Review of Comparative Textual Media edited by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, 2013; Minnesota UP
Andrew Pilsch, Texas A&M University
(Published: February 2, 2016)
In evaluating the new collection of essays edited by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, Comparative Textual Media, I find my thoughts wandering over the old fissure between rhetoric and literary studies in English departments. In “Writing the History of Our Discipline,” Robert Connors diagnoses this disciplinary bad blood by suggesting that “English departments have always been two-tier departments, with the teaching and theorizing about literature given more status and better conditions than the teaching of composition” (Connors 204). In the literature classroom of this model, exemplary texts are considered for theoretical or humanistic upshots; a process often situated as more important than teaching the craft and methods of composition. This model of the literature classroom is changing, through the work of teacher-scholars, such as Roger Whitson, Mark Sample, and Kari Kraus, whose innovative pedagogy reinvigorates the literature classroom using methods sourced from the digital humanities. This work incorporates digital analysis but also critical making and concrete examples from the history of the book and mirrors work being done along similar lines in rhetoric to incorporate the making of things into classes teaching critical thinking and textual analysis.
This focus on making-pedagogy in the textual studies classroom is obviously familiar to and practiced by many rhetoricians thanks to the broad-based understanding of composition with which we animate our classrooms and structure our research questions; however, such commitment to concrete-centered pedagogy is, I would suggest, weird to those who engage in “teaching and theorizing about literature” in Connors’s bifurcated model of the English Department. Into this weirdness charges Comparative Textual Media (CTM), a collection of 12 essays by a motley crew of distinguished scholars introduced by Pressman and Hayles in which this material turn in literary studies is theorized as a means of saving the humanities. In a lot of ways, this collection partakes of the weirdness it seeks to document, and is, by virtue of this, a bit of a strange collection, with essays discussing ancient Greek literacy practices alongside discussions of the “most complex video game ever made,” Dwarf Fortress (Hayles and Pressman 131). In the end, the collection’s discipline-spanning aims and far-reaching ambitions make for a fractured reading experience, despite a uniformly high quality of the essays.
The weirdness of CTM emerges from an attempt to solve a seemingly simple question recently emerging in the digital humanities and suggested by the turn to making things in the literary and rhetoric classroom: what do critical making, the new material turn1 and the digital humanities have to do with one another? Why is our pedagogy turning from contemplating the page to the 3D printer at the same time a philosophy of the object reasserts itself? When it comes to making models in a CAD/CAM system or mapping a literary text, the relationship seems clear, but, as is frequently invoked in Pressman and Hayles's introduction, is this same relationship between a theory of the thing, textual studies, and the digital as clear when the critical making involves lithography or movable type printing? In other words, Hayles and Pressman ask what it is about thinking the digital humanities that makes want to make things.
Hayles and Pressman respond to this question by suggesting a newly emergent methodology that can save “many humanities departments … now facing internal splits that divide along print-digital lines” (Hayles and Pressman, pg. xiii). Rather than business as usual in literature departments, they propose, instead, a new methodology, also called “comparative textual media” (“ctm”). In a “ctm” framework, texts become examples of textual technologies, both print and digital. These technologies of the word have always existed as media frameworks and that “rather than assuming that these print-based practices are transhistorical and universal, … the CTM approach emphasizes their historical and technological specificity” (Hayles and Pressman, pg. xiii). Acknowledging that the history of even the codex has always been weirder than most literary scholars wish to admit, they wish us to pursue “media as objects of study and as methods of study, focusing on the specificities of the technologies as well as the cultural ecologies they support, enable, and illuminate”, if traditional, print-bound humanities fields are to survive the emergence of digital textuality (Hayles and Pressman, pg. x). Thus, CTM collects a series of essays in which texts, as commonly constructed in literary studies, are seen in dialogue with their textual form, whether that is the codex or the side of a building displaying projected SMS messages.
The scope of this paradigm shift is, I suspect, the core issue with this collection. By emphatically marking that this framework is broadly useful (an assertion I wholeheartedly agree with), the essays often fail to cohere, such that, I suspect, any given scholar may enjoy a different assortment of essays. For instance, Jessica Brantley’s essay “Medieval Remediation” and Thomas Fulton’s “Gilded Monuments”—while practicing “ctm” in a fashion that, as Pressman and Hayles figure it, “emphasizes the material properties of a medium, the means by which the work produces itself”—are also engaged in very focused arguments within their respective historical fields (medieval and early modern British literature) (Hayles and Pressman 200). As a scholar aware of the currents in the digital humanities, from which many of these essays are sourced, I found much to be interested in, but if I were a Shakespearean, eagerly reading Fulton’s essay on paper composition and the codex-as-tomb, would I find Matthew Kirschenbaum’s take on archiving digital materials at MITH in “The .txtual condition” 2 or Stephanie Boluk’s and Patrick LeMieux’s “Dwarven Epitpahs” as interesting as I do?
That said, there are some very strong essays here that will appeal widely in rhetoric and composition. Adrian de Souza e Silva’s work on “Mobile Narratives” and the usage of cellphone trajectories as narratives speaks to work being done on mobile rhetoric and life writing. Additionally, William A. Johnson’s exemplary essay, “Bookrolls as Media,” recovers the literate practices and the world of textual interpretation encoded in the papyrus scrolls favored for long works by Greek and Roman intellectuals in antiquity. Given the number of other essays in CTM3 that favorably cite Johnson’s as a great example of the kind of scholarship a “ctm” framework enables, it’s safe to conclude it is the best essay of the collection.
In contrast, there are also essays that feel incomplete, like sketches for other projects, especially Lisa Gitelman’s essay which synopsizes the research questions at the core of her recently published Paper Knowledge. This sketchiness mirrors a central hesitancy in CTM: despite all the passionate prose and many strong examples, “ctm” still feels incompletely realized. Relatedly, I am not sure what is gained by labeling the weird and wonderful things happening in the humanities right now “comparative textual media.” The basic idea of treating textual artifacts as concrete objects that themselves can be studied is an important insight. However, I am not sure that such an approach mandates a wholesale remaking of humanities departments and I am not sure that a term as opaque as “comparative textual media” is the way to label it.
Further complicating this hopeful narrative of disciplinary salvation, Hayles’s and Pressman’s idea of a treating textual studies as an exercise in textual media archaeology strikes me as one rhetoric and composition would readily absorb or maybe even invented in the first place, given that it is distinctly similar to ecological and posthuman practices of composition. However, as Robert Connors diagnosed back in the 1990s, there is often a class system at work in divisions between rhetoric and literature, and there is little attention given to the decades of work on allied methodological approaches in rhetoric. So, in thinking about CTM and “ctm”, should we be happy that they’ve figured out what we do, even if they don’t recognize it as ours?
Connors, Robert J. “Writing the History of Our Discipline.” An Introduction to Composition Studies. Ed. Erika Lindemann & Gary Tate. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. 49–71. Print.
Hayles, N. Katherine, and Jessica Pressman, eds. Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2013. Print.
- 1. S. Scott Graham’s term for the mish-mash of object-oriented ontology, feminist new materialism, and Bruno Latour that marks the current theoretical vogue in rhetorical studies.
- 2. A slightly different version of which is published in DHQ.
- 3. It appears that Hayles and Pressman circulated manuscript drafts to all contributors, as a number of essays in this collection cite other works in CTM. This seemingly unusual move really helps establish cohesion within the collection.