Thursday, 26 November 2015

Being (post)Human

I opened and chaired one of the Being Human events at the University of Birmingham last week, a roundtable about the experience of teaching and practicing Humanities work in the city. I helped out with some of the organising, but I have to say a big thank you again to my colleagues Charlotta Salmi and Zara Dinnen for all of their work in bringing the event together.

I thought I'd share my opening comments below. I wanted to capture some of the oddness of me opening an event about the humanities and being human when I'm most interested in posthuman philosophy, in not putting humans automatically first, in not privileging human perspectives on the world, in not thinking that "humanity" is a neat and fixed category. I still care about people, of course, and my politics is only subtly posthuman (largely humanist in my socialism - though I'm certainly interested in the ways in which posthuman approaches to the coherency of what it means to be human can play into progressive and socially just politics - and strongly posthuman in my ecological stance). So how to combine a care for people with posthuman concerns? The below is only a tentative step in that direction; I only had 7 minutes and the event had nothing to do with my research, but instead showcased some of the fantastic work being created in and about Birmingham. But I also want to do this more, to ensure that my statements about the humanities, and the human, don't slip into a humanist triumphalism that has little to do with what I actually think, whilst also wanting to remain an advocate for the importance and value of humanities study.

Being Human

Welcome everyone, and thank you for coming out on a Saturday to talk about humans and the Humanities. And a huge thank you to Zara and Charlotta for organising this event. I’ve tried to help out where I can, but they are certainly the reason that we’ve all been able to get together in a room today to meet, and discuss, and to share our thoughts and practices, something which I hope that we can continue to do a lot more of at events to come, at meetings which again cross over the academic and public institutions, collectives, and individuals of this city. Because it’s important to share these kinds of things, not least so that we don’t feel so alone, as researchers, as creative people, as people at all. And so I’m really happy to get to be a part of things today, and to start us off with a couple of ideas about being human and the work of the Humanities.

This event is part of the festival of the Humanities. That festival unites a wide variety of talks and seminars and exhibitions under what is meant to be at once a faintly grand and importantly mundane title: “Being Human.” The festival of the Humanities, however sceptical I can sometimes be about this title, and I’ll come back to that in a second, the festival is all about discussing the ways in which the Humanities, the practices, study, and distinctive methods of studying arts and cultures, the Humanities are for everyone. The Humanities are about daily life, are about building other ways of thinking and acting into daily experience. About making the process of living richer.

It’s a festival, then, not just of being human, but of being a better human. Not in a Victorian sense, necessarily, of good art making us better, more moral, more ethical beings, not about self-improvement, but rather about the availability of better experiences – the chance to have a better life through methods beyond what money might neatly pin down. A life with the work of the Humanities is richer – more thought through, more thought about, with a sense of heritage and possible futures; with a sense of what might be supported and what might be resisted. A life with the Humanities is about expanding the horizon of the possible.

In this, and so many other ways, the Humanities are not at odds with the sciences, but they go about changing what we believe to be conceivable in a different way. The Humanities don’t give us artefacts; they reveal powers. Engineering gave us the printing press; the Humanities gave us the novel. The full might of the sciences gave us the car, the road, petrol, and the CD player; the Humanities gave us the highway, the foot to the floor, the sunset, and the lights of the beckoning city.

To return to my scepticism, I do worry that the idea of using the Humanities to be more human can become reduced, sometimes, to there being only one good way to be a human, and then various shades of allowing other ways of being – an encouraging of sympathy for those who can’t be human in quite the right way. To parody this stance, it’s the stance that says “I’m so enlightened that I don’t judge you for not being able to think or act like me, I’m just sorry that you can’t because of your race, or religion, or disability, or sexuality.” This is when political correctness really goes wrong: not when it’s used as a tool to raise awareness and to fight against discrimination, but when, instead, it fosters a particular sympathy, a becoming aware of the “plight” of minority voices in a society and wondering not how they might be amplified, but instead how they might be absorbed. It can seem that the easiest ways to be rid of this awkward sympathy is to try and work for everyone to be the same. And it seems a waste of the Humanities to be put to work on an impossible task.

Some of the most vital work, to my mind, is not sympathetic – “I’m sorry you’re in pain” – and it’s not empathetic – “I feel you’re pain” – it’s compassionate – “how can I help?” (inspired by comments HERE).

