Reading Hypertext: Diversion I

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

Lots of people are worried about what to call the age we live in: is it post-post modern; the cyber age; the information age; the age of globalization; or is it just now, which doesn’t help? I have no idea. But I like to think about it. I disagree, number one, with periodization. The Age of Enlightenment seems a little over a rational edge. I would not argue that it is wrong to categorize, to create contexts and frameworks. For Hesiod, the Golden age served a narrative and instructive purpose. I would, however, argue that a text can neither be new nor old. Is Beowulf, the character in Beowulf the epic, old? Or is he a companion, a reference, a being who lives in the historical present human imagination as example, argument, or symbol?

That last sentence needs more examination. Here’s what I mean. Firstly, in the New Criticism, a particular form of academic practice that developed in the early 20th Century, the text one reads takes center stage in the attention of the reader. The text is “the subject” of inquiry, rather than the culture or writer who produced it. New Critical readings don’t wonder about a historical context because to do so takes the reader away from the subject, the text. In this sense, New Criticism emphases the close reading of a text over a study of anthropological and historical considerations. This is a good thing in many cases. We can learn a lot from a study of how a text is organized and what the words themselves appear to be expressing, regardless of how old “the work” is. The Iliad, therefore, is what it is and what the reader encounters on the pages of the printed poem. Of course, the Iliad, is not the Iliad, and this is one problem with all texts and with periodization in general. In anthologies, for example, William Blake’s poetry is presented stripped of the art in which it was produced because of the nature of the anthology as a printed text for mass distribution. Blake’s poetry, is, therefore, corrupted to some extent and is not really the sum of Blake. More so, Blake’s poetry is bundled in the anthology with other writings that are packaged in a common form and a common sequence. The reader can examine the poetry but has difficulty forgetting that Wordsworth is nearby and that these writers are Romantic and English and this is their proper place and order.

How texts are presented to readers matters. The modern anthology represents what I would call or argue as commodified reading and forms. In an anthology, Blake is a Romantic poet and this category in the book’s structure and in its editorial framework becomes the environment of encounter by the reader, no matter how hard the reader keeps her eyes shut. Editors will remind the reader that Romanticism as a set of dates and criteria is a creation of Victorian writers but will still “package” the text as if Romanticism is factual, an actual historical phenomenon. The fact of the matter is that Blake created in a space that had no foreknowledge of the frameworks and forms in and by which he would be represented. In another history, perhaps, Blake would be called by a different name and placed in a different context. In another history, he might be killed at the age of twelve, having produced no work of art at all.

It is almost impossible to break these knowledge frameworks, good or bad; they are instructive in revealing the human search for order in the universe (a light aside) and in many ways a systematic definition of Romanticism is useful. The fact that alphabetical information is physically static and that words do not move on the page out of their syntactical and semantical dependencies and that these can be printed and disseminated has shaped human notions of knowledge in deep ways, so much so that animated text or animated text with audio accompaniment or single letters that compile on a web site into words are considered “destabilized” not a normal method of conveying knowledge, opportuning entertainment, or presenting memorable information.

The history of print layers or hard-codes conventions, some unnoticed, on top of conventions, often in forms and their related institutions. These conventions provide such statements as “this is a newspaper article.” Ink-based print and its method of holding and expressing truths, values, beliefs, and logic has shaped epistemological expectations providing the validity of this kind of statement: “this is not a newspaper article” or “this is not a novel.” This expectation can be heard whenever someone says, “Can I have a print-out of that so I can read it?” The “print-out” acts as proof of reality or symbolate for permanence and clarity. People in their offices weight their desks down with forgotten “print-outs” whose content is important but lost. Ideas can be ignored in any form, even in digital files, whose owners refuse to let them go “just in case.” The BBC reported in March 2008 that 2 million emails are sent every minute in the UK. This volume of email implies what?

Informational schemes also form the superstructure of institutions as a kind of unseen conceptual infrastructure. Here I don’t mean to imply Mumford’s idea of the megamachine in this example, merely an assertion of connectivity and deep relationships between institutions. Laws written in a particular form are “the system” of justice. The importance of the law can be studied in a context of the physical construct of media that can be archived, codified, retrieved, and reused. Media companies generate newspaper articles within a tradition that relies just as much on pavement and steel as it does on the conventions of journalism. It would be out of form for me to claim that this essay is a newspaper article because it was not published or produced as such. It is impossible to approach William Blake without the infrastructural base of universities, book publishers, museums, and archivists. Without these institutions and their relationships, William Blake would no longer exist or be accessible to readers.

