Hyperrhiz 20

Locked in Translation: “Digital” Literature and the Embodied Frameworks of Language

Chloe Anna Milligan
University of Florida

Citation: Milligan, Chloe Anna. “Locked in Translation: “Digital” Literature and the Embodied Frameworks of Language.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 20, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/020.int02

Abstract: In this essay, I make a case for a critically provocative redefinition of the digital. “Digital,” regarding its popular meaning in relation to media, references digits as in numbers—the data signals 0 and 1 which form the binary basis of computational operations. But another meaning of the term concerns “of or relating to…fingers,” our digits. In the multiply-mediated environment in which we operate, digital-numbers and digital-fingers merge, if we account for the ways we now interact with media through multiple, overlapping, conflicting haptic and tactile interfaces. I address a range of texts to argue that the ways we now approach digital media is dictated by frameworks of language but also expanded beyond language by/inextricably limited to the substance of our bodies. If we “re”-define digital media as having also to do, of having had always to do, with fingers, then this discussion could also include the long tradition of engagements with print literature and representation of embodied behaviors in analogue film. Therefore I discuss texts ranging from films by Dziga Vertov and Luis Buñuel as well as Modernist poetry by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein along my way towards digital literature by John Cayley and Annie Abrahams. These textual considerations are critically accented by my discussion of relevant scholarship by Aden Evens, N. Katherine Hayles, Jessica Pressman, Gregory L. Ulmer, and others. I ultimately argue that the frameworks of language through which we navigate proto-digital and digital literature have always been embodied, as literalized through the haptic, tactile, and “digital” ways we interface with medial texts.

Keywords: digital literature, haptic, embodiment, language, translation, Modernism, print, film, media archaeology.

“‘I like the French word, numérique, better. It’s more descriptive, and it doesn’t confuse with the reference to human fingers, to the digits’” (120).
—David Cronenberg, Consumed


Reading and interacting with media has always been an embodied, haptic experience. But the way we read is changing with the way we touch. If the converse is also true—that the way we touch is changing with the way we read, then the conversation around this paradigm shift needs refinement. In this essay, I make a case for a critically provocative redefinition of the ‘digital’ to argue that the frameworks of language through which interactors navigate literary media have always been embodied, as literalized through the haptic, tactile, and ‘digital’ ways in which to interface with medial texts. For ‘digital’ can mean something more in order to better encapsulate our interactive moment. In English, the word already encompasses a polysemic nature. ‘Digital’ not only accounts for ‘digit’ (number), which operates digital media, but it can also point to human ‘digit(s)’ (Latin digitus, finger), which manipulate ‘digital’ media—in this case, that could mean any media that invite touch and evoke haptic affect. My redefinition of the ‘digital’ is more accurately a reallocation, a cutting up and folding in of preexisting definitions into a new configuration of the old: a dual definition of the ‘digital.’ In our hypermediated environment, these definitions of digital-numbers and digital-fingers coalesce, accounting for some of the ways human users now interact with media through multiple, overlapping, sometimes conflicting haptic interfaces. I highlight the ‘haptic’ as literary, linguistic, and rhetorical construct through ‘digital’ encounters with the conflicts between embodied interfaces and embodied frameworks of language as seen through instances of print literature, film, and digital literature, from high modernism to hypermedia. For how humans now approach digital media is filtered by frameworks of language, expanded beyond language through lived contexts, and equally limited to the substance of living bodies. These layering contradictions help us realize that even the immaterial aspects of reading and writing are material—not so much lost in translation as locked in translation. 

As digital media attain ubiquity, a comprehensive definition of the term ‘digital’ is in order. The adjective ‘digital,’ regarding its most popular meaning in relation to digital media, references digits as in numbers—the data signals 0 and 1 which form the binary basis of most computational operations. Circa 1450, the first part of that definition entered the linguistic conversation, when Johannes de Sacrobosco’s De Arte Numerandi was translated into Middle English as Art of Nombryng (Sleight 112). “Digitalle nombre[s]” and associated definitions popped up over the next few centuries (“digital, n. and adj.”). It was not until 1938 when ‘digital’ and its noun form ‘digits’ began to refer to data for electronic storage. ‘Digital,’ though, now increasingly refers less to its actual referents and more to the vague sense surrounding its applied technologies and media. Aden Evens states that ambience is built into the Logic of the Digital, for its “founding principle” is “namely, abstraction” (7). But before digital technology programmed this semantic drift into our technocultures, there was (and still is) another definition for ‘digital.’ Thomas Blount, in his 1656 dictionary Glossographia, includes this interpretation for ‘digital:’ “pertaining to a finger” (“digital, n. and adj.”). In common lexicon, “of or relating to (…) fingers” is becoming a rarified meaning for ‘digital’ (“digital, n. and adj.”). An update to the seemingly settled conversation surrounding ‘digital’ may serve as an intervention. The ‘digital’ confusion of the English word offers a theoretically poignant blurring of terms much needed when digital media increasingly signify haptic interaction. Therefore, I argue that to best re-define digital media in order to reemphasize the role of fingers in medial interactions, this discussion needs to include the long tradition of engagements with proto-digital (print) literature, as well as representations of embodied behaviors in analogue film.

From screen to page, keyboard to typewriter, mouse to finger, etc., I follow Siegfried Zielinski’s advice from Deep Time of the Media to “not seek the old in the new, but something new in the old” (3). As what Terry Harpold calls in Ex-Foliations “the upgrade path” accelerates faster and faster, the “old” can include even what is still in current use (3). I argue, in this case, that the desktop interfaces of keyboard and mouse best represent how language confronts its embodied frameworks via ‘digital’ interaction, where letters become keys and interactions discrete clicks. Despite essential scholarship interfacing with literature and media art for touchscreen, media scholars cannot yet abdicate the aspects of “translation as ‘black-box’” to the black boxes of “invisible interfaces” (Raley 124; Emerson 1). John Tinnell admits in Actionable Media that “much of the content and software comprising [even] (…) ubicomp experience was likely created by someone sitting at a keyboard” (38), so I urge a restart at that juncture. The ‘digital’ components of fingers/numbers and embodiment/language converge upon the binary interface of keyboard/mouse, where interactors encounter that “digitization and binarization do not stop at the plastic and glass parts of the interface. Crucially, the user’s body, her habits of motion, her self-consciousness, these are also digitized even while the body remains irreducibly corporeal” (Evens 66). Evens further states the mediation of keyboard/mouse better totalizes the logic of the digital through discrete rather than the more immediate touch of touchscreens that “reduce articulation” (72). Such articulation relies most upon “the tactility of typing, perhaps because of its intimate proximity to language” (Evens 65), even in works of digital literature that only approach the linguistic interface of the keyboard symbolically through the mouse. As much as digital technology conditions us to its uses then, its conditions are caught up in contexts of language(s) which determine different experiences for different language users.

For ‘digital’ is not the only word in the only language to refer to digital media. I admit my punning on the dual definition of the ‘digital’ works best primarily in English; that linguistic tension is what motivates this argument, which I type from my QWERTY keyboard as opposed to the French AZERTY variation which would completely reorient my relationship to writing proficiency. For example, numérique is the French word in reference to computational media. Its etymology refers to the numerical substrate of computation, without the generative confusion of a competing meaning for digits, i.e., fingers. The French language seems to separate media and medial experience. French use of the English digital, however, has apparently been gaining ground for a few years now, according to a 2015 report by digital service provider Econocom. Despite the finger-wagging of the Académie Française against digital, Anglicisms boast some insidious ubiquity. (The Académie Française meanwhile aims at preserving the linguistic legacy of French.) Econocom declares, “in reality, digital is increasingly used by French-speakers (…) to the point where it has become part of everyday parlance and essentially has the same semantic function as its French equivalent.” Anthony Mathé provides an intriguing truce between languages, as he “believes there is a subtle distinction between the two terms: numérique refers to technology as it is used by engineers, whereas digital is about users’ practice of technology” (Econocom n.p.). My dual definition of the digital is perhaps already being cultivated singularly in French.

Conflicts and confluences between languages—English and French, computer code and more—complement the aesthetic moves I make toward the haptic through the ‘digital,’ from high modernism to hypermedia. For the creative works in this essay concern haptic, tactile embodiment as much as they do embodied frameworks of language. The impetus for this argument first launches off from the critically interventional work of Jessica Pressman in Digital Modernism. Her goal is to “conjoin electronic literature to the modernist period” (9). For the avant-garde aesthetics which modernism perfected is what Pressman now argues “digital modernism thus remakes (…) in new media” (10). But digital modernism’s routes from the literary to the medial must cross language barriers and cultural divides. English and French rub against one another as language and media rub against their embodied frameworks. Modernism models such tensions. Those tensions lead to what Abbie Garrington calls Haptic Modernism. Garrington situates literary works of modernism in contexts of the artistic avant-garde as much as the scientific, technologically progressive. For example, around the same time that F. T. Marinetti penned “Tactilism: A Futurist Manifesto” (1921), the cinema, the X-ray machine, and the automobile were changing notions of embodiment. Thus,

modernist literature both responds and contributes to a kind of ‘hinge point’ in the multi-stranded history of the haptic, drawing on theorisations from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to consolidate a notion of the role of touch for the perceiving subject, and therefore providing the groundwork for the many purposes to which the notion of the haptic is put in the later twentieth- and twenty-first-century world. (Garrington 17)

In other words, modernist literature situates itself between what was, and what will be for the ‘haptic,’ just as digital literature does. Garrington’s most crucial contribution is to state that “the human hand can be read as the ‘poster boy’ for a set of somatic experiences which we can call the haptic” (16). I propose then a transition which bridges Pressman and Garrington’s modernist discussions to ‘digital’ modernism. The dual definition of the ‘digital’ can apply to film, modernist poetry, and ‘digital’ media to show that the way we read is changing with the way we touch. To trace that change entails entangling with the embodied frameworks of language which encompass all such media.

Mythical Universalities, Embodied Particularities

Digital media caught between languages have their unexpected predecessors in the arguably non-‘digital’ medium of film. Film, as part of this media archaeological trajectory, shows the ways in which the visual cooperates with the haptic. Modernist silent film, crucially in contrast, exposes ocularcentrism in discussions of not only film but even new media. The importance of my dual definition of the ‘digital’ to the ‘haptic’ registers in its division from ocularcentrism. Redefining the digital—however imperfectly—can be, as Pressman has come to argue, a feminist, queer, and materialist intervention in media studies and digital literature criticism. I therefore join feminist theorists who critique ocularcentric perspectives of film by “link[ing] vision to the distanciation from the body and to the objectification and control of self and others” (Marks 133). For Laura U. Marks, in The Skin of the Film, the visual and haptic cooperate as “haptic visuality, [in which] the eyes themselves function like organs of touch” (162). In her argument, “haptic visuality” involves new ways of seeing which are “distinguished from optical visuality (…) in other words, how we usually conceive of vision” (162). These ways are “more inclined to move than to focus, more inclined to graze than to gaze”; embodied acts through which Marks frames her departure away from ocularcentric film scholarship that treats viewership as immaterial, intellectual practice (162). She proposes a more embodied relationship to spectatorship, that realizes “the senses and the intellect are not separate” (151). Viewing happens through the haptic body, not only through the conceptual eye of ocularcentrism.

