Beyond Writing Machines

Writing Machines, per the title of Katherine Hayles’ 2002 book, are the inscription technologies — the implements and tools — that produce literary texts. This nomenclature at first seems a bit off. These machines (Hayles refers to printing presses and computers, for instance) don’t write. They represent and inscribe the writings of human beings, but they do not create ex nihilo.

This apparent misnomer, however, actually reveals the thesis of Hayles’ book: the technologies by which and through which we apprehend writings are integral to, and perhaps constitutive of the meanings those writings manifest. In fact, we cannot speak of writing, Hayles argues, without referring to the machines that support its being and facilitate its appearance in the world.

This provocative thesis runs counter to prevailing opinion, on the street and in the academy. Hayles observes there has traditionally been “a sharp line between representations and the technologies producing them… literary studies has generally been content to treat fictional and narrative worlds as if they were entirely products of the imagination” (19). I believe she would agree that writing machines are effectively invisible to most readers — few might begin to recognize the profound ways in which their experience of meaning is shaped by the media through which they apprehend.  

“There is no reality independent of mediation,” Hayles remarks (110). She calls this the “crisis characteristic” of postmodernism. Generally, postmodernism might regard mediation as pure subjectivity — the mediation of consciousness through forms as space and time. In Writing Machines, however, Hayles goes some distance towards arguing that the notion of pure subjectivity is inadequate to account for the real ways in which our contemporary experience is mediated. New technotexts, she claims, actually suggest that “the appropriate model for subjectivity is a communication circuit rather than discrete individualism…narration remediation rather than representation, and…reading and writing inscription technology fused with consciousness rather than a mind conveying its thoughts directly to the reader” (130). In other words, apprehension of a representation of any sort of communication in a direct, one-to-one manner is not really possible. Meanings change, accrete, morph and refract as they pass through inscription technologies and become fodder for us. Regarding the locus of meaning, “Consciousness alone is no longer the relevant frame but rather consciousness fused with the technologies of inscription” (117).

The arguments Hayles builds through her analysis (or inhabitation) of such technotexts as Mark Danielewski’s bestselling House of Leaves are developed within the confines of literary theory, but seem to burst forth into the realm of contemporary epistemology. For, aren’t these remediated transactions characteristic of everyday experience in the western world? Indeed, Hayles says, “…the materiality of inscription thoroughly interpenetrates the represented world. Even when technology does not appear as a theme, it is woven into the fictional world through the processes that produce the literary work as material artifact” (130). A great deal of our existence is comprised of encounters with the represented world. To what extent does the ground Hayles traverses in Writing Machines offer insight into contemporary consciousness writ large?