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Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination

Author: Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008
Review Published: December 2009

 REVIEW 1: Viola Lasmana
 REVIEW 2: Jentery Sayers
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Matthew Kirschenbaum

The question that textual scholars have to confront is still one that Jacques Derrida posed more than a decade ago: "But where does the outside commence? The question is the question of the archive" (8). Following in the footsteps of Derrida, Jerome McGann, and other media and textual theorists who have contributed important ideas to the study of digital media, Matthew Kirschenbaum takes an unconventional approach by utilizing a "forensic imagination" in conceiving the computer as both archival and writing machine, and in envisioning digital texts as ultimately material, diachronic, and social objects. The arguments and analyses in Mechanisms have their bases in not just computer, textual, and media studies, but also (perhaps, more importantly) in humanistic thought. Mechanisms acts as the difference that reimagines and destabilizes the insular "medial ideology" commonly associated with digital media. This is the beauty of the forensic imagination, a kind of awareness that inspires the author to begin his study with tales about two complex digital objects: a text designed to gradually fade away but is now one of the most permanent and available electronic texts online, and salvaged hard drives from the debris of the World Trade Center. Kirschenbaum's suggested model of "thick textuality" as a profoundly effective method in reading and understanding digital objects is an important one that signals a humanistically charged forensic imagination needed for 21st century textual scholars, and one that would carve out a niche for the study of electronic texts within the larger study of textual artifacts and texts with literary merits worthy of continued research.

Mechanisms begins with an invitation for us to develop an "awareness of the mechanism" (a line derived from William Gibson's Agrippa, the electronic text around which Mechanisms is centered). The first two chapters prepare us for the book's wonderfully detailed case studies by delineating the computer's forensic and unique materiality, and by analyzing the hard drive as a writing machine, making us aware that "every contact leaves a trace." Like all good things that come in pairs, Kirschenbaum complements the forensic with the formal, and this distinction serves as the grounding force in his study. He describes formal materiality as "symbolic rather than inscriptive" (40); in other words, formal materiality involves the use of software to make up the simulated materiality that we see on the screen. Forensic materiality, on the other hand, is the inscriptive, the trace, the "difference" that is based in individuality (no two things are the same) and serves to dispel what Kirschenbaum calls the "medial ideology," a narrow-minded way of thinking that treats digital media as fungible and ephemeral.

These distinctions form the foundation of what Mechanisms and mechanisms are about -- that digital objects are artifacts possessing a complex set of features: technical, physical, historical, and social. What Kirschenbaum does so skillfully is weave narratives of hard drives and software with narratives of the social dimension that haunt the life of the digital object. One can imagine the author's mind in a time warp, for example, when he speculates that Roberta Williams, the designer of Mystery House, may have used hybrid textualities in the creation of the game -- "Or not: while we know she worked with the VersaWriter, the rest of my scenario is conjecture. But it captures something of the instinct to write, to fill space with inscriptions, to leave an autographic mark on a computer screen" (132). These musings (not unlike the forensic-detective work that Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi performed on the implications of William Blake's printing methods, as Kirschenbaum so aptly mentions in his book), which are accompanied by ample forensic evidence, make Mechanisms both rigorous and delightful.

In one of Kirschenbaum's case studies, we are presented with a meticulous take on Michael Joyce's hypertext Afternoon: starting with the text's colophon as point of analysis, Kirschenbaum argues that the circumstances behind Afternoon's version histories reveal a profound social reality and diachronic dimension that go beyond what would be too easily dismissed as insignificant changes to the text:
[...] the variants and revisions I have been enumerating are indicative of the textual condition of all electronic objects, that "material event or set of events" which, for a critic such as McGann, constitute the "social text" that is produced under "specific social and institutional conditions." (185)
These are the kinds of illuminating thoughts that make reading Mechanisms so rewarding for current textual scholars. By the time we get to the author's dissection of the events surrounding the "hacking" of Agrippa, we will already be immersed in the scintillating discoveries that the author makes throughout the book. We are privileged to have a scholar like Kirschenbaum to have made these tremendous discoveries, for his work "breaks new ground in terms of access to recently available archival resources" (18). It is notable that the "archival resources" referred to here are also human in nature. In recounting the textual transmission of Agrippa, Kirschenbaum says, "in the end [the "hackers"] gave me leave to 'hack' their individual memories, answering questions that the raw forensic evidence of network and archive could not" (264). In other words, even the "archive" is a hybridized concept and object that is made up of raw forensic material and human networks.

