Media Structures

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begin by reading the rest of Vismann 2008, begin pg 13

will have to confront Galloway 2012 critique of formalism --> failure of formalism -- trying to define medium with reference to a specific 'language' or set of essential formal qualities, which then, following the metaphysical logic, manifest in the world a number of instances or effects" (19) -- object-thinking begets the problems of formalism

to read:

Kirschenbaum, "Editing the Interface" -- updating edition / impression / state / etc. for digital objects

Kittler: there is no software (

John Durham Peters, Information: toward a critical history

Kallinikos et al. 2012


Good short blog post on infrastructure, by Deborah Cowen:




  • Flusser, "Book," Does Writing Have a Future?

palm-leaf books



Sterne 2012

Tenen 2017, “Form, Formula, Format”

  • distinction between print and digital books: print static, “we have no trouble operating a several hundred years old book”, digital changes on a monthly/daily basis (114)
    • this word operating shows up often in these distinctions — Ernst also makes it about manuscripts — but this seems wrong; depends on an entirely materialist concept of “operation”
  • “Whatever one designates as core content is enveloped within a multiplicity of standards, references, models, and formats, which in aggregate define the medium — the physical preconditions — of laminate text.” (123)
    • is the difference not that such protocols exist but that they’re materially instantiated in networks of control? (Galloway) — by ignoring cultural codes of print, we strip away history from the investigation and set up a false binary, missing the actual difference (materialization of control)
    • so in some ways the different is not the dematerialization of text so much as a much stricter materialization of protocol

Thomas Tanselle, 'The Concept of Format'

proliferation of uses of term "format" -- "These usages at least beign to approach the bibliographer's concerncs by focusing on physical and design characteristics rather than intellectual content. But they still do not reflect what bibliographers mean by the term." (67)

"Bibliographers need a word to express the relationship between the physical structure of finished books and some of the printing-=shop routines that led to that structure, and they have long used 'format' for this purpose." (67) -- "does not mean simply the size and shape of a book"

In hand-press period, book trade “recognized that size and shape had to be conveyed by a combination of two terms, one indicating paper size and the other number of leaves produced by folding each sheet -- as in ‘Crown quqrto’” (70)

"One of the interesting and complicating facts about the development of bibliographical terminology in English is that 'format' came to refer, in bibliographers' hands, to process (imposition and folding) and the resulting structure rather than to dimensions." (71)

"If the authors of printers' manuals are like analytical bibliographers in their recognition of the fundamental connection between the imposed number of type-pages and the structure of books, they are different in that their approach to process is prospective: they fofer instruction in how to bring a book into existence. Bibliographers, in contrast, like all historians, work in the other direction and try to reconstruct processes from the traces that those processes have left." (74)

"Preciely how 'format' moved into English bibliographers' vocabulary I have not yet discovered. Presumably the interchange between English and continental incunabulists brought it about." (77)

Duff and Pollard still referred to "size" (but not measurement); finally shows up in McKerrow (1914) (78) -- "From McKerrow on, the concept of format, so named, was regularly explained in terms of paper-folding." -- Bowers "never formally defined format" -- Gaskell includes folding and imposition as format (81) -- but Gaskell only focuses on paper evidence, not typographic evidence

"The unanimity of these influential introductory works shows that biliographers have thought of format primarily in terms of paper-folding, even though they understood that the folding is dictated by the prior imposition of the type-pages." (82)

"Format terms are meant to tell one something about the process of book production; and if, as McKerrow insisted, format must always be based on sheets as manufactured, regardless of the presswork procedures followed, it will sometimes obscure rather than clarify that process." (85)

proven differences in the history of papermaking -- for instance, double mould that would make the chainlines appear to run in "opposite" directions -- but that has to do with thistory of manufacturing paper, not imposition of type -- cannnot use chainline to determine format, although Greg et al. did, presuming that a pre-printing cut of a large sheet of paper constituted the same as a fold

whether a book is printed on mixed papers (cut down to size for instance) is irrelevant to format (90)

1570 Foxe's Acts and Monuments -- sheets pasted together to create folio sheet before printing

"I do not mean to suggest that paper evidence is irrelevant to the discovery of format but rather that typographical and presswork evidence should be drawn on as well -- a natural corollary to the idea that the number of type-pages involved is essential to the concept of format for prinnted books." (91)

19-20c papers harder, web-woven; can check deckle edge?

