Cambridge: The MIT Press. ISBN 0262582155.
Of Ivory Towers, Looking Glasses and the Cell(f).s of Contemporary Culture
N. Katherine Hayles’ most recent book, Writing Machines (2002), is a critical introduction to first-, second- and third- generation hypertexts, or technotexts, as she prefers to call them. It is also the second volume in the MIT Press’ new series called Mediaworks Pamphlets, headed by Peter Lunenfeld, director of the ITA (Institute for Technologies and Aesthetics) in Southern California. The series’ aim, according to Lunenfeld, is to introduce the curious, autodidactic and culturally savvy reader-at-large to the theoretical examinations of exchanges between contemporary cultures and the increasingly technological environments in which they are created and circulate. As part of this project, the series invites writers from a variety of disciplines and life styles. Hayles, a well-known English professor at UCLA and respected scholar of literary studies is their second in the series, while Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, the formerly underground, hip-hop artist, is scheduled to pen the third installment on rhythm science.
According to its description, the series aims to recreate the popularity, intellectual integrity and format of the Semiotext(e) series directed by Sylvère Lotringer. Like those tiny, shiny, black and so fetishizable books of the ’80s and ’90s, in which the likes of Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault and Paul Virilio spoke on a variety of topics in Speed and Politics, The Politics of Truth and The Ecstasy of Communication, the MIT Press’ little books (which measure 5.5′ by 7.5′) are not only meant to fit easily into today’s readers’ ‘messenger bags and sling packs,’ but are also intended to provide them with a general guide to the sometimes cryptic debates of ‘academic’ culture. The twin ambitions of the series — to scale the walls of today’s Ivory Tower of literary criticism and to reproduce it for the intellectually curious subway reader — explains, in part, the tone and structure of Writing Machines itself. Alternating between a fanciful journey of Hayles’ fictional self, Kaye, into e-culture and a more strictly academic discussion of these texts through what Hayles terms a Media Specific Analysis (MSA), the book attempts to negotiate that delicate balance between lit crit neophyte and professional.
In her discussion of Talan Memmott’s e-text Lexia to Perplexia (developed for a tRace online writing conference in 2000 and available in its original form at http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/newmedia/lexia/), Hayles demonstrates how the computer as fictional-producing environment, on both the technological and sensory levels, alters not only the space of narrative but also the reading subject. Through a detailed investigation of one of the most intellectually and digitally compelling texts, Hayles draws attention to the intersections of computational, psychological and fictional language in order to demonstrate how the work generates a kind of AR (Artificial Reader), who is ‘co-extensive with technology’ (53). Despite a momentary nod in the direction of post-Lacanian reading strategies, in which she considers the inscribed and digitally-hybrid subjectivity of the ‘I/eye, cell. . .(f) and cell.f,’ Hayles successfully maintains her focus on arguing for the validity of computer-generated technotexts as an invaluable resource in contemporary literary studies. Yet her initial theoretical promise to investigate the reciprocity between this type of technotext and the specifics of its computer materiality, its ‘polymers, phosphors, palladium in power cord prongs, etc.’ (32), seems to vanish in the particulars of her interpretation; when beginning with codex and positing a move through cord, she remains with computational code.
Nevertheless, this ‘non-denominational form’ of technotextual criticism, which – while stressing the need for MSA does not restrict itself to digital media – allows Hayles to devote the next two chapters of Writing Machines to artists’ books, and, in particular, to A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (the first few pages of which were published in 1966 and successively revised and published in book form from 1970 until the present) by the British artist Tom Phillips. Focusing on the variety and specificity of the material apparatuses that went into the production of this hybrid object of print and visual culture, Hayles’ investigations take up the trope of palimpsest-like inscription as the means to analyze the artist book. Hailed as ‘a true Gesamtkunstwerk,’ which offers a ‘treatment’ of its Victorian original through several successive masks, cuts, pastes and colorings, and which includes citations from the fields of philosophy, painting, photography and photography, A Humument does indeed urge its reader to take into account its own materiality. But what about the political and ideological implications of Phillips’ reworking of the Victorian novel, in which two masculine frames (that of the fictional editor and the author) give voice to the writing of a feminine subjectivity? How does the continual re-writing of this text, with its aim to eventually create an entirely new one, (re)frame and perhaps refocus the current debates in feminist literary criticism? Such questions are left unanswered, as Hayles’ focus is on the medium rather than the message.
