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Writing Machines

Author: N. Katherine Hayles (designed by Anne Burdick)
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press Mediawork Pamphlet Series, 2002
Review Published: April 2004

 REVIEW 1: Michael Filas

N. Katherine Hayles’ newest book, Writing Machines, continues her theoretical exegesis of the ways in which narratives reflect and shape our understanding of ourselves in the context of technologies, specifically the technologies of hypertext and remediation. In this book, Hayles experiments creatively with academic and other forms of discourse, not just discussing the changing nature of textuality, but also demonstrating some vast possibilities of new meanings for new forms. These possibilities have been defined, in part, by Peter Lunenfeld, the Editorial Director of the MIT Press Mediawork Pamphlet Series. His stated goal is to produce "theoretical fetish objects with visual, tactile, [and] intellectual appeal" (138). Thus, his guidelines impose a different sort of rigor than MLA-style argumentation and evidence, although Hayles augments the material text by providing, with designer-collaborator Anne Burdick, a companion web site that has bibliography, notes, errata, and other visual and content elaborations. At every opportunity, and on both the material (144-page book) and Internet platforms, the project pushes with great force against the formal and content boundaries that have been defined for theory discourse, social critique, autobiography, and personal narrative. Even the synchronicity between the printed and web-based material has been developed with fresh innovation. If the execution were not so fine, I could see this project becoming a disaster of experimental excess -- but this did not happen. Instead, the layers present themselves in stages, revealing fresh material and multivalent connections in every corner, at every turn of the tone or page.

Hayles deviates from her usual structures for literary criticism in order to present an individualized account of how one person came to understand and discover the shifts in narrative structure documented in Writing Machines. The analytical discourse is interrupted with, prefaced, and followed by sections given over to pseudo-autobiography about a character named Kaye, who, like Kate Hayles, has been an active participant in the scholarly investigation of how new media and other technologies affect our understanding and expectations of texts and media. Although Hayles references Henry Adams and Rousseau as predecessor autobiographers representing two extremes, I am most reminded of Roland Barthes’s (1977) autobiography in which he laces provocative critical theory into, around, and over photographs, medical charts, and reminisces from his life and lineage. Like Barthes, Hayles shows us part of herself, some of her experiences, but ultimately for the purpose of proposing a new perspective on inscribed narratives of all kinds: critical, virtual, personal, academic, and distributed. In lieu of directly arguing at length for it, she shows us how personal memories and experiences can be valid elements in critical discourse, shows us how a critical text can be distributed (but not redundant) in print and web-based forms, shows us how collaboration can yield an intensified focus reinforced by visual cues, structural apparatuses, and an elegant combination of close readings in broad contexts.

The autobiographical story is as much about "Kaye’s" coming to understand concepts such as hypertext, material metaphors, and remediation as it is about how the people inventing and examining these concepts have come to understand such ideas and developments. Here, autobiographical narrative provides one particularly relevant history of textual evolution as it has transpired at conferences, in interviews, at a dissertation defense, and on both the scientific and literary sides of various universities. Although a marked tonal change (and even a change in font) designates the shifts from "Kaye’s" story to Hayles’s more direct critical discourse, there are several overlaps. Teasing this narrative boundary, Hayles shifts narrative voices more erratically about two-thirds into the book, then directly states her argument in a self-reflexive comment: "Maybe now is a good time for a double-braided text where the generalities of theory and the particularities of personal experience can both speak, though necessarily in different voices" (106). It is significant that these voices are substantially new, neither the autobiography nor the critical writing conform, exactly, to the prescribed codes of discourse. While the critical exegesis excludes citations and contextual footnotes (which are both available online), the text doesn’t bog down if a particular reader lacks familiarity with the passing reference to Derrida, Baudrillard or others. Yet for those more thoroughly immersed in cyberstudies, post-humanity, and definitions of the simulacrum, her passing references are a comfort, a nod to her standing audience of attentive scholars. But importantly, these passing references are not meant as a substitute for the depth and complexity we’ve come to expect from Hayles’s scholarship (see, for example, How We Became Posthuman -- ed.). While she argues for a reconsideration of cybertexts and materiality as new forms of narrative with new parameters, different parameters than those historically developed for and applied to print text, she also demonstrates new possibilities for the print text, for autobiography, for mixing visual and verbal components in a material artifact. Writing Machines embodies a surprising number of qualities we would expect from a hypertext, but not a 5.5"x7.5" book.

This project is as much about dislodging traditional understandings as it is about proposing new perceptions. Hayles suggests the term medial ecology as a blanket reference to "relationships between different media [as] diverse and complex as those between different organisms coexisting within the same ecotome, including mimicry, deception, cooperation, competition, parasitism, and hyperparasitism" (5). When we approach material and virtual texts from the critical perspective of medial ecology, we privilege the concerns of the media and thus we’re better situated to appreciate qualities in the work that might otherwise fit poorly into traditional critical contexts. Artists’ books, which Hayles explores in some depth, are a perfect example of texts that we can learn much more from and about when we adapt our critical perspective to include the media as a fundamental component. And, in this time of technological developments, cultural noise, and post-postmodern subjectivities, media is not just another referent to form or structure -- these terms seem useful for static textual artifacts but not necessarily for the dynamic and emergent meanings that come from the play in contemporary hypertexts.

