Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage

by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021, 160 pp.
Paperback $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8122-2495-5

Over a decade ago, I was part of the curatorial team at Emory University that was charged with creating an exhibition to celebrate the acquisition of Salman Rushdie’s papers. We were excited—and somewhat mystified—to receive Rushdie’s old computers in the collection. What exactly does one do with those? The answer was to create an emulator that allowed users to poke around his born-digital materials. What was unclear, however, was how our venture into media archaeology could transform literary studies. If only we’d had Matthew Kirschenbaum’s new book Bitstreams.

“Book history increasingly shades into media history” (xi), Matthew Kirschenbaum declares in Bitstreams, a compelling book drawn from his 2016 A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography at the University of Pennsylvania. This parenthetical aside in the preface speaks to one of the key interventions that Kirschenbaum makes as he grapples with a fundamental question at the interface of digital media and literary studies: how does a writer’s use of digital technologies in the act of composition shape the work of the literary critic that follows?

Kirschenbaum defines the titular “bitstreams” as both “any contiguous sequence of bits for storage or transmission” and “a complete copy and surrogate for all data contained on some unique piece of storage media” (ix). A critical question these bitstreams raise for Kirschenbaum is how they affect the production of literary texts and, in turn, the interpretative work of critics. Divided into three chapters and a coda, Bitstreams points towards the range of investigations that digital literary archives make possible, from readings of Beloved informed by Toni Morrison’s floppy disks, to the poetic interventions William Dickey achieved through the Macintosh HyperCard software, to the significance of Kamau Brathwaite’s deployment of typefaces as part of his Sycorax Video Style poetics, to the messy bookishness of Doug Dorst’s S.

In addition to his insightful analysis of the influence of digital media on book history, where Kirschenbaum’s book particularly excels is in his critical insights on the habits of mind and cognitive processes that subtend the kinds of literary investigations one might undertake in digital literary archives. That is, Bitstreams points towards answers to the very question with which those of us working on the Rushdie born-digital archive were grappling in the late ‘00s: what exactly does one do with those? Even once we had a working prototype for the emulator, the implications for literary interpretation weren’t clear. Mildly voyeuristic excitement about snooping through Rushdie’s emails with Bono? Sure. Nostalgia for the visual elements of a ’90s Mac operating system? Absolutely. How to approach the drafts of The Ground Beneath Her Feet beyond open Apple + F to count words? Not so much.

Kirschenbaum’s rich description of working with Toni Morrison’s papers at Princeton, among his other investigations, demonstrates what writers’ digital archives make possible. He emphasizes the materiality of the computational technologies that writers employ, making the case that scholarship on bibliography—both now and in the future—requires readers to recognize that digital technologies are not just tools that writers use but are forms of media that are transforming the very nature of their writing. Moreover, Kirschenbaum attends to the intersections of race, writing, and technology, examining how Morrison’s identity as a Black woman writer and Brathwaite’s as Barbadian poet add additional layers of mediation to their use of technology and, in turn, our interpretations of their digital literary archives.

Bitstreams offers an explicit vision of how to excavate our digital literary pasts, but what is less clear is the future. How will we grapple with the writing of the fictional poet in Kirschenbaum’s introduction, whose reliance on Google Docs might foreclose bibliographic inquiry in the future? How do we understand the effects of what Safiya Umoja Noble terms “algorithms of oppression” or what Ruha Benjamin calls “the New Jim Code” on the technologies that mediate writing by Black, Indigenous, or postcolonial writers? To be clear, these are not limitations of Kirschenbaum’s book, but rather just a few of the rich avenues of inquiry that Kirschenbaum opens up for those of us working in African diaspora and postcolonial studies through the heuristic laid bare in Bitstreams. What Kirschenbaum makes legible is that —as with analog and hybrid analog-digital literary archives of the past —the work of the literary critic in the digital age is to mediate between the inevitable gaps and slippages at the intersections of identity, cultural production, and media, whether from the singed papers rescued from Morrison’s home, the bit rot of antiquated storage devices, or the black boxed data on proprietary platforms. (To say nothing of writers who embrace file naming conventions like “RisamBitstreamsFinal.docx,” “RisamBitstreamsFinalFinal.docx” and “RisamBitstreamsACTUALFINAL.docx.”)

With clear and spare language that deftly breaks down complex concepts for non-specialists without sacrificing the nuance for disciplinary specialists, Bitstreams is an impressive example of how to speak across audiences (e.g., archivists, literary scholars, historians) and undertake the work of translation that is necessary to make the digital legible to the literary and vice versa. To that end, I could have used Bitstreams several years ago when I was asked by an eminent senior scholar to write an essay on Rushdie’s work. With a vague sense of what the Rushdie emulator might make possible, I proposed to work with the born-digital archive, with the goal of offering insight on the material value of the digital archive for literary interpretation. The scholar responded, “But those are just files on a computer. That’s not special.” I was advised, instead, to look at the paper manuscript of Fury and share my insights. I declined.

When I encountered Kirschenbaum’s note in the coda that the Rushdie emulator has yet to produce a major literary breakthrough, I thought back to that conversation. At a point when, unlike my initial experience with the emulator, I could see that those files might be special, I did not have the language to explain to the senior scholar why and how. If only I’d had Bitstreams—and, fortunately, now we all do.

Roopika Risam, Salem State University