title  author  designer  WebTake
 writing machines  n. katherine hayles  anne burdick  erik loyer

About the Book

Web Supplement: User's Guide
Authors Interview

An Interview with N. Katherine Hayles and Anne Burdick, author and designer of Writing Machines

By Jessica Pressman

JP: The primary significance of Writing Machines, and any discussion of it, resides in the relationship between its material design and its argument for material criticism. The book's design not only embodies, but enables its argument. Form and content, mind and body, are not only inseparable, but are interdependent. How do you perceive the relationship between the book design and the intellectual argument? How did you enact this understanding?

KH: The relationship between the book’s design and intellectual argument is, to my mind, key. For example, the decision to make all quotations appear as images of the texts from which they were extracted, rather than run as continuous typescript, is a strategy meant to emphasize the materiality of the artifacts from which the quotations came. This decision meant that all those pages had to be designed by hand to make the spacing come out right, so it was a labor-intensive tactic. Still, I believe it was worth the effort because it makes visually apparent that our book is a tissue of other texts woven together with new words. Other strategies, such as emphasizing important passages by imaging them as “bubble” text seen through the convex lens characteristic of curved CRT screens, visually instantiates the idea of remediation, the term Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin coined to describe the cycling in one medium of content that appeared in other media. Perhaps the most extensive visual play comes in the specific features of the book that Anne chose for exploration in the design—the fact that a book is a volume composed of a series of planes. From the cover image to the writing that appears on the page edges to the underlying images that serve as backdrop for the pages, this interplay between the plane and the volume, the flat two-dimensional page and the sculptural volumetric space of the book, provides the metaphors around which the design coheres. There is a subtle point to choosing these features to emphasize in the design: although the argument may seem simple on a page-by-page basis, taken as a volumetric whole it has revolutionary implications for how literary and textual critics think about literature and the relation of the criticism to its materiality.

AB: I had always meant for the book design to be integral to the intellectual argument: it should not only interpret the argument, but should actively interrogate its terms. As a result, structures that are a component of the writing strategy became inseparable from the design strategy, and vice versa. The three most significant manifestations of this are in the typefaces that identify different voices, the representational and navigational elements that emphasize the book's status as a book, and the sampled quotations–with their original materiality somewhat intact–that interweave with Kate's writing.
Tight collaborations and deep readings through design are an ongoing pursuit for me, but Kate's call for Media-Specific Analysis demanded a higher level of cooperation. I believe her argument would have been weakened, had the book not acknowledged its own materiality through the design. (My interpretation is but one example of how this might have been achieved.)

JP: The design of this book extends beyond the appearance of its pages or cover. The book is a fully material being, with sensuality and personality, and it contains a navigational structure that seems influenced by digital media. How did you design a navigational structure for a print book that would structure the intellectual argument and connect it to the medium under evaluation?

KH: The navigational structure is partly visual and partly verbal, a central point for the book as a whole. On the table of contents page, for example, the chapter titles are correlated with page numbers in a conventional fashion, allowing the reader to navigate by reading words and numbers. Also apparent on this page, however, are the vertical lines that represent the page edges imaged as if one were looking at the book from the side. The number and density of the lines provide a visual map to where the reader is in the book, with line thickness correlating with chapter length an page placement (on the right and left of the page spread, respectively), correlating to where the reader is in the book. If read in this way, the contents page functions as a visual map. We hope, of course, that readers will use both the visual and the verbal cues and thereby arrive at an integrated mode of reading that functions on both levels simultaneously. For literary readers accustomed to regarding books as collections of abstract words, the visual dimension is meant to provide an experiential component that will make the intellectual argument tangible to the senses, realized in the body as well as the mind.

AB: The design of Writing Machines stands in contradistinction to the design of most academic print-based texts-which reveal nothing of their excitement or the rhythm and tone of their rhetoric. But aside from this obvious difference, the structure of Writing Machines on the macro level is actually quite conventional given that the text is linear and is subdivided into chapters. (However, the interweaving of the two voices--personal and theoretical--is a definite departure.)
Kate's argument is part of an ongoing examination of the materiality of print as seen against the different materiality of electronic media. The design comments upon the two main aspects that this reflection has brought to the fore: the book as a representation of knowledge, and the codex as a navigational interface. In the design of Writing Machines, each page is covered with a photographic image of a blank book page, which is interpenetrated with overlays and cut-outs. The page edges themselves are abstracted and re-presented as vertical lines that position the reader within the book's body and indicate the distance to start or finish. Lastly, the actual edges of the book contain abstract black marks which when read together in one direction say "WRITING" and in the other direction "MACHINES"--emphasizing the cumulative effect of the individual pages in creating a whole, and the book's edges as a palpable yet penetrable boundary.

