MLA 2014: Deletion, Erasure, Cancellation: Negative Textualities
Update: Our panel is scheduled for Saturday, January 11, from 12:00 noon-1:15 pm.
Another Update: Andrew Ferguson of the University of Virginia has joined our panel! See below for an updated summary.
I’m thrilled that my proposed special session “Deletion, Erasure, Cancellation: Negative Textualities” has been accepted for MLA 2014 in Chicago! I’m excited to be presenting with Laura All, Derek Beaulieu, Chuk Moran, Marjorie Luesbrink — a truly interdisciplinary group of thinkers who I think will bring great insight and creativity to this topic. Our original proposal is below, and I’ll post more information closer to the convention — join us in Chicago!
This roundtable offers a new approach to textual and media studies through close consideration of practices such as deletion, erasure, and cancellation—acts that might collectively be termed “negative” textual operations. Recent critical trends in media studies have drawn crucially necessary attention to the materiality of media, expanding scholarly attention within the field beyond its early focus on narrative and representation. Our conversation seeks to build upon and extend this attention to materiality through a specific focus on texts, practices, and histories that hinge on various forms of textual removal. In attending to these negative operations, we intend to foster discussion of a framework in which qualities such as absence, removal, residuality, blankness, and illegibility become essential criteria for critical analysis as well as for authorial and artistic production.
While the question of deletion and erasure has roots that date back at least to early poststructuralist thought, it has new relevance within a moment in which textual materiality is newly at stake in a variety of critical conversations. How might we describe the aesthetics of deletion and erasure across various media forms? What do these practices, and the textual absences they produce, tell us about the materiality of inscription? About authorship, readership, and memory? About how textual artifacts circulate between public and private domains? How might they reshape the very ways in which we write the histories of media and literature?
Laura All begins our consideration of these questions with a textual history of asterisks, dashes, and ellipses as placeholder marks within eighteenthcentury novels. She groups these blanks under the category of expletives, marks that stand in for content that is outside the printable, whether obscene or sublime. All shows how expletives play a pivotal role in early print’s constantly shifting process of self calibration. As literally unspeakable characters, they draw attention to their printed status, constituting a unique visual grammar. All argues that expletives’ textual idiosyncrasy is a powerful hermeneutic axis for the history of the book, revealing a permeable epistemological border between author and reader and negotiating between public and private in print.
By tracing the early history of the computer undo command, Chuk Moran offers a theory of the temporality of digital deletion. While computer users today expect that any action on the computer can be undone, the undo command did not become common until the 1980s. In providing a new means of error correction, it also shifted the temporal and textual axes of a wide range of knowledge work. Before realtime computing, users entered an entire program at once and the computer processed it all at once, whereas interactive computing let users fix mistakes along the way through the undo command. Moran argues that by allowing users to reverse the commands they entered—in other words, to delete and reenter information—the undo command positioned deletion as itself a consistent action that was central to a wide range of textual labor.
Marjorie Luesebrink discusses erosion in “born digital” literature in order to consider deletion and erasure with regard to the archive and the literary canon. Tracing the technological history of electronic literature, she shows how changes in hardware and software have dramatically changed readerly experience and access, with some significant phases of electronic literature effectively deleted from any possible historical canon. Early works from the 1990s, for example, cannot be “read” in their original form on contemporary computers, and working computers that can read these texts are increasingly rare, resulting in a historical friction in which seminal developments in this form are effectively erased from literary history, caught between the conflicting vectors of obsolescence and innovation. Considering the historical erasure of several pioneering works, Luesebrink argues for a more sensitive approach to the curation of electronic textuality.
Andrew Ferguson focuses on how digital deletion links video game culture to the archival dimensions of the recent National Security Agency surveillance scandal. In the course of justifying his agency’s massive data hoard, NSA director Keith Alexander recently spoke of his desire to “collect it all”—a phrasing that draws a curious parallel between the NSA and Pokémon. Ferguson carries this parallel to Pokémon Red & Blue to an analysis of the “Missing No.” glitch, which when captured can delete the entire game cartridge. The lesson of Pokémon, he suggests, is that the erasure will eventually escape the archive: the claimed rewards of totalizing collection are always balanced by much vaster risks (or, from another perspective, liberatory potential), up to and including systematic overwriting.
In order to explore how negative textual operations trouble the boundaries between public and private, Paul Benzon turns to redaction, the process of blacking out, overwriting, or otherwise concealing sensitive political information in order to make a private document suitable for public dissemination. Benzon argues that redacted documents occupy a paradoxical middle ground between the public and the private, and between writing and cancellation: at the same time that the marks of redaction effectively remove crucial information from the public record, they cannot help but add to that record through their own blank, mute testimony. Reading several technical briefs on redaction from the National Security Agency alongside Jenny Holzer’s 2006 series Redaction Paintings, he shows how redaction’s profoundly material concealments of text frame censorship as a form of writing that is uncomfortably hybrid and uneasily public.
Whether deletion, erasure, and cancellation take place as a result of authorial intervention, of material technological affordances, or of institutional or cultural tensions, they are ripe for a more fully articulated critical and historical context. In seeking to establish such a context, our roundtable brings together perspectives from book history, media studies, the digital humanities, and poetic practice, offering a conversation that will interest MLA members working in a wide range of periods, genres, and media. With each participant offering a timed opening provocation of no more than ten minutes, this session sets aside considerable time for discussion, in hopes of instigating a dynamic exchange on a novel topic with broad appeal.