Hypertext and the human factor.
Narrativity after Modernism.
Jan-Hendrik Bakker in conversation with Michael Joyce
The following text is the result of an interview and conversation with
the American hypertext-author and -theorist Michael Joyce, one of the
leading writers in this field. Although the subject at stake lingers between
philosophy and literature, the issue concerns both disciplines, I think:
how is hypertextual narrativity going to influence our Selves. I had this
conversation which Joyce during last winter (2000-2001), by e-mail. The
text will be used as a separate chapter in a book on (the future of )
literary culture, with the provisional title "The poet's body".
As such it is part of the research material, I gathered for this much
broader study. Readers of this conversation should know that Michael Joyce
is the author of the famous hypertext-novel "afternoon, a story".
In this interactive, non-illustrated narrative the reader is invited to
explore life and emotions of Peter, a man who desperately wants to know
if he indeed witnessed the death of his own son. (more about Michael Joyce)
Your first novel 'The War Outside Ireland' was a conventional, linear
one. It was pretty successful and even brought you a literary prize.
What made you move into the non-linear direction, which is, by the way,
almost a contradictio in terminis?
It isn't that simple a progression. My print novel was very much
concerned with the interwoven stories of family, neighbourhood, and
clan (insofar as an immigrant group, such as American-Irish maintain
a sense of themselves as clan), what I have sometimes called the oral
tradition of mothers and aunts, the kind of discourse Cixous speaks
of as the "staggering vision of the construction we are, the tiny
and great lies, the small nontruths we must have incessantly woven to
be able to prepare our brothers' dinner and cook for our children."
These stories have multiple beginnings and negotiable endings, that
is their protagonists and tellers are often interchangeable and as they
change roles they bring different perspectives, these often coloured
by overlays of other tellings. In the quotidian we lead our lives in
ways whose linearity is unclear, moving in patterns of literal recursion,
the arabesques of time. That said, when I began to appreciate the textual
elasticity of electronic space it seemed very much the right medium
for the kinds of stories which interested me, whose own elasticity was
the story they told as much as the events they purported to account.
This is most interesting. The adequacy of the story's elasticity with
the way we tell and read, and maybe even with the world itself, as far
as there is such a 'thing', is an exiting and, maybe, a crucial idea.
But let's return to this issue later on. First I would like to know
about you, Jay David Bolter and the others who designed Storyspace.
After all you were one of the first who enabled authors to write fiction
in a hypertext-environment.
There were obvious examples, we were just not good enough researchers
to know which they were (Nelson for instance had long since published
Literary Machines, but we had a working system before we read
it). The first ACM Hypertext meetings in 1987 were a revelation to many
researchers such as we were. The organizers expected a small crowd of
interested parties and were overwhelmed by the number of active researchers,
working systems, already complexly designed works. Apple 'introduced'
HyperCard to an audience which was on the edge of being hostile, many
of whom (like our publisher Mark Bernstein at Eastgate in 1982) had
already published hypertext titles. My afternoon was first distributed
then from a card table outside the main hall where Bolter and I personally
demoed Storyspace on a small first-generation Mac the size of a block
of ice. By the way Bolter and I designed it ourselves, the others listed
were people whose research groups influenced us (Smith) or who later
made revisions (Bernstein).
(Note: The ACM is the professional organization of computer scientists
in the US. It has several special interest groups (SIGs), the best known
perhaps is SIGGRAPH, the graphics group whose annual meeting draws 30-50K
participants from academies and industry. The hypertext group SIGWEB,
formerly SIGLINK, held its first meeting in 1987.)
How did you work on afternoon? Did you have a complete story
in advance, which you later cut up in pieces, the procedure, more of
less, followed by Julio Cortazar in Rayuela? I guess this was
not the way you wrote afternoon, because of the enormous amount
of sublines. If you compare the work you did for The War Outside
Ireland with that of afternoon, what were the main differences?
I wrote afternoon entirely within the system of Storyspace, with
very little on paper (a few notes of the Boolean logic for 'guard fields').
