On “Bitstreams: Locating the Literary in the Media Archive”

The Digital Scholars group’s last session to this date, conducted by Matthew Kirschenbaum’s talk “Bitstreams: Locating the Literary in the Media Archive”, covered a wide variety of subjects within a clear guiding thread: on the one hand, the materiality and specificity of the new (with this notion of newness properly problematized) information storage formats and codes; on the other hand, the need to better understand the potentialities of such mediums to complement and enrich our approach to the ways whereby we generate, consume and store information.

The notion of the archive, with its edges, fevers and anxieties monopolized great part of the session. We live in a moment when data management is omnipresent in public discourse, through sensitive and burning issues such as the right to be forgotten and mass surveillance. Thus, there is an underlying anxiety about dealing with the enormous repository of information that is being generated; hence the importance of making data available through adequate metadata. Reflecting on the topic of media simulation, the talk moved towards access and interfaces and the ways through which the relationship between users and archive materializes: what users are invited to do, and what they are not.

Regarding Wendy Chun’s article, “The enduring ephemeral, or the future is a memory” and its interesting distinction between memory and storage, the internet very often puts the focus in the preservation of memory. Kirschenbaum brought up the example of the digital library Internet Archive as a repository of cultural artifacts, dedicated to prevent the possibility of the so-called “digital dark age“. The Internet Archive, however, provides the user with surrogates like videogame emulators from previously existing formats/devices, failing to replicate an otherwise irreproducible gaming experience. On a separate issue, and regarding the key question of storage, processing and access to born digital texts, it was noted that an interdisciplinary approach is much needed, comprising a collaborative work between digital archivists and humanists.

One of the ideas that Kirschenbaum tried to contest was precisely the notion of electronic records as surrogates of physical, paper records, which are frequently considered primary. It is clear that at this moment electronic records are most of the time born digital: there is an innumerable list of cultural artifacts that lacks a continuous, physical version preceding the discreet, electronic one. At an instrumental, operative level, Wolfgang Ernst’s chapter, “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus the History and Narrative of Media” is relevant to these arguments due to its proposal of a media archaeology; paraphrasing the author’s words, media archaeology would be a kind of reverse engineering that does not seek to articulate a prehistory of the mass media (at least not in the historical sense), but to unravel its epistemological configuration. The idea is to explore mass media as the non-discursive entities that they are, understanding their belonging to a temporal regime other than the historical-narrative, and to overcome “screen essentialism” and go beyond the mere interface in order to find out how the hardware works. To Kirschenbaum, the point of practical intersection of media archaeology with digital humanities is precisely what he coined as the practice of digital forensics: securing and maintaining the digital cultural legacy through preservation, extraction, documentation, and interpretation.

In this same line of intersections, Kirschenbaum referred to the book Notebook, from Annesas Appel, “a project based on mapping the inside of a notebook [computer]”. The project proposes a sort of deconstruction of the device, together with a transition from tridimensional to a bi-dimensional perception. In it, different components and pieces are presented separated and in series. One of the book’s keys is that these components are progressively less recognizable as computer components; there is a detachment from their original function and a transformation towards a script, an isolation and atomization that Kirschenbaum described as media archaeological splendor and that makes evident an archive fever. Through this inventory-like atomization and disposition in series of computer components, and due to their immediateness and simultaneity, we seem to enter an order that is alternative to the historical-narrative: a kind of lost code that reveals itself.

To conclude, and moving back to the title of the session, one of the categories necessarily shaken at this juncture is that of the literary: what were physical manuscripts, traces of the writing process are now born digital files, with the generalized use of the computer as the preferred writing tool. Again, the convergence of media as binary, ones and zeros, makes us wonder if it still makes sense to distinguish what is and is not literary.


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