A sympathetic Humanities, at its worst, assumes neatness and asks: “how can I make you more like me, how can I make you more human?” An empathetic Humanities is far better and asks “how can I best understand you, how can I understand your humanity?” But I’m in favour of a compassionate Humanities: “how can I help you be you, how can I support your humanity?”

For this reason, I’d kill for an “s” on the end of the festival name: “being humans” - just a hint at polysemy and pluralism. Because I’m deeply sceptical that there’s just one way to be human, to do the act of humaning. I’d probably open the category up pretty wide – the human is just that which humans, and to human, to do some daily act of human-ing, is really to identify with other beings which themselves identify as human – a mass consensus or co-creation rather than some innate alliance with a coherent, let alone fixed, ideal.

No two bodies neatly alike; no two sexes always able to produce viable offspring; no psychologies independent of culture; no chemical compositions independent of the foods made available by the political structures of the day; no human spirit; no inviolable ethics; just bonds of affinity largely arrayed around more or less compatible genitals.

I’m exaggerating, a little, of course. There are biological similarities that we can’t, and shouldn’t ignore, but the Humanities, in part, is interested in the ways in which this might be the least of the things that makes us what we are.

Part of the reason that this festival, and events like this, are important, is that even a compassionate Humanities can be complacent, at times, about its duty of relevance. I know that many literature staff and students, myself included, have sometimes taken it as a badge of honour that what we do isn't useful in some quantifiable sense, and I still adore the fact that you can't measure in pounds and pence the effect that studying art and culture has on a society. But this means that we do have to be able to defend ourselves.

The Humanities have become increasingly lax at articulating exactly what they offer, and this resulted, during the swathes of swingeing cuts that we've seen to higher education budgets over the last few years, in a litany of public statements attempting to say why the Humanities still matter at a time where the Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics can more readily articulate their worth to the State. I guess we do ourselves no favours in that one of the main arguments for our necessity is that we analyse the language, discourses, and effects of power, of hegemony, of ideology - we've long questioned the very sorts of policies which would attack us; we've often revelled in being heretical; and we like asking difficult questions of people in charge.

We’ve been forced to somehow be able to have the conversation about keeping the Humanities relevant in the 21st century without being accused of, or falling prey, to philistinism. Can we remain relevant and explain our relevance whist simultaneously critiquing forces which use that word “relevance” to mean “normative” or “appropriate for late capitalism”? How, in short, does the Humanities makes its case without becoming complicit with a state which so forgot its importance that it demanded that a case be made?

Part of that Humanities work is easy, however, and will be present today – show; don’t tell.

Show the Humanities in action; show its effects, its uses, its charms; show how it helps humans as they go about their various human-ings. Don’t try and find the language to describe its use, but revel in its useful practices.

So, again, thank you for coming today, to speak with some other people who identify as humans and to hear about some practices of being a human in Birmingham, practices which actively demonstrate the relevance of Humanities work far better than the language of any defensive stance ever could.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Embodied Literary Experience: Pop-ups and the Limn of the Analogue/Digital Page

I gave a paper at Stony Brook just before term started at the invite of Dan Irving and Amy Cook, both of whom worked on this great forthcoming collection (which I'm lucky enough to have a chapter in):

Theatre, Performance, and Cognition

For the talk I drew on bits of my book (which you should absolutely order into your library...) and some of my chapter for a collection that I co-edited on digital research methods (more details here). I'll post the transcript below, but there's also a video capture of the event that I'll also include if you'd prefer to watch (the full event page is here and you can also see Marco Caracciolo's great talk at the same event).

