Blog Post

Reviewing Jessica Pressman's "Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media"

In an age of “born-digital” literature created and circulated on the Internet, many “books” have come to be more than books, incorporating elements besides that of text, such as sound bites, pictures, and even video. This brave new world of digital literature is frightening in “an age increasingly defined by engagement with new media and obsessed with newness” (Pressman 1). However, in her 2014 book, Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media, a title to intrigue modernist scholars everywhere, author Jessica Pressman argues this new era of unorthodox literature is not new at all. Instead, Pressman asserts digital literature, and even recent published texts, are refusing to indulge the general outpouring of technological invention and creativity. Instead, they are rebelling against the “progress” of the twenty-first century by looking back to modernism and intentionally creating avant-garde pieces that are simultaneously complex and simplistic.

            Digital Modernism uses comparisons between late twentieth and early twenty-first century pieces of digital literature and modernist works to assert that digital modernism “remakes the category of the avant-garde in new media” and connects to Pressman’s concept of modernism, defined as “a strategy of innovation that employs the media of its time to reform and refashion older literary practices” (10, 4). The digital works produced today, she argues, do not use all the options available to them as born-digital literature, and she examines specific pieces of simple digital literature throughout her book to illustrate that modern virtual works, like their modernist predecessors, refashion the “old” in order to subvert the popular. Pressman acknowledges the connections between modernism and digital modernism are not always obvious, meaning readers must adopt media studies theorist Marshall McLuhan’s close reading policies. McLuhan’s technique of reading advertisements like texts is necessary, according to Pressman, because so much of digital modernism uses advertisement-like formats or techniques to remake modernist works.

One example Pressman uses in her monograph to illustrate the connection between close reading, modernism, and digital literature is Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ text, Dakota, a piece which begins like a movie, then flashes words on a screen in time with a musical tempo, going at a moderate pace at times while moving almost too fast to see in others. Pressman argues that though Dakota is digital and difficult to read, its format actually encourages close reading because the text flashes by so quickly in some cases that it “incites the critical reader to reread the work, transcribe the words, and compare its content to Pound’s [Cantos],” the modernist work upon which the authors based Dakota (84). Digital Modernism asserts the content of the two works is similar as are both pieces’ desire to confuse readers and encourage them to close read the texts, but the cinematic format of Dakota appears to set it further away from Pound’s text than Pressman acknowledges. In the first chapter, the whole idea conveyed is McLuhan’s theory about how “the medium is the message,” but while Pressman promises to examine the “images, design, and patterns of design as meaningful modes of communication,” she rarely addresses how these digital aspects do not support the link between modernism and digital literature (28, 53).

            Pressman’s other chapters are also dedicated to representing and strengthening the connection between modernist literature, modernist techniques, and the digital age, once more refusing to acknowledge the differences between digital and physical literature. For example, she utilizes William Poundstone’s tachistostopic Project for the Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit} and its similarity to modernist Bob Brown’s “Readies,” a machine that sped up reading, to illustrate the link between modernism and hurried twenty-first century online reading techniques. She also addresses modernist methods such as stream of consciousness and Pound’s idea of a universal language. For the former, Pressman uses a Twitter feed of conversations between the fictional characters from James Joyce’s Ulysses as well as the ever-changing text in Judd Morrissey and Lori Talley’s The Jew’s Daughter and Talan Memmott’s My Molly (Departed) to show stream of consciousness’s transformation from a literary method in digital and real novels to a social media technique and, in My Molly (Departed), a database. In regards to the idea of universal language, Digital Modernism uses the example of Erik Loyer’s Chroma to show that no universal language exists, even in cyberspace, as this digital book’s characters attempts to communicate in a virtual environment fail because of personal differences. Chroma shows no essential language exists, even online, just as the Chinese ideograms that Pound believed to be the essence of communication could not be understood by all.

            Pressman closes the monograph by discussing digital modernism’s manifestation in physical books, specifically Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, a book one literally has to rotate in order to read. The motion readers must enact to read this story, which has two beginnings and two ends, each narrated by a different character, is one supposedly showing how “digital readership is not limited to digital technologies or to works of electronic literature” because even physical books such as Only Revolutions can be avant-garde and challenge the traditional view of books (158). To further her assertion that digital modernism has infiltrated physical literature, Pressman reveals that the dates and animals mentioned in the book were crowd sourced by the author from his readers using the Internet (170). As a result, Only Revolutions literally brings the “new” into an old form, exactly what the modernists of the early twentieth century attempted to accomplish.

            Pressman’s monograph is certainly an interesting one, but the piece has serious flaws. For one, the author disregards the argument mentioned in her first chapter, “medium is the message” and does not fully discuss how cyberspace is a different medium than physical print and therefore affects the interpretation of works such as Dakota (28). In fact, the book specifically looks at works that have explicit ties to modernist literature, primarily that of Pound and Joyce, ignoring digital literature which does not fit this model and the majority of modernist writers, as Pressman paints her book so that Pound and Joyce appear to be the only ones who contributed to the modernist movement. As a result, while Digital Modernism brings up intriguing connections between modernism and the digital age, connecting the two worlds intimately, the book’s exclusiveness makes its points difficult to support at more than a superficial level.


Work Cited

Pressman, Jessica. Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.


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