Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

John Cayley reviews Book, Text, Medium

Garrett Stewart. Book, Text, Medium: Cross-Sectional Reading for a Digital Age. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 257 pp.

Review by John Cayley

Garrett Stewart’s Book, Text, Medium sets out an important claim in its opening sentence, “This is the first book to venture . . . a sustained conjunction of . . . book history, verbal analysis, and media theory” (p. ix). The book is indeed an integrated, “cross-sectional,” “lateral” reading of literary cultural formations which are all too often siloed as the objects of distinct subdisciplines, in Stewart’s words as “book studies, textual studies, and media studies” (pp. 7, 62, ix). Who better to make this claim—which is somewhat shocking, once stated—than Stewart, the author of “five books each on literary analysis, art history, and film theory” (p. i, my emphasis). Amongst other things, Stewart has addressed: the representation of reading in art; the book as aesthetic object; the “deed of reading” as performed across “literature, writing, language philosophy;” and, of course, theoretically informed close readings – in other words, literary criticism as we know and love it.[1] Stewart’s previous monographic essays on the “look of reading” or “the book” as conceptual art object—taken up again in Book, Text Medium—situate themselves comfortably as welcome extensions to other relatively common and well-received studies of book history (pp. 29, 20). Stewart’s own remarkable practice of close reading, specifically his address to the “epiphonies” of the “phonotext,” introduced in his groundbreaking Reading Voices (1990), serves as key to the present book’s integration of both siloed subdisciplines and language philosophy.[2] It recalls them to what they share—something that is constitutive of the human, let alone the humanities—a generative investment in the making and performance of language, an investment in their own and our medium. And it does this by pinpointing the fact that whenever humans read, they read text as the “graphonic” traces of a medium which is, substantively, the kind of experiential synesthetic encounter that is modeled by Stewart’s portmanteau (p. 11). “Graph” points to letters like those before you now, and the interlaced “phonic” sounds out (self-)perceptible elements—also before you—of our evolved, embodied, human linguistic faculty, made simultaneously manifest—typically but not necessarily—in aurality.

Medium can be a troublesome word, conflated and confused with the plurality of media, including so-called new media. In its singular form we understand it readily, as when it refers to a singled-out medium of artistic practice. But even in such usage we may point, for example, to either abstract color or concrete pigment as a medium of painting. Stewart insists that mediality characterizes the relationships between the three terms that provide his title, but whereas book as medium for text is easy to say or even think, text as medium for medium is not. We might have expected language as the third term, in place of medium, but any tendency to render our linguistic medium as something material, in the way of book or even text, is resisted by Stewart. Calling it language risks misdirection. Text is not identical—neither materially nor essentially—with the language it allows us to read. And that language, Stewart suggests, is better thought of, philosophically, as medium—as whatever emerges from the work of mediated eventual encounters between text and its graphonic reading. This medium is what we have, substantively, with respect to language and its art.

Stewart’s elaboration of this and related ideas is wonderfully and convincingly articulated, while also being performed in what amounts to a demonstration of his theory at the level of literary analysis, especially when evoking and discussing examples in many texts from those of George Eliot to Walt Whitman. There is hardly a sentence that does not provide the kind of graphonic play that requires its reader to cocreate the meaning of what Stewart has written, through these encounters with our shared medium. This is a poetics of literary critical practice which, in terms of the philosophy of language Stewart has adopted—the Giorgio Agamben of What is Philosophy? (2016)brings the newly sayable into, precisely, the medium generated by Stewart’s actual words and our reading of them. It helps to enjoy his expository poetics—and there is a great deal to enjoy—in order to be able to take away a number of significant messages that may, one hopes, become expressible in more documentary review.

In the words available to me, I’ll take on one, leaving many others to be bought out by future work. Stewart signals his reading as “for a digital age.” Yet the form and substance of his codex-mediated exposition is an epitome of what the book, historically and as such, can and does make sayable, thanks to literary textual studies. In Part I he discusses work in digital media that troubles the form of the book as codex, resonating with analogue works that fetishize the physical book by rendering it an object of art, one which closes over its presumed text and denies the work’s potential to become a linguistic medium, something to be read. The fetishistic impetus of a conceptual book sculptor must, clearly, remain distinct from that of any artist whose medium is language but for whom even a codex that opens presents itself as an unyielding medium. The relationship with the book as medium differs and is historically implicated. It differs, after all, even for literary scholars and practitioners, at different points in their careers, let alone different moments in a contemporary history during which the physical form of the book is changing, from book to e-book or thesis to pdf, for example. An early-career writer or scholar may not (yet) have a book of their own with which to relate. Their books to come are problematic, aspirational forms mediating contingent, value-laden cultural circumstances. For a language artist in new media, any book may appear as throwback or misdirection.

This suggests that the physical book as cultural formation may loosen its hold on its position in Stewart’s triad; that textuality can, will, and does mediate with other forms. Stewart, rightly in my view, denies that the reasons for this will have anything to do with the digital, or rather with significant or affective medial interplay between text-bearing digital artifacts’ “algorithmic and lingual” substrates. “[O]nly the latter has its credible poetics – as yet.” “[A]lgorithmic sequencing” remains “impenetrably withdrawn” such that “it cannot be summoned to the senses in the felt shaping of its manifestations in anything like the way that the language . . . can be . . .” (p. 219). Indeed, algorithm’s withdrawal from perception and appreciation to black-boxed—thus presumed—formulation renders it even more hidden and obscured by computation-at-scale in the case of current Deep Learning pseudolanguage processing that all but postdates Stewart’s book.

Only orthographic text is transcribed into current digital corpora. The point is that, however delivered, there is no way for the medial interplay between text and intrinsically graphonic human reading to be reconfigured, no way for the digital to do anything but ignore or await this medial relation. Only human readers can see and hear the aesthetic interplay of in-the-moment synesthetic ambiguities, often syllabically operative, in the kind of readings that are Stewart’s literary analytic stock in trade. Taking this in has deep importance for understanding the limits of digital humanities, for which—in shallower practices of its tooled-up methodologies—“The graphonic vanishes into the purely graphic” such that “nothing in the focus of Digital Humanities . . . , as opposed to digital art, seems aimed at . . . aesthetic unearthings, nor framed to imagine them” (pp. 220, 221). Why? Because, as Stewart makes it possible for us to know, the object of our study, our philosophy, our reading is not text as a record of literary language; it is, rather, multiply mediated relations and events performed in its name: a singular medium.


[1] Garrett Stewart, The Deed of Reading: Literature, Writing, Language, Philosophy (Ithaca, N.Y., 2015).

[2] Stewart, Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext (Berkeley, Calif., 1990), pp. 43, 28.