- Flickering Connectivities in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis
Five hundred years of print have made the conventions of the book transparent to us.1 It takes something like Sol Lewitt’s Squares with the Sides and Corners Torn Off to bring into visibility again the convention of the page.2 The pages display black squares, centered with white margins, that indeed have their corners torn. But the sides appear to be intact—until we realize that the square in question is not the black image but the entire page, cropped during production. For some time now writers and artists working in the medium of artist books have delighted in arranging such jolts of surprise, exploring, transgressing, and exploding the conventions of the book while still retaining enough “bookishness” to make clear they remain within its traditions, even as they redefine and expand what “book” means. Their work reminds us how important it is to engage the specificity of media.
The long reign of print has induced a kind of somnolence in literary and critical studies, a certain inattentiveness to the diverse forms in which “texts” appear. 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 clearly coming into view. Re-reading Roland Barthes’s influential essay “From Work to Text,” I am struck both by its presceince and by how far we have moved beyond it. As Jay David Bolter and George Landow have pointed out, Barthes’s description of “text,” with its dispersion, multiple authorship, and rhizomatic structure, uncannily anticipates electronic hypertext (Bolter, Writing Space; Landow, Hypertext). “The metaphor of the Text is that of the network,” Barthes writes (61). Yet at the same time he can also assert that “the text must not be understood as a computable object,” computable here meaning limited, finite, bound, able to be reckoned (57). Written twenty years before the advent of the microcomputer, his essay stands in the ironic position of anticipating what it cannot anticipate. It calls for a movement away from works to texts, a movement so successful that the word “text” has become ubiquitous in literary discourse, almost completely displacing the more specific term “book.” Yet Barthes’s vision remains rooted in print culture, for he defines the text through its differences from books, not through its similarities with electronic textuality. In urging the use of “text,” Barthes was among those who helped initiate semiotic and performative approaches to discourse. But this shift has entailed loss as well as gain. Useful as poststructuralist approaches have been in enabling textuality to expand beyond the printed page, they have also had the effect of eliding differences in media, treating everything from fashion to fascism as a semiotic system. Perhaps now, after the linguistic turn has yielded so many important insights, it is time to turn again to a careful consideration of what difference the medium makes.
In calling for medium-specific analysis, I do not mean to suggest that media should be considered in isolation from one another. Quite the contrary. As Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin have shown in Remediation, media constantly engage in a recursive dynamic of imitating each other, incorporating aspects of competing media into themselves while simultaneously flaunting the advantages their own forms of mediation offer. Voyager’s now-defunct line of “Expanded Books,” for example, went to the extreme of offering readers an option that made the page as it was imaged on screen appear dog-eared. Another function inserted a paper clip at the top of the screenic page, which itself was programmed to look as much as possible like print. On the other side of the screen, many print texts are now imitating electronic hypertexts. These range from DeLillo’s Underworld to Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation, which self-consciously pushes the book form toward hypertext through arrows that serve as visual indications of hypertextual links. Media-specific analysis attends both to the specificity of the form—the fact that the Voyager paper clip is an image rather than a piece of bent metal—and...