Writing Technologies

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‘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?

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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.

  Hard drives