Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age

January 24, 2012 | 5 books mentioned 26 8 min read

More and more, I read in pieces. So do you. Digital media, in all its forms, is fragmentary. Even the longest stretches of text online are broken up with hyperlinks or other interactive elements (or even ads). This is neither a good nor bad thing, necessarily — it is simply a part of modern reading. And because of that, works that deal with fragmentation, that eschew not only a traditional narrative structure but the very idea of a work comprising a single, linear whole — take on a special kind of relevance. Fragmentary writing is (or at least feels) like the one avant-garde literary approach that best fits our particular moment. It’s not that it’s the only form of writing that matters of course, just that it captures the tension between “digital” and “analog” reading better than anything else out there. And that tension, in many ways, is the defining feature of the contemporary reading experience.

cover What is fragmentary writing? To answer that, it helps to first look at how writers wrestled with fragmentation in an earlier, pre-digital context. The approach  played a major role in twentieth-century modernist literature, for example, and the very best modernists utilized fragments in particularly revealing ways. Few writers of the period, or any other, understood the nature of fragmentary writing better than Samuel Beckett, who experimented with short, nonlinear forms throughout his career. My favorite example of these fragmentary experiments is a series of thirteen nonlinear prose shorts he wrote called Texts for Nothing.

The Texts are not stories or essays, at least not in the traditional sense. They are instead focused on images/symbols and on the often-prevaricating “voice” (or is it “voices”?) behind each Text. Images and phrases appear in a particular context, and nearly every word is essential to understanding the Text. The voice of each Text often doubles back, contradicts itself, or moves from image to image in no discernible pattern, as in Text 2:

Is this stuff air that permits you to suffocate still, almost audibly at times, it’s possible, a kind of air. What exactly is going on, exactly, ah, old xanthic laugh, no farewell mirth, good riddance, it was never droll. No, but one more memory, one last memory, it may help, to abort again.

The images contained in Text 2 (though not necessarily the other Texts) could be interpreted as a series of “memories,” ranging from a woman digging through a trash can to a man “with only one leg and a half” ringing a bell. Memory often works piecemeal — after all, people don’t really remember an entire experience, instead they hold on to particular images, emotions, or impressions. In that way, the Texts resemble human memory — and human thinking. Their fragmentary nature therefore reflects the fragmentary nature of memory, and of the human mind.

Writing about Franz Kafka — another writer given to fragments, whose work served as a key influence on Beckett’s — Albert Camus declared, “The whole art in Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.” The Texts certainly live up to this dictum — they are meant to be looked at more than once, from different points of view. The attentive reader spends time with each Text as a distinct object, since there is not linear narrative or argument to follow forward. Meaning suggests itself indirectly, through the accumulation of phrases and images.

cover However, while Beckett wrote at a time when rereading was widely encouraged, contemporary media often pulls us in a very different direction. In his recent book about digital reading, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr calls the Net our society’s “communication and information medium of choice,” and says that, “The scope of its use is unprecedented, even by the standards of the mass media.” And he claims that this new medium has changed reading as profoundly as did the bound codex.

He points to a series of studies that indicate “people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.” Essentially, hypertext distracts the reader enough to change the reading experience — even a long, linear text becomes fragmented with the addition of links, because the unconscious mind is forced to devote energy determining the value of the link (and whether or not to click on it). In Carr’s telling, the Internet creates not fragmentary but fragmented reading, where the mind is so distracted that it is difficult to become fully immersed in a given text. This is a different process than what happens when we read a fragmentary work — as Carr explains, “When transcribed to a page, a stream of consciousness becomes literary and linear.” The structure of a print book — its existence as a discrete, finite object, the lack of distractions built in to the format — creates a contemplative atmosphere that allows the reader to “merge” with a text; or as Carr puts it, “The reader becomes the book.” Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, with their emphasis on contemplation, accumulation, and rereading, are firmly rooted in the quieter, more contemplative world of “analog” media. For a writer interested in engaging the digital world, however, there are different challenges and that calls for a different kind of fragmentary writing.

cover The most prominent fragmentary work in recent years is probably David ShieldsReality Hunger, a book made up primarily of quotations from other texts. While most critics focused on its two most controversial assertions — that the linear novel is an obsolete form, and that writers should feel free to “borrow” text from other works, the way a DJ might sample a piece of music — the book’s fragmentary structure is far more compelling. It is intended as a “literary collage,” in keeping with Shields’ belief that, “Collage, the art of reassembling fragments of preexisting images in such a way as to form a new image, was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century.” Shields wants “a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation,” in effect, a literature that reflects the workings of the human mind. And his collection of fragments is his effort to produce that kind of work. If Shields fails in this effort — and I think he does, though understandably so — he is able to give the reader an idea of how his mind processes the written word. The breadth of his reading is evident not only from the wide range of writers “appropriated” into Reality Hunger — Walter Pater, James Joyce, and Walter Benjamin, among others — but from the obvious restlessness visible on the page.

cover Like Beckett’s Text 2, the fragmentary nature of Reality Hunger has its roots in human memory. As Shields points out, his interest in the essay stems from his belief that, “The essay consists of double translation: memory translates experience; essay translates memory.” And his essay resembles the way many of us remember the books we read — we hold on to particular ideas, images, and quotes, which hold the place of the larger work in our memories. I’ve read Hamlet three times in the last year and a half — and many times before then — but I can’t recite the entire play by heart. Instead, certain lines stand out (“The rest is silence,” etc.), and when I “remember” the play, it is those lines that spring to mind. In that way, Shields’ book gives us a window into how he reads — it shows us not only the works he gravitates too, but what pieces of those works he keeps with him.

