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restricted access Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation
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322 Leonardo Reviews production both in the illustrations used and in the general elegance of the book itself. It would grace the grandest of coffee tables and provide the basis for interesting debates. Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation by Dennis Tenen. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2017. 280 pp. Trade, paper. ISBN: 9781503601802; ISBN: 978-1503602281. Reviewed by Jan Baetens. doi:10.1162/LEON_r_01627 This book is not just about opening the black box of digital reading and writing, the devices and programs we use to do so, or the digital turn of our culture. Written by an English and comparative literature professor who is also a trained engineer and a migrant, having moved from post-Soviet Russia to the “global” Northwest, Plain Text is a vibrant call to rethink the two-culture debate in broad cultural and political terms. The methodological and theoretical framework that is used here to achieve such a mutual rethinking— and enrichment—of technology and humanism is twofold. First of all, Tenen’s approach can be roughly situated in the field of media archeology —and like the best representatives of this discipline, Plain Text is a truly interdisciplinary work, which does not refrain from addressing either highly detailed technical discussions or big philosophical issues that enable the author to revisit some key thinkers of (Western) philosophy such as Plato, Bacon and Heidegger, among many others. Second, Plain Text also assumes in a very radical manner the intellectual and critical heritage of two “displaced” thinkers, namely Vilém Flusser and Viktor Shklovsky, whose life and work are seen by Tenen as an illustration of the advantages of looking at things through the eyes of the outsider and trying to do so in ways that make them new, that is, strange (the central concept of Shklovsky, one of the major theoreticians of Russian Formalism, is “defamiliarization ,” while Flusser’s often idiosyncratic interpretation of the history of the image does reflect his position of “third-culture” thinker). The starting point of Plain Text is however not a theoretical or philosophical one. It is instead the existential as well as political fear that our current use of technology, which Tenen describes as passive and uncritical, has serious consequences for fundamental human values such as freedom, communication, solidarity —in short the building of a deeply open and shared human community we call culture. Following Flusser and Shklovsky, Tenen observes that our interaction with technological devices is defined by attitudes of comfort, habituation and security. In order to use technology in an easy way, we have to stop worrying about it—and this is what Tenen claims we all do. The final result is a sharp decline of meaning, what Tenen calls “asemiosis ”: we no longer understand what we are doing, and in most cases we simply no longer ask questions, a state of mind the author compares to a complete surrender to Baudrillard’s hyperreality (a state of mind in which we are no longer interested in the “object” the “sign” is supposed to refer to in traditional semiotics). Yet this asemiosis is exactly what those who control technological systems want us to do— provided of course it is still possible to identify in these traditional terms the “owner” of technology. However, the fact that it is not always easy to discover who owns technology certainly does not mean that technology is owned by its user. One of the basic political claims of this book is that the user may gain much by abandoning her possible “estrangement” in technological matters, but that this gain, which is mainly a gain in comfort, comes with a terrible loss, for if users no longer have any interest in—and thus no longer any possible knowledge of—technology, they fall prey to the rules and interests of the techniques and devices that rule their lives (e-books, for instance, may seem easy to purchase, but actually they are not really purchases; what the reader buys is no longer a text she can share but a license to access certain information under certain conditions, which nobody actually knows, and which may change without any notice). This claim of a crucial loss is made by...


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