• There are two programs here: ontological and activist. The ontological program concerns the passage from the page to the computer and what happens to the nature of text therein. Tenen argues that texts undergird all computational function and vice versa computation now inflects text at every level; we need a method that combines literary theory’s close reading with computational analysis in order to make sense of the passage of text into computational laminates. The activist program opposes technological determinism and new materialisms, arguing for a renewed sense of the ethical work of reading and writing as methods for countering political impossibility.


  • “laminate textuality”:
  • “computational poetics”: “a strategy of interpretation capable of reaching past surface content to reveal platforms and infrastructures that stage the construction of meaning. Where ‘distant reading’ and cultural analytics perceive patterns across large-scale corpora, computational poetics breaks textuality down into its minute constituent components. It is a strategy of microanalysis rather than macroanalysis” (6). So the implicit argument of computational poetics is that we best trace the macro by attention to the micro.


0. Introduction

  • “Plain Text concerns the nature of digital inscription, the material trace that gives rise to textual phenomena and, more broadly, to all cultural artifacts in which computers mediate. We—readers, writers, interpreters—find ourselves today in an unprecedented, since the Middle Ages, position of selective asemiosis: the loss of signification. Many contemporary texts, such as poems inscribed into bacteria and encrypted software, exist simply beyond the reach of human senses” (2). The latter point is vital for connecting digital studies and ecological questions on the level of affect.
  • “Combining these two traditions, I mean to build a case for a kind of a systematic minimalism when it comes to our use of computers, a minimalism that privileges access to source materials, ensuring legibility and comprehension. I do so in contrast to other available modes of human–computer interaction, which instead maximize system-centric ideals such as efficiency, speed, performance, or security” (3); an interesting contrast b/t the scale of the human and the scale of machine that I don’t know if I agree is the best course of action. That being said, I deeply prefer this political critique to Jagoda’s tepid nothingness.
  • “Much contemporary anxiety about the intrusion of computational culture into the everyday can be traced to such fundamental reshaping of the sign” (6); the problem of proliferation becomes one of semiosis.
  • Another argument: the degradation of the public sphere emerges from “our failure as readers and writers to come to terms with the changing material conditions of digital text” (6). This is a tricky argument b/c it both focuses on texts over all else and puts the burden on…who, exactly?
  • One point that is useful for substantiating my work, perhaps: Tenen forcefully argues that text is at the root of computation; he also takes up Matt’s current point that there is no text now without computation: “The future of reading and writing is inexorably intertwined with the development of computer science and software engineering” (7).
  • Tenen demands humanism. The literary is expressive for him in a way that the digital doesn’t seem: technology in its current direction produces “illiteracy” (11). This rebukes trends in rhet/comp that would otherwise celebrate new communicative affordances.
  • A rebuke of the new materialisms: “When we mistake things for animate actors, we further diminish our capacity for critical analysis or collective action. Objects that surround us log our reading habits, social interactions, and intimate conversations. Agents that benefit from trade in such personal data are neither cyborgs nor posthuman assemblages. The bargain that trades critical understanding for comfort benefits specific individual interests. To address objects as though they could respond in kind shifts our attention from seats of power to things powerless, inarticulate, and indifferent to our protestations. One can no more extract justice from a smart desk than hold a bureaucracy accountable. Notions of justice and accountability presuppose a robust model of agency, which is absent in the assemblage” (11).
  • “In Plain Text I thus model the reciprocal movement to ‘making strange’ on the diverse practices of reverse engineering. Similar in method to what Matthew Kirschenbaum called forensic argumentation, reverse engineering recalls the formalist strategy of structural decomposition” (12). Reverse engineering features prominent in media archaeological methods.
  • This book is against Kittler in the sense that it is against technological determinism, but depends on some curious rhetorical moves. First, Tenen implies that Kittler himself was against determinism, and that GFT is a willful dystopia and call to action. I’m not sure if I buy this reading. And second, it implies that determinism exists as a force at all.

1. Metaphor Machines

  • Code as “phatic utterance,” the functions of language that structure its transmission within media rather than contribute to meaning as such (24). “Programming at its essence is a phatic activity. Code shapes and commands. At the same time, it conjures fantastical metaphors to occlude the structure of shaping and commanding” (25).
  • Metaphor allows us access to “remote physicalities”: “What can be said about practices of reading and interpretation grounded in such remote physicalities? For now, only that they continue to unfold figuratively, removed from the material conditions of knowledge production” (25).

