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Category: Contributor: Roy Christopher

INTERVIEW: N. Katherine Hayles, Material Girl. by Roy Christopher

Image source: National Humanities Center

This interview is released in collaboration with Front Wheel Drive. It was originally published on March 11, 2003, and is also published in the recent book Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes, edited by Roy Christopher. Make sure to visit the publisher’s website to learn more about the book and other interviews.

Digging deep in the texts of both literature and science, N. Katherine Hayles exemplifies the reconciliation of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” better than anyone I know. Her refusal to concentrate on either side of the fence, instead insisting on plowing new ground on both sides, has lead her to some of the most intriguing research currently being done. Looking at texts from all sources and angles, Hayles is always seeing new things that others overlook.

In her recent MIT Press MediaWork Pamphlet, Writing Machines (2002), she continues this analysis. Blending thinly veiled autobiography, narrative fiction, literary critique, and other styles, she brings us into a world where text, materiality, signifier, and signified come together and come alive on the page. Her in-depth view of innovative texts, hypertexts, and experimental fiction (including an exquisite look at Mark Z. Danielewski’s postprint novel House of Leaves) leaves no doubt that she’s been working these fields for years.

Roy Christopher: Writing Machines incorporates many literary styles — autobiography, fictional narrative, critique, etc. — to great effect. Was it your initial intention to juxtapose these styles?

N. Katherine Hayles: Combining autobiography with theoretical analysis is one way of joining the personal with the political, analysis with life experience. Increasingly I see scholars and theorists trying experiments of this kind. To persevere in scholarship requires deep personal commitment. And where does this commitment, this passion, come from? Almost always from life experiences. Usually that connection remains submerged and private, but when it comes to light, it can be electrifying. In Writing Machines, I hoped to use the autobiographical narrative to illustrate what it means to make the journey from a print-centric to a media perspective. Profound changes like this never happen overnight. They more nearly resemble peeling away the layers of an onion, where one revelation leads to another, and that to another, and so on — a process that takes months and years. It is difficult to grasp this kind of process analytically, for its very nature implies a number of partial realizations that arrive slowly and often painfully. To know something on an abstract level is one thing, but to unravel all the assumptions and presuppositions bound up with it is something else entirely.

RC: You’ve been analyzing the materiality of literature for years now. In reference to House of Leaves, you stated, “Focusing on materiality allows us to see the dynamic interactivity through which a literary work mobilizes its physical embodiment in conjunction with its verbal signifiers to construct meanings in ways that implicitly construct the user/reader as well.” Can you elaborate on this statement?

NKH: Despite rich traditions of combining the visual and verbal in artists’ books, concrete poetry, and canonized works — from Blake’s illustrated books to Pound’s Cantos – there remains a widespread presupposition in literary studies that a literary “work” is an immaterial verbal construction, as if words floated in the air without having a tangible body. Strategies for understanding how words interact with their physical instantiations are still emerging, and much more work needs to be done to understand this more fully, especially with electronic media. In electronic environments words can swoop and fly, dance and morph, fade and intensify, change from black to red. How do these behaviors affect meaning, and how does verbal signification affect our understanding of these behaviors? Similar considerations apply to print literature, although here the interactions may be more subtle — but they are still important.

RC: Rather than looking at the blurring dialectics between natural/unnatural and human/nonhuman, you’ve been looking at presence/absence and materiality/virtuality. Considering DNA as textual code and language as “writing in the mind,” where does text end and materiality begin?

NKH: Now that the sequencing of the human genome is approaching completion, molecular biologists are coming up against the full realization that DNA considered as a “code” or “text” is only a small part of the story. Understanding the relation of the genome to function — how and why genes actually work — requires an understanding of protein folding, a much more complex matter than simple sequence. The gene as text cannot account for these complexities; for that, the gene must be understood as an embodied structure in three-dimensional space. Similarly, the full complexities of language are increasingly related to the embodied complexities of the human brain as it has evolved over eons, as Steve Pinker, among others, has been arguing. In the twenty-first century, text and materiality will be seen as inextricably entwined. Materiality and text, words and their physical embodiments, are always already a unity rather than a duality. Appreciating the complexities of that unity is the important task that lies before us.

