Jeff Scheible: Digital Shift

The relationship that has long characterized the domain of language and the domain of image...that boundary is also being eroded and shifted around in a variety of ways and punctuation illustrates that hovers between language and image in provocative ways.

Jeff Scheible discusses his book Digital Shift: The Cultural Logic of Punctuation with Chris Richardson. Scheible is a Lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London. Digital Shift received the Media Ecology Association’s Susanne K. Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Symbolic Form in 2016. His writing has appeared in Film Quarterly, American Literature, Canadian Journal of Film Studies, and other books and journals.


Of all the books I know related to punctuation, this is probably my favorite. Even though a single pair of punctuation marks is the starting point, Garber situates them as a lens to think about eclectic, wide-ranging issues, from sequels and paintings of vegetables to Shakespeare and Monica Lewinsky. One of her most persuasive points is that quotation marks are paradoxical: they lend a writer credibility but take it away at the same time. She also discusses the two-finger flex of gesturing air quotes and how it captured the zeitgeist of irony and postmodernism in the 1990s; my book considers how we rework these same four fingers in the 2010s to make the hashmark (#), a similar but more digitized affective gesture. A powerful cultural critic, Garber demonstrates humanistic thinking’s ability to illuminate everyday life.


As with Garber, I don’t agree with everything Flusser writes, but I always find what he’s thinking about compelling. Born in Prague, he fled from the Nazis and then spent the majority of his life in Brazil and France. Flusser is a fascinating thinker who is steadily gaining posthumous recognition as a key media philosopher alongside the likes of Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, in large part thanks to University of Minnesota Press’s commendable efforts to publish translations of his work. This book offers several insights into language, inscriptions, and images. First appearing in 1987 in German, it displays rare prescience for thinking about the contours of today’s media environment. In one great passage, which I quote in my book, he asks, “are letters and numbers something like nets that we throw out to fish for things, leaving all indescribable and uncountable things to disappear?” I had a fleeting fantasy to illustrate a fishing net dipping into a sea of punctuation marks for my book cover.


I make some links between Flusser and Roland Barthes’s conceptualization of the “punctum” in Camera Lucida in my introduction to help theorise punctuation as a sort of language-image. This indispensable book develops one of the most influential theories of photography, while at the same time doubling as a eulogy for his mother, reflecting upon what it means to look at a photograph of her as a child.


*This work is also a favorite of Nicholas Greco.


I have yet to see Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, which is apparently a loose adaptation of Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, but so far the best afterlife of Barthes that I know of is Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Nelson’s title refers to what Barthes terms “the amorous apostrophe.” We utter the same words (“I love you”) over time, yet while the three words stay the same, the concepts and feelings that go into these repeated words change, just like the Argo ship, whose parts are replaced one by one so that by the end of its journey it doesn’t contain any of the same parts with which it began. Yet it goes by the same name.  Nelson beautifully mobilizes this analogy to make sense of gender fluidity and her partner’s transition in a moving, original, and unclassifiable short book that Nelson has called “autotheory,” integrating cultural criticism, queer theory, and memoir. The question of autobiography, and its relation to theoretical writing, while taking a very different form, is one that runs through my book on multiple levels as well, from its examination of semi-autobiographical films (Adaptation., Me and You and Everyone We Know, Comma Boat, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?) to the reflexivity of thinking about what it means to write about writing.


Ngai explores three “minor” aesthetic categories (the zany, the cute, and the interesting), which she argues are each tied to fundamental operations of late capitalism. The book is dense with compelling, illustrative examples from across philosophy, literature, media, and art. While Ngai’s is certainly more magisterial than my own book, they share a tripartite structure, a focus on media aesthetics, and an irreverent curiosity that spans high and low cultural objects. Her study has changed the way I think about the three terms at its core, something I’m especially reminded of every time I hear the word “interesting”—which is quite often!