The process was thus also quite different from Cortazar's (or, as recent
criticism suggest, his girlfriend's work) in Rayuela. Afternoon
was in fact much more similar to The War Outside Ireland in
that its connections were discovered in the unfoldings, unfolding which
exposed no 'center', but rather only other unfoldings, a surface of
possibilities and events. I have a vivid sense of having to imagine
the readership of this work, and how to explain the process of reading
in terms of its compositional process. If you are looking for predecessor
texts, you should look elsewhere, really, to the intricate unfoldings
of Gertude Stein's prose or the projective verse and field composition
of the American poet, Charles Olson. The method for me was most similar
to that of painting or making a large drawing, where the composition
is found in the whole but through the exploration of successive surfaces.
Jazz is also a good comparison (it is the one Umberto Eco makes in characterizing
my work as "the third possibility, the one outlined by Michael
Joyce. We may conceive of hypertexts which are unlimited and infinite.
Every user can add something, and you can implement a sort of jazzlike
The fact you only had a few notes on Boolean logic for 'guard fields'
on paper when starting to write afternoon, as you just said,
may give support to those who criticize hypertext-fiction writers as
being too manipulative. This is at least a suspicion digital leans,
as me, could easily sense. Did the procedure you followed for afternoon
mean that interconnecting the hundreds of lexia was above all a job
of excluding the links you did not want to come in existence?
Not at all. A crucial point is that the boolean logic notes were not
something I had beforehand but rather a sort of 'scoring' which evolved
as I read the text as its first reader and, rather than seeing it as
a task of excluding possibilities, it was for me, as any composer, a
matter of adjusting the tonalities and rhythms such that notes appeared
in their time, that is, an opening up of possibilities and flow rather
than a narrowing.
How much time did the actual writing of afternoon take? How was
it sold en who are your readers? Did you find acknowledgement by the
literary establishment? Or are you seen as a weird academic?
The initial composition of afternoon took a very short time.
I had been thinking about this work for a great deal of time, throughout
our development of Storyspace, and so wrote it in something less than
a week of solid work. Then I worked through the paths and the guard
fields for a certain number of weeks thereafter, reading and rereading
in the way of any reader, wandering through the hundreds of thousands
of possible combinations, 'tuning' them when they were unsatisfactory,
hacking through underbrush when the story was too thorny or obscure
for even my tastes.
The initial acknowledgement by the literary establishment ranged from
hostile to bored, and from the first it was clear that some very fine
critics and scholars were fully prepared to write about the work in
the subjunctive, that is, without having read it well or at all. This
has continued to this day even as the critical and literary reception
of hyperfictions finally grows to legitimacy. A very famous theoretician
of reading wrote about Robert Coover's hypertext fictions in an essay
when Coover has in fact never written a hyperfiction (although he was
the first and most generous champion of them). A New York Times writer
described a reading of the fiction which was clearly a fantastical invention,
uninformed by experience one might say.
Although the Salon junior editor recruited to do a hit-job on hypertext
for the new regime of the Times book review (this is a common strategy
there, they recruit Marxist critics to defame Marxist texts, gay writers
to hatchet gay literature, etc., and thus retain clean hands) characterized
the audience as strictly an academic (and male!) one, the earliest and
most generous critics were young readers, to be sure often graduate
students, but ones who viewed themselves as feminists, subversive artists,
'experimental' writers, and so on. Carole Maso is an example.
Writing in a ICT-environment requires a different technique and a different
grammar. How do you feel about this? Did you go through a stylish modulation
from The war... to afternoon?
I felt incredibly liberated, as if the writing I was always going to
have written were suddenly possible. That is, the greatest change was
a feeling that I could inhabit the multiplicity of voices with which
my own narrative always came to me. In just about my first speculation
about the hypertext novel (for a grant request which predated Storyspace
or afternoon) I suggested that 'the most compelling aspect of
computer tools is that they promise fiction writers a means to resurrect
and entertain multiplicities that print-bound creation models have taught
them to suppress or finesse'. As I came to write afternoon, and
each time I came to write hypertext fiction until the ubiquity of the
web compromised if not removed the sense of spatiotemporal composition
which I felt in composing hypertexts, I was literally buoyed by the
freedom of writing without gravity of the linear.
While reading afternoon I was struck by the evocative power of
some passages. Is this kind of very direct and compact writing a feature
of the hypertext-novel?
I hope so, I hope it continues to be so and I would be delighted if
that were seen as the legacy of my work. Yet it is too easy to inadvertently
parody oneself in this kind of compactness, to write a kind of embroidered
and self-consciously literary text of the sort I have characterized
as 'captioning' or perhaps, better still, in my Stockholm talk, as sampling
(in both the sense of the word as a young woman's sewing of figures
and letters and the hip-hop sampling).
