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A Non-Anthropocentric Approach to The Digital Writing : Some Remarks on The Agency of Digital Writing

Une approche non-anthropocentrée de l’écriture numérique : quelques remarques sur l’agentivité de l’écriture numérique
Sung do Kim


Cet article traite de la sémiotique non-anthropocentrée de l’agentivité scripturale. J’y explique, grâce aux notions cruciales de cybersémiotique, d’intermédiation, d’architexte que les conceptions d’agentivité matérielle trouvent dans les machines d’écriture computationnelle un modèle d’explication bien plus productif. En effet, l’existence même de l’humain en tant qu’instance écrivante aux côtés d’instances non-humaines sont envisagées en tant qu’acteurs importants qui collaborent dans la médiation sémiotique. J’affirme ici que l’humain écrivant et les agents matériels sont des entités relationnelles qui participent à l’émergence du processus du signe. En résumé, le but de cet article est de construire une problématique épistémologique de l’écriture numérique dans la perspective d’une conception non-anthropocentrée de l’écrit post-humain. La révolution numérique est intimement liée à la révolution de l’écrit. Dans le contexte de l’intelligence artificielle tout particulièrement, il est temps de repenser la nature de l’écrit quant à la question de l’agentivité de l’écrit. Cet article pose une question fondamentale : qui écrit réellement à l’âge du numérique ? Dans cette optique, une conception non-anthropocentrée de l’écrit est nécessaire pour expliquer la littéracie post-humaine, qui est constituée d’ensembles d’écrits émanant d’humains et de machines. Cet article insiste sur le fait que la machine agit d’elle-même.

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Notes de l’auteur

This work was supported by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF-2018S1A5B6075594 & NRF-2016S1A6A7933756).

Texte intégral


  • 1 Law 1999, p. 4.

1The human-machine interface might be one of the main questions facing us in the emergence of digital studies in the 21st century. In fact, this new configuration of reading, writing, and textuality would signal a need to rethink our most basic humanistic assumptions about the question of the agency in writing in general. In the post-human era, if the human writer or the author has morphed into a cyborg assemblage of human and machine, the questions of the subjectivity, the agentivity and the authorship are crucial. However, these issues—the agentive role of non-human objects among others—have received less attention in human and social sciences. Drawing on non-anthropocentric cyber semiotics and actor-network theory, this work will focus on how the process of digital writing machine could be inscribed in a complex set of non-anthropocentric and post-human semiotic practices. In this regard, to construct a non-anthropocentric semiotics of writing in the digital era, we might be inspired by the French media theory of the screen as writing, Hayles’s (1999) notion of the embodied virtuality and Latour’s (2005) concept of the non-human actor as a mediator. We regard, as one potential model of the non-anthropocentric semiotics of writing, his Actor-Network Theory for two reasons. Firstly, this theory is symmetrical with respect to human and non-human agents, and secondly, inspired by the Greimassian semiotics, it can be defined as semiotics of materiality1. The implications of this radical epistemological change to the notion of singular, stable, human agentivity of writing and subjective authorship will be discussed, concluding that a non-anthropocentric reconceptualization of digital writing machines serves to deconstruct the humanistic and anthropocentric belief systems that have framed our understanding of the writing in general. This non-anthropocentric vision of digital extended writing will also lead to a paradigmatic disruption of taken-for-granted binarities across digital and embodied signifying practices in textual production and meaning making. This new regime of writing could be related to the notion of “post-human literacies” inspired by Haraway’s cyborg (1991) and Hayles’s (1999, 2006) conceptions of embodied virtuality and intermediation, because they might share a common view to re-examine practices of meaning—making in a context of electronic literature and digital materiality where the boundaries between analogue and digital, “human” and “machine” are ambiguous and problematic.

2In computational writing and writing, the concept of actancy breaks down the anthropocentric view of agency, and gives more value to other actions performed by non-human actors. The concept of agency is created by actors, symbolizing humans as resources rather than as users. The agency is not pre-defined or predetermined, but is composed of different sources of materiality, human actors and non-human actors. In this sense, the potential benefits of ANT provide a new perspective for digital writing studies with the various dimensions of material and technological actors.

3The relationship between the human and the technological was also questioned by Hayles (1999, 2006). Hayles proposes a post-human understanding of the relationship between the human and technological, seeing them as interdependent and merged at the level of social practice :

“In the post-human, there is no essential difference or absolute demarcation between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (Hayles 1999, 3).

4Writing machines in this view are more like technical individuals inscribed in networks of social, economic and technological relations, some of which are human, some non-human. The non-anthropocentric semiotics of writing is concerned with the notion of the constantly changing assemblage of human and machine writing, in particular how it may be instantiated in the interplay between print-based and digital media in the literacy practices of writers in digital media ecology.

5Like human writers, writing machines also have their embodiments, and their embodiments matter, no less than for humans. This article proposes that the non-anthropocentric semiotics of writing could be significantly enhanced by interweaving insights and theoretical constructs from ANT and post-human theory of writing, focusing in this paper on Latour’s concept of the object as mediator as opposed to an intermediary, and Hayles’s recent studies concerning the nature and ontological status of materiality and objects in reading and writing machines.

  • 2 «  L’outil informatique, né par et pour le calcul, a ramené au même procédé d’écriture numérique le (...)

6The purpose of this article is to discuss the question of agency in writing in general in considering the importance of computational writing machines and robots as the industrialized digital writing disseminates in a global scale. The ecology of writing in the era of automatic and algorithmic writing is triggering entirely new aspects in deconstructing the common assumption that humans have exclusively been supposed to be the writer or the author in the conventional humanistic theory of writing. In particular, as demonstrated by the polysemy of the French word “écriture,” the semantic, anthropological and technological extension and intension alluded to in the term of writing will be rapidly broadening with the digital revolution. Keeping in mind the adventure of writing that humanity has experienced over the past five thousand years, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that digital writing technology has provoked a profound change in writing system2. A new regime of the writing is created : the machine writes and reads nowadays. It can create even a poem or novel.

7In sum, one might assert that the digital media revolution is intimately related to the writing revolution. In particular, writing machines that have emerged with the development of artificial intelligence produce some complex and fundamental problems associated with the nature and the cultural practices of writing. Some experts of communication theory and mediology would affirm that it might be time to rethink the fate of human writing and anthropocentric concept of writing along with the digital ICT revolution. In short, to understand the nature of today’s digital writing technologies, it is necessary to explore the properties and functions of writing from a new environmental point of view. From this perspective, computers can be defined as multidisciplinary machines having a tremendous impact on the extension of a written language.

  • 3 André Leroi-Gourhan, Milieu et techniques : Évolution et techniques, Albin Michel, 2012.

8As Stiegler, inspired by the paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan, pointed out, writing is fundamentally a technique, and technique is one of the fundamental elements of human nature3. In addition to the technical dimension, the writing also embraces a symbolic or cultural dimension. Identifying writing as a technology of human intelligence means that writing shapes meaning, the interrelationships of communication in human communities and a common world. The main theme of this article is to capture some complex and non-anthropocentric relationships of the various actants mobilized by digital writing machines. For this purpose, we will examine some salient features of digital writing in the first part, being conscious especially epistemological and semiotic rupture it might provoke in the history of the writing systems.

Cybersemiosis of the Digitality : Writing and Reading in Humans, Non-humans and Computational Media

  • 4 Cf. Knappett & Malafouris, 2008.

9When agency is confined to consciousness and intentionality, there is little scope for extending its reach beyond the human4. This human-centered view of agents and artifacts still determines epistemological bases in digital writing machines. Because of this anthropocentric perspective of agency, the material or environmental counterpoints to human agency of writing have generally been given short shrift in the grammatology and digital studies as well, arguing that agency, in the real sense of the word, is a property of the human individual. Even though, thanks to the Actor-Newwork Theory, the idea of decentralized agency has gained momentum across the human and social sciences, we can find very little research trying to understand the material agency of writing. In this context, the non-anthropocentric semiotics of writing attempts to conceptualize the agency of writing as distributed and possessed in relational networks of human writer and materiality of writing including computational writing machines.

Figure 1 : Writing robot

Figure 1 : Writing robot

Figure 2 : Writing machine

Figure 2 : Writing machine

10Since Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, a conventional perception is that computers merely match patterns and understand nothing. However, this view depends on an intensely anthropocentric view of semiosis, namely, process of meaning production and consumption.

11Motivated by a non-anthropocentric perspective on the nature of writing, this paper will argue for a radically different view of writing’s agency in digital writing technologies. Some scholars such as Hayles would call it cybersemiosis of the digital materiality. The non-anthropocentric approach of digital writing provides a theoretically robust way to understand how human-machine assemblages operate to configure new kinds of meanings and how these interact with non-human life forms to create a hybrid media ecology of writing. In this regard, the concept of cognitive assemblage elaborated by Hayles might be relevant to understand better interactions between human and technical cognizers—including agents of writing—, and to raise questions about the distributed nature of writing agency. According to her, “Cognitive assemblage emphasizes cognition as the common element among parts and as the functionality by which parts connect” (Hayles, 2016, p. 32). Insisting on the point that assemblages operate through contextual relations at multiple levels and sites, contain information transactions occurring across membrane set allow for contiguity in a fleshly sense, she remarks that : “Because humans and technical systems in a cognitive assemblage are interconnected, the cognitive decisions of each affect the others, with interactions occurring across the full range of human cognition, including consciousness, the unconscious, the cognitive nonconscious, and the sensory/perceptual systems that send signals to the cortex” (Hayles, ibid., p. 33).

12In the digital era, having algorithmic writing machines such as auto-completion service and digital assistant devices will affect how humans write and, integrate this technological sphere of writing into their writing habits and patterns. The humanistic and anthropocentric grammatology can undergo profound transformations after increasing exposure to digital writing media in a long-term effect. Probably, the humans agents use a digital writing machine, the more they become dependent on it, as human’s perceptual, motor and cognitive abilities to write would be weakened. The French anthropologist, Dan Sperber predicted in his controversial essay the future of writing such as by defending that : “the revolution in information and communication technology may soon turn writing into a relic of the past : it will be replaced by the automatic transcription of speech—whereas reading is there to stay” (2002, p. 1).

13How do we, humans, write with computational writing machines ? What semiotic activities do human writers and automatic machine agents share, what are the common grounds between the two ? Eventually, we must elaborate concepts of these meeting points that would allow to pinpoint the proper mode of existence of both the subjectivity of human writing and machine agent of industrial and computational writing, without reducing one to the other.

  • 5 Cf. Cléo Collomb & Samuel Goyet, 2015, 2016.

14Digital writing technologies are machines that behave on a scale and mechanism different from human writing. The algorithms of computational or automatic writing are invisible, intangible and extremely fast for human writers. Therefore these computational algorithms have to be put in a textuality of human writing. Therefore digital studies should assess the problem of interface between human writer and agents of writing machine, and the way the relation between these two categories have been conceptualized. In this regard, one could refer to Simondon’s philosophy of the modes of existence since digital writing technologies are machines with their own mode of existence and proper semiosis. Also, digital algorithms of these writing machines have to be transcoded in written signs of human languages. In this regard, Turing 1936’s seminal article, “On Computable Numbers” marked an inspiring moment, since he remarked with a great insight that computational machines are at their core writing machines5. However, a computational writing’s algorithm that is different from the textuality of human writing, it is required to construct an extended and non-anthropocentric concept of writing that could embrace human and machine writing.

15This question of intermediation between two categories of writing have been dealt both in English-speaking digital theorists and French mediologists specialized in the semiotics of digital writing. However, they did not provide a non-anthropocentric conception of the agency of digital writing technologies in attributing a simple auxiliary role to the writing machines. Drawing on recent works done by Goyet (2015, 2016), this work would suggest a non-anthropocentric cyber semiotics of writing to rethink the nature of writing in general in the era of artificial intelligence in re-examining the relationship between human and machine writing and the question of the agentivity. The non-anthropocentric model of writing encourages students of digital media to reconsider human actors and non-human actors in the production of digital textuality with equal weight, acknowledging that the degree of agentivity and even creativity in human and machine writing has become blurring. In the era of artificial intelligence, people observe robots make poems and create a piece of movie and comedy.

Some distinctive constituents of the Digital Writing

The Digital Writing as a Trace : Traçabilité

  • 6 Jacques Derrida (cf. Husserl, L’origine de la géométrie, Paris, PUF, [1962], 2010, 6e éd.), la ques (...)

16As known, from the mid-20th century, there was an explosion of interest in writing and literacy issues in the Western academic world of humanities such as linguistics, literature, philosophy, anthropology and archaeology. I would call it scriptural turn or the emergence of Grammatology in the human sciences of the late 20th century. Of course, the paradigmatic contribution of Derrida in the establishing such humanities of writing is undeniable. In particular, a concept of “trace” that exceeds the dichotomy between the presence and the absence provides insight in providing the theoretical basis of digital writing6. In particular, digital writing produces not only written texts in a conventional sense, but also various visible and invisible traces named ’digital traces.”

  • 7 Cf. Bouchardon, 2018.
  • 8 Cléo Collomb, «  Penser la trace numérique, quels paradigmes, quels possibles  ?  », Séminaire Homo (...)
  • 9 Jacques Derrida, La Dissémination, Paris, Minuit, 1973, p. 354. Écrire, pour Derrida, c’est produir (...)

17This concept of digital traces has been exploited in the realm of digital humanities and cultural analytics, two key areas of digital studies7. Each of these instruments is efficient in identifying the culture of new digital text, its trace and traçabilité of digital culture. In particular, the meaning of the concept of trace in the discussion of this article is effective in considering the non-anthropocentric signification of writing, and of non-human actors. The trace as an index is not intentional, but unlike index, the trace is volatile and can be disconnected and separated from the receiver and its media. In the digital sphere, traces are derivation, dissemination and de-contextualization8. The possibility of trace and sui-generis traceability, which is peculiar to all digital writing, indicates that each piece of data has a single metadata attached, and that the context of each linguistic action of written signs is associated with de-contextual traces. The concept of trace offers the possibility to combine writing with a machine, as well as to separate text and writing from the author. In this regard, Derrida is making predictions about an original nature of digital writing in the 21st century. He considered the essential function of writing as a machine producing traces. He provided insightful vision into the inextricable relationship between writing and machines9.

  • 10 Béatrice Galinon-Mélénec, Sami Zlitni, «  L’Homme-trace, producteur de traces numériques  », Traces (...)
  • 11 Bruno Bachimont, Le sens de la technique : Le numérique et le calcul, Paris, Encre Marine, 2010, p. (...)
  • 12 Jussi Parikka, “New Materialism as Media Theory : Medianatures and Dirty Matter”, Communication and (...)
  • 13 Stéphan-Éloïse Gras, « Éthique computationnelle et matérialisme numérique : l’apport des Software S (...)
  • 14 Kittler F. A., Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, Stanford University Press, 1992.
  • 15 Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines, MIT Press, 2002.
  • 16 Louise Merzeau, «  Du signe à la trace, ou l’information sur mesure  », Traçabilité et réseaux, Her (...)

18A new academic discipline studying digital traces has emerged in France, led by ICT research team of Le Havre National University10. It presents challenges in identifying the traces of various uses and conventions of digital technologies, including written signs. As can be seen in the trends of the writing study presented recently, the nature of written language cannot be recognized correctly without understanding the media it is recorded on regardless of whether the written sign is visible text or invisible trace. In short, the adventure of writing that mankind has experienced is the flow of materiality. Professor Isabel Fontanille, a leading semiotician of writing in France, refers to the “Media Theory” to stress that the properties of the physical layer and physical format of the imprint condition the legibility of writing11. In the field of media philosophy and media archaeology12, as well as digital and software research13 interest in the quality, form, and corporality of each writing medium is increasingly manifested. Unlike any potential misunderstanding that the concept of virtuality of digital media can give, the virtual thing does not mean the absence of materiality. Rather, the body and soul of the subject that produces the written signs are affected by the tools he uses. More than anyone else, Nietzsche is an insightful thinker who recognized this point first : “our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.” Nietzsche who dreamed a machine to record the thoughts of the writer affirmed that “rounded keyboard could be used exclusively through the sense of touch because on the surface of the sphere each spot is designated with complete certainty by its spatial position“14. On this continuation of the argument, Professor Hayles, who advocated the idea of post-modern writing, emphasizes that understanding of writing machines is based on the understanding of the materiality of the media, and embodied writing15. It is possible to mention digital literature as the aesthetics of materiality in that digital writing and human writing are obviously physical. However, neither trace nor the media are exclusive concepts confined to digital writing. They are related to the birth of the human writing system as well as with the various present-day changes. The combination of the traces and media in digital writing have expired16. It is time to explore special segmentation of semiotic morphology for digital machine writing that exist between explicit or manifested written signs, and implicit or latent traces.

Intermediation : the Communicability between Man and Machine

19For human writers and digital writing machine to communicate, a common semiotic ground has to be constructed between their different requirements. Intermediation, or mediating texts such as source codes and “architexts” to use a term coined by a whole section of French theory of digital writing does constitute this sort of intersemiotic bridge of written signs. However, these notions are still likely to neglect the technical reality of the computational writing machines, because they are based upon an anthropocentric model of writing. Some important features of the digital media such as automation, modularity and transcodification allow human textuality composed of signs that are meaningful to human subjects. (Manovich.) In other words, it is necessary to distinguish two levels : human and machine level. For instance, source codes and other architexts can operate efficiently at the machine level, but they should be transcoded into meaningful written signs for humans. In this regard, an essential question is raised from the non-anthropocentric perspective of writing for exploring the possibility of their semiotic, ontological an epistemological interrelationship, namely how to conceptualize a semiotic common ground between human writing and automatic machine writing in respecting a semiotic autonomy of the two realities whose modes of being are proper. It is here important to seize a pivotal fact that the common ground might be found in writing.

20As Turing anticipated, computational machines are in fact writing machines. There are two reasons for this insightful prediction. Firstly, they are instruments which make human beings produce written signs, secondly, their own functioning is based upon a certain kind of writing, writing that does not respect the same semiotic mechanism as human writing. The binary writing based upon the rules of digital algorithms, does not conform to the same constraints as the phonetic and ideographic writings of humans. In other words, the computational writing is fundamentally different in nature to the human writing. This semiotic and ontological difference requires a non-anthropocentric semiotics of writing in general in the perspective of post humanity. In this regard, one might recall the concept of human-machine intermediation that Hayles conceived to use here to describe emergent forms of cognition as a literal and metaphorical description of the “dynamics of human-computer interaction.”

21“Intermediation” indicates the emergence of complex patterns from local interactions resulting from “recursive feedback and feed forward loops in a dynamic heterarchy. Referring inquiries in the fields of artificial life, genetics, and computer programming, Hayles insists on the co-evolution of the embodiment and technology, rather than for any conventional doxa of social or technical determinism. Hayles considers such man-machine intermediation as related to the co-evolution of brain and language or to the synergy between neural plasticity and learning. In terms of computational writing, this dynamic could be evoked when digital textuality performs actions that bind together the human writers or authors and written programs, players and computers, into a complex system characterized by intermediating dynamics. The performance of computational writing provides high-level responses out of low-level processes that interpret binary code of source code. These performances of computational written signs elicit emergent complexity in the human writer, whose cognitions likewise build up from low-level processes interpreting sensory and perceptual input to high-level thoughts that possess much more powerful and cognitive powers than the writing machine does, but that nevertheless are intimately related to the sub-cognitive processes of digital writing algorithms through intermediating dynamics. The computational process of writing tends to take action on the writer’s perceptual and cognitive system as the human writer works with the medium’s possibilities.

22This feature of intermediation can be a productive conceptual move to construct a non-anthroposemiotics of writing in general. Hayles focused on electronic literature and game as tools for her interrogation of computation and digital textuality.

Posthuman literacy

  • 17 Hayles, 1999, pp. 13–14.

23If we consider computational writing as distributed and hybridised, then a further theoretical strand of work may also help us to understand a post-human context more fully. The notion of post humanism is often associated with Haraway, in particular her “cyborg manifesto” (1991), through which she introduces the metaphor of the cyborg as a challenge to essentialism in the feminism of the time, but also as a wider metaphor for the hybrid, blurred nature of identities in general. Haraway’s cyborg deconstructs dichotomized boundaries and ways of organising the world and categorising human and non-human subjects, such as human/animal, organism/machine, physical/non-physical (Bell 2007), arguing that post-war developments in science and technology have disrupted these taken-for-granted divisions. The prototypical notion of the cyborg is often associated with a form of literal hybrid materiality involving non-biological features such as implants. However, the notion of the cyborg can also be applied to practices and subjectivities constituted by a post-human concept of writing, leading to what might be termed a cyborg ontology of writing and literacy. As Hayles (1999) states : “In the post-human, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism robot teleology and human goals” (3). She suggested to explore the notion of embodied virtuality, defined as : “the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns”17. Applying Hayles’s concept of embodied virtuality. It is important to recognize that the construction of post-human literacy might embrace the presence of non-biological agents of writing as a new kind of subjectivity of writing.

Two models of computational textuality : technotext and archi-text

Elements of technotext : texton, scriptural algorithm and scripton

24In Writing Machines, Hayles defines technotexts as texts (executed electronically or printed on paper) that self-reflect upon their own material properties and operations as devices that make possible emergence of semiosis. In the framework of digital textuality, the technotext is a writing or textual machine, “a device capable of manipulating itself as well as the reader” (Hayles 2002, 24).

25The concept of cybertext coined by Espen Aarseth is a similar idea : cybertexts are (paper or electronic) texts that require a “non-trivial effort” on the part of the reader to co-generate the textual field. Aarseth calls this type of literature “ergodic” (Aarseth 1997). While Hayles’s model focuses on digital textuality based upon self-referential codes, Aarseth’s concept seizes the algorithmic potential of modes of textuality that requires semiotic and hermeneutic interventions of human writer and reader in the production of meaningful written signs. In the perspective of a non-anthroposemiotics of digital writing, what “technotexts” and “cybertexts” share in the epistemological basis is the fact they perform as self-conscious textual ad writing machines, i.e., a generative semiotic program of textuality. As a semiotic and generative mechanism for producing written signs, these two concepts construct a semiotic bridge between texton, or scriptural algorithm, and scripton, or textual instance of that algorithm. Textual configuration and textual content can be emergent properties because these textualities of written signs are not entirely predetermined at their formal and semiotic level. A dynamic and emergent interaction between the human writer and machine agent of writing is deployed in an unpredictable way according to a network of intentions embodied in a code and in algorithmic mediation that might be related to the linguistic capitalism (Douglas, 2000, Keplan, 2014). For instance, consider the case of Google’s autocompletion service based on the algorithm that accepts bids for word proximity. For example, if someone would try to search for information about the biochemistry term “peptide”, he will start by typing “pep” and before he gets to the “t”, the Google algorithms will likely offer that the query be completed as “Pepsi”, a commercial brand of beverage (cf. Sack, 2017). The digital humanist and computational linguist D. Keplan remarked the effect that Google makes its money be selling words in pointing out that Google has sold proximity to certain words. According to him, this algorithm “transforms linguistic material without value (not much bidding on misspelled words) into a potentially profitable economic resource” (Keplan, 2014, p. 59). In computerized technotexts/cybertexts, emergent writing is the product of this intermediation that connects the human writer to the computational agent of written signs through automated formal processing of signs. Human subjectivity of writing and machine agency of generating written texts are seen as intimately related components of an interlocking cognitive system. Hayles remarks that at the present level of complexity of computers as quasi-autonomous sign machines, machine-human borders are blurring. Computational algorithms of written signs and human writers are connected by recursive feedback loops.

26This process of machine-human intermediation gives rise to emergent behaviours of digital writing which are a function of the systemic relation between writing machine and human writer. In digital writing, semiosis, i. e, the semiotic process according to which written signs are interpreted and translated into other written signs corresponds to a cybersemiosis, i.e., the automated processing of signs that takes place in the machines themselves. This feature of automation is one of the five main features of the new media language, defined by Manovich.

27The result of this intermediation is a semiotic hybridization that brings together human writing and the performance of “intelligent writing machines.” Thus a significant contribution of her study of electronic literature can be applied to conceptualizing this human-machine interaction in the field of writing as the defining element of digital mediascape of writing in general.

Three substrates of computational writing : archi-text and screen as writing

28Souchier & Jeanneret (1999) and their research team are interested in the circuit of the written language in the digital writing technology, which allows text to be exposed in front of the reader. When a reader approaches the screen, they watch the screen as a sort of writing. More precisely, they accept not only linguistic elements but also graphic and audiovisual elements comprehensively. They do not oppose the computer screen and codex book, and modern written language is considered to be formed through the space of the screen.

29According to their assertion, the digital writing participates in a new semiotic dynamic. The important thing is to capture the semiotic mediation of digital textuality that permits a text to be understood by a human writer. That’s where the concept of screen as writing (les écrits d’écran) can be grasped. However, on the screen, texts of natural languages cannot be generated without transcoding through special computational algorithms. That is, it refers to archi-text. In addition to visualizing the written text on the screen, archi-text makes writing a discipline that is imposed on the writing body. The theory of the screen as writing provides a new direction to critical study of semiotic patterns of digital textuality. Those who dominate the writing industry of archi-text have tremendous power over texts of written signs. They also exercise great power in the production of meaning and interpretation as well as the production of texts.

  • 18 Souchier et Jeanneret, «  Pour une poétique de "l’écrit d’écran"  », Xoana, 6 : 97-107, 1999, p. 10 (...)
  • 19 «  L’écrit d’écran : pratiques d’écriture et informatique  », Communication & langages, n° 107, 199 (...)

30The concept of screen as writing focuses on the mediating textual layers that make possible the existence of the written language on the screen. It recognizes discontinuities between media and signs. It highlights on the break between calculated algorithm and perceived written signs. Various mediators are needed to operate the semiotic transition between the formal mechanism and the interpretative requirements of the social exchange of written signs18. Between the data the programmer executes and the one posted on the screen, a variety of mediating substrates is needed to enable transitions between what can be read by human writers and what can be manipulated by the writing machine. This is because different textual substrates are imprinted, from the memory trace of the technology to the text posted on the screen. That is, there is a-signifying space in the machine, which cannot be accessed by humans. It must be textualized to be visible and understood in a semiotic sphere of writing. The concept of screen as writing emphasizes archi-text among its core elements. Therefore, it assumes a hidden semiotic space, that is, a space of computation. This means a black box partaking of different formats. It can be pixels or algorithms that humans cannot perceive. Without a pixel, an image cannot exist on a computer screen, and humans cannot perceive an algorithmic writing without intermediate steps. The human eye cannot transcribe algorithms in a perceptible form. There is always a dimension of absent technique in the scene of visibility, which is the space coded for the machine, by the machine. Strictly speaking, this is invisible and out of human perception. The computational writing machine preserves this a-semiotic space, but this space is purely technical and therefore inaccessible to humans. The secret of machines belongs to algorithms or fantasy19. The technic space of computation cannot be perceived by humans because the space is programmed for the writing machine. Therefore, the technic space needs a semiotic process of signification and communication that can be understood by Homo Scriptor.

31The fundamental nature of digital writing, as many scholars have pointed out, is the manipulability of its language. All other attributes of a digital writing are derived from this primary attribute. For instance, the variability mentioned by Manovich is also a secondary attribute. The essence of digital writing is not only readable but also manipulable. In other words, in digital writing, everything is the unit of manipulation. Particularly in the case of digital writing, the distinction between the part and whole is problematic. As a result, manipulability of writing causes a double break. This is material and semantic break. Digital writing also does not have its own meanings or interpretations. Digital textuality presupposes such material and semantic break. In this regard, digital writing operates across three substrates. Since there are many substrates, the trace that is read is no longer the same as the trace inscribed. Traditional books have physical or material entity and a symbolic or cultural reality. However, in order to understand the essence of digital textuality and computational writing, it is necessary to understand the mechanism of transcoding between the three substrates. The first corresponds to what the machines write, the second is what programmers of such machines write, and the third is related to what the users of such machines write. Reading any digital document refers to reading these three substrates, and the third substrate is only visible to the human writer. Digital writing and its different activities can be described in three substrates, ranging from binary formats to semiotic ones that can be interpreted by human subjects.

32Various writing machines have existed before digital writing, but such mechanical writing machines were merely a tool for people help to write. However, the uniqueness of a digital writing is a machine-dependent writing in that it is a written language by a machine (substrate 1), a formal written language for a machine (substrate 2), and a written language that goes with machine (substrate 3). This tension between the three substrates of the writing machine is a phenomenon which is specific to digital technology. This is because, in digital writing, trace no longer interfere with the medium. In other words, there is no coexistence or presence between the written language and the medium. There is a break in the chain of production in written texts, and a rift exists between the mark and its restoration.

Elements for the non-anthropocentric epistemology of writing

Recognizing the fact that the machine behaves : the performativity of writing and computer code sources

33Archi-text must dismantle human-centered scriptural representations of computational processes to visualize that the machine is involved in digital text production. That is, the machine behaves and its activity belongs to the calculation. It is not difficult to renounce the human-centered conceptualization of the machine by archi-text. It is possible to admit that the machine behaves without stating that the machine acts as a human being. Archi-texts are not just crystallizing human values. Archi-texts also respond to the instructions of the machines.

34The archi-text may be a non-humanized concept. This embodies the concession of technological and symbolic demands. In other words, the machine is counted. Binary writing suggested in Turing’s report of 1946 can be considered as an archi-text. In this report, he says it is a binary code. Binary writing can be understood as one of the bridges between technique and language, under the form of 0 and 1. Humans can read such binary writing, but binary writing is particularly adapted to machine activity. Turing also says that such symbolism, if it is close to computational behaviour, is handled hard by humans.

35The effects or impact of technology have long been of interest to social sciences. From the viewpoint of technological determinism, the role of technologies in which technology determines social sphere has been mitigated by social constructivism. In another perspective, the sociology of science and technology, especially actor network theory, has recently come to the concept of performativity to scrutinize the effects of artifacts. New pointers on the concept of performativity can help to avoid the deterministic approach by segmenting the effects of artifacts into a continuous work of one performance.

36The concept of performativity has already been used to understand the behaviour of computer code. Latour implicitly refers to Austin’s work in Aramis ou l’amour des techniques, stating that computer programs do what they say.

  • 20 Latour Bruno, Aramis ou l’amour des techniques, Paris : La Découverte, 1992, p. 182.

“Programs are recorded as text, and the mouse is engraved like eaux-fortes or printed as a picture like a drawing. But are such programs acting on what they say ? Yes. Because, everything, texts and things work. They are behavioural programs, and its writers put the realization to the electrons, to the signs, to the inertia, or to the neurons”20.

37In other words, the performance I am talking about is the performance of the technique. It is executable code, which is an artifact of the written language. We have dealt with a chain of writing in the code source in that it participates in the stabilization of executable code. However non-executable code sources can also be subject to artistic production. It is also important to identify the code source as a product of the practice of collective writing. From this point of view, the code source should not be regarded as an artifact only in the conceptualization of technique devices, but rather as a space of writing and writing, a space of interaction between humans, and a space of writing and interaction between humans and machines.

Humans without machines : critique on the anthropocentrism of French digital media theory

38In this section I will briefly provide some critical points on the anthropocentric limits of the French media theory known as les écrits d’écran (“screens-as-writing”). This theory of digital writing is not a theory of the machine, instead, it establishes a type of relationship between humans and machines in the perspective of writing in general. This theory is indeed focused on written signs of human languages and it has therefore helped to spread anthropocentric representations of the computational writing machine that tends to neglect the performativity of digital writing machine itself. The purpose of this section is not to criticize this anthropocentric conception of writing as such, but rather to seize the underlying notion of writing that makes this anthropocentric semiotics of writing possible. As discussed in the previous section, emphasizing the written nature of digital media, this theory was interested in the semiotic circuits that computational writing moves through and in the case of digital media in what made it possible for a text to be displayed before the eyes of a reader. It adopted semiotics as an analytic method to seize the semiotic and written nature of software in considering this double assumption : computers are writing machines and they generate written texts. In sum, in the theoretical framework, digital media might be considered, first of all, as devices of generating and interpreting written signs for humans. What is interesting here is that this theory considers screens as a category of text. Therefore it insists on a semiotic continuity of screens and books in codex materiality, arguing that digital writing is performed in a new semiotic space called screen. Instead of opposing writing to the screen, this theory of the screen as writing called for an epistemological change to consider these two categories belonged to the same semiotic sphere, emphasizing that they henceforth belong to a new regime of written communication in the historical development of writing : “screens-as-writing.” Though the theory of screen-as-writing recognizes the gap between the material substrate and the written sign, between the algorithmic calculus and human perception, its epistemological roots partake of anthropocentrism of a sort. All this stems from the anthropocentric character of writing in the theory of screens-as-writing. In the arguments of this theory that would recognize the emergence of a new form of writing, we can find an anthropocentric view on writing, since, the category of writing which it treats is the writing of natural languages, i.e., writing deployed in the cultural space of semiotic exchange of written signs. This theory recognizes an important fact that the computational writing has disrupted an intimate and continuous relationship that connects the written signs with their material substrate. Therefore it called for the concept of arch-texts as specific tools and procedures to make writing available on a screen. As specific textual tools, archi-texts have multiple functions such as representing the structure of written text, and controlling its execution and production. Here, the key question concerns ontological and semiotic status of this writing machine. Firstly, semiotically speaking, it might be a semiotic degree zero that needs a semiotic transcode from a-semiotic to meaningful text for the human writer and reader to produce and interpret textual and readable forms. Secondly, in this theory, the computational writing machine might be reduced to an auxiliary status in anthropological and instrumental conception. (cf. works of Goyet).

ANT and post-human perspectives on digital writing

39The Actor-Network Theory could be considered as a method that turns our attention towards the way our world is assembled, the ways in which networks of people, ideas, discourse and material things are configured and maintained by complex relations. Therefore, ANT is based upon the assumption that not only are physical objects (tools, mediators) and symbolic tools (discursive practices) important, but that such tools can be seen as “actants,” which, once endowed with power or responsibility, act on behalf of humans, have agency. An actor being called an actor-network, this theory assumes that it partakes of a greater source of uncertainty about the origin of the action. For Latour actions are not simply a human attribute, but instead an association between agents of different natures. Latour affirms that ANT does not attempt to establish symmetry between humans and non-humans. The interest in the object doesn’t signify any privilege given to objective material in opposition to subjective language, values, symbols, and feelings. Non-humans can only communicate with humans on account of important processes, such as translation, articulation, delegation, and displacement to other areas or levels.

40ANT is not yet a familiar model in digital writing and grammatology. There is still no application in digital studies. ANT dismantles the dichotomy between the social and the natural, the cultural and the material. It is accompanied by a subtle examination of material things or non-human actors. The basic assumption of the ANT is that the actors of social communication involve both human beings and technology, and that the material properties of a technology are developed and used in a system of social relations. That is, the ANT resists predetermined distinctions between human systems and material entities.

41Thus, ANT can bring about epistemological shifts in the social interpretation of digital writing machines and writing in general. In addition, ANT enables digital writing and human writing to be understood as a social practice. ANT can focus on the network of human actancy and non-human actancy, beyond the privilege of human agency. ANT offers an alternative to human agency and anthropocentric concept of writing, challenging asymmetric explanations between human and non-human action of writing. This can overcome the limits of existing digital writing studies. Existing digital writing studies lack an inquiry into its material aspects. ANT challenges the generalization of social systems at the macroscopic level and describes the microscopic movements of human realities and non-human realities in society.

Conclusion : towards an ecological concept of writing

42This paper has argued that the contemporary media environment has become permeated by networks of digital mediation. Writing with a non-anthropocentric view requires human writers to think about the way non-human elements impact us as writers as well as our human readers. ANT theoreticians and post-human scholars have addressed the need to acknowledge the power of material objects as well as the owners that reflect back on the humans who use them. In the digital era action of writing requires not just an agent but a wide array of practices, techniques, knowledge and combinations of human and non-human actants. This is especially apparent in reflexive way that human users often act in reaction to the agency of the technology they are using.

43A non-anthropocentric semiotics of writing does never ignore the human agency of writing neither the author but acknowledges that accounting only for human writers isn’t enough to ensure describe the cybersemiosis of digital textuality constructed non-human actants of writing. Viewing the human activity of writing only through a humanistic perspective limits the reach and power of the digital writing because it fails to acknowledge the autonomous actions and power inherent in digital agents of machine writing and specifically in the technology that empowers us in the first place.

44The non-anthropocentric semiotics could be connected to the pan-semiotics that affirms that communication is any form of semiosis including human-machine interface. In this regard, it could be inspired from Peirce for whom pan-semiotics expands the claims of Saussurean semiotics beyond cultural domain of human communication and signification. In contrast to Saussure’s semiotics which is entirely anthropocentric, it subsumes the human sphere as a subspecies of semiotic processes, rather than an exclusive interpreter or generator of signs. Therefore, it might have implications for the semiosis of digital machine writing. That Peirce conceived the sign-object relationship as generative source of an autonomous interpret could provide the most insightful view to explore how human and non-human agents are interacting in semiosis. The Peircian semiotics can be an efficient model that allows to explore an original model to locate and to seize the principle of semiotic mediation in the agential forces of human writer and materiality of writing.

  • 21 Victor Petit, «  Internet, un milieu technique d’écriture  », In E. Rojas (éd.), Réseaux socionumér (...)

45The non-anthropocentric semiotics of digital writing would suggest that the anthropocentric concepts of semiotics might be revised to be applicable in the non-human domain of writing. We can see the value of non-anthropocentric semiotics of writing as an alternative model of digital writing studies, an alternative way to integrate human writing and computational writing machines. We can see it as potential ground for a new grammatology in the digital era. Digital writing media is an entirely new ecological condition, a new medium, a new Umwelt, a new space-time, and a new world of semiotics21. The environment in which Homo Numericus live is a totally new technical and social environment that is apt to transform the conditions of writing in general.

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1 Law 1999, p. 4.

2 «  L’outil informatique, né par et pour le calcul, a ramené au même procédé d’écriture numérique les textes, les arts et pratiques de l’image, les sons de la musique et de la voix vibrante. Cette extension manifeste une telle ampleur que le trouble nous prend à parler encore d’« écriture ». Pourtant, oui, la machine écrit et écrit tout  ». Clarisse Herrenschmidt, Les trois écritures : Langue, nombre, code, Paris, Gallimard, 2007.

3 André Leroi-Gourhan, Milieu et techniques : Évolution et techniques, Albin Michel, 2012.

4 Cf. Knappett & Malafouris, 2008.

5 Cf. Cléo Collomb & Samuel Goyet, 2015, 2016.

6 Jacques Derrida (cf. Husserl, L’origine de la géométrie, Paris, PUF, [1962], 2010, 6e éd.), la question de l’écriture ou de la trace sera au cœur des ouvrages publiés en 1967 : De la grammatologie, Paris, éd. de Minuit, 1967 ; La voix et le phénomène, Paris, PUF, 1967 ; L’écriture et la différence, Paris, Seuil, 1967. Jacques Derrida, Papier Machine, Paris, Galilée, 2001.

7 Cf. Bouchardon, 2018.

8 Cléo Collomb, «  Penser la trace numérique, quels paradigmes, quels possibles  ?  », Séminaire Homo Ludens, Automne 2013, consulté sur Academia.

9 Jacques Derrida, La Dissémination, Paris, Minuit, 1973, p. 354. Écrire, pour Derrida, c’est produire une trace qui fonctionnera comme une machine à écrire et à réécrire.

10 Béatrice Galinon-Mélénec, Sami Zlitni, «  L’Homme-trace, producteur de traces numériques  », Traces numériques, de la production à l’interprétation, CNRS, 2013, p. 16.

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12 Jussi Parikka, “New Materialism as Media Theory : Medianatures and Dirty Matter”, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 9, n° 1, 2012, pp. 95-100.

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21 Victor Petit, «  Internet, un milieu technique d’écriture  », In E. Rojas (éd.), Réseaux socionumériques et médiations humaines. Le social est-il soluble dans le Web  ?, Paris, Hermès-Lavoisier, 2013, pp. 155-173.

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Titre Figure 2 : Writing machine
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Sung do Kim, « A Non-Anthropocentric Approach to The Digital Writing : Some Remarks on The Agency of Digital Writing », Netcom [En ligne], 33-1/2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 09 septembre 2019, consulté le 16 octobre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/netcom.4122

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Sung do Kim

Professor, Korea University.

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