In his book, Mechanisms, Kirschenbaum writes about the materiality of electronic texts. One of the primary questions he works to answer is, “In what, I then asked, does the materiality of electronic texts consist?” Part of how he answers this question is the distinction he makes between forensic materiality and formal materiality. He describes forensic materiality as “rest[ing] upon the principle of individualization (basic to modern forensic science and criminalistics), the idea that no two things in the physical world are ever exactly alike.” (10) “Formal materiality thus follows as the name I give to the imposition of multiple relational computational states on a data set or digital object” (12). He builds on these ideas throughout the first three chapters of the book.
In chapter one, ‘‘Every Contact Leaves a Trace’’: Storage, Inscription, and Computer Forensics, he delves deeper into explaining the physicality of electronic texts. Kirschenbaum starts the chapter by describing DoD guidelines for handling digital media to highlight their materiality. He positions this in contrast to academics’ focus on the “ephemeral” aspects of electronic texts. This is at the core of the chapter – pushing back on “Screen Essentialism,” or “the prevailing bias in new media studies toward display technologies that would have been unknown to most computer users before the mid-1970s…” (31) Throughout, he comes back to his central focus on physical reality of what seems only virtually represented. He makes his argument across many fronts. He discusses computer forensics, MFM (which helps us understand what he calls the “bit-level individualization” (68). To illustrate how developments in storage capacity and mechanisms have contributed to greater sense of abstraction, he tells a story about how he modified floppy disks so he could save more images of koalas.
Kirschenbaum spends the next chapter outlining the significance of the hard drive to explain what makes it a writing machine. He argues that the hard drive is often perceived as a black box because it is not visible, which is also evident in the language used to describe how we interact with hard drives. He says, ‘[t]he commonplace is to speak about writing a file to a disk.. because we cannot see anything on its surface, the disk is semantically reﬁgured as a volumetric receptacle, a black box with a closed lid. If we were writing on the disk we would be able to see the text visibly, like a label” (87). He ends his discussion of hard drives with a story about the first time he remembers saving something to a computer for the first time, which, he argues, made it a more “individualized entity” (109). He says this shift to saving items to a device revolutionized how we interact with electronic texts.
He then turns his attention to the question, “Can theory or criticism of born-digital objects beneﬁt from attention to the minute particulars of archival data, and if so, in what do those details consist?” To answer this, he explores a disk image of the online game Mystery House, to do a forensic analysis. This is where Kirschenbaum gets even more technical. He started his walk through of the program using the program FishWings to look at the Apple II disk image and is able to show every byte on the disk. He goes into much greater detail, ultimately to show that “computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a premeditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality” (135).
What did I miss? What other insights does Kirschenbaum’s focus on the materiality of electronic texts provide? I found this text challenging – forcing me to consider the electronic devices and tools I use on a daily basis in new ways. Given the ongoing pandemic, I have had a difficult time focusing on work and coursework. Wishing everyone safety and health – please don’t hesitate to be in touch if you wan to chat.