Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era

By N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 331 pp. $27.50 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-8166-8003-0. (This title is part of the Electronic Mediations series, Volume 42.)

For many scholars of textual materials, content has historically trumped container, with message privileged over medium. But especially beginning with studies by Elizabeth Eisenstein, Robert Darnton, Roger Chartier, Adrian Johns, among others, the book as cultural object and printing “as an agent of change” has elicited greater attention from cultural historians and literary scholars. Tracking the relationship between text and context, this work often trained attention on the cultural impress of books, and indexed systems of exchange and reception over time. That text was understood as printed matter (usually in codex form) and context as post-Gutenberg continental Europe was rarely questioned.

For the editors and contributors to Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era, that attention—especially since the advent of digital forms of textual production—has been too captured by printed codices, and all too frequently theoretically parochial: “[F]ew have attempted to rethink categories … in ways that take more than a superficial account of digital technologies and their implications for disciplines that have been operating on a print-based model of scholarship” (vii). To understand “print” and “text” in an expanded field, editors N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman advance in their introduction a new theoretical framework they term “comparative textual media” (CTM). Drawing from recent scholarly approaches in media studies (in particular, comparative media studies and media archeology), Hayles and Pressman stress that “print is itself a medium,” which they urge should be seen “in a comparative context with other textual media” (vii), such as scrolls, manuscript materials, printed codices and ephemera, but also born-digital forms. The comparative animates the CTM project, encouraging scholars to recognize and assess the textual object always in relation—in relation to its materiality, to other forms of media, to a specific historical context, and with changes in technology, production, and consumption. If the comparative offers a critical perspective to CTM, then Hayles and Pressman maintain this must be buttressed by a constructive project: “CTM promotes a paradigm shift, a move from a culture in which critique dominates to one in which it is put into productive tension and interplay with what may be called an ethic of making” (xv). (Even the introduction, for instance, is entitled “Making, Critique.”)

But equally important is the background presence of digital humanities (DH) in CTM. Even though its scholarly ambit, as defined by Hayles and Pressman, is narrowly (and I would argue mistakenly) restricted to digital production (“Our purview … is broader than the digital humanities because it advocates comparative study of all text-based media, not only the digital” (xii)), digital humanities practices and approaches surface frequently in their description of CTM.[1] Along with “an ethic of making,” the accent on “humanities labs” (xv), “collaborative team projects … across multiple stakeholders” (xvi), and “practice based research” (xviii) are all hallmarks of digital humanities. This isn’t to suggest CTM is coextensive with digital humanities, but it is to remark there are greater areas of symmetry and overlap between the two than the editors adumbrate.

Hayles and Pressman’s ambitious introduction grounds the twelve essays (and three section forewords – “Theories, “Practices,” “Recursions”) in Comparative Textual Media, which brachiate from pieces on historical job printing to narrative practices in video games to medieval manuscripts and media archaeology. Understanding “born digital” as an “essential” category for CTM, Matthew Kirschenbaum outlines what he calls “the .txtual condition,” highlighting how digital objects challenge traditional archival practices, where object and access, creation and preservation are effectively co-constitutive (54). In a similar vein, Johanna Drucker problematizes the relationship of letterforms and typefaces, and their digital representations—dialectically connected by “materials of production and the conception of a letter” (93). The conception of print as literary, political, or scholarly production, Lisa Gitelman contends, is too narrowly drawn, ignoring the history of “job printing,” where printed matter such as letterheads or receipts “work[ed] as part of the everyday triangulation that privately interconnect[ed] people and institutions via paper and print” (191). Bridging time and format, Jessica Brantley understands medieval media (such as the fourth-century Paternoster diagram in the Vernon manuscript) within a media archaeology and theory context. Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux investigate the use of different historical narrative forms, such as medieval annals and chronicles, in the video game Dwarf Fortress’s online communities; in compiling records of play, they argue, players simultaneously invoke those earlier forms, while also generating computational, microtemporal histories.

Marking out conceptual space and providing object lessons in CTM scholarship, the essays collectively illustrate CTM’s analytical utility, but also occasionally highlight some unacknowledged suppositions and questionable directions. In the foreword to “Theories,” an interesting argument is posited about resistance to cloudbased, portable device technology. Placed in opposition to cloud computing, the laptop is seen as a “dying instantiation” of a technology that embodies the “American idea of self-sufficiency,” a false belief in sovereign control over the machine in an increasingly transnational and networked world (2). But tied to this understanding is an almost salvific view of “the cloud,” which the authors of the foreword (presumably Hayles and Pressman) reify and render essential, without ever unpacking or even interrogating superficially: “[D]espite the resistance, the movement to the cloud continues … [i]ntimately connected with our embodied movements, [portable devices] serve as portals from which data issue…” (2). Attending that historical inevitability, a biopolitics is also introduced only to be left in an ellipsis. Hayles and Pressman argue against technological determinism, but here they set aside thinking about conditions of possibility, and evince a certain degree of unchecked techno-optimism.

But ultimately, Comparative Textual Media mounts a successful argument for rethinking the way textual production is considered, and for situating printed matter among other media as an object of study itself. Even if CTM isn’t thought of as paradigm shifting, as Hayles and Pressman argue it could become, it nevertheless opens up greater—and much needed—analytical space.

Bobby L. Smiley

Michigan State University Libraries

[1] It is a shopworn joke among digital humanists that everyone publicly hates, but secretly—and almost masochistically—enjoys defining what “digital humanities” means. A more functionalist characterization of DH is probably best here, and offered by Josh Honn, the Digital Scholarship Librarian at Northwestern University. Honn particularizes five categories generically describing DH activity: 1) humanistic scholarship presented in digital form(s); 2) humanistic scholarship enabled by digital methods and tools; 3) humanistic scholarship about digital technology and culture; 4) humanistic scholarship building and experimenting with digital technology; 4) humanistic scholarship critical of its own digital­ness. Josh Honn, “Never Neutral: Critical Approaches to Digital Tools & Culture in the Humanities,”, October 17, 2013.  Accessed November 10, 2014.