Part 2. The Things we Forget
My recent book, The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age (Palgrave, 2012), opens with a discussion of the way Amazon market their Kindle. This is how they described the Kindle on its launch in 2007:
Throughout, the Kindle is described in relation to the book. It is a ‘convenient portable reading device’ that offers ‘an exceptional reading experience’. Its ‘electronic paper’ makes screen-reading ‘as sharp and natural as reading ink on paper’. It can be located in usual sites of reading: over breakfast, during the commute, on a journey, for the book club. Yet there is an interesting ambiguity here. Kindle might offer a ‘reading experience’, but it is the device that is called the reader, not the user. Open the box, for instance, and there is a user guide, not a reader guide: the implication is that users already know how to read, but might not know how to use. This is a point of anxiety, as it reminds potential customers of the strangeness of technology. If Kindle is like a book, but better, Amazon don’t want to remind readers that what makes it better is also what makes it strange.
When Amazon launched their 6” Kindle in 2009, they marketed it as follows:
Kindle is marketed on the basis that reading makes books disappear. It has been so well-designed that, like the book, users will not know they are using, only reading. This is obviously important for Amazon, as it still appears on the publicity material for the current Kindle, launched last autumn. Reading provides access to the ‘author’s world and ideas’, magically transforming the constitutive role of both text and technology into passive and dispensable intermediaries. The consistent emphasis on reading over use naturalizes the technical, but in doing so downplays what reading actually involves. Reading (and, as Walter Ong makes clear, writing) is not natural but must be learned through considerable effort. Amazon’s users can already read – they already know how to make a book disappear – so, it is implied, they simply need to transfer their existing literacy to the new ‘reading device’ so that it too can go away.
But what happens to objects when they disappear? When we stop reading, the book returns (‘Purple ribbon in every wollume’, says Mr Boffin, ‘to keep the place where you leave off’1). Yet the book’s insistent materiality is there all the time, offering up marks to be recognized as words, pages to be turned, the weight of the volume to be accommodated by our bodies. The act of reading is predicated on the form of crafted material objects and the application of learned behaviour; the resulting text effects a further transformation, changing the relationships between reader, text, object and environment. These components are reconfigured in the moment of reading, but only for the duration of the act. Not only is the transformation temporary (when we start to read, we establish a time when the book will inevitably return), but it is also incomplete. The book is suspended, but, in the meantime, it asserts itself in other ways.
The material resistance of media has given it a reputation for truculence. When delineating the difference between primary orality and literacy, Ong locates the power of writing in its generative inertness. The dependence upon sound in oral cultures makes language a form of action, situated within the moment as its ephemeral signifiers fade away. The spoken word is driven by power, and Ong believes that this is why oral cultures grant language magical potency. Writing recasts the word as space, inscribing it as an object located on a surface. ‘Such “things”’, Ong writes, ‘are not so readily associated with magic, for they are not actions, but are in a radical sense dead, though subject to dynamic resurrection.’2 In oral cultures the spoken word has physical and cultural force; writing places the word in the object world, alienating it from the lived moment through mediation by things. The dead word is resurrected when it is read, but this metaphysics of presence is not solely produced through language. The latency of the unread word depends upon the integrity of the object upon which it is inscribed.
A vestige of the magical potency of language lingers on in the charm. In M.R. James’s ghost stories, the animated objects that literalize the return of the repressed, punishing the too-curious scholars that populate his tales, are usually marked by text. In ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad’ Parkin finds an old whistle buried amongst the remains of a Templar’s preceptory. It is inscribed, but the narrator tells us that ‘the meaning of it was as obscure to him as the writing on the wall to Belshazzar.’3 This warning, an ominous portent of animated inscription if ever there was one, is for us, not Parkin; he, on the contrary, confesses he is ‘a little rusty in his Latin’, translates part of the message as ‘Who is this who is coming?’, and decides to blow the whistle to find out (p. 199-200). ‘Casting the Runes’ is a tale of supernatural revenge prompted by the comments of an anonymous peer-reviewer. Karswell, a cranky dabbler in the occult, likes to bump off his critics by means of a curse bestowed by the red and black writing on a piece of paper. The only way to remove the curse is to pass on the paper, but this paper has a peculiar tendency to destroy itself. The words, it is implied carry the curse, but its operation depends on the life of the paper.
In neither case is the writing legible except in the crudest sense of it being identified as writing. This is important as it means that this writing is operating as an object. The writing does not bestow agency on the cursed objects by permitting them to enter into language; nor does it record a vestige of the power of the spoken word. Partly it operates in a gothic economy, signalling a time forgotten to the present; but more importantly this writing is simply writing, the inscribed marks of a performance that have left a decipherable, but undeciphered, text. These are labels, but the lack of lexical meaning permits the writing to operate formally, marking a difference rather than proclaiming something about the object. If, as Derrida argues, writing underpins all signification, then objects, as crafted intentional and recognizable entities, all also already to some extent written. However, the addition of actual writing marks a difference: in the case of these cursed objects it signals their special potency – but this applies more generally too. By inscribing an object we give it the potential to misbehave, to establish its autonomy by marking it as something else. All objects have some sort of use built into them – their form is always intentional, objects are always in some way plotted – but writing on them grants them a different sort of agency by giving them something to say. A label gives an object a voice, helping it to assert itself in language, but the crucial thing is that the presence of writing, of the textual label, creates something against which the radical otherness of the object can assert itself.
This assertion of otherness underpins the frequently noted uncanniness of media technologies. Rather than the found objects of the gothic ghost story, the emergence of new information technologies are often marked by myths of uncanny agency. As critics and cultural historians such as Stephen Kern, Roger Luckhurst, Avital Ronnell and Jeffrey Sconce, amongst others, have noted, these technologies enable a telepresence that at once extends human faculties while alienating them from the self.4 It this reconfiguration that grants technology its apparently occult powers as it takes on mediated agency: the needle taps and writes; the telephone calls and speaks. This alienation also enables other agents to interpose themselves, seizing control of mediating technology to deliver unexpected messages, sometimes even from beyond the grave. Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’ places the body as part of an occult communications circuit with both signalman and narrator acting as receivers and transmitters; Kipling’s ‘Wireless’ reimagines such a circuit for the age of wireless telegraphy.
As I mentioned in the previous post, Ong’s critique of media theory was based on its assumption that media acted as passive pipelines, delivering something called ‘information’. This way of thinking about mediality has become institutionalized within information theory, with noise understood as the difference between the signal at source and at destination. In this model, the body of mediating technology can only produce a deficit by imposing itself, obstructing the signal. Yet these technologies are prosthesis not pipeline: it is they that touch or speak, pick up signals, and translate messages from one form to another. The passivity that produces information does not overcome the material body of mediating technology, but is produced as result of the way that the body is put to use.
The materiality of media must become disciplined so they can function, in a particular instance as a particular type of object. Bill Brown’s distinction between ‘object’ and ‘thing’, where objects become socialized through discourse while things remain obliquely out of view, is useful here. As Brown notes, ‘we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us’.5 But what if rather than positing a binary we rethink thingness as a repository or resource, something that can be drawn upon to recast objects from one form to another? In her book, Writing Machines, N. Katherine Hayles posits a materiality that is emergent and shifting, linking together representation and the physicality of the object that allows representation to operate. If, as Hayles suggests, ‘the physical attributes constituting any artefact are potentially infinite’, then objects – standing on the threshold of a generative, unknowable, thingness – are repositories of materiality.6 The object world marks the boundary between the socialized properties of things and the vast repository of the unknown that constitutes their thingness. As use is social practice, the form of this threshold constantly changes: objects manifest different properties and, in turn, recast the social relations in which they are embedded. As Brown suggests, the ‘thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.’7 In a very real way, then, objects are interfaces because they make things happen.
1 Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (London: Chapman and Hall, 1865), p. 39.
2 Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 33.
3 M.R. James, ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to Thee’, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (London: Edward Arnold, 1905). p. 199.
4 See Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); Roger Luckhurst, The Invention of Telepathy, 1870-1901 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Avital Ronnell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991); Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).
5 Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, 28 (2001), p. 4.
6 N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2002), p. 32.
7 Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, p. 4.