Similarly, Garrington explores haptic—rather than ocularcentric—dimensions of early cinema through close readings of modernist print literary respondents which propose certain cine-haptic futures: the “feelies” scene from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Marinetti’s “Tactilism” (1921). The “feelies” are Huxley’s idea for futuristic “cinematic entertainment that seeks not only to thrill the eye, but also to stimulate the haptic responses of the human body, mediated through the grasp of the viewer’s/feeler’s hand” upon galvanic knobs (Garrington 33). The science fictional “‘feelies’ (…) find their closest corresponding description in Marinetti’s 1921 manifesto, where he proposes the creation of ‘tactile theaters’ in which seated spectators will ‘place their hands on long, tactile conveyor belts which will produce tactile sensations that have different rhythms’” (36-7). Both ideas—one science fictional, the other futurist—explore a way to incorporate haptic and tactile sensation into visual sense experience. Despite the technological lack of ‘digital’ manipulation, Garrington still argues that the primarily visual “cinema—with only a flat screen, and without the benefit of galvanic knobs—is able to stimulate the whole human sensorium,” to treat viewers, in the words of Siegfried Kracauer, “as a ‘human being with skin and hair’” (40, qtd. in Garrington 40).

There are, however, elements of the human sensorium that film does not quite touch—which the ‘what-ifs’ of galvanic knobs and conveyor belts, and later the instantiated realities of keyboard and mouse do. These technologies embody what I more specifically address: not quite Marks’s “haptic visuality,” but instead visual hapticity. Visual hapticity is a different symbiotic relationship between sight and touch which film represents but does not provide for. Interactions with ‘digital’ literature that users take for granted may perhaps serve as interventions into my term. In this sense, Evens contributes to visual hapticity with an analysis of details that most would overlook:

Ironically, the sensory division between vision and touch may contribute to the simulated wholeness of each, as their noninterference makes it easier to correlate their relationship: since eyes do not see hands (…) Touch never actually touches what it reaches for, and vision helps to sustain the illusion that masks this aborted tactility. (67-8)

“Aborted tactility” is, more evocatively, deferred tactility, a type of Derridean haptic différance. It is not until interactors swap out the film screen for other medial surfaces that narrative experiences enact this haptic différance and become ‘digital.’ I am not referring solely to newer media, even as I do emphasize digital literature. The contexts of typewriter, print block, and manipulation of paginated media equally matter. So too does the film screen before the computer screen, where haptic visuality models what becomes visual hapticity.

First, however, ocularcentric approaches to the film screen especially fueled fantasies of universal communication during the silent era, before movies became ‘talkies.’ Anton Kaes addresses this belief in Shell Shock Cinema, that since silent films “requir[ed] little translation, the[ir] ‘universal language’ (…) could be understood everywhere” (19). This erroneous hope in movies as universal communicator ignores culturally constructed contexts which create and form understandings of particular body movements, or body language, particular to certain cultures. Nevertheless, that did not stop Lev Manovich from using Dziga Vertov’s 1929 documentary film Man with a Movie Camera to propose a starting point for The Language of New Media (Figure 1). By “language,” rather than “a single language of new media,” he assures that he “use[s] ‘language’ as an umbrella term to refer to a number of various conventions used by designers of new media objects to organize data and structure the user’s experience” (7). But though Manovich may claim not to mean language, his use of the word implicitly signifies concepts akin to the “‘universal language’” of silent cinema. Any disingenuity here, on Manovich’s part, is directly correlated to his cinephilia throughout the book, best summed up by hyperbole: “cinema is now becoming the cultural interface, a toolbox for all cultural communication, overtaking the printed word” (86, emphasis in original). In other words: new media are either cinematic or they are not new.

Figure 1. The “Kino-Eye” of ocularcentrism in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Film still.

Therein lies Manovich’s tell: his interest in film purveys a disinterest in writing and betrays a belief that a universal language (even for new media) can move beyond it. His choice, then, of Man with a Movie Camera as modernist forerunner to the “database imagination” is critically significant, for Vertov’s film is famous for having no intertitles (Manovich 239). That is, except for the title card which opens the film (in Russian, thus requiring translation) and self-reflexively boasts that it has no intertitles (Figure 2). I critique here Vertov and Manovich’s disingenuous disavowals of written language. Tinnell similarly gives Manovich his due even as he corrects him. He begins by granting that what Manovich builds off the argument “that new media is cinematic by nature (…) should be critically appreciated,” but moves on to declare: “cinema is no longer the default arbiter of new media histories, theories, and practices” (89). His move is “to probe what Manovich discarded, guided by a belief that the rising technocultural paradigm beckons attention to histories and theories of writing” (90). I thus conjoin visual and haptic components of both film and writing to better appreciate their material overlaps. Moving pictures elicit embodied responses approximate to those materialized by interactions with written words. And written words, long before and well after moving pictures, are images too. These meetings in the mediated middle deconstruct myths of visually “universal language” by pointing to the particularities of embodied encounters with both film (image) and writing (text).

