My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Textsby N. Katherine Hayles
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We live in a world, according to N. Katherine Hayles, where new languages are constantly emerging, proliferating, and fading into obsolescence. These are languages of our own making: the programming languages written in code for the intelligent machines we call computers. Hayles's latest exploration provides an exciting new way of understanding the relations between code and language and considers how their interactions have affected creative, technological, and artistic practices.
My Mother Was a Computer explores how the impact of code on everyday life has become comparable to that of speech and writing: language and code have grown more entangled, the lines that once separated humans from machines, analog from digital, and old technologies from new ones have become blurred. My Mother Was a Computer gives us the tools necessary to make sense of these complex relationships. Hayles argues that we live in an age of intermediation that challenges our ideas about language, subjectivity, literary objects, and textuality. This process of intermediation takes place where digital media interact with cultural practices associated with older media, and here Hayles sharply portrays such interactions: how code differs from speech; how electronic text differs from print; the effects of digital media on the idea of the self; the effects of digitality on printed books; our conceptions of computers as living beings; the possibility that human consciousness itself might be computational; and the subjective cosmology wherein humans see the universe through the lens of their own digital age.
We are the children of computers in more than one sense, and no critic has done more than N. Katherine Hayles to explain how these technologies define us and our culture. Heady and provocative, My Mother Was a Computer will be judged as her best work yet.
"Hayles''s work here seems essential: she not only reviews how we got to this stage in our relationship with technology, she also maps a conceptual survival guide for going forward. With complex theoretical concepts such as clustering, the Regime of Computation, and intermediation, Hayles moves us further along the spectrum through which we can constructively understand the terms of posthuman existence without feeling damned to technological extermination by doing so."
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My Mother Was a ComputerDigital Subjects and Literary Texts
By N. Katherine Hayles
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2005 University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom Print to Electronic Texts
In "The Don Quixote of Pierre Menard," Borges uses his technique of reviewing nonexistent books to explain Pierre Menard's fantastic project of re-creating Don Quixote in the twentieth century. Although Menard's creation reproduces Cervantes' masterpiece word for word, Borges explains that it is an utterly different work, for the changed cultural context makes thoughts that were banal for Cervantes virtually unthinkable for a twentieth-century intellectual. Borges's mock-serious fantasy recalls more mundane operations carried out every day around the globe. Suppose Don Quixote is transported not into a new time but a new medium, and that the word sequences on the computer screen are identical to Cervantes' original print edition. Is this electronic version the same work? Subversive as Borges's fiction, the question threatens to expose major fault lines running through our contemporary ideas of textuality.
To explore these complexities, I propose to regard the transformation of a print document into an electronic text as a form of translation-"media translation"-which is inevitably also an act of interpretation. In invoking thetrope of translation, I follow the lead of Dene Grigar. As she observes, the adage that something is gained as well as lost in translation applies with special force to print documents that are imported to the Web. The challenge is to specify, rigorously and precisely, what these gains and losses entail and especially what they reveal about presuppositions underlying reading and writing. My claim is that they show that our notions of textuality are shot through with assumptions specific to print, although they have not been generally recognized as such. The advent of electronic textuality presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to reformulate fundamental ideas about texts and, in the process, to see print as well as electronic texts with fresh eyes. For theory, this is the "something gained" that media translation can offer. It is a gift we cannot afford to refuse.
The issues can be illustrated by the William Blake Archive, a magnificent Web site designed by three of our most distinguished Blake scholars and editors. It is no exaggeration to say that the William Blake Archive establishes the gold standard for literary Web sites. The site is informed throughout by an enlightened editorial policy, for the editors state that they take the "work" to be the book considered as a unique physical object. They thus declare implicitly their allegiance to an idea that Jerome McGann, among others, has been championing: the physical characteristics of a text-page size, font, gutters, leading, and so on-are "bibliographic codes," signifying components that should be considered along with linguistic codes. The editors make canny use of the computer's simulation powers to render the screen display as much like the printed book as possible. They provide a calibration applet that lets users set screen resolution so the original page dimensions can be reproduced. They include a graphical help section that uses illustrations of pages to indicate the site's functionalities and capabilities. Clearly an enormous amount of thought, time, and money has gone into the construction of this site.
