Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms

Although Johanna Drucker, in a review of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms, calls the work “improbably readable,” this book is not an easy read.  The reviews of this book, although less dense are still not easy to read.  I have found myself continually getting stuck in the introduction trying to make my way through his explanation of the book’s message and trajectory.   Although I may disagree slighty with Drucker on that point, I agree with her assessment (if I understand what’s really going on here) that Kirschenbaum’s work is “compellingly suggestive and significant in its overall argument.”

This is how I feel…


And this is what I think is happening …

In Mechanisms, Kirschenbaum hopes to present “a set of alternative access points for the study of computing, access points that bring storage, inscription, and engineering into the visible purview of what we think of as new media” (p. 35).  By examining the textuality and materiality of electronic records, the “thingness” that makes a collection of pieces – hardware, code, programs, bits, etc. – into a whole digital object that we can experience, he seeks to demonstrate that these forms of new media are more than what we can see at a superficial level.  To truly understand digital objects, Kirschenbaum asserts that we much look beyond our tendency toward “screen essentialism” and examine what is happening on the other side of the screen.

Kirschenbaum breaks the concept of materiality into two areas, forensic and formal materiality.  For these definitions, I like (i.e. I can understand) the explanation given by Viola Lasmana in her review of Mechanisms.  According to Lasmana, “formal materiality involves the use of software to make up the simulated materiality that we see on the screen.  Forensic materiality, on the other hand, is the inscriptive, the trace, the ‘difference’ that is based in individuality.”  In chapter 3 Kirschenbaum links the concepts of formal and forensic materiality to allographic and autographic objects respectively.  According to Kirschenbaum’s explanation, “allographic objects, such as written texts, fulfill their ontology in reproduction, while autographic objects, such as a painting, betray their ontology in reproduction” (p. 133).

This is how I understand these concepts and categories.  With respect to texts, or much of what we would consider secondary sources, the carrier of information contributes little to most peoples’ understanding of the object.   Public library users, for instance, frequently care little if they are looking for the latest John Grisham, whether the book is hard or soft cover, or even large print.  The content of the work remains constant regardless of format.  In electronic media, and other objects with artifactual value, the carrier or the format has much greater importance.  A copy of a daguerreotype will relate the information contained within the photo (a boy with his dog, material culture, the built environment) but the original photograph has added artifactual value simply because it is a daguerreotype.  According to Kirschenbaum, to truly understand and therefore preserve a digital artifact you need to understand how it was created, how it is being stored and how it is presented.  You need to consider the digital artifact beyond what is seen.


2 Replies to “Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms”

  1. Thanks for powering through Marian! Matt’s book is a real challenge. You get the benefit of both detailed technical information/language and nuanced work in textual scholarship. So it’s a challenging book, but I think you’ve done a great job at surfacing the key topics, tensions and issues. The relationship between formal and forensic materiality, alographic and autographic, and the notion of screen essentialism.

    Looking forward to talking about these things together in class tomorrow!

    Also, solid use of a Conspiracy Keanu.

  2. I feel your Keanu, Marian. This week’s readings left me very aware of my own screen essentialism much of the time, and overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of all the mechanics behind digital objects. It’s difficult as a very humanities focused person to get behind the screen to appreciate and understand the mathematics and computer science that forms all of the cool stuff we create and interact with on the front end, but whenever I do, I’m usually pretty glad that I understand it a little more. That being said, all of this is harder than learning Chinese (which is hard), so I was glad I read this blog post that Trevor linked to in his file glitching post for LOC. It explains the code behind the computer game SimCity, which by now could definitely be considered a digital artifact, and how the algorithms used form a very specific logic within the game. This clearly explained example really helped me understand a little of what Kirschenbaum is getting at (I think?) by acknowledging the importance of knowing why digital objects are the way they are.

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