Thursday, 21 June 2007

Sewing and the cut and paste generation

Image from ibiblio

This week
Wired has been discussing the furore surrounding Andrew Keen’s new book and his attack on what he calls ‘the cut and paste generation.’ The basic premise of Keen’s argument is that kids are more likely to blindly cut and paste information these days because the internet makes it so easy to do so – which perhaps has some validity; indeed in The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it is “the power of context” that is the key motivating factor when it comes to school cheating.

But ‘school assignments’ are only one dimension of the cut and paste technique. It is in fact perhaps just an updated version of the way we have always treated language – as a recombinant entity. Oral culture for example has long been closely associated with the art of sewing. We stitch pre-fabricated parts together. The word ‘text’ is itself derived from the Latin word ‘textere’ meaning to ‘weave;’ and the word 'rhapsody' literally means ‘to stitch together’ in Greek. At some levels then, cutting and pasting is simply a new way of cutting and sewing – a recombinant process we’ve been using for generations. American storytelling for example is closely linked with
quilting – an art involving the stitching together of pieces of fabric.

I think the important point in all this however is the fluidity of meaning. The interesting bit of cutting and pasting (as with cutting and stitching) is how we join what we have together. Cutting and pasting, cutting and re-assembling allows us to create new meanings, discover hidden meanings and to weave elements together to form completely different texts – something literature has long been interested in.
William Burroughs was one of the first to experiment with this Technique in Naked Lunch. And more recently in Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, Grace rather significantly sits sewing as she recounts her version of the brutal murder of which she is accused, ultimately perhaps managing to convince those around her of her innocence. The narrative thread is very powerful thing – if we can claim to be “stitched-up” Atwood’s novel illustrates the power of re-stitching, of the way we can alter meaning simply by stitching pre-fabricated parts together in a different way.

The beauty of the digital arena is that it makes this process accessible. “I am a language costumier”
Jeanette Winterson tells us in The.Powerbook a novel about virtual worlds and the fluidity of meaning and identity. The same stories and words can be re-stitched into different forms night after night. Indeed arguably many of the “cut and paste generation” are highly aware of the fluidity of text and manipulative power of the narrative thread. Youtube is full of evidence of a generation wise to the fact that simply by weaving together the same words or ‘texts’ in a certain way can create completely new meanings – which may perhaps be one reason why we are beginning to hear about the so-called end of political spin on the web. Whilst some of the cut and paste generation maybe little more than digital kleptos, others have cottoned on to the fact that the way pieces of texts are stitched or pasted together is in fact of utmost importance and interest.

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