I have just begun reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember or, to give it its American subtitle, What the internet is doing to our brains. Carr’s argument is that the internet encourages certain forms of behaviour that, in turn, have affected the wiring of the brain. Now, I am sceptical, as this smacks of a technological alarmism that stretches back a long way. In 2009, for instance, Baroness Greenfield warned that social networking was eroding relationships and that gamers would do themselves inevitable neurological damage. Further back, we were warned that the MTV generation would have short attention spans because of the brevity of the pop video. And of course, nineteenth-century women readers were warned against certain types of literature due to its stimulating physiological effects. Yet I think the underlying premise is right. The reading or writing subject is not just a subject but also an object, and so the practices of reading and writing also reread or rewrite the body. Whether conceived as intentional product of design or unexpected property, bug or feature, malfunction or truculence, objects push back against those that would master them. In trying to discipline the material world and make it meaningful we, too, are disciplined.
What tends to happen in many analyses is that a certain form of literacy becomes naturalized and stands in place of all the others ways in which we read and write. The reduction of literacy to the production of verbal text makes it a cognitive process rather than an embodied social practice, allowing real differences between the times and spaces of reading, as well as the way reading alters whatever is being read, to be ignored or overcome. This model of literacy is predicated on repression and so creates the conditions for uncanny return, for objects to assert and reassert their identity as things. Derrida has established that writing is predicated on absence, but writing never occurs without its material supplement: a repository of materiality that is always in excess of its instantation in the moment. Even binary code, that basic system of differences, depends on inscribed traces on durable material. Reading and writing are embodied practices. The possibility of literacy depends on the mute insistence of the unthinkable material world.