rr02 posted 8 January 2004

…continuing on in media res with the theme of materiality in digital media scholarship…

I am including below a paragraph from my review of Katherine Hayles’s Writing Machines (forthcoming in Modern Fiction Studies), not for purposes of reproduction in our dialogue, but to pose another question: how might we continue to contribute to the project to articulate a new semiotics for the digital text that would also account for materiality? What is lacking, in your view, in the current critical discourse? More important, how would your conception of materiality differ from Hayles's?

“A central term in the book is materiality, by which Hayles means not simply physical properties, but also the interaction between those properties and the signifying elements of the text. For a work such as Memmott’s, or for Adriana de Souza e Silva and Fabian Winkler’s database project (another of Hayles’s examples), “materiality” would suggest the actions of the computer and the feedback loops between writer/programmer, reader/user, apparatus, and work. Theories of complexity and emergence constitute part of the frame of reference for Hayles on this point, but the concept also builds upon Espen Aarseth’s articulation of ergodic literature, texts that require significant bodily labor from the reader in order to bring them into being. In this respect, Writing Machines retroactively establishes a genealogy for electronic literature that begins with hypertext (Michael Joyce, the Eastgate library, and M.D. Coverley’s Califia), moves to cybertext (Aarseth), and culminates in the “technotext,” Hayles’s term for literary works that self-reflexively engage with their own inscription technologies and integrate semiotic elements such as kineticism and navigational structures. The use of the autobiographical persona Kaye is intriguing on this score: Hayles performs herself as a remediated narrator, not only in that her consciousness is imbricated with the media that represents her, but also in that her development as a scholar and moments of illumination are inextricably linked to the development of a critical practice of digital textuality. Hayles is thus central to the movement among digital scholars to instantiate the materiality of new media writing over and against the charge that it is ephemeral and limited to the dimensions of the interface. In addition, Writing Machines is partly situated as a corrective to what Hayles sees as literary studies’ failure to account for technologies of inscription, its general tendency to treat language and content as if they were separable from their technological substrate. To push further in the direction of a new semiotics for literary artifacts, I might note that Erik Loyer's WebTake for the book notably includes sound (in the form of a ‘talking book’), a signifying element not addressed in Hayles’s account of the material properties that comprise a textual object, but one that a media-specific analysis will certainly have to come to engage.”