Figure 2. Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera, title card. Film still. Translation: “This experimental work aims at creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature.”

Ezra Pound, however, turned to Chinese as writing that was both image and text for purposes similar to Vertov’s filmmaking mission. The embodied frameworks of language here, from modernism to ‘digital’ modernism, largely concern conflicts between English and French, but Chinese now enfolds as another language increasingly important to the contemporary moment. ‘Digital’ punning makes most sense in English; Chinese more closely matches French as 数字 (shùzì) translates best to numerical. Recent data hints at what matters about these linguistic overlaps. The latest Internet World Stats report tells us that a billion Internet users speak English, yet only around one hundred twenty million speak French—meanwhile, Chinese Internet users now total over eight hundred million. But well before the world became ‘universally’ networked, Ezra Pound became fascinated with Chinese for its own kind of universal potential. Pound works off the logic that words are images too with a little Orientalist assumption in his approach to Chinese as simply (erroneously) an ideographic and pictographic language. Pound ‘discovered’ in the Chinese ideogram a linguistic equivalent to silent cinema: “a visual medium for universal communication” (Pressman 141). He edited considerably Ernest Fenollosa’s unfinished essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” to argue that Chinese “[is] a medium that records and projects the natural world” (Pressman 142). It is through this Orientalist technologizing that Pound ‘translates’ classical Chinese poetry for his 1915 collection Cathay. Pound, like Fenollosa before him, hardly knew any Chinese. Nevertheless, he saw in the Chinese ideogram the Imagist mission for “‘direct treatment of the thing’” (qtd. in Pressman 140), so his passion for the project helps him approximate some of the spirit of the original Chinese poems. Yet no one has to “excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies” to state plainly that his poetic treatments of these texts are not quite translations (Yip 88). They are better understood as new poems in their own right, which denigrates the Chinese language as an exotic souvenir to be fetishized for colonialist exploitation.  

Pound’s poetic practice of “translation” is based upon earlier projects that attempted to decode phenomena through binarization inspired by “the conceptual correspondence between Yin/Yang” in Chinese (Pressman 144). Pressman further states that Chinese and binary code have much in common as ‘utopian’ sign systems, for “the idea that a binary operating function underlies a universe of dualities becomes the foundation for the mathematical structure of binary states in digital computing” (144)—from Yin/Yang to 0/1. Therefore, just as Pound saw a universal poetic medium in Chinese, computationalists after him have come to similarly believe “the digital code that makes computers run can enable universal language” (Pressman 138). Of course, “universal language is not possible—even in cyberspace—because languages are codes programmed by human beings” (135); they must operate within their embodied frameworks. The embodied frameworks of language and the bodies that interface through them “exist, perform, and operate within specific networks and systems of protocols” (138). So, Chinese remains an Orientalist enigma for those frameworks of literary, linguistic, ‘digital’ bodies which attempt to incorporate it. Where modernist film and poetry mythologize escapes outside of language, ‘digital’ modernist composition could more honestly confront linguistic complications.

Figure 3. John Cayley’s translation (2004) transliterates both different languages and different media. Screenshot.

John Cayley, then, composes digital literature in the form of “transliteral morphing” poetry that invests in the overlaps between language and technology. “Transliteral morphing,” N. Katherine Hayles explains in Electronic Literature, is “a computational procedure that algorithmically morphs, letter by letter, from a source text to a target text”—in Cayley’s poetic practice, it is “designed to explore the analogy between the discreteness of binary code and the discrete nature of alphabetic languages” (145). Cayley’s digital literature engages the technical challenge of incorporating text into realms of computational language. The poet has made several QuickTime text movies that present a digital cinematic epilogue to the myth of film as visual universal communicator, and show instead a recording of linguistic communication in all its halting particularities. Ultimately, his work can be read in response to Pound’s Orientalist fantasy as critique of, and commentary on the mutability rather than universality of language. There is no ‘direct treatment of the thing,’ for the thing is always changing through textual morphing based on letter replacement.

Cayley’s translation (2004) allows interactors to confront their material control—or lack thereof—over the seemingly immaterial qualities of language (Figure 3). More accurately, Rita Raley calls it his “Translation series,” since there are multiple versions of the text, “translation5” being the popularly canonized version featured in the Electronic Literature Collection 1 (123-4). Cayley originally created translation for the (now defunct) programmable version of QuickTime which would allow for the user inputs of “translation5” whose text is now most closely realized via QuickTime Player 7. He considers translation to be “literal art in digital media that demonstrate[s] an ‘ambient’ time-based poetics” through textual morphing (translation’s description). Cayley serves up excerpts from Walter Benjamin’s “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man” (1916) and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (2003 [1913-27]) for transliteration across English, French, German, and some form of coded script between. Raley further explains that these layers of language unveil across layers of media:

the verso features a scanned image of a printed page from a German-language version of Proust and the recto a transcription of the same, along with excerpts from Benjamin’s essay, the cyclical operations of the different textual states conveying the sense that the viewer is witness to a real-time translational performance (124).

