Writing Machines is the course website for English 170L at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
I was fairly suspicious of N. Katherine Hayles' essay, "Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers," when I first began reading it.
First off, my feelings about the notion of "materiality" go back and forth. On the one hand, it does sort of make sense that the physical embodiment of words -- or lack thereof -- would be an important issue. This just seems to be a more nuanced take on the tension that exists between writing and speech, which people have been writing and speaking about for a long, long time. And despite these roots in antiquity, it's thoroughly postmodern to suggest that we are shaped so significantly by our environment. On the other hand, I think that language exists and interacts in more abstract states (another idea at home in the writing v. speech and language v. thought dyads) than materiality addresses. I don't think that an emphasis on materiality is necessarily antithetical to an understanding of language as something partly insubstantial, but I do think that materiality is a convenient tool in the hands of a reductionist. It's easy, when materiality is foregrounded, to pre-emptively decide what the concerns of a piece are. I think we've often been guilty of it this semester -- we look at a work, and maybe even without reading it in its entirety, conclude that its chief concerns are all the technological/theoretical ideas that we float in class. Sure, form can be as crucial as content... but materiality as a dominant mode of thinking threatens to let form obscure content as violently as content has often obscured form.
Second, the presence/absence dyad is a classic, and Hayles suggests that even its big-name twentieth-century proponents were only onto it because it was already obsolete. I mean, appropriate enough, I guess... but still a little harsh. And the pattern/randomness dyad seems as if it could be just another way to talk about meaning, which is inherently pretty frustrating.
But also pretty interesting. For the few years that I've known to think about things like "presence" and "absence," I've been intrigued by the interaction of those two states, at a microscopic level, in language. I was introduced to the idea when a professor made a chalk mark between each word of a sentence he had written on the board. He | emphasized | the | way | that | absence | runs | right | through | the | heart | of | language -- how sentences function in both space and time, as decidedly unstable entities. One new word can change the meaning of the rest that came before it. And this is cool, but I've never been comfortable with exactly how the relationship between presence and absence relates to the production of meaning in language. Their relationship seems to facilitate the production of meaning -- chopping up sounds and putting them into specific temporal/spatial arrangements -- but it's never been clear to me exactly what the result is. The presence of meaning? The absence of unmeaning? And then how is one even to evaluate the condition of meaning?
Pattern/randomness seems as if it could provide something of a solution. Or a more helpful model, at least. Hayles sticks to discussing the interaction of pattern and noise across wider expanses of text, but I think that it can useful at the level of the sentence. And Hayles herself suggests this in describing the "recuperation" of the "literary corpus" of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler as "syntactical." She says that this recuperation "emerges from the patterns . . . that the parts together make" (81). None of the parts are fixed, but their admixture is cohesive and productive. Like in a sentence.
As a sentence progresses spatially, temporally, and intermittently through presence and absence, its reader accumulates something akin to noise. Each word carries with it familiar utility, associations and connotations; these are unfixed, and their final arrangement depends upon the reader's completion of the sentence. Meaning is neither absent nor present in each word, which addresses an issue that I find difficult to sort out from a presence/absence angle, since words and phrases do mean things whether or not a sentence has fully contextualized them. Instead, these sparks and trails of meaning compose the noise of an expression, which, as the expression expires, can reveal patterns -- semantic and syntactical redundancies. Meaning is always buzzing about, finding new shapes to inhabit.
I'm not going to organize a parade in honor of pattern/randomness or anything, but speaking as one who was initially suspicious, I think the idea's worth some consideration.