It is impossible to judge the significance of email and mail to modern life. The number I drew above of 2 million emails needs perspective, but what will serve to help create this it? A comparison? The United States postal service claims that it handles nearly 500, 000 pieces of various mail per minute. These numbers say a lot about habit. They also say a lot about the history of tools in communication. New tools also affect human determinations of what is and is not significant to the construction of reality. Tools help us shape reality. A simple garden rake, if it is successful at feeding a family, becomes a part of “reality.” Spatially, place is significant to creating constructs of reality, such as the four walled room and the book that sits on a table inside it. Similarly, a poem also has a reality that is related to its place in human culture. Cultures without an alphabet will find a poem strange, just as cultures with alphabetic reality will find a poem written as an email message “out of place.”

The two great dividing lines in story telling are not new and traditional based forms. They remain the written story and the oral story. These two forms of conveyance remain the two great major types of telling in modern culture: digital forms do not change this but they do complexify it. Fiction written in hypertext still follows a written tradition and remains conformal to the short traditions of what is determined as fiction. Indeed, the term fiction is merely a label for a greater system of human creativity built around untrue occurrences or events that didn’t occur in reality. The term novel can also be confused for its typical form of conveyance to a public readership in the form of printed books. But this is misleading. The term novel can also describe any long form narrative, although to call a two hour film a novel would be to confuse references to medium. The term novel is simply problematic because films can be based on novels and a day-long film could be repurposed into a written novel but the day-long film will still convey a fictional world and fictional characters.

Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude cannot be conveyed as a film, however. A film entitled One Hundred Years of Solitude could certainly be offered to the public but it would no longer be Marquez’ novel, even if he wrote the script. This is the point: such a film would be a different experience and a different object. It would be changed from a written experience to a visual/oral spectacle, whose aesthetic is grounded in different tools and principles. Both productions would convey knowledge in the form of character in different ways. Neither one of these “differences” should diminish the value of the methods by which knowledge is explored through character. Bill Bly’s hypertext We Descend could also be repurposed as a paper-based fiction. The same phenomenon would result: a new form with a new method of exploring the human lifeworld. The lesson here is instructive: difference matters because forms of knowledge require different habits, different tools, and different languages with and through which to frame them.

Future thinkers may derive and convince the community of better ways of differentiating digital from paper, new from old media, non-traditional and traditional forms of publication, non-linear from linear systems if the need arises. But we should be careful not to base value judgments on trivial comparative criteria such as static and dynamic, non-linear and linear, print versus digital, or object versus object. As I’ve already demonstrated, hypertext fictions require different habits of reading, different tools through which to engage them; they require different speeds of analysis, different methods of referencing, a new generation of archivists to maintain them, and re-conceptualization of publishing ecologies. In addition, they need a broadening of the frameworks of aesthetic engagement and awareness to include the influence and mechanism of their environments to understand how they convey and augment human knowledge in its interpretable variety.

The study of architecture is important in the above regard. In my mind there are two important knowledge factors engaged by architecture. The first is, what is possible for people to build, and, the second, what are the variety of ways that people can move from point A to point C. Architecture also assists us in understanding human relationships, such as the need to capture metaphors through the shaping of space. In Reading Hypertext: Reading Blue Hyacinth I said that airports were “displacing” spaces. This doesn’t mean that they are valueless and/or neutral. Their “liminality” is exactly what makes them interesting as built environments, as are the choices designers have made to “make people feel comfortable” or as spaces that feel like a place but are really no place at all, in between destinations, nodes in the commerce of elsewhere.

One response to “Reading Hypertext: Diversion I”

  1. Timmons says:

    Regarding the comments around Blake:

    We always apply filters (especially we academics) to a subject in the hopes of providing context. Label Blake as a poet and we have negated or ignored Blake as visual artist. Label Blake as a (visual) artist and we have negated or ignored him as a poet. Label Blake as an example of romanticism and we have placed him in a tidy little box. Hell, if we can’t place any creative person into an “ism” we usually place them in some “romantic tradition.”

    I think the artist Roy Lichtenstein always had it right when he commodified the visual world in his work.