Embodied Literary Experience: Pop-ups and the Limn of the Analogue/Digital Page 
  • I want to talk today about books and bodies, the bodies that hold the books and the bodies that are the books.
  • Thinking about the impacts of embodiment and materiality have really underpinned my research for the last few years.
  • I represent the UK for an e-reading research network called EREAD, or “Electronic REading in the Age of Digitisation”, headed up by Anne Mangen, a reading researcher at the University of Stavanger in Norway.
  • The network includes academics from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and from around 40 European countries.
  • What we’re trying to do, our mandate, is that by 
“…combining paradigms from experimental sciences with perspectives…from the humanities, the Action will develop new research paradigms, and metrics for assessing the impact of digitization on reading. These metrics enable the development of evidence-based knowledge of paper and screen reading, and provide guidance for practitioners, policy makers, publishers and designers” (Mangen, EREAD 2015).
  • The interdisciplinary scope of the network is captured in its central commitment to a “multidimensional, integrative model of reading.”
  • Such a model is what the researchers involved feel must be considered as a minimum for understanding the effects of all kinds of reading on readers, and I suspect that at least some similar model must become the norm for future work on reading in the Digital Humanities whether it is interested in the readers’ cognitive health, their affect, or texts’ literary potential.
  • Many aspects of such an integrative approach are not new, they have been part of textual studies for a long time, but their combination is likely unique, and certainly richer than the current default tends to be.
  • So, in this regard, the network is committed to exploring reading as an embodied and multisensory experience, and as a human-technology interaction that demands that we consider the entanglement of the rich physicality and related cognition of the user and the particular affordances of the device being used.
  • And this works for me because I’ve come to see reading as an act which has to be understood as emerging at the nexus of two embodied things, and never the product of information simply bound up in either element, bound in either the reader or the object that they hold.
  • Derrida and Barthes and Kristeva told us a lot of this a while back, but we always seem to keep forgetting, to keep focussing on the words on the page alone, to forget the hands that hold them, the leaves or screen that cradles them, the milieu in which each exist, and amongst which everything means.
  • To state it bluntly from the outset, I think that texts are something separate from works, that texts are the things that we encounter in a rich moment of use, that they’re far more than just words.
  • Texts aren’t something that authors write or even that reader’s produce; they’re something that emerges at the heart of a material entanglement that is always, itself, situated in time, space, and a milieu.
  • And we hear a lot about readers and cultural moments and historical forces.
  • But what underpins what I want to think about today is the ways in which a work’s materiality always conditions the kinds of text that can emerge, and that textual production (separately from the writing of a work), textual production is a cognitive process that takes place in a messy crossing from the boundary of the skull and skin and out into the world. 
  • There’s three threads in contemporary Psychology and Philosophy which have become particularly meaningful in reminding me about all of this recently.
  • One is Postphenomenology, one is Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, the other is so called “4E cognition,” or embedded, extended, enacted, and embodied cognition.
  • The distinctions and relations between these fields is needlessly subtle for a 30 minute talk; what’s been important to me, however, is more simple: in different ways these fields each see human cognition as not simply taking place in the brain, but instead as taking place across a comingling of brain, body, artefact, and environment – true cognition is dependent upon each these elements, and then only when they’re understood in their richest sense.
  • There is a near infinite capacity for what can be brought into both textual meaning making and our fundamental cognitive making of meaning.
  • In this understanding, it is the action, and situation, and body, and thought that a human brings together that thinks, and our tools in particular can dramatically shape this distributed thinking when they become a part of the entanglement. 
  • The cognitive archaeologist Lambros Malafouris describes this kind of rich thinking assemblage with regards to pottery thrown on a wheel: 
“We should assume…that every mental recourse needed to grow a vessel out of clay may well be extended and distributed across the neurons of the potter’s brain, the muscles of the potter’s sense organs, the affordances of the wheel, the material properties of the clay, the morphological and typological prototypes of existing vessels, and the general social context in which the activity occurs…I do not mean to deny that an intricate computational problem may well arise for the brain the moment the potter touches or is touched by the clay; I simply mean to emphasize that part of the problem’s solution is offered by the clay itself, without any need for mental representation” (Malafouris, How Things Shape the Mind 213 & 219).