In general, it is said that non-linear fiction does not have a narrative
centre. I have read 'afternoon', which is a beautiful story, I think,
for quite a couple of times, maybe not in the way an experienced path-finder
in hypertext should have done it, but nevertheless, your story has left
its impressions. It is remarkable however that the sum of these impressions
do reflect a narrative totality. This is not the outcome of a long reading
process, but it happened to be there right from the first readings.
Each time I started reading, I saw this Peter scared to death his son
has been killed in an accident and having vague, sometimes strong feelings
of quilt, a sort existentialistic regret that he is not were he should
be. Thus, for me 'afternoon' is a very concrete portrait of the postmodern
and postpatriarchal male (the father who feels superfluous and guilty
about that too). I don't mean this story is a moralistic, anti-divorce
piece, not at all, but it is moral in this sense that it sketches the
very state of mind most males will recognise. Your one-liner 'I want
to say I may have seen my son die this morning' is rather strong, its
echo sounds in all sentences and lexias that are still to come, what
ever they may be. So although your hypertext is a jazzy kind of collage,
and there may be no, to quote Nietzsche, original text, there is for
sure an original appeal. Phenomenologically speaking this story has
a very, very strong (emotional) centre.
I am obviously quite pleased by this reading, which is a sense of the
text I recognize. You are right, I think, about it being a portrait
of a postmodern (post-Strindberg) father and the sentence with its awful
core of unwanted wanting, which is a longing for control or at least
influence over even the most unthinkable events—where one is literally
found wanting, i.e., found & wanting in the sense that English allows
as a sort of temporal punning. Not to stretch this episode of self-appreciation
much farther (I first mistyped 'father'!) than I would wish, I'd also
agree that the strong centre is a characteristic of the best jazz which,
to gently disagree with Eco, is not simply a matter of improvisation
and jamming but an evocation (elegiac, wanting) of a (lost) melodic
It is often said that the (conventional) author is never in full control
of his own story. In a way he has to 'listen' to the logic of the narrative
in order to write down that narrative. In this sense he is led by his
own story. Is this an experience you also had while working on afternoon?
After all it is called afternoon, a story.
Absolutely. This makes an important point by the way. These hypertext
fictions (and indeed the technology which enables them) emerge from
almost a century of modernist artworks concerned with following composition
in this way, whether in serial music, in oulipo texts, in cubism, collage,
surrealism, constructivism, etc.. The dot.com generation's blindly infantile
insistence on its self-generative nature cannot obscure the fact that
the technology of cyberculture is a creation of modernist (and this
post-modernist, even Romantic) sensibility. Neither this generation
of technologists nor its increasingly derivative and dully self-referential
creations sprang parthenogenetically from the machine. The machine was
imagined first and in some senses, even economic ones, it remains a
work of imagination.
Of course we externalize, by making machines, what already is in our
minds and imagination. But once it is there in the outside world, machines
can take over. They use to loose their serving function as merely instruments
and want to be served in stead. So does the computer, I suppose, as
a machine of storytelling. Like the printed book once - and still does
- generated certain kinds of literature (out of which modernism wanted
to escape). I am a bit suspicious towards the argument that hypertext
is the carriage (the modernist's dream of non-linearity) without the
horse (the printed book). How powerful is the autonomy of the computer
is, as a machine of nonlinear storytelling? Has it led you somewhere,
or do you expect to be led, to possibilities you otherwise should never
I share your suspicions of the carriageless horse (if you will allow
that inversion), the muscularity without the burden, the span without
the experience of/or passage. And, to be sure, I have engaged with those
who too easily warn us against technological determinism, Richard Grusian
for instance, as if the computer were mere Machenschaft, an agent-participant
in a universe of social constructions with separate orbits. Technology
does change us, the tool at hand becomes (or forms into its own becoming)
the hand. Your sense that the computer wants to be told a story is in
a sense what I meant about technology as a work of imagination (long
ago someone said to me that Storyspace itself was a collaborative fiction,
Jay Bolter's and my story of the nature of storytelling, guised as a
computer program—a very satisfying trope). All that said, I can't share
your alarmist tone completely, or at least its exclusivity. The computer
wants to be told a story, it is ours to give and to withhold as well.
