Notes for N. Katherine Hayles Writing Machines
Key concepts: .
Related theorists: .
(5-6) These robust interactions between
media suggest a different take on the relationship between
representation and simulation than that famously proposed by Jean
Baudrillard more than two decades ago. . . . the cycling back and
forth between representation and simulation in the SIGGRAPH Shrek
suggests that we are not so much racing toward a final implosion as
participating in an ecology in which one medium is remediated in
another, only to be remediated in turn.
(6) If representation is an increasingly problematic concept, materiality offers a robust conceptual framework in which to talk about both representation and simulation as well as the constraints and enablings they entail.
(6) The different media in which these works are instantiated provide the occasion for Media-Specific Analysis, a mode of critique interrogation alert to the ways in which the medium constructs the work and the work constructs the medium.
Media and Materiality
(9) While no one person working alone can swing that small universe one way or another, individuals matter in determining its trajectory, and networks of people matter even more.
Material Metaphors, Technotexts, and Media-Specific Analysis
(19) within the humanities and especially in literary studies, there
has traditionally been a sharp line between representation and the
technologies producing them.
(19) As the vibrant new field of electronic textuality flexes its muscle, it is becoming overwhelmingly clear that we can no longer afford to ignore the material basis of literary production.
(20) The respected critic, W. J. T. Mitchell, has forcefully made this point, urging that we think not only about words but what he calls the textimage, words and images together. . . . This print-centric view fails to account for all the other signifying components of electronic texts, including sound, animation, motion, video, kinesthetic involvement, and software functionality, among others. Moreover, it does not do justice even to print books, as the vibrant traditional of artists' books testifies with the innovative use of cutouts, textures, colors, movable parts, and page order, to name only a few.
Traditionally metaphor has been defined as a verbal figure. Derived
from a root meaning bearing across, it denotes the transfer of sense
associated with one word to another. . . . I propose material
a term that foregrounds the traffic between words and physical
(23-24) To change the material artifact is to transform the context and circumstances for interacting with the words, which inevitably changes the meanings of the words as well. This transformation of meaning is especially potent when the words reflexively interact with the inscription technologies that produce them.
Computer as inscription technology as long as it instantiates material changes that can be read as marks.
(24) The computer also counts as an inscription technology, because it changes electric polarities and correlates these changes with binary code, higher-level languages such as C++ and Java, and the phosphor gleams of the cathode ray tube. To count as an inscription technology, a device must initiate material changes that can be read as marks.
Technotexts interrogate inscription technology.
When a literary work interrogates the inscription technology that
produces it, it mobilizes reflexive loops between its imaginative
world and the material apparatus embodying that creation as a
physical presence. . . . the
physical form of the literary artifact always affects what the words
(and other semiotic components) mean.
Literary works that strengthen, foreground, and thematize the
connections between themselves as material artifacts and the
imaginative realm of verbal/semiotic signifiers they instantiate open
a window on the larger connections that unite literature as a verbal
art to its material forms. To name such works, I propose
“technotexts,” a term that connects the technology that produces
texts to the texts' verbal constructions. Technotexts
play a special role in transforming literary criticism into a
material practice, for they make vividly clear that the issue at
stake is nothing less than a full-bodied understanding of
(26) Hypertext has at a minimum the three characteristics of MULTIPLE READING PATHS, CHUNKED TEXT, and some kind of LINKING MECHANISM to connect the chunks.
(27) As hypertext theory developed during the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, theorists such as George Landow, Jay Bolter, Michael Joyce, and others emphasized the importance of the link, which tended to loom larger than hypertext's other characteristics.
(27) A new breed of SECOND-GENERATION ELECTRONIC LITERATURE began to appear that looked very different from its predecessors, experimenting with ways to incorporate narrative with sound, motion, animation, and other software functionalities. Riding on the crest of these developments, Espen Aarseth's pioneering Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature argued for a perspective fundamentally computational in nature.
Distinguish hypertext and and cybertext from technotext.
(28) These developments have invested hypertext and cybertext with connotations that make them useful relatives to technotext but also significantly different from what I have in mind when I use that term. Hypertext connotes an emphasis on links. . . . Cybertext connotes a functional and semiotic approach that emphasizes a computational perspective .. an emphasis on computer games as paradigmatic examples of ERGODIC texts, which Aarseth defines as those literary systems that require “nontrivial effort” to allow the user to traverse them. . . . Neither term pays particular attention to interactions between the materiality of inscription technologies and the inscriptions they produce.
(29) Complementing the foundational concepts of material metaphors, inscription technologies and technotexts is a kind of criticism that pays attention to the material apparatus producing the literary work as physical artifact.
Full-bodied understanding of literature with more precise vocabulary.
(30-31) MSA moves from the language of text to a more precise vocabulary of screen and page, digital program and analogue interface, code and ink, mutable image and durable mark, computer and book.
Do not restrict hypertext to digital media; can we do this all the way back to ancient Greek literature?
(31) If we restrict the term hypertext to digital media, we lose the
opportunity to understand how a rhetorical form mutates when it is
instantiated in different media. The power of MSA comes from holding
one term constant across media (in this case, technotexts) and
varying the media to explore how medium-specific possibilities and
constraints shape texts.
(32) With significant exceptions, print literature was widely recognized as not having a body, only a speaking mind.
Parts of the Phaedrus explicitly address (as artistic strategies) the materiality of the text as something to carry around, as an object that from which a whole new interpretation can be derive merely by negating, and whose composition displays interesting combinatorial properties such as the Midas epitaph; Symposium is another such text ready for exploration.
(33) Materiality thus emerges from interactions between physical
properties and a work's artistic strategies.
(33) Print books are far too hardy, reliable, long-lived, and versatile to be rendered obsolete by digital media. Rather, digital media have given us an opportunity we have not had for the last several hundred years: the chance to see print with new eyes, and with it, the possibility of understanding how deeply literary theory and criticism have been imbued with assumptions specific to print.
Entering the Electronic Environment
First-generation electronic literature typically maintain unconscious reading assumptions; Jackson Patchwork Girl heralded second generation.
Despite the hoopla, first-generation
works left mostly untouched the unconscious assumptions that readers
of books have absorbed through centuries of print.
(37-38) The text that heralded the transition to second-generation electronic literature for Kaye was Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl. . . . Navigation was envisioned as taking place not only between lexias but between images and words, and more profoundly between the text and the computer producing it.
(40) To distinguish between screen display and underlying code, he [Aarseth] coined the terms SCRIPTON and TEXTON. Here was a perspective and vocabulary that reinterpreted the print book in terms of the computer, rather than shoe-horning electronic texts into categories derived from print.
(41) the work [Califia project] embedded the verbal narrative in a topographic environment in which word was interwoven with world. The world contained the words but much else besides, including layered images, complex navigation functionalities, and simulated documents.
Compare this position to Heim Electric Language.
(43) the literary community could no longer afford to treat text on screen as if it were print read in vertical position. Electronic text had its own specificities, and a deep understanding of them would bring into view by contrast the specificities of print, which could again be seen for what it was, a medium and not a transparent interface.
Electronic Literature as Technotext: Lexia to Perplexia
(48) Computers are much more than hardware and software. In their general form, computers are simulation machines producing environments.
(48-49) the naturalness or artificiality of the environment becomes a variable to be defined by the work, not a pregiven assumption determined by the medium. In Talan Memmott's Lexia to Perplexia, the artificiality of the environment is foregrounded to suggest that subjects are themselves simulations operating according to the dynamics and protocols of the medium through which they are constituted.
(50) He also creates a CREOLE discourse compounded from English and computer code. (A creole, unlike PIDGIN, is not an amalgam but a new language that emerges when to different language communities come into contact.)
(51) the occluded display signifies a trajectory in which we become part of a cybernetic circuit. Interpolated into the circuit, we metamorphose from individual interiorized subjectivities to actors exercising agency within the extended cognitive systems that include non-human actors.
Creole discourse; I have found myself mixing technical acronyms, Backus-Naur Form (BNF), pseudocode as well as using actual program code in my notes to illustrate some point or convey an idea.
To what purpose is this creole concocted? Compounded of language and
code, it forms the medium through which the origin of subjectivity
can be re-described as coextensive with technoogy. Just as these
hybrid articulations do not exist apart from their penetration by
code, so the subject does not exist apart from the technology that
produces the creole describing/creating the techno-subject.
(57) Lexia to Perplexia must be considered not only as text but as a fully multimedia work in which screen design and software functionality are part of its signifying practices.
(58) The action of choosing that first-generation hypertext theory attributed solely to the reader here becomes a distributed function enacted partly by the reader but also partly by the machine.
(61) In a print medium, the durable inscription of ink marks on paper normally requires that only one word be written in one place. The multiple layers embedded within a single screen in Lexia to Perplexia routinely violate this presumption, revealing multiple encodings piled on top of one another on the same screen.
(62) it is not a web site or a CD-ROM – in fact not a product at all – but a series of dynamic processes created when a computer running the appropriate software executes the commands. The work can no more escape its body than its human interlocutors can escape theirs.
New connections between screen and eye, cursor and hand, computer code and natural language; production of human subject dependent upon intelligent machines.
(63) The shift in materiality that Lexia to Perplexia instantiates creates new connections between screen and eye, cursor and hand, computer coding and natural language, space in front of the screen and behind it. Scary and exhilarating, these connections perform human subjects who cannot be thought without the intelligent machines that produce us even as we produce them.
Experiencing Artists' Books
Note that Bush As We May Think is also a canonical text in the Computing and Philosophy group, as is Douglas Englebart.
(75) What [Vannevar] Bush's formulation neglects, she thought, is the feedback loop from materiality to mind. Obviously artifacts spring from thought, but thought also emerges from interactions with artifacts.
A Humument as Technotext: Layered Topographies
(97) In [Tom Phillips'] A Humument, the page is never allowed to disappear by serving only as the portal to an imagined world as it does with realistic fiction. In many ways and on many levels, A Humument insists on its materiality.
Evolutionary or cultural value of random access versus sequential access (scroll example).
(99) Readers are consequently less likely to read the text cover-to-cover than open it at random and mediate over a few pages before skipping elsewhere or closing it for the day. . . . the [codex] book is the original random access device. Contrary to much hype about electronic hypertext, books like A Humument allow the reader considerably more freedom of movement and access than do many electronic fictions.
Embodiments of Material Metaphors
(104) Unlike scientific theory, however, the more predictive power a literary theory seems to have, in which it yields readings that can be known in advance once the theory is specified, the less valuable it becomes.
Interesting point about life cycles of literary theories but beyond the scope of this book.
“Too many critics, too few texts” was the way I expressed this
situation, leading to a dynamic in which the economics require that
old texts must be capable of being read in new ways if literary
scholars are to publish new research. . . . Literary
theories thus have life cycles distinctively different from that of
(106) At the moment, we are near the beginning of a theory of media-specific analysis in literary studies.
(107) Literary texts, like us, have bodies, an actuality necessitating that their materialities and meanings are deeply interwoven into each other.
Inhabiting House of Leaves
(112) As if imitating the computer's omnivorous appetite, [Mark Z. Danielewski's] House of Leaves in a frenzy of remediation attempts to eat all the other media, but this binging leaves traces on the text's body, resulting in a transformed physical and narrative corpus.
(115-116) The MEDIATION PLOT, if I may call it that, proceeds from the narration of the film as a representation of events, to the narration of the film as an artifact in which editing transforms meaning, to the narration of different critical views about the film, to Zampano's narration as he often disagrees with and re-interprets these interpretations, and finally to Johnny's commentary on Zampano's narration. . . . the text enfolds the objects represented together with the media used to represent them, thus making itself into a material metaphor for the recursive complexities of contemporary medial ecology.
(116-117) The UNRELIABLE NARRATOR, a literary invention foregrounding the role of consciousness in constructing reality, has here given way to the REMEDIATED NARRATOR, a literary invention foregrounding a proliferation of inscription technologies that evacuate consciousness as the source of production and recover in its place a mediated subjectivity that cannot be conceived as an independent entity. Consciousness alone is no longer the relevant frame but rather consciousness fused with technologies of inscription.
(119) This incongruity [none of the interpreters could have observed Navidson watching the tape of the kiss], a mediated version of what film-makers call a continuity error, creates an absence at the center of the presence manufactured by multiple layers of interpretation.
(123) Here the back of the page seems to open transparently onto the front, a notion that overruns the boundary between them and constructs the page as a leaky container rather than an unambiguous unit of print.
(124) The dynamic interplay between words, nonverbal marks, and physical properties of gthe page work together to construct the book's materiality so that it functions as a mirror to the mysterious House, reversing, reflecting and inverting its characteristics even as it foregrounds its own role as a container for the fictional universe in which such an impossible object could exist.
(125) I suspect the book has succeeded so wildly in part because it offers multiple paths into its complexities. It can be read on many levels, each offering specific pleasures.
(128) Evacuating the ORIGINARY SUBJECT, House of Leaves situates itself within the postmodern landscape but recovers an intensity of character and narrative through the processes of remediation themselves.
about Shannon information theory; expand this with cyberspace diagram
that involves the human participants as well as the electronic
computing machinery and networks.
(130) In these posthuman days, House of Leaves demonstrates that technologies do not simply inscribe preexisting thoughts. Rather, artifacts such as this book serve as noisy channels of communication in which messages are transformed and enfolded together as they are encoded and decoded, mediated and remediated. House of Leaves implicitly refutes the position Claude Shannon assigns to humans in his famous communication diagram, in which they are positioned outside the channel and labeled “sender” and “receiver.”
House of Leaves communications circuit model for subjectivity over discrete individual.
The implication for studies of technology and literature is that the
materiality of inscription thoroughly interpenetrates the represented
world. Even when technology does not appear as a theme, it is woven
into the fictional world through the processes that produce the
literary work as a material artifact. House
of Leaves provides
a powerful example showing why a fully adequate theory of semiotics
must take into account the materiality of inscription technologies as
well as a material understanding of the signifier. . . . House
of Leaves suggests
appropriate model for subjectivity is a communication circuit rather
than discrete individualism,
for narration remediation rather than representation, and for reading
and writing inscription technology fused with consciousness rather
than a mind conveying its thoughts directly to the reader.
(131) The writing machines that physically create fictional subjects through inscriptions also connect us as readers to the interfaces, print and electronic, that transform us by reconfiguring our interactions with their materialities. Inscribing consequential fictions, writing machines reach through the inscriptions they write and that write them to re-define what it means to write, to read, and to be human.
Designer's Notes (Anne Burdick)
(141) When searching for the right typefaces to identify the two voices that Kate braids into a third, I longed for a working version of Typalette and Font Sculptor, a prototype software project developed by Cynthia Jacquette. Typalette is a type catalog and search tool that allows the user to find fonts based on “look” (contrast, eight, serifs, etc.), “facts” (historical context, type designer, etc.), and - significantly - “feel” (rural, aggressive, precious, and so forth). If a typeface doesn't exist that matches your selected attributes, Font Sculptor will make a custom face that does.
Hayles, N. Katherine. (2002). Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002. Print.