Writing Machines

N. Katherine Hayles’ new book Writing Machines is a brilliant and important work. Hayles uses the vantage point offered her by recent “electronic texts” to rethink our understanding of literature in general…

N. Katherine Hayles’ new book Writing Machines is a brilliant and important work. Hayles uses the vantage point offered her by recent “electronic texts” to rethink our understanding of literature in general…

Hayles’ basic argument is that the materiality of texts is important. She gives some rigor and specificity to Marshall McLuhan’s famous remark that “the medium is the message.” Words on a computer screen do not mean the same thing as those identical words would mean, printed in a book. Other critics have already tried to deal with the way that online “hypertexts” differ from ordinary printed literature. But Hayles makes the point that our print-based assumptions have actually prevented us from taking the full measure of printed texts, no less than electronic ones.

To put this point in a different way: traditional literary scholars tend to overlook the medium–print–and focus on the message–the language of the text. Computer texts force us to look as well at the material substrate (an ever-changing screen) on which the text is inscribed (if that is still an adequate word). But Hayles points out that the printed page is also a material substrate that it is important to look at in itself, rather than just assuming its transparency, and moving right through the material substrate to the words. In all writing there is a “traffic between words and physical artifacts.” Technologies like print and computers “do not simply inscribe preexisting thoughts.” Rather, the material medium of expression changes the thoughts that are expressed through it, and beyond that, even changes the thinker who is expressing those thoughts. Subjectivity itself is altered when human beings interface with computers–but this was already the case when human beings interfaced with typewriters, or printing presses, or ink and parchment, or even clay tablets.

Hayles supports her general argument with careful and thorough close readings of three “technotexts” (as she calls works that reflect on their own materiality, or technologies of inscription): Talan Memmott’s online electronic text Lexia to Perplexia; Tom Phillips’ “treated text,” or artist’s book, A Humument; and Mark Danielewski’s metatextual novel House of Leaves. These are all brilliant works, and Hayles both does them justice in themselves, and presents them as case studies for her larger argument, her claim that print, as much as electronic text, is a material practice whose meanings come, not from its words alone, but from how those words interplay with the physical form in which they are rendered.

My only quibble of disagreement with Hayles’ argument is this. I don’t think that she casts her net widely enough. She is right to call attention to the medium as well as the message, to the physical artifact that conveys the text as well as the text-itself-as-ideal-form. But I think that there is also more to materiality than this. Technologies do not exist in a vacuum–which is something, of course, that Hayles herself well knows. But this means that the “writing machine” is a “social machine” as well (if I may be excused the implicit reference to Deleuze and Guattari). That is to say, the material interface–of a print book or an electronic one–is also something that is part of a larger social arrangement (to be a little simplistic, print goes along with the nation-state; electronic textuality both enables and is powered by what we now call globalization, with its financial networks and pressures of commodification). The social arrangements or networks in which these technologies are inscribed are also material forces that complicate the meanings and implications of texts, that connect textual “insides” to larger, and heterogeneous, “outsides.” Hayles’ arguments and readings, in Writing Machines, remain within the boundaries of the text-as-artifact (if no longer within those of the text-as-linguistic-structure). She writes eloquently of how the technotext creates “new connections between screen and eye, cursor and hand, computer coding and natural language, space in front of the screen and behind it.” And these connections, she convincingly argues, “perform human subjects” who do not exist apart from their circuits. But she fails to consider those wider circuits–of money and information and industrial production and military power–within which the circuits of brain and computer, of imagination and simulation, are themselves contained.