Forgetting Media Studies: Anthologies, Archives, Anachrony
Forgetting Media Studies: Anthologies, Archives, Anachrony
Through a close formal analysis of two new critical collections, Paul Benzon ponders the state of media studies as field. Exploring the material and temporal paradoxes of anthologizing new media and posthumanism, he argues that “each of these texts takes shape, succeeds, and fails under the pressures and possibilities posed by the scalar demands of information.”
The critical anthology is a Janus-faced form in every sense of the term. It looks backward and forward in time at once, telling open lies about the history in which it situates itself. As a microscopic archive, an object that stores pre-existing material - even if that material has only been produced for the occasion of the collection itself - the anthology looks backward into history, imagining and sketching the very genealogy that is its own condition of possibility. Yet with the same gesture, it looks forward in time as well. In sketching the history of a field, it functions to concretize an array of critical claims and approaches as applicable, relevant, and perhaps even formative or determinant for the future. Anthologies serve - or perhaps seek - to form canons (in literary, critical, and popular domains, among others); to structure pedagogy and research; and to shape intellectual history in any number of other ways, seen and unseen, materially, cognitively, and epistemologically.
This tension, which we might see at work in any number of fields, is particularly fraught for media studies. Critical anthologies within media studies necessarily raise questions of temporality along two axes, namely in terms of the institutional and the material parameters of the field. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, numerous critical collections appeared on the market with the implicit intent both to crystallize the contemporary intellectual, cultural, and political concerns of the then-emergent project of media studies and also, in the same gesture, to legitimize media studies as an academic field. These attempts at legitimization, efforts to ground the field by looking backward and forward at once, often took the form of canonizing prehistories compiled from earlier texts and intended to contextualize much of a given volume’s original (or at least more recent) content - to lend continuity to the newness of New Media, as it were. Timothy Druckrey’s anthology Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation (1996), for example, opens with a series of essays grouped under the heading “History,” including Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” Martin Heidegger’s “The Age of the World Picture,” Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s “Constituents of a Theory of the Media,” Arthur I. Miller’s “Visualization Lost and Regained: The Genesis of the Quantum Theory in the Period 1913-1927,” and Jean-Louis Comolli’s “Machines of the Visible.” It is certainly no stretch of the imagination to draw lines of affiliation between many of these essays, all of which date from the first three quarters of the twentieth century, and numerous strains of thinking current in media studies at the time of Electronic Culture’s publication. Yet the very gesture of grouping together such an archive, of making those lines of affiliation explicit and concrete, claims the existence of a specific, if syncretic, disciplinary past. Neil Spiller’s Cyber Reader: Critical Writings for the Digital Era (2002) similarly traces a history that begins with Charles Babbage’s “Of the Analytical Engine” and Bush’s essay, and ends with Margaret Wertheim’s “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace” and Spiller’s own “Vacillating Objects.” Such composite histories self-consciously collage and splice together the past of new media studies in a manner that resonates with the methodologies of more than a few media artists and practitioners. Implicitly drawing such lines of affiliation between theory and practice, these collections both rely upon the condition of history as montage and illuminate that condition. Moreover, in claiming preexisting texts as examples of new media theory avant la lettre, they work to define the emergent field of media studies as something more than transient.
This critical trend reached its apex in the 2003 publication of The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Quite arguably larger and more inclusive than any media studies anthology before or since, The New Media Reader does not address new media in the sense in which the term was colloquially and popularly used around the time of its publication, but rather provides a history of the newness of what had by then come to be known as new media. Indeed, given that the collection begins with Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” and (again) Bush’s 1945 essay and concludes with “The World Wide Web,” by Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Art Loutonen, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, and Arthur Secret, dating from nine years before the book’s publication, very little within it could be said to address new media in the literal, reductive sense of the term. Yet this is, of course, precisely the point of the collection. As Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort note in the “User’s Manual” at the opening of the collection, “[w]hy the past has been neglected is no mystery: the genealogy of new media is much more obscure than its ecstatic, fully-indexed, online present” (xiii). Framed as a corrective to this neglect, The New Media Reader stands as a major text in the field of media studies - indeed, a defining text in all the conflicted senses of the term. Yet in its hedged attempt to work both with and against its stated focus on the new, the collection is also a watershed moment in the field’s self-conscious presentation of itself to the larger world as an intellectual enterprise with a past and a future extending beyond the present (and also perhaps the potential presentism) of the immediate, fin-de-siecle moment of cyber-ecstasy. Viewed from this perspective, Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort’s anthology serves not only to concretize thought and history within the field, but also to concretize the field itself within a larger history of thought; this dual gesture resonates with any number of other crucial interventions within the field, from Friedrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks 1800/1900 and André Leroi-Gourhan’s Gesture and Speech to Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture and her collection New Media, 1740-1915 (co-edited with Geoffrey B. Pingree) and Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky’s Rhythm Science, a history of mixing that itself mixes history. Both individually and collectively, these texts suggest that new media is anything but new, not only as an object of study, but also as a methodology of study; to paraphrase Bruno Latour (a thinker whose work could certainly find a place in the above list), we have never been pre-new media, and we have never been pre-new media studies.
