K. Hayles, Writing Machines
Having studied literature and literary theory, I realized I was looking with preset and limited eyes to the electronic library, trying to make out on which criteria I would build my judgement in commenting on them. Time, space, perspective, plot/story, style, composition do apply on these works, but so many more things come into the field, e.g. the combination of image/sound/text; or the (in)finite ways of reading and using it.
I hoped I would quickly find the cyber orientated incorporation of my favourite literature porfessor. I felt a big relief when I started reading Katherine Hayles’ Writing Machines.
Katherine Hayles is a Professor of English at the University of California (LA). Writing Machines is a small beautiful and powerful book in which she arguments for material criticism in literary theory. After an extended description of technotexts and the electronic environment for literary artifacts, she analyses in detail 3 existing works:
– (technotext) Talan Memmott, From Lexia to Plexia
– (artist’s book) Tom Philips, A humument
– (novel) Danielewski, House of Leaves
Three reasons to read/remember this book
The argument for materiality and a Media-Specific Analysis
The physical form of the literary artifact always affect what the words (and other semiotic components) mean, especially now when text becomes more and more a distributed production (in different forms and extensions, partly on print, partly on the web).
After an extensive description of her own path through science and literature, K. Hayles takes a look into the (young) history of technotexts, from the first generation of hypertexts (e.g. Joyce, Afternoon, A Story, 1987) to the second generation of cybertexts that incorporate sound and image (e.g. Shelley Jackson, Patchwork Girl) to illustrate the need for a media-specific analysis.
A literary work is determined by the rich connections between its material properties and its content. This is what she calls ‘materiality’. It emerges from interactions between physicial properties and a work’s artistic strategies, and from how the work mobilizes its ressources as a physical artifact and how the user interacts with the work and its interpretative strategies.
In her words:
“My hope is that the book will be understood as an experiment in a materialist criticism that understands the physical form of the artifact to be intimately connected with the intellectual content. This idea is hardly new; innovative poetic practice, artists’ books, concrete poetry, and a host of other literary and creative practices have been exploring it for a long time. Yet literary criticism has remained largely untouched by these experiments. I think the time is ripe, with the advent of increasingly flexible and powerful modes of print production and the fantastic multimedia capabilities of electronic media, for literary and cultural critics to start taking seriously the physical and tangible forms of the criticism they create, using the medium’s materiality as an intellectual as well as artistic resource.”
The physical artifact of the book: material design & material criticism
Writing Machines is an example of how text and design or content and materiality are entangled. K. Hayles worked together closely with the graphic designer Anne Burdick to embody the argument she makes.
In her words:
“For example, the decision to make all quotations appear as images of the texts from which they were extracted, rather than run as continuous typescript, is a strategy meant to emphasize the materiality of the artifacts from which the quotations came.
Other strategies, such as emphasizing important passages by imaging them as “bubble” text seen through the convex lens characteristic of curved CRT screens, visually instantiates the idea of remediation, the term Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin coined to describe the cycling in one medium of content that appeared in other media. Perhaps the most extensive visual play comes in the specific features of the book that Anne chose for exploration in the design—the fact that a book is a volume composed of a series of planes. From the cover image to the writing that appears on the page edges to the underlying images that serve as backdrop for the pages, this interplay between the plane and the volume, the flat two-dimensional page and the sculptural volumetric space of the book, provides the metaphors around which the design coheres. There is a subtle point to choosing these features to emphasize in the design: although the argument may seem simple on a page-by-page basis, taken as a volumetric whole it has revolutionary implications for how literary and textual critics think about literature and the relation of the criticism to its materiality.”
The autobiographical persona
Reading Writing Machines is not as reading any literary theory. It is a pleasant journey through the observations of a scientific person who weaves her life experiences through her ideas and proving material. It is not a coincidence to find this so obviously pronounced and explained by a feminine researcher. It is such a good thing to do.
In her words:
“Especially in times of rapid changes such as the present moment, our personal histories represent the sedimented accumulation of centuries of critical insight and practice, with all of their limitations as well as their enablings. For every practice that we have consciously examined and thought about, there are a hundred we have unconsciously absorbed from our professional apprenticeships and personal contexts. In a literal sense, we carry these sedimented ideas around in our bodies, unconsciously reinscribing them in our writing and teaching. At the same time, coexisting right alongside these traditional ideas are newer concepts that occupy the neocortex, available for conscious thought precisely because they are the new. So the mindbody becomes the nexus where new ideas meet received opinions, traditional modes interweave with changed perspectives. Because this interplay between old and new, examined and unexamined play themselves out in our lives, the personal narrative becomes a kind of reflecting lens through which we can bring the unthought and its interactions with the thought into visibility. That is why I find personal narrative an exciting mode for critical exploration and theoretical experimentation.”