Kaye in Wonderland

Kaye in Wonderland

2003-03-20
Writing Machines
N. Katherine Hayles
MIT Press, 2002. 224pp. $45. $17.95 (paper)

Komninos Zervos reviews the Hayles/Burdick collaboration, Writing Machines (2003), and reengages the cyberdebates (initiated in Y2K).

the journey begins

The book, this ‘pamphlet’ surprises you immediately, it is a black-covered hardback with a lovely feel and design that says this book is different from other books. Pages of shiny paper (you can’t write on them) and blocks of text that zoom out at you, or that are printed right up to the page edges, secret inscriptions, screen shots, and new terminology introduced as underlined CAPITALS. The outside of the book reflects what the inside of the book is saying, before you even read a word. Anne Burdick has done her job of design very well.

The ‘I’ that writes is never the ‘I’ that is written and so N. Katherine Hayles chooses a character, ‘Kaye,’ to tell of her journey of discovery from childhood to the present. N. Katherine Hayles has been one of the earliest and most active among critics and theorists of digital literatures. In sharing her discoveries through the fantasy and honesty of her persona, she may make the transition a little easier for others. More than a little reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland as the naïve young Kaye skips through science and art and arrives at electronic textuality. And when she arrives at this wonderland she finds that all she had thought of her world has been turned upside down.

While Kaye is free to play, the critic and theorist N. Katherine Hayles infuses the text with observations, critiques, questions, and theories about books and electronic textuality in the age of digital media. Hayles contends that the materiality of the work is important to the experience of it and that works in different media require their own media specific analysis (MSA).

Lulled into somnolence by five hundred years of print, literary studies have been slow to wake up to the importance of MSA. (p 29)

Her goal is stated clearly, and early. The book is to be

…an experiment in forging a vocabulary and set of critical practices responsive to the full spectrum of signifying components in print and electronic texts by grounding them in the materiality of the literary artifact. (p 6)

After experiencing literature in a different way, engaging with the electronic interface of links and mouse clicks and constantly refreshing screens, a materiality unlike print, young Kaye skips backwards to see what in the past she overlooked. And she sees that the material qualities of print were also there all along. She concludes that a media specific analysis of works is required to account for inscription technologies in the interpretation of the work. She may very well be skipping back to previous debates about the inseparability of mind and body, not only from her own book, How We Became Posthuman, but also the post-Kantian debates. Hayles does not attempt to separate the materiality of the content and the corpus, although she does at times speak separately of a work as a physical material construction and a meaning-making system or information system.

Hayles appears to be inconsistent in her use of the word ‘materiality’, the definition of which is avoided in Writing Machines. Sometimes she uses the term to refer to the physical aspects of the reading apparatus, as implied by the following statement from a pre-publication Iowa Review Web interview with Lisa Gitelman;

Each reading attempts to show how the text engages the materiality of its medium, and how this materiality becomes so entwined with the content that the two cannot be adequately understood apart from one another.

and at other times she uses ‘materiality’ to mean a combination of the physical aspects of the reading apparatus and its content, as the following quote from the same interview would indicate.

Materiality, as I use the term, does not simply mean all the physical, tangible aspects of the construction, delivery, and reading apparatus. Rather materiality is a selective focus on certain physical aspects of an instantiated text that are foregrounded by a work’s construction, operation, and content. These properties cannot be determined in advance of the work by the critic or even the writer. Rather, they emerge from the interplay between the apparatus, the work, the writer, and the reader/user.

It is indeed possible that almost every student of literature over the last fifty years has received a narrow, print-centered education that equates a literary work with a book. As Hayles writes, “literary criticism and theory are shot through with unrecognized assumptions specific to print. Only now, as the new medium of electronic textuality vibrantly asserts its presence, are these assumptions clearly coming into view” (29-30).

