Interface poetics – A review of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound by Lori Emerson

Article Information

  • Author(s): Zara Dinnen
  • Affiliation(s): Department of English Literature, University of Birmingham
  • Publication Date: 15th January 2016
  • Issue: 5
  • Citation: Zara Dinnen. “Interface poetics – A review of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound by Lori Emerson.” Computational Culture 5 (15th January 2016).


Review of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, Lori Emerson, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 2014, 232 pages, 41 b&w photos, ISBN: 9780816691265

In his review of the iPhone 6 for The Guardian, the writer, broadcaster, comedian and “Twitter personality” Stephen Fry expressed all kinds of awe and wonderment at the advancements Apple had made. The iPhone 6s are, for Fry, not only ‘utterly gorgeous objects […] of absolutely exquisite dimensions, heft and feel’, but their high end audio, display and camera specs are by turns ‘ravishing’ and ‘devastating’. Fry winds up the piece with a reference to the iPhone’s new WiFi capabilities:

There’s barely space for me to talk about the extraordinary new Wi-Fi calling option, which allows you to hold a conversation using wireless at home or the office and continue seamlessly as you move out of WiFi range—allowing the LTE (4G) mobile network (EE in the UK’s case) to take over without a blip with Voiceover LTE. (italics added)
Writing before the iPhone 6 launch Lori Emerson dryly notes, ‘[i]deally, the seamlessness of ubiquitous computing devices will make even choice itself recede into the background. In the imagined near future, things will simply happen and we will simply do’ (3). Although Reading Writing Interfaces, Emerson’s first monograph, is primarily a media archaeological dig amongst the ruins of media poetics—Dom Sylvester Houéard’s “typestracts”, Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ web poetics, Emily Dickinson’s fascicle volumes [1]—it is also a consistently careful, timely, and emphatic rebuke of the writing of the tech industry itself, and the incantatory logic of seamlessness and ubiquity as progress.

Lori Emerson is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Director of the Media Archaeology Lab. The MAL is ‘a place for cross-disciplinary experimental research and teaching using obsolete tools, hardware, software and platforms, from the past’ [2]. In some respects Emerson’s book reflects the ethos of her lab; it is a collection of textual artefacts, obsolete and forgotten. Emerson’s work in her book and the MAL is to attend to such texts and position them as a set of live and ongoing concerns. In Reading Writing Interfaces it is the “interface” that leads Emerson’s analysis. The interfaces of Emerson’s title are the specific texts she critiques, but also at stake in this book is the status of the “interface” as a site of media enquiry. In the introduction to Reading Writing Interfaces Emerson draws on Alexander Galloway’s work in The Interface Effect to figure the interface as ‘a kind of magician’s cape, continually revealing (mediatic layers, bits of information, etc.) through concealing and concealing as it reveals’ (x).

The book is framed by the pull to think of personal digital devices and actions as interface-free: it begins with a critique of Apple’s black boxed iPad, and ubiquitous computing, and ends with a postscript on the “googlization of literature,” which is to say the googlization of the Internet. In between these analyses of a public, general, technological discourse, Emerson makes ‘archaeological cuts’ into a range of media poetic practices. The second chapter surveys the period from the 1960s to 1980s when personal computing moves from being ideologically and technically open, to ‘the ideology of the user friendly’. In the second chapter Emerson combines close reading of computer industry marketing rhetoric—from magazines such as Byte, and Macworld—with readings of digital literature from the period by bpNichol, Geof Huth, and Paul Zelevansky. Working back and getting stuck in history, the third chapter looks at the 1960s and 70s and the influence of Marshall McLuhan on the typewriter poetics of Steve McCaffrey and Dom Sylvester Houédard. Emerson demonstrates how ‘these poems express and enact a poetics of the remarkably varied material specificities of the typewriter as particular kind of mechanical writing interface that necessarily inflects both how and what one writes’ (88). The fourth chapter is a mediation on the fascicles of Emily Dickinson. This chapter is the deepest cut Emerson makes and offers the most in the way of a new movement between the digital and other, obsolete media devices, interfaces. Key to the connections made in this chapter is the way discussion of the material text is placed alongside a mediation on the work of composition. This chapter recalls some of the methods of N. Katherine Hayles in Writing Machines (2002), but the connections Emerson draws between Dickinson’s fascicles and the DIY tinkery and thinkery of late twentieth century typewriting and personal computing are fresh, and inspired by Emerson’s commitment to considering moments of ‘readingwriting’ as distinct interpellations of the user (163). [3]

