A Thick Description amid Authorships, Audiences and Agencies in the Nineties1
Preface: a context for writing technologies
Something happened toward the end of the nineties. Before then, starting in the early- to mid-eighties and on, the time when I first began to use the term writing technologies, every time I used it – in talks, my dissertation, commentary at conferences, articles, class syllabi, research colloquia, now ancient websites, fellowship applications and projects, book prospectuses, talking to my mom, whatever – I was pressed to explain it. It was never a phrase that explained itself. I have written mini-essay length footnotes and sections of chapters, given formal talks (and talked myself blue in the face!) in my attempts to describe, contribute to and create where it has, does and might take us among knowledge worlds, what kinds of power/knowledge relationships it opens out upon. I felt responsible for it.2
But something happened. Over the nineties, somewhere toward its end and into the next decade, the term, or some variant, began to explain itself. It began to be taken for granted and even to belong to particular communities of practice. Instead of something ‘happening’, it had already happened. In ordinary language it appeared casually. Its referents were sometimes historical – past writing technologies – and sometimes current. From that decade to the next scholarly books began to pick around its variants and even museum exhibitions took up ‘Technologies of Writing’.3 Today's writing technologies no longer needed some slight of mind to come into relief – there they were, intrusively obvious, and often claimed. The Web – once a quirky oddity for techies I could point to and play around with, a material example of a then counter-intuitive convergence and recombination, one across forms of inscription and meaning making devices – that Web was there, beyond accessibility’, in that fictional everywhere of "everyone's" lives. Even my cognitively challenged eighty six year old mom uses the term, unself-consciously talking to her nursing home crowd while she manipulates her iPod. I am unclear what my responsibilities are now.
Another context for literalization
My one book manuscript, Speaking with Things: An Introduction to Writing Technologies, ever manifesting but yet to be manifested, called out for continual updates at the same time as it was caught up with its possible trade publisher in the vicissitudes of the price for scholarship and the search for markets in restructuring publication industries. Possible university presses for my other book manuscript, Networked Reenactments, flexible knowledges under globalization, suggested I take out of the book all the references to writing technologies. They wanted a cleaner line of argument, sometimes using cinematic metaphors to describe how the shape of the book ought to tighten up, its effects work for linear continuity, and its audience be targeted.
Being inside and moved around literally by the very material and conceptual structures you are analyzing and writing about is a kind of self-consciousness only partially available for explicit discussion. To describe such research situations by writing obliquely is a necessity, not an obstinate refusal to be specific or propose something in particular. And out of such awareness saying what counts as using writing technologies is also necessarily oblique – that is to say, diverging from the perpendicular, the normative. Thus this essay is performative, both a demonstration of cognitive sensation and a simulation of and for writing technologies; all expressed along the way of its examination of one set of these, of reenactments as examples of writing technologies in dynamic movement in the nineties.
Writing technologies always literalized for me tensions in grammatology, between both Ignace Gelb's and Jacques Derrida's uses of grammatology, that is to say, between writing's many possible referent/sign relationships in historical progression (Gelb) and that call to account of assumptions about writing's derivations from speech built into the assertion of these relationships (Derrida on logocentrism). I have wanted to play simultaneously with such histories of writing as that of Gelb,4 from whom Derrida takes the term grammatology, and with the sciences and technologies they are supplements to, origins and transformations of, as Derrida puts it. Paying attention to such deconstructive sciences and technologies means I take it seriously when Derrida tells us that deconstruction ‘risks’ grammatology, a ‘science of writing’ that may never be established or named, may never have a unity of project or object, may never be able to write its method or describe its limits because the history of now, our historical moment, is intertwined with and dependant on, but also dislocates, the relations between speech and writing that deconstruction calls to account as logocentrism.5
The very space of contrast between Gelb's and Derrida's writing – those tense literalizations that are writing technologies – shifts among contemporary historical moments as the range of denotation among words, speech, language, orality, literacy and techne also shifts amid the coming-into-being, re-discovery or re-thinking of new and old writing technologies. Many of these are shifts and dislocations over inscription6 as shaped among apparatus of authority and publication, of scholarly practice and commercial life. Working with Derrida, but literalizing tensions between these grammatologies, writing technologies are thickly described here as activities, skills and devices in layered assemblages, material and conceptual – some including inscription, but none limited to and by it.