2. Modernist Roots

  • “My task in this chapter is to illuminate the blueprint of computation implicit in all electronic reading and writing devices and thereby make them strange again. In a reciprocal movement, I also aim to place modern computers within the long history of the book, to view them as technique for literary and not just mathematical symbolism” (57–58).
  • This chapter is heavy on discussions of “technique,” although its lineage is in literary theoretical modernism rather than the Kulturtechniken of Siegert.
  • The heart of this chapter is an attempt to read Russian Formalism, Turing, and Wittgenstein together as foundational to both literary theory and computing, and then together humanities computing (68).
  • Even after (exhausting) analysis we still come to unknowability: “The exact plane where the symbolic meets the material is difficult to identify. At some imperceptible point software disappears into hardware” (88).
  • “What does the material history of computers mean for the history of the book? In viewing the book as a precursor to a generalized machine for symbolic manipulation, we discover that it belongs to a class of controlling devices” (89).

3. Form, Formula, Format

  • We can add this chapter to increasing interest in format (see Sterne, Matt’s recent work, also Montfort and Bogost) as suture across various terrains of digital studies.
  • “Deep neural networks mimic the brain to build models of human behavior. These models are notoriously difficult to interpret because they are not intended for human comprehension. A vast archive of texts written by and for machines support the tiny, in comparison, corpus of human-compatible literature” (93).
  • “Formats such as the book or the broadsheet newspaper are known entities. We understand how they are made and how to unfold them in space. By contrast, computational formats change rapidly and proliferate. They contain further, as yet unexplored structural possibilities: shapes similar to the paragraph on paper but native to new media” (95).
  • “I augment these two concepts of form with a third ‘format.’ In the process I show how formats developed historically from simple machine instructions for typographical layout into complex metaliterary directives related to the protection of intellectual property rights, constraints on speech, trade agreements, the politics of surveillance, and clandestine communication. In the second half of the chapter, an intellectual history of form, drawn from the annals of literary theory, meets the material history of format, drawn from computer science. I end the chapter with a discussion of smart documents, increasingly common instruments of record capable of policing their own encoded mechanisms of reader engagement: what can be read, how, and where” (97).
  • “Format thus belongs neither wholly to a text’s physical medium (pixel or paper) nor to a work’s ideational content. It lies somewhere between the two worlds: in a letter’s shape, a novel’s narrative structure, and spoken patterns of stress and intonation. Some formatting features matter to readers (e.g., line breaks in poetry), whereas others usually do not (e.g., font kerning)” (111).
  • Format reading as depth hermeneutics: “Reading for format involves the delamination of media composites. It concerns the grammar of transformation between disparate conduits of information. Formats govern and control in the sense of shaping the encounter between otherwise incommensurate physicalities, the hardware and the wetware—storage, screen, and brain” (115).
  • Tenen’s greatest enemy is the concept of copyright law.

4. Recondite Surfaces

  • This is the chapter that introduces “laminate textuality” and is, I think, the most relevant in the book for my purposes.
  • “Conversely, when such scholars as Johanna Drucker, Katherine Hayles, or Matthew Kirschenbaum respond to Heim and company with hardened materialism, they are also rightly locating properties of digital inscription at the site of its archival immanence. The two schools of thought disagree because they speak neither of the same phenomenon nor at the same site” (132).
  • “The material substrates of computational text likewise carry real-world consequences. First and foremost, they are hidden from view. Drives and tapes reside inside boxes made of plastic and aluminum. If only because they carry electric current and are thus flammable, they are regulated. They contain heavy and rare metals and are often hazardous to touch or ingest. They become toxic when discarded. Flash memory cards, USB sticks, solid-state storage devices, and magnetic disk drives contain circuitry to prevent unauthorized access and to resist tempering [sic]. Inside, text intertwines with machine internals, sealed hermetically and hermeneutically in a way that resists human interpretation. The laminate is not fully compatible with humans: machine literature, a hazard” (133).
  • Three stages of the arc from paper to pixel: 1) telecommunications divides human-readable text and machine-readable code, and this gap grows wider every day; 2) magnetic tape makes inscription inscrutable; 3) CRT displays and screen technology reintroduce the sign to magnetic storage media (133–34).
  • We finally get to a definition of textual laminates on pp. 145 in a discussion of magnetic tape: tape inaugurates the immaterial or ghostly imaginary in the movement from highly physical punch cards to re-inscribable tape—though illegible until we got displays…okay we really didn’t get a good definition there either!

5. Literature Down to a Pixel

  • Refresh rates give us signs in motion (165); okay so this chapter is kind of like the last chapter in Edwards: a turn to cultural analysis again.
  • “I am also concerned here with a phenomenological description of human perception. My goal is to disrupt the naturalized congruity between organ and device. The quality of something being digital, I argue, might initially appear to be an intrinsic attribute of the medium. Under closer examination, it reveals itself as a political construct that lays claims on the body, structuring the physical affordances of communication” (166).
  • This chapter is a challenge to McLuhan: the medium (“the physical conduits of representation” (166)) isn’t the message: rather it’s modality of perception: the use-case.
  • Tenen locates “strangeness” in the shift in mode: “Therein lies the starkest difference between analog and digital media. The shift from one to the other affects not the message but the mode of perception. It is as though someone has asked you to read a book or watch a film in a stranger’s armchair. It feels off in a way that is difficult to explain. The mode of digital perception similarly contorts the body into new and unfamiliar shapes, which often give discomfort. Something happens when digital media subsume their analog counterparts. An electronic device uses other sensualities, modes of signification, and ways of listening and understanding” (167).