JP: The development and production of literary criticism is traditionally an individual act and discipline. How did you enact the process of your collaboration?

AB: Mediawork Editorial Director Peter Lunenfeld and Kate invited me to participate in the early meetings as the manuscript was under construction. This gave me the unique opportunity (as a designer) to make suggestions for alternate ways in which the text could be broken down into units other than (or in addition to) the conventions (such as chapters)—before they were embedded in the writing. It was in these meetings that the ideas for the lexicon and the affordances were developed, as well as Kate's invention of Kaye and Kate, and their typographic counterparts.
Once the macro decisions were made, I was pretty much on my own with Kate's text. The collaboration at that point was more between her words and my form than it was between Kate and me. I felt like a conjurer as I did a close, deep reading of the manuscript, with the goal of identifying and interpreting the internal rhythms and organizing logic of her argument. The various design strategies that resulted—the page edge navigation, typeface design, samples, source material, photographic page images, etc.—were a direct response to Kate's writing strategies, as well as to her call for Material-Specific Analysis, material metaphors, and technotexts. Throughout the design development, Kate reviewed and commented upon various iterations, and from time to time agreed to rework small portions of the text if necessary to make things fit. Kate was incredibly open to my contributions and I think that our joint histories with the book's subject matter led to an understanding and level of trust and respect that are necessary for a collaboration to succeed.

KH: In our collaboration, we agreed that the central guiding principle would be to create an artifact where the verbal argument and the visual design worked together to make a integrated larger statement. It made sense, then, that first I had to provide the verbal argument so that Anne could then think of creative ways to instantiate the argument in the visual design. So the first step was for me to provide her with drafts. After that, there was considerable give-and-take as she gave me feedback on the argument and I have her feedback on the design. We each had well-defined areas of influence; I had the last word on the verbal content, and Anne had the last word on the design. But there was not a lot of disagreement. Anne made several suggestions about the content that I was happy to implement. I came to rely on her keen sense about what needed to be filled out more and made more explicit, because I thought it resulted in a stronger final product.

JP: The venture that you both undertook is vitally urgent to the evolution of literary theory. This book will serve as an example for material criticism, particularly for digital (non-physical) mediums. How did/do you envision the potential and significance of this book?

AB: As a designer engaged in making technotexts, the potential and significance of Kate's argument is immense for me. I am grateful to Kate for introducing a lexicon of critical concepts that I can put to use in my own discussions with writers, and in my own critical writing.
As far as the design goes, I hope that there are at least a few readers out there who will understand the various levels of commentary that are embedded in the design and in the relationship between the design and the writing. I'm interested in developing visual-verbal tools that might influence the ways in which texts are composed in the future. Hopefully the Writing Machines book and web supplement will serve as examples of the kinds of contributions that design can make to rethinking writing strategies and spaces.

KH: As for the significance of the book, it is really for readers to decide. My hope is that the book will be understood as an experiment in a materialist criticism that understands the physical form of the artifact to be intimately connected with the intellectual content. This idea is hardly new; innovative poetic practice, artists’ books, concrete poetry, and a host of other literary and creative practices have been exploring it for a long time. Yet literary criticism has remained largely untouched by these experiments. I think the time is ripe, with the advent of increasingly flexible and powerful modes of print production and the fantastic multimedia capabilities of electronic media, for literary and cultural critics to start taking seriously the physical and tangible forms of the criticism they create, using the medium’s materiality as an intellectual as well as artistic resource.

JP: What amazes me about Writing Machines is that this little book is so important and explosive on so many levels, yet is simultaneously so simple and approachable. How did you work towards creating this binary hybrid, a material form that contains and enables the argument? In designing this book, where did you seek inspiration and influence?

AB: Well, of course, the McLuhan-Fiore collaboration, The Medium is the Massage is a model for the Mediawork series, and is a fantastic example of the way in which words and their visual manifestation can work in tandem to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, (c.f. the sequence on environment). I have found Michel Foucault's analysis of This is Not a Pipe, and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics extremely useful for thinking about the relationship between showing and telling, looking and reading. For me, the Writing Machines project is a continuation of ideas brewing in my own work, derived from rich collaborations with Joe Tabbi and Ewan Branda at the <electronic book review>, Mark Amerika at <altx.com>, and with Evelyn Breitender and Hanno Biber, Literary Scientists at the Austrian Academy of Sciences with whom I produced the Fackel Wörterbuch: Redensarten, a dictionary of idioms in the work of Karl Kraus.