And my responsibilities to Writing Technologies? What is it now, a something established and named, authoritatively vetted in scholarly apparatus? I am only too aware of being caught up in the history of now, how intertwined with, dependant upon writing technologies I am, but also how dislocating writing technologies, as I work among them, are. I cannot help but mime that understanding of Derridean différance not only as our hinge between speech and writing, but also as a performance of deferral....7
So, this essay offers its simulation, a necessarily oblique and deferring argument concerning writing technologies, as a discussion and display of reenactments. This is to make it somewhat easier, but not inappropriately easy, to demonstrate that, while some communities of practice might consider themselves ‘intensively’ (within their own communities of reference) to own or define the term reenactments (or own and define the term writing technologies), ’extensive’ displays such as my own thick description do a very different kind of important work, and can do so without throwing away this intensive work specific communities of practice do too. Some appropriate differences here are ones of scope and scale, and an attention to scope, scale, membership and grain of analysis allow one to participate actively, maybe even pleasurably, and move among knowledge worlds.
So this essay is a demonstration that writing technologies and reenactments and movement among knowledge worlds require understanding authorships, audiences and agencies in ways that keep redrawing forms of inclusion and exclusion, virtually moment to moment. Thus it is another literalizing attempt to work amid, describe, and engage with and as writing technologies, however spare or capaciously drawn, moving among various communities of practice and among audiences and authorships, the very point of the essay.
1. This essay is based on a paper presented to the Washington Area Group for Print Culture Studies, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 7 March 2008. A blog version of this paper with some interactive features is available at: http://wtreen.blogspot.com/ .
2. Two examples of such ‘responsibility-laden’ explanations: Katie King, ‘Bibliography and a Feminist Apparatus of Literary Production’, TEXT: Transactions of the Society for Textual Scholarship 5 (1991), 91-103; and ‘Feminism and Writing Technologies: Teaching Queerish Travels through Maps, Territories, and Pattern,’ Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science and Technology 2:1 (1994), 89-106.
3. Some not exactly random examples: Gregory L. Ulmer, Applied Grammatology: Post(E)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985); Martha Nell Smith. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992; Richard Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (on Floppy Disk, Ver. V. 1.0.] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Patricia Sullivan and James E. Porter, Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices (Greenwich: Ablex, 1997); Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999); Robert Darnton, ‘Paris: The Early Internet’, The New York Review of Books 47:11 (2000), 42-47; Michael Ryan et al., ‘Exhibition: Surfaces: The Matter of Texts’, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Library Exhibition produced in association with the Penn Humanities Forum; September 22–December 31, 2002); William H. Sherman, ‘What Did Renaissance Readers Write in Their Books?’, in Books and Readers in Early Modern England: Material Studies, ed. Jennifer Lotte Andersen and Elizabeth Sauer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 119-38; Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, ‘Extreme Inscription: Towards a Grammatology of the Hard Drive’, TEXT Technology 2 (2004), 91-125; Technologies of Writing, exhibition held atHarry Ransom Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin (2006).
4. Ignace J. Gelb, A Study of Writing: The Foundations of Grammatology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952). See also Robert Escarpit, The Book Revolution (London, Toronto, Paris: Harrap; UNESCO, 1966).
5. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1976 ), esp. ‘Exergue’, pp. 3-5, of which my paragraph here is a paraphrase.
6. As described in some historical and theoretical detail in Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines and in Kirschenbaum, ‘Extreme Inscription.’ See also footnote 10 below on the Inka khipu.
7. Derrida, Of Grammatology. p. 143.