Media studies anthologies also raise questions of temporality and history in their material form as print texts. These collections struggle with what it might mean to claim and inhabit a medium (particularly print) when the object of analysis is media itself (particularly, but not exclusively, non-print). Indeed, just as many media artworks theorize technology through technology, so does the new media anthology invoke its own medium, even if it only does so hesitantly, implicitly, or through omission. It is a print repository for the history and theory of a conversation that looks towards the post-print. Alexander Galloway, describing media studies “as a form of Zeno’s Paradox,” notes that “[t]he strange, forever-emerging discipline of ‘media studies’ or ‘new media’ often finds itself caught in a race with new media technologies themselves - the latter always remaining a half-step ahead of the former” (97). While Galloway focuses on this tension at the macroscopic level of institutions and industries, it takes place at the microscopic level of textual objects as well. Indeed, while the question of the status of print textuality has underlaid new media studies virtually since the emergence of the field - at the very least, since Jay David Bolter’s discussion of “the late age of print” (2) - this question becomes particularly charged within the signposting gesture of the anthology. Christopher M. Kuipers describes the anthology as a “literary storage and communication form: a textbook, (now) a digital archive, (once) a commonplace book, (perhaps still) the poems one has memorized for pleasure” (51). While much might be said about how and why “a textbook” stands as the lone form without any parenthetical temporal qualifier in Kuipers’ listing, his very enumeration of these different material domains of the anthology over time situates the anthology squarely within the questions recently posed by David Parry on electronic book review. Considering Gary Hall’s Digitize This Book! as a study of open-source scholarship that gestures towards “a type of scholarship that might operate independently of, or at least not be determined by, a librocentric, codex format,” Parry invokes David Gunkel’s argument that “we should displace the question of will the computer supplant the book, with the more productive ones of what gives the book the right to speak to this matter? By using the matter of the book how are we already implicated in the question?” Whatever this implication might look like for the book broadly construed, it is exponentially more complex and conflicted for the anthology as a specific form. Indeed, it is precisely in the anthology’s contradictory condition - its position as simultaneously caught within the discontinuous folds of the pre-existing material it compiles and distributed across the uneven media-historical transitions that Kuipers lists - that the book’s material implication in the question of media change becomes at once both most visible and most intractable.
What does the critical anthology as a form have to tell us, then, about the state of media studies as a field? What does the project of collecting and archiving within the material bounds of the book say about the broader historical status of the field? Two recent collections, Cyberculture and New Media, edited by Francisco J. Ricardo, and Cy-Borges: Memories of the Posthuman in the Work of Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus, constitute a particularly conflicted Janus pair within themselves: Ricardo’s collection, in its broad, sweeping title - a sort of retrospective reference to the legitimating volumes of the late 1990s and early 2000s - seems to promise an ongoing futurity, a still persistent, seemingly unqualified newness to the field, while Herbrechter and Callus’ volume, playing memory against the post- of posthumanity, seems to wrap around itself in deliberate multiple anachrony. Taken together as a sort of (deliberately) arbitrary point of reference, these two texts paint a vision of media studies as productively out of time, engaged in the speculative prediction of both potential futures and potential pasts, but also in the remembrance of both those temporalities. Cyberculture and New Media is itself internally split, divided into two sections entitled “The Empirical” and “The Aesthetic.” While the essays on the aesthetic comprise most of the book, its empirical inquiries - saturated with graphs and tables - shape it most palpably as a textual object; the very process of encountering this material has a powerfully defamiliarizing effect on the reader accustomed to humanities-oriented conceptions of media studies. Line graphs comparing motivations of Wikipedia posters across Hebrew- and English-speaking cultures, tables charting regression analyses of sentence length in email and printed text: this apparatus presents an uncannily granular vision of global digital culture. Such a calculus of textuality constitutes one incarnation of the potential fusion between “all object with no context [and] all context with no object” that Laura Dassow Walls argues becomes possible through practices of deliberate reading that attend to natural material reality. While Walls’ argument focuses on nonhuman natural entities, tracing an ethics based on giving voice to things that do not speak, these essays enact similar processes, albeit with multiple levels of reversal, giving voice to the inhuman data of humans.
What does reading such data deliberately reveal? To state the question in Walls’ terms, what linkages do the communications studied in these essays reveal? In many moments, these empirical studies register an uneasily rich confirmation of hypotheses that media scholars from humanities backgrounds might take on faith, as it were. For example, in an essay entitled “Knowledge Building and Motivations in Wikipedia: Participation as ‘Ba,’” Sheizf Rafaeli, Tsahi Hayat, and Yaron Ariel detail the aforementioned study of English and Hebrew Wikipedians, arguing for a conception of “Wikipieda content building as a group task or accomplishment, rather than individual personal effort….Wikipedia provides a unique context for the process of knowledge building. This context is based on Wikipedians [sic] perception of Wikipedia as a platform for egalitarian teamwork” (60-61), a perception that seems already built into most critical theorizations of Wikipedia that operate without this essay’s dense empirical support, if not into Wikipedia itself. In his own essay, “Formalisms of Digital Text,” Ricardo similarly attempts to focus on the titular question in a manner that is closely concerned with the granularity of digital information, describing “the anatomical core of digital writing as being point-based rather than story-based” (26), a distinction that resonates with numerous theories of digital textuality, narrative, and gameplay. Yet Ricardo ultimately arrives at this claim through statistical means, using scanning software to study 61 blogs, “for a total of 8726 sentences and 94433 words” (34). Theory and practice, post-narrativity and empiricism, at once both produce and undermine one another here, troubling, as it were, the point of the points that Ricardo sees at the core of digital writing. On one hand, the larger project of his essay promises to contribute crucial objecthood and materiality to the theoretically driven approaches to the analysis of digital culture often found in media studies. Yet on the other hand, the very presentation of this statistical framework begs the question of such a study’s horizon of possibility: in a moment with perhaps over 100 million blogs, what can 94,000 words on 61 blogs tell us? How much more can they tell us than the 42,000 words on 203 blogs surveyed in the study against which Ricardo positions his essay?
Walls suggests that in the face of such panarchic moments, “one feels oneself embedded in, overwhelmed by, scale levels beyond one’s conceiving.” Indeed, the issues of scope and portability seem irreducible from studies like those in the first section of Cyberculture and New Media. Yet perhaps the unavoidably constrained focus of these essays provides a point of departure towards provocative questions about the limitations and possibilities of any critical commentary about the digital: what sample size, if any, would sustain an empirically valid claim about online textuality in this way? What human or machine would be capable of surveying such a sample with the necessary accuracy, speed, or comprehension? Questions such as these speak to the impossibility of achieving conclusive proof in any context, but also more specifically to the indigestible quantity of the digital archive. Several of the collection’s empirical essays address this very issue from various vantage points. Considering the implications of language in global distance learning, for example, Rita Zaltsman sees the “linguistic compression” of emoticons and smileys as a counterforce to the cultural imperialism of English as a digital lingua franca. Zaltsman notes that “[s]ome students view [emoticons and smileys] as ‘the jargon that can be understood without too many words,’ or as part of another language,” and that “the higher emotional contact between participants, the greater the number of language substitutions” (107, 109). Zaltsman’s attention to these non-orthographic elements of cross-cultural communication suggests the possibility of a digital language capable of operating at least potentially or partially outside of national pressures, but more fundamentally and importantly, it models a expansion of the possible archive of digital language to incorporate material with a powerful, productive semantic opacity. Precisely because it would be impossible to read all of digital culture, perhaps it is imperative to begin reading with (or at least to include) the very material that seems most unreadable. In his own essay, Ricardo similarly points to a more inclusive sampling of digital discourse, even if only by way of omission: in an appendix detailing the selection of a corpus of email as part of his study, he describes controlling “for spam or automatically generated titles (e.g., ‘Breaking News from ABCNEWS.com’), ‘RE:’, “FWD:” and repeated entries” and removing “extraneous text” “so that the true style of email writing could be examined” (47). Yet it seems impossible - as well as critically limiting - to control in any comprehensive way for the complex interpenetrations of human intentionality and the technological infrastructure of information in the way that such excisions would presume to do. Indeed, a style that retained precisely the seemingly extraneous, residual detritus of email that Ricardo excises might be more meaningful (if not necessarily more “true”) not only in being more inclusive, but also by way of inviting and requiring a different mode of reading, one that is more deliberate precisely in being more instrumental and indexical.
Taken collectively, Cyberculture and New Media’s second section on “The Aesthetic” provides a sort of theoretical rationale and apparatus for performing such work. Several of the most provocative contributions to this section serve to update the influence of poststructuralism in media studies, shifting from an earlier focus on hypertextuality, nonlinearity, and dispersed authorship to questions of materiality, opacity, and interstitiality. Nicole Ridgway and Nathaniel Stern’s essay “The Implicit Body,” for example, offers a model of digital embodiment that builds upon the argument, made by theorists such as Mark Hansen, that the digital invests in the body rather than erasing it or rendering it obsolete. For Ridgway and Stern, this embodiment inheres most urgently in digital art that makes visible the titular entity of the implicit body. They suggest that while performances of the explicit body reveal the body’s social embeddedness within the digital, the implicit body manifests as “something unaccomplished, as the limit and expression of meaning.” They see this body as inherently interstitial, a condition that necessitates both reconsideration of “the extant relationship in the in- between of body and technology, and…experiment[ation] with the of of the relation of body and technology” (117-118). While it suggests productive possibilities, this extension of the theory of the body seems initially detached from any specific or intrinsic relation to the digital. Drawing implicitly (pun fully intended) on Gilles Deleuze’s work in Le Pli, Ridgway and Stern claim that
[l]ike a moebius strip, where the root of explicit is to unfold to imply is to enfold. And, like a moebius strip again, the relationship between them is neither dichotomous nor dialectical. We ponder this continuum not as a binary between emergence and positioning, between regulatory operations and becomings, or between implicit and explicit. It is rather a both/and, a co-telling - in, of and by the flesh. (121)
While this model might certainly pertain to the digital, it is not as specific to it as Ridgway and Stern’s framing of their essay would suggest; indeed, their turn to the moebius strip as a correlative figure for the relations of the explicit and implicit body suggests a continuity and extensibility across time and medium that at once both undoes the essay’s connection to the new and broadens its scope across multiple potential practices.
Yet as they turn to specific works of new media art, they offer a vision of bodily action that sounds provocatively like a model for understanding embodied life, broadly construed, within the digital. Separating themselves from new media artists and theorists who see interaction “literally as ‘doing’ something,” they suggest that “interaction may also, with its combination ‘of attention and distraction, intention and passivity’…be a space in which an implicit body emerges alongside an unfinished work of art” (122). As well as, it would seem, alongside the perpetually unfinished practice of digital knowledge work. Reading and writing email, surfing the web, keeping up with one or 100 million blogs, Facebook friends, and Twitter feeds: all of these are intrinsically unfinished processes. Yet several decades into the preeminence of the digital as a mode of social life, perhaps what is most salient about these processes is not their hypertextuality, nonlinearity or polyphony per se, but rather the distraction they inspire, the uneven, recursive practices of being at the computer as a state of being. Indeed, Ridgway and Stern’s focus on attention and distraction, intention and passivity, as defining traits of engagement with the digital suggest a vision of bodily subjectivity constellated out of the numerous complexly commensurable states that constitute the lived experience of digital culture. Perhaps, then, it is not the explicit “doing something” of digital interactivity that most fundamentally produces the digital body, but rather simply the implicit doing anything within a constantly and multiply mediated environment, perpetually oscillating between object and context. Through this scope, at once both broadly gestural and microscopically interwoven within the infrastructure of the digital, Ridgway and Stern imagine a shift from the framework suggested by Hansen to one that resonates with the emphasis on opacity and indexicality privileged by theorists of cultural circulation such as Elizabeth Povinelli. Such a framework, they note, “does not deny the material nature of language and representation, but instead works with that which precedes the production of referents….Here materiality is neither referential, nor subjective, nor mimetic, nor present as positivity. It is rather present as the non-figural, as trace, as movement, and as force” (134). Such an emphasis on the indexical suggests that it is precisely those automatically generated, seemingly inhuman marks and traces that Ricardo excises from the domain of digital discourse which reveal its relations to the body most profoundly; thus skimming over the residue of the digital, at once acknowledging and bracketing its incomprehensible scale, might itself be seen in this context as a deliberate (if necessarily circumscribed) bodily practice.
Tony Richards’ essay “The Différance Engine: Videogames as Deconstructive Spacetime,” offers a similar argument through a critical history of video game theory and scholarship. Richards positions himself against what he describes as the 1.0 and 2.0 theories of video game action and analysis. He associates these critical approaches with the third-person spectatorship of film and the first-person performativity of early interactivity, respectively, and sees them as both overly predicated upon closure and transcendence: “Both,” he argues, “are equally symptomatic of an ideology of ‘the arrival.’…[B]oth positions end up equally saying the same thing: ‘the space and the user are indivisible’ ” (204). Richards poses a model based on Derridean performativity as a way of destabilizing these approaches, pointing
to a différantial-undecideability (between - but not beyond - ‘performative’ and ‘constative’ as opposites)…at the heart of the videogame which neither a constative 1.0 theory nor the performative 2.0 theory could circumscribe. For in the game…there is an excess or dissemination that overruns or invaginates the boundary of any third or first-person position. (205)
Yet Richards is emphatic that this undecideability is not the sign of a progressive, teleological theory 3.0 “synthetically appreciating or sublating these differences,” but rather “an irresolvable un-becoming flickering of the first and the third persons,” an interstitial relation to the digital as both object and context (yet neither in any stable fashion) that resonates with Ridgway and Stern’s approach (209). Richards’ turn to “flickering” to describe this condition also echoes N. Katherine Hayles’ seminal theory of digital technology’s “flickering signifiers,” descendants of Lacan’s floating signifiers “characterized by their tendency toward unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations, and dispersions” (30). Yet whereas Hayles emphasizes flickering as an undecidability between the presence and absence of digital information in order to extract the posthuman from “the fascinating and troubling coupling of language and machine” (35), Richards’ focus on the body’s interstitial relation to video games suggests the action of gameplay itself as a figure for a complexly embodied experience of media technology, caught in circulation between the here of the flesh and the there of the digital, between the objective materiality of the first person and the contextual dispersion of the third person.
Approaches such as those of Richards and Ridgway and Stern perform within Cyberculture and New Media as a whole the very process they theorize, carving out an indexical relation of excess and undecidability with respect to the empirical work of the first half of the volume. What might it look like to see the results of those empirical studies as moments of (at least potential) undecidability or interstitiality? The theoretical essays of the collection’s second half suggest the impossibility of crunching the data of the digital in the manner that the earlier empirical essays rely upon, yet at the same time they too rely on that same data, even if precisely by way of underscoring its unreadability and non-referentiality. The anthology itself, in the ways that it flickers between reading and refusing data, seems an uncanny emblem of how to reckon with the digital (through the medium of print or otherwise); fragmented and recompiled through this internal tension, Cyberculture and New Media crunches data in search of the human and refracts the human in an attempt to situate it critically within data. Indeed, if we were to approach the collection as a storage device, it would seem that the data compiled in its first half is not merely discarded or overlooked in the second half, but rather productively forgotten - shifted into the virtual memory of the text, becoming potential precisely in their being reapproached as non-figural and incomprehensible. Both literally and figuratively, the two halves of Ricardo’s collection swirl against this uneasy core, centripetally and centrifugally jostling one another in a manner that suggests multiple disciplinary trajectories for media studies, all of which are potential, but perhaps none of which is possible.