Thus, Raley emphasizes that page and screen, German and French, Proust and Benjamin all act their part in the ‘live’ transliteration. The performance of “translation5” cycles passages through states “which Cayley tropes as floating (that is, momentarily existing in a fully legible state), surfacing (coming into legibility), and sinking (becoming illegible)” to the discordant tune of generative music by Giles Perring (Hayles 147). Cayley’s translation espouses the notion of ‘digital’ as I define it, and it allows interactors to warp Perring’s soundtrack through the text as a type of instrument. Raley claims that “translation5” enacts a “sense of responsiveness and relative immediacy” through “the single keystroke” which makes its liquid transliterations solidify into only one of the three (four, counting the programming) languages (124, emphasis mine). But Raley’s description is not quite accurate, as “translation5” more specifically requires, in order to join in the textual performance, that interactors hold down particular key combinations: ‘shift-d’ for German, ‘shift-f’ for French, ‘shift-e’ for English. Once interactors release those keys, the text continues to morph. Therefore, just as translation features Benjamin’s point that “Translation is removal from one language into another through a continuum of transformations,” its text self-reflexively performs it (70). “translation5,” as part of Cayley’s translation series, activates “channels of communication between embodied practice, tacit knowledge, and conscious thought” (Hayles 147). “Conscious thought” becomes tactile knowledge through interactors’ embodied practice when collaborating with translation as ‘digital’ literature.

Embodied relationships in touch with ‘digital’ literature require surfaces of interaction both textual and tactile to test out where languages meet material boundaries. Cayley comments that “‘the surface of writing is and always has been complex. It is a liminal symbolically interpenetrated membrane, a fractal coast or borderline, a chaotic and complex structure with depth and history’” (qtd. in Hayles 160). The surface of translation is certainly complex, as Raley explains the ways in which it “thematizes translation-as-movement between so-termed human languages (German to French), as well as between media and compositional environments (the printed page to a QuickTime library), and programming languages (C++ to machine code)” (125). Its material surface depicts through medial shift of remediated page to representational screen the translational clash and compromise of one language into another. The “depth and history” which add to the complexity of the writing surface clash with compromise between languages in translation where it must confront linguistic hierarchization. In Benjamin’s source text, he states that the greatest power of language is in the “name,” for “Man is the namer; by this we recognize that through him pure language speaks. All nature, insofar as it communicates itself, communicates itself in language, and so finally in man (...) Man can call name the language of language” (65, emphasis mine). Benjamin’s anthropocentric claim draws on the Biblical myth of Adam in the Garden of Eden given authority by God to name all the animals. Higher power or computer power, Hayles bisects that “while Benjamin looks upward for the translating force, Cayley looks downward” (149). For code could similarly be “the language of language.” As above, so below, Benjamin’s point stands: naming fixes a thing in conceptual place. When interactors hold down keys in translation, they attempt to “name” the text, to enforce the language of language materially, as if to get on the same page with the writing surface through the mediated relationship of keyboard and screen (Figure 4).

Figure 4. John Cayley’s translation “name[d]” in English. Screenshot.

These material relationships, however, even ‘shift-d’ and ‘shift-f,’ are filtered through English’s linguistic privilege. Pressman reveals the far-from-universal state of affairs concerning computer technology: “English is not only the base for high-level markup languages; it is English all the way down into the layers of programming that enable computer processing and Internet communications” (149). But while it may be for a while longer that “English is the language of the web,” it is “not of the world” (Pressman 150). French and Chinese unsettle any perception which scripts otherwise. translation as ‘digital’ literature demonstrates through encounters with the embodied frameworks of language that “translation is at the heart of digital literature, despite rhetoric about the potential of digital code and computing to produce universal communication” (Pressman 156). From mythical universalities of language onto actually realized particularities of embodied communication, the discussion now swaps back from Cayley’s dark QuickTime screens to black and white film projectors and white-space, black-text pages that are just as critically estranging.

An Affect of New Media

Here’s a question that should keep this essay’s trajectory headed away from universal languages for film, print, and/or new media: what if Manovich just chose the wrong film? Therefore, I propose instead Luis Buñuel’s 1929 surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou as a more accurate version of modernist film feeling out what ‘digital’ media do now. Un Chien Andalou espouses an affect of new media which emphasizes how embodied interactions with media materially matter. The film most infamously makes audiences feel what they view by depicting harm to the viewing apparatus in its iconic eyeball slicing scene (Figure 5). Through brutal, brief editing, viewers first witness a man (played by Buñuel himself) sharpening a razor as a cloud creeps across the sky toward the moon. Then suddenly that same man holds a woman’s (Simone Mareuil) face in close-up and brings the razor right up to her eye. As the earlier cloud ‘slices’ across the moon, the next shot is an extreme close-up of the razor slicing open an eye, its vitreous jelly pooling out of it. Nearly everyone who sees this scene cannot help but to cringe; the eye is the most sensitive, vulnerable external organ of the human body. Buñuel acts out his project here to move viewers away from ocularcentrism through the eye itself, treated not as passive screen but as responsive skin which does not just see but also feels. Marks proposes that, “if cinema is perceived by a whole body, vision is inextricable from the other senses” (148). Vision’s equally embodied vulnerability is what conjoins it with fellow senses to bodily identify with screen phenomena. Even after learning that Buñuel obviously didn’t slice Mareuil’s eye, but that of a dead calf bleached to resemble the human face, for most viewers the effect and affect should remain the same. Animals were harmed in the making of this film, and human animals shiver at the same prospect for themselves.

Figure 5. The infamous eyeball slicing scene from Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929).

