- Materiality is the Message
The first thing I noticed about N. Katherine Hayles’s Writing Machines was its design: its slimness (138 pages) and its texture. The pages are printed on the heavy, glossy paper typical of fashion magazines or catalogues, and the book’s cover is slightly corrugated, so that in running one’s fingers vertically down the front it feels smooth, but in moving horizontally one gets the sensation of tiny ridges. Inside, its slick black-and-white pages—with their variety of font styles, cut-and-pasted text samples, and handsome illustrations—contribute to the book’s visual appeal.
That Writing Machines is a lovely book to hold, and to behold, is no accident, for it is a book about books: specifically, it is a book that inquires about the material aspect of books in a digital age. Peter Lunenfeld, editorial director of the MIT Mediaworks Pamphlet series, characterizes the volume as a “theoretical fetish object” with “visual and tactile” as well as intellectual appeal, and media designer Anne Burdick, who collaborated with Hayles on the project from the early stages of its development, has accomplished nothing less than a reinvention of the codex as a textual interface.
Burdick also designed the text’s website—a virtual space where the interrogation of the concept “book” continues (< http://mitpress.mit.edu/e-books/mediawork>). Indices, notes, bibliographies—these we usually consider to be important parts of the academic monograph, but in Writing Machines these elements have been displaced to the website, along with navigable entries for errata, source material, and a very useful “lexicon linkmap,” which offers succinct definitions of key terms. The site has the appearance of an open book with sticky notes marking its various sections, and it thus embodies the theme of remediation, which is a recurring motif in the texts that Hayles discusses.
Hayles is Professor of English and Design | Media Arts at UCLA, but she holds a graduate degree in chemistry from Caltech and has for two decades written persuasively on the intersections between chaos, computer science, informatics, and literature, which is to say, the emerging field of posthumanism. Indeed, her previous book, How We Became Posthuman (U of Chicago P, 1999), defines that very field. Here she once again proves herself an unapologetic champion of embodiment at a time when many people are enamored of the idea that the essence of life is an abstract code, or that the human body is a prosthesis that can be configured seamlessly into/with machines. As Hayles writes,
a critical practice that ignores materiality, or that reduces it to a narrow range of engagements, cuts itself off from the exuberant possibilities of all the unpredictable things that happen when we as embodied creatures interact with the rich physicality of the world. Literature was never only words, never merely immaterial verbal constructions. Literary texts, like us, have bodies, an actuality necessitating that their materialities and meanings are deeply interwoven into each other.(107)
Readers of How We Became Posthuman will recognize Writing Machines as a logical extension of issues addressed in the earlier book.
The question that prompts Writing Machines is in fact a simple one: why don’t we hear more about materiality? Hayles complains that only in a few of the less glamorous, more specialized academic fields, such as bibliography or textual studies, does materiality merit much attention. Even cultural studies might do better. For Hayles the digital revolution is not so much about the triumph of computers over books, but a chance to rouse literary studies from the “somnolence” induced by “500 years of the dominance of print.” She therefore raises the call for more media-specific analyses. Two key terms involved in such a project would be “material metaphor” and “technotext.” The former term signifies the “traffic between words and physical artifacts,” while the latter denotes the literary work that “interrogates the inscription technology that produces it.” Computers, which process symbols according to programs that embody sets of instructions, are obviously material metaphors, but so are books, Hayles reminds us, and their interfaces can be every...