- Materiality and the Digital Future of Inscription1
In his 1981 essay "Hypogram and Inscription," Paul de Man sets out to unravel certain claims and assumptions of formalist poetics through a reading of the prosopopeiac poem by Victor Hugo, "Written on the Pane of a Flemish window" (1837). Where formalist critics such as Michel Riffaterre vaunted this poem's figurative, descriptive powers, de Man delves into the hidden import of Hugo's epigraph-title: Écrit sur la vitre d'une fenêtre flamande. Although this poem's lyric pyrotechnics create quite a phantasmatic impression on the reader, de Man stresses that the only real, textual event of this poem is its title that draws attention to the material substrate (alphabet etched in glass) necessary for any writing. De Man gestures toward writing's otherwise transparent medium, the "unseen crystal" across which and into which its code is written. Lyric promises of lively, absorptive interfaces with readerly phenomenality are systematically dismantled by de Man as hallucinations that wither and disintegrate while material inscription's implacable logic inorganically proliferates. Dismembering these lyrical operations, de Man performs an "undoing of the phenomenality of language" that equally entails "the undoing of cognition and its replacement by the uncontrollable power of the letter as inscription" (1986, 37). As Jonathan Culler has noted of de Man's larger program to deconstruct aesthetics, this "formal materialism of the letter" or "prosaic materiality of inscription, is the letter considered nonteleologically…not as sign but as blank or mark of whose significance one cannot be assured" (2007, 95). I propose that this nonassured, nonteleological mark or theory of inscription in de Man's criticism links in a subterranean way with those "systems of formalization and notation rigorous enough to be patterned on the model of mathematical language" that he finds at the [End Page 461] heart of writers like Baudelaire and von Kleist (1984, 265).2 While "[n]umber is omnipresent" for de Man, it is also "always already conceptualized in words, in language," and thus shares in the uncanny and disarticulated fate of the figural (267). De Man deconstructs the poetic cult of tropes to lay bare "machinelike, mechanical predictability. They animate the forms like the crank turned by an organ-grinder" (288). But while de Man portrays tropes through metaphors of mechanical devices, to what figural matrix do today's digital machines belong? What links can be drawn between number, device, and the materiality of inscription today? To rethink the ambiguous, blank mark of writing's "material" quantum in de Man's work, we might transform his Yeats-inflected analysis of von Kleist's machinic marionette theater: "how can we tell the dancer from the dance?"3 Instead we may now ask: "how can we tell the medium from the inscription?"
As the age of electronic transmission and storage of data accelerates profound technological changes throughout the material substratum, technics, and economy of "inscriptions," the category of inscription to which de Man refers (letters etched into glass, ink deposited on paper) finds itself fundamentally, perhaps irreversibly displaced. What does this difference in (technical, infrastructural, social) practice make in theory? The difference in how differences are made from the print-world to the digital—i.e., how marks of enchained signifiers are created—must be considered. It constitutes a shift from marks that affect matter's perceptible shape and form to an electromagnetic array of machine-states where memory or inscription entails shifting the electronic potentials or the energy of matter itself. Materialistically speaking, in this age, writing's matter is charged, not carved—it stores without being scored.
Both Hugo and de Man are addressing us from what we might call the Newtonian universe of inscription—where mechanism, not magnetism, holds sway. Yet this Newtonian print-universe has been significantly superseded by the quantum calculus of electrical charges and logic gates. De Man's theory of material "inscriptions" does not conveniently map onto planet-wide networks of digital inscription that stream, capture, and modulate information as traffic in electrons. The deeply incommensurate nature of these two worlds, un-cognize-able in any comparison, recalls the dissonant trope of parabasis discussed by de Man in...