Presence and Print

I never have time to write anything but my dissertation these days, but in reading the media theory necessary to make my argument an interesting pattern emerged I want to briefly outline.  My first exposure to “theory” was a graduate class on Marx and Freud which ended up being mostly an exploration of Lacan through Zizek.  I didn’t find this confusingly telescoped approach to political economy and psychoanalysis to be all that instructive, but the kinds of questions the class raised did kindle my interest in the enterprise of “theory” largely conceived.  Later, I read Derrida’s work, particularly his earliest essays in the Grammatology and Writing and Difference.  From Derrida, I went back and read several of Heidegger’s works, including Being and Time and Poetry, Language, and Thought.  I don’t find myself thinking of this reading much in my current work other than that, more recently, the topic of presence, perhaps the central concern for Derrida and Heidegger, has become important to my dissertation’s argument on print media and modernist information management.

In “Signature Event Context,” Derrida says,”[A] written sign carries with it a force that breaks with its context, that is, with the collectivity of presences organizing the moment of its inscription.  This breaking force [force de rupture] is not an accidental predicate but the very structure of the written text” (9).  Derrida insists that writing, as a practice, does not operate despite the possibility of the producer’s absence, but because of it.  I am not interested in getting into an extended discussion of deconstruction, but in my dissertation research these notions of presence, media, and literature keep surfacing together.  Derrida’s entire philosophical project can in some sense be understood as a defamiliarization of our normalized understanding of language.  Both inside and outside the scope of my dissertation’s argument, I feel modernist literature is a particularly rich site on which authors see print media and language in alternative ways and that the notion of presence is at the center of this shift.

Friedrich Kittler was the first actual media theorist I was exposed to.[1]  However, it wasn’t until I read Wolfgang Ernst’s essay collection Digital Media and the Archive, that the notion of presence in media began to catch my eye.  Ernst focuses on digital media and the microtemporalities they rely upon that are and should be understood as alien to human experience.  In “Toward a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations,” he says,

“The media archaeologist, without passion, does not hallucinate life when he listens to recorded voices, as does the notorious dog Nipper when listening to ‘His Master’s Voice’ on a phonograph.  The media-archaeological exercise is to be aware of the fact that at each technologically given moment we are dealing with media not humans, that we are not speaking with the dead but dealing with dead media that operate.” (183)

I am not practicing the strict media archaeology Ernst is defining here, but as a literary scholar, it seems to me even more important to resist the urge to speak with the dead because it is easy to fall into the romantic notion of authorial presence in a text.  We frequently refer to authors and poets speaking in their texts, and even if we qualify it as a text, it’s easy to “hallucinate life” in the literature that arrives before us through print’s media effects.

Ernst’s thinking on this matter caught my attention immediately, but I needed to renovate it in order apply it to print.  This move was anticipated by Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman in their Introduction to Comparative Textual Media.  They theorize that the interposition of the type of technology Ernst describes, these conspicuously non-human electric and digital media, recontextualizes how we interact with print:

“[W]hen writing was accomplished by a quill pen, ink pot, and paper, it was possible to fantasize that writing was simple and straightforward, a means by which the writer’s thoughts could be transferred more or less directly into the reader’s mind.  With the proliferation of technical media in the latter half of the nineteenth century, that illusion became much more difficult to sustain, for intervening between writer and reader was a proliferating array of technical devices, including telegraphs, phonographs, typewriters, Dictaphones, Teletypes, and wire recorders, on up to digital computing devices that themselves are splitting into an astonishing array of different protocols, functionalities, interfaces, and codes.  The deepening complexities of the media landscape have made mediality, in all its forms, a central concerns of the twenty-first century.  With that that changed cultural emphasis  comes a reawakening of interesting in the complexities of earlier media forms as well.” (loc157)

From our 21st-century vantage we can see print through the prism of these undeniably non-human digital media.  This revision prompts a defamiliarization with the normalized characteristics of print.  We had become accustomed to seeing the author in the literary text and now we can see it as a material medium. [2]

The chapter of my dissertation I am currently working on depends on a similar reappraisal of print media.  Pound, in developing the poetics for his earliest cantos, underwent a radical shift in his approach to print media.  Rather than seeing his poetry as a conduit for the transmission of his interiority or a simulated interiority, he began to use print as an information management tool to revitalize, what was in his mind, a derelict archive and literary tradition.  Implicit here is also a banishment of the simulated human presence in print media.  Like the electronic media of his time and the digital media that would follow, Pound began to see his work not as a magical container for his presence, but as material objects through which he could transmit information.  In order for Pound to capitalize on print’s media effects, he sacrificed the simulated human presence in the text, the fantasy that he was speaking directly to his reader.

I am convinced that literary modernism is a particularly important period for these overlapping issues.  In my dissertation, in addition to Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930), I will argue H. D.’s Notes on Thought and Vision (1919) and Palimpsest (1926) and Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) exhibit a similar type of media shift.  Outside the scope of my dissertation, I find William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All (1923) and his poetry in general to be a parallel critique of human presence in language.  Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man” is a description of the natural world in the in which human presence is completely removed.  The “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a representation of space and objects in the absence of human actors.  In other words, the origins of the media theory appearing here in the 21st-century had been conceptualized in the creative works appearing over a 100 years earlier.

[1]: My understanding of Kittler isn’t thorough enough to comment on his engagement with presence/absence.  However, as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young remarks in Kittler and the Media, Kittler was to some degree influenced by Heidegger, so making the connection between the thinkers is not inappropriate.

[2]: In addition to restricting my comparisons between print literary texts and digital media, I am also not able to discuss the multiple realms Hayles and Pressman see comparative textual media expanding into.  They, for instance, say “Media are necessarily associated with specific technologies and material structures as well as economic, legal, and social institutions” (loc252).  By necessity, I only discuss the material and literary contexts for the texts I analyze.

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