Un Chien Andalou addresses mediatic layers below the surface of the screen as well, through inscriptions which undergird its visual experience of confusion and disturbance. Unlike Vertov’s film, Un Chien Andalou does contain intertitles—but which only signify meaning while meaning nothing semantically. Buñuel’s film is peppered with phrases which pretend to but really possess no apparent bearing on the story they structure. All told, they include “Once upon a time,” “Eight years later,” “Around three in the morning,” “Sixteen years ago,” and “In spring.” As viewers shift attention from image to intertitle and back again, they may seek for new understanding in light of these inscriptions—but what they should really see is that whatever the words would be is arbitrary. They perform the form of intertitles but do not fulfill their purpose. They are more like a type of proto-code which produces effect and affect. Much like computer code employs the acts and marks of writing but does not abide by the semantics and syntax of typical natural language grammars, the intertitles throughout Un Chien Andalou create superfluous meaning more than they signify any easily discernible meaning inherently. Buñuel codes before computer code as we know it by repurposing the written for different avenues of writing. “Eight years later” does not mean that anything has changed by the passage of time in this film, similar to how the tag ‘<head>’ in HTML documents does not mean ‘head.’ Un Chien Andalou shows the shape of words, but it is more interested in them as <head> tags, that is, containers of metadata which do something else with words than just communicate surface semantics. Wordplay, playing with words as code, is what underlies affect and embodied response. Even in the foremost ocular arena of cinema, language and embodiment enmesh, and this splice spells out a way toward the haptic through the dual definition of the digital. Spectators may not have been able to put their fingers on the screen yet, but that would soon change, based off innovations already sought across the page.

In her 1914 poetry collection Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein uses English itself as a code for new meanings, estranging readers from typical strategies of intelligibility. Stein, the feminist lesbian experimental modernist poet, is an essential candidate to address the feminist, queer, and materialist, as well as modernist perspectives into ‘digital’ literature. She can especially speak to the contested sites of transnational literature for both embodiment and language between English and French, as Marjorie Perloff biographizes: “Stein chose exile [from the United States] in large measure because the familial and cultural pressures of her native country would have made it all but impossible to live a homosexual life (…) The double bind of sexual and national difference (…) produced, in Stein’s case (…) a very special relationship to language” (38). Caught between cultures, social codes, politics, and languages, she worked from this liminal space to rework her native English. Her alphabetic code of sorts uses words to create affect they were not intended for, through new configurations. Of course, the effect of her deliberate disobedience to ‘proper’ use of English had its critics. A review contemporary to Stein’s publication from the Louisville Courier-Journal judges that “‘the words in the volume entitled Tender Buttons are English words, but the sentences are not English sentences according to the grammatical definition. The sentences indicated by punctuation do not make complete sense, partial sense, nor any other sense, but nonsense’” (qtd. in Perloff 36). Nevertheless, her poetry does achieve a transcendent sense beyond the grammatical sentence.

In “Objects,” the first section of Tender Buttons, Stein reveals the deeper and more provocative possibilities of meaning for various everyday things. She even opens up the material form of the book itself for metatextual speculation in “Book.” Taking its title from the opening lines of Stein’s poem, Andrew Piper’s Book Was There states that it is the book’s “thereness that is both essential for understanding the medium of the book (…) and also for reminding us that we cannot think about our electronic future without contending with its antecedent, the bookish past” (ix). But Stein’s poetry as proto-digital literature is also proto-‘digital’ in ways that shorten those gaps between media and medial user. Perloff observes that, with Tender Buttons, Stein “called into question (…) the standard print block of the conventional book” (57). “Book” does so through seemingly nonstandard analogies which explore the embodied aspects of reading and readers by hinting at books as bodies. The enjambed idea between its third and fourth stanzas reads, “Chest not valuable, be papered. / Cover up cover up the two with a little piece of string and hope rose and green, green” (30). Playing off the easier reading of “chest” as treasure chest, if it is not “valuable,” then it must be a different kind of chest: breast. “Cover up cover up the two” strengthens this reading with a provocative Anglo-French confluence, for Tender Buttons translates to tendres boutons in French, a slang phrase for women’s nipples. But the poem commands to cover up those two “with a little piece of string” and for the chest to “be papered,” so tendres boutons become Tender Buttons, the book complete with binding and pages. Ever since Stein wrote “Book” and its book, scholars have undressed the sexuality simmering just below the surface of the page. This sexualized embodiment in her poetry can be medial embodiment, as Bernadette Wegenstein claims in Getting Under the Skin that “the medium has become the body” (xix, emphasis in original). Regarding the reference to women’s nipples, Kathryn Kent suggests in Making Girls into Women that Stein thus invites readers to “tend her buttons” and participate in Stein’s “sexual/textual manipulations” (151). As readers primarily do so through fingers, those manipulations are furthermore ‘digital.’

