• Emerson’s book is about ruptures in the interfaces between reading and writing. She tells a “nonlinear history” of “media poetics,” literary practices that blur the lines between reading and writing through deep engagement with material technologies. “At each point in this nonlinear history, I describe how this lineage of media poetics undermines the prevailing philosophies of particular media ecology and so reveals to us, in our present moment, the contours of our contemporary technologies. By the time I return to the present in the postscript, via the foregoing four techno-literary ruptures, I have made visible a long-standing conflict between those who would deny us access to fundamental tools of creative production and those who work to undermine these foreclosures on creativity. In many ways, then, my book reveals the strong political engagement driving a tradition of experimental writing, and it implicitly argues for the importance of the literary in the digital age” (xvii).


  • “interface”: the book begins with interfaces, has interfaces in the title, and we should read it against Galloway’s contrasting reading of interfaces. Emerson cites Galloway, although interestingly she does so while maintaining a materialized idea of the interface as the threshold between conceptual frameworks; the interface is still very much a machine rather than Galloway’s procession of ontological/ethical effects (x).
  • “media poetics”: “the literary exemplar of media archaeology”; a tradition of writing the interface into the bookbound object (xiv).


0. Introduction

  • “From beginning to end, [this book] is about demystifying devices—especially writerly demystification—by opening up how exactly interfaces limit and create certain creative possibilities” (ix); the desire to demystify is common to media archaeological work; compare Ernst’s “reverse engineering.” For MA, demystification or revealing the black box share common ground with literary studies’ hermeneutics of suspicion and constitute the grounds of familiar critique.
  • The ideology of interface design: that this particular version of user-friendly (whatever that means) transparency (ditto) is the only possible design for tech (xi).
  • Media archaeology provides “a sobering conceptual friction” by which we can read a naturalized technological present through “against the grain” of the past; in other words, against a teleological model of techno-progress (xii); “Following Zielinski, I uncover a nonlinear and nonteleological series of media phenomena—or ruptures—as a way to avoid reinstating a model of media history that tends toward narratives of progress and generally ignores neglected, failed, or dead media” (xiii). Have we thoroughly disproved the progress narrative? How much must we continue to militate against it in our work? Has media archaeological simply instituted a different kind of cyclical, broken time? What does this time teach us about our present condition?
  • “But what I have also found is that when writers read or even record their writing interfaces, through writing, the result is necessarily a highly visual, tactile literary object that corresponds to traditional literary genres such as poetry or fiction only to the extent that the author names their work as such” (xiv).
  • Is there anything more we can add to the presumption that direct experience of the digital object shares some auratic quality that reproductions cannot match? What are the limits of this thinking for lab-based work?

1. Indistinguishable from Magic (Ubicomp/Digital Lit.)

  • Ubicomp shares a capitalist drive toward effacement: efface the interface “and so also efface our ability to read, let alone write, the interface, definitively turning us into consumers rather than producers of content” (2).
  • Chapter’s thrust: “Ultimately, this literary critique seeks to undermine what is now an ideology of invisible interface design by disrupting from within the strictures of widely used interaction systems such as the webpage, broadly speaking, or, more specifically the hyperlink. Now, digital interfaces are artful only to the extent that they don’t work, which is now the only extent to which we can experience them at all” (4).
  • Insurgent interface subculture (opposition having been effectively neutered); interesting political stance to think alongside Appadurai (4).
  • The iPad as the continuation of a drive toward utter transparency as an aesthetic and ethos: “Apple continues not only to co-opt the terms invisibility and user-friendly but also—as I briefly point out in relation to the iPad’s ‘literary’ and ‘artistic’ capabilities— to redefine the very notion of creativity, as if it has all along been undeterred in principle from its mid-1990s ad campaign to ‘think different’” (18).
  • Chapter closes w/ thoughts on glitch as intentional irruptive design (30); this seems to me the endpoint of fruitfully talking about glitch and glitch aesthetics in digital studies. Not that it’s not important to talk about, but after Emerson I feel like there’s just not much more to say. (That being said, I have questions about the classification of glitch as “intentional,” and something like Agrippa operating w/i a continuum of glitch.)

2. Open to User-Friendly

  • “The second cut into the ground of our technological past in this study of reading/writing interfaces is into the era of the GUI-based personal computer that was preceded by Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay, and Seymour Papert’s experiments with computing and interface design from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s”; “I look more specifically into the idea that the interface is equal parts user and machine, so that the extent to which the interface is designed to mask its underlying machine-based processes for the sake of the user is the extent to which these same users are disempowered, as they are unable to understand—let alone actively create—using the computer” (47). The operative question: how did the shift to GUI become an ideologically naturalized evolution?
  • This chapter is where a media archaeology method really starts to take shape (49–50).
  • “It is, then, not necessarily that the GUI per se is responsible for the creation of Chun’s ‘seemingly sovereign individual’ but rather that a particular philosophy of computing and design underlying a model of the GUI has become the standard for nearly all interface design” (52).
  • Object-oriented programming as a “fundamental break from the philosophy of the closed, elitist, decidedly undemocratic ‘software priesthood’” (57). (I wonder how this book would be different in light of Hicks’ research on women in early computing.)
  • I’m most interested in this chapter’s discussion of early personal computing design mostly as a corrective to the breathless tech writing of today—interestingly, I think we’re starting to cross a threshold where the hagiographies of the 2000’s and very early 2010’s are giving way to more critical and cynical stances—in some small way, I would hope, motivated by the work of folks like Emerson.
  • Macintosh customization on the level of software rather than the Apple IIe’s hardware: “At this point, customization was no longer in the service of building, creating, or learning. It was, instead, for using the computer as one would any home appliance, and ideally this customization would be possible only through software that the user dropped into the computer via disk, just as one would a piece of bread into a toaster” (80).

3. Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

  • This chapter is important for foreshadowing work that Young will do to blend media archaeology and the Toronto School: Emerson reads McLuhan alongside Zielinski as forerunners of media archaeology. As such, I think this is Emerson’s most important work so far.
  • “The third archaeological cut I make into reading/writing interfaces is the era from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s in which poets, working heavily under the influence of Marshall McLuhan, sought to create (especially, so-called dirty) concrete poetry as a way to experiment with the limits and the possibilities of the typewriter” (87). We’re going backwards in time.
  • “At the heart of media archaeology is an ongoing struggle to keep itself from ossifying into a set of inflexible methodologies, as well as the attempt to keep alive what Zielinski calls ‘variantology’—the discovery of ‘individual variations’ in the use or abuse of media, especially those variations that defy the ever-increasing trend toward ‘standardization and uniformity among the competing electronic and digital technologies.’ Pulled between a desire to renovate media studies and the necessity to keep such a renovation consistently flexible and even indefinable, much media archaeology–aligned writing is marked by the sort of unexpected reversals reflected in the quote by Zielinski” (88).
  • “That said, in order not to use media archaeology as a productive framework but to actually do media archaeology by uncovering media-related phenomena such as the typewriter and dirty concrete poetry produced in the 1960s and 1970s, rather than drawing on a more recent figure such as Zielinski or the earlier and equally influential Friedrich Kittler, we instead ought to draw on Marshall McLuhan as a media archaeologist avant la lettre who is also finely attuned to the literary. Further, we ought to use Zielinski’s invocations to ‘find something new in the old’ by focusing our efforts on McLuhan’s writing to reinvigorate studies of him that have, for far too long, focused almost exclusively on only three catchphrases enshrined in Understanding Media . . .” (89).
  • Emerson’s intervention here is to see how McLuhan’s more understudied literary/media theory was deeply intertwined with a mid-60’s school of Toronto concrete poets interested in typewriters (I’m sure Darren is all over this chapter).
  • Typewriters as a return to the “secondary orality” of the electronic age (91); McLuhan’s interest in the typewriter is a “pairing of the literary with a study of media [otherwise] absent from nearly all writing that explicitly calls itself media archaeology, a pairing that is McLuhan’s critical innovation” (91). This is going to be vital for me to engage in my work if I’m going to take any interest in the literary.
  • Media archaeology as an activist project (which we can see later in Parikka’s work on circuit bending).
  • “This quote not only reads much like a do-it-yourself guide to writing typestracts but also—with individual letters rather than words as ‘units’ and the page as a ‘surface’—aligns the DIY philosophy with a poetics that seeks to spur readers/writers to move away from a poetry that is a delivery mechanism for semantic meaning and toward a poetry whose meaning is more about a process of making that takes place outside a cycle of consuming (through traditional reading practices) the already created. Loosely speaking, it is an open-source poetics that lays bare its mechanisms of creation” (94–95).
  • “Again, once we bring a media studies approach to bear on concrete poetry, we are immediately confronted with the fact that such an approach—in this case vis-à-vis the work of McLuhan—reveals that concrete poetry, no doubt along with the whole lineage of visual writing, is obviously media poetry. Further, we find that concrete poetry is not a homogenous field of writing but rather one that encompasses an extraordinary range of poems whose meaning is entirely tied to an equally extraordinary range of writing media used to create visual effects” (98). Yes!
  • It would be interesting to think about “dirty concrete” poetry through an actual aesthetics of literal concrete (urban environments) and dirt (carbon ripped from the ground and smeared on the page). It would also be interesting to think about 3D printing practices as operating w/i a similar continuum of writing-as-resource-extraction or writing-with-unfamiliar-or-toxic-materials.
  • “These are poems of and about writing media—poems that are not interested in their own illegibility per se so much as they are invested in reading, vis-à-vis writing, the typewriter through the copier machine” (111); We could also say that these are poems about machine autonomy, machine authorship, or machine vision.
  • “The culmination of McCaffery’s work with and against both mask and typewriter in the first panel of Carnival is a typestract that very nearly explodes visual and semantic representationality. I write ‘nearly’ because, in addition to the masking, it encompasses a broad range of concrete poetry forms and techniques, including the concrete poem, whose form literalizes its content (take, for example, the section that repeats across the page “eyeleveleyelevel” at eye level) and so actually merges visual with semantic representationality instead of rejecting representationality altogether” (119); Compare this passage w/ Galloway’s chapter on unrepresentability.
  • “Finally, to turn to the ways in which the media archaeology approach underlying this chapter involves reading ‘old’ media against ‘new’ media—to disabuse us of this belief in the progression from new to old as much as to make visible the invisible aspects of contemporary media structures—what is also significant about McCaffery’s project is that the typewritten text, the stamps, the various traces of writerly labor and the physical world (in the form of smudges or the slight bleed of ink) turn it into a work in which the surface is the depth and the making of the work is the meaning” (121–22).
  • “What ties Processing to dirty concrete poems such as Carnival, as well as typewriter concrete poems by Nichol and Houédard, is a movement not only to democratize the creative process but also to combine this democratization with artworks that embody a self-reflexive sensibility that makes this democratization possible through techniques that draw attention to the art object as a created object—again, techniques that essentially turn the inside of the art object out through a philosophy of making” (125).

