Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination
Author: Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008
Review Published: December 2009
I confess. I have certainly written that paragraph (ok, eleven-page essay) where new media is pretty much pure concept. It's an ephemeral, fleeting cloud of info-dust disappearing on a whim. It's so easily shaped and modified on the screen in front of me. And lest I forget, it's simulacra.
Yet my time spent on concepts was not wasted. During the writing process, I no doubt learned a lot about popular representations of new media, as well as new media theory and textual criticism. I grappled with some complex ideas, and I typed up enough polysyllabic poststructuralisms to make my screen flicker. Then, in a moment most people experience at least once, Microsoft Word crashed on me, right in the middle of a sentence about The Matrix. I panicked. I thought all of my work was lost. But I re-started Word, and there it was: a prompt stating that a version of my document was recovered. Only a few sentences escaped me, and I could move on, toward re-writing, with just a few slight differences, that critical reference to Agent Smith. I suppose I was somewhat lucky, if only because I habitually write to my hard drive, pressing "Ctrl-S" to store a new version of a given file in the following destination folder: C:\Documents and Settings\Jentery\My Documents\.
"Ctrl-S" aside, I rarely think about hard drives unless I lose something. However, Matthew Kirschenbaum has written an entire monograph on data storage, and only four pages into Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, he admits: "Storage: the word itself is dull and flat sounding, like footfalls on linoleum. It has a vague industrial aura -- tape farms under the fluorescents, not the flash memory sticks that are the skate keys of the Wi-Fi street" (4). Indeed, storage is not exactly a new media buzzword. On its surface, it does not have the flashy allure that animation or data visualization has these days. Nonetheless, through a five-chapter account that's rich with history, close reading, and staggering footnoting, Kirschenbaum produces a critical assessment of storage devices, especially the hard drive, that's anything but dull. In a timely blend of textual criticism and critical theory with computer forensics and technical competences, Kirschenbaum attends to the physical stuff of new media without fetishizing technology. The result is a book about the "remarkable staying power and ... fugitive abandon" (236) of electronic objects, including the interactive fiction game Mystery House, William Gibson's "Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)," and Michael Joyce's Afternoon: a story.
Granted, a book invested in computer forensics will often brim with the language of tech professionals. For example, in Chapter Two, "Extreme Inscription," which is on the magnetic hard disk drive, Kirschenbaum writes:
Every formatted hard disk stores its own self-representation, a table of file names and addresses known (on Windows systems) as the File Allocation Table (FAT). The FAT, which dates back to DOS, is the skeleton key to the drive's content. It lists every file on the disk together with its address. (The ubiquitous eight character/three character file naming convention of DOS and early Windows systems was an artifact of the FAT). (93)This string of acronyms might be tough for some humanities scholars to process. Nevertheless, sentences like these are precisely what anchor Kirschenbaum's scholarship in the forensic character of new media and allow him to overlap the conceptual with the physical -- an overlapping that is a thread, both in practice and in theory, throughout Mechanisms. For instance, in just ten pages after a history of the FAT, Kirschenbaum moves to William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" and Don Delillo's White Noise, to later unpack Google Desktop and Google Print. Consequently, Mechanisms appeals to a broad range of scholars, including those interested in textual studies, computer science, digital art, new media, literary criticism, technoculture studies, and electronic literature.
While maintaining a bibliographic rigor, Mechanisms offers insights into a variety of fields and disciplines because of the terms and terminological distinctions it offers. Here, I want to focus on four terms in particular: medial ideology, forensic imagination, and forensic and formal materiality. Each more or less plays a role in every chapter of the monograph and speaks concretely to how Kirschenbaum productively sustains the contradictory character of new media and electronic writing.
As Kirschenbaum defines it in Chapter One, "Every Contact Leaves a Trace," a "medial ideology" of electronic writing is "one that substitutes popular representations of a medium, socially constructed and culturally activated to perform specific kinds of work, for a more comprehensive treatment of the material particulars of a given technology" (36). Through this distinction between a medium and a technology, Kirschenbaum goes on to claim that a medial ideology enables rhetorics and tropes of electronic text as evanescence, light, energy, and speed (36-43). In so doing, he references the work of several media theorists since the early half of the 1990s and demonstrates how "screen essentialism becomes a logical consequence of a medial ideology that shuns the inscriptive act" (43). Screen essentialism also attends primarily to the transmission of information and largely ignores storage devices such as the hard drive. According to Kirschenbaum, even though more recent scholarship, including the work of Espen Aarseth, N. Katherine Hayles, Lev Manovich, Matthew Fuller, and Alan Liu, has sought to trouble screen essentialism by investigating the materiality of electronic writing and new media, "we remain very much in the grip of a medial ideology, with many plain truths about the fundamental nature of electronic writing apparently unknown at a simple factual level, or else overlooked or their significance obscured" (45). His response to such a grip is computer forensics, which he demonstrates in Chapter Three, "An Old House with Many Rooms," focusing on Mystery House.
To make persuasive the argument that we are, in fact, in the grip of a medial ideology, throughout the book Kirschenbaum delineates between what he calls "formal materiality" and "forensic materiality." This delineation is a wonderfully concise and useful contribution to media studies, namely because it mobilizes practices in textual studies in order to refine broad understandings of materiality and also give materiality some granularity and nuance. For Kirschenbaum, formal materiality is associated with "the illusion ... of immaterial behavior" (11), the symbolic logic of new media, similarity between their versions, data transmission, modeling, and the space of computer screens, whereas forensic materiality is associated with the matter of new media, individualizations between their versions, data inscription, storage, and the space of hard drives. In Chapter One, he writes: "Whereas formal materiality depends upon the use of the machine's symbolic regimen to model particular properties or behaviors of documents ... forensic materiality rests upon the instrumental mark or trace, the inscription that is as fundamental to new media as it is to other impositions and interventions in the long technological history of writing" (70). In every chapter of Mechanisms, Kirschenbaum maintains this historical impulse and pressure on forensics, situating new media in a legacy of writing technologies rather than as some great escape from them. Put this way, electronic textuality has texture. It is not flat, and it is a constant negotiation between print and electronic objects. In Chapter Four, "Save As: Michael Joyce's Afternoons," Kirschenbaum carefully documents this negotiation by identifying four versions of Joyce's text (dated 1987, 1990, 1992, and 1997) and arguing for the relevance of versioning in new media scholarship.
Even as he continuously foregrounds versioning, archives, computer forensics, and materiality, Kirschenbaum still leaves room for aesthetics and the imagination. In "Text Messaging," the fifth chapter of Mechanisms, Kirschenbaum gestures to the "forensic imagination" in moves such as the following: "the preservation of digital media has a pronounced social dimension that is at least as important as purely technical considerations" (240-241). He elaborates on this social dimension in the book's coda, where he lists the "aesthetic markers of the forensic imagination: extreme juxtaposition, or oscillation, of spatial and temporal scale; a precision vocabulary that bespeaks an intimacy with industrial procedure and fabrication; [and] beauty in novel proximity to mundane objects" (252-253). Earlier, I mentioned how effectively Kirschenbaum sustains contradictions, and his description of the forensic imagination is perhaps the best example of this balancing act. For, in the end, Mechanisms could have easily been a technical text, written solely for computer scientists and forensics experts. Or, it could have been a more conceptual text, written for media theorists and literary critics. Instead, Kirschenbaum appeals to -- and I would say convinces -- all groups that materially-minded, inscription-invested scholarship is an underdeveloped and promising trajectory for media studies.
If so, then I am left wondering how Kirschenbaum's blend of computer forensics with textual criticism might alter the everyday practices of humanities scholars, including where we work, what our objects of inquiry are, and what we publish. Or better yet: how might the forensic imagination, as a counter-point to a medial ideology, shape our interpretations?
Bring on the books, be they digital or print or things in between.
Jentery Sayers is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Washington, Seattle. He has published in the journal, Kairos, and is currently writing his dissertation, "Invisible Technologies?", which explores contemporary issues in ubiquitous computing and electronic literature through a cultural history of magnetic recording. For the RCCS, he has also reviewed Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things and Wendy Chun's Control and Freedom. <email@example.com>
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