In fact, this kind of endorsement of reading form can also be traced through the pseudo-autobiographical segments of the book, which serve as introduction, and perhaps concession to the reader-at-large, for the chapters of literary criticism ‘proper.’ These fictionalized anecdotes chart Kaye’s life, from a youth spent worshiping at the altar of the printed page, to disciplinary divides that fostered a separation of her interests in both literature and science, and finally to her emergence as a critical reformer of traditional definitions of Literature through interdisciplinary work and MSA. Although Kaye’s reactions to technoculture are decidedly less-informed than the analyses presented in the other sections of the book — Kaye for instance stands stupefied in front of the installation database created by, one presumes, Hayles’ own graduate students at UCLA — she provides a tale of intellectual inspiration and perseverance for those reluctant readers of e-culture who find this world a dark, under-investigated and sometimes frightening territory. Yet, if Kaye’s presence in the book allows for happy moments of directed ‘exercises in style,’ so too does it presuppose in a perhaps performative way, both a ‘real world’ and academic reader, who would prefer his/her theory fictionalized, formalized and de-politicized.
With her final analysis of Mark Z. Danielewski’s bestselling novel House of Leaves, (first published in hardcover print form by Pantheon Books in 2000), Hayles reaches back into the ‘proper’ territory of literary criticism as a means to illustrate the purchasing power of the agile term ‘technotext’ and its accompanying injunction of MSA. By mobilizing the type-text of her own work, with the aid of Anne Burdick, this chapter also enacts the principles it describes, and reflects upon the very self-reflexivity inherent in all of these techno-cultural products. Reiterating the interdependency of fiction, medium, mediation and analysis, Hayles suggests that Danielewski’s novel may not in fact be a simple upgrade of the novel’s traditional form, but may rather represent the onset of a new kind of hybrid discourse that has displaced the novel through a reflection on its own history as medium. Her reading of the text once again focuses on a new iteration in reading consciousness, similar to the inscribed reading ‘cell.f’ in Lexia to Perplexia. Through its own questioning of mediation and remediation, House of Leaves as technotext likewise presents a consciousness that, as Hayles claims, is necessarily ‘fused with technologies of inscription’ (117).
In addition to this fictionalized theoretical initiation, the most compelling argument of and for Writing Machines is the book’s art design. Supplemented and even enacted by the art and design work of the Southern California designer Anne Burdick, Hayles’ theoretical concepts, as well as her call for MSA, are instantiated within the very format and form of the book. As designer, editor of electronicbookreview.com and professor at the graduate Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Burdick was paired with Hayles to work on this specific project and produce multiple material inscriptions of Hayles’ material criticism. The most prominent aspects of the design work come in the form of capitalized words, competing typescripts and magnified passages that literally highlight important aspects of Hayles’ arguments. Yet these bold-faced, capitalized words and enlarged and curvilinear views of text function equally to unite theory, fiction and praxis, encouraging moments of close reading, and cleverly evoking the somewhat distorted hesitations of Kaye’s wondrous journey through technotexts, as if imitating her experiences through a looking glass. In addition, the pen-like scribbles, high-gloss pages, multiple black markings, grey-scan images and barcode lines that encompass the entire work and truly distinguish this book, indicate text’s own reproducibility. As simulated photocopy and communal possession, Writing Machines and, more specifically, its artwork, draws attention to the intellectual purchasing power of the book, and perhaps literary criticism, in their overtly commodified and contemporary form.
Nanette Fornabai received her doctorate with distinction from Brown University for her dissertation, “(In)Humanizing Norms: Machines, Fantoms, and Detectives in Modern French Popular Culture,” in May of 2003. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Italian at the University of California, Irvine, US, where she teaches various courses in nineteenth century French popular culture and science as well as film studies courses on film noir and francophone cinema. Her research includes work on fin-de-siècle popular and bio-statistical cultures. She is currently working on a manuscript of her dissertation on the rise of normative cultures in modern France and their relation to science and detective fiction and film.