6. Conclusion

  • “A media archaeology of digital inscription recovers the stratified depths extant in all meaning-bearing literary devices” (198). Tenen seems to solve the problem of the politics in media archaeology by claiming the familiar critical theorist stance that acts of reading and writing constitute political activity in and of themselves. Am I satisfied with this?
  • “In its advanced form the simulation usurps the simulated. The avatar continues to mimic its object, even as the object passes from use” (198); here’s a space where Tenen’s work is of use to me: in framing the present condition of simulation and model as of of an advanced form of black boxing.
  • “As humanists struggle to theorize digital modes of being, I find a need to reexamine the category of the human. No other point of view can sustain analysis or critique. Posthuman humanities are an apparent contradiction. One can purport to speak for neither things nor assemblages” (201).

Archive and Impact

  • Tenen’s book is one of the more important Anglophone revisions of the media archaeological method in recent memory. But even so, this is not a book that is in explicit conversation with media archaeology (the term appears four times): it would perhaps be better to call this an intervention into media materialism, with an enormous emphasis on textuality. I take its foregrounding of textuality over numeracy (or at least more emphatically alongside it) as a useful corrective to the Kitterlian and Ernstian focus on calculation.
  • This is a book that blends literary theory with computational analysis. There’s a reason why his dominant framing device for thinking about computation is “metaphor” (something that Edwards was quite invested in as well).
  • Another way to frame this project is as interested in ontics: what is the digital text and where does it reside? Ontology is such a common question for all of these scholars: we seem, after a century of writing, to not really know what it is we’re examining, what the subject of our critique really is. One thing I know: I don’t know how well we’re served by more ontological investigations: perhaps our inability to settle on the thingness-of-the-thing is a sign that we need new questions?
  • One thing I do admire: this writing is cogent and artful but still highly schematic. It’s so easy to fillet but is still enjoyable to read.
  • Like Chun and Hu, Tenen is a former software engineer. The question of knowledges emerges again.
  • When I say this book relies on “literary theory,” I need to qualify this and say: very old-fashioned literary theory. Literally Russian Formalism.
  • Tenen’s method is both the application of critical theory and something he’s calling the “experimental turn”: doing theory within the lab-based model of knowledge production (interesting that this seems a diff. lineage than the media archaeologists). But it still boils down to a MA approach: “A literary scholar’s version of baking bread and smelting iron is to make literal the archaeology of media at the level of the mechanism. In Plain Text we will unearth and excavate textual machines. In practicing archaeology, I contend that cardinal literary-theoretical concepts, such as word, text, narrative, discourse, author, story, book, and archive, are thoroughly enmeshed in the underlying physical substratum of paper and pixel. It follows that any attempt to articulate the idea cannot attain its full expressive potential without a thick description of its base particulates” (18).
  • I’m entranced by this move that literary scholars of computation make all the time, and that I’m guilty of myself, where technical description stands in as self-evident analysis. Sentences like: “As we “turn” simulated pages, electric charges embedded into a solid-state medium cross the impenetrable oxide barrier, reaching their destination, the floating gate, through quantum tunneling” (25). This is an impressive sentence that is purely descriptive and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take other than a general sense of both understanding and unmooredness.
  • I need to start making a running list of gestural clichés of doing digital studies: technomimesis, Google Image searches presented as surveys of affect, technical description standing in for meaning…
  • “I am interested first and foremost in the challenge that digital media pose to humanity as a determined, a priori category” (171); so we start w/ telegraph spiritualists and the question of whether the world itself was digital or analog.
  • This begins to verge on some things that Drucker is thinking about in her most recent work on human-as-media: “If I imagine, for a moment, human bodies as a kind of a medium and persistent data structure—an arrangement of elements of a given time signature and shape—I could say that they outlast the sound wave but not paper, that they move at a pace slower than light, that they exhibit more spatial continuity than Morse code, that they are less ordered and less heterogeneous on a microscopic scale than copper or liquid crystal. The modalities of human media intersect with technology along multiple dimensions, in parts congruent to and in other parts divergent from books, computers, screens, and telegraphs” (179).
  • Then a section on motion smoothing, which “challenges the easy equivalence between digital and discrete properties of the medium” and implicates material properties in “higher-level functions of aesthetic judgment” (183).