Writing Machines: the environment of writingPosted: October 7, 2008
In our discussion (10/6) of Hayles’ notion of media specific analysis, we noticed that she wants us (critical readers and writers) to be specific about the materiality of the objects we are talking about: namely, the texts and books we read. When we first read Birkerts (and have no fear, we will return to him in a couple weeks to pursue a more direct comparison with Hayles), I suggested that he contrasts with Hayles in terms of materiality. For a book worried about the end of books, there is really very little focus on the materiality of the books he is thinking about. For Hayles, reading is not an immaterial act because langauge and communication–what one writes and reads, is always instantiated (her term) or conveyed or even reproduced in a physical medium: pages and books and ink and screens and computers, etc. Recall that Hayles tells us at the beginning of Writing Machines that she first learns about the materiality of media in science–then applies this to her engagement with books and literature.
We start to see this notion of a scientific materiality, applied to the more imaginative realm of language and literature (at least as conventionally viewed) when she refers to “material metaphors” and at the end of chapter 2 to medial ecology. Elsewhere, Hayles builds in compelling ways on this analogy from ecology and refers to the relationship between media and humans, machine intelligence and human intelligence, in terms of symbiosis. Her use of the word environment continues this thinking.
She writes: “computers are simulation machines producing environments” (48). No dobut you have experienced that in the simulation of a computer game, or have consdiered that in terms of virtual reality–even if only glimpsed from the vantage point of The Matrix (could that in some way, by the way, be considered a proto-Frankenstein film?). But what about boring and utterly familiar word processing, microsoft word? This, too, is the production of a writing and reading environment. So is all writing and reading an interaction through (hence the word medium, in the sense of a middle, a conveyance) an environment of some sort of mediation. So, what if we think more specifically and deliberately about the environment in which we read and write? Can we not, should we not, take an environmental perspective? For Hayles, an environmental perspective recognizes the specificity of the literary/media environment, just as an ecological perspective understands the specificity of relation. In ecology, generalizing yields disregard for the complexity of a system in which (as she reminds us) a change somewhere is a change everywhere. In literary ecology, failure to be specific with our environment and our tools renders flat text–the ones we write and the ones we wish to write about.
So, a lesson from Hayles and her own example of media specific analysis, carried into the third writing project (and, of course, beyond): we can learn to be more specific as writers and readers by giving more attention to the specificity of our writing medium. The medium matters. How does the medium in which you are writing (and thinking) inform your writing and your thinking? Consider this as you use your blog, or shift to handwriting in your notebook, or to Word on your computer. We can learn for our writing, from our writing.