RC: In Chaos and Order (University of Chicago Press, 1991), your selfreferential analysis of the rhetoric of chaos theory, tempted becoming fractal itself. Is language really able to exhibit emergent properties in the same way as other dynamical systems?

NKH: Many literary texts use fractal structures to express and embody complexity, from the microstylistics of poetic effects between words to large-scale effects in novelistic structures. Language is certainly able to demonstrate emergent properties, though it may not always do so. I think a better way to state the question is to ask how and in what ways literary language demonstrates emergence. For starters, I recommend Joseph McElroy’s Plus (Carroll & Graf, 1987), an experimental novel about a terminally ill person who agrees to have his brain extracted from his dying body and re-embodied as part of the neural network that pilots a spacecraft. The challenge that McElroy posed was devising a language for this posthuman condition in which normal thought processes have been profoundly disrupted and sensory inputs radically transformed. At first the narrator’s language seems almost incomprehensible, but patient reading reveals strategic repetitions and re-organizations that instantiate emergent processes at work. This is one kind of strategy, but, of course, there are many others as well. To my mind, emergence is a rich concept that can illuminate the signifying practices of many literary texts.

RC: Is there anything you’re working on or new areas you’re exploring that you’d like to bring up here?

NKH: My book-in-progress is entitled Coding the Signifier: Rethinking Semiosis from the Telegraph to the Computer. It argues that signification works in significantly different ways in technologies that employ code, compared to natural language. Semiotics remains our most powerful and influential theoretical framework for understanding how texts create meaning, but it needs to be radically revised to account for how meaning is created within electronic environments. Returning to the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, I compare his premises and conclusions to the realities of coding technologies, showing how coding technologies change the conditions for communication and require the introduction of new concepts. Then, through a series of case studies, I demonstrate how coding technology functions as a kind of trading zone where meaning-making becomes a negotiation between code and natural language. Following the fractures, ruptures, and tensions between these two different kinds of signifying practices, I explore how concepts central to human experience undergo reconfiguration, including subjectivity, agency, and free will. My tutor texts range from fiction by such diverse writers as Henry James, James Tiptree, and Stanislaw Lem to such computer texts as Karl Sims’s simulations and Shelly Jackson’s electronic literary work “Patchwork Girl.” The book is under contract to the University of Chicago Press and, if all goes well, should appear sometime next year.

Frontwheeldrive Summer Reading Recommendations

Subject: [frontwheeldrive] It’s all about the books!
Date: Friday, July 7, 2006 2:30 PM
From: roy christopher

Hello, Everyone:

Well, it’s summer time and at, summer is all about the books. We gathered up a bunch of our friends and put together a new Summer Reading List, and there are a bunch of new book reviews to check out as well. Read on.


_ Summer Reading List, 2006:
After a year off, it’s back: The Summer Reading List. Here’s hoping you were able to get through last summer without us. Contributors this time around include veterans like Cynthia Connolly and Gary Baddeley, as well as newcomers like Tim Mitchell and Val Renegar. Many thanks to all who sent me their suggestions. Enjoy! [by the staff and friends of]


_ ‘The Handbook of Sociological Theory’ Edited by Jonathan H. Turner (Springer) and Philosophy of the Social Sciences by Patrick Baert (Polity):
The Handbook of Sociology Theory is a monster. Editor Jonathan Turner jokingly calls it an “arm book” instead of a “handbook,” and at 745 pages, it‚s really no joke. Instead of compiling a compendium of old, dusty standards, Turner gathered the newest, most-viable theories in sociology, “with an eye to capturing the diversity of theoretical activity.” [by roy christopher]

_ Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel DVD Directed by Gandulf Hennig (Rhino): In some circles, Gram Parsons is a certified legend. In others, he is virtually unknown. Gandulf Hennig’s ‘Fallen Angel’ documentary will enlighten the latter to the opinion of the former. Even if you know his basic story, love his music, or know nothing about him, this DVD offers plenty of revelations about his short but prolific existence. [by roy christopher]