4. Fascicles

  • “Throughout this book I try to produce a friction from reading new media interfaces with, into, and against old media interfaces—a friction that not only troubles the distinction between new and old but also follows in the steps of instances of (activist) media poetics throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that similarly work against the grain of writing interfaces. Thi chapter positions Emily Dickinson not only as a poet working equally with and against the limits and the possibilities of pen/pencil/paper as interface but also as one through which we can productively read twenty-first-century digital literary texts. My argument is that Emily Dickinson’s nineteenth-century fascicles—as much as mid-twentieth-century typewriters and late twentieth-and twenty-first-century digital computers—are now slowly but surely revealing themselves not just as media but as media whose functioning depends on an interface that defines the nature of reading as much as writing” (129–30).
  • “By revisiting older media, we can make our current media visible once again. Put slightly differently, my hope is that a media archaeological–inflected reading of the fascicle alongside and against the digital—one that firmly pushes against any inclination to say the fascicle is, for example, an early form of analog hypertext that anticipates digital hypertext—can refamiliarize the reading/writing interfaces we use every day so that we can look, once again, at our interfaces rather than through them” (130).
  • “While this chapter clearly is historically inflected, using media archaeology as an underlying methodology offers a way out of the pitfalls of the term history and its orientation toward origins, along with its ideological weightedness toward linearity and uncovering, as opposed to the Foucaultian practice of history underpinning media archaeology that involves asynchronous cuts into the sedimentary layers of technological change” (131). I have difficulty reading the “as opposed to” here. Given the later sentence: “Instead, in the spirit of Michel Foucault’s notion of the archive as a ‘system of statements (whether events or things)’—with an emphasis on ‘system’ instead of the usual stress on ‘statements’—media history can be conceived as a shifting practice of uncovering the ways in which media themselves, in a very physical, concrete sense, engender and delimit what can be said, what can be thought” (132).
  • “This back-and-forth between the book and the digital means that a media archaeology approach is not just an approach one could take to understand digital literary texts but if one approaches these works with any degree of historicity, an approach one should take. In fact, I argue that if we are to fully and accurately acknowledge the state of digital literature at the present moment, we will never successfully locate ourselves if we do not infuse our investigations into the contemporary with a sense of historical groundedness that at the same time is free from the teleologies I have discussed” (135).

Postscript. The Googlization of Literature

  • “The ‘Googlization of literature’ describes a collection of unique contributions to contemporary poetry, poetics, and even media studies: works of readingwriting that explore a twenty-first-century media poetics that questions how search engines answer our questions (whether we ask them or not), how they read our writing, and even how they write for us” (166). Machine autonomy continues this line of inquiry.
  • Compare work on surfacing algorithms with the more sociological work in Noble.

Archive and Impact

  • Compare Emerson’s interest in design with Kraus and Rosner; her grounding in textual studies with Kirschenbaum and Gitelman;
  • Emerson’s practice is also intimately bound up with the MAL; we should read this book as part of lab-focused research, and ask to what extent lab-focused research and design can inform my own research process. “The MAL is, then, a kind of thinking device that enables us to tinker and to track writing-as-tinkering in early works of digital literature; providing access to the utterly unique material specificity of these computers, their interfaces, their platforms, and their software also makes it possible to defamiliarize or make visible for critique contemporary invisible interfaces and platforms” (xvi).
  • Zielinski and Kittler are the major MA interlocutors rather then Ernst, which makes sense given that Ernst hadn’t really been translated yet. An important consideration of limiting factors for my own work!
  • This book works in an overtly descriptive mode: studies of individual products and projects; the analysis has to work at a slightly more macro level, similar to how Hayles writes.
  • Emerson is trained in a literary tradition; as such, this monograph reads quite differently from some of the more philosophical or media studies works I’ve been reading so far. One of her more valuable methodological interventions is the suggestion that not only can we read history nonlinearly, we can also do criticism nonlinearly; the book keeps bending back on itself (ending w/ Dickinson).
  • Compare Emerson’s use of “friction” to Anna Tsing’s.