But the same was (is, media linger like comet trails) of the film, television,
telephone, electric light, all of which want to be served beyond their
instrumentality, and are or are not as conscious artistic choices. I
am fond of a questionnaire which the late, American poet Robert Duncan
used to distribute to his poetry writing students, one question which
asked: "Where is the sun in relation to your page when you write
a poem?" It is a profound sense of agency, situation, and 'teknè'.
You just mentioned Romanticism as one of the predecessors of cyberculture.
This is quite interesting, because Romanticism still has a very strong
influence on our perception of art and reality. It were the Romantic
poets and philosophers who taught us that creating a work of art is
a way of giving birth. Thus, the genius of the artist brings something
in existence, which has not been there before. I do not know if you
have any sympathy with this conception of art. As far as I am concerned,
I think the least we can say is that such a view is not easy to overcome,
even in postmodern theory, which is after all only theory. In our daily
life there is still an enormous desire for wholeness. Art can compensate
for the incompleteness of ordinary life, we feel. Telling stories is
a way of making sense of the senseless. Has non-linear hypertext literature
here a role to play? In other words, can such a literature mean more
than a sophisticated playfulness?
It will seem obvious that I have great sympathy with the notion of art
work as birthing, yet this does not necessarily mean that I subscribe
to theories of genius or wholeness. What is given birth in the natural
world is processual, a whole only in a potentiated sense, and--not to
play too much within the language of your question-- nonetheless a 'wholeness'
whose first expressions quite literally come from play (the mirror stage
for a real parent accounts an actual event of any childhood). The longing
for 'compensation for the incompleteness of ordinary life' can give
rise to fascism as often as art, including the fascism of an infotainment
culture which commodifies wholenesses in successive product lives. Life
itself is its own compensation, its incompleteness is its joy and its
nature.We find our solace in giving ourselves over in our own incompleteness
to the incompleteness of others. This is the essence of every kind of
lovemaking, including the one known as art. Your phrase 'a sophisticated
playfulness' suggests a dandyism which anyone would find unsatisfactory,
i.e., the play of sophisticates. Perhaps it might be better to speak
of the play of complexity, the complexity of play in the sense that
contemporary sciences understand it, a morphogenetic play, form-making
forms, in the way a child's play opens actual spaces for being (the
Non-linearity weakens the sovereignty of the author, but in a way it
strengthens it as well. The author becomes a creator of a narrative
space in stead of narrative time.
I agree with the ambiguity (Blake's contraries at play) your question
exposes. There is a new kind of reactionary literary critique (the old
one argued that the codex and print novel already held all the possibilities
of electronic textuality) which retreats to a position of critique which
suggests that the hypertext novel is more controlling, that it excludes
the reader's reverie, forecloses subconscious space, etc. I think the
situation is rather the one you describe in which the author's role
is put into oscillation. It is exactly this which Carolyn Guyer characterizes
as the 'buzz-daze' of hypertext, wherein "the process of creating
ourselves always involves two polar events: Acceptance and Control,
that is, occupying without counting, and counting in order to occupy.
One is not preferable to the other; rather, neither exists without the
other, which means that the only thing we can truly be interested in
is the complex mixtures of the two, how they proportion themselves as
they move through each other".
All writing, we know now, is situated in a network (which does not make
all writing equal in quality, of course )Is writing in a hypertextual
environment, like storytelling in orality, more conform the essence
of what literature and even life, as the quote of Guyer suggests, is
There is some truth to this and I will ever recall the audible gasp
which went through the crowd at a lecture by hypertext writer and theorist
Jane Douglas when a student of mine rose to ask whether in its fragmentation
and multiplicity hypertext literature may represent a 'new realism'.
Perhaps characteristically of all the arguments for hypertext literature,
this is the one which most affronts a certain kind of traditional literary
or cultural critic.
You often speak of 'two minds' and of 'othermindedness', also titles
of two of your essay-books. What is in this respect the role of the
reader? Is he 'the other' of the author?
I've written explicitly that mine is 'less a focus on the other than
upon our mindedness', the ability we have to maintain ambiguities, contraries,
possibilities, multiplicities, which I see network culture and hypertextuality
as potentially (but not at all inevitably) serving. But, yes, the reader
stands for such an other to a certain extent, in the way of Gertrude
Stein's dictum that 'I write for myself and for strangers' in which
the cupola covers a mystery, how the deepest self and the most alien
otherness are often more closely allied than the proximate and familiar.
