A Grammar for the Material Text

“In literary studies there has long been a tendency to act as if the works we read have a reality independent of the physical texts in which we engage them.” –David Scott Kastan

© Céline Chuang
© Céline Chuang

What is the Material Text?

When I first began work on this project, I referred to digital texts as de-materialized. This is a common misconception: after all, it is easy to forget or ignore the material reality of digital texts when we speak of storing data in ‘the cloud.’ Yet as James Glanz remarks, this ‘cloud’ is really a sprawling server farm; a data centre packed with thousands of modular computers, spewing diesel emissions in the dry and distant hills of Quincy, Central Washington. Made of metal instead of paper, digital texts too are material texts. It is the materiality of digital texts that enables me to recover lost drafts of my thesis; it is the materiality of my thesis that allows me to demonstrate how digital texts signify differently from printed texts.

But setting the material impacts of Microsoft aside, it is important to clarify what I mean when I say materiality or the material text. To begin with, I consider materiality, with media theorist Katherine Hayles, to be an “emergent property”: one that depends on readers’ interactions with texts, and the interpretive strategies they develop (33). The ‘material text’ therefore emerges as a bi-product of those interpretive strategies: I annotate theory in pen, poetry in pencil, I don’t mark up novels and I never dog-ear pages. Similar possibilities exist for digital texts: you might annotate a Word document, highlight a PDF, or bookmark a website—depending on the interpretive strategies and reading behaviours you have (or have not) developed. Indeed, you might become distracted by social networking sites or another article and abandon my thesis altogether!

The Speaking Mind

Hayles’ and my definition of the material text, however, departs from the more traditional view: where the role of the editor is “the recovery of the intended work from its material circumstances,” with the resulting, edited text having “no necessary relation to the medium in which it is presented”—the medium being “at very best a neutral conveyor of the intended work and more likely a detrimental environment” (Kastan 119). From a traditional standpoint, then, an ‘ideal’ text of Shakespeare is one that transcends its materiality: regarded as “not having a body, only a speaking mind” (Hayles 32).

Yet digitization is a poignant reminder that digital texts are not the same as their digital surrogates. However transparent they may seem, digital texts reveal that “the specific forms and contexts in which we encounter literature, its modes and mechanisms of transmission, are intrinsic aspects of what it is, not considerations wholly external to it”; and that materiality is never accidental, but always “part of the poem’s structures of meaning” (Kastan 3).

At this point, it is useful to turn to Walter J. Ong‘s concept of intersubjective communication:

As Marshall McLuhan once put it, the medium is the massage: media actively alter our interpretations; words are not units of information to be passed, neutrally, through the medium of the book, but are transformed—during transmission—by the material structure of the codex. As such, “pages and books that transmit the same words do not transmit the same story,” because each “embodiment of a text communicates with readers in its own way” (Mak 68). McLuhan’s ‘massage’ is, in Hayles’ terms, a material metaphor: the massage / message binary demonstrates the ways in which materiality contributes to processes of signification, and “foregrounds the traffic between words and physical artifacts” (Hayles 22).

M. S. A.

movable type

It is this traffic between words and things that drives Hayles’ media-specific analysis, or MSA: a hermeneutics which moves “the language of text to a more precise vocabulary of screen and page, digital program and analogue interface, code and ink, mutable image and durable mark, computer and book” (31). The power of MSA

. . . comes from holding one term constant across media . . . and varying the media to explore how medium-specific possibilities and constraints shape texts. Understanding literature as the interplay between form, content, and medium, MSA insists that texts must always be embodied to exist in the world. The materiality of those EMBODIMENTS interacts dynamically with linguistic, rhetorical, and literary practices to create the effects we call literature. (Hayles 31)

If we believe McLuhan’s ‘massage,’ then every interpretation of language is simultaneously an interpretation of its material form: all texts being the result of a dynamic interplay between language and materiality. What McLuhan and Hayles suggest is no less than a revolution within the field of textual studies: a hermeneutics that considers the medium of the book as a contributor to meaning, and adopts a ‘grammar’ for that material text.1 If a ‘grammar’ is, in the descriptive sense, a system of rules governing smaller, more discrete units of meaning, then Hayles has started to sketch out a syntax: the page is a unit of reading; the binding of pages an order of reading; and the opacity of paper a “physical property that defines the page as having two sides, whose relationship is linear and sequential” as opposed to the digital page, which is “interpenetrating and simultaneous” (22-3). A system of signs, codes, and conventions, the material text becomes a “metaphoric network structuring the relation of word to world” (Hayles 23).

  1.  I am referring, here, to grammar in the descriptive rather than prescriptive sense: the “system of inflexions and syntactical usages characteristic of a language” (OED). []

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