_ Literary Conversations and Interviews with Filmmakers
Edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw and Peter Brunette, respectively (University Press of Mississippi):
The University Press of Mississippi has been quietly putting out an amazing catalog of books for years now. One such set is their Literary Conversations Series (edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw) that consists of interviews and essays with modern literature‚s most fascinating authors. I got Don DeLillo, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Jack Kerouac, but the series also includes Tom Wolfe, August Wilson, Robert Penn Warren, Gore Vidal, Ray Bradbury, Gloria Naylor, R. Crumb, Audre Lorde, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among many others. [by roy christopher]

_ ‘Sticker Nation’ by Srini Kumar (Disinformation): I don‚t know how most people feel about stickers, but they make me get all smiley. Sticker Nation contains over 400 stickers emblazoned with subversive themes. Classic slogans like “Let the good times roll,” “Express yourself,” and “Power to the people” are peppered amongst “I just changed the world,” “Listen to Marshall McLuhan,” “Eat more veggies,” and “Talk nerdy to me.” My personal favorite is “When I hit the drum, you shake the booty,” but it’s difficult to have a favorite when there are so many good ones in here. [by roy christopher]

‘Why Societies Need Dissent’ by Cass R. Sunstein (Harvard University Press):
In ‘Why Societies Need Dissent’, Cass R. Sunstein illustrates the powers and dangers of dissent through a clear and concise exposition of three basic phenomena: conformity, social cascades, and group polarization. His epistemological view of conformity shows how we tend to learn less first-hand than from what others think and believe. Social cascades occur when a meme, carried by early-adopters, reaches its tipping point. Group polarization shows how extreme views become more extreme in group deliberations. [by roy christopher]

_ ‘The Essential Frankfurt School Reader’ Edited by Andrew Arato and Eike
Gebhardt (Continuum):
The Frankfurt School has been somewhat of a mystery to me. Mentioned in nearly half the books I read, their thought is synonymous with critical theory. I’ve gotten a lot of secondhand exposure to the school, and I‚ve read a fair amount of Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, and Marcuse, but I‚ve never felt a full grasp of the movement. Well, ‘The Essential Frankfurt School Reader’ is here to fix that. It fills the holes and explicates the missing pieces. [by roy christopher]

Here’s to a great summer of reading and growing.

Hope all is well with all of you,

roy christopher |
Editor |

war@33.3: The Postmodern Turn in the Commodification of Music by roy christopher

In the marketplace of music, the record company, has traditionally been the center of power and the decree has been the packaged product — the record album, the cassette tape, and the compact disc. In the era of digital music, film, and text, however, boundaries have been reformed, pushed, reconfigured and traditional centers of control, decentered. “Truth” as we knew it no longer occupies the same place and the commodification of music no longer relies on centralized authority of industries for its practice and distribution.

Band of the Hand

Chief among the forces decentralizing recording industry power and pushing the reconfiguration of markets has been a thriving DJ culture. Twenty something years ago, the Hip-hop DJ emerged as a vigilante on this landscape of music as commodity and while remixing and recontextualizing the product, he decentralized the power of the record company to hold on to copyright and older notions of property in the music medium. DJs regularly break these codes and conventions. They reorganize power structures in the world of sound. The product, as it were, is no longer the be-all, end-all of music making, but just another piece of the new story and the center does not hold:

The DJ cultivates and manages singularities: the bifurcation points on the edge of chaos, where dynamic systems manifest their emergent properties and transcend the sum of their elements. Sound systems emit alchemical sounds, cut and pasted by needles in deep grooves, manipulated by human hands on black wax. It is the bricolage pastiche of ever-shifting, handengineered, sonic references; the dialectic of the two turntables unfolds in time. Beats are juggled for the meat jungle. Scratches are snatched for the daily catch. Several systems work at odds and in conjunction making waves in the scene. This is a language sans nouns; a ‘lingua franca’ consisting only of verbs: motion, phase transition, aural morphology; all moving at the speed of left and right.

