of new media, the concept of materiality and medium as shaping components
of artworks is so basic that it might seem strange that it remains
radical in literary studies. The meanings of literary works are
generally still thought unrelated to the media in which they are
presented, or for which they are written. While a host of experimental
poets and writers on poetics have been daily exploding that view
for decades , their work is culturally marginal. Writing
Machines is part of a push to help bring such modes of analysis
from the margins into the mainstream of criticism. The emergence
of electronic literatures in the 20th century and the ever-increasing
use of new media in literature means that the acceptance of media
and materiality as dimensions of literary meaning is inevitable,
no matter how long it has been delayed. Besides making electronic
literatures critically legible, it could crucially affect the whole
business of literary criticism, to the point of completely changing
the way certain canonic writers are interpreted. 
that the resistance to Hayles' line of thinking, therefore, begins
with sheer horror at the prospect of adding yet another dimension
of complexity to an already difficult pursuit. The mere acceptance
of electronic literature as historically legitimated, a basic premise
of Writing Machines, poses enough of a problem in itself.
One of the questions (or spectres) Writing Machines raises
is that of the possible (eventual or actual) obsolescence of print.
 To some literary scholars, the study of cyber-literature --
or even accepting anything but print as a valid platform for literature
-- must make them feel like conservationists dining on dolphin steak.
 Bibliophilic Hayles, however, is careful to state that she thinks
those fears are unwarranted. Due to their sturdiness, usefulness,
and their particular virtues as knowledge-storing systems, books
(and print) will be with us for quite a long time yet. 
phase of print culture we are in now, it certainly didn't start
with the spread of home computers or IT; it has roots centuries
deep. The still evolving general concept of hypertext (best defined
as: texts with multiple reading paths) was culturally present as
soon as we had reference works  (the Holy Bible, for example)
 bound in codex form. The way in which reading is usually organized
in cyberspace basically extends from that form of randomized reading.
Due to the ubiquity of computers and by virtue of the fact that
the WWW is still basically a gigantic reference text -- I have heard
it called an endless library of informational pamphlets -- hypertext
may have already become our new paradigm of reading.  If so,
it would be the first such shift since the invention of the codex.
It isn't coincidental that, at this juncture, a book like Writing
Machines would emerge. Nor is it surprising that one of the
key texts it investigates is Tom Phillips' A Humument ,
which so strongly recalls illuminated manuscripts. For many reasons,
most directly tied to changes in technology, people are looking
at print with fresh (refreshed?) eyes.  The (sur)face of literature
is changing more than it has for many centuries. As Hayles says
in an interview accessible through the MIT web site: "Materialist
and divergent works do not merely have a future; they are the future."
 With its multi-faceted text, its dynamic, critical use of book
design, and its inclusive notion of what can be studied as literature,
Writing Machines successfully logs-in to that future.
And so Writing
Machines is stimulating for those interested in the literary
dimensions of new media, or for students of literature not intimidated
by new complexities. Even if Writing Machines is only an
incomplete foray into the area, it's worth reading for the host
of useful formulations and valuable information it contains, and
for the model it provides of an integrated approach to materially-oriented
criticism. Hayles also takes great pleasure in her task, which is
endearing in any writer. Nevertheless, I believe most readers will
agree that when considered in its totality Writing Machines
(or pseudo-autobiographical) narrative components are the most galling
aspect of the book. Where Hayles sounds high-minded and brilliant
in many of the critical chapters, the quality of the writing in
the narrative ones plummets to almost blog level -- unpleasantly
raw.  The reason for this might be that she applies the manner
of her critical writing to the very different task of personal narration.
Doing so, she betrays that she neither has any skills as a storyteller
nor as a creator of modulated narrative prose. Someone in the chain
of command -- writer, editor, publisher, friend? -- should have
recognized this and either tended a helping hand or a pair of scissors.
If the narrative chapters were replaced with more critical explications,
or if the narrative and critical materials were more completely
integrated, Writing Machines would be a far superior book.
The critical components of the book, however, have their own problems.
