Hyperrhiz 07: Reviews
Matthew Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms
Washington State University Vancouver
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008. 316 pp., illus. 33 b/w. Trade, $38.00.
One of the numerous philosophical differences emerging between those working in the digital humanities and those in the traditional humanities is the notion of the materiality of media objects. Those of us who create locative narratives or perform poetry in virtual environments, for example, would be hard-pressed to describe our artifacts as lacking materiality, while scholars following conventional wisdom seeded by Platonic thought and influenced more recently by proponents of Walter Ong's "second orality" (135-138) typically hold to the notion of the immateriality of electronic texts. Noted scholar N. Katherine Hayles has argued for well over a decade against the assumption that electronic texts are immaterial, in works like Writing Machines (2002). So it is with much deserved fanfare that digital humanities scholars have welcomed Matt Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, for it is a well written book that presents further evidence that digital media objects are, indeed, material ones.
Mechanisms, the book, is "about the textual and technical primitives of electronic writing and (by extension) other types of data recorded in electronic media" (xiii). But Mechanisms, the idea, is about machines, the action, process, technique, movement and power of as well as the skill with working with them. Derived from the Greek verb ??????????, Mechanisms, the word, contains within it the notion of making ready, constructing, designing as art, all of which connotes a physicality inherent in its make up — and suggests a clever strategy on the part of the author. For, indeed, the book links the transcendental realm of theory with the visceral world of practice in a way that moves the field beyond tendencies to romanticize the sensorial qualities of text as we see in Sven Bikerts' The Gutenberg Elegies or even Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text, thus overlooking the facts at hand. In fact, Kirschenbaum pulls together an array of tools to assist him in his hard boiled investigation of materiality: "comparative media, bibliography, textual scholarship, and the history of the book" (xiii) and the "critical investigation of 'the relationships between hardware and software design of computing systems and the creative works produced on those systems" known as "platform studies" (xiv). Moreover, the book's subtitle hints at the innovation of Kirschenbaum's take on the various disciplines and approaches he draws from and which results in the transdisciplinarity of his methodology: the application of computer forensics, the "natural counterpart to textual criticism and physical bibliography" (17), to the study of digital media texts. It is such a perfect description of the sleuthing through archives and digging into code he relates to us in the book's narrative that it is hard to imagine that the term has not long been part of the vocabulary for digital scholarship.
William Gibson's Agrippa, an "electronic text that is volatile and ephemeral by design (author's emphasis), which nonetheless turns out to be one of the most persistent and available literary artifacts on the Web" (x) frames the book, appearing at both its beginning and end, and serves as a metaphor for what Kirschenbaum calls the "black boxes" he works to recover throughout the book (xi). Divided into five chapters, Mechanisms opens with "'Every Computer Leaves a Trace': Storage, Inscription, and Computer Forensics," a chapter that takes on assumptions of the immateriality of digital texts head on. Beginning with the Department of Defense document DoC 5220.22-M that specifies the security practice to "Destroy — Disintegrate, incinerate, pulverize, shred, or smelt" data, Kirschenbaum makes a cogent argument for materiality, ferreting out the "screen essentialism" (30) and biases wrought by the GUI interface (34) obfuscating truth. In this chapter he also introduces computer forensics (45), the branch of forensic science known as "trace evidence" (48) and involves the "activity of recovering or retrieving electronic data, analyzing and interpreting its for its evidentiary value, and preserving the integrity of the data such that it is (potentially) admissible in a legal setting" (46). In the final part of the chapter, Kirschenbaum challenges the three main assumptions about "electronic textuality" — its ephemerality, fungibilility, and fixity/fluidity (50-58) — and ends with "[I]nscription and [I]nstrumentation" that provide the basis of a discussion of the "physical properties" of "magnetic media" and "writing mechanism" (58), reminding us that "[f]orensically, electronic data is survivable by virtue of both dramatically expanding storage volumes ... and the limits of the material mechanism." Alluding to the idea in the subtitle, he tells us that it is the place where we "locate the forensic imagination" (71), a concept he comes back to in his final Coda. The subsequent chapters build on this idea and help to make his argument. Chapter two, "Extreme Inscription: A Grammatology of the Hard Drive," for example, examines storage technologies and the notion of "machine reading," "whose object is not text but a mechanism or device" (88).