As the universe of sound finds ears, vibrating shards meld into sonic calling cards: an ever-shifting musical identity [for the DJ] that gives way to unrelenting multiplicity. Thanks to technologies often perceived as obsolete from which to draw, the entire history of sound is available for data-mining. The DJ is an archeologist of vinyl plates and audio cassettes. Digging in the crates, he returns with pieces for his sonic puzzle. A cartographer of soundscapes unknown and yet unformed, the DJ makes the maps and the terrain simultaneously on the fly.

Sound manipulation is the foundation of all musical forms. The individual control of audible vibrations is what allows musicians to create aurally aesthetic sounds. As Paul D. Miller writes, “When Thomas Edison first recorded the human voice onto a tin foil roll singing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ on December 6, 1877, history changed. It became malleable in a form never before seen on this planet. Experiences of events, and the moment-events themselves could be captured, edited, sequenced, and distributed. What Edison did was take the voice and reduce it to its basic component: sound.”[1] This is what the DJ in Hip-hop does when he combines and reanimates bits and pieces of old recorded history to create entirely new compositions. The music represents a future without a past.[2]

Surf, Sample, and Manipulate

Where ‘turntablism’ was the most exciting thing happening in music at the turn of the millennium, the art of the ‘remix’ has moved online. The power of the record company has suffered another blow as the power of the DJ has been networked. Call it “uploadphonics,” “bootlegging,” or just plain “remixing,” but whatever you call it, it is a culture war of intellectual property, a culture war of copyrights, a culture war of the freedom of speech and most of all a war of sound. Online, underground remixers like 2 Many DJs, The Evolution Control Committee (whose slogan reads, “We’re so next year.”), Rick Silva a.k.a. CueChamp, Cassetteboy, Bit Meddler, and many others “surf, sample and manipulate” (in the words of Mark Amerika).[3]

Rick Silva calls uploadphonics “a tight spiral outwards of creativity that makes a music in tune with the ideals of the internet, a soudscape to fit the netscape.”[4] Record companies, and the RIAA, in an effort to retain control, are fighting a moving target. Indeed, a moving target made up of moving targets since ‘peer-to-peer’ networks are completely decentralized. The file trade is made from node to node, without central control. The center does not hold.

As I write this I am (re)mixing music. Through my KaZaa Lite P2P client, I’ve downloaded a cracked version of Sonic Foundry’s Acid 3.0 mixing software, as well as a plethora of songs in MP3 format. In the past few weeks, I have been able to re-work many of my favorite songs, lifting a beat from one, a \guitar lick from another and vocals from a cappella versions. I’ve made entirely new compositions that none of the original artists ever intended, and have uploaded them for distribution to others. Anyone with a connection to the Internet possesses the same power. We are in a massive, collective phase transition: the record companies put out solids (records), the Hip-hop DJ melts them down into liquids (remixes, etc.) and the home-computer ‘remix kids’ boil the mass into gaseous vapor (molecules of sound, splitting and recombining without end). While there is still product coming down from on high, the “central truth” no longer holds ultimate power over the wannabe musician. Who will make it and who will break it. And there is no divine sonic word. There is only sound and infinite ways to put it together.

“In a recent post to an assignment was given out,” writes Rick Silva in an article from 2002 on online remixing, “a call to remix Eminem’s latest track was followed by a link to the MP3 of the a capella version. A week later boomselection released a sub-site dedicated only to the Eminem remixes because the response had been so positive. The tracks were rated and posted. The number one track was ‘number one’ mainly because of its amazing turnaround time. Within ten minutes of the assignment, someone had turned in a bootleg. The remixer took approximately ten minutes to download the a capella, find a track roughly the same BPM, sync it, record it, encode it to MP3, FTP (upload) it, and mail out the link.”[5] All of this is good fun for fans and remixers, but a virtual nightmare for a recording industry bent on hanging on to the airwaves – web waves – for profit.

Two weeks prior to the release of Eminem’s 2002 record, The Eminem Show, an advanced copy found its way onto a popular peer-to-peer network. As widespread downloading ensued, Eminem’s record company was forced to release his record a week before it had originally planned. “The source of this conundrum is as simple as its solution is complex,” writes John Perry Barlow on the digitizing of intellectual property. “Digital technology is detaching information from the physical plane, where property law of all sorts has always found definition.”[6] Since the replication of a file in digital format doesn’t decrease its quality, nor does it have limits, this is where the ideas of copyright, intellectual property, and digital bootlegging collide head-on.