"If, after trying such approaches as these, and others that will inevid=tably be developed as more investigation is made of nineteenth-c and twentieth-century books, one still cannot in a given instance state with confidence the number of type-pages one the press at one time, one must clearly be content to give the structure of a book only in terms of the number of leaves per gathering." (94)

"The concept of format, if it is to be informative rather than confusing, must clearly remain constant as it is applied to books of different periods." (95)

broadside is not a format term, since it relates to distribution of material but not imposition; could use "broadside" th way we use "book" or "pamphlet" [then it is a platform] -- and refer to impositionn like "full-sheet broadside," "folio broadsides," etc. (97)

is book of disjunct leaves a book of broadsides?

"If format is taken to refer to the number of page-units needed to fill oen side of a sheet, it follows that a disjunct leaf and a conjugate leaf are the same format if they both consiste of the same fraction of a sheet. ... Eliminating the idea of folding as an element of format makes clear that the essential concept comprehends without difficulty both broadsides and disjunct-leaf books as well as books made up fo sewn gatherings." (101)

"when paper is cut before printing, the original size is relevant to format only in those instances where the cutting is equivalent to folding after printing." (102)

"The routines of the earliest printers can be consistently and systematically accommodated to the same concept of format appropriate for later books, as long as one focuses strictly on the number of type-pages (and/or blank pages) used to fill one side of a full sheet, recognizing that any cutting before printng was only the equivalent of folding after printing." (108)

"just how much of the production process should be entailed in the naming of formats?" (108)

"If format is taken to express a relation between book production and book structure, it relies on analysis, even in the simplest cases." (108)

"Is the format of a book printed on full sheets from four-page formes to be tated differently from that of a book printed on half-sheets from two-page formes? Does format, in other words, encapsulate all that can be learned about the imposition, paper, and presswork for a given book, or does it have a more restricted meaning?" (109)

"In other words, format -- as I am defining it here -- refers only to the number of page-units required for one side of a full sheet, not to their precise arrangement." (112)

DEFINITION: "Format is a designation of the number of page-units (whetehr of printing surface, handwritten text, or blank space) that the producers of a printed or manuscript item decided upon to fill each side of a sheet of paper or vellum of the selected size(s); if paper came to a printing press in rolls rather than sheets, format can only refer to the number of page-units placed on the press at one time for the purpose of printing one side of the paper." (112-3)



  • Holsinger, "From Pig to Parchment"

hand-made European paper

amate paper


Gabriel Menotti Gonring, "Executable images: the enactment and distribution of movies in computer networks"


David Berry, "Contribution toward a grammar of code":

Rita Raley, "Code.surface | Code.depth":

Mark Marino, "Critical Code Studies":

N. Katherine Hayles, "Print is Flat, Code is Deep"


Andersen and Pold 2011

Chun 2011

Hookman 2014

Drucker 2014

(Social Life)

"digital objects"

Jannis Kallinikos, Aleksi Aaltonen, and Attila Marton, "A theory of digital objects," First Monday 15.6-7 (June 2010)

This essay starts from within the tech determinism vs social construction debate, seeming to suggest we've moved to far to the social const view with approaches to digital objects; then attempts to outlines a theory of digital objects that assigns to them four primary characteristics: editable, interactive, open, distributed. Uses the example of web search to point out how the archivable document no longer exists in the same way, ontologically. Interesting perspective, but ends up being anti-materialist in describing digital objects as not in any meaningful way actually objects -- only effects. Useful in explaining new set of relations but not in identifying material/tangible infrastructures.

Interested in distinguishing digital from non-digital objects

”In this article, we seek to develop a theory of digital artifacts. The venture assumes that digital technologies of all varieties and breeds share a limited set of qualities that places them apart from other non–digital devices and systems (paper–based) for managing information. This is, no doubt, a contentious claim that many readers may find running counter to a widespread view that portrays the use of artifacts in general and information–based artifacts in particular as highly contingent on the skills and predispositions of human agents.”

— taking a moderate technodeterminist position

“We hope to show in this article that such a project is feasible and that a theory of digital objects is timely and highly relevant. We subsume under the category of digital objects all digital technologies and devices and digital cultural artifacts such as music, video or image. The theory, we contend, provides a useful conceptual grid for studying social practices and identifying the peculiar generativity (Zittrain, 2008) and instability that digital objects introduce across a variety of settings and situations (Kallinikos, 2006). The theory claims that digital objects are marked by a limited set of variable yet generic attributes such as editability, interactivity, openness and distributedness that confer them a distinct functional profile.”

“Digital documents are evasive artifacts that contrast with the solid and self–evident nature of paper–based documents. They occur in many versions that are constantly mutating. Most crucially, they are assembled into units by operations that are technologically driven and frequently far beyond the desktop by which users access or manipulate them. Accordingly, their evasive identity raises problems of authentication and preservation and impinges upon the inherited functions and practices of memory institutions like libraries and archives.”

“Digital artifacts differ from physical objects and other cultural records (e.g., art objects, paper–based files) of non–digital constitution along a number of dimensions. Taken together, these differences confer digital objects a distinctive functional profile.”

  • Editable — in non-digital medium, information becomes “as viscous as molasses and as difficult to manipulate” (quoting someone else
  • Interactive — “Pre–programmed as it is, interactivity opens up the interior, as it were, of a digital object, unbundling the services it mediates and providing leeway for the exploration of alternative courses of action, as it is often the case with users navigating a Web site.”
  • Open / reprogrammable — “accessible and modifiable by a program (a digital object) other than the one governing their own behavior”
  • Distributed — “no more than temporary assemblies made up of functions, information items or components spread over information infrastructures and the internet”
   * Borderless — “In comparison to packaged and single media like books, networked media does not have an identifiable border defining it as an obvious entity”
   * Transfigurable
   * Assembly procedures

“As any object, digital objects are brought to being under varying conditions (institutional settings, resources, skills) and this explains why the basic attributes we ascribe to them exhibit significant empirical variability. But empirical variability does not and cannot address the issue on the basis of which objects are classified as digital and are thus sharply distinguishable from non–digital objects. Only intrinsic and necessary characteristics can accomplish such a task (Sayer, 2000).“

What distinguishes a digital from a non-digital object?

  • Modular composition
  • Granularity — alphabetic writing provides origins; means you can trace “down the behavior of a digital object to several layers of underlying operations” and also ‘minute and piecemeal intervention” [e.g. Wikipedia]
   * “The fine–grained nature of digital objects enables people to contribute to collective pursuits under widely varying circumstances that fit their time availability, capacity or inclination (Benkler, 2006).”
       * — isn’t this just like OED, but faster?

“Modularity and granularity are inherent to many social practices (e.g., architecture, flexible manufacturing) and the media by which these practices are carried out. However, the making of granularity to a ubiquitous technological principle that relies on binary parsing is a remarkable accomplishment. It confers digital objects a distinct ontological and functional profile and all those qualities we associate with them. In this respect, granularity and the numerical constitution of digital objects furnish the generative matrix, the genetics, as it were, of the properties of editability, interactivity, openness and distributedness.”

“The construal of digital objects in these terms may be invoked to account for the making of the interconnected information environment in which we live in and the much more flexible interaction between users and artifacts, citizens and institutions. At the same time, the diffusion of digital objects and the attributes they embody across the social and institutional fabric is associated with new problems and risks that have not always been adequately appreciated.”

Using case studies to prove value of identifying digital object characteristics

web search — constantly changing; what is the document?

“The case of the Internet Archive suggests that the category of the document, a pillar of the practice of archiving, is not any longer a clear–cut and evident object of social practice. Constantly mutating bits and pieces of content distributed over the web are harvested and assembled to cultural units that are frozen and stored as distal documents. In this process, the definition of what is to count as a document to be archived is embedded into and performed by means of software. The bits and pieces that are assembled into a digital object are themselves an assemblage of modules. In other words, we find digital objects within digital objects within digital objects and so forth.”