  • Malafouris asks: how does the potter know how to bring about a pot? In part there is, of course, something in her head that does some computational process and draws on her memories and experiences and plans.
  • But a pot is not simply the product of the potter’s mind, of a neatly planned intent, but is born, instead, of an entanglement between the potter’s brain, body, the clay, and the conditions of the day – humid air allows for certain techniques and prevents others; a more dense clay allows for greater height, but less dramatic shapes for instance.
  • The potter thinks alongside, with, and through the clay, the wheel, and her arms and hands, and it is only their actions together that determine the final shape of the pot.
  • These elements each play a role in the shapes that the final pot can take, and the potter feels this out, thinking with her hands and the tools and the matter that they hold, drawing on information that her brain will never consciously contain, cognising with forces that are as invisible to her as the snap of signals across her neurons. 
  • This is a dramatic idea to me, that to think in the supremely human fashion of the expert creator means to think with the world.
  • And part of what I want to talk about today is that this is as true for reading as for the realm of clay, humidity, and the actions of the potter’s hands.
  • I don’t want to focus on the reader here, but instead on the objects, the things; paraphrasing Husserl: I want to return to the books themselves. 
  • So let’s start with the embodiment of printed literature.
  • Printed books’ most significant material features are their covers, their pages, their typography, and the formal arrangement of words on the page, and the interactions that the comingling of each of these aspects afford the reader.
  • As I am predominantly interested in physicality, I will focus on pages and covers, but formal arrangement and typographical choices are also clearly important, clearly meaningful, with plenty of famous examples of playful arrangements such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes or Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, or back to Derrida’s Glas or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
  • But what kind of response might come from the seemingly simple physicality of a standard printed book? 
  • I’ve got to be careful when dealing with the suggestion that certain kinds of thinking somehow inhere within a codex.
  • A book does not determine any kind of thinking in its users, but it does provoke certain kinds of thought from within the cultural context in which it operates, or, more often, to restrict certain kinds of thinking.
  • We do not think neutrally or from nowhere, but always in concert with the materiality of ourselves, of our environments, and of the objects that we find there.
  • In the same way that cognitive science has come to recognise the ways in which our bodies can come to condition how we think about and encounter the world, so too can the embodied objects that we encounter project elements of their form back into our way of thinking. 
  • To think this through in terms of print I’d like to appropriate a term from Katherine Hayles: “material metaphor.”
  • For Hayles, a material metaphor “foregrounds the traffic between words and physical artifacts,” drawing attention to connections between a book’s script content and its materiality: 
“We are not generally accustomed to think of a book as a material metaphor, but in fact it is an artifact whose physical properties and historical usages structure our interactions with it in ways obvious and subtle. In addition to defining the page as a unit of reading, and binding pages sequentially to indicate an order of reading, are less obvious conventions such the (sic) opacity of paper, a physical property that defines the pages as having two sides whose relationship is linear and sequential rather than interpenetrating and simultaneous” (Writing Machines 22-3).
  • Hayles here recognises some of the ways in which the form of a printed book can promote or suggest things to the reader. And these are elements that can unconsciously structure the text we produce or that the author can explicitly play with.
  • We might think, for instance, of Jane Austen’s aside to the reader at the end of the playful Northanger Abbey where she makes the wonderfully meta comment that her characters’ 
“anxiety...can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity” (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey 185).
  • The amount of pages resting in our right hands constantly updates us as to the time that we have left to spend with the story world, and this can raise or lower the tension that the author has set up so far.
  • As this wedge thins we know that there is not long to go, and, as Austen satirises, all romances simply must have a happy ending – if there aren’t many pages left then no character, surely, can be in any kind of real plight.
  • The material form of the codex, then, structures the reception of at least the content within it as we got about the process of producing the read text.
  • I’d argue, however, that paper books also have the potential to structure the kinds of thinking that follow on after their use. 
  • Walter Ong gives us a way into this idea by grounding his discussion of new media in the radically freeing effect of the introduction of the written word as a new technology: 
“Since in a primary oral culture conceptualized knowledge that is not repeated aloud soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy in saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages. This need establishes a highly traditionalist or conservative set of mind that with good reason inhibits intellectual experimentation. Knowledge is hard to come by and precious” (Orality and Literacy 41).