No one has brought this collision to the attention of the mass mind like DJ Danger Mouse. His Grey Album, which meshed the a cappella vocals of Jay-Z’s Black Album with music lifted from The Beatles’ White Album, was an internet sensation that set off a shitstorm in boardrooms and bedrooms everywhere. Record company suits were scrambling to kill it, and bedroom remixers were scrambling to outdo it. The record (in its modern form: the physical compact disc) was squashed by a cease and desist order from EMI (who own the rights to The Beatles record), but its children replicated: The Brown Album, The Rainbow Album, The Slack Album, etc. (the latter of which is an amusing blend of Jay-Z’s vocals and music from Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted record by DJ n-wee). The remixing continues — and so does the battle to stop it.

The United States Copyright Act states that “the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means∑ for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”[7] The art collage band, Negativland, tested this clause long before Eminem was asking the real version of his oft-remixed song “Without Me” to “please stand up.”

In 1991 Negativland released a single titled “U2” which sampled the Irish supergroup’s hit single “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The song and the release of the single were both part parody, part critique, and part media prank (some off-mike comments by Casey Kasem were also a part of the composition). It was quickly sued out of existence by U2’s label, Island Records.[8] Not to be beaten so soon, Negativland released a magazine in 1993 chronicling the court case. “The Letter U and the Numeral 2” was sued out of existence by Negativland’s own label, SST Records (also for alleged copyright infringement: Negativland used SST bumper stickers and press releases in the publication).[9]

“We live in a world where nothing is what we were taught it was,” Negativland write in the introduction to their 1995 book on the ordeal. “Art is business, business is war, war is advertising, and advertising is art. We are bombarded with information and entertainment. Negativland responds to this environment by making music that uses fragments and samples from existing media of all kinds.”[10] For Negativland, if it’s on the airwaves (or the internet), it’s fair game for fair use.

Bits and Pieces

While the legalities of remixing are still squirming under the weight of innovation, the format of music has shape-shifted as well — from atoms to bits.[11] The advent of the Compact Disc changed recording in many ways, but the fact that a band could now do over an hour of music (without having to release a double LP) was one of them. Where the CD killed the LP, shrunk cover art, and caused the public to buy all of their albums on a new digital format, the MP3 ends the tyranny of any multi-song format of the past. We’re now back to the single (without a B-side)– a single made of bits, not atoms – a single awaiting a home on the newly empowered storage device of your choice. A single awaiting a new beat, a new vocal track, or a new time signature.

“Just as a Powerbook is a processing-machine,” writes online remixer Tim Jaeger, “and Max/MSP is audio software with which users can program, code, and construct their own virtual instruments, combined they become meta-samplers and schiz-machines. Max/MSP consumes other instruments only to turn them into new, different instruments for others to use and produce new instruments with. The same with turntables, or small CASIO keyboards spitting out sampled rhythms from old New Order records.”[12] And don’t forget all the downloadable music mixing softwares! It’s a new music scene: music as shareware, open source sound, an armed audio warfare against wornout methods and stodgy mentalities… Embrace the postmodern: Reduce, reuse, recycle. The future of music is in our hands: Let’s remix it!


1. Cumulus from America; Cartridge Music: Of Palimpsets and Parataxis, or How
to Make a Mix by Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid).
2. Band of the Hand by roy christopher, Born Magazine, 1997.
3. “Uploadfonix” by Rick Silva, 21C Magazine.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. “The Economy of Ideas” by John Perry Barlow, 1993.
7. United States Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 107, 1988 ed. and Supp. IV).
8. Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 by Negativland,
Seeland MediaMedia, 1995.
9. Spin Magazine, May 1993.
10. Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 by Negativland,
Seeland MediaMedia, 1995.
11. Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte, Vintage, 1995.
12. “Scatter(ed) Dynamics” by Tim Jaeger, posted on the macrosound discussion
list, January 3, 2003.

[Media Reader, #8, 2005]