“In this regard, the generativity of digital objects and the opportunities it creates are offset by the evasive character of digital documents, and the tasks and operations that pivot around the stabilization and management of these documents.”

The making of a “memorable web” is at cross-purposes with the making of a “navigable web”

“The attributes we ascribe to digital objects and their modular and granular constitution are no doubt generic qualities that do not confront the specific nature of particular technologies and the functionalities they embody. But functionality is too conspicuous an attribute that offers itself to observation rather straightforwardly. There is no way to discuss any particular technology without confronting the primary functional task it addresses (as we did here with the Internet Archive and Web document search). The self–evident character of functionality is very closely tied to the user–centered technological frame mentioned earlier in this article. Our account of digital objects reveals a complex and double–edged process of user involvement that considerably qualifies the constructs of “functionality” and “user”. On the one hand, the generativity of digital objects enables and empowers users. The editable, interactive, open and distributed properties of digital objects circumscribe a space of possibilities in which users can assimilate the use of digital technologies and artifacts to the specific projects they pursue and the needs or feelings they wish to express. On the other hand, the theory of digital objects discloses a vast space of processes and mechanisms beyond the discretion and perception of uses and the straightforward functionality each digital object embodies. In a sense, the theory decenters the user and reveals a complex and distributed apparatus of data–driven operations in which digital object functionality and user are no more than nodes on the steadily mutating and displacing information universe (Kallinikos, 2006).”

“In this respect, it would be interesting to observe that digital objects are objects only in an elusive and perhaps euphemistic way. For, the steady transfiguration and the permeable boundaries underlying them suggest that they are no more than operations by means of which they are assembled to proxies of objects (Ekbia, 2009; Manovich, 2001) only to be unpacked, edited, reprogrammed and reassembled again. The theory of digital objects thus draws attention away from fixed entities and the role they are supposed to serve. Instead, it focuses on the data–driven operations (editability, interactivity, openness) by which digital perceptions and practices are assembled and dissolve, and the complex ecology of relations (distributedness, openness) within which these operations are embedded. This is an important insight and a key contribution this paper claims it makes to the literature.”

Yuk Hui, "What is a digital object," Metaphilosophy

shifting from philosophy of substance to one of relations

argues that "A theory of digital objects demands a synthesis between Simondonian individualization and the Heideggerian interpretation of ready-to-handness (Heidegger would reject the idea that Simondon’s thesis regarding technical objects poses any ontological questions, while Simondon would very much like to separate the technical from the social)"

"digital materialism"

Nathalie Casemajor, "Digital Materialisms: Frameworks for Digital Media Studies"

“Since the 1980s, ‘digital materialism’ has become a new field of interest in communication and media studies, increasingly gaining momentum in the 2000s. Materialism as a theoretical paradigm assumes that all things in the world, including things of the mind and digital stuff, are tied to (and in some cases, determined by) physical processes and matter. Yet, within digital media studies, the understanding of what should be the core object of a materialist analysis is debated.”

Outlining 6 frameworks “that share the assumption that digital materiality is composed of ‘material bits’”

1. The Berlin School of media

Kittler, “media materialism” or “information materialism”

2. The field of software studies

Lev Manovich, Fuller, Wardrip-Fruin, Bogost and Montfort; platform studies

3. The literary critique of electronic texts

Hayles, Kirschenbaum

4. The forensic approach


5. The ’new materialist’ media ecology

“Reframed to address the entanglement of humans and non-humans, media ecology has become a site to investigate the link between nature and technologies, questioning the role of digital media in natural environments degradation.”

6. And the field of Marxian critical studies

“Marxist frameworks articulate the issues of materiality, politics and ecology around the traditional concepts of ownership, labour and class struggle. This version of digital materialism brings to the forefront the material nature of economy with the aim of criticizing capitalism and its excesses. It postulates that the material infrastructure of media industry acts as a determining force in the production of media content and discourse.”