Kirschenbaum is more than just "another humanities professor who gets it about computers"(Sterling, 2009); with Mechanisms, his goal is manifold: "Pedagogy is also among my motives; it is my hope that ... others may be led to undertake similar walk-throughs or forensically replete readings of new media objects, and thereby perhaps add to the repertoire of activities we are able to perform as scholars of electronic literature and digital culture" (115). This is a crucial point that speaks to the exigent needs within digital textual studies: we need a revamped method of study that fosters a robust and thick textuality, a redefinition of words like "virtual" and "archive," and a re-engagement of digital textual studies as an interdisciplinary field that includes knowledge of textual encoding, textual histories, bibliographical methods, the humanities, and the list goes on. This is where Mechanisms shows itself to be a seminal work which will open up the field of new media to include a richer methodology of formal and forensic materiality, and the field of computer studies to include a humanistic dimension.

To repeat Derrida's question, "But where does the outside commence?" In addressing the question of inside/outside, virtual/physical, Kirschenbaum's insight into the social lives of digital objects is enlightening. Mechanisms culminates in a poignant reflection on memory, life, death, and how the forensic imagination plays into these humanistic concerns: "The recovery of the past through objects in the present is our one recourse, besides spiritualism, to satisfying a desire to speak with the dead. Storage ... is all about creating a systemized space in which this activity can unfold" (251). While Mechanisms shines in its lucid explanations of the grammatologies of the hard drive and the forensics of digital media, its true gem lies in its understanding of the multifarious dimensions that digital textuality possesses, as well as the people who are involved in the creation and propagation of the transmitted digital object. Perhaps the forensic imagination is the re-vision of the digital world as a familiar space; perhaps it is the awareness of a "physically robust" place, and the ability to return the virtual uncanny to a more familiar materiality.

Whether it is in the recent discovery of traceable outlines beneath the surface of Matisse's "Bathers by a River," or in the astonishing revelations of how an ephemeral electronic text managed to get broadcasted onto the Internet, the forensic imagination prevails. This mindfulness allows us to look through the looking glass aware of the bits, microns, and nanometers that make up the inscriptive technology. It is an awareness that will allow us to see life within the media: "Absolutely alone in awareness of the mechanism./Like the first time you put your mouth on a woman" (Gibson). As we look through the interface with our forensic imagination, we get a new understanding of Sherry Turkle's words in Life on the Screen: "When we step through the looking glass, other people are there as well" (9). Not only do we have virtual networks of people in the looking glass, but we also have real social networks of individuals who contribute to the creation and propagation of digital texts. And so we surround ourselves with haunted media; as Lewis Carroll writes in the last chapter of Through the Looking Glass,
Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
As Kirschenbaum reflects, digital textuality is locatable even if the inscriptions are not readily visible by wave length optics. At "tolerances measured in microns," we need to feed our forensic imagination, so that we can catch "Alice moving under skies / Never seen by waking eyes" (71).

Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass. Project Gutenberg. Web.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Prenowitz, Eric. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Gibson, William. Agrippa. William Gibson Official Website. Web. 27 July 2009.

Sterling, Bruce. "Dead Media Beat: Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms book." Wired Magazine. 31 Jan 2009. Web.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Viola Lasmana:
Viola Lasmana is currently completing her M.A. in English Literature at San Francisco State University. She is interested in contemporary American literature, psychoanalysis, and the textual, social, and cultural implications of digital technology, especially in how new and social media affect literary and film studies. She currently blogs at violalasmana.blogspot.com.  <viola.lasmana@gmail.com>

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