I’ve finished reading Matthew Kirschenbaum’s book – Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, MIT Press, 2008 – with the kind of feeling one has when (s)he finds a confirmation of something that up to that point presented itself only, more or less, as an intuition. In other words, something ‘often thought but never so well expressed’. I do not wish to dwell too much on the presentation of the concepts proposed here, but I prefer to situate this research, in its own terms, in reference to what has been accomplished so far in matters of theoretical perspectives on digital literature.
With this study the theory of digital art in general and of e-literature in particular takes one step further. I would use the author’s reference to Kenneth Thibodeau’s tripartite model for digital objects as a means of classifying the theoretical debates which have accompanied the development of this branch of literature. The first – in a historical order and also most largely spread – is a theoretical perspective which favors the conceptual aspect of the digital object, its phenomenological manifestation on the screen. It is this particular orientation – which is subject to ‘screen essentialism’ (Nick Montfort) or, largely speaking, to ‘media ideology’ (a term coined by Kirschenbaum in analogy with Jerome McGann’s ‘Romantic ideology’) – that forms the object of a thoroughly convincing criticism. Matthew Kirschenbaum succeeds very well in unveiling the rhetorical nature of the theoretical language of this orientation, exposing the ideology lying behind mere prepositional tropes.
The second and one-level deeper into the structure of the digital product is the critical theory which tries to formalize what lies beyond the screen and to connect it with the surface phenomena. The examples invoked here are Aarseth and Manovich. However, this second generation theoreticians still work at a symbolic level, or deal with what Kirschenbaum calls ‘formal materiality’, namely data interpreted by software. What constitutes his own original contribution and may be considered a real conceptual ground-break is what he describes as ‘forensic materiality’ corresponding to the physical nature of the object. In his own words – a grammatology of inscription on a magnetic medium. It is true that references to what lies beyond the screen and to the material aspects of the digital object have been numerous, but none so systematic and moving in such an organized manner from the icons on the screen deep into the materiality of the hard drive. Most of the perspectives aware of the pitfalls of ‘screen essentialism’ have tended to focus on the code, which, as Kirschenbaum shows, is not the ultimate frontier. To prove his point, and in this he succeeds very well, the author returns to the era roughly covered by the interval 1980-1992, which serves to measure the conceptual distance generated by the mere difference in technologies. As he puts it ‘greater storage capacity will dematerialize the media as their finite physical boundaries represent no longer a concern’ (p. 34).
The dematerialization is not only a digital media problem. It is also a widely unacknowledged aspect of print literature. However, it is the area of various book studies that informs Kirschenbaum’s attempt to define the notion of ‘electronic textuality’. This is the second point when the author proves that his perspective is unbiased by any essentialist claims. He does not feel the need to oppose the digital realm to the printed one. On the one hand, because ‘the conditions governing electronic textuality are formal conditions – artificial arrays of possibility put into play by particular software systems’ (p. 57). In other words, notions such as ‘ephemerality’, ‘fungibility’ or ‘fluidity’ are not absolute characteristics of the digital text, but the results of the way in which the text was designed to function by different programs, which can make it stable or unstable according to specific needs. On the other hand, because the differences stand out by themselves as the description of ‘electronic textuality’ unfolds. The three extensive analyses proposed as model examples serve to configure a particular type of textuality, which he justly calls ‘thick textuality’ – combining screen appearance with machine inscription.
One question that might be addressed here concerns the contribution of the analysis of the ‘forensic materiality’ to the overall meaning. After all, no matter how much one may criticize the focus on the screen output, it is for this level that the digital product is built as a rule. Reading the other levels is a work for the specialist. The answers vary according to each text. In the case of Mystery House the supplementary information offers details about the ‘reading’ habits of the owner of that particular disk. This is similar to the marginal notes that readers usually leave on the printed books, which represent an important source of information for the literary studies focused on reading practices. Concerning Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, on the other hand, the question of materiality (including, apart from magnetic inscription, every possible document connected with its ‘writing’ – be it a coffee stained scrap paper) becomes more stringent as it serves to differentiate versions and editions of the same text and this results in significantly different reading paths in the text. This is not far from what in print literary studies is called genetic reading. As for the last extensively analyzed example – W. Gibson’s Agrippa – its present-day online permanence is in complete contrast with its conceptual design and with the way in which it was supposed to be interacted with.
After reading Mechanisms, I can make a guess as to what partly prompted Johanna Drucker to conclude her review of the book with the assertion that generated a lot of debate concerning the existence of valuable examples of electronic literature. After all, the three works which the author focuses upon correspond to the ‘beginnings’ of e-literature. The first is admittedly a very simple game that even its contemporaries would not have given a second try. Afternoon may be placed at the other end of the scale, but I would say that its ‘literary value’ is mostly due to its closeness to traditional literary texts, to the fact that it is, as it calls itself ‘a story’, which is all the more obvious when contrasted with present-day e-literature. As for the last one, Agrippa, it might be disputable if it is an e-text proper, considering the fact that its simple presence on the internet does not make it e-literature (especially since it was not created for this medium). A poem placed on the internet is not an e-poem, it is obviously a poem on the internet. On the other hand, I don’t think the aesthetic value of these works was the primary criterion which guided the author’s selection. His research addresses questions of reading practices, preservation and editing processes. This is the third significant contribution of this study, because one cannot think of editing and preserving electronic works (or preserving works electronically) without taking into full consideration their ‘materiality’ in the most literal sense.