On Decay and Disc Rot
“The physical universe is not all that decays. So do abstractions and categories. Human ideas, science, scholarship, and language are constantly collapsing and unfolding. Any field, and the corpus of all fields is a bundle of relationships subject to all kinds of twists, inversions, involutions, and rearrangement.” ~ Ted Nelson, “A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate”
This quote appears as an epigraph in New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories. Decay is figured here as a process of collapsing and unfolding, of twisting, inverting, involuting, and rearranging, not a destructive process merely but a deconstructive one, rebuilding even as it bends and tears and fractures. We generally attribute the word “decay” to dead things: road kill decays; a fallen tree decays; cadavers decay. When we talk about the decay of a civilization, the implication is that the civilization is already or soon will be dead. The inclusion, then, of this quotation at the start of New Media Poetics begs the question: is media dead? And another, does (or should) media (or our conception of it) decay?
I think an analysis of this epigraph’s inclusion in New Media Poetics demands that we reconsider what it is for something to decay. The truth is that all human bodies undergo decay, whether living or dead. Our hair decays, our skin decays, the teeth in our mouth decay. The matter in the universe is finite, so the process of decay is, in fact, necessary for the breakdown and eventual replacement of dead matter with new life. So, when an idea decays, it doesn’t die or disappear or become otherwise irrelevant. Rather, it splits, breaks open, and its pieces are set loose. And, for a moment, before they begin to reform into new ideas, philosophies, and scholarship, the little idea pieces squirm and flip, tweak and tangle. Decay hesitates just between death and rebirth, a teetering deconstructive moment. The rapid evolution of technology is just now allowing for exactly this sort of moment, a moment of play, where we mourn the death of something like the book (as we once knew it or thought we knew it) even as we fiddle gleefully with the keys of our Kindle. We have endless possibility exactly because we have yet to decide what we’ll do with it.
Emerson writes in “The Poet,” “So when the soul of the poet has come to ripeness of thought, she detaches and sends away from it its poems or songs,–a fearless, sleepless, deathless progeny, which is not exposed to the accidents of the weary kingdom of time; a fearless, vivacious offspring, clad with wings…” For Emerson, as for Derrida, the deconstructive moment gives way to the monstrous birth, a chimera-like creature, born of ideas but with a life of its own, a progeny of poems that weave through the world and into the “hearts of men.” Until we’ve decided exactly what we’ll do with it, new media is a poem; a web site is a poem; the Kindle is a poem.
ASIDE on DISC ROT, which is the tendency of optical discs to deteriorate over time due to oxidation, physical damage, etc. The word “rot” suggests something far more insidious at work. Certainly, “going to ruin” is a common definition of the word “rot,” however more often the word connotes decomposition caused by the tireless work of bugs, bacteria, and fungus. There is something treacherous about new media, something terrifying. We find ourselves awed by its possibilities and curious, morbidly curious, to discover the various ways it will recontextualize us and our matter.
QUESTION: Will this web site decay? Has it already begun to?