Materiality Matters (More thoughts on Writing Machines)

Katherine Hayles has a bone to pick with traditional literary theorists — many of whom have long been content to regard literature, in essence, as a pure product of the imagination. Words and ideas, to them, are transferrable, unimpeachable forms that manifest only and exactly their author’s intent. A tidy notion, no doubt — it meshes easily with our historical views regarding mind and body, reason and emotion — but Hayles believes it is insufficient to adequately capture the way literary works actually create meaning. Hayles argues forcefully that a consideration of materiality is indispensible in literary studies. This claim comprises the central argument of Writing Machines, and she elaborated on it in a recent seminar with our Masters of Graphic Design class at NC State. Print, Hayles believes, is transparent to most readers and critics — and this is not only illusory, but dangerous. For our perception of our relationships with literary works — the vehicles of narrative meaning that inhabit the modern world — is foundationally compromised by a naïve insistence that literary ideas are independent of their intentionally-constructed physical apparatus.

Materiality, for Hayles, is not coextensive with physicality. To speak of a work’s materiality is to reference an admixture of physical attributes and human intention. Materiality is culturally anchored, and context-based. To get to the heart of the notion, Hayles introduces a kind of media-specific analysis: “a mode of critical inquiry attentive to the specificity of the medium in which a work is instantiated” (L. 3). Writing Machines features media-specific analyses of three very different literary works: Talen Memmott’s electronic text Lexia to Perplexia, Tom Phillips’ artist book A Humument, and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The materiality of the Writing Machines pamphlet itself embodies Hayles’ argument — mechanisms devised by designer Anne Burdick reflectively orient the reader with respect to the hybridity of verbal/visual meaning-making. A thread of loose autobiography runs through Writing Machines (and all the MIT Mediaworks series), further reinforcing that ideas do not, cannot exist independent of a body.

Interestingly, accounts of materiality quickly lead Hayles to descriptions of the circular relationship between a reader and a text. Particularly in technotexts — works that foreground the technologies used to produce them — relationships between readers and literary works become the precondition for consideration of those works. Technotexts “mobilize reflective loops” between the imaginary worlds they create and the material apparati that support their physical embodiment. In other words, to speak of this kind of text is immediately to call into consideration the particular culture and context of the subjectivity that regards it. The reader creates the text through her experience with it, as the text creates the reader through making possible her experience. This subjectivity is, then, supported in its being by the specificity of its encounter with the text. The text becomes the medium in which the processes of mind then run: “…we become part of a cybernetic circuit. Interpolated into the circuit, we metamorphose from individual interiorized subjectivities into actors exercising agency within the extended cognitive systems that include non-human actors” (51). Literature enables us to become new beings. Texts, when considered as material (in Hayles’ sense), perform human subjects “who cannot be thought” — who would not exist in this manner — without the “intelligent machines” that dialogue with us in this cybernetic circuit (63). 

To be clear, Hayles’ assertion is that the very being of certain subjectivities is the product of a reciprocal relationship in which they encounter texts in the world. So, in order to talk about these subjects and their worlds (to talk about literature as ideas), we must acknowledge the materiality — remember, the mix of physical attributes and human intentions — of the text.

Materiality is foregrounded in the literary works Hayles considers in Writing Machines. Texts are “chunked” into “lexias,” linked to other texts through mechanisms along paths, graced with various affordances, intentionally obscured, made spatial, rhizomatic. Tom Phillips’ A Humument is an evolving illustrative riff created on the substrate of a Victorian novel he chose at random: A Human Document, by William Mallock, the story of a man attempting to edit an assortment of scraps of writing and memorabilia left by two recently deceased lovers. In the original work, Mallock’s narrator describes the task: “…as they stand they are not a story in any literary sense; though they enable us, or rather force us, to construct one out of them for ourselves” (quoted by Hayles on 78).

This quote serendipitously describes the epistemic strategy of the technotext, which prompts a reader (user) to investigate a text through affordances provided by its material embodiment. But is this kind of engagement with materiality limited to emergent, non-linear forms of writing? Though Hayles is primarily concerned with nascent literary constructions, it does not seem a stretch to acknowledge that any textual encounter in which a reader is imaginatively engaged can be more fully described by an account of materiality that interrogates the physicality and human intentions comprising the writing machine. (I appreciate the title of Hayles’ book because it already goes some distance towards reminding us prima facie that these forms are constructed.) Materiality matters. Our imaginative impressions of even the mustiest tomes are enabled and supported by our apprehensions of their embodied forms, which relate to the contexts in which they were constructed, in which they have lived, and in which they presently reside. Books manifest emotional affordances through culturally-anchored physical aspects like type design and cover art, and through accrued evidence of their encounters with other readers. The same books, read on a Kindle or a desktop display, would evince still other relationships and provide different handles for the imaginative experience. The materiality of a text that is, in essence, a linear narrative may not appear to offer as many avenues for critical exploration as a technotext.  But the significance of the work’s materiality in relationship to a reader’s particular experience of it should not be underestimated.  Not only can a consideration of materiality anchor an account of a reader’s emotional and imaginative response to a work; it also helps us to appreciate the connections between our minds and the world.

Literature is, in this sense, an extension of the body, enabling aspects of existence not possible before it.  Hayles says:

books are more than encoded voices; they are also physical artifacts whose material properties offer potent resources for creating meaning. Indeed, it is impossible not to create meaning through a work's materiality. Even when the interface is rendered as transparently as possible, this very immediacy is itself an act of meaning-making that positions the reader in a specific material relationship with the imaginative world evoked by the text. (107)

The intentional construction of the literary artifact induces meaning-making; draws meaning into the world. Hayles seems to suggest here this holds for even the most traditional transparent linear narrative — if it is literature, it creates meaning through its materiality.

To find meaning in the world, as Hayles does — emerging from our embodied conscious encounters with its structures — follows recent trends in cognitive philosophy. Without venturing into that territory, I think it is fair to say that Hayles’ work potentially holds implications for our conception of knowledge and meaning that reach beyond the literary realm. For modern reality is brimming with materiality. Intentionally constructed apparati pepper our landscapes and mediate our experience from the time we wake ‘til our eyes close at night. Of course, few of these structures are on the same ontological plane as literature. But a consideration of the materiality of other media may shed considerable light on contemporary consciousness and its dealings with the world. If we can place the mind in a reciprocal relationship — a cybernetic circuit — with media, we shift humans from being mere receivers to active participants in a vivid circle. We grant humans the status to define and refine meanings and messages in dialogue with the world. This fuller picture of human agency and responsibility is a notion with which I think Hayles would gladly comport.