Syncretic Static (Form versus intent in the media pamphlet 'Writing Machines')

By Mez, 27 November 2002

In Writing Machines, literary theorist N.Katherine Hayles, together with designer Anne Burdick, have tried hard to embody conceptual thinking around the material impact of digital technology on text through the publication's own design. Net artist and language mutator Mez casts a critical eye over the results.

My critiquer-side has a tendency to cringe when introduced to any text that professes to be experimental whilst being embodied in orthodox form. Trying to advance a sound critique o f any text that seeks to dislocate itself from established theoretical frameworks – whilst simultaneously reifying these through its structural form – is a less than enviable task. So, when encountering the book (described as a ‘Media Pamphlet’ by MIT press) Writing Machines by N. Katherine Hayles (author) and Anne Burdick (designer) I was filled with trepidation. Statements like:

‘This book is an experiment in forging a vocabulary and a set of critical practices responsive to the full spectrum of signifying components in print and electronic texts by grounding them in the materiality of the literary artifact.’ (p.6)and:

‘This book is frankly experimental both in its format and ideas.’ (p.7)

made me suspect that Hayles and Burdick were primarily prefacing their experimentation through a literature-as-legitimising-force filter, rather than orienting their focus via electronic referentiality and centring any critical enquiry in the ethereality of the digital. This knee-jerk reviewer response would prove both reactionary and relevant in terms of developing a sense of the design limitations that the book (unfortunately) labours under.

From A Humument, by Tom Philips, p.40

Hayles adopts a semi-autobiographical posturing with regards to content formulation (which includes descriptions of terms such as ‘media ecology’, ‘materiality’, ‘technotexts’, ‘media specific analysis’, ‘remediation’ and ‘inscription’). She discusses these terms both through a third-person-referent/ingénue entitled ‘Kaye’ (my assumption is that the title derives from conflating Katherine and Hayles) and a traditional authorial voice. Kaye texts in a speculative, rambling style that slides indistinguishably into the theoretical bent that Hayles splices throughout the pamphlet. Each authorial phonation is represented through separate fonts; at critical narrative stages these categorisations become suitably blurred as these fonts imperceptibly fold into a third dubbed ‘Creeeyptienne’.

One example of how Hayles and Burdick attempt to symbiotically merge design[er] & ‘verbal text’ is the application of these fonts to simultaneously fuse and demarcate their polytonalistic sources. This fusion is best illustrated by what Burdick terms ‘affordances’, i.e. amplified text-entry points. These affordances present themselves as text viewed through a fish-eye lens, where the font in the mid-point of the paragraph, the obvious focal point, is enlarged and its perspective skewed. These act as the textual equivalents of soundbytes, condensing the discourse into a series of succinct, easily absorbable screen simulations.

Physical modification of the packaging of Writing Machines is another instance of an attempt to display a desired design/text syncretism. When tilted in different directions, for instance, the print-matter edging displays either the word ‘Writing’ or ‘Machines’. This echoes, in part, several of the examples that Hayles uses to demonstrate her key points (i.e. artist books that fracture established bookish formats). Hayles uses three examples to illustrate her thinking around the materiality of texts (‘technotexts’) both electronic and print-based. Hayles’ definition of technotext stems from her breakdown of electronic literature into two categories: first generational (such as those works produced with Storyspace software which she views as somewhat textocentric due to an unwarranted focus on the hyperlink) and second generational (which she perceives as more progressive in terms of an integrative/multimediac delivery). The three examples she cites span both the electronic (Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia) and print realm (Tom Phillip’s A Humument and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves). There is a problematic commonality of approach in the use of these examples; all three make references to literature and academically-sanctioned/historical theorists and avoid all reference to technotexts born and bred exclusively in digitised environments. No mention is made of works that have evolved in tandem with[in] the internet, such as code/communication avenues that promote interaction via networked means (like the machine language of Antiorp or the code fissuring of Jodi). Hayles could easily have referred to at least one example that did not spring from, or cannot be located within, a preset literary grounding.

The project also seems heavily weighted towards the author, rather than providing equal accreditation of author and designer. Hayles is credited as author on the cover; Burdick’s name is not on the cover or the spine of the book, but listed on the back cover. The inclusion of print-flavoured elements such as the table of contents, preface, chapters, acknowledgments, and page numbers also results in the ‘pamphlet’ delivering largely as a conventional book which, in turn, lessens a reader’s ability to unfold it via a technotext cast. Granted, there is no listing of footnotes or evidence of a concise referencing system, but these deviations from conventional form Hayles confesses to regret and puts down to allowances not being made within the series format. Nevertheless, the omitted references are apparently accessible via the MIT Press website.

This MIT Press website is also harnessed in order to demonstrate the materiality of the book and its experimental intent. On page 72 (which is, incidentally, exactly halfway through the pamphlet) the reader is presented with a Lexicon LinkMap. This ‘map’ intrigues – not by the slightly Ray-Gun-esque overtyping of concepts relevant to the text, but rather through the typed instruction ‘To use the Lexicon Linkmap go to MITPRESS.MIT.EDU/MEDIAWORK’. This instruction presents the reader with the option of relocation through electronic ‘matter’ in order to practically orient meaning curves in alignment with Hayles’ idea of remediation. I ( a professed fan of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel) did just that, only to find the Writing Machines website not yet active.

In total, the departures from conventional print-book design largely manifest in Writing Machines as cosmetic. These divergences function as distinct, momentary surface diversions from the substance of the text (i.e. the barcode-like page framing and illustrative image/text cut-ups etc. only partially reflect the book’s conceptual meat rather than working to actualise it). There is only one true moment (p 72) where the design embodies the concepts of remediation (the ‘cycling of different media through one another’) and materiality (alluding to the notion that the physical substance of objects/artworks/output are ‘potentially infinite’ and how this infuses with inscriptions technologies and any subsequent meaning-interpretations). The failure of the creators of Writing Machines to holistically consolidate the pamphlet through their self-stated aim of experimental design/content proves disappointing in relation to Hayles’ otherwise interesting semi-autobiographical snippets and theory-peppered discourse.

MIT Mediawork pamphlets:

Work by Mez: