Degrees of Freedom by Jay David Bolter
firstname.lastname@example.org[The following essay is based in part on two pieces that will appear in print in 1996: "Virtual Reality and the Redefinition of Self" (to appear in Communication and Cyberspace, published by the Hampton Press) and "Virtual Reality, Ekphrasis, and the Future of the Book" (to appear in The Future of the Book, published by Brepols). This essay will eventually be part of a full-length monograph on our emerging (electronically mediated) visual culture. I would appreciate any comments: sharp and specific critiques are especially welcome. Please mail comments to me at email@example.com.
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Degrees of Freedom
Introduction The hypertextual and the virtual Modes of representation Looking through the text The natural sign Hypertext The breakout of the visual Text in Multimedia Text and the Internet Text in virtual reality Popular culture and the visual The future of the book Virtual silence Virtual gaze Denying Descartes Media and the self Virtual knowing Virtual community References
IntroductionVisual forms of representation (film and television) continue to gain in cultural popularity and importance at the expense of prose. In itself this is not news: prose has been ill for so long that we hardly ask after the patient any longer. What deserves attention is the fact that a new set of computer-controlled technologies has now complicated the situation. It seemed at first that the computer would confirm and extend the tradition of written communication and give us a new kind of prose. This new, convalescent prose is called hypertext, and it may still flourish. But the dominant effect of computer technologies will be to provide forms of representation that have more in common with film and television than with written communication. If we believe (as most postmodern writers seem to do) that techniques of representation define culture, then we are getting a new one. Our culture is in the process of granting new privileges to visual technologies and rescinding the privileges of writing. A process that began with the invention of photography, film and video is accelerating with the advent of computer graphics.
Two- and three-dimensional graphics are playing an increasingly important role in the electronic world. Cyberspace is becoming a graphic and perceptual space, an imagined environment. The images may be static, or they may move. And they may be accompanied by sound in an effort to create a more complete perceptual environment. The role of writing in this environment becomes problematic. The power of written language to convey and convince is further undermined, as the inhabitants of cyberspace (more and more of us, though never all of us) succumb to what Murray Krieger has called the "desire for the natural sign." They believe that a virtual environment rendered in immersive, three-dimensional graphics makes possible unmediated communication. Written communication, which is necessarily mediated, then becomes dispensable.
One important casuality of our culture's move into virtual environments will be, indeed already is, traditional definitions of the self. From the Renaissance to the twentieth century, writing in general and print technology in particular have contributed to a definition of self as autonomous ego, as author of the text that constitutes mental life. In cyberspace the self is no longer constructed as an autonomous, authorial voice; it becomes instead a wandering eye that occupies various perspectives one after another. This virtual eye knows what it knows not through an innate capacity for reason abstractly, and not principally through the traditional scientific mode of examination at a distance. The virtual eye knows through empathy, through the sharing of the point of view of the object of knowledge. Both self and knowledge in our culture are coming to be defined in terms of virtual points of view.
It does not matter whether we regard the computer revolution as cause or effect: we are witnessing the emergence of a culture in which the preferred mode of representation is visual rather than linguistic and in which the highest value is the ability to assume multiple and unobstructed points of view. Other values are marginalized (although not obliterated) in the desire to free up points of view -- to accord to each individual the maximum number of visual and kinetic degrees of freedom. We need to examine the consequences of promoting point of view as our highest value (over such earlier values as consistency and consensus). Futhermore, what becomes of literature in an age when point of view is conceived as visual rather than vocal and linguistic? What in general is the role of the individual in a "polyscopic" culture, and how do we assess individual responsibility and collective action?
The hypertextual and the virtualThe adjective "virtual" is popular now as shorthand for technical and cultural manifestations of the computers. We have virtual reality, virtual worlds, virtual art, and virtual money. The word is associated with electronic utopianism, and critics of high technology fasten on the term as evidence of faddish acceptance of electronic ideology. I am going to continue to use the term, but I will try to make it somewhat more precise. I will use "virtual" to refer to one of two modes of representation in the electronic medium. The contrasting term is "hypertextual." (What Baudrillard calls the hyperreal is something like what I call the virtual, and in a forthcoming book Stephen Gaggi draws a distinction between the hypertextual and the hyperreal that is close to my distinction between the hypertextual and the virtual.)
The computer was designed about fifty years ago to solve numerical problems for scientists and engineers. But the early designers, such as Alan Turing, soon realized that the machine could operate on the other sets of arbitrary symbols. Led by artificial intelligence specialists, computer scientists came to regard the computer as a generalized "symbol manipulator." This characterization, by the way, is the real achievement of the artificial intelligence movement in its classic period from, say, 1950-1980. We can take hypertext as the paradigm of this, the now classic, construction of the computer. Hypertext is the deployment of materials as a network of elements and links. The writer of the hypertext may fix the links, or the reader may determine them as she explores. In both cases a hypertext is a texture of elements that refer to each other, and these acts of reference are tentative. They happen only when the reader makes them happen. A hypertext presents itself to a reader as a series of possible texts, only one of which is realized with each act of reading. In all these ways, computerized hypertext seems to instantiate much of the linguistic and literary theory of the twentieth century, from Saussure to Derrida. But hypertext need not be esoteric or conventionally literary. The extremely popular World Wide Web is a vast hypertext, and the Web offers its users automobile sale brochures, weather reports, stock market quotations, and statistics on sports teams, as well as a few literary texts.
Applications in symbol manipulation, from numerical analysis to hypertext, remain the economically and culturally dominant uses of the machine. But the computer is also being used increasingly for perceptual presentation rather than symbol manipulation. Computer graphics began in the 1960s, but it is only recently that graphic techniques have become available to wide numbers of users (through inexpensive machines and software) and to a large audience of viewers (through high-quality animation in television and on film). Animation in particular has already reached a wider audience than hypertext or even word processing, and it may soon surpass print. After all, tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people have seen Jurassic Park or Aladdin -- far more than the entire population of users on the Internet. Enhanced by synthesized or digitized sound, electronic graphics can deliver compelling perceptual experiences.
Virtual reality may be taken as the paradigm of computer graphics. The user typically wears a helmit with eyepieces that are tiny computer screens; the computer controls her entire field of vision. She experiences an immersive and three-dimensional graphic environment. When she turns her head, a tracking device mounted in the helmit notifies the computer, which adjusts the environment to agree with her changed perspective.
Fully immersive virtual reality is expensive, and in fact does not yet work very well. But the idea of surrounding the user with a graphic environment excites many programmers and naive users. Graphic programs designed to work on conventional, flat computer screens now often imitate virtual reality. They project a three-dimensional scene onto the screen and allow the user to navigate through the scene. They seek to draw her into a convincing graphic world. Games are the most common examples of virtual reality on desktop computers -- games in which the user moves through a house or a landscape confronting monsters or solving mysteries. The point of virtual reality is to compel the user into acting as if she accepted the reality of the graphic world. For computer users, the word "virtual" has come to mean both illusory and real, just as art historians use "illusionistic" and "realistic" almost interchangeably to describe Renaissance perspective painting.
We want to explore the dichotomy between the hypertextual and the virtual modes of representation. The computer as hypertext, as symbol manipulator, is a writing technology in the tradition of the papyrus roll, the codex, and the printed book. The computer as virtual reality, as graphics engine, as perceptual manipulator, belongs to and extends the tradition of television, film, photography, and even representational painting. Now postmodern theory never met a dichotomy that it could not collapse, and I will admit that this one too can be deconstructed. Computer graphics can enter into a variety of competitive or cooperative relationships with electronic writing. Graphics can be integrated into electronic documents, where they function more or less like graphics on a printed page. Computer graphics can serve as elements of a hypertext. They can function as icons, as they do in the conventional desktop metaphor. The computer can and sometimes does offer its users a multimedia space that combines text, numbers, static images, animation and video.
Still, the dichotomy remains useful. In current multimedia, for example, the trend is not to integrate the textual and the perceptual elements. Instead, perceptual presentation is being used to displace or replace verbal text. Video and animation dominate the screen and the user's attention, while verbal text is marginalized. Furthermore, the displacement of text is not limited to multimedia; something similar is happening in print. Print and electronic technology seem to be moving along parallel lines as our culture revises its sense of the appropriate balance between verbal and graphic communication. The change is apparent in American newspapers and magazines, particularly ones associated with the new media.
The dichotomy is useful as a means of disentangling the confusing and multiple cultural tasks that are being assigned to electronic technology. Each pole of the dichotomoy can be taken to represent one view of the computer as a cultural object, and each view has its contemporary adherents. The hypertextualists have on their side a tradition that is long and powerful (the Cartesian tradition), but now apparently moribund. The virtualists have on theirs both the popular and the elite rhetoric of postmodern culture. Sometimes that rhetoric appears to condemn virtual representation and what we might call the virtual eye. In fact, postmodern writers reveal a deep ambivalence or the kind of Schadenfreude with which Baudrillard fills his essays on the simulacra of contemporary culture. Ultimately postmodern writers do not seem to want to be associated too closely with electronic technology. One strategy they adopt, therefore, is to try to associate virtuality with the older, discredited traditions of capitalism, militarism, and scientific positivism. The case for capitalism and militarism are obvious: the computer is big business and it had its origins in military research. The case for scientific positivism is more interesting.
The Western, observing eye is associated both with the development of the scientific method and with the development of linear perspective in Renaissance painting. Both scientific method and realistic (illusionistic) painting since the Renaissance used to be great achievements; postmodern scholarship sees them as dangerously limiting. Some postmodern writers want to make computer-realized vision into another technological expression of the same scientific (male, hegemonic) vision. In any case the scientific eye is different in important ways from the virtual eye that electronic technology now offers us. The scientific eye observed at a distance; it emphasized the separation of viewer and object and defined an objective, inquiring, and therefore scientific relationship between the two. The virtual eye does not favor abstraction or distance; it offers instead presence or empathetic involvement on the part of the viewer.
It is true that three-dimensional computer graphics is founded upon the principles of linear perspective. But computer graphics encourages a playful attitude toward those principles. Computer graphics can be interactive; it can place the principles of linear perspective under the viewer's control. In Renaissance perspective, there is the viewer, the picture plane, and the imagined scene. The picture plane comes between the viewer and the scene. In virtual reality, the ultimate version of computer graphics, the viewer steps through the plane and can move around in the graphic environment. The moving virtual eye defines a more intimate relationship between viewer and object than that of the scientific eye. The viewer can not only occupy the same environment as the object; she can assume the perspective of the object, unite with the object's point of view. This is precisely what the scientific eye does not wish to do.
Modes of representationThe computer supports different modes of representation. The computer as hypertext is a texture of arbitrary signs: words, numbers, and links among words and numbers. The computer as virtual environment is a perceptual experience that engages the user's sense of sight and sometimes hearing in a more compelling fashion. Both these modes can be symbolic, but in different ways. The computer as hypertext is symbolic by definition, because arbitrary signs always refer to something else. Throughout the twentieth century students of language have followed Saussure in emphasizing the arbitrary nature of linguistic signs. Words refer to other words. Hypertext exploits this level of implicit reference and adds another: the explicit links that the author draws between portions of text. These links too are arbitrary acts of reference.
However, when the computer displays a graphic scene, the relationship between viewer and scene is different. The viewer recognizes the scene as something in the world (or in a possible world). She sees a building or a landscape or an object. And despite the fact that a computer-generated landscape has a cartoon-like geometry and brightness unlike the real thing, she can nevertheless see what the landscape is supposed to be a picture of. With the current quality of computer graphics, a viewer can usually recognize the image without difficulty.
Computer graphics are judged by the degree to which they satisfy or convince the viewer, and even for our postmodern culture, the most convincing experience still seems to be the illusion of a real or possible world. The illusion succeeds when the viewer can imagine herself in the picture or imagine the picture space as continuous with her own. Such illusion is not the only experience that computer graphics offer, just as it is not the only one offered by Western art since the Renaissance. However, it remains culturally dominant. Even with modern quasi- or non-representional art, what counts is that it does not fulfill the expectation of realism, that it asserts itself over against a dominant tradition of realism. The tradition dominates film and (less obviously) television too. It remains strong in computer graphics and virtual reality. Indeed, it is perhaps stronger in computer graphics because of the great challenge of achieving photorealism. Computer graphics specialists have to work hard to give their images any degree of realism, and it will apparently be many years before they can achieve a full-motion animation that rivals film.
Like film and video, computer graphics and virtual reality are primarily perceptual experiences. We see a building, a landscape, or a young man wearing basketball shoes. In recognizing and appreciating the images, we may bring a whole set of symbolic meanings to bear. The skyscraper represents corporate America; the landscape is a field of corn in the mythic American Midwest; the shoes are Nikes and call forth the comic pattern of consumerism and false heroism that captivates American teenagers. In each case, the symbols are motivated or iconic. The image is first of all an image of a building or a shoe. If it were not recognizable as a building, it could not come to symbolize a corporate headquarters. If it were not a shoe, it could not symbolize the American sports industry. The process of symbol-making is different from that of arbitrary symbols such as words and numbers. Graphic symbols are primarily perceptual experiences, and then they are symbols. Words in the computer or in a book are of course perceptual experiences too. We have to see the words in order to understand them. But they are usually not very interesting perceptual experiences. In creating a printed book, for example, the typographer's goal is to make the typeface as transparent as possible. The reader is not supposed to notice the shapes of the letters; he is supposed to look through them to the words themselves. (This is not true of socalled display type in advertising, which is meant to provide an arresting perceptual experience.) In electronic hypertext too, the presentation of the text is secondary to the referential structure, above all to the links. The reader moves quickly from the task of seeing and recognizing the words to the task of building for himself the structure of arbitrary signs, defined both by the language and by explicit electronic links.
Computer graphics on the other hand invites the viewer to linger over the image itself -- to appreciate the picture as a building for its visual values before going on to consider its symbolism, or rather to appreciate both the pictorial values and the symbolism at the same time, just as we do moment by moment as we move through the highly cathected and symbolic world of daily experience. Semiotics and cultural studies remind us that most everything we see in our socially constructed world has meaning by virtue of various social codes that we are constantly applying. Computer graphics is symbolic in just that way: it is trying to be like our social world. Although computer specialists would not put it this way, if they someday succeed in their efforts of photorealism, they will be making visual objects that look just like what our culture wants them to look like.
We have, then, two scales by which to measure electronic representation: the perceptual/symbolic scale and the arbitrary/motivated scale. The computer as hypertext presents structures of arbitrary signs; the computer as virtual reality presents a world of symbolic images. A hypertext (like a printed narrative) may try to create a perceptual world by calling up images in the reader's mind. The popular novel that seeks to be a movie that we play in our heads is attempting to create such a perceptual world. But in fact no written text can hope to compete with film or television in providing vivid visual imagery. Nor can any film or video achieve visually the same effects that a written text achieves through linguistic reference. The computer is a new field for playing out the tension between these two modes of representation, the struggle of each mode to assert itself over the other.
The tension is apparent, for example, in the World Wide Web on the Internet. The Web is a hypertext consisting of thousands (perhaps now millions) of pages of text linked together electronically. But almost no one composes Web pages entirely of verbal text. The trend is to include more and more graphics, and even links to sound and video. The Web is so popular not only because of its ability to assemble documents out of elements of information from around the world, but also because of the graphic browsers that permit the users to experience multimedia as well as text. If the World Wide Web system began as an exercise in hypertextual thinking, it is now a combination of the hypertextual and the virtual. But the virtual and hypertextual do not always combine easily. Usually the graphics and photographs tend to muscle the words out of the way. Many, many web pages are graphics with textual captions or labels.
The difference between hypertextual and virtual representation is not simply the difference between words and images. Images can be used hypertextually, when they serve as electronic links, for example, in a World Wide Web page or as icons in a multimedia presentation. Even in these cases, however, the sign remains iconic. The image is a good icon because it reminds the user of something in the world: a desk, a pencil, a trash can. Likewise, words can be used as part of a computer-generated scene for their aesthetic effect, as they sometimes were in modern art, for example in collage cubism (and earlier in Jewish or Islamic micrography). Yet it is perhaps impossible to drain words entirely of their function as arbitrary signs. In a collage painting or in a computer graphic picture, we can hardly avoid reading the words and trying to make sense of them. With these qualifications, it is reasonable to compare the hypertextual/virtual distinction with the traditional verbal/visual distinction. Hypertext is the computer as a verbal medium; virtuality is the computer as a visual (and therefore sensory) medium.
Looking through the textThe tension between hypertext and virtual reality is a new version of an old controversy. It is related to the eighteenth-century debate over poetry and painting that was the occasion for Lessing's Laocoon; it is also related to the complex interplay of visual and verbal art in the various avant-garde movements of the twentieth century. In The Electronic Word, Richard Lanham argues that much of twentieth century art is a self-conscious reflection on two kinds of engagement with the viewer: looking at and looking through. In painting, looking through means accepting the illusion that the painting is really a window on to a perceived world. Looking at means focusing one's attention on the painting as an artifact, a surface covered with paint, a manipulation of color, shape, and texture (The Electronic Word, 43ff). In literature, looking through means losing oneself in the story. When a reader is called back to the text to examine its rhetorical properties, he is looking at rather than looking through that text. When a reader treats a verbal text as a film, she is looking through the text and not at it. In all cases, perhaps, the viewer or reader must oscillate between looking at and through. Even in the most effective illusionistic painting or in the most compelling "page-turner," we must occasionally be reminded that we are looking at paint on a canvas or at ink on paper. Twentieth century (elite) verbal and visual art maintains a vigorous oscillation between looking at and through and so reminds us repeatedly of the painting as painting or the novel as novel.
The enthusiast for virtual representation dislikes looking at the computer screen; she prefers to look through it, to promote the illusion that the graphic world is a real world. For the present, even the most enthusiatic virtualist must sometimes become aware of the screen as an artificial medium. But the virtualist wants to keep those period of awareness minimal. The ultimate hope is that the computer can create a graphic environment so "real" that the user can look through it indefinitely without ever being reminded of the computer as the "man behind the curtain." The experience of virtual reality would then be seamless, as Michael Joyce has pointed out. Virtual thinking is the desire to transform the highly sophisticated artifice of electronic representation into a seamless perceptual experience. On the other hand, hypertextual thinking accepts and indeed enjoys the necessity of looking at the computer as an artificial medium. It defines the experience in terms of the oscillations between looking at and looking through: the rate of oscillation between the two modes may vary, and any rate can be a compelling experience.
Classic artificial intelligence (the work of researchers like Minsky and Schank from the 1950s to the 1980s) is also a classic example of hypertext. Most symbolic artificial intelligence programs are nothing other than sophisticated hypertexts. Artificial intelligence was committed to showing that the mind as a Cartesian logic machine could reason its way to a solution independent of outside influences. The mind did this by following links through semantic networks. Yet there was a streak of virtual thinking in AI as well. AI researchers wanted to make the computer manifest human competence--for example, to read the newspaper and answer our questions in good English. Their point was to make us cease looking at the machine as a machine and to create, instead, the seamless illusion that we are conversing with a human being. That was the socalled Turing Test of artificial intelligence: could a machine maintain for at least five minutes the illusion of human nature? In our current culture, and perhaps always, the hypertextual is less popular than the virtual. Texts or even visual media that oscillate rapidly make demands on the reader or viewer. Verbal text is more prone to oscillation than visual media. The reason is that pictures engage our visual sense in a prolonged and pleasing way. For most people, (whether naively or not and despite Nelson Goodman and many others), pictures resemble the thing they depict in some satisfying way. For most people, pictures are more like the things they depict than words are. The reader of a novel has a hard task calling up a world from the words on the page. The moviegoer's task is in this sense easier. Nevertheless, it is possible to write a novel that encourages the reader to look through the pages into an imagined world, and such novels are usually the most popular. It is also possible to create a film or video that pulls the viewer up short: requires him or her to be aware of conventions of the film. These films and videos tend to be less popular, but because they are visual experiences in our heavily visual culture, they may still engage millions of viewers. Ironic American television shows on the alternative networks will never be as popular as sporting events (which constitute for most Americans the ultimate narrative realities), but they will still command large audiences of visually sophisticated viewers. A hip, highly oscillating American film like Natural Born Killers will likely be seen by more people than have read any recent American novel.
The most popular notion remains that both visual art and writing should aim at "realism," and art or writing is realistic in this sense when it generates a compelling illusion. The viewer or reader is supposed to fall through the frame or the page into a world that is continuous with our own or has its own convincing logic. Visual media will necessarily have the advantage over verbal text in creating this sense of presence. That was true before the computer and is well illustrated by an example from the history of film. American film in the thirties and forties often began with a shot of a closed book, whose title was the title of the film. The book would open on a page, which began to tell the story of the film in words. The page might be turned and then dissolve so that the visual narrative could begin. This film convention is both homage and rivalry. The film is paying a complement to written narrative by trying to establish its own continuity with writing. It is suggesting that a film can tell a story as well as a book can. Again this sense of rivalry reminds us of the debate between poetry and painting in the eighteenth century and of the rivalry between rhetorical prose and the visual arts in late antiquity, shown in the practice of ekphrasis. This convention is seldom used in film today, perhaps because the point no longer needs to be made. Film feels no rivalry with written narrative because it has triumphed culturally. Films are vastly more important than novels. Indeed, "novelizations" are now written after films appear in order to take capitalize on the film's success. Indeed, to complete the circle, these novelizations ought to begin with a still photograph from the film: the reader would turn the page and begin reading. This has not yet happened, to my knowledge. However, the cliché has reappeared in a new medium seeking establish its illusionistic credentials. The computer game Myst, which is consciously cinematic, begins with a book that in turns dissolves to reveal a world rendered in computer graphics.
There is a widespread popular belief there is an easy correspondence between visual and verbal texts -- that to read a novel is to run a movie inside one's head and so to visualize each setting, scene, and character. In this view, it is the reader's capacity to visualize that renders the novel intelligible. What the reader is supposed to perform a mental equivalent of the dissolve. The technology of the cinema made this analogy powerful, if not possible. When there were only static paintings and photographs, the novel or any written text was perhaps more obviously a different form of representation. Certainly in the eighteenth and nineteeth centuries, an analogy could have been made to the stage: the novel could have been thought of as a drama in prose. A better analogy would have perhaps been the camera obscura. But the invention of film made it even easier to regard a written narrative as a script for visualization. The novel could become a mental movie, and reading could be construed as the act of looking through the written text to the visual experience that lay behind and validated the words.
The natural signThe renegotation of word and image is taking place both in traditional and in new media: in print and film as well as television and computer graphics. This renegotiation is leading to a crisis in rhetoric. For both ancient and modern rhetoric have depended upon subordinating pictures to words. In ancient rhetoric it was the spoken word that controlled the image; in modern rhetoric it has been the written or printed word. Now when neither the written nor the spoken word can exert effective control, the result is an inversion of traditional rhetorical practice, in particular of the classical device of ekphrasis.
For ancient rhetoric, ekphrasis was in the first instance the description of a work of visual art; ekphrasis set out to demonstrate the superiority of the rhetorical art to painting or sculpture. Yet there was also a highlighting of the visual artwork in ekphrastic description. There is a sense of trying to get beyond the words to the thing itself, which literary critic Murray Krieger has identified as the "desire for the natural sign":
In speaking of ekphrasis, or at least of the ekphrastic impulse, I have pointed to its source in the semiotic desire for the natural sign, the desire, that is, to have the world captured in the word.... This desire to see the world in the word is what, after Derrida, we have come to term the logocentric desire. It is this naive desire that leads us to prefer the immediacy of the picture to the mediation of the code in our search for a tangible, 'real' referent that would render the sign transparent. (Krieger, 11)If, as Krieger suggests, we connect this desire with Derrida's logocentrism, then we could say that the desire comes into existence with the invention of writing itself. For according to Derrida, as soon as culture invents an arbitrary sign system, there arises a yearning to close the gap between the sign and the signified. However, this yearning can take different forms depending on the available technologies of representation. In Plato's Greece, when oratory and drama were the defining arts, the spoken word was treated as the natural sign. Plato himself created the dialogue form in order to bring his writing closer to the natural sign. Printed literature since the Renaissance has faced a different and more difficult situation, because the techniques of representation to which print has been responding have been visual rather than oral. Print managed perhaps to establish an equilibrium with representational painting, but that equilibrium began to falter with the invention of photography. Just as photography precipitated a crisis in painting -- what could the painter do now that painting could not compete in fidelity with the illusion offered by the photograph? -- so photography and the inventions that followed (film, television, and computer graphics) also called into question the power of prose. Thus, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the desire to see the world in the word has been gradually supplemented by the more easily gratified desire to see the world through technologies of perceptual illusion. In this period, ekphrasis became a greater and greater challenge. Ekphrasis may still be found in various guises, but in order to compete with film, television, and computer graphics, popular prose now seems determined to attempt to "speak the language" of these media -- that is, to turn back to picture writing or to pure imagery. Both prose and computer multimedia are striving for the natural sign in the realm of the visual rather than through heightened verbal expression.
Krieger suggests that the desire for the natural sign is another manifestation of Derrida's metaphysics of presence. The natural sign is supposed to be perspicuous; the sign should dissolve and leave the reader in the presence of the thing itself. The ideal is to have no sign at all, but only the things signified, and a method of representation is preferable to the extent that it brings us closer to that ideal. Written fiction can not perhaps get very close at all. The reader must forget about the words on the page as a structure of signs, let the page dissolve to reveal an imagined world.
Pictures or moving pictures seem to have a natural correspondence to what they depict. They can satisfy more effectively than prose the desire to cut through to a representation that is not a representation at all. The desire for the natural sign leads naturally to the desire to abolish symbolic representation altogether. One only needs a sign system if signs are not natural. If signs are natural, they need not be organized into a code, and the conception of language and writing as a set of coded oppositions can be abandoned.
HypertextVirtual thinking is the desire for the natural sign. Hypertextual thinking is the desire to complicate the relationship between the sign and what it stands for. Virtual thinking is first perceptual and then symbolic; it understands the symbolic through an act of perceiving that is apparently unmediated. When I put it this way, it sounds as if postmodern theory is hypertextual, as if postmodern writers would condemn virtual thinking as something close to false consciousness. In one sense this may be true. Academic postmodern writing is abstract and self-referential. It requires the reader to look carefully and repeatedly at the text rather than through it. It rejects any simple relationship between the text and the world. On the other hand, the hypertextual mode is hard to maintain; it makes enormous demands on the writer as well as the reader.
There are relatively few literary hypertexts, perhaps a few hundred; only a few dozen have been published or made widely available. The most influential have been fictions such as afternoon and Victory Garden. These fictions already demonstrate the oscillatory character of hypertext. They refuse to be fixed. They say things and then take them back. They challenge the reader to question repreatedly where the narrative is going. They enact the indeterminacy, the flexibility, and the interactivity that poststructuralists have ascribed to all texts. Yet, what the poststructuralists discovered in printed texts only by the subtlest and most extreme rhetorical analysis, hypertexts lay open for the most casual reader. They reverse the presumption. A printed book is presumed to be a fixed text with a single message. A controversial act of deconstruction is required to reveal the fundamental inconsistencies that lay beneath the smooth surface. An electronic hypertext has no obvious single message. It responds to the reader and responds differently with each act of reading. In the electronic medium, hypertextual thinking is as "natural" as univocal thinking was in the medium of print.
Yet hypertextual thinking also remains unnatural. The reason may be simply that we are still in the late age of print and are still influenced by the linear habits developed over hundreds of years. Or it may be that linear and univocal expression comes easier to the human mind than multiple expression. Certain anthropologists devise evolutionary arguments to explain complex psychological or cultural behavior. Perhaps there is some evolutionary value to linear thinking in a hunter gatherer culture. Or for the neoMarxists perhaps linear thinking is a facet of capitalist ideology. Any explanation will do. What seems to me undeniable that it is hard for Western readers and writers to follow the rhetorical paradigm that hypertext suggests. Hypertext suggests that the writer should remain open to an argument and to its critique, that the writer should not try to close off possibilities for herself and for her readers. A linear argument, a single right answer, is inappropriate. Hypertext suggests a new sort of Nietzchean assault on the law of the excluded middle. In hypertext a statement can both be and not be true, because every statement is subject to revision, to being called back into time and modified if not contradicted. Instead of regarding such revisions as incoherent, the reader must be prepared to them as appropriate to a rhetoric that is constantly changing over time.
Maintaining such openness and admitting multiplicity is easier in fiction than in nonfiction. We have traditions in fiction that allow for multiple even contradictory narratives, but nonfiction is supposed to be consistent. The argument should not contain the seeds of its own contradiction. Showing that arguments fail to live up to this standard, that they do contain their own contradiction, is precisely the strategy that made deconstruction so compelling to adherent and exasperating to traditionalists in the 1970s and 1980s. Traditions demand that as far as possible arguments should be closed off in a way that does not admit critique. Rather than welcoming the critique into the space of the argument, the writer's response is either to ignore it or to surround and incorporate critique, like a megalocyte destroying an foreign cell. It is a conservative position that even the most apparently radical postmodern writers fall into. Those who characterize the authoritative and linear style of argument as hegemonic nevertheless end up falling back into univocal pronouncements of their own.
Again it does not matter whether we call this falling back a human failing, an inevitable result of the invention of all writing technologies, or an inherent feature of the cultural superstructure of capitalism. Writers and readers in electronic technology are not immune either. However hard we may try to compose hypertextually, we will at same point feel again the desire for that other mode of representation. The goal may be to remain open to multiplicity as far as possible, but it is a goal that we can only approximate. Virtual representation seems to be an inevitable counterpart to hypertextual representation.
The breakout of the visualThe new media of hypertext and computer graphics are having a retrograde effect on the older technology of print. It might be fairer to say that both electronic media and print are moving along parallel courses in the renegotation of the balance between word and image, arbitrary and iconic modes of representation. The printed newspaper USA Today is as good evidence of this renegotiation as any new computer program for multimedia.
I am thinking, for example, of the colorful little graphs entitled "USA Snapshots." The example below illustrates how often American men shave on the weekend (USA TODAY, June 24, 1994). This graph is a bar chart: its three bars represent from left to right the number of American men who shave twice on the weekends, once, and not at all. Like most of the USA Snapshots, this graphic is ambiguous. It wants to be both picture and graph at the same time.. The bars are drawn as safety razors, apparently to convince the viewer that the graph is really about shaving. The designers seem to have distrusted the viewer's faith in numerical abstraction, for they decided to draw two razors for the number of men shaving on both days and one for the number shaving on one day. The number of those who do not shave on the weekend then poses a problem. It becomes an empty column; it reverts to the form of a conventional bar chart. The grid of white lines behind the razors confront the viewer with similar ambiguities. The lines seem to define a Cartesian coordinate system, but they do not correspond to obvious numerical divisions. The grid in fact represents the tiles that one finds in an American bathroom: here a picture is supplanting the graph. It is all as if the designers no longer trusted the arbitrary symbolism of the graph to sustain its meaning. Writing as a texture of arbitrary signs is coming undone to reveal the motivated signs or icons that are assumed to lie "beneath" its surface.
USA Today graphic. [Copyright 1994, USA TODAY. Reprinted with permission.]
The culmination is the shaving man himself, who has no function in the graph. His presence helps to transform the graph into a picture, yet at the same time he gives the picture much of its semiotic complexity. As he shaves, he appears to be looking into a mirror. We as viewers are on the other side of the mirror, looking back at the man. As in other USA Today graphs and graphics, the statistics embodied in this graph are supposed to be a mirror of American life. Thus, the shaving man turns the graph into a verbal/visual pun, although it seems unlikely that the designers had this in mind. For them, the humor probably lies in the Gestalt shifts between bars and razors, Cartesian coordinates and grout lines between bathroom tiles. Still the humor lies exactly the oscillation between looking at and looking through.
The pun in this graph recalls another technique that has become common even in those newspapers considering themselves more traditional and verbally sophisticated than the USA Today. Headlines often draw out latent metaphors in their subject: "Turbulent times ahead for United Airlines"; "Tobacco stocks are smoking"; "Mercedes slips earnings gears." In such headlines there is usually a visual or tactile image, and the point is to turn the analytic content of the headline into something sensual. The prose itself is straining to become iconic: to call forth through punning rhetoric an image that confirms what is being referred to in words.
Another curious form of verbal/visual rhetoric is common in computer magazines like Byte or MacWorld, particularly in advertisements. The headline claims that certain software product will give your company "a bigger piece of the pie." The picture shows an apple pie with a large slice being removed. The visual realization seems to lend the cliché greater conviction for the reader or viewer. In such advertisements the dialectical relationship of word and image--what W. J. T. Mitchell has called the "imagetext" (Mitchell, Picture Theory, 83ff)-- can be simple or rather sophisticated. But in general the image both reaffirms and dominates the verbal text. Words no longer seem to carry conviction without the reappearance of the latent imagery.
Throughout the history of writing, there have been genres that combine words, icons, and pictures. Rebus writing and emblem poetry were popular in the Renaissance, and children today still enjoy rebus books, in which some of the nouns are replaced by stylized drawings. The USA Today graphs are also connected to the long tradition of technopaignia, poems written in a shape that reflects their content. Pan-pipes and other shaped poems are as old as the Greek Anthology. However, the contemporary examples of visual play have greater significance, coming as they do after five hundred years of printing. They can be seen as part of the general trend to promote pictures at the expense of verbal text. The trend is also apparent in the layout and content of contemporary newspapers, where pictures often define and organize the articles. In some cases a picture and its caption replace a verbal story altogether. The picture catches the reader's eye: he reads the caption and then searches the page in vain for the text that will add detail. The picture has almost broken free of prose that would traditionally have explained and justified its presence. The newspaper is becoming a picture book.
If, during the heyday of print in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, writers controlled the visual by subsuming it into their prose. Today, the visual element not only rises to the surface of the text, but escapes altogether and takes its place as a picture on the printed page. It is not only newspapers and magazines that are renegotiating the verbal and the visual. Other forms, including "serious" and popular fiction and academic prose, are also changing, and each genre of writing is either experiencing a "breakout of the visual" or is reacting against it. It would be worthwhile, for example, to examine the history of artistic prose since the nineteenth century to watch how sensory elements at first suffused the prose in the late romantics and early modern writers and then began to bubble out of the writing altogether. One key to understanding this change would be to correlate it with the invention and spread of photography and then film. (Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer, for example, would be a starting point for charting the complex cultural interactions between writing and photography and other early forms of imaging technology.)
In the late twentieth century, the cultural importance of film and television (as heirs to photography) are certainly part of the explanation for the breakout of the visual. Media critics in the tradition of McLuhan have been arguing for decades that television offers an alternative to print literacy. (See McLuhan in Understanding Media and, for example, Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death.) Television can be said to challenge traditional literacy both by offering an alternative to prose communication and by providing a competing paradigm of communication that prose writers may be inclined to follow. It is a truism (but still true) that television cannot display abstract concepts in a compelling fashion. It also seems true that the USA Today and other American newspapers are following television's tendency to replace words with images.
On the other hand, in graphic form and function, the newspaper is beginning to resemble a computer screen rather than a television screen. The mixture of text, images, and icons turns the newspaper page into a static snapshot of a multimedia presentation. The page is laid out in numerous rectangles that resemble the windows or boxes of a multimedia screen. (By contrast, broadcast television has traditional preferred to keep the screen undivided. Now, however, split screens and other special graphic effects are beginning to appear on broadcast television too, as further evidence of the influence of computer multimedia.) The display units in the newspaper allude to, although they cannot perform, the interactive functions of hypermedia. In many newspapers, for example, the index now consists of summaries in a column down the left-hand side of the page. In some cases a small picture is included with the summary. Anyone familiar with multimedia presentations can easily read such a picture as an iconic button: one would press the button to receive the rest of the story. The USA Today also makes considerable use of hypertextual links back and forth throughout its pages, and these links are often cued by small graphics.
Text in MultimediaThe assimilation of newspapers to multimedia brings us back to the computer. The breakout of the visual has even more scope in computer-controlled multimedia than in print, because computer applications do not feel the weight of the tradition of print, under which even the USA Today must still operate. Computer-controlled multimedia programs might be called the near edge of cyberspace. Both computer scientists and many cybernauts dislike the term "multimedia," because it smacks of kiosks and commercial applications. Nevertheless, like other programs in cyberspace, multimedia, especially information kiosks and training programs, use verbal text sparingly, if not grudgingly. A typical multimedia application relies for its rhetorical effect principally on video and static graphics, secondarily on sound. Words are deployed as captions or to identify buttons. Like the label on an icon in a graphical user interface, the text on a button is as much operational as referential. The words function as a magic formula: when the user clicks on the words, she calls forth some other graphic or video. In other cases, text in multimedia is confined to rectangles and used to communicate only what cannot be pictured easily. Multimedia designers consider it an admission of failure to clutter the screen with blocks of text. The worst criticism one can make of a multimedia system is to call it a mere "page-turner," a set of texts that the user examines one after another--in other words, the electronic equivalent of a printed book.
Educational multimedia cannot dispense with text as easily as business applications, but even here the strategy is to displace and marginalize the text. A good example is provided by IBM's showcase hypermedia application called "Ulysses," produced in the late 1980s (by AND Communication, "Ulysses and Beyond: Knowledge Prototype System"). The "Ulysses" in question is the poem by Tennyson, and the application is meant to show how point-and-click hypermedia can be used to teach English literature. The student can click on words and obtain a dictionary definition, a historical explanation, or a critical interpretation. And whenever possible, the linked material is delivered not as alphabetic text, but as video or audio. If the user asks for a critical explanation of a passage, she receives a videotaped interview with a literary critic. If she wants a summary of the Trojan War, the system runs a short and very well-produced video, in which a narrative voice explains the war while the screen shows (sometimes irrelevant) mythological figures on Greek vases. The text of Tennyson's poem itself is displayed in a window, but the user can also have the poem read to her by an actor, who in fact offers a dramatic performance rather than a mere reading. The user can elect to hear the actor's voice while still viewing Tennyson's text. In this case, a wire frame jumps from word to word as the actor declaims, presumably so that semiliterate users will know what word is being pronounced. The system also supplies video of some of the actors performing the poem as if it were a monolog in a play. In general, the goal of the "Ulysses" program seems to be to pull the user away from the text itself, to replace the text as a network of signs with visual or aural experiences.
The "Ulysses" program enacts quite literally the breakout of the visual and the aural. Images and sounds pop out and displace the verbal text. Tennyson's poem is transformed into a series of video clips, as if these were its semiotic elements. The breakout of the sensory is characteristic of multimedia presentation systems in general, as static graphics and video force the verbal text into marginal positions or banish text from the screen altogether.
Text and the InternetOn the Internet, verbal text still plays an important role that it has lost in commercial, standalone multimedia programs. Electronic mail and newsgroups remain the most widely used applications, and in their generic forms these applications are purely textual. However, they are not likely to remain so, as the technology improves for transmitting graphics and audio over the network. Furthermore, even in their textual form, email and newsgroups are beginning to show signs of the breakout of the visual.
One of the peculiar characteristics of writing for email and newsgroups is the use of ASCII characters to form iconic faces, or "emoticons." For example, the sequence :-) represents a smiling face and adds some ironic nuance to the previous sentence or paragraph. The sequence :-( shows displeasure. (See below.) Through such icons, the writer is trying to ensure a single, desired interpretation for her prose. Her model of communication is not written or printed text at all, but conversation face to face or on the telephone. Handwritten letters and especially printed text have always faced the problem of decontextualization. But, at least in Western writing in the last several hundred years, the problem has not led to the development of icons designed to fix authorial intent. With a few important exceptions, such as Sterne, modern Western writers have depended entirely upon alphabetic prose itself to manipulate their readers' interpretations. Indeed, writers have consciously exploited decontextualization to produce texts open to many interpretations. The use of emoticons in email and news suggests that contemporary electronic writers are not interested in the distancing and ambiguity that prose offers. They want instead to give their prose a a face and if possible a single voice. (Of course, emoticons fail to guarantee interpretation; they just add another level of possible ambiguity, which many electronic writer fail to appreciate.) As the Internet evolves, it seems likely that "live" and recorded video will replace email and their emoticons for many purposes, precisely because video offers the users the presence and the apparent univocality that prose cannot.:-) happy :-( sad :-| frowning :-o surprised ;-) winkingEmoticons with plausible interpretations. The very name "emoticon" suggests that for electronic writers and readers verbal text lacks the resources for emotional expression.
Another intriguing (but ultimately doomed) manifestation of text on the Internet are the text-based virtual environment called MUDs (and the variations, MOOs, MUSEs, MUSHs, and so on). It has often been noted that MUDs and their predecessors, the interactive adventure games, have much in common with hypertextual fiction. However, MUDs seldom employ the techniques of distancing and self-reference found in mature hypertextual fictions such as afternoon and Victory Garden. These fictions are interactive verbal texts, in which the reader follows electronic links from screen to screen and so constructs the text in the act of reading; the reader is repeatedly made aware of the artificial character of reading and writing fiction. MUDs function more simply. They embody the naive assumption of perspicacity, that idea that to read a narrative text is to look onto or enter into another world. A MUD is an example of ekphrasis; what is unusual is the collaborative character of the ekphrasis. Many writers work together to create the world, often a building or built environment with a specialized area devoted to each activity. These same and other users then occupy the rooms together and separately and leave behind textual traces. In a typical MUD, a user adopts a persona, consisting of a name (say Luke Skywalker or Madonna) and a set of characteristics. She then travels from room to room. If she types a sentence in quotation marks, that sentence is broadcast as her utterance to the other characters in the same room. That is, every other user sees on her screen: "Luke Skywalker says: '...'." The user's typed sentence becomes one voice in the conversation of a collective fiction. Each user becomes a textually realized character and the other characters respond to the text she generates.
To participate in a MUD is to accept the illusion of the natural sign. And because MUD users accept this illusion, MUDs may be stories, but they are not novels. Most MUDs do not set up an oscillation between rhetorical awareness and forgetfulness. They do not ask their users to look at the text, but only to look through it. The typical MUD is a heroic attempt to recreate in prose what its users would prefer to be a sensory experience. For most of them, the words only get in the way. Anyone who watches participants in MUDs can see the intense involvement that the illusion can require. Repetitive stress syndrome is a vocational hazard among MUD users, as they seek to sustain the rhythms of the visual and auditory illusion entirely in typed prose. So, like email and newsgroups, MUDs seem destined to become video experiences, as soon as Internet technology can support the change. MUDs will then be multi-user, networked virtual realities. And as with single-user virtual reality, textual communication may be more or less abandoned in this shift.
Text in virtual realityVirtual reality provides an illusion rather different from that of photography, film, or video, but it is another technology for looking through. In traditional computing, the user sits at a keyboard and looks at a monitor. But with virtual reality, there is nothing to look at, because the user is wearing the machine and her eyes can now see only what the computer draws in her field of view. So virtual environments offer an apparently unmediated perception of another world. They achieve what in the popular view narrative fiction and films have always sought to achieve: empathetic involvement in a created world. As the VR enthusiast Meredith Bricken puts it:
[In virtual reality] you don't need a body; you can be a floating point of view. You can be the mad hatter or you can be the teapot; you can move back and forth to the rhythm of a song. You can be a tiny droplet in the rain or in the river; you can be what you thought you ought to be all along. (Bricken, Cyberspace: First Steps, 372)The user has fallen through the frame and is now located in a graphic world. Occupying any location in that world, she can also inhabit the point of view of any person, animal, or object.
One does not need full, immersive virtual reality to evoke in the viewer the sense of falling through the frame. Even on a conventional monitor, computer graphics can create a sense of surround. The best video games can draw the user into an environment that in fact consists only of changing pixels on a computer screen. Of course, television, film, and perspective painting could also succeed in convincing the viewer to project herself into the scene. Yet each medium accomplishes the task of projection somewhat differently. The key to such projection in both immersive and flat screen virtual environments is that the user can control her perspective and sense of direction and movement through the scene. Again computer and earlier media seem to be moving along parallel cultural tracks. Both technical and thematic experiments in shifting points of view seem to be increasingly common in animated films and conventional television. Disney films, the best in popular animation, are adopting computer technology and that the space inhabited by Disney characters is beginning to take on the surreal look of a demonstration produced on the latest Silicon Graphics hardware. Computer graphics expands the capacity for animation to simulate camera shots and therefore to define a shifting perspective.
In redefining the notion of perspective, computer graphic environments are also reenforcing our culture's desire for the natural sign. Because they are interactive, such environments provide a new form of immediacy for their users. The unstated assumption in Bricken's remarks above is that mediation itself is evil, because it gets in the way of pure, empathetic experience. This same assumption can be found not only among enthusiastics for computer graphics and virtual reality, but also in a variety of other manifestations of popular culture. It is the assumption behind the breakout of the visual in popular prose and in multimedia. The pictures jump out of the text in an effort to provide their readers with "pure" visual experiences--in effect to turn them away from reading and toward apparently unmediated forms of perception.
Most virtual worlds consist almost entirely of graphic objects: text is limited to a few words used as labels or menus. There is a technical reason for the absence of text. Many head-mounted displays cannot make text legible. Users still complain about the readability of text on conventional CRTs, but conventional screens are much easier to read than the current generation of head-mounted displays. On the other hand, the resolution of these displays continues to improve. Another explanation for the lack of text is that software developers have not concentrated on this problem. Instead, both the engineering research and the cultural promotion of virtual reality have focused on giving the user a sense of direct, perceptual participation. Typical VR applications simulate experiences that require little or no verbal information. The developer Jaron Lanier has claimed that virtual reality can usher in an era of "post-symbolic" communication, an era in which people show each other what they mean through natural signs. Explicitly for Lanier and tacitly for many others, virtual reality is the realm in which the arbitrary sign can be eliminated. In their construction of virtual reality, we do not see visual elements in the process of breaking out of the text, as we do in multimedia. The visual has already broken free and replaced text altogether. Text is not hiding behind the virtual scene; it is absent.
Popular culture and the visualThroughout the computer-controlled media, from standalone multimedia to virtual reality, verbal text is under challenge. Before the computer and certainly before the earlier twentieth-century technologies of sight and sound, print technology obviously favored verbal text. Prose established a stable relationship with pictures in printed books (copper engravings or later lithographs). In general the text was the place where one located one's most important thoughts. Pictures occupied a different and subordinate space in the book. There were exceptions: anatomies and atlases, for example, where the illustrations or maps were central and the prose secondary. In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein reminds us how important fixed, accurate images were to the development of science in the centuries after Gutenberg. Nevertheless, from the fifteenth century until today, most printed books have been mostly prose. Printed books contain illustrations. They are texts. And they are texts of a certain kind; they suggest a writing space that is stable and monumental.
The coming of photography and then film and television certainly changed the balance. They helped to orient our culture more and more toward the visual and away from the mediating experience of written language. As a culture we are no longer certain that words deserve authority over images, and perhaps the current anxiety over the "information explosion" comes from that loss of certainty. It is unclear what now counts as information. If graphics and video are as informative as (or even more informative than) verbal text, then we do indeed confront enormously more information than previous generations. And we face an uncontrolled future growth, for we are producing tremendous amounts of video more or less automatically. (The next generation of computer systems, for example, will likely include small digitizing cameras that can record continuously and send their images over the Internet.) At the same time alphabetic text itself is breaking apart, if not exactly exploding. When we see graphics and animation slipping out of the semantic reach of the text, we no longer know what codes to apply or whether the very notion of coding is appropriate.
Obviously popular culture was never as dependent upon written expression as high culture; popular culture has always been more oral and more visual. Photography, film, television together with radio and audio recording have given popular culture media in which to express its orality and visuality. At least in the United States and other highly technological societies, popular culture has become synonymous with these media and their contents. To the elites in the eighteenth century and earlier, popular culture (if such a notion could have been articulated) would have meant craft technologies, folk traditions and celebrations, as well as songs and stories. Today, everything else is of little significance compared to the electronic media as purveyors and definers of popular concerns. At the same time, popular culture has become legitimate as never before. In the United States, no firm distinction can be made any longer between the popular and the elite. Although traditional elites (academics and artists) still exist, they can no longer convince even themselves of their own cultural superiority. One result is that the importance of the visual and the sensory in popular culture is now being reflected in the remnants of traditional literary and high culture. In today's heterogeneous cultural networks, visual and sensory media are growing at the expense of the older, literary forms.
The use of images for cultural communication is certainly not new. Before the invention of the printing press, for example, the European Middle Ages had developed a sophisticated iconography that served in the place of words for a largely illiterate audience. A medieval cathedral, we are often reminded, was a complex text displayed in a sacred space for the community to read. However, there are important differences between the visual culture of the Middle Ages and our visual culture. One difference is the ubiquity of images today. In the Middle Ages, images must have had a sanctity not only because of their religious themes, but also because of their inaccessibility. A major source of such images, such as a cathedral or minster, would have been available only to a fraction of the population. Most peasants would have attended parish churches that could hardly afford much stained glass and sculpture, and might have seen the interior of a cathedral only a few times in their lives. Even townspeople fortunate enough to live in a religious center would have dragged themselves to church before or after an exhausting day's work to receive a glimpse of the rich imagery. The images must have had a different status for them than the endless barrage that confronts the contemporary television viewer. Furthermore, medieval society as a whole had a different relationship to literacy, because there was a small literate elite and a large class of illiterates. Our culture is by comparison postliterate, emerging out of the enormous experiment in mass literacy of the nineteenth and twentieth century. In this context, visual representation too can be seen as emerging out of the alphabet and other symbol systems. The visual puns in the USA Today depend upon centuries of exposure to statistical analysis and the Cartesian coordinate system. It is interesting to speculate how photography, film, television, and multimedia might have developed, if Western culture could somehow have skipped over the technology of printing and gone directly from medieval iconography to photographic and electronic imagery. What did happen was that these visual technologies had to define themselves in a culture of printed materials, and in particular in a literary culture dominated by the printed novel. They had to assume the task of subverting the dominate model of prose, of breaking free of the constraints of verbal rhetoric. They have now largely succeeded.
The future of the bookTheir success has engendered protest. Conservative academics, novelists, and the remaining belletrists oppose the trend toward popular, visual, and electronic expression and away from older forms. The result is a debate in which, given the very heterogeneity of our culture, there can be no definitive answer. The same underlying issue appears in many guises. The importance of verbal literacy in education, the traditional canon, sex and violence on television, censorship in various media -- ultimately, these are all disputes over the appropriate balance between word and image, arbitrary and motivated signs. In fact, much what American conservatives think of as the "culture wars" is an argument about modes of representation.
There is, for example, the question of whether the computer will ultimately replace the printed book. It is an unavoidable question, but still the wrong one for several reasons. In fact, no one can be sure about fate of the printed book. Many of the arguments against the computer as a reading technology depend upon assumptions about the legibility of computer screens. We cannot know precisely how the technology will improve in the coming decades. Furthermore, we cannot know what choices and compromises readers may be willing to make in ten, twenty, or fifty years. Such cultural choices are keeping printed books and other materials in use today. For most purposes, print could be eliminated now, at least in the industrialized world, if readers and writers made a determined effort to do so. Most readers today are not prepared to replace their books with computers, but they might change their minds. In the history of writing, some techniques and technologies have gone almost completely out of use. The codex practically replaced the roll in late antiquity. Parchment replaced papyrus in the European Middle Ages. More often perhaps, a new technology takes over one function and leaves other functions to an existing technology. Printing replaced handwriting for the distribution of the most kinds of texts, but it did not make handwriting obselete. Electronic technology has already taken over some functions that belonged to print or to handwriting (business communication, accounting, record keeping, and so on), and it seems likely to appropriate others. In any case the mere survival of the printed book is not what matters. Other technologies have survived as mere relics. The roll as book form stills exists in the sacred Torah used in Jewish services, and there are still a few craftspeople who produce facsimiles of illuminated manuscripts for exhibits or wealthy collectors. But neither of these technologies occupies a place in our economy of writing, and their place in our culture's mythology is carefully circumscribed. No aspiring writer today dreams of publishing his first novel on a roll of papyrus.
What matters is whether the printed book will survive as a cultural ideal. For most of us today, perhaps, the printed book is still the embodiment of text. Both as authors and as readers, we still regard printed books and journals as the place to locate our most prestigious texts. Very few authors today aspire to publish a first novel on the Internet: they still want to be in print. However, the printed book as an ideal has been challenged by poststructuralist and postmodern theorists for decades. And now the computer provides a medium in which that theoretical challenge can be realized in practice. Some groups (some academic researchers, particularly in the physical and social sciences, along with some in business and government) are already transferring their allegiance from the printed page to the computer screen. They think of the computer as their primary medium, print as a secondary or a specialized one. If our culture follows their lead, it will come to associate with text the qualities of the computer (flexibility, interactivity, speed of distribution) rather than those of the printed book (stability and authority). Printed books could remain abundant or even superabundant, as they are now, and still lose their status as the defining form of symbolic communication.
Skeptics argue that computers may be used for technical communication and for home entertainment, but that literature will continue to be printed. For example, the novelist Annie Proulx recently claimed in the New York Times that "no one is going to read a novel on a twitchy little screen. Ever." Taken literally, this claim is simply wrong. Such conventional novels as Brave New World and Jurassic Park have been digitized and read (or at least purchased) by an audience of hundreds or a few thousand. Such hypertext fictions as afternoon and Victory Garden, written exclusively for the twichy little screen, have also won small audiences. Proulx might be right, if we take her to mean that there will never be a substantial audience for verbal fiction and nonfiction in the new medium. If she is right, if literature and humanistic scholarship are left in print, while scientific and technical communication move to electronic form, the result would be the further marginalization of literature in our culture. For in that case the scientific and literary communities would not share an ideal of publication or a forum for dialogue.
Furthermore, if prose itself is being forced to renegotiate its cultural role, then the printed book is doubly challenged. It is not just that the computer as hypertext can challenge print as the repository for text. It is that the printed book is associated so strongly with verbal text. If prose loses power to convey, then who will care about printed books that are mostly prose? Can printed picture books hope to compete effectively with broadcast television and interactive video? Perhaps printed books will survive as the place for purely verbal texts and for that very reason be pushed to the cultural margin. Or perhaps prose will have a brighter future, if it can free itself from print technology. As electronic hypertext, prose can combine with visual modes of representation and perhaps share their cultural prosperity.
Virtual silenceOne irony, then, is that the defenders of the printed book have not really identified their enemy. The computer as hypertext extends the possibilities of verbal rhetoric. It is computer graphics that challenge the representational basis upon which both printed novels and hypertexts. Virtual reality, not hypertext, is the antithesis of the printed novel. I have suggested that the breakout of the visual in print and in multimedia was the inversion of the rhetorical device of ekphrasis. Enthusiasts seem to construe virtual reality too as the denial of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis depends upon a written or spoken text. But virtual reality is often, perhaps always, silent; it achieves its mobile point of view without text, almost without voice. I do not mean of course that sound or even recorded human voices are absent from the virtual environment. What is absent is any resonance between the human voice as part of the perceived environment and the written sign. Without this resonance, the ekphrastic impulse is stilled, and there can be not an oscillation between looking at and looking through. Electronic virtual environments seem to constitute a final phase in the desire for the natural sign, the phase in which the sign itself is eliminated.
The arbitrary sign cannot, however, be eliminated from all electronic environments. For electronic technology does not promote a single mode of representation; it promotes instead radical heterogeneity. All sorts of relationships between word and image are being defined in various corners of the electronic network--everything from apparently pure perceptual environments to textual and mathematical representations that avoid graphics altogether. Although enthusiasts for virtual reality may dream of eliminating writing, they cannot succeed. Even their virtual reality systems rest on layer after layer of writing, of arbitrary signs in the form of computer programs. What can happen, perhaps, is the cultural devaluation of writing in comparison with perceptual presentation. It is possible that writing will be identified more and more as an "elite" activity, while the more popular mode of communication will be ones that strive to restrict or eliminate the arbitrary sign. This is an elaborate way of saying that both conventional novels and hypertextual fictions will be less popular than interactive soap operas.
The new media also threaten to drain contemporary prose of its rhetorical possibilities. Popular prose responds with a desire to emulate computer graphics. Academic and other specialized forms respond by a retreat into jargon or into willful anachronism. ("No one will read novels on a computer screen--ever.") In all cases, the silence, the lack of resonance, of electronic media seems to be descending upon prose too. Since ancient times, the rhetorical voice has been a primary instrument for defining point of view. Now the ability to define a mobile, visual point of view in electronic media seems to be replacing our culture's rhetorical voice.
This silencing may ultimately constitute a new beginning, the forging of a kind of written communication in which the primary mode of imitation is visual rather than oral. Rather than defining a new orality, as McLuhan and Ong predicted (McLuhan, Understanding Media and Ong, Orality and Literacy), electronic technology seems to me to be moving us towards an increasing dependence upon and interest in the visual. The most popular new electronic writing systems is the Internet's World Wide Web. The protocol of the Web invites users to write and post hypertextual documents that can then be examined by other users from around the world. Although it is possible to create purely verbal documents on the Web, no one does so. Graphics and even video are included along with words. Such web documents are experiments in the integration of visual and verbal communication. The hypertextual character of these documents -- the fact that text, graphics, and video may be linked electronically -- defines a space in which arbitrary signs can coexist with perceptual presentation. However, it is not a peaceful coexistence. The verbal text must now struggle to assert its legitimacy in a space increasingly dominated by visual modes of representation.
Virtual gazeTo appreciate some cultural implications of that struggle, we need to return to virtual reality. We need to understand how computer graphics and virtual reality define and control the viewer's relationship to the world she sees.
Computerized virtual environments belong in the tradition that begins at least as early as perspective painting in the Italian Renaissance and includes photography, cinema, and television. Like these earlier examples, it is a technology of illusion, whose purpose is to convince the viewer that she is occupying the same visual space as the objects in view. Illusionistic art since the Italian Renaissance often sought to provide a consistent, linear perspective, but that perspective was necessarily static, determined by the artist. The Italian Renaissance definition of art depended upon the artist's ability to manipulate the viewer's perspective for dramatic purposes. (See the contrast between Dutch and Italian art in Albers, 1983, xix-xx and 19-22.) In conventional photography, the viewer's perspective is not as easily manipulated, but it is still constrained by the placement of the camera and other choices made by the photographer. Film and television set the perspective in motion: not only could images move in front of the camera, but the camera itself could move. But this motion is determined by the director and editor of the film or video. It is only in virtual environments that the viewer can have substantial visual control of the scene.
Anne Balsamo describes virtual reality as a new version of the filmic eye:
In most programs, a user experiences VR through a disembodied gaze--a floating moving 'perspective'--that mimes the movement of a disembodied camera eye. This is a familiar aspect of what may be called a filmic phenomenology where the camera simulates the movement of a perspective that rarely includes a self-referential visual inspection of the body as the vehicle of that perspective...." (Balsamo, 126)An importance difference between traditional cinema and virtual reality is that virtual reality enables the viewer to control the placement and duration of each "shot." Just as in electronic hypertext the reader becomes the author, in virtual reality the viewer becomes the film director. This shift of control enables the viewer to explore the virtual space as she will. The ability to change perspective becomes the way to learn about the space. As Balsamo puts it, in virtual reality the filmic "perspective" becomes the locus of sense knowledge (p 12). In fact, perspective becomes the locus of all knowledge, because in a virtual world there is nothing to be known apart from the senses. With its filmic eye, virtual reality necessarily construes knowledge as sense perception, not as knowledge of the abstract. The virtual traveler defines what she knows as what she can see and therefore "interact" with.
