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Mechanisms. New Media and the Forensic Imagination

by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008
316 p., illus. 33 b/w. Trade, $35.00/£22.95
ISBN: 0-262-11311-2.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

In the reflection on new media, this book is undoubtedly a watershed publication. Its basic stance is that electronic writing can only be understood if we accept to consider it a real form of writing, i.e. of material inscriptions on material surfaces, and therefore to leave behind many of the myths that surround digital culture. This grammatological stance, which the author borrows as much from Jacques Derrida (whose Archive Fever
is one of the major sources of inspiration of this book) as from Friedrich Kittler (whom Kirschenbaum criticizes however quite vividly for his often sweeping overgeneralizations), goes against the grain of what many of the first generation thinkers on digital writing in new media environments had too easily taken for granted, namely the idea that electronic writing was evanescent, ephemeral, multi-authored (if not authorless), permanently shifting, freed from all kinds of fixed form, and so on.

Against these myths, Kirschenbaum opens his book with two stunning examples (which at the end of this work the reader will no longer interpret as ‘stunning’ but as ‘perfectly normal’): first the impossibility to realize the announced self-destruction of a piece of e-literature (William Gibson’s Agrippa
); second the possibility to recover many data from the physically damaged hard disks of the 9/11 attacks (various companies had by then already developed the necessary software to restore the content of the computers’ black boxes). The lessons that can be drawn from these two examples are then extended by the author to a new theory of electronic writing, which puts a great emphasis on the materiality of both the process and the product: inscription, storage, retrieval, and transmission are the master words of a renewed form of philology, no longer bound to the a prioris of the old discipline, but updated and adapted to what writing and reading have become in the digital age (in this regard, Kirschenbaum continues the groundbreaking work launched by scholars such as Jerome McGann, although in a slightly different direction).

What makes Kirschenbaum’s work so thrilling and innovative is, however, not only the demonstration that electronic writing is also a way of writing, even if the computer is a machine meant to withdraw its own material operations from our attention (its technology is a typical ‘black box’ technology, and it is very refreshing to notice that Kirschenbaum’s view of this type of technology helps to avoid Vilém Flusser’s influential attacks in his amply read and discussed Towards a Philosophy of Photography
). At least as important is the humanist viewpoint defended by the author, whom some may know as a very careful reader of Foucault. In this regard, a key role is played by the notion of ‘forensics’, a branch of criminology known as ‘trace evidence’, whose inventor, the French investigator Edmond Locard, coined the ‘exchange principle’ (which one can freely paraphrase as: ‘every contact leaves a trace’). In his book, Kirschenbaum uses forensics as a tool to think of electronic writing as a chain of contacts which are never materially lost, while at the same time insisting on the fact that it is much more than just a sequencing of inscriptions on a hard disk (of on other types of surfaces, although the hard disk has now become the dominating form).

On the one hand, he argues that forensics breeds a new type of attention and imagination, both similar to and different from the reading of clues in general. What defines the specificity of forensic imagination in the case of digital writing is the split between forensic and formal materiality, the former having to do with the ‘product’ (which inscriptions have been made, which marks can be read?), the latter, with the ‘process’ (how are these inscriptions and marks being transferred from one surface to another). From a semiotic point of view, inspired by Nelson Goodman, Kirschenbaum calls the forensic materiality ‘autographical’ (no two marks are identical, each mark has its own signature), whereas he calls the formal materiality ‘allographical’ (the difference between two marks is put between brackets if they display, to quote Goodman, ‘sameness of spelling’).

On the other hand, Kirschenbaum does not separate electronic writing and other, non-electronic forms of writing. In an important theoretical move indebted to Latour and others’ actor network theory as well as to the social approach of information (the author follows here Shannon very closely, who gives priority to mechanisms of inscription and dissemination rather than to the vague idea of content), this book makes a strong plea for a ‘holistic’ (my word, not Kirschenbaum’s) approach of electronic writing. Such a perspective leads him to study all the documents and communicative acts that surround and make possible electronic writing.

The theoretical insights are brilliantly illustrated by three case studies, which have everything to become classics of what Foucault would have called a genealogical as well as an archaeological reading of new media writings: first, the rereading of an ‘old’ game (Mystery House) helps the author to make a very convincing demonstration of the multilayeredness of electronic writing (the forensic imagination discloses many other traces of writing, which Kirschenbaum manages to peel away –or to reconstruct– stratum after stratum); second, the close reading of the archives of the first great hypertext novel, Michael Joyce’s Afternoon
, which enables Kirschenbaum to disclose not just the making of this famous work but to analyze also the multiple versions and variants of the same Ur-text; third (and here the book’s inquiry has something of a real detective story), the social life of Gibson’s Agrippa, which helps the author to make his major point, namely the profound intermingling of electronic and non-electronic writings, and the even more profound combination of text and society.

Kirschenbaum’s book may not always be easy reading, but that is in part the fault of the reader, whose ideas on digital literacy are often an alibi to turn away from what he or she is doing when electronic writing is produced: the inscription, storage, transmission and exchange of material marks. Mechanisms
, which opens totally new grounds for electronic textual scholarship, will be one of the books that can redefine what it means to be a digerate.






Updated 1st May 2008

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