The World’s Stream of Consciousness

A Better Pencil is a constant reminder of the crucial fact that throughout history, each new medium of communication and writing has been doomed to severe resentments before conquering the world. Dennis Baron takes us to funnily specific moments in past when printing, telegraph, even telephone and computer were opposed by certain groups or individuals. He assures us that there is nothing new in the nature of contemporary doubts about the revolutionary technological changes, as human being has “greeted each new writing technology with renewed suspicion” (13). Therefore, nothing is new under the sun, specifically the experience of facing something new, no matter how apocalyptic it might seem.

Baron’s thorough investigation depicts digital world as a new medium for writing coming after all previous mediums and like the other ones neither ignorable nor stoppable. However, I believe -and Baron’s examples strengthen my belief- that this new medium is not just a new container for the same old material which was used to be called writing. What we call writing in digital world is not really writing in its historical sense although it might apparently bear the same linguistic codes. Digital writing is a fragmentary genre recording the world’s stream of consciousness in a globally accessible virtual space. The fact that “on the Internet everybody’s an author, every scrap of prose a publication” (157) to me does not really mean that everybody suddenly becomes an author. I would say everybody is capable of expressing her/his personal views through words and recording them in a shared space to be heard or read randomly.


It is tantalizing to think that “we have all become Prousts externalizing our thoughts” (9), but what would be the place of Proust himself in the digital world with digital readers? How could this new medium shelter a work like À la recherche du temps perdu when each potential reader who is expectedly browsing several websites and blogs simultaneously would spend few seconds on few words of one page before jumping into the infinity of all other available offers. When a fragmentary reading of fragmentary writings becomes the habit of mind, it is not only the medium but also the nature of writing which is being radically transfigured.

Marcel Proust c. 1900 - French novelist, 1871-1922.

The world is thinking aloud, commenting aloud, and reacting instantly to almost everything through the global dialogue of endless pages, users, and entries which are minuscule components of a giant fragmentary being. This fragmentation might be a natural offspring of the postmodern era. The children of digital age might be quick and smart enough to feed themselves by fragments and make a whole out of it. However, when everybody tends to play the active author, who would remain patient enough to play the reader?

5 thoughts on “The World’s Stream of Consciousness”

  1. Naghmeh,

    “When a fragmentary reading of fragmentary writings becomes the habit of mind, it is not only the medium but also the nature of writing which is being radically transfigured.”

    This line from your post really resonated with me because I recognize the challenge of switching back and forth between reading more traditionally written and printed texts and reading online/born digital texts. My “habit of mind” to read things in a fragmentary manner is certainly one I lament (especially when reading for seminar!).

    I’m wondering if you would make a categorical qualitative judgment of online materials because they are online, or is it the fact that they are born digital that they are therefore fragmentary?

    For example, does taking Proust online and making his texts instantly available for online reading ( change them, or how we read them? As someone who has trouble reading long texts online instead of in print, I imagine so. But how? And is that always a bad thing?

    And what about excerpting capital-L literature to give them new digital life, as Veronique Aubouy does, in multimodal form, here:

    Might the digitally-enabled performance of reading (and writing, as Baron points out when he says he always thought of writing as a solitary activity) more than make up for the impact on oldschool reading habits?

    1. Janel,
      I always think we are fortunate enough to be able to move between non-digital and digital writing and experience the pains and pleasures of both simultaneously. This is a rare opportunity available to a minority of generations on the verge of digital world’s ultimate supremacy over all challenges. I do not intend to have a qualitative judgment against digital writing as I feel my own words would sound like those repetitive suspicious tones throughout history who, as Baron states, are always there to declare the end of the world. The end of the world is a huge funny fear, but the end of a world or several worlds is always possible. Let’s think through digital writing in digital age, some worlds would die and some worlds would be born.
      Despite all one-click accesses to voluminous written works of non-digital ages , I do not think that the inhabited mind of an inborn digital reader, not really us, would be able to follow what we have known as writing the way that we have read it. Fragmentary writing, I have not found a better title for it yet, would be the dominant expectation of texts. I ask myself, and I ask you all, would the uniqueness of form and style be redefined or recreated in this fragmentary genre? then we can talk about Proust.

  2. Naghme,

    Like you, I value a sustained engagement with a carefully composed text (like Proust, say). But I guess I’m not yet convinced that people are doing less of that sort of reading in a digital age. Do you really feel that there are fewer readers of Proust and co. than before? Or might it just be that more people are doing more different kinds of reading, in addition to those minority readers willing to slog their way through modernist novels?


    1. Dr. Harris
      I don’t think either that Proust has ever had more than “a minority of readers” all around the world, even thinking about the possibility of reading him could be sign of surviving ideals. I myself read the first two volumes of his novel when I was a freshman, one of the most amazing reading experiences of my whole life, and the unfinished task lingers like a bitter hope in my endless impossible aspirations. I referred to Proust, and highlighted his name in Baron’s work, as his work is the unique example of the most extended type of writing. Digital writing would compact, summarize, cut and transfer infinite materials in almost no time; whereas Proust, our symbol, would extend an evasive personal moment to eternity. I would not rely on a quoted Proust diminished to few paragraphs whether in a printed magazine or an online page. And I think digital reader would not tolerate many aspects of form and style anymore and seems to face almost all types of writings as an informative one. Form needs to be miniaturizes to be recreated in digital context and appeal to the speed of the digital reader’s mind.

  3. Naghmeh,

    I’m interested, too, in the way that the shorter texts and “fragments” that seem to dominate many of my own go-to internet spaces impact the way that we read and communicate with one another. But I’m also interested in thinking about the larger textual experiences that those fragments create when they are aggregated. I’m having the students in my E110 class write their first papers in response to a couple of blog posts on _The New Yorker_ about the way that social media, Twitter in particular, impacted the public’s experience of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. One of the bloggers writes:

    “Most days, part of the complex compulsion of Twitter is the fragmentariness of the experience, the way in which, barring some terrible or hilarious or infuriating event, everyone tends to be talking about something different…But with the death of someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Lou Reed or Seamus Heaney—someone who has left an impression on many, many people—there is a quick and radical convergence of focus. For a short time, Twitter becomes a coherent experience: it becomes a sort of wake.”

    The aggregation of fragments is of course not the same as an extended piece of text, written by a single author. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any kind of larger coherence or significance, either.

    I also think I may have read Baron’s project a little differently than you did. I don’t think he was claiming that “this new medium is… just a new container for the same old material which was used to be called writing.” I think I read his argument almost in the opposite way– that each new innovation in writing technology has deeply impacted the ways in which we write and read. The myth I saw him trying to dispel was the idea that until the internet, writing has always had a consistent purpose, meaning, audience, and effect.


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