The editors of the archive are meticulous in insisting that even small differences in materiality potentially affect meaning, so they have gone to a great deal of trouble to compile not only different works but extant copies of the same work. Yet these copies are visually rendered on screen with a technology that differs far more in its materiality from print than the print copies do from one another. The computer accurately simulates print documents precisely because it is completely unlike print in its architecture and functioning. The simulation of visual accuracy, which joins facsimile and other editions in rescuing Blake from text-only versions that suppress the crucial visual dimensions of his work, is nevertheless achieved at the cost of cybernetic difference. Consider, for example, the navigation functionality that allows the user to juxtapose many images on screen to compare different copies and versions of a work. To achieve a comparable (though not identical) effect with print-if it could be done at all-would require access to rare books rooms, a great deal of page turning, and constant shifting of physical artifacts. A moment's thought suffices to show that changing the navigational apparatus of a work changes the work. Translating the words on a scroll into a codex book, for example, radically alters how a reader encounters the work; by changing how the work means, such a move alters what it means. One of the insights electronic textuality makes inescapably clear is that navigational functionalities are not merely ways to access the work but part of a work's signifying structure. An encyclopedia signifies differently than does a realistic novel in part because its navigational functionalities anticipate and structure different reading patterns (a clash of conventions that Milorad Pavic has great fun exploiting in Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel).
In terms of the William Blake Archive, we might reasonably ask: if slight color variations affect meaning, how much more does the reader's navigation of the complex functionalities of this site affect what the texts signify? Of course, the editors recognize that what they are doing is simulating, not reproducing, print texts. One can imagine the countless editorial meetings they must have attended to create the site's sophisticated design and functionalities; surely they know better than anyone the extensive differences between the print and electronic Blake. Nevertheless, they make the rhetorical choice to downplay these differences. For example, there is a section explaining that dynamic data arrays are used to generate the screen displays, but there is little or no theoretical exploration of what it means to read an electronic text produced in this fashion rather than the print original. Great attention is paid to the relation of meaning to linguistic and bibliographic codes and almost none to the relation of meaning to digital codes. Matthew Kirschenbaum's call for a thorough rethinking of the "materiality of first generation objects" in electronic media is very much to the point. Calling for a closer relationship between electronic textuality (focusing on digital work) and textual studies (traditionally focused on print), he lays out a framework for discussing electronic texts in bibliographic terms, including the nomenclature "layer, version, and release"; "object"; "state"; "instance"; and "copy." As his argument makes clear, electronic texts often have complex bibliographic histories that materially affect meaning, to say nothing of differences between print and electronic instantiations of a work. Concentrating only on how the material differences of print texts affect meaning, as does the William Blake Archive, is like feeling slight texture differences on an elephant's tail while ignoring the ways in which the tail differs from the rest of the elephant.
What Is a Text?
Tackling the whole elephant requires rethinking the nature of textuality, starting with a basic question: what is a text? In "Forming the Text, Performing the Work," Anna Gunder, in an effort to clarify the relations between electronic and print media, has undertaken a meticulous survey of textual criticism to determine how editors employ the foundational terminology of "work," "text," and "document" in the context of print bibliographic studies. A work is an "abstract artistic entity," the ideal construction toward which textual editors move by collating different editions and copies to arrive at their best guess for what the artistic creation should be. It is important to note that the work is ideal not in a Platonic sense, however, for it is understood to be the result of editorial assumptions that are subject to negotiation, challenge, community norms, and cultural presuppositions. (Jerome McGann's attacks on the principle of defining the work through an author's "final intentions" is a case in point.) Next down the scale comes the text. Gunder points out that the "work as such can never be accessed but through some kind of text, that is, through the specific sign system designated to manifest a particular work." Texts, then, are abstract entities from which editors strive to excavate the work. In this respect, she notes, texts of poems are unlike paintings. Whereas no one would claim it makes sense to talk about a painting separate from the substrate in which it is embodied, editors presume that it does make sense to talk about a text as something separate from its physical embodiment in an artifact. Only when we arrive at the lowest level of the textual hierarchy, the document, is the physical artifact seen as merging with the sign system as an abstract representation.
Gunder's analysis is consistent with the terminological practices of Peter Shillingsburg, one of the editors she surveys. In Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age, Shillingsburg defines a text as "the actual order of words and punctuation as contained in any one physical form, such as a manuscript, proof or book." To forestall misunderstanding, he clarifies that "a text (the order of words and punctuation) has no substantial or material existence, since it is not restricted by time and space.... The text is contained and stabilized by the physical form but is not the physical form itself." Driving the nail farther into this terminological coffin, he insists "it is possible for the same text to be stored in a set of alphabetic signs, a set of Braille signs, a set of electronic signals on a computer tape, and a set of magnetic impulses on a tape recorder. Therefore, it is not accurate to say that the text and the signs or storage medium are the same. If the text is stored accurately on a second storage medium, the text remains the same though the signs for it are different. Each accurate copy contains the same text; inaccurate or otherwise variant copies contain new texts" (emphasis added). Some hundred pages later, he admits that "proponents of the bibliographic orientation have demonstrated beyond argument, I believe, that the appearance of books signifies a range of important meanings to their users;" but apparently he does not think this imbrication of physical form with meaning requires a different notion of textuality. To be fair to Shillingsburg, he has since defined "text" as a compound of matter, concept, and action. Nevertheless, there are no doubt many editors and literary scholars-I dare say the majority-who assume much the same definitions of "work," "text," and "document" that he formulates. Moreover, Shillingsburg's more nuanced explanations of "text" and "work" in his recent analysis result in an alarming proliferation of terms, so that "work," "text," and "version" all split into multiple subcategories. This scheme is reminiscent of the Ptolemaic model of the universe as it piled epicycles upon cycles in an effort to keep the earth at the center of the universe. The problem with the Ptolemaic universe was not that it could not account for celestial motion; rather, it was the cost of increasing complexity required for its earth-centric view. Perhaps it is time for a Copernican revolution in our thinking about textuality, a revolution achieved by going back and rethinking fundamental assumptions.
