I found Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008) both illuminating and difficult in nature. I’m certainly convinced by his call for digital humanists—or anyone looking at aspects of electronic reading and writing—to pay attention to the many facets of digital textuality, as his recognition of scholarship’s tendency to focus on the conceptual rather than the logical/physical generally rings true. I’m also incredibly impressed by his ability to render precise technical detail so lucidly to technological pedestrians such as myself. However, Kirschenbaum’s methods of forensic materiality and (to a lesser extent) formal materiality require an incredibly specialized skill set, one that an alarmingly few number of humanities scholars currently possess, and one that Kirschenbaum admits to have only acquired due to his obsessive desire to understand how things work even at the most microscopic level.
His demand for academics to examine the forensic and formal materiality of electronic texts, including their ‘invisible’ processes of storage, therefore seems impractical. I view Mechanisms as a wonderful demonstration of DH’s potential scope of scholarship, but the fact remains that we would be hard-pressed to find academics able to engage in such analysis. Although I’ve never read a literary article that examines medial properties to the extent of Kirschenbaum’s nanoscopic scrutiny, it is important to note that a host of scholars engaging with digital literature are looking beyond the screen to draw attention to the narrative impact of the medial affordances offered by specific electronic systems, hardware, and software; for example, Jessica Pressman looks at the underlying binary code driving works by collaborative duo Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (2008), Nick Fortunago examines the affordances of video game controllers to construct thematic tensions between desire and outcome in Shadow of the Colossus (2009), and N. Katherine Hayles’ Writing Machines analyzes the textual instantiation of web fiction and poetry (2008). Therefore I do not believe that the situation is as dire as Kirschenbaum argues (of course, the seven year lapse since his article has also helped remedy this fact).
I’m wondering, too, if Kirschenbaum’s melding of conceptual and technical methodologies implicitly ties back to the disciplinary argument that DH should largely be a collaborative undertaking. Individual scholars cannot feasibly keep on top of the many rapidly occurring technological advances, suggesting cooperation between researchers with specialized knowledge will increase. Similarly, if we look at successful DH tools, they are also being built through collaboration. For example, the recently released ACLS Workbench is the result of the efforts of Jessica Pressman, Mark Marino, Jeremy Douglass, Lucas Miller, Craig Dietrich, and Erik Loyer, a group consisting of scholars, artists, and programmers. The ACLS Workbench “is a new platform for collaborative research, which enables scholars to create, join, or clone online arguments enhanced with multimedia content” (Marino, 2015). That the Workbench and its accompanying print publication Reading Project was the result of six years of collaboration demonstrates the immense range of knowledge and skills required for such a project. Therefore, I’m certainly on board with Kirschenbaum’s general argument that DH scholars should look to design, discuss, and evaluate electronic texts at the literary, technical, and social levels, but I’m not sure that Mechanisms itself is an attainable model for such research.
Fortunago, Nick. “Losing Your Grip: Futility and Dramatic Necessity in Shadow of the Colossus.” Davidson (eds.), Well Played 1.0: Video Games, Value, and Meaning. Pittsburgh: ETC Press, 2009. Web.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. London: The MIT Press, 2002. Print.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. Print.
Marino, Mark. “Announcing a New Platform for Collaborative Scholarship of E-Lit.” Electronic Literature Organization, 2015. Web.
Pressman, Jessica. Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.