Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Material Matters in Digital Representation: "Tree of Codes" as a Literature of Disembodiment

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Material Matters in Digital Representation: "Tree of Codes" as a Literature of Disembodiment

Article excerpt

In a digital era of representation, where screen content is abstracted from material objects/apparatuses, how do we still associate "text" and "book" with materiality? This essay analyzes Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes as a "literature of disembodiment"--experimental print texts that represent objects from which materiality is erased.

And here we must stress a strange characteristic of the script, which by now no doubt has become clear to the reader: it unfolds while being read, its boundaries open to all currents and fluctuations.

--Bruno Schulz, "The Book"

This digital era of media technologies has ushered in forms of representation that can be characterized by their unique abstraction of media content and function from material objects and apparatuses. In particular, digital media differ from older "exact recording" technologies such as the photographic camera in altering how we perceive the relationship between material objects and images. As the virtual image is produced through artificially hashed-together dots--including any representation on the screen interface, which are composed of pixels--and as it may be manipulated through image software, it does not necessarily have a material counterpart. In this sense, the virtual image conjures up objects in the mind of the subject, allowing them to experience objects that may not exist--a process and procession of virtualized phenomenology that Mark B.N. Hansen describes as a "future-directed process of embodiment" (623). As it is the subject's mediations of the image that manifest the object, Hansen explores literary representations of these mediations for how they reveal the inner workings of digital representation as well as our own altered relationships to the technological image.

Yet future embodiment represents only one side of the screen, as it refers to the digital content that is perceived by the subject. Behind the screen are the processes through which digital content is produced and transmitted--computational methods of content management that enable the phenomenological experience of digital reception and that thus enable future embodiment at all. Computational content management possesses a hierarchal relationship in which, as N. Katherine Hayles notes, "information is given the dominant position and materiality runs a distant second" (Posthuman 12). What we receive on screen is the information; in Alan Liu's words, this is content that is separated "from material instantiation or formal representation" (58, emph. Liu's). The underbelly of future embodiment, or what is behind the screen, is this process of disembodiment that allows the technological image to "remov[e] the substrate of materiality" (80).

This essay examines how printed literary texts as physical, tactile objects can manipulate their materiality in order to reflect our changed relationships with material objects and materiality. While a literature of future embodiment mediates an image with no body, this essay describes a literature of disembodiment: a literature that mediates something that has lost its body. Such a literature feels around, using language, to represent and understand objects from which materiality has been removed and material objects that have been erased in the process of disembodiment--including texts that have been omitted, unfinished, lost, destroyed, fragmented, or that are for one reason or another unrepresentable. In doing so, this type of literature shines light on modes and methods of disembodiment that are otherwise rendered both physically and conceptually invisible, asking how we might remember, retrieve, or reclaim them.

The first section of the essay inquires into Hansen's shaping of a theory of future embodiment in a digital era of representation. The second section traces the patterns of content abstraction and function isolation in recent Western media history as described in media and computational studies; these acts of abstraction and isolation separate a subject from material referents and apparatuses in the representation of reproduced images. …

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