KH: As Anne noted, McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Massage was one of our inspirations, as well as Foucault’s This Is Not a Pipe and countless artists’ books. I worked hard to make the content accessible to a general reader. I like to think that my other books are also accessible to general readers, but I have been chastened by having members of my family, intelligent educated readers, insist that they could not get past page 2. This book had to be different—it had to be written in a style so accessible that it really could be understood by the intelligent general reader. So it has a relatively simple surface, but its implications are not simple. If followed to the end, these implications would necessitate radical changes in theoretical writing and criticism, as well as major conceptual shifts in how we think about texts and textuality.

JP: Literary structure, design strategy, and intellectual argument collaborate in the book's double-braided trajectory of narrative and theory. The interweaving of the first person, semi-autobiographical Kaye and the disembodied literary theorist Professor Hayles produces such a subtle symbiosis that the moment of their merger on page 106 can pass unnoticed. How did you conceive of and enact this "visual-verbal"* weaving?

AB: Kate devised the use of the two voices alternating from chapter to chapter, ultimately merging with one another to create a hybrid of the two. It was my job to visualize the relationship, and the transition. I know that Peter (and perhaps Kate) wanted the typographic interweaving to be more overt. Cynthia Jacquette and I went through many rounds of experimentation with different typeface pairings and their offspring. The more jarring combinations were problematic when put to use as book text. Therefore we settled on two fonts whose differences can be seen when they are placed side-by-side, but when the hybrid is placed between them, they seem to blend smoothly from one into the other, as Kate does with the two voices at their point of contact.

KH: My hope is that the pseudo-autobiographical narrative will be understood not primarily as an account of my life—I continue to think that such details cannot possibly be of interest to anyone outside my family and friends, and in any event they are not strictly factual—but rather as a typical narrative of how someone who was raised with print and steeped in it might move from a print-centric perspective to a view that one might call materialist as well as multimedia. Like all really significant changes, such a shift does not happen all at once but over a period of time, as layers and layers are first seen, rescued from transparency, and then examined and re-thought. It suited my purposes to make Kaye not exactly obtuse, but certainly less clear-sighted than she may conceive herself to be. There are many moments at which she thinks she sees, and yet more revelations, more layers, remain that she does not yet see. I think this is very characteristic of many literary scholars that I know; they may think when they first read this book that the point is simple and they grasp it at once, but working out all its implications in changed perceptions and critical practices is the work of many years, never accomplished in a moment or single flash of understanding.

JP: Kate, the type of theory that you present is drastically different than what is taught and executed in the academy: "Maybe now is a good time for a double-braided text where the generalities of theory and the particularities of personal experience can both speak, though necessarily in different voices" (106). Is this a statement of advocacy for a new mode of criticism or is it a moment of theoretical musing?

KH: I think that personal narrative, combined with rigorous theoretical investigation, is a mode that has tremendous potential and that I would like to see much more widely used than it is. Especially in times of rapid changes such as the present moment, our personal histories represent the sedimented accumulation of centuries of critical insight and practice, with all of their limitations as well as their enablings. For every practice that we have consciously examined and thought about, there are a hundred we have unconsciously absorbed from our professional apprenticeships and personal contexts. In a literal sense, we carry these sedimented ideas around in our bodies, unconsciously reinscribing them in our writing and teaching. At the same time, coexisting right alongside these traditional ideas are newer concepts that occupy the neocortex, available for conscious thought precisely because they are the new. So the mindbody becomes the nexus where new ideas meet received opinions, traditional modes interweave with changed perspectives. Because this interplay between old and new, examined and unexamined play themselves out in our lives, the personal narrative becomes a kind of reflecting lens through which we can bring the unthought and its interactions with the thought into visibility. That is why I find personal narrative an exciting mode for critical exploration and theoretical experimentation.

JP: There is a hyper-sensuality to this book. Its slick pages, textured cover, and 3D-esque sentences compose a spatial body for writing that rebels against digital information's loss of body, explored in Kate's How We Became Posthuman. How do you think that this emphasis on materiality will influence the types of writing practiced and intellectual arguments developed?

AB: I look forward to the day when design and materiality are an accepted aspect of all writing, regardless of the medium or the topic.

JP: The fact that this book does not have footnotes or a bibliography contained within it, but rather exhibits this information on a website, further distinguishes it from traditional scholarly books. Kate expresses "lingering regret" about the separation of the critical apparatus from the book (“Author's Acknowledgement,” 143). How do you perceive this separation as affecting the book and the future of literary criticism? Did the website develop in conjunction with the book, its argument and its design, or as a supplementary tool?

