e-Lit Resource
Writing Machines

Writing Machines is a creative critical project which demonstrates the importance of Media-Specific Analysis in the field of literary study. Written by N. Katherine Hayles, designed by Anne Burdick, and given life online by Sean Donahue (creator of the book's website ), Writing Machines is an installation of the "Mediawork Pamphlet Series" (edited by Peter Lunenfeld) and offers one possible line of development to follow for any scholar concerned with the future of The Book. Also featured on the website is a response to Writing Machines by Erik Loyer, called The Hollowbound Book. Loyer's take on the project accentuates the genius of the work, by transferring the text to another medium, providing yet another angle from which to examine the central claims of the work.

The textured cover and marked-up fore-edge of the printed work (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 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.

The theoretical content of Writing Machines is consistent with the general sweep of Hayles' thought, although it broadens this theoretical project through the experimental nature of the work itself. 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.