From the start,
Hayles omits from her study almost all the valuable work that has
already been done on the topic of "media and materiality"
in literature. Much of that work has been accomplished through experimental
poetry and its critics, recently extended into discussion of electronic
literature. The omission is incomprehensible. No body of writing
in the world is more relevant to what Hayles attempts in Writing
Machines. Most of what she is saying has been said, often more
charismatically, often more clearly, albeit with different objects
in mind. Although I haven't read everything in the field, I know
that the history she is ignoring goes back at least as far as the
1960s, if not to the first writings on Mallarmé, who died
in 1898. She claims to know that this work exists, she even lists
some of it in her online bibliography, but the same interview quoted
above includes this remark:
This idea is
hardly new; innovative poetic practice, artists' books, concrete
poetry, and a host of other literary and creative practices have
been exploring it for a long time. Yet literary criticism has remained
largely untouched by these experiments.
has indeed been "untouched," it would be because Hayles'
colleagues chose to trivialize (or simply ignore) a considerable
body of critical writing by people who are -- we are forced to infer
-- outside of "the literary community."
As a consequence of this, Writing Machines has an improperly
maverick tone. Hayles often sounds as if she perceives herself as
being naughty and very brave to venture into this territory. She
formulates old ideas as if they were entering the world for the
first time. She also self-dramatizes her intellectual process to
make her not very original theories sound admirably hard-won. Maybe
she doesn't really "get" the poetics of the kinds of work
she is approaching; by "get" I mean to grasp intuitively
how the work is positioned, which is necessary for writing effective
criticism of it. Her chapter on A Humument is the major
speedbump: anyone who has seen A Humument knows it is a
whimsical, irrational, mercurial piece. Instead of giving it an
appropriately lithe reading, Hayles goes at it with bulldozer and
dynamite, like a paleontologist of old.
operations of writing and reading take center stage on page 105.
This page is visually transformed into the space of the room, inviting
us to project our proprioceptive sense into the scene. Moreover,
the space is imaged as an art gallery, complete with a picture on
the wall and pedestals associated with the display of art objects.
Instead of physical objects, here the pedestals are occupied by
rivers of text, a move that imaginatively cycles through the (absent)
object to arrive at the words. The text reenacts this displacement
by proclaiming a punningly appropriate phrase that performs what
it names, abstracting the missing artifact into "abstract art."
The displacement thus cycles through the (representation of) a material
object, which gives specificity to the abstract cognitive activity
of making these punning connections. Another pedestal-object proclaims:
"art," while the third comments: "which made time
penniless," an allusion to the complex processes by which material
objects are abstracted into "timeless" art, as if the
object could be removed from its historical specificity and treated
as a representation that exists independent of its material circumstances."
boorishness makes us also seriously distrust her readings of the
other main works she presents, Lexia to Perplexia, and A House of
Leaves, as well of the many succulent book works she describes in
Chapter 5. What is really upsetting here is that we begin to wonder
if Hayles is perhaps, by her sensibility, simply locked out of an
understanding of poetics. If so, she finds herself in a kind of
Ancient Mariner scenario -- thirsty, but unable to drink from the
body of water her ship floats on. Most of what is happening, and
is likely to happen, in electronic literature is dependent on a
subtle, para-textual poetics. If Hayles can't even pick up such
signals in a relatively accessible work like A Humument I
fear she will go on missing crucial contextual clues, and continue
using the wrong tools for her job.
came along at the right time, and in many ways it offers a fresh
look at important ideas. Hayles' brilliance and enthusiasm carry
us through to the end, and even bring us back to poke around in
the better passages. I sincerely hope that in future books, she
will avoid the errors that make Writing Machines -- so
promising, so fascinating -- so disappointing.
(includes a description of how Writing Machines is structured)
 Katherine N. Hayles, Writing Machines (The MIT Press:
Cambridge and London, 2002), p. 44
 For starters, try the search strings: "Is print dead?"
and "Print is dead."
 "Newspapers meant the Clarence Courier, a weekly dominated
by such breaking news as Mrs. Floyd Jones having afternoon tea with
Mrs. Robert Smith, where a jellyroll was served and enjoyed by all.
She did not see a dial telephone until she left home for college;
in Clarence she used the phone by cranking the ringer, whereupon
Delores, the town operator, would answer and ask what number she
wanted, no doubt continuing to listen in to catch the juicy bits.
Television, like all things technological, came late to the little
town, arriving a good decade after it had hit the big cities of
St. Louis and Kansas City. The family purchased its first set when
she was nine, and she still remembers staring at test patterns,
sitting through Howdy Doody, and watching Cowboy Jim gulp down Prarie
Farm milk. […]" Hayles, p. 11.
 Hayles, p. 97 -- 98. See the page described in full color in
the online supplement under "Source Material"