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20 november 2021

Matthew Kirschenbaum's Bitstreams is subtitled The future of digital literary heritage, though a large portion of the book is about the past. Adapting a series of lectures he gave at Penn in 2016, Kirschenbaum writes about four exemplary cases in trying to study bibliographical evidence in the computer age: the diskettes of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved (1987), the hypertext poems of William Dickey and the unique font experiments of poet Kamau Brathwaite (1980s-'90s), and the weird ephemeral quality of the physical book S. (2013) by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.

Bibliography is concerned with extending the life of archives of the past into the future, so students of books are always thinking in both temporal directions at once. For most of literary history, we have the most limited of archives. Whatever bits of papyrus, paper, or parchment that Ovid or Dante wrote the drafts of their poems on have long since fed fires, one would imagine deliberately. Once the verse was safely fair-copied, somebody most likely used Chaucer's worksheets for the Canterbury Tales as kindling or spills. We owe our knowledge of the literatures of the distant past to bibliographers who copied and recopied those works for libraries, ultimately preserving only a few of the youngest copies in the tradition, before the poems reached the presumably inexhaustible safe space of print.

There was a sweet spot in the record of literary composition, between the early 19th and late 20th centuries. A great deal from that era has been lost, for sure, but authors and their publics began to become aware of the value – even as mere memorabilia – of holograph manuscripts, and then typescripts; of editorial correspondence, of corrected proofs. A library might collect literally tons of paper recording the composition of famous novels: I have been to Bloomington, Indiana to touch Lew Wallace's manuscript of Ben-Hur, and to Iowa City to leaf through the piles of research materials that Mackinlay Kantor consulted when writing Andersonville. Kirschenbaum's example is The Waste Land, where T.S. Eliot's writing process (and the editorial interventions of Ezra Pound) are known in painstaking detail.

Of course, why one would want to know the step-by-step assembly of The Waste Land, let alone Ben-Hur or Andersonville, leads to a big "so-what" question. Kirschenbaum confronts this problem head-on at the start. His answer is basically "because it's there."

Knowledge is not instrumental … we can never know when or why or in what context seemingly recondite facts and expertise will be deemed suddenly urgent and essential. (2)

But what if it's not there anymore? The vast 21st-century enterprise of digital copying and recopying, Kirschenbaum says, seems even safer and less exhaustible than manuscript and print libraries; but he argues that the permanence of the "bitstream" is deceptive. "Digital memory is always degenerative and in need of active regeneration" (31). Not only are the things we see on screens today (including what you're reading now) traces that have to be continually refreshed and re-adapted to be legible, but the data they're based on is always deteriorating. Kirschenbaum riffs on the destructive power of dust – an ancient metaphor that is all too literal in the digital age. The "cloud" is not immaterial. It is a bunch of chips and circuits in a vast building in Nevada or Norway, and it needs huge amounts of energy and constant maintenance. It doesn't always reliably receive it, and thus a great many of the traces of literature since 1985 or so have been lost.

And so Kirschenbaum necessarily talks about the past, even if it's a relatively recent past. Of his case studies, the essay on Beloved is the most interesting. Morrison's novel straddles the typescript and diskette ages, and its manuscripts, partly papers ruined by fire and partly floppies ruined by the disappearance of the programs needed to read them, are an Ozymandias-like warning about impermanence, from just a few decades ago.

The chapter on Dickey and Brathwaite is certainly interesting, but oddly the most dated part of Bitstreams. In the last years of the 20th century, everybody was wild about hypertext; human communication was no longer going to be linear, but would be a radically decentralized, democratized jumping-around that would make readers into co-creators. But then it wasn't, anymore, and writing became univocal again, mediated by Google and social media instead of the whim of its audiences and the verve of its creators. So to look at William Dickey's hyperpoems, or Brathwaite's idiosyncratic designs that were facilitated by early advances in digital fonts, is to peek back at artforms dead almost before they were born, experiments without a future and without even much of a past or even an existence.

S., all the more, seems like an idiosyncrasy too, though a very recent one: a print artifact with a digital penumbra. These too seemed the future of literature at one point (think too of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, 2000) but are now curiosities that never caught on.

Of course, Kirschenbaum must go to the past to see what futures, based on the understandings of past traces, might someday exist. So his focus on real examples is commendable in its way, even if it doesn't help us much understand what's happening now in literary composition, let alone in the future. Bitstreams may have its limitations, but it is not some sort of vatic musing about future generalities. The book is keenly addressed toward the concrete aspects of literary study. And perhaps its most haunting takeaway is Kirschenbaum's reminder that as much as we pride ourselves on escaping the physical, we are still utterly dependent on material objects.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Bitstreams: The future of digital literary heritage. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021. Z 1001.3 .K57