Bob Brown's Reading Machine and the Comic Experience of Electrified Reading

Abstract (in English): 

A recent essay by Jessica Pressman explores Bob Brown's The Readies (1929) as an important predecessor of electronic literature. Pressman argues that Brown's reading machine, which was designed to automatically unfurl scrolls of magnified text before the reader’s eyes in a way similar to a film projector, exemplifies a “machine poetics” that emphasizes the mediation of reading itself, much in the way that electronic literature often does. Brown’s description of his reading machine does indeed seem to offer an uncanny prophesy for subsequent developments in visual poetry and in reading technologies, as Pressman and other critics, including Jerome McGann and Craig Saper, have pointed out. In emphasizing the futurist possibilities of Brown’s machine, however, critics have tended to ignore or downplay the willfully comic aspects of the manifesto in which he proposes it. The tone of Brown’s writing suggests that we ought to count Rube Goldberg, as much as Thomas Edison, among the inspirations for the machine. Brown may well have desired that his invention would bring about a new era of mechanical reading, but he also uses his proposed machine to satirize both the mechanization of culture and the ostensible seriousness of the modernist avant-garde. In readings of Brown’smanifesto The Readies and the follow-up collection Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine (1931), this talk argues that Brown both embraces and parodies the inherently comic experience of technological novelty that Michael North describes in his recent Machine-Age Comedy (2009). By proposing his fanciful machine and imagining hypothetical readers’ simultaneous wonder and amusement at its novelty, Brown situates himself at an ambivalent middle ground between those who would enthusiastically embrace new reading technologies and those who would treat them as a threat to the printed word. By ignoring the comic aspects of Brown’s proposal and the “readies” that various experimental modernists wrote for it, critics have read as straightforwardly futurist a project that is actually ambivalent about the literary possibilities of technological novelty. The final section of my paper turns to the relationship of Brown’s comic impulse to subsequent developments in reading and writing technologies, including electronic literature. The field would do well, I argue, to further explore the comic possibilities of technological and formal novelty that Brown engages and North describes. As the field seeks to build a larger readership and secure deeper institutional support, understanding potential readers’ comic experience of such novelty becomes increasingly important.

(Source: Author's abstract, 2012 ELO Conference site)

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Eric Dean Rasmussen