User:Andre Castro/2.1/annot/writingmachines

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Katherine Hayles - Writing Machines (2000)

immaterial literature

Writing in 2000 in the book Writing Machine Hayles contests the dominant representation of literature as a immaterial practice, independent from its physical manifestation. '[I]n literary studies, there has traditionally been a sharp line between representation and the technologies producing them. Whereas art history has long been attentive to the material production of the art object, literary studies has generally been content to treat fictional and narrative worlds as if they were entirely products of the imagination'(p.19).

Hayles argues for the relevance of the physical container into which words are inscribed in the meaning those words have. ' To change the physical form of the artifact is not merely to change the act of reading ... but profoundly to transform the metaphoric network structuring the relation of word to world'(p.23). In other words, the context into which words are inscribed has expression over the words, over how we interact with them, and consequently their meaning. Despite that fact 'the long reign of print made it easy for literary criticism to ignore the specificities of the CODEX book when discussing literary texts. With significant exceptions, print literature was widely regarded as not having a body, only a speaking mind'(p.32).


To defend her argument Hayles reviews several of those exceptions where the interaction between the words and their material manifestation is problemitized, and their inscription technology is made visible. She categorizes these works as technotexts. Examples of technotext come not only from the digital real, but also artist's books where a strong interaction between text and its material manifestation takes place.

electronic literature

Hayles sees in eletronic texts a possibility to reconsider literature as a material practice, where both content and context come into play to create meaning. According to her, only by bringing the material manifestation of the text into the foreground will we be able to understand how words and texts are being change by information technologies (p.19). 'Eletronic text had its own speficities, and a deeper 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'(p.43)

print literature in electronic devices

Twelve years after the publishing date of this text the current scenario seems to be betraying Hayle's excepetations. Altough we are witnessing an explosion of electronic reading devices, they are mostly used to read texts that can also afford paper incarnations (and are often more suited for it). No considerable changes were introduced to the way text are being written, even when their primary physical manifestation is under an electronic form. The only difference is their form of inscription. There is, to my knowledge, only a few contemporary electronic literary works that address the support in which they happen to be read (Broken Kindle project strucks my mind), or even explore the possibilities of the support, in other words electronic equivalents to artists' books.

A possible explanation for this general disinterest in electronic literature might be gathered from the references Hayles makes to an argument with Robert Coover. Having been previously an advocate of first generation electronic literature, Coover is sorrowful for the disappearance of the author's voice, experienced in the second generation of electronic texts, as a result of the new possibilities made available to electronic text, consequently Coover retreats from his admiration for electronic literature (p.44-45).

Coover's reaction can be considerate not too disparate from the general response to electronic text. Having experimented a very positive response and a great expectation for its potential in 1990s, when both internet and CD-ROMS became widely popular. Soon after this thrill of the novelty exhausted itself and electronic were text no longer regarded with excitement. Perhaps audiences wanted something they knew, and which doesn't problemitize stable notions of what was content and what was container. Currently, although there is a renewed interest in electronic literature, at the core of that interest is the container, not the content. The content for the most part remains non-electronic.

McLuhan in Understanding Media mentions the relation a new medium maintains with its predecessors during its initial developments. As an example McLuhan refers that more than fifty per cent of books printed until 1700 were medieval or ancient texts(p.186); and how owners of the first printed books would take them to a scribe in order to have them hand copied and illustrated (p.189). Perhaps we are still in this first stages of electronic literature, where the container is clearly changing, but the content is still trying to hold to what is known and secure.

  • Economic interest - Amazon - limiting Kindles more [DEVELOP]

if container change

Can the changes we are witnessing in the physical manifestation of texts begin to contaminate text contents?

It might be too early to make any statements about it, but when the container becomes more permeable to the content it holds, new material, that otherwise wouldn't fit within the threshold of the medium, will be included. An example of it is the literary work scams that exist in Kindle Store, where the same text is used as content of more than one book; Each incarnation of the same content is disguised as a different object, with different author name, title and cover design ( Such approach would be despised in print, because in order to have a mass distributionit would have to go through the paper book publishing circuits. However, now it is possible to circumvent that stage between the creation and consumption of a work of literature.

Although such publishing act is only derived from monetary interests, it shouldn't be dismissed, as it shows that we are still looking at electronic containers with the same lens we use for paper containers, where having a different cover, title and author were assurances about its content.


Will then this separation of the content from the container have a influence no only on the on literary contents? Will text respond to this change? Will this change in boundaries of the container propagate to textual production?

Further reading:

  • History of Electronic Text - 90's enthusiasm and disenchantment
  • Kindle spam