‘Hard Drives… ?’

Julian Murphet

Writing is one of a family of practices we might group together as the technical power to mark surfaces. It is increasingly difficult to keep these practices apart. Photography was initially approbated as ‘Nature’s pencil’ 1 (Talbot), and a definition of that medium from one of the better contemporary books on the subject runs: ‘a family of technologies for extending our powers to put marks on surfaces—if I may stretch the term “marks” to include impermanent physical states as projections on screens’.2 The word itself is a compound Greek word for light-writing. The present edition of the OED contains, as definition four of the verb ‘to write’, the following: ‘Computing: enter (data) into a specified storage medium or location in store’. In a way, this too is light-writing (as it crucially involves electromagnetic microchip processing), and it would be arguable that since the general substitution of photomechanical printing for the older typesetting of the nineteenth century, ‘all written literature after a certain time is photographic’.3 The twentieth century is one long history of writing’s ‘becoming-light’, in a variety of surface-marking media, the most critical right now being the digital, as it has almost completed a total appropriation of all those earlier ones.

The most crucial indetermination of contemporary writing is the place of the surface. For, wherever else it is, it is not here. Writing with a word-processing program on a typical desktop computer is ‘marking’ in only the most tenuous and metaphorical sense. N. Katherine Hayles gets technical, and rightly so:

In the computer, the signifier exists not as a durably inscribed flat mark but as a screenic image produced by layers of code precisely correlated through correspondence rules, from the electronic polarities that correlate with the bit stream to the bits that correlate with binary numbers, to the numbers that correlate with higher-level statements, such as commands, and so on. Even when electronic hypertexts simulate the appearance of durably inscribed marks, they are transitory images that need to be constantly refreshed by the scanning electron beam that forms an image on the screen to give the appearance of a stable endurance through time.4

Derrida writes that the text that appears upon our screens is ‘like a phantom to the extent that it is less bodily, more “spiritual”, more ethereal’ than printed writing.5 It is fundamental to the phenomenological experience of writing on a computer that it is not really happening here and now, that the spacing involved is vertiginous. How precisely do we think all these ‘correlations’ happening at light-speed under our fingertips? Derrida invokes a ‘Demiurge-Other’ with whom the text resides, a speculative entity, in compensation for the fact that ‘even if people know how to use [word processors] up to a point, they rarely know, intuitively and without thinking—at any rate I don’t know—how the internal demon of the apparatus works’.6 The writing may at some point end up (after a circuitous detour through further software, electromagnetic pulses, printer hardware, and ink) marking a paper page, but while it is being written, it is curiously unmarked, and oddly unremarkable.

Rather like the mystic writing-pad, however, it is understood that these placeless marks are nonetheless decidedly durable, many layers beneath the bandwidths of human perception, indelibly inscribed within the ‘internal demon of the apparatus’. These marks are never exactly erased, as anybody knows who has retrieved a deleted file from the wastelands of digital ‘trash’; they persist, and have a way of returning, of haunting the machine. For, (and here is the point of all this), if this writing is marked, it is so only within the indeterminate space of the drive, whose powers to mark or not to mark a page, a screen, an eye, are inscrutable to a degree unknown to previous writing technologies. This drive, this hard drive, which manages the vast number of light-speed correlations only partially specified by Hayles, coincides with the placeless place of the ‘Other-Unconscious’ conjured by Derrida at the enigmatic heart of the machine that today writes everything, claims the entirety of writing as its own; and that is what interests me here.

For this deferral and detour of writing today through thehard drive may jolt us into ways of thinking how and where psychoanalysis and social-materialist criticism (as two ‘other, more established, critical systems’) 7 might reengage with the question of writing technologies today. It is in the drive that the ‘layers of code’ are pre-inscribed; and it is these layers, in all their bewildering complexity, their alienness to spoken language and invisibility within the apparatus, which sustain and actively produce the elaborate illusion of our own writing in this medium. The hard drive manages the seemingly immediate but actually vastly différanced passage of an informational signal through the depression of a keyboard button, the electronic polarities, the bit stream, the binary numbers, the higher-level statements, up to ‘the scanning electron beam that forms an image on the screen’, and finally satisfies our eye with a resemblance to this or that letter. Our simple inability to form a satisfactory notion of how this drive operates, or ‘“who it is” who goes there’, 8 returns us with a vengeance to the venerable questions posed by psychoanalysis and materialist criticism to the corpus of ‘literature’: Who goes there? And what does It want from us?

Lacan alerted us to the unequivocal role of the Other’s desire in the material constituency of the subject: ‘the subject finds anew in the Other’s desire the equivalent of what he is qua subject of the unconscious’. 9 As an ‘effect of speech’, the subject is perforce a moment of the Other’s desire; where things become interesting is at the point where this pervasive ‘desire of the Other’ dovetails with and services a Trieb, or drive, in the historical subject. In Žižek’s snappy formulation, ‘drive is not an infinite longing for the Thing which gets fixated onto a partial object – “drive” is this fixation itself in which resides the “death” dimension of every drive’.10 In a culture (like ours) of the drive, the constitutive failure of social subjects to gain any durable satisfaction is turned into an ironic triumph, by way of the empty, circular repetition of the fixation itself; something the computer has been particularly good at installing, as a modus operandi of the technology, within the Lebenswelt. Computers give nothing substantial, of course, but this giving of nothing itself is precisely addictive and perversely pleasurable to a delirious extent. In no other technology is the ‘circulation around the Void’ 11 so fundamentally a part of the process; print was comparatively ‘substantial’, while handwriting obviously gestured at an irreducible presence. The hard drive of digital technology is the Void around which contemporary jouissance (and writing) circulates, and the drive of the subject trapped in orbit around it is more than just a paronomasic echo of it, but a looped modality of its very technicity.

Let us say that the omnipresence of digital technology in the production of writing today (not only its practice, but the subsumption of all previous writing within it: a total digitalisation of writing) is adequate to an historical moment at which the Trieb as such would appear to have displaced the earlier, Oedipal mechanics of desire in the social body; a moment, that is to say, in which the hard drive of late capitalism is now the signifying cause of all fleeting and contingent subject-formation. The passage of all writing through the ‘Other-Unconscious’ of the digitally organized, electronic hard drive, suggests that the incorporeal status of the ghostly, streaming text on our monitors shares something uncanny with Lacan’s ‘lamella’: the shapeless ‘organ’ through which the contemporary subject most dramatically makes ‘his death the object of the Other’s desire’. 12 To the extent that, as Derrida put it, thanks to this ubiquitous drive we all inhabit a ‘World Wide Web that a network of computers weaves all about us, across the world, but also all about us, in us’, 13 so are we installed within the purest message-stream of the Other’s desire as an open importuning or solicitation of the death drive.

At the same time, one cannot help sensing at play here a cryptic reincarnation of the central problematic of materialist semiotics: namely, the passage of a dynamic, diachronic signifier through the synchronic social langue whose ‘layers of code’ now outnumber Barthes’ ‘five’ by an order of many megabytes. 14 This ineffable multiplicity of ‘layered codes’ in the hard drive is surely an apt metaphor for the mediation of all meaning by an absent but necessarily material totality of socio-linguistic ‘structure’, without which not even a glimmer of signification could succeed. This detour of all semiotic material through the ‘internal demon of the apparatus’, this crudely material, mediated incorporeality of digitised writing today, reminds us with a start of the unsettled debt of structuralism itself. For here we are directly confronted by the enormously unsettling fact that ‘English’, as it were, is not really the language we believe we are using when we type the sentence ‘the cat sat on the mat’ into a word processing program and witness the appearance of ‘those same words’ on our screens. Rather, ‘English’ is like the parole we speak into the hard drive, and which it deigns to speak back, while all the time the deeper langue of those ‘layers of code’ in some orchestrating other script, about which we (or I) know nothing, is generating the entirety of these effects of language. The correlations here with the good old Marxist dialectic between superstructure and base are hard to miss; it is time again to rethink this opposition in terms of speech-act and code, signification and technology, meaning and economics; to accept the prostration of our ‘speech’ before this almighty Other of code.

The technological figure of the hard drive is thus admirably equipped to rejoin us with the suspended ‘scientism’ of materialist structuralism and psychoanalysis both, in mothballs these last thirty years or so due to other pressures on the valves of social opinion. In it we detect a condensed and saturated image of the ‘Other-Unconscious’ lurking importunately at the very limit of our collective death drive; as well as a satisfying metaphorical conceit with which to recalibrate the thought of a semiotic substance that is not reducible to the terms in which we habitually communicate – an Other order of code, the systemic or total object of Language itself. In such wise are we chastened never to forget the essential technological dimension of all writing, all discourse, all meaning, since this figure is only circumstantially limited to a specific historical epoch. Indeed, the black box of the hard drive projects its lessons backward to the very origin of literature itself.

At the origin of poetry, with its beats, rhythms (and, in modern European languages, rhymes), were technological problems and a solution that came about under oral conditions. Unrecognized by all philosophical aesthetics, the storage capacity of memory was to be increased and the signal-to-noise ratio of channels improved. (Humans are so forgetful and gods so hard of hearing.) 15

Such an insight, gleaned in spirit from the notes of Nietzsche, but really made possible by the social ubiquity of the hard drive as storage device and communicational channel, deploys something like Marx’s progressive-regressive method, according to which the anatomy of the human being provides the key to the anatomy of the ape. Indeed, the technology of the hard drive provides the key to the technology of all marking: as a detour through the death drive and the totality of the Symbolic Order itself. In a world where the toll for that detour is levied as profit by the corporate entity of Microsoft, there are reasons for reigniting the political passions incited by its necessity. May Writing Technologies be a spark in the night, a new way of writing in light.

1. William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (London: Longmans, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1846)

2. Patrick Maynard, The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography (Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. x.

3. Michael North, Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 28.

4. N. Katherine Hayles, "Print is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis," Poetics Today 25:1 (2004), p. 74.

5. Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 30.

6. Derrida, Paper Machine, p. 23.

7. See editors' introduction.

8. Derrida, Paper Machine, p. 23.

9. Jacques Lacan, "Position of the Unconscious," in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2006), p. 715.

10. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2006), p. 62.

11. Žižek, Parallax View, p. 63.

12. Lacan, Écrits, p. 720.

13. Derrida, Paper Machine, p. 27.

14. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 18-22 ff.

15. Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 80.