Emerson’s methodology combines the call to media archaeological practice of Jussi Parikka, Wolfgang Ernst, Siegfried Zielinski, with the media critique of Marshall McLuhan. It enables a generative mode of literary critique and media specific analysis: ‘[…] my hope is that a media archaeological-inflected reading […] can refamiliarize the reading/writing interfaces we use every day so we can look, once again, at our interfaces rather than through them’ (130). In Emerson’s work, reading Emily Dickinson after Marshall McLuhan, or the code poetics of John Caley alongside the net art practices of Constance Dullart and UBERMORGEN, is not a practice of indexing formal remediation, or repetition, rather it is a bringing together of distinct textual interventions that might express a similar poetics, a similar politics. The term ‘refamiliarization’ is perhaps misleading in this regard: it implies a reader/writer who has already been knowledgeable of media interfaces as interfaces—which necessarily means a knowledge of what the interface conceals as well as reveals. Although as users of media objects we all encounter the interface until we learn to forget it, to see past it, we don’t all necessarily know how the interface functions. This is where Emerson’s book began: with the user as passive audience for the new-tech-magic-show.

Throughout the book Emerson demonstrates precisely the ways the texts she looks at serve a kind of pedagogical function, writing the reader into a position of knowledge by praxis, perhaps for the first time. Writing about Steve McCaffrey’s Carnival, Emerson reads against McCaffrey’s own assertions of this typewriterly text as pure “physical” language, and instead suggests the manic marks are indexing the writerly labour, the writer’s process:

It is partly the evidence of the sheer volume of labor executed over a period of years, all of which took place within the stringent confines of a typewriter carriage, that makes the work less about what is written and more about how it provides a record of the labor of writing that doubles as a kind of how-to guide to writing (123).

Here the attention to the media device as writing, and writing as always media poetics, goes some way to pushing back on the tendency to bracket digital literature, and digital poetic literacy, as “Electronic Literature” (and the canon that the category denotes) [4]. Brewing in Emerson’s work is a way of reading/writing ‘expertise’ as an interface. The pedagogical aspect of this work intimates a desire to witness the way technological expertise might itself be an obfuscating interface, getting in the way of the coming into being of a more knowledgeable user [5].

Reading Writing Interfaces tasks itself with making visible the interface as metaphor—a paradoxical metaphor determined by the effacing mechanics of computation—and the interface as a material articulation of reading/writing practices. Like the conceal-and-reveal mode of the interface, Emerson explicitly registers a desire for a discourse that can include not only multiple media—digital and analogue, new and old, print and pixel—but also those experiences where mediation goes unnoticed. Although Emerson locates her work in media archaeology, this book gestures at a less proscribed critical terrain. In Galloway’s The Interface Effect, Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinksa’s Life After New Media, recent art writing on post-net aesthetics [6] and, to an extent, in the burgeoning practice of media archaeology itself, we can locate an attentiveness to the everyday embeddedness of digital media that is also an academic separation of the computational from an everyday life; a move made so as to see more clearly the ways the computational works on and in everyday life. Emerson’s work is an important contribution to the study of media poetics, and to the academic reception of the particular writers and readers given attention in the book. A connected but distinct legacy of Reading Writing Interfaces may be its registering of and participation in an emerging critical discourse, one concerned with the ways we “see” and “read” and live the increasingly invisible interfaces of everyday digital media.



[1] Fascicles are bundles, or loosely bound volumes. After Dickinson’s death a large number of unpublished poetry was discovered in the form of fascicles.

[2] From the “About” section of the MAL website <>

[3] Throughout the book Emerson moves between reading/writing and readingwriting as well as reading writing. This move is not formally framed here, but is reminiscent of WJT Mitchell’s image/text, imagetext, image-text. See Mitchell Picture Theory (1994).

[4] For a critique of the canon-forming tendency of much work on digital poetics see Caroline Bassett, “Canonicalism and the Computation Turn” (2012).

[5] Emerson discusses the function of expertise at length in forthcoming book project Other Networks.

[6] See the collection You Are Here: Art After the Internet, edited by Omar Kholeif (2014) and Gene McHugh’s Post Internet (2011).



Bassett, Caroline. “Canonicalism and the Computational Turn.” Understanding Digital Humanities. Ed. David M Berry. Hampshire: Palgrave, 2012. 105-126.

Fry, Stephen. “Stephen Fry’s iPhone 6 verdict: the most exquisite mobile ever made”. The Guardian. 17 September 2014.

Galloway, Alexander, R. The Interface Effect. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2002.

Kember, Sarah and Joanna Zylinska. Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. Camb., Mass.: MIT P, 2012.

Kholeif, Omar, ed. You Are Here: Art After the Internet. Manchester: Cornerhouse Publications, 2014.

McHugh, Gene. Post Internet: Notes on the Internet and Art 12.29.09 > 09.05.10. Brescia: Link Editions, 2011.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.