rr04 posted February 23, 2004

I cannot help but pursue your question: “why is there no literary Napster?” Your discussion of digital rights management in the context of literary print culture resonates for me with Foucault’s historical analysis of the author function. To augment your account of the institutional regulation of print, we could point to Sebald as a proper name, which gathers up the poetic texts under its authority. This is to remind us of the legal system surrounding authorship, which rewards innovation by granting rights to reproduction. Indeed, our actually existing literary practices are bound to the conventions of print culture insofar as they reinforce the institutional and juridical status of writing. The potential for literary practices to operate otherwise seems in this sense to depend on the reformulation of the institutions and culture of the printed word. (I suppose the larger implication here is that we are looking toward a future when publishing houses and bookstores have neither the regulatory nor the delivery function they now maintain.)

An inference we might also draw from your literary Napster question is that the distinction between print and digital is a distinction between static and dynamic text. Your thought experiment – the idea for a web-deliverable piece that would sample pieces of text and transform them into images – might in one sense be understood in terms of the cut-up. Rather, it is the reverse logic of the cut-up: it would take dynamic text and fix it in static form, rather than introducing a flexibility and dynamism to a static page. Perhaps, then, this tells us something about the difference between a literary or textual and a musical cultural object. If you can accept the broad, and formally improvable, general statement: the logic of musical objects is variation and flexibility, but literary studies – as an institutional practice – can only countenance the idea of versioning insofar as those versions can be fixed, standardized, and defended against future variations. I have traditional editing practices in mind as one example, the governing emphasis of which is to stabilize a definitive and authoritative text.

We might then understand the slow evolution of the digital humanities within the university as institutional resistance to texts that are not stable and singular. There have been numerous conversations about indeterminacy in the field, specifically, indeterminacy about what actually constitutes the text if one is engaging a hypertext novel with seemingly innumerable hidden links, to take one example. Without a repeatable element, which would be the basis for a shared reading experience, we are left with the critical problem of reconstructing the individual reading-viewing experience, which is why even a media-specific analysis occasionally borrows from both dramatic and performance arts scholarship in its analysis of digital reading practices.

The task of the critic in this instance would likely be to critique the elision of the machine in the isolation of the interface and the delimiting of performance as a production strictly of the individual. So, to shift more directly back to jc03 and to query the loop game, we might also address the issue of the shared text in terms of cross-platform compatibility. Quite simply, the architecture of the QuickTime file is foreign to me. While I understand the atom in principle, your loop is illegible to the extent that I cannot discern whether or not it is operative. It is, for me at least, an exercise of codework that is isolated on the surface, signifying only as natural language. In short, what kind of difference does your loop make? Is it a site-specific work, situated within a specific critical language and within a specific data structure?

There is another component to the thought experiment that accompanies the literary Napster problem in your post. Your description of the thought experiment speaks of “taking inherently programmable literary matter and reducing it to a cultural dominant non-programmable state.” In this exercise, you would be taking a program and reducing it to its static, purportedly non-programmable interface, essentially taking a picture of a digital code. But I wonder if this would not be to strip the program but to program in a different sense altogether, in the sense of fixing and formulating? To freeze the code would precisely be programming, but in this different sense of capture. This exercise would not produce an operative text, but it would certainly produce a programmed text.