One has only to recall the resistance to the paperback novel as opposed to the hard-back, the resistances to the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, concrete poetry, sound poetry, the New York School and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the roneo presses and self-publications, French theory, slam, and ethnic poetries, and, as Hayles points out, artist’s books, to prove how rigidly the idea of literature has been associated with the printed book, and the right publisher. But the importance Hayles places on the materiality of literary works, whilst true of the three works she selected for analysis, cannot be adopted for literary works in general. Digital texts may have made her realize that a work can have physical actualisations other than print and helped her to see that even in print culture the material qualities of a book variously affect systems of interpretation and means of distribution. However, the theories she proposes, as an extension of this fundamental position, are confusing and inappropriate to the domain of electronic textuality and to the wider domain of the literary work.

The print book Writing Machines itself is a fourth example of a book that deliberately foregrounds its materiality by challenging the norms of book design and structure. There is no glossary of terms, no bibliography, no footnotes or end-notes, and no alphabetical index. The look and feel of the print book and its text are only a part of the larger literary work. Anne Burdick is the credited co-author. In the ‘Endtroduction’ Peter Lunenfeld, the editorial director, alerts us to the wider project of the book and its Web Supplement. Completing the cycle of remediation, the Supplement gives the user the ability to customize his or her own copy.

how many parts to this book?

The Writing Machines Web Supplement credits four authors, N. Katherine Hayles, Anne Burdick, Sean Donahue and Peter Lunenfeld. It claims to “[rethink] the scholarly apparatus” of the book by providing “alternative mappings of the book’s conceptual terrain in a manner specific to the web with additional functionalities unavailable in print”. But does it? And is it in fact remediation - i.e., the passage of one medium through another? “The re-presentation in one medium of material that has already been represented in another, e.g. CNN on the Web” - in the words of the Web Supplement LEXICON?

The Supplement is divided into sections. First there’s the LEXICON, a collection of key concepts from the printed book. By clicking on highlighted words the user is provided with the page number and a definition for each entry. It is cleverly constructed, the user finds himself playing with the interface, involving herself in its opaque materiality, engaging the technology but ultimately accessing information more easily through the plain text option. This part could have been even more easily published as two alphabetically listed pages in the print book. Glaringly absent were definitions of materiality, instantiation, and embodiment.

Secondly, The NOTES: the entire set are presented simultaneously along with associated blocks of text. Arrow-shaped handles open each note into a box. This could have been a useful feature but only a portion of the whole printed text shows up and I found jumping from book to computer screen just as troublesome as consulting end-notes to printed chapters. Is one to suppose that, if the full text was available, there would be no book to sell?

So what is this Notes section for,if it still requires reference to the printed book? What it actually demonstrates, contrary to the authors’ claims, is that electronic technology, had it been free to access the entire text, would have made the task of referencing easier. In a project that wishes to promote the material robustness of the book, surely the demonstrated potential of this referencing function suggests the opposite: namely, the superiority of the digital medium for this project.

The BIBLIOGRAPHY - the third part of the Supplement - might be more correctly called a ‘thematography,’ not only because it contains more than books, but also because it can be accessed according to filtered content grouped into themes, just as the INDEX - the fourth element - allows the user both to search by keyword and to browse the book’s content sorted by distinctions such as “behaviors”, “knowledge practices,” or “literary criticism in print.” There are no alphabetical listings by author or by subject matter, in either the Index or the book. I found this section difficult to navigate. It would have been advantageous to include both methods, alphabetic and thematic, in the Web Supplement.

The fifth part, SOURCE MATERIAL, re-creates pages referrenced in the text; it allows users to open and view reproductions of the original sources in full colour, at actual size, which is very useful when compared to the small black and white images in print. A sixth section, ERRATA, allows the user to view and print revised replacement pages.