Where Shields differs from earlier fragmentary writers, including Beckett, is that Reality Hunger, due to its origin in many different works, not only emphasizes its fragmentary nature, but uses it to connect with the reader. While making my way through the book, I found myself copying out Shields’ most interesting fragments into a separate notebook; when I want to “reread” Reality Hunger, I simply look at my own, private version instead. This seems at least in part to be Shields’ intention — the fragmentary style of his book forces the reader to become an active participant in the work itself. In that way, it draws from online writing styles, including blogging, which encourage readers to comment on, excerpt, or link to an existing text (which, as Carr points out, brings on even more fragmentation). Perhaps the most extreme version of this is the blogging platform Twitter, which both limits users to writing 140-chracters at a time, and encourages them to “retweet” other users’ content.

cover The most interesting use of the platform that I’ve seen is Masha Tupitsyn’s (print) book Laconia: 1,200 Tweets on Film, which she composed entirely on the site. The end result, however, is presented not as a mere assembly of Tweets, but as an experiment in form. As she explains in the introduction, “I avoided tweeting arbitrarily or simply churning out a collection of tweets that would result in a book. Instead, I wrote and crafted each entry as though it was for and part of a book, rather than the other way around.” One of Carr’s great worries about the digital realm is the way it appropriates and changes print forms. As he explains, “When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image.” With Laconia, Tupitsyn attempts the reverse, re-creating a digital medium (Twitter) in an “analog” space. In a sense, Tupitsyn is appropriating a digital space into print.

What’s especially interesting about that appropriation is the way she toys with Twitter’s 140-character limit. Often, she will break multi-tweet passages abruptly, calling attention to the platform’s tendency toward fragmentation. For example, tweets 782 and 783 (each tweet in the book is numbered and time-stamped) appear this way:

Our feelings and emotions about our lives and our faces are in other people’s faces. Changing movie faces are our feelings and emotions

about our feelings and emotions.

It would be very easy to recast these tweets in a way that keeps both sentences whole:

Our feelings and emotions about our lives and our faces are in other people’s faces.

Changing movie faces are our feelings and emotions about our feelings and emotions.

This would be particularly more readable on Twitter itself, where the more recent tweet — “about our feelings and emotion” — would appear on top. But by breaking them so abruptly, by taking Twitter’s “hard” character count so literally and writing right up until it is reached, Tupitsyn underlines the digital origin of the project.

Where, at least in Carr’s telling, the Web cuts a textual whole into fragments by appropriating it, the print book (at least this particular print book) takes fragments and forces them into a kind of whole. We read tweets 782 and 783 in sequence, and the meaning is obvious. Tupitsyn plays a similar trick with the book’s content. Though the book is ostensibly a work of film criticism, it does not contain anything that resembles a conventional movie review. Instead, it appropriates what social media specializes in — quotations, personal reactions, biographical revelations, and commentary about pop culture — and turns them into something more ambitious. The different fragments are not so much about film as they are about how Tupitsyn watches film. As she puts it, the book “dramatizes the act of thinking through film.”

Reality Hunger and Laconia are very different books, but they share this desire to use fragmentary writing to dramatize the act of thinking through culture (in Shields’ case mostly books, in Tupitsyn’s mostly films). Even this desire has its roots in the digital world, where culture is constantly being repackaged and analyzed. If neither work achieves the majesty of Beckett’s Texts — to be fair, an obscenely high standard — both find an approach to fragmentary writing that pushes the form in a new direction, rather than just rehashing modernism’s innovations. They manage this by drawing on digital forms — Shields by creating a “collage” that mimics the mash-up culture that dominates online media, Tupitsyn by writing her book via Twitter. In so doing, they suggest an interesting new path for both writers and readers, one that takes the clutter of the digital world and transforms it into something quieter and more thoughtful.

It’s not that fragmentary writing is the only acceptable form of writing today — I have no intention of breaking this essay into tweets — but it is the form best suited to address the conundrum Carr is so concerned about in The Shallows. We all read online, and the rise of smartphones, tablets, and e-readers means we will be doing so even more. This means we will all be spending ever more time reading with a medium that encourages distracted, fragmented reading. Fragmentary writing — work that accumulates fragments of text and presents them in a way that encourages introspection and contemplation — seems like a logical response to that experience. And that makes me incredibly curious to see where people will take it.

Image credit: Unsplash/CHUTTERSNAP.

is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in Bookslut, The Brooklyn Rail, and Venus, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @GuysLibrary.