Thursday, May 30, 2013

Gutenberg's Monster: Slender Man and the Information Age

If you have grown up with the internet like I have, then you are all too aware of its most recent offspring: The Slender Man, a strange ethereal entity born of the internet. I won't get into the details of the Slender Man mythos or its related video games and YouTube off shoots. Those can be found on the Slender Man Wikipedia page.

A great (albeit grammatically faulty...get over it...I can, and I'm a Linguistics Major) introduction to our discussion today can be found  in "Behind You: The Cultural Relevance of Slender Man."

When I first read the Wikipedia article on Slender Man (since I gained a fascination for the myth and the monster in my freshman year at BYU), I found, at the end of the article, a mention of the "Gutenberg Parenthesis."

"Professor Tom Peddit of the University of Southern Denmark has described Slender Man as being an exemplar of the modern age's closing of the "Gutenberg Parenthesis"; the time period from the invention of the printing press to the spread of the web in which stories and information were codified in discrete media, to a return to the older, more primal forms of storytelling, exemplified by oral tradition ancampfire tales, in which the same story can be retold, reinterpreted and recast by different tellers, expanding and evolving with time."
* For the full story, go to the original radio story titled "Tales." This is a great listen.

The above audio bit discusses the concept of the Gutenberg Parenthesis by exploring how storytelling changed with Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the movable-type printing press, and how storytelling changed dramatically during that ~400 year era. Literature became the dominant source and medium of storytelling rather than oral tradition (campfire stories, etc.). This time period, says Father Walter Jackson Ong, PhD, Jesuit Priest and professor of English Literature, can be called a "Parenthesis," in during which human information exchange took on a unique and abnormal tendency.

Stories, particularly fictional stories, became solidified in print, and therefore a work could be read, studied, forgotten, and reread without any variation, allowing some of the greatest tales of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and so many other famous works of fantasy and science fiction, have endured to the modern age largely unchanged from their original incarnations.

Slender Man, however, never was quite solidified, giving him an aura more akin to campfire stories, like those of the Boogeyman. Therefore, we cannot place the Slender Man in the same category as the stories common to the Neo-Classical, Romantic, Victorian, Modernist, and Contemporary writing traditions. Slender Man is much more a sci-fi/UFO campfire story with a unique internet origin.

Our culture, of course, is more characterized by sci-fi than fantasy. Since such franchises as Doctor Who and Star Trek, television and movies have carried the outlandish and other-worldly ideas of the masters of science fiction--Wells, Asimov, Clark--to the common rabble in retellings that explored already-present sci-fi concepts and transformed them into dramatic plays and movies for all of us to enjoy. Something similar happened with Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press several centuries earlier (find the full story on YouTube). With the printing press, quality stories could be delivered to the masses unchanged from the source. Increased literacy allowed people to be able to enjoy stories on their own without storyteller. This all began with perhaps the most widely-known story of all, the Gutenberg Bible.

* For more on Typefaces, Fonts, and Gutenberg, watch "A Defense of Comic Sans".

But with Slender Man, all those years of literature as the dominant source of great stories was challenged by a rising, internet-born urban legend of a strange, ethereal, semi-corporeal being of unknown origin, motive, ability, or limits, with an evolving story that ebbed and flowed with time and space, and which was reborn with each new retelling. For the first time, a well-known idea was disseminated memetically, in which information is shared, person to person, mind to mind, (this is the actual definition of the word "Meme" so popular on our internet today). This is the way information was shared by our distant ancestors. No one person could claim to be the source of a legend back then. Sure, one person could say that they thought of the original concept (even though Victor Surge was technically the creator of Slender Man), but the expanded concept, the fan fiction, could not be trademarked or copyrighted. Slenderman is an urban legend, a purely democratic monster, born of two parents: the Information Age arguably begun by Johannes Gutenberg, and the primal fears of the human condition, to which all of us that ever surfed the net contribute each day.

Slender Man embodies every pitfall of the Information Age: While answers can be found by anyone, anywhere, regardless of class or status, just the way Gutenberg intended, there are some things which might not be explainable by the internet. While one may look up the original version of a story to save themselves from fearing it as a possible real-life account, some things cannot be explained or understood by the internet, leaving us in the dark, staring at a faceless, elongated figure in a business suit, painting all of our indescribable fears onto the canvas that is Slender Man.

For that reason, I chose to buy a white Morphsuit last Halloween and wear it underneath my formal suit. I got a lot of screams and laughs out of people in my escapades as Slender Man, and thereby, I learned first-hand of the primal fears inherent in all of us. (I'm only 5'9". Give me a break. Slender Man can change the length of his limbs at will.)

"Tye Van Horn, a writer for The Elm, has suggested that the Slender Man represents modern fear of the unknown; in an age flooded with information people have become so inured to ignorance that they now fear what they cannot understand.[15] Troy Wagner, the creator of Marble Hornets, ascribes the terror of the Slender Man to its malleability; people can shape it into whatever frightens them most."

I don't think I could say it any better myself. It is Slender Man's appeal to both the flaws of Gutenberg's Information Age and our human nature that compelled me to include him as a villain in my science fiction series (which we may discuss in a later post).

Slender Man can reveal a lot about our culture and how we think. A glance at history will show you that our behaviors today are not all that different from those of our ancestors. The only difference, it seems, has been technology. But with the closing of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, and the evolution of secondary orality, brought about a sort of counter-revolution, allowing stories to evolve and grow as they once did, long ago, in the age of faeries, witches, vampires, werewolves (not from Twilight), dragons (Dovah!), and everything else that went bump in the night.

* A drawing I made while still at BYU, on March 8th, 2013.

Cambot Out.

P.S. For ideas on future topics, please give your input in the comments below. I would be happy to hear from you.

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