Review of Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation

Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation
by Dennis Tenen

Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2017
280 pp. Trade, $ 85; paper, $24.95
ISBN:9781503601802; ISBN:9781503602281

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
October 2017

This book is not just about opening the black box of digital reading and writing, the devices and programs we use to do so, or the digital turn of our culture. Written by an English and Comparative Literature professor who is also a trained engineer and a migrant having moved from post-Soviet Russia to the “global” North-West, Plain Text is a vibrant call to rethink the two culture debate in broad cultural and political terms. The methodological and theoretical framework that is used here to achieve such a mutual rethinking – and enrichment – of technology and humanism is twofold. First of all, Tenen’s approach can be roughly situated in the field of media archeology – and like the best representatives of this discipline, Plain Text is a truly interdisciplinary work, which does not refrain from addressing both highly detailed technical discussions and big philosophical issues which enable the author to revisit some key thinkers of (Western) philosophy such as Plato, Bacon, and Heidegger, among many others. Second, Plain Text also assumes in a very radical manner the intellectual and critical heritage of two “displaced” thinkers, namely Vilém Flusser and Viktor Shklovsky, whose life and work are seen by Tenen as an illustration of the advantages of looking at things through the eyes of the outsider and trying to do so in ways that make them new, that is strange (the central concept of Shklovsky, one of the major theoreticians of Russian Formalism is “defamiliarization”, while Flusser often idiosyncratic interpretation of the history of the image does reflect his position of “third-culture” thinker).

The starting point of Plain Text is however not a theoretical or philosophical one. It is instead the existential as well as political fear that our current use of technology, which Tenen describes as passive and uncritical, has serious consequences on fundamental human values such as freedom, communication, solidarity, in short the building of a deeply open and shared human community we call culture. Following Flusser and Shklovsky, Tenen observes that our interaction with technological devices is defined by attitudes of comfort, habituation, and security. In order to use technology in an easy way, we have to stop worrying about it – and this is what Tenen claims we all do. The final result is a sharp decline of meaning, what Tenen calls “asemiosis”: we do no longer understand what we are doing, and in most cases we simply do no longer ask questions, a state of mind the author compares to a complete surrender to Baudrillard’s hyperreality (a state of mind in which we are no longer interested in the “object” the “sign” is supposed to refer to in traditional semiotics). Yet this “asemiosis” is exactly what those who control technological systems want us to do –provided of course it is possible to still identify in these traditional terms the “owner” of technology. However, the fact that it is not always easy to discover who owns technology does certainly not mean that technology is owned by its user. One of the basic political claims of this book is that the user may win a lot by abandoning her possible “estrangement” in technological matters, but that this gain, which is mainly a gain in comfort, has a terrible loss, for if users have no longer any interest in –and thus no longer any possible knowledge of– technology, they fall prey to the rules and interests of the techniques and devices that rule their life (e-books, for instance, may seem easy to purchase, but actually they are not really purchases; what the reader buys is no longer a text she can share, but a license to access certain information under certain conditions, which nobody actually knows, and which may change without any notice). This claim of a crucial loss is made by Tenen at two levels: that of the individual, whose life is increasingly surveilled and controlled by tools and software one is no longer aware of, but also that of society, for the implications of technological devices and software have a tremendous impact on the way we communicate and live together.

The specific corpus on which Tenen elaborates these ideas is “text”, more precisely “plain text”, which he defines, quoting the Unicode Standard, in opposition the notion of “fancy text”: the former is a file format that contains noting but a pure sequence of character codes; the latter is text representation consisting of plain text plus added information. This distinction is not purely technical, it involves also a frame of mind. In the tradition of textual criticism, plain text also refers to a method of text transcription that is both “faithful to the text of its source” and “easier to read than the original document” (Tenen quotes here the philosophy of American textual criticism as summarized by Don L. Cook). These two dimensions of the notion of “plan text” (the purely technical one and the critical-philological one) are the background of Tenen’s reflection on the way technological devices, predigital as well as digital, deeply inform, determine, and shape the way we read and write, the basic assumption being that text is not just form + content, but that it is deeply rooted in technology that “formats” the medium and that by doing so not only determines the medium’s content but also the possibilities we have in using it in order to think, read, write, exchange ideas and eventually build cultures and societies (given the size of the digital changes in today’s societies, a major emphasis is of course put on digitization, but Plain Text is not narrowly concerned with digital technology alone).

Plain Text investigates this broad program in various way. Logically, Dennis Tenen pays a lot of attention to the basic features and essential characteristics of text and textuality, as an object as well as a process (reading, writing, copying, circulating, commenting, remediating, etc.), and his book has great analyses of issues such as turning the page, machine writing or reading on screen. But in all chapters the analysis of these topics, the aim of Tenen is not just to unpack what is hidden in technology, modern or not. With a very sharp eye for historical debates and the relationships between older and newer forms of technology, on the one hand, and a repeatedly expressed belief in the necessity of a formal and materialist investigation of meaning and meaning-making, on the other hand, Plain Text pursues – and achieves – a double goal.

First, Tenen manages to criticize and deconstruct a certain number of stereotypes that block any serious understanding of the mutual determination of culture and technology. Some of these stereotypes are hidden in more or less catchy metaphor (such as for instance the paper-based expressions that still structure our way of using our computer screen and which do not match at all what actually happens beneath the surface). Others refer to ceaselessly repeated conventions that do not resist more careful inquiries (such as the idea that “natural” language is “analog”, that is continuous, while “machine” language would be “digital”, that is discontinuous). Hence the critical rereading of Marshall McLuhan’s maxim “the medium is the message”, which Tenen considers too deterministic and insufficiently open to questions having to do with the use or more precisely the uses, which are always plural and different, of texts and mediums.

However, and this is the second goal of the book, the perspective of Tenen’s deconstruction is never to debunk or criticize. All analyses always tend to foreground the cultural, social, and political aprioris and implications of our “secure” and “comfortable” use of technology, as shown for instance in the book’s final critique of the longing for “analogy” and “oneness” as a philosophical ideal, the dream of an ideal world of transparency and direct contact, deprived of any technological and digital pollution. Such a longing is nostalgic, it tends to exclude anything and anyone alien, while reinforcing the power of technological formatting we should ceaselessly question, not in order to reject it, but in order to try to make a better use of it (and the reader is invited to distinguish “better” from “smarter”, which is one of the modern metaphors that so successfully manage to blur the boundaries between comfort and surveillance).