The following sections of Tender Buttons unlock other aspects of its theses pointing toward the proto-‘digital.’ It more explicitly transitions from examination of folio to flesh in the second section “Food.” Its first poem, “Roastbeef,” muses: “In feeling anything is resting, in feeling anything is mounting, in feeling there is resignation, in feeling there is recognition, in feeling there is recurrence” (35). Stein’s feminist project in Tender Buttons emphasizes a shift from intellectu to sensu: to move away from knowing which must see how things make sense. Her book shifts away from the intellectual arrogance of ocularcentrism through the page rather than the screen. Stein is “claiming nothing, not claiming anything”; she instead “makes a harmony” through haptic visuality which feels the texture of text as image (38). And readers in turn engage in visual hapticity by feeling the pages of text as texture. Rebecca Scherr calls this material reciprocity Stein’s “‘tactile aesthetic’ (…) [which] engenders new reading and representational practices” (193). In Scherr’s words, “just as to touch is always, also, to be touched, the tactile work of art asks its audience to become active participants in the aesthetic exchange” (193). Stein’s invitation comes to symbolic fruition in the final section “Rooms,” which through one long and more formless prose poem instructs readers to “act so that there is no use in a center” (63). Recurring motifs of “Rooms” include centers, borders, and moves beyond them. Stein employs the legacy of the page as patriarchal writing surface to subvert the domestic, ‘feminine’ spaces of living room, kitchen, bedroom, etc. The centers and borders of the “Rooms” of Tender Buttons’ pages encourage acts from the reader that escape them. Stein begins these interventions out of the book by defusing its printed units through a poetic strategy that encodes language through language as code. Throughout the ways in which she describes things, Stein’s nonsense draws our attention to the “thingness” of the word (Ong 11). Scherr connects “Stein’s belief in the materiality of language, that is, in the thingness of language” to Stein’s inspiration “to use words to mime what bodies and objects feel like,” another way in which “Stein was very much concerned with the tactile quality of language, its textures and the expression of ‘touchability’” (193). Feeling out “thingness” could be how Stein “claim[s] nothing” and “makes” her “succession” (38). Marjorie Perloff says of Stein’s legacy: “Not until such later avant-garde movements as Fluxus, Oulipo, or Language poetry have the implications of Steinian poetics been fully realized” (59). As these later movements are precursors to digital literature, it seems Stein’s interest in writing things opens an avenue toward ‘digital’ literature’s written things.

These thingnesses can connect through theories of inscription. For Walter Ong tells us in Orality and Literacy that “writing makes ‘words’ appear similar to things because we think of words as the visible marks signaling words to decoders: we can see and touch such inscribed ‘words’ in texts and books. Written words are residue” (11). If written is residue, then there must be something which places it there: inscription technologies. Hayles defines examples of inscription technologies in Writing Machines:

In print books words are obviously inscriptions because they take the form of ink marks impressed on paper. The computer also counts as an inscription technology, because it changes electric polarities and correlates these changes with binary code, higher-level languages such as C++ and Java, and the phosphor gleams of the cathode ray tube. To count as an inscription technology, a device must initiate material changes that can be read as marks. (24, emphasis in original)

As inscription technologies initiate material changes, they often incite cultural changes. Ong discusses the inscription technologies which change orality into literacy; but there is yet another epochal leap to take, and its first steps begin with modernism. Gregory L. Ulmer also highlights the rematerialized transnational legacies of the avant-garde, in his endeavor to invent ‘electracy,’ the electronically mediated cultural apparatus to follow orality and literacy. In Avatar Emergency, he argues expansively “to adopt the modernist arts plane of composition (invented in Paris) (…) as a relay” for electrate writing practice (43, emphasis mine). Appealing to the rhetorical history of ancient Greece as ‘ground zero’ for the Western emergence of literacy, Ulmer boldly analogizes: “Paris is the Athens of electracy” (40). He refers to Paris as the epicenter of the avant-garde due to its art, its “bohemia,” and its cabarets (40). These cultural motivators of modernism form the contexts around developing inscription technologies by creating artistic space for their uses. Ulmer, like Pressman, pursues the early twentieth-century avant-garde as twenty-first-century medial relief. A synthesis of their work emphasizes that neither the modernist avant-garde nor its twenty-first-century recurrence is monolingual. The cultural contexts of inscription technologies then and now are not either. In this essay, they are linguistically and corporeally bound by the embodied frameworks of language in both English and French. In one of his well-known explanations of electracy, Ulmer analogizes that, “what literacy is to the analytical mind, electracy is to the affective body: a prosthesis that enhances and augments a natural or organic human potential” (“Electracy and Pedagogy”). But electracy’s prosthesis through inscription technologies of digital media is further ‘digital’; the dimensions which define electracy all layer upon the writing surfaces of digital literature through embodied frameworks of language.

Figure 6. Full text of Annie Abrahams’s Separation/Séparation (2003), earned upon completion of its poetic physical therapy. Screenshot.

The computer is an inscription technology which “initiates material changes” upon not just textual screens but literal bodies, as Annie Abrahams mourns in Separation/Séparation (2003). While Stein metaphorically combines the body and the book in Tender Buttons, through what Scherr calls her tactile aesthetic which titillates “Tactile Erotics,” in Abrahams’s ‘digital’ poem, when the computer’s “body bec[omes] mine,” the visual hapticity is not nearly as sexy (Separation/Séparation). If electracy enhances the affective body, then Abrahams insists that it also strains it. She makes her case in this poem about interactors’ physical relationships to the computer, programmed to resemble WorkPace’s Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) treatment software (Figure 6). The poem was “written during a stay in the hospital,” likely linked to the fact that, as Abrahams informs us, “All computer workers tend to forget their body, and so risk to be a victim of [RSI] one day” (Separation/Séparation). Likewise, Evens sets the stage for a similar scene:

The interface poses the body of the user, as evinced by the variety and frequency of interface-related illness. Eyestrain and carpal tunnel problems are among the most specific, but computing also places demands on neck, shoulders, and back, not to mention the consequences of the rigidity, stillness, and consistent posture imposed by the circumstance of computing. (67)

Abrahams would agree with Evens’s takeaway that “the interface ultimately controls the user’s entire body” (67); she likens this interaction to an abusive relationship in Separation/Séparation, one which she is leaving, making this text arguably the only computer breakup poem there is. For as Evens theorizes and Abrahams poeticizes, the computer is a cold and controlling partner. Abrahams accuses it directly: “you don’t feel my pain” (Separation/Séparation).

