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  • Corporeal Anxiety in Dictionary of the Khazars: What Books Talk about in the Late Age of Print When They Talk about Losing Their Bodies
  • N. Katherine Hayles (bio)

All but a handful of the books produced this year will be digitized during some phase of their existence. In former days, book production took words through forms of inscription that were physically evident and visibly apparent—from manuscript to typescript, typescript to galleys, galleys to book. But now a new phase intervenes in which the words are rendered through binary digits encoded in electromagnetic polarities that, eluding the unaided human eye, seem frighteningly vulnerable to the vagaries of computer maladies, from viruses to system crashes. What difference does it make to books (and it is books I speak of, not texts) that they go from durable inscription surfaces to inaccessible and physically precarious polarities? That, in a manner of speaking, they lose their bodies?

Behind this question looms larger ones: Will the print book, as [End Page 800] Bruce Willis recently proclaimed, go the way of the dinosaur? 1 Will books continue to be displaced by electronic texts, only some of which will be granted bodies when a user decides to download them into print form? Do books care that they are in danger of losing their bodies? This question could be asked of their human owners as well, for some researchers have speculated that it is only a matter of time before human consciousness can be downloaded into computers, whereupon flesh and bone will become as atavistic as paper and ink. 2 The long tradition of representing bodies of print and human bodies in terms of each other now appears to be entering a new phase, when both are understood less as incorporations in physically durable substrates than as flows of information, weightless as sunshine and ethereal as data streams flashing through fiber-optic cables. 3

These developments have catalyzed within some print books what I call corporeal anxiety, a fear that their bodies are in jeopardy from a multitude of threats, especially the dematerialization that comes from being translated into digital code. A case in point is Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, which operates as if it knows it has a physical body imperiled by multifarious threats, from defective printing technologies to editorial brain fade. Most of all, the book fears losing its body to information. It relies on “you,” the reader, to generate books through your passion to read a good story. But this very drive to consume the book turns against it when you are foiled by the frailty of its physical corpus. You run to the bookstore to get a copy of Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler, only to find that it has been defectively bound, preventing you from completing the story. Disgruntled, you hurl the book through a closed window, reducing its body to “photons, undulatory vibrations, polarized spectra” (26). Not content with this pulverization, you throw it through the wall so that the text breaks up into “electrons, neutrons, neutrinos, elementary particles more and more minute” (26). Still disgusted, in an act of ultimate dispersion you send it through a computer line, causing the textual body to be “reduced to electronic impulses, into the flow of information” (26). With the book “shaken by redundancies and noises,” you “let it be degraded into a swirling entropy” (26).

The disruptive power of information technologies reappears when you find yourself entangled with Lotaria, a reader who believes books are best read by scanning them into computers and letting the machine [End Page 801] analyze word frequency patterns. Seduced by Lotaria against your better judgment, you and she get tangled up with rolls of printout covering the floor. The printouts contain the story you desperately want to finish, which Lotaria has entered into the computer. Distracted by her multiple entanglements, Lotaria presses the wrong key and the story is “erased in an instant demagnetization of the circuits. The multicolored wires now grind out the dust of dissolved words: the the, of of of of, from from from from, that that that that, in columns according...

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Print ISSN
pp. 800-820
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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