The Magazine, the Medium, the Message: Virginia Heffernan’s Vook Manifesto

“Seriously, though: I will always remember 2008 as the year I finally gave up on the Sunday NY Times Magazine . . . LOL, good magazine, guys . . . it’s really become a “must-read” in my house . . . LOL, lots of great articles about how What I buy says about who I am(?) and how How I watch screens says what I like is really who I am(?)” — David Rees

“I read three paragraphs about absolutely nothing, and the forth paragraph began, ‘Take pilates.’ So I stopped.” — My boyfriend, on this article

When it comes to the content offered by the NYT Sunday Magazine, there is a certain lack of conceptual clarity.  Within its pages, readers encounter a bevy of enthusiastic, articulate writers eager to present us with ideas about media, technology and Our Society; but as the epigraphs above suggest, there’s a thin line between a provocative new concept and a heap of stupefying drivel about nothing whatsoever.  While the “how I watch screens says about who I am” model for constructing think-pieces is nearly ubiquitous–see, for example, this hard-hitting cover story about The Beatles: Rock Band–nowhere is this trend more pronounced then in the electronic virtual pages of Virginia Heffernan’s column “The Medium.”

Heffernan’s intended goal is to provide us with paradigm-shifting interpretations of the electronic digital e-culture we now inhabit.  She would have us consider her an updated version of such revered cultural theorists as Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard and Stanley Fish (<<— irony alert, no one reveres him), breasting the turbulent waves of internet culture with her titanic intellect.  Auguring positively for this endeavor, she has a Ph.D. in English from Harvard University and once worked as a fact-checker for the New Yorker.  On the minus side: She once recommended a climate change denialist blog because she “didn’t know” that’s what it was, once accused feminists of not caring about sex slavery, and once reported that Facebook was almost dead after a “user exodus.”

That was over a year ago, and it still hasn’t come to pass.  So, perhaps her intellect is not all that titanic after all.  But let’s not hold her up to an unreasonably high standard.  Instead of comparing her to the intellectual icons of the twentieth century, let’s just look at her most recent column and ask a more basic question:  Is it about anything at all, and if so, what?

The column is titled “Watch Me, Read Me.”   It begins, “A deep fantasy of most readers is that their books will one day come to life.”  Already, I’m confused, because that sounds sort of nightmarish.  I don’t want books to come alive; I imagine they’d be like those toys in Toy Story, always complaining that nobody played with them enough, except more neurotic and angsty.  All flapping their covers open and shut alarmingly, moaning softly about insufficiently attentive reading, creeping up on you in bed and whispering “did you…forget about me?” in your ear.  Stephen King could write a good short story about it.  But no, I think what Heffernan actually means is that most readers wish they could go into the worlds depicted in books.  Like in “The Kugelmass Episode,” where a lonely college professor gets inside the book Madame Bovary, and then gets inside Madame Bovary herself.   Wanting to bang a beloved literary character is indeed most likely a “deep fantasy of many readers,” so I’ll buy that.

Conclusion:  This column is about wanting to bang Emma Bovary.

“The wish [is] for a byte of audio here and there, among the pages of text, so you could hear what Uriah Heep really sounds like when he says, “’Umble to this person, and ’umble to that’ in ‘David Copperfield’….What if you could give your imagination a break?”  If my imagination is that fatigued, why am I reading an 800-page novel from 160 years ago?  Why wouldn’t I just watch TV?  I get like 500 channels.

Conclusion: This column is about wanting to bang Emma Bovary, and hating Victorian novels.

“The fantasy of giving your imagination a break, though, is an illicit one.”  Yes.  That is why no book has ever been turned into a movie.

“Readers are…supposed to enjoy all the work they have to do to conjure the scenes in their books….”  I think people “suppose” this to be the case because imagining a bunch of stuff in your mind isn’t actually that strenuous.  It’s not exactly ditch-digging.

Conclusion: This column is about wanting to bang Emma Bovary, hating Victorian novels, and the epidemic of fatigued imaginations.

“…and at the same time disdain television viewers, who sit back and have it all handed to them on a vertical platter.”  “Readers” and “television” viewers aren’t actually different people.  They’re like, the same people, doing different activities at different times.  They’re not like the Bloods and the Crips.

"Read Books," Eli Steele

Conclusion:  This column is about wanting to bang Emma Bovary, hating Victorian novels, the epidemic of fatigued imaginations, and the culture war between readers and TV viewers.

“(Or, rather, have it all stabbed at them. Parrying the needley jabs of digital TV is actually not so easy. TV haters should appreciate what a workout it now is to watch TV. But that’s another story.)”  Ain’t that the truth!  You know what I hate about digital TV, is those stupid ads they run all the time for Trident Layer Gum.  They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re totally not.  BUT THAT’S A STORY… FOR ANOTHER DAY.