Figure 7. Abrahams’s Separation/Séparation rebukes readers to take the reading experience seriously. Screenshot.

In order to recover from that pain as well as compel interactors to empathize with it, Abrahams more than muses on the fallout of her medial relationship and RSI. She performs it through the platform with exercises which “the visitor is constrained to follow” (Separation/Séparation). In order to read the poem, interactors must equally experience it, one click at a time “slowly (as someone recovering from RSI),” and with interruptions for recovery exercises that postpone reading for brief moments (Abrahams n.p.). Try to read too fast, and the poem halts all interaction and chastises: “You don’t have the right attitude in front of your computer” (Figure 7). Once it allows interactors to continue their therapy, the poem invites them to a regimen including exercises such as contorting one’s face, stretching the chest and shoulders, and leaning back in one’s chair, with bizarre titles such as “show the pain,” “take courage,” and “pray the sky” (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Exercises of body and mind in Separation/Séparation. Screenshot.

While Stein’s “tactile work of art asks its audience to become active participants in the aesthetic exchange,” Abrahams’s more aggressively makes them (Scherr 193). Where Stein sexes the book, Abrahams villainizes the computer: both modernist and ‘digital’ modernist strategies unsettle established relationships with media through subtler avenues than the brute shock of Buñuel’s eyeball slice. This comparison is highlighted by Maya Zalbidea Paniagua, who incorporates Separation/Séparation into the following argument:

Avant-garde artists used the new artistic media: photography, cinema, [etc.] to reflect modern lifestyles and perceptions of reality influenced by the movements, speed and fragmentation that these machines implied. In a similar way hypertext writers use the electronic medium to reflect the Internet user experience (…) [for example] Annie Abrahams’s Separation/Séparation (2003) explores some of the physical and psychic disorders that result from intensive use of a computer. (70)

Abrahams describes “the Internet user experience” through questions which answer themselves, concluding, “How to relax a computer? / How to massage a computer?” One cannot. So while Separation/Séparation may be split by its dual language title, its performative therapies unify the experiences: computer-related strain can come for any speaker of any language in any body. But the poem’s interactive engine also arguably compromises both experiences back into an English context. Separation/Séparation is programmed in Adobe Flash and made to look like WorkPace’s RSI treatment software, which are both programs developed in the United States and coded in English. While Stein codes English in self-elected exile to France, Abrahams writes from France but, even in French, must confront English. Both poets bear much in common across the years, but in this case, their shared accomplishment is to test the embodied frameworks of language and fail in the attempt. They are not alone either: Buñuel attempts similar affects through cinema’s realm of senses. And Vertov, Pound, and Cayley also entangle with language in ways that work and/or definitely do not. Failure though does not have to be a dead end. Failure can be generative to teach medial users and language speakers of different technologies and tongues something new about both. Interactions with ‘digital’ media espouse the teaching potential of failure—even the failure of my own dual definition of the digital.


My proposal for a dual definition of the digital is itself locked in translation. For I have hinted at the limitations of my theorization by the embodied frameworks of language. Admitting the limitations of ‘digital’ media theory can be a corrective to larger discussions of the digital. Those digital discussions often give way to binary ways of thinking which influence and are influenced by binary code. Binarization propagates dominant values which can be dumbed down into digestible soundbites: true/false, right/wrong, etc. But there is a way out of binarized thinking and theorizing. My dual definition of the digital attempts to probe that through combination of fingers and numbers. What fingers and numbers have come to represent across this essay converge largely upon haptic, tactile attempts at knowing versus dematerialized, abstract ‘certainties’ of knowing. Outside of binary trues and falses, rights and wrongs, there are ways to critique digital certainties by attending to embodied particularities enmeshed with them through failure. For my dual definition of the digital does fail in its brushes with embodied frameworks of language. Future work remains to be done, for example, to unpack its riskily ableist rhetoric, as not everyone has the idealized body which presupposes fingers or the ability to utilize them in medial interactions. But even that important clarification is not a disqualification for my dual definition of the digital.

Digital media do not ‘like’ failure much: they often either work or do not work. But their human users can be right and wrong all at once, take two steps forward and then one step back, and find different kinds of success in the ways in which they fail. Cayley, Buñuel, Stein, and Abrahams—even Vertov and Pound—have made such strides. These artists, across analogue and digital media, perform attempts at embodied knowing through imperfect, always-already compromised means. Their aesthetic attempts communicate that the totality of human experience cannot be conveyed by medial constraints. That is a point for human embodiment, as culturally and linguistically structured as it is. Medial interaction—from making film, poetry, and new media art or even writing analyses about them—is what prompts many forms of digital media. The next time media prompt us, maybe we can respond differently with the ‘digital’ in mind—and body. Confronting the embodied frameworks of language through ‘digital’ literature for keyboard and mouse interfaces should show that feeling out the haptic as a rhetorical construct locked in translation requires a little bit of ‘not knowing,’ not being quite able to put one’s finger on it.

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