Lecture: On Hayles’ “Intermediation: From Page to Screen”

A Hypertext Editing System Console at Brown Univeristy, 1969.
A Hypertext Editing System Console at Brown Univeristy, 1969. Photograph by Greg Lloyd. Some rights reserved.
In the “Intermediation: From Page to Screen” chapter of  Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, N. Katherine Hayles introduces the concept of intermediation as a way of understanding the complex interactions taking place between a human reading a work of electronic literature and the text themselves as they are performed by “an intelligent machine” (44). Intermediation, she explains, is derived from Nicholas Gessler’s work on dynamic hierarchies, which Hayles renames dynamic heterarchies.

A dynamic hierarchy or heterarchy, Hayles explains, is “a multitiered system of feedback and feedforward loops” in which the feedback and feedforward loops continually circulate throughout a system (45). She uses the example of a fetus in the womb as an example: “The mother’s body is forming the fetus, but the fetus is also re-forming the mother’s body; both are bound together in a dynamic heterarchy, the culmination of which is the emergent complexity of an infant” (45).

This concept of dynamic heterarchies is important for our understanding of human-computer interactions because, as Hayles notes, we have long known that humans both shape their tools and are in turn shaped by their tools, and we have evidence that his has been the case since Paleolithic times (47). This is, I’ll note, one of the driving assumptions behind the work of Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong: We shape our tools and our tools shape us. It’s worth recalling the OHM Thesis at this point, which states that:

“technologies of representation, communication, and mediation, when adopted widely in any cultural setting, and maintained over at least a generation or two of use, begin to alter fundamentally the cultural epistemologies and discursive practices of that culture” (Casaregola, 211).

Compare the OHM Thesis with Hayles’ description of Gessler’s dynamic hierarchies:

“a first-level emergent pattern is captured in another medium, which leads to an emergent result captured in turn by yet another medium, and so forth. The result is what researchers in artificial life call a ‘dynamic hierarchy,’ a multi-tiered system in which feedback and feedforward loops tie the system together through continuing interactions circulating throughout the hierarchy […]. Distinguished by their degree of complexity, different levels continuously inform and mutually determine each other” (45).

While we have long existed as part of a dynamic hierarchy/heterarchy1 with our tools, Hayles argues that computers are significantly different than tools such as “a hammer or a stone ax” because “a computer has much more flexibility, interactivity, and cognitive power” (48). For example, she notes, unlike other kinds of technologies, computers “are able to handle both natural language and programming code,” a feature that allows for the creation of “complex human-computer networks” (48). In short, because humans and computers can communicate with each other, we exist in a much more complex dynamic system with computers than with other tools.

Intermediation, then, is the movement of feedback and feedforward within a dynamic heterarchy that takes place across mediums such as between humans and computers: “Humans engineer computers and computers reengineer humans in systems bound together by recursive feedback and feedforward loops, with emergent complexities catalyzed by leaps between different media substrates and levels of complexity [that is, between humans and computers]” (48).

So, how does this relate to reading electronic literature such as Michael Joyce’s “Twelve Blue,” Maria Mencia’s “Birds Singing Other Bird’s Songs,” and Judd Morrisey’s “The Jew’s Daughter”? As Hayles explains in her discussions of each – and foregrounds in her discussion of “Twelve Blue,” reading these texts isn’t a straightforward process, especially if we approach them from the perspective of print. In fact, the Oulipo’s combinatory literature (such as Queneau’s “A Story As You LIke It” and Fournel’s “The Theater Tree: A Combinatory Play”) and interactive fiction, both of which we looked at during Week 6, far more conform to a print-based reading sensibility than the three examples of electronic literature that we’ve looked at this week. 

As Hayles explains, we don’t read texts like Joyce’s “Twelve Blue,” Mencia’s “Birds Singing Other Bird’s Songs,” and Morrisey’s “The Jew’s Daughter” so much as we explore or play/perform them. We find our way in by interacting with them in some way, and our interactions change the texts, which in turn gives us new meaning. Each new interaction brings about new changes to the text which in turn provides us newer patterns that we then decipher and draw upon as we decide our next form of interaction, and so on and so forth. In short, to read a work of electronic literature such as the three texts we’ve looked at this week, we enter into a dynamic heterarchy with that text, and this all happens through the act(s) of intermediation.

  1. Hayles explains that she prefers the term heterarchy to foreground the fact that all levels of the system interact and influence each other in a dynamic fashion in ways that we’re not used to seeing in hierarchical systems (45).

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