KH: As I write elsewhere, I think that the idea of the text as a distributed production will become more and more common. One of the traditional ideas that we absorbed through our apprenticeships, and that continues to dominate textual scholarship, is the notion of the literary text as a convergent ideal. Textual scholarship strives to arrive at a single text that will express the author’s final intentions and that will be the best possible integration of many different editions and versions. But we might instead conceive of the work as inherently divergent, a distributed phenomena that becomes stronger, not weaker, because it refuses to converge at a single site or into a single set of words. The work that takes place partly in print and partly on the web is an example of such a distributed production. Another example of creative work that embraces such divergence and distributed existence is Stephanie Strickland’s new poetic work V, which occurs partly in print and partly on the Web. I think there will soon be many more examples like this, and their appearance will force a re-thinking of the convergent text as the ideal object toward which criticism should tend.

AB: The website—which is supplemental and was conceived largely after the book's completion—began as a place to store the scholarly apparatus but quickly grew into an opportunity to interrogate the material difference between the book and the web. As for the future of literary criticism, there are some distinct advantages that electronic addenda have over their print counterparts. Aside from its seemingly limitless available space, the web is a dynamic information management tool which allows for the creation of bibliographies, indices, notes, and glossaries that are richer and more flexible tools for research and reading. But these are made most useful when the entire "book" resides online, in the same space, which allows a more fluid movement between the main text and the apparatus. Since our main text is separate, the relationship between the book and the site is different for each component, depending on its use. In some cases, we pushed familiar print conventions into new shapes, in others, we introduce entirely new functions derived from the unique aspects of the medium and the content.
The physical limitations of page size and number of pages pushed both the lexicon and the source material into the “Web Supplement.” As a result, their book pages are merely indexical to the site. They depend upon the color, space and motion of the web for completion.
The errata, with printable replacement pages, mark the distance between the final event of the book's printing and the ongoing unfixed status of its electronic component. As with Tom Phillips's endless versions of pages of A Humument, Kate could conceivably revise the book entirely, over and over, page by page, via the Supplement. (Perhaps the section should be named "Revisions" as opposed to “Errata.”)
The distance between the main text and the apparatus that Kate mentions is felt most acutely with the notes. The meaningful link between a note's insertion point (the departure text) and the note itself is lost when the two texts are not presented within the same space. Since the website could never restore the lost connection, we decided to create something completely different: a browse-worthy remapping of the book's text. Of course, for scholars who need to use the notes for research or reference (as opposed to parusing them for pleasure), we have provided two different print versions.
For the index and the bibliography we tried to create more robust browsing structures than simple alphabetical order. Filtered categories provide the user with a glimpse of the disciplines, objects, people, or genres through which the book travels. Empty categories or entries that appear in multiple categories further the complexity of the commentary this mapping provides. In addition we added a search function to the index--one of the most obvious useful additions in this medium.

JP: Do you think that books similar in material form and purpose to Writing Machines have futures at academic presses, or do you think that this production was made possible because you are both already esteemed and established in your respective fields? In other words, aside from the fact that this book demands more endeavors like its own, do you perceive a future for such elaborate, artistic, and academic collaborations?

AB: The future depends on several things. Technotexts are, by definition, custom objects, and as such are quite costly to produce. They're labor-intensive and don't fit neatly into established disciplines or divisions of labor. True believers in key positions inside institutions are a beautiful thing.
But more importantly, literary or scholarly collaborations require willing and qualified participants: a community of literary critics and graphic designers who are knowledgeable and open enough to work with one another, and editors and publishers who have the enthusiasm and foresight to nurture such projects. Fortunately this community is growing. In my opinion, membership requires the following:
At the most basic level, writers must acknowledge that there is no transparent interface or neutral form of writing. The writers I prefer working with also recognize that like literature and criticism, graphic design has a history and body of knowledge that informs the better work. While it's not necessary for writers to know this history, they should be able to recognize and "read" informed design work, and—even if they find it problematic—understand how it is positioned within design discourse.
By the same token, the fundamental requirement for designers is that they are engaged with both reading and writing (as opposed to simply looking). Not all designers are prepared for or are interested in literary or scholarly collaborations, but those who are should also be aware of what's happening in the literary world, and be able to reference literature and theory as well as graphic design. In my opinion the stakes are higher for those designers who view their work as a form of analysis or investigation, and not simply as interpretation.

KH: Materialist and divergent works do not merely have a future; they are the future.

Jessica Pressman is Associate Director of the Electronic Literature Organization, and a doctoral student in UCLA's English Department where she is writing a dissertation on electronic literature.

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