Notes Toward an Unwritten Non-Linear Electronic Text, "The Ends of Print Culture" (a work in progress)© 1991 PMC 2.1
Adapted from a talk originally given at the Computers and the Human Conversation Conference, Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon, March 16, 1991
For a period of time last year on each end of our town, like compass points, there was a mausoleum of books. On the north end of town a great remainder warehouse flapped with banners that promised 80% off publishers prices. Inside it row upon row of long tables resembled nothing less than those awful makeshift morgues which spring up around disasters. Its tables were piled with the union dead: the mistakes and enthusiasms of editors, the miscalculations of marketing types, the brightly jacketed, orphaned victims of faddish, fickle or fifteen minute shifts of opinion and/or history. There an appliance was betrayed by another (food processor by microwave); a diet guru was overthrown by a leftist in leotards (Pritikin by Fonda); and every would-be Dickens seemed poised to tumble, if not from literary history, at least from all human memory (already gangs of Owen Meanies leer and lean against faded Handmaidens of Atwood).
Upon first looking into such a warehouse--forty miles east of our spare parts, bible belt midwest town, in what we outlanders think of as wonderful Ann Arbor; we thought only a university town could sustain this. When the same outfit opened up in our town, and the tables were piled not with the leavings of Ann Arborites but with towers of the same texts, we knew this was a modern day circus. Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages! here come the books!
Meanwhile, at the opposite pole in the second mausoleum, a group termed the Friends of the Library regularly sell off tables of what shelves can no longer hold. One hundred years of Marquez is too impermanent for the permanent collection of our county library, but so too-- at least for the branches which feed pulp back to this trunk--so too is the Human Comedy, so too are the actual Dickens or Emily Dickinson. The book here must literally earn its keep.
Both the remainder morgue and the friends of the library mortuary are examples of production/distribution gone radically wrong. Books--and films and television programs and software, etc.--have become what cigarettes are in prison, a currency, a token of value, a high voltage utility humming with options and futures. It is not necessary to have read them. Rather we are urged to imagine what they could mean to us; or, more accurately, to imagine what we would mean if we were the kind of people who had read them.
This is to say that the intellectual capital economy has to some extent abandoned the idea of real, material value for one of utility. This abandonment is not unlike the kind that in a depressed real estate market leaves so-called "worthless" condos as empty towers in whose shadowy colonnades the homeless camp. Ideas of all sorts have their fifteen minute warholian half-life and then dissipate, and yet their structures remain. We have long ago stopped making real buildings in favor of virtual realities and holograms. The book has lost its privilege. For those who camped in its shadows, for the culturally homeless, this is not necessarily a bad thing. No less than the sitcom or the Nintendo cartridge, the book too is merely a fleeting, momentarily marketable, physical instantiation of the network. And the network, unlike the tower,is ours to inhabit.
In the days before the remote control television channel zapper and modem port we used to think network meant the three wise men with the same middle initial: two with the same last name, NBC and ABC, and their cousin CBS. Now we increasingly know that the network is nothing less than what is put before us for use. Here in the network what makes value is, to echo the poet Charles Olson, knowing how to use yourself and on what. Networks build locally immediate value which we can plug into or not as we like. Thus the network redeems time for us. Already with remote control channel zapper in hand the most of us can track multiple narratives, headline loops, and touchdown drives simultaneously across cable transmissions and stratified time. In the network we know that what is of value is what can be used; and that we can shift values everywhere, instantly, individually, as we will.
We live in what, in Writing Space, Jay Bolter calls the late age of print (Bolter 1991). Once one begins using a word processor to write fiction, it is easy to imagine that the same techne which makes it possible to remove the anguish from a minor character on page 251 of a novel manuscript and implant it within a formative meditation of the heroine on page 67 could likewise make it possible to write a novel which changes every time the reader reads it. Yet what we envision as a disk tucked into a book might easily become the opposite. The reader struggles against the electronic book. "But you can't read it in bed," she says, everyone's last ditch argument. Fully a year after Sony first showed Discman, a portable, mini-CD the size of a Walkman, capable of holding 100,000 pages of text, a discussion on the Gutenberg computer network wanted to move the last ditch a little further. The smell of ink, one writer suggested; the crinkle of pages, suggests another.
Meanwhile in far-off laboratories of the Military-InfotainmentComplex--to advance upon Stuart Moulthrop's phrase (Moulthrop, 1989b)--at Warner, Disney or IBApple and MicroLotus, some scientists work on synchronous smell-o-vision with real time simulated fragrance degradation shifting from fresh ink to old mold; while others build raised-text touch screens with laterally facing windows that look and turn like pages, crinkling and sighing as they turn. "But the dog can't eat it," someone protests, and--smiling, silently--the scientists go back to their laboratories, bags of silicone kibbles over their shoulders.
What we whiff is not the smell of ink but the smell of loss: of burning towers or men's cigars in the drawing room. Hurry up please, it's time. We are in the late age of print; the time of the book has passed. The book is an obscure pleasure like the opera or cigarettes. The book is dead, long live the book. A revolution enacts what a population already expresses: like eels to the Sargasso, 100 thousand videotapes annually return to a television show about home videos. In the land of polar mausolea, in this late age of print, swimming midst this undertow who will keep the book alive?
In an age when more people buy and do not read more books than have ever been published before, often with higher advances than ever before, perhaps we will each become like the living books of Truffaut's version of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, whose vestal readers walk along the meandering river of light just beyond the city of text. We face their tasks now, resisting what flattens us, re-embodying reading as movement, as an action rather than a thing, network out of book.
We can re-embody reading if we see that the network is ours to inhabit. There are no technologies without humanities; tools are human structures and modalities. Artificial intelligence is a metaphor for the psyche, a contraption of cognitive psychology and philosophy; multimedia (even as virtual reality) is a metaphor for the sensorium, a perceptual gadget beholding to poetics and film studies. Nothing is quicker than the light of the word. In "Quickness," one of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino writes:
In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of the written language.
(Calvino 1988, 45)
Following the true bent of the written language in the late age of print brings us to the topographic. "The computer," Jay Bolter says," changes the nature of writing simply by giving visual expression to our acts of conceiving and manipulating topics. "In the topographic city of text shape itself signifies, as in Warren Beatty's literally brilliant rendering of the city of Dick Tracy. There the calm, commercial runes of marquee, placard, neon and shingle (DRUGS, LUNCHEONETTE, CINEMA) not only map the pathways of meaning and human intercourse, but they also shape and color the city itself and its inhabitants. Face and costume, facade and meander, river's edge and central square, booth or counter, Trueheart or Breathless. "Electronic writing," says Bolter
is both a visual and verbal description. It is not the writing of a place, but rather a writing with places, spatially realized topics. Topographic writing challenges the idea that writing should be merely the servant of spoken language. The writer and reader can create and examine signs and structures on the computer screen that have no easy equivalent in speech.
(Bolter 1991, 25)
Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext in the 1960's, more recently defined it as "non-sequential writing with reader controlled links." Yet this characterization stops short of describing the resistance of this new object. For it is not merely that the reader can choose the order of what she reads but that her choices in fact become what it is.
Let us say instead that hypertext is reading and writing electronically in an order you choose; whether among choices represented for you by the writer, or by your discovery of the topographic (sensual) organization of the text. Your choices, not the author's representations or the initial topography, constitute the current state of the text. You become the reader-as-writer.
We might note here that the word we want to describe the reader-as-writer already exists, although it is too latinate and bulky for contemporary use. Interlocutor has the correct sense of one conversant with the polylogue, as well as the right degrees of burlesque, badinage, and bricolage behind it. Even so, we will have to make do with--and may well benefit by extending--the comfortable term, reader.
We may distinguish two kinds of hypertext according to their actions (Joyce, 1988). Exploratory hypertext, which most often occurs in read-only form, allows readers to control the transformation of a defined body of material. It is perhaps the type most familiar to you, if you have seen a Hypercard stack. (Note here that a stack is the name of the electronic texts created by this Apple product. There are other hypertext systems, such as Storyspace and Supercard for the Macintosh, or Guide for both the Macintosh and MS-DOS machines, and the newcomer ToolBook for the latter.)
In the typical stack, the reader encounters a text (which may include sound and graphics, including video, animations, and what have you). She may choose what and how she sees or reads, either following an order the author has set out for her or creating her own. Very often she can retain a record of her choices in order to replay them later. More and more frequently in these documents she can compose her own notes and connect them to what she encounters, even copying parts from the hypertext itself.
This kind of reading of an exploratory hypertext is what we might call empowered interaction. The transitional electronic text makes an uneasy marriage with its reader. It says: you may do these things, including some I have not anticipated.
It is to an extent true that neither the author's representations nor the initial topography but instead the reader's choices constitute the current state of the text for her. In these exploratory hypertexts, however, the text does not transform or rearrange itself to embody this current state. The transitional electronic text is as yet a marriage without issue. Each of the reader's additions lies outside the flow of the text, like Junior's shack at the edge of the poster-colored city of Dick Tracy. The text may be seen as leading to what she adds to it, yet her addition is marginal, ghettoized. Stuart Moulthrop suggests that to the extent that hypertexts let a power structure "subject itself to trivial critiques in order to pre-empt any real questioning of authority . . . hypertext could end up betraying the anti-hierarchical ideals implicit in its foundation" (Moulthrop 1989a). Under such circumstances the reader's interaction does not reorder the text, but rather conserves authority. She moves outside the pathways of meaning and human intercourse, unable to shape and color the city itself or its inhabitants.
Even so, to the extent that the topographical writing of an exploratory hypertext lets readers create and examine signs and structures, it does make implicit the boundary which both marks and makes privilege or authority. In fact it has always been true that the interlocutory reader, let us say brooding alone in the reading room of the British Museum, might come to see this boundary. Attuned to organizational structures of production and reproduction, she might mark with Althusser, "the material existence of an ideological apparatus" of the state (Althusser 1971).
But she might not be able to see quite as clearly or as quickly as she can see in the hypertext how the arena is organized to marginalize and diminish her. This is the trouble with hypertext, at any level: it is messy, it lets you see ghosts, it is always haunted by the possibility of other voices, other topographies, others' governance.
Print culture is as discretely defined and transparently maintained as the grounds of Disney World. There is no danger that new paths will be trod into the manicured lawns. Some would like to think this groundskeeping is a neutral decision, unladen, de-contextualized, removed from issues of empowerment, outside any reciprocal relationship. For the moment institutions of media, publishing, scholarship, and instruction depend upon the inertia of the aging technology of print, not just to withstand attack on established ideas, but to withstand the necessity to refresh and reestablish these ideas. In fact, hypermedia educators frequently advertise their stacks by featuring the fact that the primary materials are not altered by the webs of comments and connections made by students. This makes it easier to administer networks they say.
Like the Irish king Cuchulain who fought the tide with his sword, they lose who would battle waves on the shores of light. The book is slow, the network is quick; the book is many of one, the network is many ones multiplied; the book is dialogic, the network polylogic.
The second kind of hypertext, constructive hypertext, offers an electronic alternative to the grey ghetto alongside the river of light. Constructive hypertext requires a capability to create, change, and recover particular encounters within a developing body of knowledge. Like the network, conference, classroom or any other form of the electronic text, constructive hypertexts are "versions of what they are becoming, a structure for what does not yet exist" (Joyce 1988).
As a true electronic text, the constructive hypertext differs from the transitional exploratory hypertext in that its interaction is reciprocal rather than empowered. The reader gives birth to the true electronic text. It says: what you do transforms what I have done, and allows you to do what you have not anticipated. "It is not just that [we] must make knowledge [our] own," says Jerome Bruner in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, but that we must do so "in a community of those who share [our] sense of culture" (Bruner 1986).
A truly constructive hypertext will present the reader opportunities to recognize and deploy the existing linking structure in all its logic and nuance. That is, the evolving rhetoric must be manifest for the reader. She should be able to extend the existing structure and to transform it, harnessing it to her own uses. She should be able to predict that her own transformations of a hypertext will cause its existing elements to conform to her additions. While not merely taking on but surrendering the forefront to the newly focused tenor and substance of the interlocutory reader, the transformed text should continue to perform reliably in much the same way that it has for previous readers.
Indeed, every reading of the transformed text should in some sense rehearse the transformation made by the interlocutory reader. If a reader, let us call her Ann, has read a particular text both before and after the intervention of the interlocutory reader, Beatrice, Ann's experience of the text should have the familiar discomfort of recognition. Ann should realize Beatrice's reading.
Not surprisingly, the first efforts at developing truly constructive hypertexts have taken place in (hyper)fictions. afternoon (Joyce 1990) attempts to subvert the topography of the text by making every word seem as if it yields other possibilities, letting the reader imagine her own confirmations. This "letting" likely signifies a partially failed attempt, a text which empowers more than it reciprocates. In situating and criticizing afternoon, Stuart Moulthrop speculated, "a writing space [which] presumes a new community of readers, writers, and designers of media . . . [whose] roles would be much less sharply differentiated than they are now "(Moulthrop, 1989a).
In attempting to develop such a community it becomes clear to hyperfiction writers that unless roles of author and reader are much less sharply differentiated, the silence will have no voice. Even interactive texts will live a lie. "In all claims to the story," writes the Canadian poet Erin Moure,
There is muteness. The writer as witness, speaking the stories, is a lie, a liberal bourgeois lie. Because the speech is the writer's speech, and each word of the writer robs the witnessed of their own voice, muting them.
(Moure 1989, 84)
Increasingly hyperfiction writers consider how the topographic (sensual) organization of the text might present reciprocal choices that constitute and transform the current state of the text. How, in the landscape of the city of text, can the reader know that what she builds will move the course of the river? How might what she builds present what Bruner calls an invitation to reflection and culture creating. In her poem, "Site Glossary,: Loony Tune Music," Moure says
witness as a concept is outdated in the countries of privilege, witness as tactic, the image as completed desktop publishing & the writer as accurate, the names are sonorous & bear repeating tho there is no repetition the throat fails to mark the trace of the individual voice which entails loony tune music in this age
(Moure 1989, 115)
Hyperfictions seek to mark the trace with their own loony tune music. In Chaos Stuart Moulthrop has speculated a fiction which is consciously unfinished, fragmentary, open, one of emotional orientations and transformative encounters. John McDaid's hyperfiction Uncle Buddy's Phantom Fun House is an electronic world of notebooks, scrap papers, dealt but unplayed Tarot cards, souvenirs, segments, drafts, and tapes, unfinished in the way that death unfinishes us all (McDaid, 1991). In Izme Pass, their hyperfictional "deconstruction of priority," Carolyn Guyer and Martha Petry seek "to weave . . . [a] new work made not of the parts but the connections . . . [in order] to unmurk it a little, to form connection in time and space, but without respect to those constraints "(Guyer 1991b).
While this may seem the same urge toward a novel which changes each time it is read, what has changed in the interim between novelist-at-word-processor and hyperfiction writer is that computer tools to accomplish these sorts of multiple texts have been built. Moreover hyperfiction writers have not only imagined and rendered them, but also and more importantly have begun to set out an aesthetic for a multiple fiction which yields to its readers in a reciprocal relationship.
This sort of reciprocal relationship for electronic art has a conscious history in the late 20th century. In Glenn Gould's essay "Strauss and the Electronic Future" (1964) he envisions a "multiple authorship responsibility in which the specific functions of the composer, the performer, and indeed the consumer overlap." He expands this notion in his extraordinary essay, "The Prospects of Recording" (Gould 1966): "Because so many different levels of participation will, in fact, be merged in the final result, the individualized information concepts which define the nature of identity and authorship will become very much less imposing."
What joins the concerns of many of writers working with multiple fictions is nothing less than the deconstruction of priority involved in making identity and authorship much less imposing. "The fact in the human universe," says Charles Olson, "is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one (yrself done right . . . is the thing--all hierarchies, like dualities, are dead ducks)" (Olson, 1974).
These writers share a conviction that the nature of mind must not be fixed. It is not a transmission but a conversation we must keep open. "If structure is identified with the mechanisms of the mind," says Umberto Eco, "then historical knowledge is no longer possible" (Eco, 1989). We redeem history when we put structure under question in the ways that narrative, hypertext and teaching each do in their essence. Narrative is the series of individual questions which marginalize accepted order and thus enact history. Hypertext links are no less than the trace of such questions, a conversation with structure. All three are authentically concerned with consciousness rather than information; with creating and preserving knowledge rather than with the mere ordering of the known. The value produced by the readers of hypertexts or by the students we learn with is constrained by systems which refuse them the centrality of their authorship. What is at risk is both mind and history.
