According to Kirschenbaum, new writing techniques on the nanoscale are a good place to start the conversation about the locatability of textuality. As he points out, even though we do not always think about information or “text”, stored for example on a CD-ROM, in physical terms, even microscopic data can be regarded as text. Kirschenbaum seems to suggest that the commands “read” and “write” on CD-ROM drives have almost become something akin to dead metaphors which users often stop associating with textuality. The question he seems to be asking is “if we can’t see text, is it there? And is it still text?” Such a question anticipates the Structuralist reply that everything can be read as text, including data “written” in every type of media. However, it also sets the tone for the rest of the chapter in which Kirschenbaum attempt to locate this elusive “ghostly” text.
Kirschenbaum states that he wants to provide a corrective to the notions that electronic texts are ephemeral, open to modification or are identical copies of one another. With this approach, he argues, he wishes to steer the discussion away from the formalism, post-structuralism and essentialism which characterized much of the debate on New Media. He begins his Introduction with the “ephemeral”, almost venturing into metaphysical territory, and later continues to explain the idea of two differing materialities in a similar manner. While Forensic materiality “rests upon the principle of individuation” of objects in the physical world, and extends to even “to the micron-sized residue of digital inscription”, formal materiality remains difficult to explain (11). Kirschenbaum attempts to demystify the term by characterizing it as “the lingering perception of some genuine material residue (…) which presents, like sensation in a phantom limb” (13). In effect, even though Kirschenbaum’s supposed intention is to “correct” or “explain away” the “misconception” of electronic textual immateriality, his language still betrays the need to “animate” the mechanism. The “vague sense of unease” (13) even the author admits to feeling when confronted with accepting the exclusively formal nature of a digital process only seems to underline that the issues of human comprehension of immateriality and formal materiality are not fully dealt with in this text.
Kirschenbaum’s interpretation of the formal materiality as “ghostly presence”, as well as his attempt to recognize the actions of “reading” and “writing” in their original meanings demonstrate the desire to “humanize” technology. While he claims one of his aims is to demystify the idea of the immateriality of electronic text, his choice of language seems to reinforce the idea that even though bits can be measured and visualized, the notion of “immateriality” is still as elusive as ever.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “Introduction:’Awareness of the Mechanism'”. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge (MA): The MIT P. 2008.
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