Consider Tom Phillips’s artists’ book, The Humument (1980), a set of plates which Phillips painted over selected pages of an otherwise little-known Victorian novel by William Mallock entitled A Human Document (1892). Using Mallock’s pages as canvases, Phillips invented a style of writing he calls plundering by which he left exposed selected letters and words, sometimes connected by narrow and irregular channels -- always forming new words and messages from the textual materials found on the original page. I have known this book for years, yet my appreciation has always been for how well Phillips demonstrates the use of chance and playfulness to create fine poetry and, on a much looser level, novelistic plots. I have also admired his visual aesthetics and references to art traditions and the canon. However, in looking at medial ecology in The Humament, Hayles maps an authoritative hypertextual reading of Mallock’s original novel in which a scrapbook of various types of inscription provides a central focus. The Victorian novel itself was in many ways a hypertext. By locating hypertextual synchronicity between Mallock’s book and Phillips’s textual "story," Hayles casts a whole new light not just on The Humament, but on the scope and usefulness of hypertextual readings. Before this I would not have thought to look for hypertextual attributes in a Victorian novel, nor even in The Humament. Hayles liberates hypertext from the digital and shows how it can inform our understanding of a material book, even an old one.

In Hayles’ reading of The Humament she concentrates on the play and space between the two texts (Mallock’s and Phillips’s) and thus reveals several new layers of meaning. For example, the protagonist of Phillips’s book is Toge, a character drawn with squiggly lines formed in the whitespace between Mallock’s letters and words. With her usual authoritative precision, she reads his very form as having deep meaning emerging from the medial ecology of the two texts:
    Toge has an amoeba-like form whose uncertain outlines emerge from the interplay between Mallock’s words and Phillips’s design. His figure visually testifies to the complication of agency that comes from this union of Phillips with Mallock as his ‘unwiting collaborator,’ a production in which Phillips’s agency is constrained by Mallock’s text, and Mallock’s text is transformed in ways the long-deceased writer cannot know, much less control. (89)
Perhaps the most complicating part of Hayles analysis comes in another part of her reading of Toge. In an analysis of Toge’s Romantic yearning for Irma, the object of his desire, Hayles claims "the narrative is all about INTERIORIZED SUBJECTIVITY, which is to say, Toge is an autonomous and independent agent who actualizes himself through the workings of desire" (emphasis in original, 89). This broaches a new and ironic conflation of ideas for me. My traditional way of approaching and understanding nested narratives has always been through the lens of postmodern theory. Thus, following Brian McHale’s (1987) notion of hypodiegetic worlds, or Chinese box worlds, I have understood that narratives nested within other narratives generate an intended confusion over where the boundaries lie, where one narrative stops and another begins, reaching sometimes even into the level of the reader’s-audience’s own lived narrative itself. This works okay for me in The Humament so long as I can assume that Toge is a depthless figure, a postmodern figure who cannot possibly have unified subjectivity. Yet, without even a hint at irony, Hayles here points out Toge’s interiorized subjectivity and his role as a Romantic character -- this even as she points out his construction from the very guts of hypodiegetic play between two (at least two -- more if you count the visual art references in Phillips’s plates) texts. What’s going on here?

‘What’s going on here?’ seems to be the exact question that Hayles wants to leave us with. In the Preface to this book, she warns that medial ecology will present an alternative understanding to simulation and mediated representations than those proposed by Jean Baudrillard, particularly his model for the precession of simulacra into the hyperreal. Baudrillard’s theories point to a somewhat corrupted state of reproduced signifiers where meaning is no longer possible, where every representation leads only to itself in a fatalistic state, a sort of late capitalist stranglehold on meaning and understanding. Like much of the theory which defines postmodern thought, Baudrillard’s ideas imply a Marxist critique. But medial ecology appears to push us into a more open space where capitalism, Marxism, and postmodern contexts may be factors, but not in the same teleological sense that they might have been in earlier examinations of hypertextual and virtual text developments. Hayles and her collaborators have declared their desire to create a material fetish object. Rather than a lack of affect or depthlessness, she has modulated her critical discourse with some affect in the third-person "auto"-biography of Kaye, with textual designs that swell at key passages, and visually invade content appropriated from other material and web-based texts. This project deals with materials in a way that makes a standard postmodern critique seem retrograde and hamstrung.

My review has addressed only a fraction of the analyses and material in Writing Machines, but the sections I have overlooked are equally provocative. I was most impressed with the backward applicability of medial ecology to The Humament, but Hayles’s scope also includes House of Leaves (2000), a popular contemporary novel in print form, and several web-based texts. This pamphlet offers new perspectives on literature that needn’t be confined only to new media. For me, Writing Machines in an important book. It demonstrates and explains a viable alternative for understanding texts after postmodernism -- and that’s something I’ve been waiting for for a long time. Hayles demonstrates and provides us with medial ecology as a fresh alternative to postmodern, Situationist, and simulacrum-based understandings of hyper-, virtual-, and material-texts of all sorts. It would appear that there is something beyond rank late capitalism in the new textual folds that medial ecology can unveil for us.


Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes: Roland Barthes. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977.

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000.

Mallock, William H. A Human Document: A Novel. London: Chapman and Hall, 1892.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Phillips, Tom. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel.London: Thames & Hudson, 1980.

Michael Filas:
Michael Filas received his Ph.D. in American Literature and Cultural Studies from University of Washington in 2001. He is assistant professor of English at Westfield State College, in Massachusetts, where he teaches creative writing, literature and film. His current research focuses on cyborg subjectivity.  He reviewed leo@fergusrules.com for RCCS.  <mfilas@wisdom.wsc.ma.edu>

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