Do you agree with me that non-linearity always becomes linearity the
very moment someone starts trying to make sense, i.e. starts reading?
What I mean is that the non-linearity of the medium is not the non-linearity
of the reader, who by definition tries 'to collect sense' and to compose
This does get down to a kind of atomism, doesn't it? A struggle along
the beachhead of the neurons, looking to see whether we fire synapses
in order and, if so, what order, and once identified, whether this can
best be described or mapped linearly... 'Collect sense' is nice, it
has a sense of netting or condensation (not, I meant to say, in the
Freudian sense but now as I set out to collect my own sense I think
better of the disavowal); and your isolation of the moment of someone
starting to read or to make sense adds a further margin, a Heisenbergian
stop-time, a moment of intentional collection and making, one step in
front of another like Beckett's Malloy. I've gotten rather fond of Michael
Oakeshott's 'The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind' and
its post-Burkean, Rortyesque sense. His notion of conversation as a
"'facts' appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities
from which they were made; 'certainties' are shown to be combustible,
not by being brought in contact with other 'certainties' or with doubts,
but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations
are revealed between notions normally remote from one another. Thoughts
of different species take wing and play round one another, responding
to each other's movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions.
Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are
seems quite applicable to most peoples'--or at least to my--experience
of reading, especially that part where one attempts to 'compose a story'.
Is this linear? I suppose it is, or at least sequential. But whether
the experience is essentially one of a line of thought I am not certain.
I fully agree. In the critical and most creative phase reading is very
diverse, intuitive and pluriform. But there is a second phase in which
we form a string of events, for instance the chronology of David Copperfield
being born, etcetera. This is sequential, you are right, not linear
in a rational sense. But, and this is my point, all reading seeks a
form in which it can be stored as a more or less fixed narrative line,
at least that's what I suppose. It's the way the French philosopher
Paul Ricoeur is used to see narrativity, as a way to organize what is
in the world outside the story a complete disjunct chaos of contingencies.
Your comment here reminds me of Kundera's claims that "… what is formless
cannot be grasped, cannot be committed to memory.' If waiting was fleeting
and light, it would be something else: perhaps more of a feeling than
a form" Whether that form is "more or less fixed narrative line," or
better still whether narrative line can only be fixed in time (rather
than in space, as in the memory place, or the body itself, as in Olsonian
proprioception) is open to question, I think, the constant question
of fiction after modernity (as opposed to the more restrictive sense
There is this article of J.Yellowlees Douglas "'How do I stop this thing':
closure and indeterminacy in interactive narratives" (In Landow: Hyper/text/theory,
1994). Do you sympathize with her point or do you criticize her? I am
I'm predictably fascinated by her argument and a little wary both. While
I never assign my own work to my hypertext theory students, I do have
them read this essay in conjunction with Terry Harpold's engagement
with it in his essay "Conclusions." Douglas' sense of closure as the
exhaustion of curiosity, if not possibility, sure echoes my own cautionary
note to the reader in the preface to afternoon but, like Harpold,
I'm a bit suspicious of what seems an implicit straightening out of
the bends in the road, especially in Jane's reliance on the 'I call
Lolly' episode as a sort of switch-point, something which surely functions
as such in a narratological sense, but whether it is her or my invention,
I cannot say.
In his article Harpold writes: "The reading of a hypertext (any
kind of text) is guided by a will to take sense of the text, no matter
what confusing or contradictory turn it may appear to take...."
Let's go back to Aristotle, who thought that the necessity of a story
was based on the contingency of life (what happened yesterday purely
by coincidence is today a necessary condition for my story about what
happened yesterday). Closure as exhaustion thus means the extinction
of the reader's will to make sense, which is a form of accepting fate.
Old fashioned novels we stop to read if we find them boring. Boredom
also extincts the will to make sense. And we are bored if we don't expect
satisfaction of the story, if our curiosity is not raised or if we do
not feel involved enough in story. This is tantamount to saying: we
don't feel the necessity of the story. So the difference between a hypertext
as an art form and the linear book as literary art is not so great.
Do we agree?
I cannot help but agree, and in fact from the first intended less to
establish differences than continuities, albeit resistant ones, between
hypertext and the book (thus afternoon did not offer menu-like
choice or anything else meant to interrupt the flow and reverie). What
your comment explores is the whole question of desire for form and its
relation to our mortal existence. This, too, has been my subject, always.
So we can consider the hypertext-novel as a variation on the old-fashioned
one, even maybe on the great classics like Don Quixote (of which the
chapters, up to a certain amount, can be read in a freely chosen succession),
the Decamarone etc. As long as creative and fictional writing in hypertext
is scriptural (using written words), in a way it materializes the non-linearity
and the poly-interpretability that conventional printed literature already
has in potentiality. But from the very moment the hypertext becomes
multi-mediatic (pictures, videos, sounds etc.) the essence of the novel
(a narrative space in words) is destroyed. What would you feel about
I tend to agree. I am not certain that I have yet seen a multimedia
fiction which retains the flexibility and permeability of hypertext
which primarily rely upon the written word. Hypertext publishing, as
most anything having to do with the internet, is in turmoil. There are
no clear cultural or commercial models, no predictable sense of audience,
and meanwhile the art itself is in the midst of some seismic shift with
separate streams ranging from largely textual, literary hypertext which
emphasis the multiple forms of the story or poem (like afternoon,
one hopes) to radical experiments, influenced by kinetic poetry and
computer graphics alike, with the nature of language and image and their
borders, to commercially influenced and highly mediated or convergent
graphical (Flash) works with textual interludes and threads. What seems
missing is a multimedia art form which, to use your phrase, 'materializes
the non-linearity and the poly-interpretability'. It was this inter-operability
of the written word which, of course, so troubles Plato's Socrates in
the inscription on the tomb of Midas the Phrygian, wherein "it makes
not the slightest difference which line comes first or last."
Let me ask an additional question: Suppose your job was that of a translator,
making hypertext out of 'straightforward' novels. Which titles would
have your preference? The Brothers Karamazov, Moby Dick, Ulysses,
American Psycho, Romeo and Juliet (as a play), Kafka's letters,
Ovid's Metamorphoses, or maybe you have other suggestions?
I'm sorry but I cannot play this game. I might beg the question and
say that such a work wouldn't be a translation as much as a version,
an echo, but then I am very fond of Pound's translations which are nothing
less than this. In his first New York Times Book Review essay on hypertext
Bob Coover suggested that his fiction had worked against the line and
now hypertextual fiction would likely have to work against infinity.
This is what the computer scientists call 'constraint based' invention,
i.e., forms, whether Ovid's, Melville's or Dostoevski's (a wonderful
list, by the way, and hardly 'straightforward novels') emerge from their
attempts to transcend limits. If I were to play the game, I would look
instead to poetry, especially lyric sequences or the great modernist
attempts to reimagine epic, from Wordsworth to Whitman, Williams to
Pound, but most of all she who turned the lyric and the novel in upon
each other: Gertrude Stein.
Generally speaking, what are your thoughts about the novel's future?
moving away from lingual imagination? In the direction of a great virtual
'Gesamt-theater', as foreseen by Janet Murray in Hamlet on the holodeck?
I hope not. I don't find Janet Murray's vision of the shared future
of narrative terribly inviting or compelling. It's interesting that
her book loses its energy when she attempts to imagine a scenario for
such a procedural literature. The same is somewhat true for Espen Aarseth,
whose thinking so excites people there in Europe, but whose most exciting
speculations seem to fall prey to a sort of Nordic schematization. Espen
imagines a future free of narrative and yet seems unaware of the self-referential
narrative which this critique represents. I have been much more intrigued
by the speculations of the wonderful Finnish novelist and troublemaker,
Markku Eskalienen, who gives a real juice to Aarseth's schema and in
fact moves beyond it as he re-imagines interactive narratives from the
perspective of 'Augusto Boal's Invisible Theatre' where "participants
do and can not know the boundaries separating the realms of fictive
and real-life communications, or those between persons, actors and roles...
[and where they] participate but they do not know for certain in what".
Markku proposes not merely new media but also new post-hypertextual,
and indeed post-narrative, story forms in which 'the attitudes and speech
acts of our real world are given their chances to inflict the fictive
world' and where 'emergent traits' and 'glider narratives' lead to 'ecologically
delicate islands getting easily off balance' and are subject to 'alzheimerian
filtering' and 'tel quelian... search engines' generating 'kinetic textual
If literature really becomes non-linear, will there be any position
left for the critic? And what could it be?
