On Haylesian Materiality

In an article on her own updated approach to “materiality” that appeared at Digital Humanities Quarterly a few years ago, Johanna Drucker, observes the following about the concept’s varying usage:

The history of approaches to materiality is long and complex, with basic discussions of matter and form, substance and essence, traceable to earliest antiquity in many strains of philosophy in the west and the east, and these wait in the wings to be called back onstage in any longer discussion of the topic.

I’ve been digging through some of the options recently for a project on electronic literature (about which I’ll be posting more in the next few months), including those of Drucker and Matthew Kirschenbaum. I flirted with using Kate Hayles’s definition and her associated concept of the “technotext.” I offer some reflections on Hayles’s definition below as a brief introduction to the perplexed.


Materiality […] occupies a borderland—or better, performs as connective tissue—joining the physical and mental, the artifact and the user. (Hayles, “Print is Flat Code is Deep”)

Already in the year 2000, the media historian Lisa Gitelman could “[worry] that many critics are using the word to mean many different (and different amounts of) things.” The intervening years have only compounded that problem. Understandably, critics still use this terminology to describe the physical traits of a work, whatever its medium. Theorists, however, have migrated away from a strictly “physical” definition. The discourse of materiality has become a means to acknowledge that media, as exemplified by digital media, are embedded in a web of relations. These “relational definitions,” in the words of the technology scholar Paul Leonardi, “move materiality ‘out of the artifact’ and into the space of interaction between people and artifacts.” In her entry on materiality in the Johns Hopkins Guide to New Media, Anna Munster well summarizes the shift, writing that “materiality” has come to “[refer] to both the physical of hardware, software, digital objects, artifact and processes and to the material conditions—including the social relations, political context, and aesthetic experience—of production of all ‘things’ digital.”

Setting materiality loose in an interactive world, though, complicates its exposition. When materiality is anchored in physicality, it has strict parameters that are, while perhaps not easy to access, remain easy enough to define. It can be described by rattling off the object’s physical characteristics. “Relational” definitions, however, have the added burden of defining what it is that humans see in—and hope to make out of—these multifarious physical objects. It means, to borrow George Eliot’s phrasing, observing not only how digital media work but also how the “mysterious mixture” that is humankind “behaves under the varying experiments of Time.” In light of the human variable, N. Katherine Hayles suggests that materiality should be defined as a protean quality that “emerges” in the interaction between human user and physical object. In her most recent book, How We Think, she distills her formula for the brewing of materiality to the “fusion” of two elements, physicality and attention: “Materiality comes into existence […] when attention fuses with physicality to identify and isolate some particular attribute (or attributes) of interest” (91).

A useful illustration of Hayles’s model at work appears in her co-authored piece “Virtual Architecture, Actual Media:”

[A]n object has a potentially infinite array of physical attributes. One could, for example, refer to the chemical composition of ink when discussing print technology, and beyond that to the molecular components, their energy states, etc. Physicality alone, then, is insufficient to specify an object. Rather, certain physical attributes are typically of interest in a given circumstance—say, the colours associated with the chemicals in ink. Materiality expresses this conjunction of attention and attributes, focus, and physicality. Attention shifts, focus changes, and materiality transforms. Always embedded in an overt or implied context, materiality far from being given by an object’s physicality, is an emergent event. (Hayles and Gannon)

To summarize: Objects have innumerable facets. And attention, to borrow Matthew Crawford’s phrasing, “is a resource; I only have so much of it.” Materiality thus resides in the salient characteristics of an object. Salience, meanwhile, also cannot be specified a priori: what stands out to our attention is shaped by the context of our experience (which includes, Hayles implies, both the immediate physical and broader cultural settings). This last point is pivotal because it prevents materiality from becoming an interpretive free-for-all. What’s “material” about an object—in the sense of important, relevant—depends on the situation in which we encounter it. There’s much that one could say about the ink on the page, but the color—say, the red used by medieval rubricators—is what’s likely to catch the reader’s attention. “Materitality,” Hayles has said, “has been always in play” (“even when it was relatively suppressed within literary criticism by considering the work an immaterial verbal construction”). Her focus on context suggests that this “play” has never been unstructured.

Within this crucible, Hayles concocts the specifically literary concept of the “technotext.” As she explains in Writing Machines, technotexts are “Literary works that strengthen, foreground, and thematize the connections between themselves as material artifacts and the imaginative realm of verbal/semiotic signifiers they instantiate.” Consider Jerome McGann’s examples of his concept of “bibliographical coding” (an influence on Hayles’s concept): illuminated medieval manuscripts and books by Blake. These documents’ “physiques,” McGann argues, have clear “aesthetic functions” (Textual Condition 77). One reads both the text and the book’s decked out body: the “literary work” is the product of their union. Technotexts cast the media-net more broadly, encompassing not only McGann’s codex-bound models but any work whose text interacts intensely with its inscription technologies. In explaining how the technotext relates to her notion of materiality, Hayles uses the example of digital media:

The physical attributes constituting any artifact are potentially infinite; in a digital computer, for example, they include the polymers used to fabricate the case, the rare earth elements used to make the phosphors in the CRT screen, the palladium used for the power cord prongs, and so forth. From this infinite array a technotext will select a few to foreground and work into its thematic concerns. Materiality thus emerges from interactions between physical properties and a work’s artistic strategies. For this reason, materiality cannot be specified in advance, as if it preexisted the specificity of the work. An emergent property, materiality depends on how the work mobilizes its resources as a physical artifact as well as on the user’s interactions with the work and the interpretive strategies she develops—strategies that include physical manipulations as well as conceptual frameworks.

We saw above that context offers cues to attention. With technotexts, our attention is guided—or perhaps better said, goaded—to particular physical components by both text, in its “thematic concerns,” and context, including the medium’s ordinary architecture and/or standard applications (which technotexts often defy). Hayles’s point is well illustrated by one of her examples from the genre of the artist’s book, Edwin Schlossberg’s wordswordswords. The work consists of a “collection of poems written on the material on which each poem is printed,” including a blind-impressed (as in, non-inked) text that “[speaks] of finding the words tactilely by moving one’s fingers over the sheet” (74). wordswordswords exemplifies two qualities of technotexts. First, their specific physical features, here the printing surface, are “made resonant with significance, becoming semiotically important components of the text’s meaning-making processes.” Second, they “bring into view the machinery that gives their verbal constructions physical reality” (26). They make us aware of how inscription technologies work.

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