Three main tensions:

  • Between a semantic and an engineer’s perspective on media
  • Between technological and social determinism
  • Between critical or post-humanist political propositions

“The great variety of traditions, intellectual trajectories and emerging trends that could qualify as ‘materialist’ prevents from picturing what is now labelled a ‘material turn’ in digital media studies as a homogeneous movement. As a matter of fact, this ‘material turn’ is profoundly indebted to cross-disciplinary influences and its contours extend well beyond the disciplinary boundaries of media studies.“

Anthropology had material turn earlier, in 1970s

“The key argument of digital materialism is that there is no ‘pure information’: code is inscribed; bits are written. Furthermore, the resources of computation are limited in terms of processing power, storage capacity and connectivity; its signals are prone to degradation, its devices to decay and toxicity.”

“Taking as a starting point the physical substrate of digital reality, the four approaches described above focus on technologized memory (Kittler), user-experience of programmable objects (Manovich), electronic texts (Hayles) and forensic traces (Kirschenbaum). These frameworks provide tools to critique the trope of immateriality, but they do not address frontally the political dimension of digital materialism.”


Marjorie Levinson, "What is New Formalism," PMLA 122.2 (2007): 558-569

review of post-2000 turn toward formalism and what it means -- is a movement, rather than a theory or method

points out that many formalist interventions trace literary studies' "neglect of form to new historicism's alleged denunciation of form as an ideological mystification. The remaining studies see the eclipse of form as an unfortunate by-product of the institutional authority enjoyed by the historical turn." (559)

this leads to a practical division between 1) those who want to restore historicism to its original focus on form and 2) those who want to sharply distinguish history and art, discourse and literature, with form as the prerogative of art

"In short, we have a new formalism that makes a continuum with new historicism and a backlash new formalism." (559)

reinstating close reading at the center of the curriculum

"another feature marking new formalism as a whole: reassertion of the critical (and self-critical) agency of which artworks are capable when and only when they are (a) restored to their original, compositional complexity (the position of normative new formalism) or (b) for the activist camp, when they are released from the closures they have suffered through a combination of their own idealizing impulses, their official receptions, and general processes of cultural absorption." (560)

normative new formalism "makes a strong claim for bringing back pleasure as what hooks us and rewards us for reading" (562)

"new formalism as itself a kind of aesthetic or formal commitment. It seeks to fend off the divisiveness encouraged by the kinds of cognitive, ethical, and juridical commitments -- as it were, content commitments -- rife among and effectively defining all the critical practices summed up by the term new historicism, commitments that paradoxically (so new formalism argues) rob our scholarship of its potential for emancipatory and critical agency." (562)

Arthur Bahr and Alexandra Gillespie, "Medieval English Manuscripts: Form, Aesthetics, and the Literary Text," The Chaucer Review 47.4 (2013): 346-60

special issue on formalism + book history / codicology

Leah Price and Seth Lerer, special issue of PMLA, "The History of the Book and the Idea of Literature" -- shows how book history has been set up in distinction to literary theory and formalism

book history has found a home in new historicism, which it itself often seen as in opposition to formalism (see Levinson above)

in this issue, want to ask:

"Book history -- much like the New HIstoricism with which we here loosely group it -- has been set up as a foil to formalism and New Criticism. What can its role be now that questions about form and practices of close reading are of renewed interest?" (348-9)

Robert S. Lehman, "Formalism, Mere Form, and Judgment," New LIterary History 48 (2017): 245-263

Dennis Yi Tenen, "The Emergence of American Formalism," Modern Philology 117.2 (2019): 257-83

slew of plot devices and automated plot-generating machines in late 19 / early 20 c -- precursors to Russian and French branches of formalism and structuralism, forming a "school of American formalism, as I propose to call it, [which] differed fro mits European counterparts in being addressed primarily to the purposes of composition rather than analysis." (258)

a school "not only in the literary-theoretical sense -- manifested in preference for terms such as form, function, structure, technique, method, organizing principle, or mechanism -- but also more broadly, relating to the translation of abstract, often nebulous concepts, such as genius and creativity, into a set of concrete physical operations or procedures." (258-9)

"formalization of literary labor at the turn of the 20c" (260) -- a "species of an industrial modernism" (260)