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Ex-Foliations:  Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path

Ex-Foliations:  Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path

by Terry Harpold
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2009
365 pp., illus. 65 b/w. Trade, $75.00; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-8166-5101-6; ISBN: 978-0-8166-5102-3.

Reviewed By Dene Grigar

My 12” Macintosh, circa 2003, returned home today unable to be upgraded to the newest operating software.  Running simply on PowerPC G4 processor instead the newer Intel Core 2 Duo processor, it had reached its limit with the move to Leopard last year.  I also found out I could not revive the dead battery that had gotten jammed into the computer.  To install a new battery, I had to sacrifice the old––that, or be prepared to spend $500 to remove the casing of my computer to get to the old battery without destroying it.

I tell this story because it fits well with what Terry Harpold talks about in Ex-Foliations:  Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path, for the focus of his book is a reexamination of seminal ideas that helped to shape our thinking about digital media in respect to “media obsolescence, changing user interface designs, and the mutability of reading.”

Generally speaking, we think of exfoliate as throwing off or removing something from a surface, as in eliminating a layer of skin, but the Latin version offers a more specific meaning:  to strip off leaves.  Playing on this etymology Terry Harpold’s use of the word as the title of his book is rendered as “a loosely grouped set of procedures for provisionally separating the layers of the text’s surfaces without resolving them into distinct hierarchies, with the aim of understanding their expressive concurrencies.”  Such an approach, he tells us, is “opportunistic” since “it accepts a disjunction between the signifiers it isolates . . . and the signifieds it derives from . . . in response to those signifiers” (137). Just as Harpold suggests, I will eventually have to quit using my laptop, essentially throw it off, because it will one day be unable to access more robust documents that will, without a doubt, emerge.  Like the old Classic, the blue gumdrop iMac, and white mushroom iMac sitting on a desk in my office, it will be relegated to accessing outdated media.

Harpold’s ironic humor is at work with the book’s format, for it reflects an upgrade of sorts of print technology––call in “Book 2.0”––in that the text is divided into chunks and numbered based on its location in the book.  The first paragraph of Ex-Foliations, for example, is listed as 1.01.  Inside each discrete textual grouping (I am avoiding using the term lexia since he takes Landow to task for his departure from Barthes’ definition of it) we may find a link to another section of the book, a note at the end of the book, or a figure within the chapter.  That Harpold devotes close to a third of the book to Notes, Works Cited, and Index should clue the reader in to the book’s scholarly contribution to the field.

Those of us weaned on hypertext theory of the early 1990s will definitely find much to enjoy in chapters one and two, “A Future Device for Individual Use” and “Historiations:  Xanadu and Other Recollection Machines,” respectively. Here Harpold revises and/or clarifies old views of hypertext, challenging Jakob Nielson’s assumption of reading practice, distinguishing between Ted Nelson’s and Vannevar Bush’s “textual systems” (20), and rethinking Nelson’s Xanadu project, to name a few.  We who spent hours creating links and nodes in Storyspace documents will gain much in chapter three, “Revenge of the Word,” where Harpold revisits hypertext fiction and theories by Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop, particularly as their work functions within the affordances of the user interface.  It is in chapter four in the 51st paragraph that Harpold finally gets to detailing his ideas on “ex-foliations,” defined above. We learn that ex-foliations “are well suited to the interpretation of the multiple and irregularly layered surfaces of objects in the digital field, especially those in which idioms of the GUI are of relevance to the expression and reception of meaning, or in which they are repurposed or subverted for aesthetic effect” (137).  This explanation helps to underpin the discussion found in Chapter five, “Lexia Complexes,” of George Landow’s notion of lexia within the context of Roland Barthes introduction of the term and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.  In chapter six Harpold moves on to a discussion of Joyce’s afternoon: a story, focusing particularly on the way the story is affected by the Mac and Windows operating systems.  As he tells us, “[c]onceiving of digital reading solely or even chiefly as a practice of excavating meaning from the machine’s secret registers means mistaking for signs of depth objects that may be best thought of as stuck to the surface of the text:  jammed, with the reading subject, someplace among the clattering apparatus of the reading scene” (208).  While he laments the “lack of a general methodology for making sense of the contributions of applications and operating systems to writing for the screen,” he does allude to both “platform studies” introduced by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost as well as “literary-digital forensics” introduced by Matt Kirschenbaum as “show[ing] great promise in the analysis of [this kind of work]” (204).  Harpold ends the book with chapter seven (one would be tempted to assign meaning to this well-used Western symbol for completeness if it weren’t for the warnings about the disjunction between signifier and the signifieds given earlier), “Reading Machines.”  This title, reminiscent of N. Katherine Hayles’ book, Writing Machines, looks at the technology we call the book and compares it to a computer’s interface, which he describes as “an impoverished system” (13).

So deep is Harpold’s knowledge of his subject matter that it is difficult to quibble over any points.  Those of us who have been following his work for the last two decades will recognize the usual wit, mastery of theory, and attention to detail.  In sum, Ex-Foliations is a must read for all digital media scholars, for it contextualizes current issues and trends (and concerns) in digital media within the larger notions of the reading experience and human desire.


Last Updated 2 December, 2009

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