The eye can be construed as the most abstract and abstracting of the senses. It is so construed by many postmodern writers, as Martin Jay has pointed out (Jay, 1988). This construction in fact associates Cartesian rationality with the Renaissance notion of perspective. Jay refers to "Cartesian perspectivalism" in which an "ahistorical, disinterested disembodied subject" claims to know the world by gazing at it from afar (10). But the construction can also be turned around. Vision can be construed as involving the viewer in the world and as a means of reducing the abstract to the visible. For Descartes (and for Plato before him) sight was ultimately tied to the body. We recall that in his Meditations Descartes considered the possibility that everything he saw (as well as heard or felt) was the product of an evil deceiver. To achieve real knowledge, he proposed to withdraw entirely from the realm of perception. He concluded that sense perception itself was derivative from reason rather than the reverse.
I now know that even bodies are not strictly perceived by the sense or the faculty of imagination but by the intellect alone, and that this perception derives not from their being touched or seen but from their being understood; and in view of this I know plainly that I can achieve an easier and more evident perception of my own mind than of anything else." (Second Meditation, 22)A century and a half later, Kant would complicate this Cartesian relationship between the senses and reason. And to any postmodern writer, Descartes's self-assured conclusion is breathtakingly wrong and perverse. But in any case, Descartes's position is not one that enthusiasts for virtual reality could endorse. It is not one that a Dutch or even Italian Renaissance artist should endorse, given their commitment to knowing the world through the sense of sight. At least, however, the Renaissance perspectivists did separate the artist/viewer from the object and insert the picture plane between them. In virtual reality, the viewer has the feeling that she has stepped through the picture plane and is in among the objects.
Denying DescartesNo one in the virtual reality community can share Descartes's distrust of the senses. The virtual traveler sees and interacts with bodies, not minds, and she must deny the traditional hierarchy in which we are minds and merely have bodies. This was an appropriate hierarchy in an age of printed texts which are words and merely contain graphics. It is not appropriate to a a graphic world in which words are limited to titles and menus. Michael Novak, an architect and virtual reality enthusiast, writes:
The trajectory of Western thought has been one moving from the concrete to the abstract, from the body to the mind; recent thought, however, has been pressing upon us the frailty of that Cartesian distinction. The mind is the property of the body, and lives and dies with it. Everywhere we turn we see signs of this recognition, and cyberspace, in its literal placement of the body in spaces invented by the mind, is located directly upon this blurring boundary, this fault." (Novak, 227)His rhetoric places virtual reality in another important tradition: the twentieth-century tradition of anti-Cartesianism that reaches from Wittgenstein and Heidegger through Ryle and Rorty to the poststructuralists and postmodernists. All these have attacked the dichotomy of mind and body, the rigid division of subject and object. It is hard to find a trend of twentieth-century thought that does not begin from a tacit or explicit denial of Cartesianism. In a recent article Katherine Hayles has summarized one important strategy for denial. She describes what Bourdieu and others advocate as "embodied knowledge":
To look at thought in this way [as Bourdieu does] is to turn Descartes upside down. The central premise is not that the cogitating mind can be certain only of its ability to be present to itself, but rather that the body exists in space and time and through its interaction with the environment defines the parameters within which the cogitating mind can arrive at its 'certainties,' which not coincidentally almost never include the fundamental homologies generating the boundaries of thought. What counts as knowledge is also radically revised, for conscious thought becomes as it were the epiphenomenon corresponding to the phenomenal body the body provides... Whereas causal thinking that Descartes admired in geometry and sought to emulate in philosophy erases context by abstracting experience into generalized patterns, embodiment and especially vision create context by forging connections between instantiated action and environmental conditions. Marking a turn from foundation to flux, embodiment redefines the role and importance of context to human cognition." (Hayles, 160-161)This strategy certainly turns Descartes upside down. We have only to recall his famous rejection of the body to realize the gulf that separates Descartes from his modern and postmodern critics:
I will now shut my eyes, stop my ears, and withdraw all my senses. I will eliminate from my thoughts all images of bodily things, or rather, since this is hardly possible, I will regard all such images as vacuous, false and worthless. I will converse with myself and scrutinize myself more deeply; and in this way I will attempt to achieve, little by little, a more intimate knowledge of myself." (Third Meditation, 24)Now, if the Cartesian rejection of images were the path to true knowledge, then true knowledge can certainly not be found in the lenses of a head-mounted display. Virtual reality is the technology for turning Descartes upside down. Its wandering filmic eye reduces all abstraction to a series of visual perspectives. What it offers in place of causal thinking is precisely that faculty of imagination (making images) that Descartes disparages. The goal of virtual reality is not rational certainty; it is rather the ability of the individual to empathize through imagining. When Jaron Lanier was asked to characterize this new technology, he pointed to new possibilities for emotional involvement. Wearing a VR helmet,...[y]ou can visit the world of the dinosaur, then become a Tyrannosaurus. Not only can you see DNA, you can experience what it's like to be a molecule. (Ditlea, 1989, 92)So even a molecule can be known through empathy; the symbol systems of mathematics and physics can be left aside.
Knowledge is a matter of perspective, and so the virtual self is defined through perspective. Remember Meredith Bricken who told us that in virtual reality the user can be a "floating point of view...the mad hatter... the teapot.. a tiny droplet of rain." She goes on to praise the virtual point of view:...You can switch your point of view to an object or a process or another person's point of view in the other person's world. / Assuming multiple perspectives in a powerful capacity; only after young children are developmentally ready to understand that each person sees from a different perspective can they learn to relate to others in an empathetic way." (Bricken, 372)Putting Novak, Lanier, and Bricken together, we can see the notion of self that virtual reality and cyberspace promote. The key is to experience the world as others do, not to retire from the distractions of the world to discover oneself as a thinking agent. And instead of asserting its identity over against the world, the virtual self repeatedly denies its own identity, its separateness from others and from the world. It does not learn by scientific study in a subject-object relationship, but by identification and empathy.
In all these ways, virtual reality seems to support the postmodern rejection of Cartesian or Enlightened thought. However, Hayles herself remains suspicious. For her the proper alternative to Descartes's decontextualized reason is an embodied knowledge that virtual reality cannot achieve. Virtual reality threatens to detach the user from his body--as, for example, Bricken seems to suggest above -- and such detachment sounds dangerously Cartesian. Allucquere Roseanne Stone shares this concern:Cyberspace developers foresee a time when they will be able to forget about the body. But it is important to remember that virtual community originates in, and must return to, the physical... Forgetting about the body is an old Cartesian trick... (Stone, 113)Balsamo too is troubled:...what is of interest to me in my encounter with virtual reality is the way that the repression of the body is technologically naturalized." (Balsamo, 126)From various feminist perspectives, virtual reality is still too Cartesian. The sense of sight is not adequate to give the user a feeling of complete embodiment. On the other hand, such embodiment remains the ultimate goal for many VR specialists. They have designed entire body suits that will allow the user to manipulate an image of her whole body, not merely her hand. There has also been serious work on "haptic feedback," so that a joy stick or eventually a glove can simulate the resistence appropriate to the object that the user is trying to move in virtual space. The fact that the typical virtual interface consists of a disembodied eye is in part an artifact of the current stage of technical development. Enthusiasts for virtual reality may sometimes sound, as Bricken does above, as if they wanted to get rid of the bodies. Yet theirs is still a rhetoric of the body; they do not really have an alternative to offer. Consider, for example, Randal Walser's prediction:
More than any mechanism yet invented, [cyberspace] will change what humans perceive themselves to be, at a very fundamental and personal level. In cyberspace, there is no need to move about in a body like the one you possess in physical reality. You may feel more comfortable, at first, with a body like your 'own' but as you conduct more of your life and affairs in cyberspace your conditioned notion of a unique and immutable body will give way to a far more liberated notion of 'body' as something quite disposable and, generally, limited. You will find that some bodies work best in some situations while others work best in others. The ability to radically and compellingly change one's body-image is bound to have a deep psychological effect, calling into question just what you consider yourself to be." (cited in Rheingold 1991, p. 191)Walser is no Cartesian; he is not denying the importance of the body in defining the self. For him, the importance of the body is precisely the reason why virtual reality will have its great impact. Virtual reality will change our conception of our bodies. Our notion of self will change because we will now be dynamic or unstable bodies. The wandering perspective of virtual reality may not be sufficiently tactile for feminist theory, but it can only define itself in terms of visible bodies in visible space.
Contemporary theorists are diffident about virtual reality, yet they share important assumptions with the virtual reality and computer graphics technologists. Both the assumptions and the diffidence can be found, for example, in the complex rhetoric of Donna Haraway, in such influential essays on "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, technology and socialist feminism in the 1980s" (Haraway, 1991, 149-181) and "The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Determinations of Self and Other in Immune System Discourse." (Haraway, 1991, 203-230). Haraway's "cyborg" seems to be both a technological monster and a figure of revolutionary potential. Haraway's rhetoric, too, seems to be an ambivalent reaction to the breakout of the visual. Her prose is highly wrought and almost brutally sensual, but it is at the same time full of postmodern jargon and strategies of self-reference and abstraction. Haraway's "cyborg," which derives from "cybernetic" and reminds us of "cyberspace," shows how contemporary theorists are in fact forging a common language with virtual reality enthusiasts.
In virtual reality, the Cartesian ego is dissipated as completely as any postmodern theorist could wish. In fact, if it ever achieved photorealism, virtual reality would be the technological expression of Descartes's malicious deceiver. It would offer to Descartes's eyes a world that looked completely natural, responded to his movements, and yet bore no correspondence to nature. It was the possibility of a malicious deceiver that led Descartes to cut himself offer from every source of sense evidence that might be contaminated. By contrast, virtual reality offers the user nowhere to withdraw to--no Cartesian center that is immune to perceptual context. The self in virtual reality is all context. And feminist theorists, poststructuralists, and it seems everyone else agree that any plausible definition of self must now deny Cartesian detachment and rely exclusively on knowledge obtained in context and through the senses.
