What constitutes the flesh of a work? Does a word have flesh? Does a book have flesh? Does a film have flesh? Does digital media have flesh? A book has weight, an odor, a certain texture in our hands. It has pages that can be turned, torn, written upon, recycled, and burned. The pages themselves are generally made from wood pulp, the processed innards (or flesh) of a tree. And books are sometimes bound with leather, covers made of cured animal skins later dressed by book conservationists to keep them pliable. The stuff used for leather dressing sounds almost like the list of ingredients for a facial moisturizer, a mixture of lanolin, cedar oil, and beeswax.
When we read, we engage the physical object of the book in an intimate way, each of us handling books with our own idiosyncrasies. Some readers will delicately cradle an open book in two hands, whereas others will forcefully bend the cover back and pinch the book tightly between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. The former method privileges the reader’s ability to move easily back and forth through the pages, with already-read pages and about-to-be-read pages always visible; on the other hand, the latter method focuses the reader’s attention only on the page of text they are currently reading, since already-read pages are (somewhat violently) twisted back around the spine and concealed from view. These are only two examples of how the way we handle the physical object of the book has a direct affect on how we engage its content.
Printed words certainly have flesh in a metaphorical sense, since typographical choices can also have a direct effect on how we process the ideas expressed through printed words. We engage the flesh of a word when we become absorbed in how a word looks on the page, but we engage the flesh of a word even more literally when we notice and concern ourselves with how a word feels as it comes out of our mouths. Each word has a shape, a part of our mouths, lungs, throat, or gut that it tickles or mobilizes into action.
A film’s emulsion is a sort of flesh, a flesh that can degrade or dissolve. The mass-market consumption of a film can turn this flesh into meat. (The same is true when a book or a word or a web site loses its intrinsic value and becomes merely something for consumers to devour.) A film can also be said to have flesh in the way that it has the potential to engage us in a very visceral way. The book also has this potential, but the very practice of film spectatorship seems to emphasize the ability of a film to take control of us (and our bodies) in a direct (and sometimes inescapable) way. We watch in a darkened theater without the distraction of other external physical stimuli. Perhaps, it makes less sense to say that we devour the film and more sense to say that it devours us.
What, then, are the implications for digital media, which is transforming the ways we read and view texts? Does a digital media text have flesh in the same way that these other texts do? What different shape does that flesh take? Some initial, tentative observations:
Web-based texts do not command attention in the same way that books and films do. They invite us to (or even demand that we) do other things with our eyes, brains, and bodies even as we engage with the work. At current, as I write this, I have 9 windows open on my computer, each vying for my attention. Additionally, the files on my desktop are visible behind the windows. Some of these windows have several frames in further competition. Advertisements. E-mail. Documents. Widgets. Chat interfaces. What effect do each of these have on how I might engage a digital text? Do each of these layers of distractions serve to erode the flesh of the digital text?
Charles Bernstein writes in “Artifice of Absorption,” “The intersection / of absorption & impermeability is precisely / flesh” (86). Perhaps, the digital text, in moving back and forth so rapidly between engagement and distraction, can be said to have even more flesh (or potential for flesh) than other kinds of texts. Does the complexity of a digital text force us to use more senses when we engage it? Do the seeming distractions on the computer screen actually lead us to make more profound associational leaps when reading digital literature?
Bernstein continues, “The thickness / of words ensures that whatever / of their physicality is erased, or engulfed, in / the process of semantic projection, / a residue / tenaciously in- / heres that will not be sublimated / away . . . The tenacity of / writing’s thickness, like the body’s / flesh, is / ineradicable, yet mortal” (86-87). There are two important points that I see here. The flesh of the word (its “thickness”) travels from one medium to the next. The flesh of the word is “ineradicable.” So, no matter the medium, when there are words, a work will necessarily have flesh. (This isn’t to say that a work without words necessarily does not have flesh.) The word “mortal,” though, complicates this by suggesting that the flesh of a written work will not necessarily be live flesh. A written work has flesh necessarily, but sometimes that flesh is dead. So, is digital flesh dead flesh? And is there something evaluative about this designation? Can dead flesh be good flesh?