In "Flickering Connectivities in Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis," N. Katherine Hayles asserts that "five hundred years of print have made the conventions of the book transparent to us," and that "literary criticism and theory are shot through with unrecognized assumptions specific to print." What are some of those unrecognized assumptions, and is Hayles' proposed remedy of media specific analysis a good remedy for them? Is there any potential loss in shifting from traditional methods of literary analysis to media specific analysis?
It has not been a very long time since questions about media specificity and analysis were not raised or even considered. For hundreds of years there existed the thing called a book, and that is all there was. If one wanted to read a spy novel, find out about nuclear physics, or make a different kind of apple pie, one turned to a book. The modern computer and the Internet introduced various other methods of storing and retrieving information, which in turn spawned new ways of telling stories and listing data. One reads a story on a website, clicking links to get to different chapters or sections. One pops a CD-ROM into the drive to look up an ache or a pain, and find out if the condition is potentially fatal.
So the issue at hand is discovering “unrecognized assumptions” about physical texts – which itself is a bit of a “dirty word” according to Hayles. The first is simple: books have a specific form, the codex, with cover, binding, pages that are read left to right (though in other languages books may be read right to left – a negligible difference). In book reviews, critics rarely- if ever – remark about the fabric in which a book is bound, the typeface, font size, paper type and color. All of this is immaterial to the success or failure of what is written in the thing itself. It is interesting to consider such things as immaterial, as probably the only material part of the book is the physicality of it, what I just mentioned. How can that be immaterial? Nevertheless, immaterial it is; will it forever remain as such? It might be interesting to note, in the next few decades, if more attention is paid to the outer workings and container (for lack of a better work) that a book is, since Hypertext brought further into mainstream the criticism of an entire work, from its physical form to the electrons that form words on a computer screen.
Another is that books must be linear. This reference is not to “text books”, but almost any book that tells a story: fiction; biography; history. Aristotelian storytelling is beginning, middle, and end. Post-Modernism has been sinking nails in that assumed coffin for decades now. However, generally the book-buying public expects a nicely told story with set-up and character introduction, plot and narrative, and climax and denouement.
In all honestly, I do not know what to make of Hayles’ theory of media-specific analysis. It smacks of much ado about nothing. That is my personal feelings injecting themselves in what is supposed to be dispassionate schoolwork. I suppose someone has to be critical of Hypertext and its new medium, but as I have stated before it really robs the enjoyment out of reading, be it a codex or a Hypertext. That loss is felt and will continue to be felt as books, and Hypertexts, are written, analyzed, and overanalyzed.
I am not sure that a media-specific way to analyze books would be useful or necessary at this point in our literary history. Unless there were some sweeping renovation to the way that books are manufactured and assembled, to their style and look and features, the invisibility factor will not just reappear. The material will continue to be immaterial, and everyone will continue to ignore that a book is red or blue, or bound with cloth or paper, or has a big or small font, or white or beige pages. Eventually the same thing would doubtless occur for Hypertexts as well, if their forms did not continue to change and mutate in the future. That is problematic, however, because as advances in technology occur exponentially, so do the possibilities of newer, sexier, more diverse Hypertexts. That means we will need newer, sexier and more diverse ways to analyzing them. Hayles’ eight-step program (what happened to the other four?) is fine for today, but what about tomorrow? Holographic projectors may come standard with computer hookups one day, projecting three-dimensional images of Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl onto our desks. We will need media-specific analysis for that as well.