  • Ong demonstrates that societies which adopt writing hugely expand their capacity for novel thinking, not only through the elimination of repetition for the sake of memory, but also of needless repetition between people working on the same problem.
  • Writing, in a form that is easily copied, preserved, stored, and distributed, then, transcends time and space, and reaches audiences beyond those immediately bodily present.
  • In this way, the codex and codex-like forms have most often been, or become, radically democratising. 
  • But the history of the use of the writing stored within the codex does not uniformly match the message of its physicality.
  • Particularly in the age of the internet and its swiftly produced, amateur-led, and often brief and fleeting texts, it becomes clear that the codex does not inherently afford caprice or rapid response, instead promoting the positives and negatives of the glacial flow of received wisdom.
  • The forces of history, culture, and society interacting with the equipment have undoubtedly shaped each user's phenomenological experience of the form, but democratised knowledge is not the enduring aspect of its brute embodiment.
  • The defining features of the material codex are not its provision of freedom and novelty, but rather its order, its stability, and its sense of authority, which are all products of its boundedness.
  • The covers of a printed text, as Austen well knew, perform this clearly: the object is finished all around with a hard shell; it is discrete. When I put a finished book on the shelf, again both positively and negatively, I have the profound feeling of owning some new chunk of knowledge.
  • The form wins out over the history of its deployment in the phenomenological experience - a history of new freedoms and the democratisation of information is supplanted by the particular forces of preservation and continuity that are tied to the arrangement of the pages themselves. 
  • So now we need to turn to the much younger technology of electronic text in order to consider the kinds of impact that its own strange embodiment might already have begun to accrue, particularly in light of its troubled relationship with print.
  • Because the ways in which we receive digital texts’ more complex materiality stems from their divided relationship with both print and computing. 
  • When we set them against a history of print we can understand why digital texts so often appear to be, and are often theoretically positioned as, intangible, even if e-reading devices such as the Kindle and iPad clearly are not.
  • In the early 90s, writers such as Jay David Bolter and George Landow began to set out theoretical implications for the new digital literature, databases, and environments that were increasingly being adopted.
  • These writers were enthusiastic about the new forms and sought largely to see how the American academy’s poststructual strategies of the time could be mapped onto digital products; little interest was shown in the potential downsides of a shift in media from print to pixels, nor in what was occurring during programming and what effects code and coding might have upon the reader’s reception of a text.
  • Digital texts were therefore often treated as evanescent, setting the tone for approaches to digital media throughout the 90s and stabilising attitudes that still persist – that digital things are somehow not quite “there” or “here.” 
  • Since the late 90s, Digital Humanities research, however, has become increasingly sensitive to the particularities of every aspect of digitisation, and Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work in Mechanisms marked a real turning point for theoretical discussions regarding the importance of materiality for studies of digital media, meticulously picking apart the physical particularities of the computer and refuting the illusion of the digital as being somehow etheral.
  • As Kirschenbaum notes 
“[e]lectronic textuality is. . . locatable, even though we are not accustomed to thinking of it in physical terms. Bits can be measured in microns when recorded on a magnetic hard disk. They can be visualised with technologies such as magnetic force microscopy” (Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms 3).
  • In his forensic study, Kirschenbaum demonstrates that, whilst it might take some looking, digital texts are always there, always embodied, and we can see here an image of a single bit, the smallest unit of information stored on a hard drive platter.
  • This kind of work alerts us to the meaningful potential inherent in electronic ways of presenting texts; it reminds us of the rich and intricate physicality and layering of readable strata that we often neglect when we consider the digital projection of words on a screen. 
  • As well as discussing a typically invisible forensic materiality, Kirschenbaum also asserts that all software has an extensive entailment of material elements that should not be forgotten as evidence of its very real place in the world: 
“Software is the product of whitepapers, engineering specs, marketing reports, conversations and collaborations, intuitive insights, professionalised expertise, venture capital...late nights (...labour), caffeine, and other artificial stimulants. These are material circumstances that leave material (read: forensic) traces - in corporate archives, on whiteboards and legal pads, in countless iterations of alpha versions and beta versions and patches and upgrades, in focus groups and user communities, in expense accounts, in licensing agreements, in stock options and IPOs, in carpal tunnel braces, in the Bay Area and New Delhi real-estate markets, in PowerPoint vaporware and proofs of concept binaries locked in time-stamped limbo on a server where all the user accounts but one have been disabled and the domain name is eighteen months expired” (Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms 14-15).
