On Mechanisms’ Materialism: A Reply to Ramón Reichert and Annika Richterich

While I was, naturally enough, pleased to see the coverage accorded Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008) in the editors’ introduction to Digital Culture and Society’s inaugural issue on “Digital Material/ism,” I was also (naturally enough) displeased with Ramón Reichert and Annika Richterich’s final assessment of it and its place in the theory canon. Though they acknowledge the contributions of the book, notably the dual concepts of forensic and formal materiality, they also point to a “certain theoretical vulnerability” (11) which, the reader is told, will be explained in further detail.

There is a backstory here that first ought to be related. In January of this year Reichert contacted me asking if I might be interested in contributing an article to the issue. The CFP he sent included extended (and positive) reference to Mechanisms’ influence. I was flattered and told him so, but declined as my writing schedule could not allow a full-length article; I suggested that we might instead explore the possibility of an interview or some other short format. Reichert replied immediately, expressing enthusiasm, and indicated interview questions would follow. I waited for them but they never came, and we had no further contact until six months later.

On June 28 Reichert, without preamble or any communication in the interim, indeed sent me a list of questions that would form the basis of the interview and asked for my reply within the next three weeks. Under most any other circumstance I would have been delighted by the unexpected renewal of a correspondence I had long since written off (so to speak), but I was then in the home stretch of finishing a project; I asked if an extension might be possible or else if I could instead contribute to a future issue. Reichert took a week to reply that neither of these was possible, and indeed, with that message, truncated the deadline to July 8! (Perhaps a typo, but if so a very unfortunate one.) The questions, for their part, were altogether benign, raising none of the concerns subsequently articulated by the editors in their introduction. To be honest, the questions did not seem especially interesting, nor did they seem to reflect a very careful reading of my work (one asked me to state how novel was the New Materialism, another asked me to comment on the “Internet of Things”). I replied that I would have to pass on the opportunity given the abrupt and non-negotiable deadline.

So now we come to the commentary appearing in the introduction to the Digital Materialism issue (PDF). I quote the most hostile passage in full:

. . . but on the other hand, the term of media forensics emphatically used by Kirschenbaum adopts criminological discourses of searching for the truth (as applied by Bertillon and the National Security Agency alike) in an unreflecting and ahistorical manner, as he regards material-based forensics as an incorruptible method of making digital media culture de facto readable. (12)

This is the entirety of the “further detail” the reader had been promised earlier. There seem to be two primary concerns. The first is the charge of an “ahistorical” adoption of practices rooted in criminalistics and the security state. My book, of course, deals centrally with the technics of digital forensics or computer forensics, as that field is known. Mechanisms’ first chapter explicitly situates these practices in the rise of trace evidence as a category of criminalistics, notably the career of Edmond Locard (in fact Bertillon’s student, whose pseudo-scientific “anthropometry” Locard’s Exchange Principle displaced). More to the point, however, Reichert and Richterich seem to miss entirely (or at least are silent on) the much more extended positioning of the book’s project in relation to the venerable philological traditions of textual studies and bibliography, which early on I describe as “among the most sophisticated branches of media studies we have evolved” (16). Absent a more extended presentation of what they might mean by “ahistorical” I cannot read their language here as more than a reflexive invocation of a specter (the NSA!), in response to the book’s overt discourse on forensics.

The second charge is that of my belief in forensics as “an incorruptible method of making digital media culture de facto readable.” Here I will say only that I cannot imagine how any even moderately careful reader of Mechanisms would come away from its pages — filled with detailed (some might say ponderous) case studies detailing gaps and silences in the media archive — with such a claim. I can do no better by way of reply than to quote what I say in the closing passage of the book:

The mechanism, as articulated in Gibson’s poem, is the agent of irrevocable difference, the shutter of the camera “Forever/Dividing that from this.” This is the very singularity whose mute evidence is incarnate on Leyton’s deserted subway platform. That moment of division, like a dropout on a tape — the point at which the magnetic signal ceases to register above the tolerances of the read/write head — is a synecdoche for dropouts and gaps all over the pres­ent pasts of new media. To Alan Turing, peeping at the lights in his Williams tubes, and to the suburban software cracker listening to the clacking of the drive head as it skips over protected tracks, I would add whatever did or didn’t happen as Kroupa and Templar hit the keys to upload “Agrippa” to MindVox, or whatever “papers” of Michael Joyce’s are not and never will be collected in the Michael Joyce Papers. Now that new media is being actively stored in archives and museums, as well as on the network — deliberately, as in the case of The Agrippa Files; socially, through abandonware sites; or automatically, through Google caches or the crawlers of the Wayback Machine — such absences will become more palpable. We will feel the loss of what is al­ready missing more keenly.

Mechanisms will soon be ten years old (!) and, like any human artifact, is a product of its time and circumstance. The field has moved since then, and Mechanisms is among the many books that helped move it. Mechanisms is also, of course, not above critique, and has been the subject of other critiques (Jean-François Blanchette’s in “A Material History of Bits” being amongst the best I have seen).

So too, however, is Digital Culture and Society a product of time and circumstances, as perhaps some of the particulars rehearsed herein may underscore. Either the editors’ critique, however inchoate, was not yet formulated in late June when Reichert first sent me his interview questions, or, if formulated, was not presented to me for a response that I could have given at that time instead of here and now.

I wish Reichert and Richterich well with the new journal and I look forward to reading many of the contributions in their inaugural issue. All the more reason, then, that I regret that this episode raises, at least for me, questions of confidence both with regard to some particulars of editorial procedure and to the ethos of care required for critical accuracy and truly generative disagreement amid our ineluctably material networks of exchange.

Matthew Kirschenbaum
November 9, 2015