces a writer to think in what we call “beats,” particular moments of either plot change or emotionality.  “[W]riters, like musicians, often set up expectations in order to foil them – whether it’s an unexpected turn of syntax or turn of plot” (626).  A screenplay is a constant struggle not just between writer and text, but between writer and reader.  If the writer can’t hold the reader’s attention, the reader walks out of the theater or turns off the television. There are distinct disadvantages of not considering the temporal space in cinema, and I think these disadvantages are more apparent than in our alphabetic texts.  If the writer throws off the beat of his movie or episode the reader is lost and cannot be brought back.  Consider an Adam Sandler comedy that wasn’t funny (any of them will do).  The worst thing about writing a comedy: if you can’t get a laugh almost every three minutes for 90 minutes, the comedy is doomed because the beat is absent, so a writer has to go into a mindset of getting that laugh so the reader wants to continue reading, and with technological advancements allowing for more information to be shared, the attention span of our readers are on the decline.  As Richard Lanham states in “The Implications of Electronic Information for the Sociology of Knowledge,” “To change the time-scale of humanistic knowledge affects its essence, not only its pace” (155).  If the writer isn’t devoted to providing an itch every so often or scratching an itch every so often, the show won’t go on.  The “IText” writers define rhetorical theory as “the idea that audience determines the appropriateness and success of communication” (271), and it’s no different in the movie business.  “[W]e need to understand users as active and…a text is an ongoing, negotiated process, a use rather than a reception” (279).  The audience is the boss, despite blockbuster budgets and digital effects.  “The reader thus becomes an author.  Author and authority are both transformed” (Lanham, 155).  This idea that “the critic can become the creator” (159) has always been the case in my mind.  Economics can be an example of this dynamic.  When a company makes a product that the public hates, demand for that product falls (i.e. the Pearl Harbor film), and those critics can effectively control what is created by not going to shitty movies.  Though I think Lanham is speaking of the most literal, in-the-moment critic creating, I think our critics create all the time.  That’s why companies spend so much damn money on marketing so they know what their critics want before they create.  “Rather than pushing the same objects/information to a mass audience, marketing now tries to target each individual separately” (Manovich, 42).  So how do we determine what the audience needs to hear? Screenwriters tend to write via outline.  It is essential.  Without it plot and character arc tend to go out the window.  I know from experience.  “Writing develops not linearly but recursively, in large loops that eventually spiral upward toward more complex ways of signifying meaning” (275).  It’s difficult to set out a path and have the characters walk it, but it makes for a better path.  If writing did develop linearly, I doubt there would be much use for the outline.  I’ve written without an outline before, and without the map the characters become lost, and then the reader becomes lost.  Coincidentally, my outlines tend to take the form of Elbow’s “dynamic outlines,” which is why I think this “dynamic organization” of his is already being done by some screenwriters (see Christopher Nolan).  Lanham notes, “At the deepest level, humanistic expression, and the means which disseminate it, have moved from a static to a dynamic medium” (158).  Is it not time for more writers to organize their writing dynamically then?

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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

3 Responses to The Floydian Text

  1. Bret says:

    I really dig what you’re talking about here. I am particularly interested in when you were talking about music and how it gets under your skin to the point of of helping healing… It is interesting to think about that in comparison to most texts. There does seem to be a dynamism there that alphabetic texts often lack, and I find myself wondering why.

    I like the idea of bridging that gap by thinking about movies as well. I was wracking my brain while listening (I use text to speech, probably as an attempt to connect to these blog entries through something like you are talking about) to your blog in an attempt to think of an example of a text that gripped me as much as a movie… A text that I felt… I can only think of two examples, and one is something of a cheat.

    The first was The Princess Bride, I remember a certain level of comfort oozing from those pages, and that I was making pictures in my mind of everything that happened. This one is the cheat though, because I had seen the movie. The movie really was what got ahold of me, and I couldn’t help but construct in my head all the scenes from the book that weren’t in the movie with the actors, score, and visuals that were in the movie.