Chapter three, "'An Old House with Many Rooms:' The Textual Forensics of Mystery_House.dsk," begins a series of case studies that make up the rest of the book, save the final Coda. This particular case study looks at a disk image, or "all of the information that was recorded on the disk in its original storage geometry" (115) of the 1980 Sierra Online game Mystery House. In doing so, Kirschenbaum develops a "model" of "critical practice" that "encompass[es] both screen-level text and machine-level instructions, embracing both normal interaction with the game and activities closer to hacking or cracking, and ultimately demonstrating a distinction between ... forensic and formal materiality" (115). Formal materiality comes to mean the "programmatic computational environments applying some particular logic" associated with a digital object (133). Kirschenbaum hits the proverbial nail on the head when he claims, quite rightly, that "computers ... present a premeditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality" — it is the "illusion" of "immaterial behavior" that leads us astray (135). JPGs, visualization projects such as Windowlicker, and markup languages — all point to the formal materiality of digital media (142-156), a state different from the forensic, for "electronic objects can ... be proven legally and mathematically" to be "identical" while forensically (author's emphasis) they remain individual and discrete as interventions in a physical substratum" (157). This distinction between formal and forensic is further highlighted in Chapter four, "Save As: Michael Joyce's Afternoons," an exploration of the famous work of electronic literature, afternoon: a story, that many, such as Hayles, cite as an example of first generation electronic literature ("EL: What Is It?"). In Mechanisms Kirschenbaum focuses on versioning, a concept common to textual studies, particularly those working in the digital humanities. To make the point that electronic texts constitute a "hybrid textuality," he uses the analogy of a coffee stained manuscript page of Joyce's work he discovered while visiting the archives at the Ransom Center (179). The chapter also describes, in careful detail, the background surrounding the production and dissemination of Joyce's work in a way that serves to highlight the "textual condition of all electronic objects." Doing so, he says, "recovers works of electronic literature from the deceptive strata of pure virtuality and restores them to a temporal and historical situation usually belied by the sheer superficiality of the screen" (185). Re-reading this line, I am reminded of Kate Pullinger's The Breathing Wall, where the user's breath is the necessary element for propelling the data that, ultimately, comprises the narrative that plays out on the screen. So seemingly ephemeral is breath, yet so full of substance it is that it can help to tell a story. In Chapter five, "Text Messaging: The Transformation of 'Agrippa,'" Kirschenbaum completes his case studies with an investigation of the hacking and dissemination of Gibson's poem, "Agrippa," a project that, he claims, "shares some affinities with a genre of electronic writing known as artifactual fiction, where a piece of electronic literature is presented as a found object amid other documentary materials" (221). "A meme rather than an artifact" (229), the poem is, according to Kirschenbaum, "the best example ... of the capacity of a digital object to take on and accumulate a material, indexical layer of associations." He goes on to point to the final period of the work, a "material mark" made by the software program that more than likely was associated with the ASCII "version" (231). While all chapters offer a compelling read, this particular one contains the most tension and, so, satisfies like a mystery story can only do.
The final portion of the book, entitled "Coda: The Forensic Imagination," follows the structure of each individual chapter with a coda fleshing out final thoughts on the topics raised. It constitutes, therefore, the final thoughts on the topics raised in the book in its entirety. He explains more directly what he means by the "forensic imagination" (250), saying that it "is no less active a modality in new media [that] stands in contrast to the media ideology and screen essentialism that has held sway in the theoretical conversation's critical formative years" (254). Other touches that need to be recognized includes the use of footnotes, which helps to flesh out and underpin Kirschenbaum's ideas expressed throughout, and an Appendix that provides even more detail about the hacking of "Agrippa" told in Chapter five.
Stepping back, we can see that Mechanisms is an important book, but not only for the obvious reasons. Yes, it offers the conclusive evidence, the smoking gun (guns since there are three of them), that we have need for talking about the materiality of digital texts. Yes, the book contributes to the growing body of scholarship on platform studies and introduces the study of forensics to digital media. But most importantly, it offers the philosophical and methodological framework needed to grow the field, for it helps to move the humanities toward a renaissance of close reading and textual study, revitalizing it and providing it a strong central practice. Mechanisms is a must read for all of us working in digital media who wonder where it is headed and where it needs to go.
I was enjoying a short break between sessions while at a conference in Zurich, Switzerland. Sitting with me was a digital media artist-scholar trained first in the fine arts. Hayles's Writing Machines had just come out in press, and I was in the midst of reviewing it for Leonardo Reviews. Discussing her book with my lunch partner, the topic turned to the materiality of electronic texts, which as I mentioned previously, was a central argument in the book. My friend rejected her premise: Paintings on canvas are material, he reminded me, but a work of digital art on the computer is immaterial. One wonders, now that we have not one but two excellent books making this point, what my friend now thinks about the subject.
Hayles, N. Katherine. "Electronic Literature: What Is It?" Electronic Literature Organization. 2 Apr. 2010. «http://eliterature.org/pad/elp.html».
— . Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge Press, 1982. http://dx.doi.org/10.4324/9780203328064