Material Noise

Material Noise

Reading Theory as Artist's Book

By Anne M. Royston

An argument that theoretical works can signify through their materiality—their “noise,” or such nonsemantic elements as typography—as well as their semantic content.





An argument that theoretical works can signify through their materiality—their “noise,” or such nonsemantic elements as typography—as well as their semantic content.

In Material Noise, Anne Royston argues that theoretical works signify through their materiality—such nonsemantic elements as typography or color—as well as their semantic content. Examining works by Jacques Derrida, Avital Ronell, Georges Bataille, and other well-known theorists, Royston considers their materiality and design—which she terms “noise”—as integral to their meaning. In other words, she reads these theoretical works as complex assemblages, just as she would read an artist's book in all its idiosyncratic tangibility.

Royston explores the formlessness and heterogeneity of the Encyclopedia Da Costa, which published works by Bataille, André Breton, and others; the use of layout and white space in Derrida's Glas; the typographic illegibility—“static and interference”—in Ronell's The Telephone Book; and the enticing surfaces of Mark C. Taylor's Hiding, its digital counterpart The Réal: Las Vegas, NV, and Shelley Jackson's Skin. Royston then extends her analysis to other genres, examining two recent artists' books that express explicit theoretical concerns: Johanna Drucker's Stochastic Poetics and Susan Howe's Tom Tit Tot.

Throughout, Royston develops the concept of artistic arguments, which employ signification that exceeds the semantics of a printed text and are not reducible to a series of linear logical propositions. Artistic arguments foreground their materiality and reflect on the media that create them. Moreover, Royston argues, each artistic argument anticipates some aspect of digital thinking, speaking directly to such contemporary concerns as hypertext, communication theory, networks, and digital distribution.


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262042925 224 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 16 b&w photos


  • “In Anne M. Royston's hands we find that the absent center of the High Theory project may have been beneath our fingertips all along. Tracing the allure of 'the' book as both trope and material medium in the work of Duchamp, Bataille, Derrida, Ronell, and others, Royston's own book opens up media studies, a lineage of design, and an inheritance of critical thought.”

    Matthew Kirschenbaum

    author of Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing and Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination

  • “How do we read theory today? This daring book asks us not to dismiss as mere noise the aesthetic design of the page and book especially in works like Derrida's Glas or Ronell's The Telephone Book—composed page by page rather than written in a traditional format. Rather than see the skin or package of these books as mere masks to the truth of the argument, Royston meticulously folds back these books' art into their theoretical claims. Although we previously saw the material design only as ancillary noise or ornamentation, Royston gives us imaginary decoder glasses to highlight those unconventional theory books' signifying noise.”

    Craig Saper

    Professor in the Language, Literacy and Culture Doctoral Program at UMBC; author of The Amazing Adventures of Bob Brown

  • “In this artful appraisal of work at the intersection of scholarship and artists' books Royston peels back the self-reflexive layers of these creative-critical hybrids—from hypertext to letterpress, encyclopedia entry to collage—revealing the way such ostensible noise in fact amplifies the work's signals. Astonishing in its scope and invigorating in the new critical vocabulary it provides, this volume, like the works it confronts, will, in Royston's words, 'startle … readers into an awareness of the permutations and possibilities of the page.'”

    Amaranth Borsuk

    Associate Professor at the University of Washington, Bothell; author of The Book

  • “Tuning into the rattle and chatter of the codex, Anne Royston's Material Noise channels new vectors for creative-critical reading on and beyond the page. From the collaborative 'nonknowledge' of the Encyclopedia Da Costa to postdigital publications like Johanna Drucker's Stochastic Poetics, Royston brilliantly examines the reflexive tactics of artistic argument. Here, the static page rematerializes within the crackling instabilities of nonsemantic space. Listen carefully: the noise is the point.”

    Daniel Snelson

    Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles