N. Katherine Hayles responds in turn

N. Katherine Hayles responds in turn

2004-04-02

A response that bridges things, as metaphors do.

(To Eugene Thacker)

In raising the question, “To what degree does language account for the markers and meanings of embodied difference,” Eugene Thacker opens the door to a consideration not only of linguistic markers but also of physical enactments. If ethnicity and enculturation are expressed through bodily enactments (and how can we doubt that when we watch black and white rappers, dancers, actors, etc.), then there is at least the possibility that the physical enactments required by interactive art works may also be experienced in racially marked ways. What does a “nervous” text mean to a German female academic used to a sedentary lifestyle compared to an African-American improvisational actor who practices yoga every day? To a Korean long-distance runner compared to a Finnish adolescent videogame player? In addition to whatever differences can be attributed to different cultural and intellectual environments, are there also effects traceable to different physical enactments and bodily cognitions? Such speculations are still terra incognita, but they suggest productive areas for future research.

(To Bill Seaman)

Bill Seaman’s insightful comments on the computer image as a “metaphor” for the printed word open up the fascinating new territory of what I have lately been calling “material metaphors.” As his comments make clear, metaphor is defined as a verbal figure. A “material metaphor” is something of an oxymoron, then. I think of it as a physical object that, through its construction and functioning, acts as a crossroad or a juncture point for the traffic between the physical and the verbal. The Research in Experimental Documents team at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center designed a number of such objects for their “Experiments in the Future of Reading” exhibit. One was the Reading Eye Dog, a metal object fashioned in the shape of a dog that can read aloud printed material placed on his reading stand. There are a number of metaphoric connections put into play by this device: machine and biological organism, companion animal and a parent reading a bedtime story, printed marks and oral production, static book and dynamic computer text-to-speech generation, artificial intelligence and human cognition, reading text without understanding it and (for a young child listening to the Reading Eye Dog) understanding what is said without being able to read it.

These metaphoric connections add resonance to the experience of listening to the Reading Eye Dog that deepens and enriches its significance far beyond merely comprehending what the device says. To participate in this experience is in some sense to be constituted by these metaphoric connections between verbal expression and physical object. Because the experience is sensory and immediate, one does not need to be able to articulate the connections explicitly, or even to be conscious of them, to be affected by the conjunctions they instantiate. That is how metaphors work in general of course, building bridges from the familiar to the new, from the immediacy of sensory experience to the abstractions of conceptual thought, from the everyday physiology of human embodiment to such complex and often intangible realms as organizational politics.

Although the physical form of the digital computer is not usually as evocative as the Reading Eye Dog, in its flexibility, range, and functionality the computer is perhaps the most important material metaphor at work in the contemporary medial ecology. Indeed, so powerful are the junctions it creates that the literary community has until now been largely content to think of electronic text as print read in a vertical position. We who have been raised on print are only beginning to understand the full implications of the computer as a material metaphor. Electronic textuality connects with print in myriad and fascinating ways, but it has its own signifying practices that must be understood in their material specificity as well as in the ways they connect with print. Bill Seaman helps to point the way in rich and evocative comments on the computer as a metaphor generator and a metaphor in itself.

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