  • Most significant for me here is that this litany demonstrates that to suppose intangibility at any level of a digital text is simply a misreading: the software has a physical forensic materiality at the level of the hard disk image and in the materiality that it entails from production to distribution to use, and it is instantiated on a device which is equally physical and entailed and the whole system of creation and use drifts out into the wider world as equally readable material ripples.
  • That the phenomenological experience is of a potentially discomforting immateriality is born of naivety and the limitations of our senses rather than some valid ontological claim.
  • And yet it persists. 
  • Discussing electronic writing on a PC screen, Hayles' describes the origins of digital texts’ seemingly spectral materiality, whilst paying the same attention to the real processes as Kirschenbaum: 
“In the computer, the signifier exists not as a durably inscribed flat mark but as a screenic image produced by layers of code precisely correlated through correspondence rules, from the electronic polarities that correlate with the bit stream to the bits that correlate with binary numbers, to the numbers that correlate with higher-level statements, such as commands, and so on. Even when electronic [texts] simulate the appearance of durably inscribed marks, they are transitory images that need to be constantly give the illusion of stable endurance through time” (“Print is Flat, Code is Deep” 74).
  • These facts leads Hayles to argue that “electronic text is a process rather than an artefact one can hold in one’s hand” (“Print is Flat, Code is Deep” 79).
  • When a book becomes a process to be run on a machine, rather than a coherence of inked writing and paper substrate that can be held, this has to have implications for how we conceive of it – we construct our texts within this tension. 
  • The digital document, instantiated as a block of script, drives us to our history of print, but its malleable and fleeting appearance on an electronic device also sends us to our experience of various other screens.
  • Elsewhere, Hayles again states this explicitly: 
“Readers come to digital work with expectations formed by print, including extensive and deep tacit knowledge of letter forms, print conventions, and print literary modes...At the same time, because electronic literature is normally created and performed within a context of networked and programmable media, it is also informed by the powerhouses of contemporary culture, particularly computer games, films, animations, digital arts, graphic design, and electronic visual culture” (Electronic Literature 4).
  • Here, Hayles identifies the struggle in producing a new model for what a text can be, a shape that does not settle easily and that can only come through repeated interactions.
  • We have a default gestalt for bound-book reading that has emerged out of a long history of experience.
  • We are initially forced to apply that paradigm to electronic reading, but such reading is capable of and promotes interactions – such as clicking, scrolling, and swift changes and communication between content – which do not fit our paper-book experience.
  • So we have to change our approach to producing a text to include a history that, as Hayles notes, includes all sorts of other screens – they all get folded into what the words “book” or “electronic text” can mean. 
  • We’re essentially building a whole new set of material metaphors to draw upon; authors have these brand new ways to mean as their readers start to become familiar with both a too-frequently hidden history of print materiality and a new selection of meaningful digital devices. 
  • To just give one example I’d like to look at hyperlinks.
  • A hyperlink, most typically appearing as an underlined blue word, when it’s clicked takes the reader from the page that they are on to somewhere else, known or unknown.
  • The author of the document sets the hyperlink marker, which word or image is clickable, and they set the destination; the reader chooses whether or not they are going to click the link.
  • But even an unclicked link has come to possess meaning.
  • Steven Johnson describes hyperlinks as an entirely new linguistic element; they are “the first significant form of punctuation to emerge in centuries” he says, and this is an apt description.
  • Like a comma, question-, or exclamation mark, hyperlinked words do not change the words themselves at the level of their letters, but instead augment and alter their meaning and capacity to mean. 
  • In early writing systems pictographic script largely attempted to represent spoken words: the spoken “bird,” in the simplest pictogram, would have a representational or symbolic parallel with the image of a bird.
  • I’m cheating a bit here as this is a hieroglyph, and hieroglyphics aren’t purely pictographic.
  • But in the scripts that hieroglyphics derived from, a text was accurate if the interpretations of each image matched in some reliable way what the author intended.
  • A chirographic or typographic written word is different: it is more precise, capable of far greater nuance, and part of its ability to better capture both more specific and more abstract meanings stems from its representing, or coming to represent, a spoken word that has been inscribed many times, iterated with its own growing history and malleable context. 
