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Digital Shift: The Cultural Logic of Punctuation

by Jeff Scheible
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2015
176 pp., illus. 32 b/w. Trade, $70.00; paper, $20.00
ISBN: 9780816695737; 9780816695744.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

In the history of writing, punctuation has not always been present. One might say it is a typical, although not exclusive feature of print culture, and as such it is not unthinkable that it will disappear again in the always newer forms of machine reading and writing that are currently taking over the role and function of traditional print. This linear, historical analysis of punctuation is however not the primary scope of this fascinating new study, which approaches punctuation from a cultural, quasi-philosophical point of view. The idea behind the book is very simple, but far-reaching, while offering a completely new take on this vital dimension of text: the way we punctuate (or not) reveals a hidden cultural logic that exceeds the mere domain of writing and printing, and touches upon long-term shifts in the relationships between sign, communication, and meaning. Typographical marks, of which punctuation signs are one of the most interesting categories, can therefore be seen as short cuts to cultural changes that are so general that they escape ordinary attention.

Scheible does much more than making this kind of general claims, however. After a brilliant and very detailed introduction in which the author gives an overview of the existing literature on punctuation and presents the major theoretical underpinnings of his cultural reading, Digital Shift proposes a powerful analysis of the major changes that have occurred since the generalization of digital culture, and it illustrates these changes with the help of three exemplary signs: the period (a traditional sign, but whose function is now changing), the parentheses (an equally classic sign, whose traditionally spare use has been replaced by a much more active and diverse use in recent history), and the hashtag (a sign that can be considered radically new, even if as a form it already existed before).

(Between brackets: each of these readings is neatly discussed in a separate chapter and one feels throughout this exceptionally well structured and well-thought book a kind of already nostalgic fear of the loss what traditional punctuation was actually standing for: the perfect instrument for all those, readers as well as writers, in want of a tool to enhance, make visible and perhaps produce the logical structure of a larger whole.)

In the chapter on the period, Scheible observes that in digital culture this punctuation mark is no longer (only) used to signify to end of a sentence, but that different uses tend to come to the fore, such as the one we observe in email addresses (first name + period + family name, for instance) or in domain names (noun + period + com, edu, net, etc.). This change is not a detail: it signifies the shift from a semantic use of the period (and of punctuation as a whole) to a syntactic use. Typography ceases to underline the logical structure of the meaning of a sentence, a paragraph, a text) and instead displays the way in which the strings of letters and words in electronic environments have to be structured in order to be recognizable for the encoding and decoding machines behind and below our texts. The period becomes a dot, and that is something completely else.

In the chapter on the parentheses, Scheible examines not only the increasing presence of a typographical sign that was not really appreciated in traditional typography, for it was seen as something that interrupted or deviated the logical structure of the sentence, he also scrutinizes the stakes of its prominence in modern typography, where it often appears as a sign per se, i.e. without any "content" inside. Digital Shift argues that the sudden manifestation of the parenthesis can be understood in light of a larger crisis of all forms of monolithic and orthodox thinking that are now challenged by the open and more participatory aspects of the internet and digital culture, making room for what is now moving from the outside to the inside, as if the boundaries between the dominant sentence and its margins were no longer there.

In the chapter of the hashtag, of which Scheible notes that this sign has become the contemporary equivalent of the typical postmodern typographical mark, namely the quotation marks (as a sign of irony and distance), Digital Shift emphasizes the fact that this sign illustrates the mutation of a symbol (namely the "number sign") into a typographical sign (the first meaning of the hashtag is no longer "number sign"; the hashtag refers instead to the way in which digital signs are related to each other when we start combining messages from different sources).

More generally speaking, the changes studied by Scheible disclose a fundamental transformation of what punctuation is, or more precisely: what it actually does. Rather than structuring the meaning of independent sentences, texts, and meanings, typography is now a way of organizing the relationship between textual occurrences and underlying digital codes, but also digital archives. The notion of meaning is then no longer taken care of by punctuation, but is left to the agency of who is combining textual material on the screen. This "who" can be a person or a machine or rather both, since the machine is now writing for us (think of the spelling checker) and we are writing for the machine (think of the ways in which we have to correct the autocorrection that is part of any writing software today).

In these processes, the very difference of the verbal and the visual is put under strong pressure. Not only because language as well as images are both converted into the same 0/1 digital logic, but also because of the fact that punctuation marks tend to appear in both domains, where they behave in similar ways. In light of this change, it should not come as a surprise, but it is certainly something worth praise, that Scheible's argumentation relies throughout the whole book on a double corpus: print matter and punctuation is analyzed In print and machine text, but also in filmic examples: for instance the period/dot at the end of the famous Spike Jonze film Adaptation., which Digital Shift reads in a very clever analysis as an aftereffect of the dotcom crisis; the inverted parentheses in the publicity poster for Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know, which Scheible approaches in relationship with feminism and queer culture; Sander Plug and Lernet Engelberts's I Love Alaska, a deeply critical and complex reuse of one anonymous "case" of the users' search histories leaked by AOL.

Typography changes, but according to Jeff Scheible, it does not suffice to describe its historical changes in form and function of typographical marks and systems. As the title of the book makes clear, something more and something else has happened in digital culture: the signs are still there, and new signs are appearing, but a sudden shift (and the author is of course referring to the way the keyboard's shift function can change the "result" of a key) has dramatically modified their role and status, and this change helps understand the larger changes that digital culture has produced as well: changes of meaning, of structure, of sign systems, of agency. Theory, Scheible argues, is not capable of stopping or softening or changing these changes, but they are an absolute necessity if one tries to understand how we are changed by our media.

Last Updated 1 July 2015

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