Given this material and methodological disjuncture, it would not be unreasonable to put Cyberculture and New Media on the shelf of Jorge Luis Borges, the central figure of Herbrechter and Callus’ anthology, even and especially if such a moment of archival location can only occur in an imaginary, speculative sense. Indeed, viewed against the infinitude of Borges’ Library of Babel - perhaps the most famous fictional correlative for the incomprehensible scale that the empirical essays in Cyberculture and New Media seek to domesticate - such a possibility seems more like an ontological necessity. Of course, the imagination of such an (im)possible inevitability is precisely the goal of many of Borges’ most famous works, from Babel to the endless multiplicity of “The Garden of Forking Paths” to Pierre Menard’s production of a Quixote that is completely identical to and yet completely divergent from Cervantes’ original. Many of the authors featured in Cy-Borges take the textual and ontological limits posed in these seminal Borges texts as points of departure for thinking about the author alongside questions of technology and posthumanity. This provocative juxtaposition becomes all the more intriguing within the context of an anthology in particular. Indeed, if the anthology in general is Borgesian in a broad sense in its fragmentary, discontinuous approach to time, the incoherent unity of its composite parts, its attempt to store through selection and nonstorage, and its inevitable (if implicit) invocation of its own disintegration and obsolescence, an anthology on Borges seems literally Borgesian, or meta-Borgesian, a product of his own self-referential authorial speculation. An anthology on Borges, technology, and the posthuman only further extends and compacts this vertigo. The editors note in their preface that “Borges, it transpires, is truly the precursor whom posthumanism would have had to invent had he not existed” (8). Yet many of the collection’s essays show that precisely the opposite is also true: that Borges at least partially invented the posthuman, not in looking to the digital future but rather, as the subtitle “memories of the posthuman” suggests, in imagining his own historical past. And perhaps Cy-Borges itself has a place within this circuit as well, inventing Borges and the posthuman through one another, scattering and recollecting them across time and textuality. In bringing this circuit into relief through the conceit of this anthology, Herbrechter and Callus outline a new critical conception of Borges in relation to technology as well as a new narrative of media history around his thinking. Moreover, however, they limn the possibility of an approach to media studies as a Borgesian intellectual and material practice.
The provocative anachrony that defines the collection as a whole is a common critical lever in many of its individual essays as well. As a number of authors note, Borges has been cited as a kindred spirit of postmodernity and new media before, and indeed, he is cited in both of the New Media Reader’s two introductions as well as being the author of its first (chronologically as well as sequentially) selection, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In contrast to this canonizing attempt at establishing media-historical origination and continuity around Borges, Herbrechter and Callus set out a trajectory that takes its cues from the author’s own troubling of temporality and causality. As they make clear in their introduction, Cy-Borges is neither an apologia for Borges’ technohistorical position nor a backhanded compliment for it, both of which they see as “reductively teleological view[s]”: “There is something simplistic in the idea that it is somehow ‘unfortunate’ that Borges should not have ‘benefited’ from the existence of the Internet, and that he would surely have preferred to write ‘cyberliterature’ ” (27). On the contrary, the collection implies, Borges was always writing cyberliterature - “[b]ut this cyborg textuality is very different from what usually ranks as ‘cyberliterature’ ” (27). In search of a broader and more flexible historiological approach, Herbrechter and Callus locate the difference of Borges’ cyborg textuality through a critical gesture that they acknowledge as explicitly Borgesian, namely the attempt to imagine a “posthumanism without technology,” in which Borges is not a precursor of cybernetics per se but rather a thinker who sees posthumanity as already present long before the emergence of cybernetics, perpetually barely repressed by the human. This gesture echoes the historicizing narrative implied by the genre of the media studies anthology itself, albeit towards ends that are radically less stable: just as the media studies anthology suggests that we have never been pre-media, Cy-Borges suggests that we have never been pre-Borgesian, but that such a condition opens onto excess and lack rather than onto continuity. Indeed, such an attempt to pull the posthuman back in time stands in stark contrast to many dominant formulations of the concept that locate it within the contemporary, from Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman and My Mother Was a Computer (including her readings of Borges, which the editors of Cy-Borges closely critique in their introduction) to Donna Haraway’s focus on the cyborg as a figure of late capitalism. This recalibration of posthumanist thinking posed by the editors and pursued by many of the collection’s contributors offers a provocative suggestion: as David Ciccoricco suggests in one of several essays that shrewdly critiques “the new media narrative that has co-opted Borges,” perhaps the question of posthumanism is not one of what technologies are in play or at stake at any given moment. “After all,” he claims, “Borges’s technology, the technology of writing, is always already inadequate” (83).
Neil Badmington’s essay “Babelation” traces this inadequacy through Borges’ “The Library of Babel” in order to imagine it as a disruptive force central to the posthuman. Close-reading the textuality of the Library’s contents, he argues for an interpretation of the text that bypasses postmodern hypertextuality in favor of a posthumanist concern with textual materiality “at the level of the signifier and even the grapheme” (64). Badmington’s attention to the microscopics of textual materiality makes clear and palpable the ways in which the granular, non-figural media practices emphasized by Ridgway and Stern in their essay in Cyberculture and New Media have been present long before the emergence of the digital. Indeed, Badmington sees both the Library as a space and “The Library” as a narrative as unstable archives within time. He repeatedly makes reference to the practice of shelving, noting that the story “shelves the real, inscribes its retreat, marks its deferral” (64), and that Borges’ work is focused on “investigating, twisting, shelving” the “rules of humanism” (67) that Foucault departs from at the end of The Order of Things. In Badmington’s materially inflected language, helving registers in these passages as a doubled archival practice, its two meanings split and sutured against one another: Badmington suggests that Borges shelves humanism and the real in the sense of bracketing and bypassing them, but also in the sense of archiving, storing, and retaining them. This metaphor, at once both doubly conflicted and doubly apropos, underscores the status of the library as a posthuman textual prosthesis, a structure that at once both accommodates for and produces the physical and philosophical limitations of textuality.
This prosthetic status is as much an issue of embodiment and subjectivity as it is of textuality, and a number of essays in Cy-Borges trace the issue of memory as a prosthetic process in Borges’ work. Jonathan Boulter, for example, claims that memory’s condition as “always prosthetic, that is, never adequately conjoined to the subject” is Borges’ “central insight” (126). As Boulter suggests through readings of “Funes, the Memorious,” “Deutsches Requiem,” and “The Writing of the God,” this insight appears at the level of thematics and narrative diegesis, but also at the very level of the reading practices that Borges’ texts demand: in prosthetically completing Borges’ narratives, bearing the trauma that his subjects can never fully voice, “the reader, as prosthesis, enters into a curious hermeneutical dialogue with the Borges’s [sic] text, and becomes, in a sense, the fully realized cyborg his subjects can only approximate” (127). The idea of describing a figure of partiality and contingency such as the cyborg as “fully realized” seems problematic, yet Boulter makes space for just such a contradiction in the informational overlaps and gaps he sketches in the closing moments of his essay: “precisely as the subject becomes the archive (or, the archive becomes the subject) the very notion of memory - or history - is threatened with erasure” (144). The reader of Borges’ fiction undergoes this process of transfer and transformation as well as its subjects - indeed, just as “the world will be Tlön,” as the narrator of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius” claims, the reader, it seems, will be some strange hybrid of Funes and Menard, forced to retain and reproduce the vertiginous combination of overload and erasure that Borges’ texts can only speculate at. At the outer limits of the mediated posthuman subject, the attempted uptake of Babel’s surplus of opaque data becomes indistinguishable from the distortion and fragmentation of that data. In the terms of Ricardo’s anthology, every reading and perceiving subject within the posthuman is caught in a constant flickering between the dual impossibilities of the empirical and the aesthetic. Consumption and distortion constitute modes of response to the inhumanness and incomprehensibility of information; as such a posthuman subject, the Borgesian reader can only ever reckon with the excess of Babel - indeed, with the excess of any text - as trace and as force, reading by at turns rereading, failing to read, refusing to read. A number of other essays in the anthology chart a similarly critical posthumanism in which, if the posthuman body of the character or the reader becomes visible as a sort of text, it does so because it is simultaneously dependent upon, supplemented by, supplanted by, and overflowing with the profound non-humanity of text.