  • As the cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf notes in her exploration of the reading brain: 
“[l]inguists classify English as a morphophonemic writing system because it represents both morphemes (units of meaning) and phonemes (units of sound) in its spelling...[T]he linguists Noam Chomsky and Carol Chomsky use words like ‘muscle’ to teach the way our words carry an entire history within them…For example, the silent ‘c’ in ‘muscle’ may seem unnecessary, but in fact it visibly connects the word to its origin, the Latin root musculus, from which we have such kindred words as ‘muscular’ and ‘musculature.’ In the latter words the ‘c’ is pronounced and represents the phonemic aspect of our alphabet. The silent ‘c’ of ‘muscle,’ therefore, visually conveys the morpheme aspect of English” (Proust and the Squid 42-3).
  • A pictogram of a muscle always means the concept of “muscle.” Whatever the culture dictated that concept to be, the image would always suggest to the reader their current interpretation of that conventional concept. 
  • But if we look at the word “muscle,” with its silent “c,” then we also get the full morphophoneticism of English coming to the fore: the Latin root, with its pronounced “c,” hides within; it is a conceptual trace, a history more or less known, and more or less affective to the reader. 
  • But now paint that word blue and underline it, put it on a screen and it becomes imbued with possibility.
  • This contraption now means the interpreted cultural concept of the spoken or inscribed “muscle,” like the pictogram; it alludes to “musculus” and to a history of use, like the inscribed word; but it also reminds us of everywhere that it might take us. 
  • Depending on the context we might expect to be sent to anatomical diagrams, bodybuilding tips, bodyguards for hire, seafood recipes, or to somewhere else entirely. 
  • My point is that even an unclicked link still has implications for interpretation. Hyperlinks, and their apparent manifestations, represent a personal aspect to every underlined word, of the choices we make to access, or not, the content and connections that they promise.
  • They are hypermorphophonemic: conceptual, historical, possible. 
  • As Nancy Kaplan asserted, eight years before e-reading really took hold, 
“[t]urning a book’s pages…adds nothing to signification: the end of a page is an arbitrary boundary imposed by an intransigent material world. Taking a link from here to somewhere is not the same thing at all, for in the aggregate the set of chosen links and each link’s place in the set play off against all the sets passed over. That doubleness – the links taken and those passed by – brings a particular reading into being” (“Literacy Beyond Books” 227).
  • And this kind of reading cannot help but mean differently, cannot help but provoke us into producing different texts. 
  • I want to end by looking at a book that brings these ideas together, in fact that requires all of them to read beyond its surface because it delights in limning between analogue and digital text.
  • In early 2014 I worked on developing a project with the Royal Shakespeare Company and an art team, Kristin and Davey McGuire.
  • We received an AHRC prototyping grant for what would become described as a “Theatre Book.”
  • So what does a theatre book look like?
  • At first the reader is faced with a large wooden-covered book, almost a box, laser engraved with “Macbeth” and informing us that this is a retelling of Shakespeare’s play.
  • When you open the book a paper pop-up scene is brought out of the flat folded page and there is a slight whir and click as a mirror, unseen behind the proscenium arch of the pop-up, raises into position.
  • The paper itself has some key lines from the play.
  • And if you begin to move to one side you can also look behind the pop-up screen to see some of the hidden mechanism.
  • Tiny paper lighting riggers, directors, and grips act as a good natured reminder that you’re looking where you shouldn’t be, trying to spoil the secret behind the scenes of this “theatre” – it’s a visual gag, but it becomes a little extra magic while simultaneously extending the theatrical metaphor and revealing that it is an illusion; analogue performance isn’t how this story will be made.
  • A pico projector built into the book’s spine automatically comes to life as the covers are opened; it shines onto the mirror, and is reflected back onto the paper, brightly illuminating it, and filling it in.
  • Ethereal music, composed for the project, begins to play from internal speakers.
  • And as the projected image comes to life, with characters walking into the scene, in front of some elements and behind others, and not cartoon animations but real human figures that begin to silently act out key scenes from the play, the illusion is complete; the story has come to life.
  • The physical form of the book is wholly bounded – there are no wires and nothing to plug in.
  • As the first element of the play draws to a close, the music winds down and the scene fades away to re-reveal the blank cream of the paper and its skeletal pop up forms.
  • There’s no prompt, but the reader knows what to do: she reaches out and turns the page, returning one set of paper models to the flat and bringing another up and out.
  • New music begins, and a newly projected scene fades up into animating this new set, and the next part of the story starts to be enacted.
  • The reader can go back or skip on just by turning the pages, interrupting the flow of the story at her leisure.
