CSI: Afternoons Infected by Cherry Tree Mysteries

One of the most captivating moments in reading Matthew Kirschenbaum's forensic exploration of Mechanisms this week was his – as I initially thought – completely arbitrary need to specify precisely that he had viewed all objects discussed in his book "on a Dell Latitude x 300 Windows XP laptop with a 1.20 GHz processor and 632 MB of RAM, sound turned on" (22). I admit, at first I considered this specification as an off-handed joke with which Kirschenbaum merely indicates the scrutiny (in a forensic sense) he has applied to his examinations of electronic objects. After all, why would this matter to me as his reader? In reading (and thinking) further through this book, however, I soon learned that, yes, it does matter, and it matters in very deterministic ways particularly in considering digital objects from a humanistic perspective – and not only as a way of ascertaining forensic scrutiny. As Kirschenbaum clarifies at the end of his introduction, the "forensic imagination" as he applies it to "new media" had been "conceived as a deeply humanistic way of knowing, one that assigns value to time, history, and social or material circumstance – even trauma and wear – as part of our thinking… . Product and process, artifact and event, forensic and formal, awareness of the mechanism modulates inscription and transmission through the singularity of a digital present" (23). Perhaps the examination of digital objects is not so far removed from literary research after all.

In writing about books (here, I mean to use the word 'book' as codex), aren't we already used to describing such aspects as edition, printing, provenance, even such aspects as the particular exemplar used from a specific library in our bibliographies? Perhaps, we might even state where (in terms of physical space) we have encountered, examined, and read the book – such as, 'in the reading room of a particular library's special archive.' And, as humanists, we do make these specifications because we recognize that these bibliographic codes do matter not only to our experience of the text, but also to our interpretation of it. It does make a difference – and a rather significant one – which particular rendition of a text I am examining, and this difference increases proportionally with the detail I examine the book for. If, for example, I examine a specific artifact for an inscription, then this particular (in this case physical) object is individuated (to use Kirschenbaum's language) insofar as it is the only object in existence exhibiting this precise state of being. Perhaps this is precisely Kirschenbaum's point in his discussion of the forensic and formal materialities of digital objects: Despite the perceived infinite duplicability of digital objects, their individual identity persists in a manner not less, but perhaps even more significant than is the case for 'physical' objects (I am placing the word physical in scare quotes here to emphasize, in accordance with Kirschenbaum, that digital objects are no less physical than what we would generally perceive to be physical – in other words, those objects we can discern directly and unaided by digital means).

In a way, I am reminded here of what has (at least at UNL) become to be known as Andrew Jewell's infamous "glue stain incident" in the Walt Whitman Archive, during which "Jewell, having spent far too much time looking at manuscript scans, noticed that a glue stain on a manuscript at the University of Virginia matched one on a manuscript at Dartmouth, thus proving that, at some point, Whitman had fastened the two manuscripts together as one" (Gailey, 128, detailed citation below). Perceivably, this discovery could have been made by some very thorough, and highly forensically oriented, traditional scholar (the kind that travels from library to library), but the important point here is that, as Gailey continues to argue, "the discovery was enabled by digitization – he was unlikely to have compared distributed manuscripts otherwise – but directly resulted from searching in the old sense: a thorough, explorative scrutiny" (128). Similar to Jewell's conjecture of Whitman's (temporal) juxtaposition of two now separated manuscripts, Kirschenbaum's discovery (perhaps, re-covery) of remnants of overwritten files in his examination of the Mystery House disk allows him conjectures about how, and perhaps why, a certain object has been manipulated over time for a variety of purposes and effects – even to the extent that he can make informed assumptions about the personality and habits of the person who once owned the disk (Kirschenbaum 129).

The important point I'm trying to make here (which I believe to be Kirschenbaum's as well) is that the individuation of an object (and, consequently, its forensic value) perhaps depends much less on its pristine condition than on its very condition of 'having been used' – in essence displacing the importance of an object from its state to its temporal condition. A mere 'clean' transcription of Whitman's manuscript to the exclusion of bibliographic codes – glue smudges – would have served Jewell just as much as a hot-off-the-press, still shrink-wrapped copy of a Mystery House disk would have served Kirschenbaum. The consideration of what Kirschenbaum defines as "formal materiality" then produces precisely the possibility of forensic materiality in comparison – and only as such.

One last example of what I've tried to illuminate in this post thus far is perhaps this blog in itself. I am writing an initial version of what is visible on this page in a Word 2010 document on an Acer Aspire One notebook with a upgraded 60 GB solid state hard drive, 2 GB of RAM, with a 32-bit operating system, and an Intel(R) Atom(TM) CPU N450 processor running at 1.66 GHz (sound off). This post will be transferred to a mark-down file, which will be fed into Jekyll 1.2.1, and run through the Ruby interpreter 2.0.0p0, which will result in a set of HTML and CSS files, then uploaded and hosted via GitHub, visually inspected with Google Chrome v30.0.1599.101. Why does this matter? Perhaps it doesn't. And yet (as I have done so in the past), these very specifications may explain such simple things as why I forgot to replace a special character (an umlaut) with its Unicode character, and thus why you may see this very post differently from how I wrote it. It matters just as much as it constitutes matter, as Kirschenbaum would argue.


Gailey, Amanda. "A Case for Heavy Editing: The Example of Race and Children's Literature in the Gilded Age." The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age. Eds. Amy E. Earhart and Andrew Jewell. Ann Arbor (MI): University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print. 125-144.

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