Media Archaeology and Literary Studies

October 15, 2015

 

I recently answered the question "How Can Media Archaelolgy Inform Literary Studies" for Jacket 2. I was in good company - Some of the preeminent scholars in the field contributed, including Lori Emerson, Jussi Parikka and Jane Birkin. You can read their responses here.

 

Here is the text from my response:

 

One area I study is digital poetry, and there’s an obvious connection there between the text and both the medium on which it was written and the medium on which it is read. I often point to bpNichol’sFirst Screening, a very early (1983) series of programmed kinetic poems that was written in Apple BASIC on an Apple //e as an example of how important a text’s relationship to a medium is. The poems were written more than thirty years ago, and now, they are essentially gone. There are emulations out there (check them out at vispo.com/bp), but the emulations are very clearly not the same poem. Watching a QuickTime movie of the poems on your MacBook Pro is not the same experience as turning an Apple //e on, inserting a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk into the drive, typing “run” on the black screen and listening to the drive start to turn and grind. The bodily relationship to the poem is changed. Studying the relationship of media to literary texts is, in a certain sense, acknowledging the crucial element of the body in that mix.

I mention First Screening because it clearly illustrates this relationship, but what I’ve come to understand is that all literature is inextricably tied to the medium upon which it was written and the medium upon which it is read. Over the past few hundred years, we’ve gotten rather used to reading in a single medium, the codex, but it is still a medium that determines a certain physical, bodily relationship to the text. Clearly, today, we no longer only read printed literature, and we read differently because of that. This deserves scholarly examination.

Changing technology also alters the way we write. Writers have talked about this as long as there has been writing. Consider Plato’s claim in the Phaedrus that the technology of writing itself removes speech another step from truth. Consider Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” in which he praises the typewriter as a medium that, “due to its rigidity and its space precisions…can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends.” Adam Bradley writes in Ralph Ellison in Progress that in 1982 Ellison got an Osborne 1 portable computer (which had a 5 inch screen!) with the word processing program WordStar, and “something fundamental changed when he began writing on the computer, affecting both his means of composition and the fiction that resulted from it.” It became work that was always in progress, always sectioned in fragments, always revisable.

Media archaeology examines the historical development of reading and writing technologies, where instances of technological “advancement” (e.g., Graphical User Interfaces) obscure the once possible alternatives that could have led to very different ways of writing, reading and thinking, and it acknowledges the body’s role in the production and reception of text and meaning.

And it’s kind of fun to play with old computers.

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