Writing Machines (review)
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Reviewed by
N. Katherine Hayles. Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT P, 2002. 144 pp.

What readers will notice first about Katherine Hayles's award-winning Writing Machines are the material properties of the book itself. Part of the MIT Mediawork series, which features pamphlet-like books with a marked visual component and predetermined constraints (notably length and the inclusion of an autobiographical element), Writing Machines is the result of a striking collaboration between Hayles and designer Anne Burdick. On the one hand, the book exploits the resources of print—an interplay between the visual and the textual is achieved by the literal incorporation, rather than mere quotation, of elements of her central texts: Talan Memmott's highly regarded digital work, Lexia to Perplexia; Tom Phillips's A Humument, an artists' book; and Mark Danielewski's cult classic, House of Leaves. On the other hand, the very book calls into question the entity of the book in that its intricate web supplement, which includes source material, notes, errata, a lexicon linkmap, and datasets for the index and bibliography, brilliantly demonstrates the remediation thesis. Indeed, it is impossible to engage Writing Machines without performing a media-specific analysis, which Hayles articulates as an accounting for the physical embodiment of the text and its relation to the content.

A central term in the book is materiality, by which Hayles means not simply physical properties, but also the interaction between those properties and the signifying elements of the text. For a work such as Memmott's, or for Adriana de Souza e Silva and Fabian Winkler's database project (another of Hayles's examples), "materiality" would suggest the actions of the computer and the feedback loops between writer/programmer, reader/user, apparatus, and work. Theories of [End Page 528] complexity and emergence constitute part of the frame of reference for Hayles on this point, but the concept also builds upon Espen Aarseth's articulation of ergodic literature, texts that require significant bodily labor from the reader in order to bring them into being. In this respect, Writing Machines retroactively establishes a genealogy for electronic literature that begins with hypertext (Michael Joyce, the Eastgate library, and M. D. Coverley's Califia), moves to cybertext (Aarseth), and culminates in the "technotext," Hayles's term for literary works that self-reflexively engage with their own inscription technologies and integrate semiotic elements such as kineticism and navigational structures. The use of the autobiographical persona Kaye is intriguing on this score: Hayles performs herself as a remediated narrator, not only in that her consciousness is imbricated with the media that represents her, but also in that her development as a scholar and moments of illumination are inextricably linked to the development of a critical practice of digital textuality. Hayles is thus central to the movement among digital scholars to instantiate the materiality of new media writing over and against the charge that it is ephemeral and limited to the dimensions of the screen.

In addition, Writing Machines is partly situated as a corrective to what Hayles sees as literary studies' failure to account for technologies of inscription, its general tendency to treat language and content as if they were separable from their technological substrate. To push further in the direction of a new semiotics for literary artifacts, I might note that the WebTake for the book notably includes sound (in the form of a "talking book"), a signifying element not addressed in Hayles's account of the material properties that comprise a textual object, but one that a media-specific analysis will certainly have to come to engage.

Rita Raley
University of California, Santa Barbara