In the absence of the whole printed text, the Web Supplement is not a remediation but rather a glimpse of what a remediated text might look like on the Web. By neglecting to include the full text of the book itself, the authors inadvertantly make the argument that the digital medium may in fact be a more efficient medium for this particular project’s materiality. The book’s exclusion from the Web site implicitly argues against Hayles’ MSA as well, as does the existence of information referred to in the book but available only in the Web Supplement. Missing devices such as alphabetical indexes that are standard print navigational tools, underline the fact that something is missing or lacking from the print book. To make the book whole both parts, print and digital, must exist. What then is the materiality of the whole? If the text had been included in the Web Supplement, it would have indeed been the remediation of Hayles’ print book. But then Hayles’ Media Specific Analysis would have been disproved, because nothing would have been added or subtracted from the print text experience of reading. Equally, if the LEXICON (Glossary), NOTES, BIBLIOGRAPHY, and INDEX had been included in the print product, the end-user would have been able to interpret the text similarly in two different media. How then can it be said that each physical materiality adds to the meaning-making function of the text?

but wait…the steak-knives!

One further feature at the MIT MEDIAWORK site, the Web Supplement titled The Hollowbound Book, presents an interactive, digital reading of Hayles’ book by yet another contributing author, Eric Loyer, adding yet another element to the Writing Machines project. Introducing his piece, Loyer notes that from the first moment, when an end-user chooses connection speed, implicitly they have agreed to proceed, they have become engaged:

The screen fills with a graphical representation of a book binding which creates four areas of text centred around the spine, the piano music begins softly and you begin to read the four blocks of text, the music becomes more complex, but still driving.

The initial text is Loyer’s poetry inspired by Hayles’ theories:

There is a book that has
left its past,
right its future.

To which book does Loyer refer? To all books. For books are no longer what they were in the past. Who is to know whether the book’s future will be right, or if there is a right, or if this is just an opposition for poetic purposes? The other stanzas/textblocks seem to lament the change, which indicates that a damage has been done,

On the way there
the hollow has been bruised,

or at least a reconfiguration. Books written by machines operate on the opposition of one or zero, true or false, on or off. Taking the narrative position of a non-visible narrator, the “hollow” of the spine of the book, the invisible entity is what holds the book together, and all the thoughts and arguments therein contained, unacknowledged in the past. Loyer divides the book into oppositions, past/future, print/digital, left/right. The hollow, material but invisible, is Loyer’s metaphor for Hayles’ book.

The mouse and movement within this screen affects the three glowing white balls attached to each other with bars, the middle ball rising up the screen as the mouse moves up the screen. The user plays with the bounciness of the other two balls, bouncing up and down in response to the central ball. In the next screen the balls change colour and numbered text appears attached at the position of each ball, the central ball remains glowing white and uses a quotation from Hayles firstly about the operation of universities and the left and right ball divide into structure and people. Moving through the four central statements and their right and left oppositions we get an idea of the restrictive and prejudiced nature of universities and literature in general. The user is forced to arrive at Loyer’s interpretation of the aim of Hayles’ Writing Machines. That is, to see what the book may look like in this post-digital era. The hollow continues to speak, trying to bind these different concepts which now appear as single words orbiting the left and right balls, coming together as one sphere as the user ascends the screen with the mouse. The coming together attempting to symbolize the development of a single language to speak of the effect of digital culture on book culture.

The next screen is three overlapping textblocks sampled from the book on the topic of print-centric literary culture; comments on a new media artwork by Talan Memmot; and the third which always sat above the other textblocks as a transparent layer that stated Hayles’ agenda of understanding technology from a literary point of view, addressing the materiality of each medium. This is a very clever metaphor as well as a feature of the digital devices which allude to the interconnectivity of texts and the user’s active role in unravelling them, a device used previously by digital poets Deena Larsen, John Cayley, Jim Rosenberg, and others, but still effective. Loyer concludes with the ‘hollow’ of the book now finding the space to inhabit, celebrating its non-invisibility, its recognition of its materiality, yet we are left wondering if Loyer is not still wary of the way ahead.