In Wim Wenders' (and Peter Handke's) film, Wings of Desire, the angels walk among the stacks and tables of a library, listening to the music within the minds of the individual readers. It is a scene of indescribable delicacy and melancholy both (one which makes you want to rush from the theatre and into the nearest library, there to read forever), into the midst of which, shuffling slowly up the carpeted stair treads, huffing at each stairwell landing, his nearly transparent hand touching on occasion against the place where his breastbone pounds beneath his suit and vest, comes an old man, his mind opening to an angel's vision and to us in a winded, scratchy wheeze.
"Tell me muse of the story-teller," he thinks, "who was thrust to the end of the world, childlike ancient . . . ." The credits tell us later that this is Homer. "With time," he thinks, "my listeners became my readers. They no longer sit in a circle, instead they sit apart and no one knows anything about the other . . . ."
Homer's is for us increasingly an old story. When print removed knowledge from temporality, Walter Ong reminds us, it interiorized the idea of discrete authorship and hierarchy. Ong envisioned a new orality (Ong 1982). In this case it is a film which restores the circle; likewise the "multiple authorship" of hypertext offers an electronic restoration of the circle.
Although hypertext is an increasingly familiar cultural term, its artistic import is only beginning to be realized. In novels whose words and structures do not stay the same from one reading to another, ones in which the reader no longer sits apart but by her interaction, shapes and transforms.
Shaping ourselves, we ourselves are shaped. This is the reciprocal relationship. It is likewise the elemental insight of the fractal geometry: that each contour is itself an expression of itself in finer grain. We have been talking so long about a new age, a technological age, an information age, etc., that we are apt to forget that it is we who fashion it, we who discover and recover it, we who shape it, we who literally give it form with how we use ourselves and on what.
This organic reconstitution of the text may be what makes constructive hypertext the first instance of what we will come to conceive as the natural form of multimodal, multi-sensual writing: the multiple fiction,the true electronic text, not the transitional electronic analogue of a printed text like a hypertextual encyclopedia. Fictions like afternoon, WOE, Chaos, IZME PASS, or Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse can neither be conceived nor experienced in any other way. They are imagined and composed within their own idiom and electronic environment, not cobbled together from pre-ordained texts.
For these fictions there will be no print equivalent, nor even a mathematical possibility of printing their variations. Yet this is in no way to suggest that these fictions are random on the one hand or artificial intelligence on the other. Merely that they are formational.
What they form are instances of the new writing of the late age of print, what Jane Yellowlees Douglas terms "the genuine post-modern text rejecting the objective paradigm of reality as the great 'either/or' and embracing, instead, the 'and/and/and'" (Douglas, 1991). The issues at hand are not technological but aesthetic, not what and where we shall read but how and why. These are issues which have been a matter of the deepest artistic inquiry for some time, and which share a wide and eclectic band of progenitors and a century or more of self-similar texts in a number of media.
The layering of meaning and the simultaneity of multiple visions have gradually become comfortable notions to us, though they form the essence underlying the intermingled and implicating voices of Bach which Glenn Gould heard with such clarity. We are the children of the aleatory convergence. Our longing for multiplicity and simultaneity seems upon reflection an ancient one, the sole center of the whirlwind, the one silence.
It is an embodied silence which the multiple fiction can render. We find ourselves at the confluence of twentieth century narrative arts and cognitive science as they approach an age of machine-based art, virtual realities, and what Don Byrd calls "proprioceptive coherence" (Byrd, 1991). The new writing requires rather than encourages multiple readings. It not only enacts these readings, it does not exist without them. Multiple fictions accomplish what its progenitors could only aspire to, lacking a topographic medium, light speed, electronic grace, and the willing intervention of the reader.
Center for Narrative and Technology, Jackson, MICopyright © 1991 Michael Joyce NOTE: Readers may use portions of this work in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law. In addition, subscribers and members of subscribed institutions may use the entire work for any internal noncommercial purpose but, other than one copy sent by email, print, or fax to one person at another location for that individual's personal use, distribution of this article outside of a subscribed institution without express written permission from either the author or the Johns Hopkins University Press is expressly forbidden.
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