Media and the selfVirtual reality and computer graphics have brought us back to the familiar question of the self in postmodern culture. It is certainly postmodern to believe that the self is culturally defined and also to believe that modes of representation are a critical aspect of culture. There is then a close relationship between views of the self and contemporary modes of representation. Electronic technologies of representation ought therefore to provide new opportunities for defining the self. Again, we need not worry about cause and effect. It does not matter whether these new technologies are bringing about or responding to changed definitions of self. What is important is to keep in mind the distinction between the hypertextual and the virtual uses of the computer. Hypertext and computer graphics suggest different constructions of the self. Hypertext continues the tradition of the written self. Computer graphics is more difficult to locate.
Historians of ideas such as Eric Havelock and Walter Ong have long argued for the importance of writing in the definition of the autonomous individual, which they trace back to the Greeks. In the past several hundreds years, Western definitions of self have been correlated with alphabetic writing in general and print technology in particular. The Cartesian definition of self was by no means created by the technology of print. However, print technology did provide a writing space in which this definition could flourish. Descartes's "cogito ergo sum" could almost be translated: "I am the author of the text of my thoughts; therefore I am." The fixity and univocality of the text assured the existence of its author. In subordinating images to words, print technology encouraged a rhetoric in which abstraction was privileged over the senses and sensory information. Print also emphasized and rewarded the individual creativity of the author. The printed construction of the self has been modulated by many cultural currents and by various innovations in the technology of printing. For example, the invention of the stream-driven press and mechanical printing in the nineteenth century made possible the mass-circulation newspaper and the serialized novel with their constructions of the middle-class thinking and feeling self. But printed materials and especially printed volumes have continued to promote the qualities of authority, fixity, and univocality. On the other hand, printed or Cartesian versions of the self came under attack in the twentieth century, even while our culture was still in the industrial age of printing. The arrival of computer technology (or for that matter radio and television) does not alone explain the growing dissatisfaction with the Cartesian ego.
However, computer technology has encouraged the dissatisfaction. Even the computer as hypertext challenges the Cartesian ego. The author of a hypertext is a less commanding figure than the author of a printed work. For the author's work is not the product of his ego alone; instead, the author works in collaboration with the readers to create the text. The hypertext metaphor suggests an ego that is always in the process of definition and cannot easily define and defend the boundaries of its own consciousness, creativity, and individuality. It suggests a consciousness that is multiple. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has recently published a hypertextual theory of consciousness. For Dennett the brain is a rather harried editor working on a confused mass of "content-discriminations":
These distributed content-discriminations yield, over the course of time, something rather like a narrative stream or sequence, which can be thought of as subject to continual editing by many processes distributed around in the brain, and continuing indefinitely into the future. This stream of contents is only rather like a narrative because of its multiplicity; at any point in time there are multiple 'drafts' of narrative fragments at various stages of editing in various places in the brain. (Consciousness Explained, 113)The resulting narrative may be something like the French nouvel roman, but it is still a symbolic structure. Dennett is still Cartesian enough to compare consciousness to acts of writing and reading, although he makes the brain/mind an editor rather than the autonomous author of its thoughts. Dennett's editor should at least be using a word processor; in fact, a hypertext system would be the obvious tool for defining sequences among the various narrative strands. Dennett does not once refer (I believe) either to hypertext or to poststructuralist literary theory. Yet the computer as hypertext is the writing technology that validates his construction of self.
The computer as virtual environment is another matter: it denies the construction of self as a linguistic entity altogether. In virtual space, the Enlightened ego, which was in large part a linguistic entity, is destabilized and ultimately dissolves. The dissolution is more complete and less ambiguous than that accomplished by Derrida, or for that matter by Heidegger and by Wittgenstein. Those philosophers were still working inside the textual tradition, ultimately within the same writing space as Descartes. They are all philosophers of print, as Dennett is a philosopher of hypertext. Virtual space is the abnegation of the space of personal cognition that Descartes envisioned. Virtual space strives to be one of pure, if utterly artificial, sense perception. It wants to be the opposite of writing.
Virtual knowingIn a virtual environment, the user learns by exploring, by moving through the scene sampling various points of view. When the environment contains only buildings, rooms, and objects, the points of view are simply coordinates in space. But enthusiasts for VR imagine a more elaborate environment in which several people may share the space. They imagine worlds inhabited by virtual animals as well. In such cases coordinates in space may correspond to the point of view of another creature. The viewer learns through empathy, learns "what it is like to be a...." Learning through empathy appeals to the postmodern imagination in general, again because it is the antithesis of Descartes's process of learning through rational self-examination. Examples of learning through an empathetic point of view can be as predictable as the virtual daycare center created by the programmers at Jaron Lanier's computer company in the 1980s. In this scenario, the viewer can walk through the design for a proposed daycare center at the eye level of an adult caregiver, or she can shrink herself to see everything from the perspective of one of the children. Multiple points of view assured that the design will be suitable for both its communities of users. On the other hand, empathy can also be as radical as Lanier's suggestion that the user learn about dinosaurs or even molecules by occupying their perspectives.
Empathy is highly regard today as a means of knowing--not just by virtual reality enthusiasts, but byradical postmodernists and by our culture in general. It is everything that Cartesian reason is not: immediate, locale, concrete, and culturally determined. Empathy is a common theme and narrative strategy, almost the only theme and strategy, in the "dramas" on American television and in whole genres of popular film. In recent years there have been a number of films and television shows in which one character's ego occupies another body or in which two characters exchange bodies or in which characters move ahead or back in time and so occupy their own bodies at a different stage of life. Virtual reality itself has been the subject of several recent films, and in such films a character casts his or her mind into the computer, usually to have it trapped there or to exchange or merge it with other minds.
These virtual reality films take the process of empathetic learning dangerously far: it becomes dangerous, that is, for the characters, who may find it difficult to get their minds back into their original bodies. Ultimately, however, these films reaffirm the importance of empathy for postmodern culture. In every version the integrity of the Cartesian self is compromised. The borders of the self keeps shifting, as it moves from point of view to point of view, occupying the position and experiencing the problems faced by other human or creatures. To "modern" psychology, still rooted in the Enlightenment, this method of knowing would suggest split personality. But what psychology regarded even a generation ago as a disorder, our postmodern culture endorses as the best way to experience the world and, above all, the people in it.
In order to practice this empathy, the self needs freedom of access to as many points of view as possible. This need helps to explain why freedom of access become such a important political and social goal for postmodern culture -- access to social services, to political power, and above all to information. Freedom of access is now perhaps a more valued freedom than the traditional freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is compromised because it is obviously an Englightenment virtue. It assumes that the individual will be to author his own verbal ideas, if only the political order does not restrain him. But postmodern theory claims that culture has many ways to control expression. It is not simply a matter of stopping the individual from speaking or writing. The very nexus of language may be restricted by the (capitalist) economic and social order, so that the individual has no vocabulary in which to express authentic revolt. Freedom of access will empower individuals by giving them the vocabulary -- physical or intellectual -- to resist.
Virtual communityFreedom of speech generally separates individuals: each individual gives expression to his own thoughts. Freedom of access can be and usually is conceived of as a collective right available to a whole class or community. In exercising freedom of access, each individual may gain access to the same resources as her peers. It is not clear to me how to transition to this topic from the last. How do we get from the individual as wandering, empathetic changling to a notion of community? In fact, this transition presents a problem for postmodern culture. For somehow it needs to put the two together. Postmodern writers do not like to place too much emphasis on the individual, because that emphasis threatens to lead to a Cartesian solipsism. One obvious reason is that their epistemology. It is Cartesian to think that an individual mind can reason its way to knowledge. For postmodern writers, knowledge is made, not discovered, and groups of individuals need to collaborate in the process. Also marginalized or oppressed groups must maintain solidarity in order to define a collective identity over against the mainstream. Both intellectually and socially, the postmodern individual cannot lead a meaningful existence alone, and yet she cannot be wholly absorbed into the group. For total absorption suggests totalitarianism.
Postmodern writers need a notion of community. At the same they are suspicious of aggrandizing organizations (governments and multinational corporations) that will define community on their own terms. The pessimists like Baudrillard may though up their rhetorical hands and bewail the fate of the fragmented subject. Others, more optimistic, try to erect communities between the individual and the hegemonistic late capitalist culture. They must find a middle ground that is neither individual nor totalizing.
Postmodern communities have the qualities of postmodern texts. They are tentative and temporary. They are formed spontaneously, and individuals can enter or abandon them according to need and inclination. These qualities already belong to mainstream American culture. Mainstream culture is already what we might call the network culture, where people define community by networking, forming and breaking liaison. It contrasts to the hierarchical culture of social class and religion that flourished in Europe prior to the Second World War and had some impact on the prewar United States, although it never flourished here. There are few hierarchies and relatively little stability left in American culture. It is a culture in which one out of three households moves every year. It is culture in which it is not usual for people to change their religious denomination three or four times in a lifetime, a culture in which when a Catholic and a Baptist marry they often split the difference and both join the Episcopal church.
Admittedly this is not the whole story, since postmodern writers are very concerned to encourage a sense of community among marginalized groups (minorities and women) who do not wish to and indeed cannot change the qualities that define them as a community. But these minority or oppressed communities that are created involuntarily by external forces. They are defined in fact by a blockage, by the lack of freedom of access. In general the ideal is a community rather like the newsgroups and list services on the Internet, a voluntary coming together of those with a particular shared interest. Postmodern community in the ideal is hypertextual, although most postmodern writers will not accept this metaphor, because they regard electronic technology as part of the totalizing and homogenizing complex of late capitalism.
The hypertextualized network community is postmodern in its flexibility, its impermanence, and its powers of self-reference and self-definition. The virtual community of shifting empathies is postmodern as well. Baudrillard is the writer who has most successfully defined the virtual society, and his definition is almost wholly negative. America itself is a simulacrum, and the various American communities are equally without foundation or reference. Yet the virtual world has a virtue that Baudrillard does not emphasize: its power to involve its inhabitants, to call forth in them empathetic reactions. This power is all the more striking when it is calling forth reactions for the utterly artificial constructs of television and now cyberspace. For the more optimistic postmodern writers, empathetic involvement as the glue that holds community together. Virtual community with its electronic simulacra is a caricature of postmodern community. In this respect at least, virtual community does have a reference, for like any good caricature, it is exaggerating qualities really present in its subject.
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