If this book, Writing Machines, addresses a literary audience of book readers and wants them to appreciate the importance of the materiality of a literary work, and that engaging with the new technology has led to this realisation, then why was Eric Loyer asked to create this WebTake? And if the WebTake distils the book, why was the book written and published and not just authored directly for the web? But the WebTake is not the book. The WebTake is Loyer’s interpretation of the book, or certain arguments from the book, and his writing of it in a digital medium; it is his interpretation of Hayles’ text; not remediation but re-writing. So the WebTake is not the book but must be considered as part of the book, and so too the Web Supplement referred to in the book, at http://mitpress.mit.edu/mediawork. The materiality of the book then is not just print and paper and spine and binding but includes the visible design elements and a digital materiality; the website. That would make her own multimedia book unable to be analysed by Hayles’ definition of Media Specific Analysis. From this it must be assumed that there are some works, whilst satisfying the criteria of technotexts, are not able to be analysed by MSA.

Media-Specific Analysis: a mode of critical inquiry attentive to the specificity of the medium in which a work is instantiated. (LEXICON, Web Supplement)

Hayles says “I do not mean to advocate that media should be considered in isolation from one another” (30), yet such isolated consideration turns out to be the logical conclusion of her theory.

The print book, its text and design and the Web supplement and the WebTake, are aiming to address a wider audience than the book culture audience. It is doubtful whether Hayles’, Burdick’s, Lunenfeld’s, Donahue’s, Loyer’s work of mixed materiality belongs to book culture, or if the works she analyses do either. Hayles admits that the three technotexts she analyses could also be classified as hypertexts. But Hayles’ ‘technotext’ cannot be considered as synonymous with hypertext, as the main criteria of her technotexts are texts that actively fore-ground their materiality and enter into a dialogue with that materiality. The materiality of the relatively new electronic textuality and its interfaces may be uncharacteristically fore-grounded to new users of the technology, but familiarity soon makes these interfaces transparent also. And in no way can all printed texts be considered technotexts because as she herself notes, “by and large literary critics have been content to see literature as immaterial verbal constructions” (19), content to pay little attention to the materiality of the artefact. And there are very many literary works, digital and in print, that deliberately do not fore-ground their materiality nor attempt to interrogate it in their content. As a cyberpoet, the work in digital format that most excites me is the work that allows the user to become oblivious to the time-space of the materiality of sitting at a computer, reading a screen, or the software used to construct it. Like much print poetry, one gets involved in the work in a time-space outside of time as duration in which its materiality exists, the reader becomes unaware of turning pages, the cover of the book, the chair they are sitting in or the people and things around them. Although the project may aim to address a wide audience and to develop a more encompassing language, her defining of technotext creates a narrower field than print or digital texts, a category of texts that exploit their materiality as part of their semiosis.

Hayles rejects the notion of Cybertext and Ergodic literature which in 1997 Espen Aarseth introduced to the field of cyber theory as having no consideration for the materiality of the inscription technologies that produce them. But the reason Aarseth proposed the cybertext theory is precisely to develop a language and framework in which to discuss works produced in different media with differing material qualities;

Materiality emerges from the dynamic interplay between the richness of a physically robust world and human intelligence as it crafts this physicality to create meaning. (Writing Machines 33)

The agenda of tying body and mind has been prominent in Hayles’ writing for many years, and even before How We Became Posthuman, she was defending materiality;

One belief from the present likely to stupefy future generations is the postmodern orthodoxy that the body is primarily, if not entirely, a linguistic and discursive construction. (“The Materiality of Informatics,” Configurations, 1992)

In a past persona, ‘komninos the professional spoken word performance poet,’ I was fully aware of the prejudice that exists within the academy which privileges print poetry over all other material actualisations. One way of countering such privilege, I’ve found, is to see poetry as an idea - immaterial, and virtual in the Deleuzian sense, a problematic with many attempted solutions, many potential actualisations in many different media. For knowledge may be grounded in the material, as Hayles implies, but ideas are found in the immaterial search for knowledge.

questions looking for the right problem

The Idea is not the element of knowledge but that of an infinite ‘learning’, which is of a different nature to knowledge. (Giles Deleuze, Repetition and Difference, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994 [First Published in French, 1968]: 192)

Deleuze introduces the concepts of the virtual, the real, the actual, and the possible in Repetition and Difference:

The only danger to all this is that the virtual could be confused with the possible. The possible is opposed to the real; the process undergone by the possible is therefore ‘realisation.’ By contrast, the virtual is not opposed to the real; it possesses a full reality itself. The process it undergoes is that of actualisation. (Difference and Repetition, 211)

If one considers the idea of poetry and regards the virtual as something problematic, an immaterial idea, something that gives rise to questions, then its actualisations, its attempts to solve the problematic, have material form. This materialization is represented by real poetry in real books for real readers, or real performances of real poems to real audiences, or real content on real screens/interfaces on real networks and real computers and with the possibility of further real actualisations. These actualisations of the virtual, irrespective of medium, may or may not be material or experienced in a material way. Yet something allows the user to think that all of these actualisations are poetry, some immaterial quality that is contained in, or produced by, all the actualisations that cause readers/listeners/users to think of them in this way. This is the crux of the virtual problematic: Poetry encompasses all the past actualisations, all their realisations and all possible realisations, as well as all future poetic actualisations. This is not to say there is an ‘essence of poetry’ or that the problematic can be simply stated as the question, ‘what is poetry?’ On the contrary, the field becomes defined by the multiplicity of questions as to why certain aspects are important at certain times in certain spaces, and how these aspects change. New actualisations as affected by the introduction of new technologies, new theories create excitement and interest and force again the consideration of the problematic, the rethinking of previous actualisations.

…electronic textuality is bursting on the scene, it seems we have a magnificent opportunity to think again about the specificities of both print and electronic media, which can illuminate one another by contrast. (Hayles in Gitelman)

Hayles is an astute observer and her observations and explorations have generated many new questions. She has not been afraid to offer solutions, as active discussion via the ebr have shown. There are many people, practitioners and critics finding questions in search, not of answers, but ideas domains in which to operate. What Hayles does, and many others do, is to set up false oppositions between the new actualistions and the actualisations that preceeded them. Associating the right questions with the wrong ideas domain produces a comparison of two different actualisations of the same virtual. She has seen the real products, material actualisations of the virtual of poetry or literature in electronic environments, but she fails to acknowledge that the virtual only exists because it is not entirely material. She experiences hypertext and raises the questions such work evokes, and then she attempts to explain that experience using literary theories of the past print culture. It may be true that hypertext asks some of the same questions as literary theory, particularly those questions associated with postmodernism. But the idea of print and the idea of electronic textuality and the idea of spoken word performance all have their own problems to address. These problems may be expressed as questions, but they are all part of the problem and ideas domain of literary work. They present as solutions to the problematic, the virtual of the literary work, but in turn generate their own set of questions. What may appear as a development from one material form to another may in fact be just two different solutions to the same problem, two different actualisations of the same virtual. My impression is that Katherine Hayles does not want to understand the virtual but continues to defend the material, via the material she knows best, the book.

Whilst Hayles has contributed to the ideas domains of cybernetics, science, book culture, and cyber culture, she now claims quite firmly to be speaking from within the ideas domain of book culture. To position herself in one ideas domain and try to answer the questions of other domains is an impossible task, like trying to describe the outside of a prison when you’ve only ever been inside a cell.

Deleuze points out that an actualisation can only be compared to the virtual it comes from; that is, print literature cannot be properly compared to electronic literature or spoken word literature, or any other actualisations of literary work, or the comparison will be of differences in degree rather than kind, and as philosophers know distinctions based on gradations of degree produce false theses and confusions.

I believe the book fails in its aim of developing a set of critical practices responsive to the full spectrum of signifying components in print and electronic texts but establishes a niche of specialised technotexts which respond to a media specific analysis. Largely ignored are the important issues of whether this work can be analysed since it is itself a collection of different material components; the question of multiple authorship; and the fate of works that wish to back-ground or make the technology transparent. This book may indeed bring more of book culture into contact with electronic texts, even acknowledging their impact on print texts; it can, as it were, lead the horse to water. But as Paul De Man said, “the greatest resistance to resistance is resistance itself”.

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days. (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)

The Hayles/Burdick collaboration is also reviewed in ebr by Raine Koskimaa. - ed.