  • So how do we go about reading a text like this, one that straddles the line between an electronic projected screen and a paper page? What do we need to be sensitive to? What aspects might play into its particular meaningfulness?
  • I want to focus on three things: how the Theatre Book draws on print; how it draws on the digital; and how it brings these concerns together in a cultural moment that lends them particular weight.
  • With regard to print, the Theatre Book offers constant reminders of its commitment to the power of materiality.
  • The magic of unfurling layered paper landscapes; the etched wooden covers that speak back to the trees that the paper came from; the small figures that seem to be hard at work in an analogue world; each of these elements keeps the power of physicality present.
  • With each turn of the leaves our hands are put to work in bringing the experience into being.
  • We act as directors, as we always have – never wholly responsible for the text, but the driving force behind the combination of aspects which produce that final thing that we encounter.
  • For the artists, the McGuires, the most important relationship between the Theatre Book and traditional print is its evocation of reading a book under the covers with a torch as a child, our first secretive world-building.
  • Its relationship with the digital, though, is more assiduously hidden, but no less meaningful.
  • There is little magic to a projector anymore, hence the joke of the paper figures around the mirror – the mirror itself is not enough.
  • In order to more thoroughly understand the digital elements of the work we could maybe look back beyond the contemporary publishing industry, to the pre-cinematic moving images captured by magic lantern shows and shadow plays of all kinds.
  • The Theatre Book seems to riff on these forms more than cinema in its combination of static sets and lively moving elements within the bounds of the paper surfaces.
  • The reader is sent out, as Hayles noted, as with other digital texts, to consider all kinds of moving images, all manner of references.
  • But this is also a peculiarly 21st-century product – these images, captured in this portable form, couldn’t have been produced at any other point in history.
  • The paper, the pop up, the mirror, the light, the recorded sound, the engraved wooden box: these elements each have an extensive tradition of at least a century.
  • But the paper here is connected to an arduino and micro-switch system that changes the scenes; the pop-ups and the mirror and the light form an unfathomably tiny and accurate cinema, not the smallest screen in the world but amongst the smallest practical gestalt of light thrown and received; the recorded sound is an mp3 played through a tiny amp and speakers; the box is laser etched.
  • This is not a traditional item at any level; from the binary code of its underlying computer platform, to the reassuring wood and print materiality that rests upon the table, it has been mediated by digital processes.
  • The Theatre Book derives much of the intensity of its meaningfulness from its closing of the reciprocal loop between print and the digital.
  • Printed pages are meant to be fixed, static, but here they are brought to life.
  • The digital is meant to be ghostly, ephemeral, independent of the structures that mobilise it, but here it is located, bound up, and only makes sense within the surfaces that it animates and as it is triggered by their movements.
  • It is in its weaving together of both forms, and at this time, that the meaning of each is heightened – the Theatre Book offers an antidote to fear in the face of the new and a commitment to showing the already-present meaning-making potentials of existing forms.
  • Above all else, this project implicates the reader in bringing the story to life, in producing the text, in conjuring up a world and making it matter, and in at least a couple of senses of that word.
  • We might always question where a text is – in music it is perhaps more readily problematic: is the piece in the notation, the performance, the recording, or the act of listening? Does the text necessarily always subtly spread across each of these aspects as the reader, performer, or producer at each level is at least partly informed about and inflected by the other instantiations?
  • In a printed book is the text in the story’s script, in the reader’s head, or in some communion between the instantiation of the work, the reader, their cultural contexts, and the current milieu in which they find themselves?
  • For the Theatre Book, the active role that the reader plays in writing her specific text is brought to the fore in her participation in actually creating each setting that the work manifests upon, causing the space to emerge from the leaves of the book – this material presentation causes us to perform what we have always done.
  • In our encounters with electronic pages, and with print in the light of digitisation, we are developing new meaningful grammars, structures for comprehension, which might also underpin authorial and other artistic strategies.
  • By uniting our theorisations of the experience of new reading practices with artistic work committed to troubling and exploring the kinds of reading that can occur, there is a mutual enriching of all kinds of literary work and of the viable strategies for comprehending its impact.
  • And this is important, because as it is increasingly built into our lives, digital technology is becoming humanised: made subtle, not jarring; truly deep, not ghostly or shallow; and meaning-rich, like every prior page that has come before and held the words that move us.