This conflicted convergence of relations serves as the backdrop against which many essays in this collection imagine the possibility of a critical posthumanism. As Martin S. Watson notes in his contribution “Archival Imaginings,” “Borges’s stories impart both the uncertain subjectivity and possible totality of a posthuman future, but their very existence is an act of resistance to the latter….[T]he posthuman archive at work, actively reimagining the future in an effort to resist the totality of the captured past” (161). In the anthology’s closing essay, “The Unrelated Future: Borges, Posthumanism, and the Temptations of Analogy,” Callus approaches this reimagination as a continual unknotting and reknotting of multiple interwoven subjective and disciplinary aporiae. He describes the concept of cy-borges as a puncept, in the language of Gregory Ulmer, “a concept that comes to mind on the basis of a pun” (198), and frames the central question raised by this concept as one of analogy, of how closely one can draw historical and philosophical parallels between Borges and the digital. For Callus, new media theory’s recurrent attempt to reverse engineer Borges as an author of cyberliterature is ultimately only “a desperate attempt to preserve the relevance of letters in the digital age” (206), and in doing so to shore up conventional conceptions of the literary and the human in the face of a posthumanity that has already long been in place. In opposition to this attempt at transcendent comparison - an acquiescence to a temptation he calls “the beguilement of analogy” - Callus emphasizes the “radical nonrelation of the posthuman,” within which “it is what cannot be brought to relation that may well be what is most exciting” (210, 209). Given the subject matter at stake, Callus’ critique of analogy must be taken literally, at its word, as an argument on behalf of the digital as a mode of information production defined by discontinuity, discreteness, and indexicality as opposed to the continuous fluidity, connection, and relation of the analog(ue). Borges, in this sense, was a profoundly digital author long before his being claimed by new media studies; by extension, the digital itself as a mode might similarly be traced back beyond the contemporary and the cybernetic to the longstanding incommensurability of the posthuman that the collection’s authors distill from Borges.
While Callus emphasizes the desperation of attempting to preserve the “unique cachet” of letters against the posthuman (206), he nonetheless acknowledges that a similar (if more productive) futility defines the punceptual project of Cy-Borges: “Perhaps the value lies in the very imprecision, in the inconsequentiality that is so singularly Borgesian, and [the term’s] inability to precisely prefigure what emerges from the posthuman” (214). It is worth noting the negation within the recurrent in- and im- as prefixes here, the way in which each of these binarily determined limitations paradoxically opens out onto a larger field of possibility, zeros invoking ones that they can never touch, much less fully relate to. In the closing lines of his essay, Callus sees this ultimately unbridgeable analogical rift between the Borgesian and the cybernetic as the defining characteristic of both the collection and the intellectual project that it names, “positioned forever in the space of a differend whose timescape is that of the open, unrelated, and unrelatable future” (216). Thus perhaps it is the disjunctive, non-alphabetic dash that is the most vital and defining character in Cy-Borges, a title that names and poses an analogy that - like all analogies - must remain perpetually paratactic, unable and unwilling fully to connect, converge, or resolve.
In this sense, both Cy-Borges and Cyberculture and New Media must necessarily fail as attempts to study the cultural implications of technology from their respective vantage points. Yet taken together, they reveal the impossibility of the very project of media studies, sketching it as a line on the horizon, a moment recurring from both the past and the future that is somehow always present but never there. Each of these texts takes shape, succeeds, and fails under the pressures and possibilities posed by the scalar demands of information. No single article or empirical study, no matter what its sample size, can contain the entirety of the web, and no print text can even sketch the contours of the Library of Babel, much less catalog or contain it. Thus each of these collections reveals its own opaque imbrication in a complex constellation of bodily, textual, and archival objects that are themselves constantly changing, assuming different forms and occupying different distributions across the surface of the screen and the reach of the web, but also across the coarse surface of the pages in any book that the Library of Babel could contain. By extension, these two anthologies mark the conflicted status of the media studies anthology (and indeed of the anthology in general) as caught across multiple disciplinary, intellectual, and material rifts and recursions; yet they also mark their own unreadable singularity, as well as that of any datum within a larger network of information. Each computer user, each Borgesian reader, enacts and acts upon a microscopic conception of media history that connects to other conceptions around it precisely because it cannot be reconciled with them. These histories coalesce across pages that are unread, sites that are unvisited, and data that are unsifted precisely because they cannot be; indeed, both the empirical investigations of Cyberculture and New Media and the speculative anachrony of Cy-Borges imply that data can never be read in its entirety either qualitatively or quantitatively. Both individually and collectively, then, these two anthologies imagine multiple different overlapping working conditions, historical trajectories, and horizons of possibility within the landscape of new media and the landscape of new media studies. Yet they both also rest uneasily on top of an ever-shifting archive of unreadable information: at their most provocative and their most constrained, they both make paradoxically clear the opacity and incomprehensibility of that information, as well as of any attempt to render it clearly or to analogize it. Cleaving apart and collapsing together in time, these anthologies make visible a (history of) media studies in which, regardless of temporality or technology, information remains intransigently and irreducibly digital.
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