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Writing Machines

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. 144 pages. ISBN: 0262582155

In Writing Machines N. Katherine Hayles offers both a discussion of her budding theory of Media-Specific Analysis (MSA) and a practice devised to outline its applicability. More precisely, Hayles’s book as realized in Anne Burdick’s design — and the publisher’s execution of it — emphasizes the importance of a text’s materiality. Hayles argues that a text’s instantiation in a particular medium shapes it in ways that cannot be divorced from the meaning of its “words (and other semiotic components)” (25) and calls for the need to develop a theory that takes into consideration medium as a crucial aspect of the content of a work. The implementation of Burdick’s design consistently draws attention to the book as a physical artifact. The cover, with its tactile ridges running lengthwise down front, back, and spine, forms a contrast to the sleek pages of the interior — both invite the reader to stroke the book, reveling in its materiality. The page layout, changing fonts, and bubbled portions of the text are only a few of the elements that draw attention to the book’s visuality. Yet this book whose focus is on the importance of physical form to meaning is an artifact singularly immune to modification: the smooth, glossy pages curiously resist the interventions of readers’ marks (highlighting wipes away, ink smears, and pencil leaves nothing but the colorless impression of attempted words behind).

Hayles’s academic discussion interweaves with a pseudo-biographical narrative of “Kaye,” forming what Hayles calls “a double-braided text” that insists on the importance of both theory and personal experience (106). Through Kaye, Hayles details the first encounters and subsequent experiences with the various media that make up the core of the book’s discussion: electronic texts, artists’ books, and contemporary writing. Kaye’s and Hayles’s sections of the narrative are first detailed in separate fonts — the academic writing appears in a serifed font that alternates with Kaye’s narrow, sans-serif typeface. As the book nears its conclusion, these fonts begin to alternate rapidly before merging into a third that seems like a blend of the two. At this point, the distinction between Kaye and Hayes blurs, as “now the two voices of personal experience and theoretical argument merge” (106).

The central analyses of the book center on three texts that put into practice MSA. Talan Memmott’s electronic work,Lexia to Perplexia; Tom Phillips’s artist’s book, A Humument; and Mark Danielewski’s print novel, House of Leaves, all draw overt attention to their materiality and Hayles’s readings of these works compellingly illustrate her point about the need for MSA. More than this, Hayles argues that interaction with each of these texts constructs the reader, who herself constructs the text in turn through exploration/interpretation of it. Thus, according to Hayles, materiality is defined by both “how the work mobilizes its resources as a physical artifact” and “the user’s interactions with the work and the interpretive strategies she develops” (33).

As part of her project, Hayles critiques the construction of “the literary author as a man of original genius” (32) entailed when the materiality of the text is considered immaterial next to the ideas it embodies. But it becomes clear that much of what inspired Hayles’ interest in MSA stems from works that are intensely author-shaped, since all three texts she analyzes are ones in which the author had an intimate hand — and a particular interest — in selecting, modifying, and manipulating the medium. Electronic texts and artists’ books may seem more obviously geared toward the interaction of artist/writer with each medium, but even the intricacies of Danielewski’s design for his print book House of Leaves, as Hayles points out, required the author to go to the press and typeset the book himself (126). Given Hayles’s interest in texts that display a particular investment in drawing attention to their materiality, I found myself wondering how MSA would work with mass-market paperbacks or popular genre fiction like romance or fantasy, where publishers make decisions about covers, typeface, page-layout, and so on.

Hayles’s theory of MSA insists that a work’s materiality is an inherent part of its meaning and that analysis of it cannot be divorced from the corporeal form that embodies it. This suggests that the accidents of a text’s final embodiment become part of its content, irrespective of who decides on that shape. But more important than her particular analyses is the fact that Hayles’s theory raises disquieting implications for teaching and scholarship. Is The Norton Anthology indelibly altering texts by homogenizing them within its covers? Should students consider as part of its meaning the new materiality of a text in its anthologized instantiation? If looking at the electronic Blake Archive is not the same as examining Blake’s original artifacts, as Hayles argues, then how do we study Blake in classrooms and offices across the world? Are the only scholars who can write about Blake those who have visited museums and libraries that house his work? Or is the only thing we can study our own remediations of such works? Further, how should we analyze texts whose primary transmission is live performance, like drama or music? Must every performance be considered as a separate instantiation? If so, how do we examine plays written in earlier periods, since we can never have access to the renditions that entertained those earlier audiences?

Even as technology expands the possibilities for access, the object of investigation continually recedes, as elusive as ever. Writing Machines is an important reminder of what we take for granted about textuality; its culminating effect is to provoke thought, to challenge us to take on difficult questions about our practices as scholars and teachers. Yes, as Hayles eloquently shows, words come packaged in a materiality that is part of their content. The question is: How will we address the issues Hayles’s theory brings up?

Dana M. Symons, University of Rochester


Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. 2nd ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.

Memmott, Talan. Lexia to Perplexia: Hypermediation/Ideoscope [online]. Iowa City: The University of Iowa, The Iowa Review Web, 2000 [cited 28 May 2004]. Available from World Wide Web: <>

Phillips, Tom. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. 2nd revised ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

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