deleting texts: a formal and forensic materiality

To combat the cultural expectation of the fleeting electronic text and the “illusion of immaterial behavior” that the digital environment projects, Matthew Kirschenbaum brings into focus the mechanisms that facilitate inscription and transmission in Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.

Key to this discussion is Krischenbaum’s classification of forensic and formal materiality. Forensic materiality is used to refer to the physical manipulation of magnetic impressions on the rotating platters of hard drives.  He emphasizes the stability of the trace on the hard disk drive, recounting stories of data recovered from “deleted” drives sold on eBay to those hard drives excavated and completely restored from the ground zero site at the World Trade Center. Formal materiality on the other hand is an emphasis on the manipulation of symbols. We experience it as buttons on the screen or a blank page that we fill with writing. These are negotiations between applications and the operating system, conceptual and logical objects, beneath which occurs the material exchanges of inscription and erasure on the physical object, the hard disk drive.

Formally, an erasure can take place on the computer screen as file in the trash can or sentence in a document deleted. The file, however, forensically may remain intact on the hard drive as a physical object. Physical erasure takes place at a variable granularity of the trace, the inscription.

Kirschenbaum’s work is primarily concerned with accurately preserving digital works which accounts for his immersion into the substratum of the electronic text. In this he follows historical precedent in literary theory: “we can effectively address questions of literary history or interpretation … until we know how books have been created and reproduced; how books have been preserved and destroyed.”

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