The Materiality of the Intangible: Literary Metaphor in Multimodal Texts


The materiality of fiction narratives is, ironically, a rather intangible concept, particularly as the notion of materiality traditionally relates to specifically tangible tools of creation — such as the painter’s brush or the sculptor’s clay. The materiality of digital artifacts lies only superficially in the haptic hardware of screens, keyboards, and mice; the materiality of modes, navigation, and interaction must also be explored for their effects on metaphor and meaning. Bouchardon & Heckman identify three levels of materiality in digital literary works: the figure of a semiotic form, the grasp required to physically interact with the work, and the memory of the work — its whole compiled from the parts of code, hardware, and user/reader experience that form meaning (2012, n.p.). In presenting her theory of the technotext, however, Katherine Hayles argues that it is the conjunction of the physical embodiment of technotexts (whether semi-tangible in digital form, or as fully physical as a book) with their embedded verbal signifiers that constructs both plurimodal meaning and an implicit construct of the user/reader (2002, 130-1). This paper seeks to examine the dynamic on the other side of technotexts: that of the creator and the text. Specifically, this paper examines how the materiality of digital media contributes to a layered metaphor that delivers meaning, reflects on the cognitive processes (the writer's and the reader's) of navigation, and generates a dynamic narrative structure through user interaction.  Often such an understanding is not a conscious process — many writers and artists engage with their chosen medium through an instinctive understanding of the materials at hand, gained through exposure to others' works and through their own experiences. In other words, the explicit study of the materiality of a medium is not always required for artistic success, however that may be judged. By examining multimodal works ranging from film (Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner) to print texts to born-digital texts (Andy Campbell’s 2009 Nightingale’s Playground, as well as the author’s own practice) this paper argues that digital media have a significant effect on the outcome of the artifact itself; awareness of these effects, their variations according to hardware and software, and the affordances of these various materials offers the digital writer greater insight and capability to craft his/her texts for the desired metaphorical meaning.