    The other example that I can scrounge up, which is less of a cheat, was Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I say less of a cheat in this case because, though there was a movie that came about from it, I didn’t see Smoke Signals until after I read that book. Interestingly, the reviews of that book consistently mention that Alexie used “Lyrical Prose”… I find it fascinating that people describe the book in terms of music. I think Elbow would appreciate that.

    Maybe we can use that. It always bothers me a little that the best we have in so far as figuring this stuff out and showing it to people is that idea of saying, “look at this other form of media, bring what that’s doing to your unrelated project”, because the problem is alway that these alphabetic texts always have that potential… and frankly, these alphabetic texts are always involved in the construction of these other forms anyway…

    Crap… I’ve gone and framed my thinking wrong. Mu…

    You’ve got it right. These are all bits that we can use in any writing… but they can just be highlighted in stronger use in these particular selections you’ve given us. Way to go, man. Way to go. Thanks for throwing me some contexualizations of how you see the dynamic at work in other forms.

    • Thompson says:

      My example of a book I think has musical rhythm is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and I think much of that rhythm carries over onto the movie, but only because the voice over narration is taken directly from the book. Hunter Thompson had great rhythm. As I commented on Deb’s blog, different music genres serve different authors, and I’d put Hunter in that bluesy, rock ‘n roll category…you know, really good rock ‘n roll. He often wrote while listening to music, and called attention to that music as he wrote. I remember once in Hey Rube! he writes how Jim Morrison could sing for anybody, and how the Doors on any given night could be the best band ever.

  2. ARRIVES says:

    I actually laughed, Anthony, when I read “much more romantic than Thoreau and his pencils.” I laughed because I was stupidly interested in Thoreau and his pencils. I guess that is a testament to Baron’s writing, because who would have thought pencils could be so interesting? Not me. I agree that Baron kept reinforcing that pencils were, in fact, technology, but I disagree with why he was doing that. I don’t think he was doing it for the same reason as Shipka. He was not trying to convince us that we have been using technology all along, but rather that we have always been resisting new technology. Baron writes, “Of course the first writing technology was writing itself. Just like the telegraph and the computer, writing itself was once an innovation strongly resisted by traditionalists because it was unnatural and untrustworthy. Plato was one leading thinker who spoke out strongly against writing, fearing that it would weaken our memories” (18). In some ways, I read this as a reassurance. Yes, technology is scary. The possibilities of what it might do to our reading practices and our education practices are also scary, but in the end it all works out. Plato was worried about what writing would do to our memories, but we are still functioning just fine today. Thoreau was worried about how the telegraph would change communication, but we are still writing today and the telegraph is no longer a part of our life. I’ll be the first to admit that technological advancements are often challenging and they re-shape the way we think, but I read Baron as a voice of reason. He was the person saying we are always afraid of the new technology, but in the end it gets adopted , we adjust, and we move on.

    I would also like to say thank you for discussing Manovich. I really struggled with his text, but I predicted it would be more in your wheelhouse. I liked the idea that you ended with, that we should be writing more dynamically. I would add that we should be teaching more dynamically, too. This is hard for me. I’ve always been the one resisting the “we should be teaching with technology mantra.” For instance, Geisler, et al. write, “as we enter the twenty-first century, belief in the importance of literacy and the way new technologies shape literate activities is widespread…the 21st Century Workforce Commission’s recent report…emphasizes that the ‘current and future health of America’s 21st Century Economy depends directly on how broadly and deeply Americans reach a new level of literacy,’ what the commission calls ‘21st Century Literacy’” (276-277). There is still a part of me that resists this, because a part of me says I’m not supposed to just be teaching skills that are applicable in the work force. Another part of me gets, this, though. Lanham ends his essay with a warning. He says, “It will be our own fault, not the fault of our funders, if we continue to imitate the Post Office and worry about moving letters around in an electronic way, when it is not only the delivery system but the ‘letters’ themselves which have fundamentally changed” (163). What is really scary about this is that neither the Post Office nor the education system have really changed since 1994. We have not acknowledged that the “letters,” our texts, our students, the expectations of what education is doing, have fundamentally changed. And thus, we have not changed how we are teaching.

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