Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Reading :: Writing Machines

Originally posted: Tue, 28 Mar 2006 21:16:08

Writing Machines

By N. Katherine Hayles

Writing Machines was recommended to me by a colleague, who sees Hayles as an extremely important theorist in computers and English studies. Many do; I've seen Hayles cited many times and in many different bodies of literature. And this particular book has the virtue of being relatively recent (2002) and quite thin.

Unfortunately, I was not impressed by it. I wasn't impressed by the design, which seemed to be ripped off from Wired circa 2000. I wasn't impressed by the autobiographical elements, which Hayles inexplicably seemed to think would be rendered less rather than more pretentious if she recounted them in the third person with another person's name attached; I wasn't impressed with the analysis, which tended toward close textual readings of artifacts with very short shelf lives and little intrinsic interest for me. I certainly wasn't impressed with Hayles' narrative style, which attempts to approximate strong affective writing by piling on adjectives.

But I'm not sure if I can render a good evaluation of the book. It's clearly a work of literary criticism, describing Hayles' "long-standing interests in technology from a literary point of view" (p.7), and literary criticism doesn't have any intrinsic interest for me. I respect it as a field, like anthropology, economics, or materials engineering, but it's less applicable to my work than the other three. I think that the orientation of Writing Machines toward close reading of texts has a lot to do with the discipline it's in, and I'm not sure I'm well qualified to judge the work within that discipline. Perhaps it's the norm to laboriously explain the most obvious puns, which Hayles does throughout Chapter 4, for instance.

On the other hand, Hayles does broaden the notion of text in productive ways. Sounding a bit like Latour, she describes inscription technologies:

In print books words are obviously inscriptions because they take the form of ink marks impressed on paper. 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. Telegraphy thus counts; it sends structured electronic pulses through a wire (material changes that can be read as marks) and connects these pulses with acoustic sound (or some other analogue signal) associated with marks on paper. Additional examples include film, video, and the images produced by medical devices such as X-rays, CAT scans, and MRI. Even nanotechnology slouched its way toward inscription when scientists arranged molecules to form their company's logo, IBM.

It would be easy to read this passage as a sort of land rush, a move to claim even more texts under the aegis of literary criticism (and a move with which we rhetoricians are familiar). But I think Hayles deserves credit here for seriously considering what Bakhtin called "low genres" and what Latour maintains are vital ways to transform assemblages. (In fact, I can now see why their names are sometimes linked.) By taking these multiple inscriptions seriously -- and by resisting the urge to make "interpretation" a central part of the definition of inscriptions -- Hayles deserves a lot of credit.


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