Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Katherine Hayles/e-literature etc

I suppose I shouldn't have brought Hayles in without remembering much from her books, but here is Chris's entry from below:

"Distributed cognition" is something that I got from Hayles' "How We Became Posthuman" (1999...I know, I know, how "quaint" :) ). I'm away from my library at the moment, but I don't think she necessarily means anything more complicated than when I have google calendar send me a text message reminding me of the address of my next appointment or having firefox search a web-page for a sequence of letters, except that she wants us to embody those technologies rather than think of them as other or outside. Maybe it's also similar to when we're talking on a cell-phone (or just to a passenger) while driving: our attention is finite and so we automate some processes in order to attend to other processes. Simply stated, I guess this amounts to a theory of a posthuman subject that is sort of a shifty hybrid of automation and deliberation (So, not just an information pattern nor the rational, sovereign subject of the Enlightenment). Like I said in my previous comment, this isn't exactly groundbreaking or anything. It's not like we were pure automatons until we were human, at which point we became pure deliberation, until the Internet came along and we became all admixturey and posthuman.

A lot of the time, if you ask me, Hayles is just substituting one network of metaphors for another. One man's cave is another man's matrix. But one thing she wrote that I found interesting was that between narrative and system, two distinct ways of presenting information, "narrative is a more embodied form of discourse." Now, I hadn't really heard of Flarf before I came to your site, so I'm still not exactly sure what to make of it, but it seems to me that the google experiments at least stage a sort of confrontation between deliberative narration and automatic system. Together, I guess, poets and google become both more-and-less human as they are both embodied in the poem. I don't know. I fully expect to be challenged on this.

What you say about "The Atrocity Exhibition" sounds pretty interesting. There was a lot I didn't like about Joseph Frank's "Spatial Form in the Modern Novel," but the basic idea of works of art that resist their medium, like poems that try to be paintings and paintings that try to be stories, stuck with me. So a narrative that tries to be an exhibition sounds right up my alley.

And finally, I'll look forward to the new translation. I had also never read Aase Berg before visiting here, but I really liked the Cave of the Guinea Pigs sequence.



Blogger Max said...

If narrative is a more "embodied form," then maybe when we talk about systems, we're merely talking about the "embodiment" being shifted to somewhere else. A story in a book might relay the sense that it comes from the innards of a human being (as is often the case with narrators speaking directly at the reader). A digital text incorporating 3D elements and a system of interaction, however, takes on the software/hardware realm as its embodiment, as the computer relays messages and prints responses.

As far as the "more/less human" thing goes, I've always thought of that argument as sort of an antiquated assertion in the same line as "in the future there will be flying cars." It's a provocative statement, and it sparks interest in theories of the future and technology, but it doesn't hold much water.

In reality, people are not becoming more and more directly linked to technology. There has, rather, been a dramatically increased proliferation of interfaces. These interfaces actually make us less tech-savvy, because they draw our attention away from the actual processes represented in our interactions with them.

3:29 PM  
Blogger TT said...


I hope it's not obnoxious to post an excerpt of a critique of Hayles (who teaches here at Duke now) that I wrote for my exams . . .

One path of inquiry is the consideration of writing as a storage and retrieval system, a means by which memory is externalized (or always maintained as already external) as a kind of technics, and that access to this system presupposes a set of norms about how that system is maintained. In “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter,” Friedrich Kittler addresses the influence of modern technologies upon notions of absolute knowledge, a realm of knowing registered at its own plane of persistence: “Instead of hooking up technologies to people, absolute knowledge can run as an endless loop.” That is, writing is a technical endeavor, and writing in particular in which the typewriter and keyboard maintain the linguistic materials as always-external is an entrance to a pre-existing array of signs from which the person selects the appropriate sequence; this Kittler opposes to the previous, Romantic regime that posited the alphabet as internal and “natural” and only ever pushed outwards through the speaking mouth or moving hand. In this manner, one may come to realize, in any discourse network, “Writing can store only writing, no more, no less” and “writing stores only the fact of its authorization.” The key historical project, then, is to read how technologies of writing and communication underwrite what, at any moment, writing is. Kittler is at his most interesting when framing these questions: “Since 1865 (in Europe) or 1868 (in America) writing has no longer consisted of those ink or pencil traces of a body, whose optical or acoustical signals were irretrievably abandoned in order that the readers, at least, might flee into the surrogate sensuality of handwriting. In order to allow for a series of sounds and sights to be stored, the old European storage technique had first of all to be mechanized.” For Kittler, it is the twin occurrence of Nietschze’s early embrace of the typewriter and the failure of his eyesight (he begins to write books without recourse to reading) that allows him access to the primal scene of the new discourse network in which writing is completely mechanized: the primal scene of the writer is that of a blind man crouched above a machine with the white noise of memory and a mechanized alphabet harmonizing with one another: “Mnemonic inscription is, like mechanical inscription, always invisible at the decisive moment.” Each simply proffers its “blindly chosen victims” to the reader and writer both.

Addressing our contemporary moment, Hayles works to delineate an emerging discourse network: “with electronic texts there is a conceptual distinction-—and often an actualized one—-between storage and delivery vehicles, whereas with print the storage and delivery vehicles are one and the same.” Here, Hayles is delving into a close reading of the conceptual and structural importance of a new materiality to a textual experience, of the significance that adheres to a written word that is stored as byte and yet read as a flickering of light. This she contrasts with the regime of the book, which functions more statically as vehicle for both storage and presentation. “Although print readers perform sophisticated cognitive operations when they read a book,” Hayles writes, “the printed lines exist as such before the book is opened, read, or understood. An electronic text does not have this kind of prior existence. It does not exist anywhere in the computer, or in the networked system, in the same form it acquires when displayed on screen.” Here, I believe, within Hayles’ timely analysis, are the seeds of the limits of her approach: the historically conditioned imposition of *understanding* as the telos of reading. The implicit scene in Hayles’ statement is of a familiar loop of open-read-understand played in static continuity; more interesting questions arise, perhaps, when reading is not linked exclusively to a system of perpetual and pre-existing understandings but rather is linked to other possible (or impossible) loops, including actions, curses, rituals, hallucinations, or seductions: in this sense, the pre-arrangement of lines that Hayles claims is symptomatic of book culture is less constrictive when not pre-linked to the loop of understanding. Similarly, an electronic text currently has a potentially disruptive and troubling character not simply because it has a different form in storage than in presentation, but because it hasn’t yet been brought completely into the loop: it can link itself to its own systems with or without the reader’s assent: one can open and read a spam email or attachment and it can be well on its own way to its own system of activation regardless of one’s understanding. In fact, the most insidious of electronic texts would seem to prey upon a previous open-read-understanding assumption to textuality. Friedrich Kittler links the technics of modernity to such a reading habit that I claim underwrites Hayles’ analysis: “Not until the emergence of a technical storage capacity, such as that which shaped the discourse network of 1900, would hallucinatory sensuousness be abandoned to the entertainment industry and serious literature renew its commitment to the ascesis that knows only black letters on white paper.” It is the ascetic regime of understanding (usually colored as a kind of repressive Victorianism), in fact, that many of the poets and writers that I am most interested in attempt to move their work away from: often, their tendency is to hew closer to a poetry that suggests properties, sensualities, and networks/logics of interaction that claim precedence in a differing (and often an oral and/or 'primitive') tradition.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Well it is kind of obnoxious but I'll let it slide.


7:16 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Actually I think this is a very fine comment, Tony.

For those who (like me) have ADD when on the Internet, start reading at "Here, I believe, within Hayles’ timely analysis, are the seeds of the limits of her approach...." to the end.

It also explain to a large degree why I use the word "modernist" negatively to criticize Strickland. Something I wasn't entirely sure of myself.


7:25 PM  
Blogger TT said...

Obnoxiousness is the new gurlesque.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Max said...

What also interests me is the possibility of digital texts that purposely withhold certain information, via passwording/encryption, etc. This is a form of communication that would argue against its very production in book form (i.e. who is going to buy a diary with an industrial strength lock on it?), but which is entirely native to the world of digital information, which argues quite cogently for itself.

It seems like the tradition of print is that its innate goal is to be accessed and understood, while this is very much not the case with the digital world, in which switches for various levels of permission ("read only," "write only, "read/write" capabilities, etc) are available for assignation. It's only natural that digital texts, then, might find themselves more often than not dealing, in very literal, concrete terms, with issues of access and understanding.

7:42 PM  

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