We can begin this reassessment by noticing how Shillingsburg's definitions are perfectly crafted to trivialize differences between print and electronic media and to insulate "text" and even more so "work" from being significantly affected by the specificities of media. To return to his examples, he claims that a Braille version of a novel is the same text as a print version, yet the sensory input of the two forms is entirely different. Moreover, it is clear that one medium-print-provides the baseline for the definitions, even though they are postulated as including other media as well. Thinking of the text as "the order of words and punctuations" is as print-centric a definition as I can imagine, for it comes straight out of the printer's shop and the lineation of type as the means of production for the book. We can see how Shillingsburg imports this print-centric notion into electronic media when he refers to "computer tape" in the quotation above, for this construction unconsciously carries over the notion that the text resides at one physical location, even though it is at the same time alleged to be "not restricted by time and space." When a text is generated in an electronic environment, the data files may reside on a server hundreds of miles distant from the user's local computer. Moreover, in cases where text is dynamically assembled on the fly, the text as "the actual order of words and punctuation" does not exist as such in these data files. Indeed, it does not exist as an artifact at all. Rather, it comes into existence as a process that includes the data files, the programs that call these files, and the hardware on which the programs run, as well as the optical fibers, connections, switching algorithms, and other devices necessary to route the text from one networked computer to another.
An even more serious objection to Shillingsburg's definition is its implicit assumption that "text" does not include such qualities as color, font size and shape, and page placement, not to mention such electronic-specific effects as animation, mouseovers, instantaneous linking, and so on. In most contemporary electronic literature, screen design, graphics, multiple layers, color, and animation, among other signifying components, are essential to the work's effects. Focusing only on "the actual order of words and punctuation" would be as inadequate as insisting that painting consists only of shapes, ruling out of bounds such things as color, texture, composition, and perspective. The largely unexamined assumption here is that ideas about textuality forged in a print environment can be carried over wholesale to the screen without rethinking how things change with electronic text, as if "text" were an inert, nonreactive substance that can be poured from container to container without affecting its essential nature.
Moreover, the comparison with electronic text reveals by implication how limited this definition of "text" is even for print media. Although Shillingsburg gives a nod to those of the "bibliographic orientation," he does not begin to deal in a serious way with Jerome McGann's brilliant readings of poets ranging from Lord Byron to Wallace Stevens and with his repeated demonstrations that bibliographic effects are crucial in setting up meaning play within the texts. To exclude these effects from the meaning of "text" is to impoverish criticism by cutting it off from resources used to create artistic works. How can one find these effects in a text if "text" has been defined so as to exclude them? Although Shillingsburg's definition of "work" may not be Platonic in an ideal sense, there is nevertheless a Platonic yearning on display in his definitions, for he seeks to protect the "work" from the noisiness of an embodied world-but this very noise may be the froth from which artistic effects emerge.
The desire to suppress unruliness and multiplicity in order to converge on an ideal "work" is deeply embedded in textual criticism. However the criteria facilitating this convergence are defined, textual editors have largely agreed that convergence is the ideal. Hans Zeller, arguing in 1975 for a shift of the editorial perspective from the author's "final intentions" to a broader historical viewpoint, observes that "the editor searches in the transmitted text for the one authentic text, in comparison with which all else will be a textual corruption." Not arriving at a single authoritative text, editors argue, risks plopping the reader into a rat's nest of complexly interrelated variants, thus foisting onto her the Sisyphean labor of sorting through the mess and arriving at a sensible text that most readers would prefer to have handed to them. In this view, readers want a text they can take more or less at face value so that they can get on with the work of interpreting its meaning and explicating its artistic strategies. Here the comparison of editing with translation is especially apt, for the editor, like the translator, makes innumerable decisions that can never be fully covered by an explicit statement of principles. As McGann points out, these decisions inevitably function as interpretations, for they literally construct the text in ways that foreground some interpretive possibilities and suppress others.
Excerpted from My Mother Was a Computer by N. Katherine Hayles Copyright © 2005 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
N. Katherine Hayles is the John Charles Hillis Professor of Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of three books, including How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, and the editor of Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, both published by the University of Chicago Press.
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