Conclusion:  This column is about wanting to bang Emma Bovary, hating Victorian novels, the epidemic of fatigued imaginations, the culture war between readers and TV viewers, and the American public’s hatred of repetitive gum ads.

Heffernan tells us she is a “slavish fan” of her Kindle.  She goes on about the Kindle at some length.  “Kindle… Kindle… Kindle… something about an iPad… I love my Kindle…”  Everyone I know over 40 is like this about Kindles.  Can anyone explain why?

“Not being interrupted by all the material distractions of an overdesigned book…was a joy to me when the Kindle first appeared.”  I’m trying to imagine an “overdesigned” book, but the only example I can think of is Pat the Bunny.  Super distracting, with those scented flowers, and that little mirror, and the scratchy face, and the “try on mummy’s ring” thing.   When did publishing become all about gimmicks?  Why can’t they just focus on the story?!  Or wait, maybe that’s good… all those enhanced features and sensual aids to give my imagination a rest.   That’s what I, as a reader, want.

At this point, I became a bit confused, but basically this article is against how boring regular books are, or maybe it’s for it.

“Take pilates.”  …please?  “I like floor Pilates, but it’s traditionally a one-on-one kind of thing, and lessons are expensive.”  How much are they paying Virginia Heffernan, that she can’t afford a pilates lesson?  Give the poor woman a raise!  It transpires that V-Hef likes books about exercise, but finds it hard to do the exercises using just their instructions.

“The written instructions are entirely useless. Commands like ‘engage your core’…must be meant to arouse and excite the exercise state of mind as much as to convey information.”  Your “core” means the muscles in your stomach area (specifically, the transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis, and obliques, in case anyone wants to know).  To “engage” them means to kinda contract them, instead of just letting them flap around loose.  I picked that all up from an article I read in an old issue of Yoga Journal a few months ago.  This sort of thing is why I worry about the intellects of the writers at the New York Times Magazine.

Conclusion:  This column is about wanting to bang Emma Bovary, hating Victorian novels, imagination fatigue, the culture war between readers and TV viewers, the American public’s hatred of repetitive gum ads, and Pilates.

“Exercise videos, though, are a bust. If it were only a question of how to monopolize the patch of floor in front of the family TV set, I might find a way. But I can’t figure out how to keep looking at the screen up on its table for cues about form while exercising on the floor.”  Well, couldn’t you just… wait, what was all that stuff about wanting to “arouse and excite” the exercise state of mind?  What kind of exercise videos are we talking about here?

“And so: Vook!”  Paragraph 5 is devoted to explaining what a “Vook” is.  It’s a software application that combines video with text.  Vooks are digital video book in which text is interspersed with a numbered series of short videos.  You can watch them on the internet, or on iPads and shit.  Most of them seem to be about self-help and fitness.

Conclusion: This column is about wanting to bang Emma Bovary, hating Victorian novels, imagination fatigue, the culture war between readers and TV viewers, the American public’s hatred of repetitive gum ads, Pilates, and Vooks.

Heffernan likes to watch a Vook called “15-Minute Everyday Pilates.”  “I’ve read the text many times, so I go straight to the videos. Each one lasts one minute, and shows — up close and with zero stagecraft — Alycea Ungaro doing Pilates exercises, very simply and clearly. For some exercises, I like having the video right by my head. Some I put it at my feet….  There’s a simple intimacy to the Pilates Vook.”

Intimacy, indeed.  For reference, this is what Alycia Ungaro looks like.  Not bad for an illicit pilates fantasy… is Alycia Ungaro Virginia Heffernan’s Emma Bovary?

Why is there a form of exercise named after the guy who crucified Jesus?

Final conclusion:  This column is about wanting to bang Emma Bovary, hating Victorian novels, imagination fatigue, the culture war between readers and TV viewers, the American public’s hatred of repetitive gum ads, Pilates, Vooks, and wanting to bang a Pilates teacher. Everything has come full circle, so let’s wrap this up.  “Intrinsically intimate and personal”…”something called “Yoga in Bed” sounds especially promising”…”made a longstanding fantasy come true”… and we’re done.

So, did “Watch Me, Read Me” turn out to be about anything?  No.  It turned out to be about many things.  And that’s the way it should be.  In today’s modern digital electronic age, the idea that writers should pick one topic and stick with it for an entire column is becoming old-fashioned.  People don’t have the attention span for it, plus postmodern culture is all about pastiche, bricolage, and clicking on all kinds of different stuff.  In the future, all writing will probably be like this.  Virginia Heffernan is a public intellectual for the twenty-first century.

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4 thoughts on “The Magazine, the Medium, the Message: Virginia Heffernan’s Vook Manifesto

  1. Bless you for starting this site. You are a true American hero, like “Sully” Sullenberger. Please read current most-emailed “article” about how New Yorkers just hate their fireplaces. I do, don’t you?
    Thanks again, A M

  2. Fuck pilates, I got a full workout just trying to follow her train of thought. Assuming such a thing exists.

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