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Hayles' Writing Machines


Writing Machines.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. 224 p., $17.95, softcover. ISBN: 0262582155.

Text as Technology: Reading N. Katherine Hayles' Writing Machines

N. Katherine Hayles' Writing Machines is a beautiful little book. Thanks to the innovative spirit of MIT Press' Peter Lunenfeld, the graphic design prowess of Anne Burdick, the multimedia talents of Sean Donahue (creator of the book's website <>), and the insights of N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines arrives as one of the first installations of the "Mediawork Pamphlet Series," and offers one possible line of development to follow for any scholar concerned with the future of The Book.

The pleasantly textured cover and marked-up fore-edge (which says "writing" or "machines" depending on which way the cover is flexed) invite the reader to flex and fondle the book, exploring it as an object, even before flipping through the pages. Open the book, and the design features continue, with images, images of text, and variations in font which establish movement between form and content, skillfully complementing Hayles' ambiguously autobiographical coming of age story. The book pleasantly leads readers (or perhaps I should say users) into "media-specific analysis," which Hayles describes as follows:

Complementing the foundational concepts of material metaphors, inscription technologies and technotexts is a kind of criticism that pays attention to the material apparatus producing the literary work as physical artifact. Although material criticism is highly developed in specialized fields such as bibliographic criticism and textual studies, I think its value is much more general and widespread. Accordingly, I want to call it media-specific analysis (MSA), as a way to invite theorists and critics to think more broadly about the connections between strands of criticism that have not yet made common cause with one another. (29)

Never quite certain where Hayles begins and "Kaye" (one of the story's subjects) ends, Writing Machines tells the tale of how technological culture has engaged in a process of "literary criticism" -- through technological development rather than through scholarly debate. The crisis of the discrete author, the pure text, and, ultimately, all "individuals" is played out quite persuasively on many levels in the "writing machine" that is the assembly of editors, writers, designers, programmers, and the nameless hands that labored together to produce this book and bring it to market. Conceptually, the project is brilliant.

As with many projects that celebrate the underlying possibility of an assembled identity or distributed cognition, the author as a discrete entity often seems to bubble up to the top as a point of convergence for various threads of information that are increasingly recognized as a form of capital ("posthumanism" may thus represent a paradigm shift from an economy of "property" to one of "information" as the source of "rights" and so account for the continued presence of elites which are increasingly marked by their ability to profit from the sale of consumer media) [1 ]. As a result, Hayles exists as the identifiable "author" of this text. For those who follow Hayles' work and those culture studies scholars already versed in theories of material culture, Writing Machines presents little new in the way of theoretical contributions [2 ], although it does a wonderful job of representing and explaining theory in a delightful way. For those who work in more traditional disciplines, which may tend to regard the materiality of the texts we study as a marginal concern, Writing Machines makes a strong, ambitious, and careful argument for the importance of understanding technological practices and their effects on consciousness.

Of specific value are Hayles' readings of Tom Phillips' A Humument, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, and Talan Memmott's Lexia to Perplexia. Such "technotexts," as Hayles writes, "[connect] the technology that produces texts to the texts' verbal constructions. [They] play a special role in transforming literary criticism into a material practice, for they make vividly clear that the issue at stake is nothing less than a full-bodied understanding of literature" (26). Skillfully, Hayles delivers a compelling read of complicated texts while making her argument for a technically savvy literary criticism. She seems to suggest that without adaptation, critics may find themselves unable to stay relevant in a changing world, where the materiality of the text can no longer remain hidden behind mere words. Always a form of mixed media, Hayles argues that the fact of literature's existence as a "machine" can no longer be ignored [3 ].

As a part of the Mediawork pamphlet series (which the series homepage describes as "zines for grown-ups"), Writing Machines is a promising first step. The steep cover price ($17.95) and the obvious and elaborate technical apparatus that has gone into the production of this "zine" sometimes makes the project itself seem a bit too conspicuous -- it really shouldn't require such an elaborate contrivance to persuade readers that the aesthetics of information are colored by the vehicle of delivery. However, its excesses should make it impossible for even the most obstinate of readers not to see the relationship between technology and culture, which is certainly in order.

Davin Heckman


[1 ] Manuel Castells' Rise of the Network Society offers interesting insights into this shift in relation to urban development. Proposing the "Space of Flows" as the emerging factor in determining one's access to economic success, Castells' model suggests that cities are increasingly shaped by access to high-speed information and media rather than traditional property values. Taken in a political context, it seems that global hierarchies are aligned around these values, placing subjects with access to media outlets higher on the food chain than those who are "out of the loop." For more information, please see Manuel Castells' The Rise of the Network Society, volume 1, Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. [^]

[2 ] For many years culture studies scholars (and I use the term loosely) have been studying the relationship between technology and culture, and the ways that material practices shape human relations. A few interesting contributors to the field are Martin Heidegger, Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan -- all before the 1970s. [^]

[3 ] Taken in the context of "literary theory" Hayles argument is not far from the theories of scholars like Sigmund Freud, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Derrida who, each in his own way, has made arguments that the formal qualities of language have an influence on their content. Literary theory has been a bit slow to consider language itself as one technology, among many others, through which meaning is negotiated. Michel Foucault, as well as Deleuze and Guattari, argue that technologies interact with subjectivity in ways which constitute the experience of reality. Why literary scholars continue to focus on one type of text when many should be considered is unclear, but may have to do with disciplinarity alongside the need to maintain coherent arguments (in much the same way that human subjects willingly or unwillingly abide by boundaries for the maintenance of identity). [^]