e-Lit Resource
Materiality and Matter and Stuff: What Electronic Texts are Made Of

Matt Kirschenbaum’s riposte to Nick Montfort’s “Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star” (www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/cyberdebates), a review of Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997), focuses on the discussion of “materiality,” a word that Kirschenbaum states has been “used by both Markku Eskelinen and Katherine Hayles,” and that he himself has used since his early writings on digital media in the mid-1990s.

Materiality, Kirschenbaum argues, has been somewhat overlooked by both hypertext theory and cybertext theory. He maintains that neither of these theories discuss “the materiality of first generation electronic objects with anything near the precision or sophistication scholars habitually bring to bear on more traditional objects of literary or cultural studies.” The perceived “ephemeral” nature of electronic media, and the accepted inherent opposition this ephemerality stakes out between print and electronic texts, is one of the main fallacies Kirschenbaum sees in the theories of hypertext and cybertext. Kirschenbaum sees “the textual studies community” as being able to offer some of the most apt theories for the studies of electronic textuality. For Kirschenbaum, “textual criticism and bibliography should be recognized as among the most sophisticated branches of media studies we have evolved.”

Kirschenbaum asserts that the common traits that are taken as absolutes in hypertext, (“that it is fundamentally volatile and unstable, and that these characteristics are themselves the product of the radical new ontologies of the medium”) are in fact not common only to electronic textuality. Kirschenbaum states that the “opposition between fixed, reliable printed texts on the one hand, and fluid and dynamic electronic texts on the other - an opposition encouraged by the putative immateriality of digital data storage - is patently false, yet it has become a truism in the nascent field of electronic textual theory.” Anecdotes such as the sole surviving manuscript of the epic Beowulf being thrown from a library window during a fire and Wordsworth’s multiple-instantiated The Prelude provide examples of print being just as unstable and dynamic as a digital text.

In the end, Kirschenbaum is wary of “romanticizing the medium through a dated discourse of play that is really only screen deep.” This is where Kirschenbaum’s most important injunction into the cybertext debate lies; rather than focusing on the interactivity and play that largely dominant the electronic textuality discourse, Kirschenbaum calls for a culture of textual criticism and bibliographical in the study of electronic media. “Significantly,” Kirschenbaum writes, “a bibliographical/textual approach calls upon us to emphasize precisely those aspects of electronic textuality that have thus far been neglected in the critical writing about the medium: platform, interface, data standards, file format, operating systems, version and distributions of code, patches, ports, and so forth.”

As it is listed as a riposte to Nick Montfort, and published parallel to a number of other ripostes by Katherine Hayles (2001), Markku Eskelinen (2001), Marjorie C. Luesebrink (2001), and Jim Rosenberg (2003), such critical writing also affirms the need for critical tools and institutions (like ebr) which can open these terms to dialogue. For critics seeking to understand the history the field of electronic literature, such documents reveal the larger historical and philosophical processes at work in scholarship. Given that hypertext continues to be relevant as one mode of electronic literary practice in a growing field, such debates highlight not only the need for a vibrant critical culture, but for scholarly venues that can encourage such open-ended scholarship.

More from Kirschenbaum on ebr:

“Wireless Communities”

“Media, Genealogy, History”

“Designing Our Disciplines in a Postmodern Age - and Academy”

“Virtuality and VRML: Software Studies After Manovich”

“Notes Toward a Proleptic History of Electronic Reading”

“A User’s Guide to the New Millennium”