More than ever. The position will be an ancient one, as well as the
continual one, the recounting of shared experiences of differences.
But don't we have a serious problem? What is intersubjectivity supposed
to be if subjects are not able to share the same text, read in more
or less the same succession? If I have read a conventional book, I can
have a conversation with my friend on the book. We can compare feelings,
comments or what ever: everything rests on the silent supposition we
did read more or less the same book. For ages literature has had this
function of a common reference. A philosopher and literator like Martha
Nussbaum uses literature as a field of research for her work on human
emotions. If our narrativity is going to alter completely from linear
to non-linear this richness of a shared world of fictionality, which
is also the basis of the humanities, I think, could be lost.
Obviously I care for the future of the humanities and humanity alike.
I am an artist and teacher and both (or rather the singularity that
they are) depend upon the commonality of our experience of texts and
their performances as well as the conversations which evolve from them.
Yet I must suggest that your question here truncates a history of literacy
and the humanities in a curious way. The function of literature 'as
a common reference' is not irrevocably wedded to a literature in which
we share 'the same text, read in the same succession', nor has it been
historically, as Ong and many others (beginning with Parry and Lord)
have made clear. Keeping in mind Ong's reluctance to use a term like
'oral literature' (as well as Derrida's multiple insistences about literature's
severing of successions), it is nonetheless arguable that the still
point of succession is as much a fiction of (print) literacy as a linchpin
of the human conversation. More of human history (including the most
of our experiences with actual successive readings--whose readers most
often recount successions which in the most fundamental sense are not
temporally successive and whose indexicalities even are subject to scattered
recollection, the latter pun intended) has been spent in the thrall
of the rhythmic and recurrent sharing of patterns of perception which
narrative and poetry alike elicit in us. I'd also question the possibility
of a 'narrativity alter[ed] completely from linear to non-linear' since
such a completeness argues the end of history and the loss of mortality
alike. Even given some radical abruption of the human sensorium in which
temporal scanning were no longer necessary for cognition, it seems difficult
to imagine a world of our experience in which such episodes would not
themselves be subject to successions.
Writing and reading (re-)structures our awareness of what reality is,
Walter Ong has argued with respect to the transition from orality to
literacy. I think he's right. If this is also your point of view, what
is then 'the message of the hypertext-medium'? Will it make us other
men than we were in 1800?
Of course it will not make us other men than were in 1800 for we cannot
be made to be what we have already become as differently composed (and
disposed) men and women. That is, we are already always, even beforehand,
different. Yet there is some danger in seeing retrospection progressively,
I think, treating the past as an incremental focusing upon the present
or future it was always going to become. I am sensitive to Derrida's
argument in Archive Fever that 'archival technology no longer
determines, will never have determined, merely the moment of the conversational
recording, but rather the very institution of the archivable event'
such that 'archival technique has commanded that which in the past even
instituted and constituted whatever there was as anticipation of the
future'. The men of 1800 are different on account of what we have become
and, in their difference, they ascribe a difference to the future they
could see us within.
Michael, what I mean is this: the way we experience time corresponds
perhaps with the way we experience stories. In orality time was circular,
stories had this, what you beautifully called 'arabesques of time'.
Christianity annihilated, at least partly, this concrete experience
of the eternal coming and going. Jesus died only once, St. Augustine
said. Later the printed book, especially the novel, became more and
more a blueprint of human life itself, with the Bible as the metaphysical
paradigma (Genesis- Middle-Armageddon). This strong awareness of a coherence
between existential linearity (Heidegger: being is being-to-death) and
textual linearity is eroding more and more. But that doesn't mean that
the good old times of orality, will be there again. Electronic interactivity
is much more detached from place, I am afraid. Don't you fear we are
on the brink of migrating to cyberspace?
Of course I do, but not because we will ever get there, rather than
we will satisfy ourselves with much ruder approximation of armageddon
than even do those sects who climb mountains awaiting Jesus or a spaceship.
Much of my recent writing echos your concerns with ths loss of place,
which of course we only mark with the witness of our mortality, a fundamental
linearity which we do not, however, experience linearly. Even (especially)
Heidegger's being-to-death loops through time and faces itself (as Olson
has it, proprioceptively, as a dancer sees herself from her back).