- Enduring Words: Literary Narrative in a Changing Media Ecology
“Media determine our situation,” or so proclaimed Friedrich Kittler with characteristic sweep and pugnacity in the opening sentences of his seminal Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1987), a study that moved Foucauldian discourse analysis out of the Gutenberg Galaxy and into more distant McLuhanian orbits (xxxiv). The media determinism Kittler presented in that [End Page 402] book revised familiar poststructuralist claims about how human subjects are produced by their putative tools by re-figuring such tools as a variegated media landscape rather than (as Lacan or Foucault would have it) as a primarily linguistic field. Our machines, to invert the traditional view, make us, and language is but one of these machines. Michael Wutz has done as much as any American scholar to extend and popularize aspects of Kittler’s mediatheoretical inquiry, co-translating Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (with Geoffrey Winthrop-Young) and co-editing (with Joseph Tabbi) the significant Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology (1997). With the publication of Enduring Words, it seems to me, Wutz adroitly domesticates the Kittlerian insistence on a more comprehensive examination of media in at least three senses. First, Wutz brings this thoroughly European theory of mediality to bear in close readings of the work of largely American novelists—Frank Norris, E.L. Doctorow, and Richard Powers—with cosmopolitan Malcolm Lowry as the sole exception. More importantly, although interested in the power of media to shape the human sensorium, Wutz departs explicitly from Kittler’s feral antihumanism, eschewing any “technological determinism” that imputes agency to media “while reducing humans to supplementary actants” (6). Finally, Wutz domesticates media theory, as his title suggests, by seeking to study the persistence of good old literary narrative even as literature has been marginalized and mutated by new media.
Lest my biological metaphor of domestication mislead, I should stress that Wutz’s supple blending of matters corporeal and technological is, very often, genuinely electric. In particular, the first half of the study and the two chapters on Doctorow crackle with analytic verve, linking nodes of technological and media history, skilled close reading, biographical insight, and provocative theoretical speculation. Wutz’s introduction situates his effort suitably well within the bevy of recent studies—Danius’ The Sense of Modernism (2002), Johnson’s Information Multiplicity (1998), Tabbi’s Cognitive Fictions (2002), and Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman (1999)—while forcefully pointing up its most distinctive feature, that is, its sanguine assessment of the “death of the novel” in the face of new technology. Wutz dismisses the numerous death certificates issued to literary fiction, some of which, like those of the Italian futurists, have themselves yellowed with age. He points out correctly that literary narrative has not staggered off into true obsolescence in our present moment of mass digitalization, any more than it did with the advent of film. Rather, even as it has been forced to the peripheries of mainstream culture, literary narrative has simultaneously registered the shifts in everyday consciousness produced by new media and sought out amended self-definitions and novel articulations of its own media specificity.
With clarity and a substantive mastery of historical context, the chapters on Norris chart the tension between his lingering romantic conceptualization of literary authorship and his pronounced interest in the changing media ecology of his era—the advent of journalism, photography, and the “kinetescope.” Norris associates the former, in logocentric fashion, with [End Page 403] hands, handwriting, and manual labor, figures that knit together privileged notions masculinity, agency, and organicism. But such a logos is profoundly threatened by the shift from handwritten drafts to feminized typewriting (performed by female secretaries), which nonetheless corresponds with Norris’ fascination with the mechanistic and his endorsement of a naturalistic view of character from which all agency is expunged. Wutz brilliantly reads the resultant ambivalence, first, through the many instances of mangled hands in Norris’ work, and second, through a deconstructive reading of The Pit (1972). If Norris’ discordant view of authorship and mechanization in some sense typifies tensions within early twentieth-century mediality, then...