Hypertext literally means “over text.” The connotation is a text that is somehow over-stimulated in being a text–or to use the term from our study of Frankenstein, a text that is inherently intertextual, an amalgamation. In digital terms, it means an electronic text that has a linking mechanism in which a reader has some agency in going to related texts and choosing from multiple pathways through a text. The world wide web is basically a massive hypertext.
Luminous Airplanes is a hypertext–calling itself a “hyperromance” or hypernovel. Actually, we are reading the digital extension of a print book by Paul Lafarge titled Luminous Airplanes; the digital version picks up from the print version and in some way (I think?) forwards and extends it. Before the reader gets too far into the reading experience, we are confronted by choices and challenges as a reader. How should we proceed? Which path should we take? There is a story here: there is a narrative, there is a narrator, an initial event or conflict that seems to motivate things (a given, a problem, with the response being the writing of this narrative). What might be different for some is that this narrative–and the reader of this narrative–is never merely background or taken for granted. There is an interest in the reader’s participation. This is where the linking mechanism comes in. We have choices to make. But it should also be noted that this sort of literary experience–a narrator talking about the book we are reading, the reader in some form participating in the book as though it is being written with us–is not new to digital literature.
This is a quality of postmodern literature that predates digital hypertext. Digital hypertext–we can call it with an ear to Birkerts, the fate of literature in the electronic age–extends, through digital means, a desire to write and read stories or texts in which the medium is the message. A postmodern book (like McLuhan’s) makes the reader mindful that she is reading a book. La Farge takes it a step or two further by extending his book into digital space: we can read about Luminous Airplanes (the book)–and even buy the book online–while we read Luminous Airplanes (the hypertext). La Farge also discusses the idea and history of hypertext, reminding readers that there are print books that can be viewed as hypertextual.
We have choices to make. By the second “page” of the narrative, we have multiple choices, choices that suggest we are in some way participating in the writing/rewriting of the very story we are reading. And by the third page, we are invited to “get lost” in the text–which, we learn, exists in multiple formats. (Think back to the multiple layers of texts in Frankenstein). But even that isn’t exactly the case, since we have a choice to navigate by way of a map–rather than go in the direction of pages, we can get rid of the “book” analogy entirely and follow a map that exists “outside of time and space.” One of the critical terms we will encounter for understanding the effects of digital hypertext is immersion and immersive text. It is no accident that Luminous Airplanes has a page titled “Immersive Text” and has its readers think about this concept while reading. And there is intertextuality (something now more familiar to us as readers), which in the case of the reference to “Rip Van Winkle,” suggests how the dismembering (and remembering) of various pieces of the story is also a theme within the story. In this way, the medium is part of the message. Another analogy for hypertext is the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. Lafarge also discusses this model of reader’s choice in the section titled Choose Your Own Adventure. [Let’s stop here at this point, ahead of next week’s further reading in Gutenberg Elegies: what do you imagine Birkerts would say about Lafarge’s novel and the “choose your own” model?]
The author Paul La Farge talks about immersive text in this short video interview found on his webpage.
This isn’t how we traditionally think of reading. But perhaps we need to find alternative verbs and participles for the activity we are doing. Perhaps it is better to borrow from other activities: navigating, playing, exploring, browsing, gaming. Some upcoming essays (by Murray and Piper) will argue further for literature as game. What else, what other analogies come to mind? A good way to pursue this is to take up the psychological idea of “affordances and constraints” that Joseph Harris discusses in his chapter “Remixing.”
It is not valid to dismiss Luminous Airplanes (the hypertext) for not being a book, since it is not trying to be a book. Rather, we need to ask: what does the experience of reading Luminous Airplanes in this medium afford the literary experience of a novel, and how does it limit that experience? Do the constraints or limitations outweigh the uses?
Some other hypertext reading experiences you might consider….
“The Museum” by Adam Kenney, a hypertext novella that plays upon the idea of navigating story as an analogy for navigating a space such as a museum.
Emily Short and Liza Daly, First Draft of the Revolution
- Stretchtext: Spastext[Stir Fry Text] Material metaphor: focusing on writing, on the role of the reader.
- Another of the Stir Fry Texts, Correspondence–identifies the real materiality of language that the writers are interested in; think Jackson Pollock with painting. What are the paintings “about”? Some art critics would say: about painting, the paint, the painter’s (and viewer’s) interaction with this medium.
A remix of Frankenstein: Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.
Some critical links
- Birkerts’s concern with hypertext as too much fluid process, the loss of authorial product, seems an obvious connection to most if not all of these hypertexts. Yet they also suggest to me an implication of fluid process that SB doesn’t address, one that I would consider to be a valuable and crucial aspect of literary reading, deep and otherwise: the reading is dynamic, it moves.
- For a contrasting view of hypertext as valuable, if still messy, in its process, consider Shelley Jackson’s discussion of her own hypertext, Patchwork Girl.
- Rhetorical Devices for Hypertext
Here is a platform called Twine that we can use to create a hypertext–that is, a non-linear, linked narrative, poem, essay or other sort of literary work you might conceive. In other words, a narrative that we might treat more like a game. [Thanks to Aaron for pointing me to this site]
Some help with how to create links in Twine.
Is playing with a text, as a writer and/or a reader, analogous to writing and reading a text? In what ways is playing comparable to writing and reading? Would you argue that these activities, playing and writing/reading, should remain distinct?
Some stories/games created with Twine:
“Howling Dogs” by Porpentine.
For links/discussion of other literary games, see Aaron’s post on The Museum.
And for some further thinking of remixing as it relates to music, see this discussion by DJ Spooky on remixing the Beatles.
Critical Application: Stitching Birkerts into our thinking and writing.
Birkerts concludes The Gutenberg Elegies focusing on an opposition between “the solitary self” and “the collective.” For Birkerts, a true self is solitary and a true sense of self exists only in solitude; this condition of selfhood is cultivated best through the pages and linear lines of books. Birkerts sets against this condition of solitary selfhood the “condition of connectedness” that he associates with what he terms “the ever-expanding electronic web.” “They are not only extensions of the senses,” he argues about the technological improvements of the electronic age in his “Coda,” “they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others.” In other words, the problem is not so much that we are, in the age of overwhelming information, overloading our senses by extending their range and reach; more troubling for Birkerts, we are extending ourselves and our senses into and among the extended senses of others. “Others” is the real pejorative term here (224).
This is where I disagree most strongly with Birkerts’ understanding of the “amniotic environment of impulses,” to use his telling metaphor of the web. I think Birkerts aptly characterizes the effect of this environment of impulses. He gets the technology right; the uncited echo of Marshall McLuhan’s defintion of technology as the “extensions of man” brings that home. We have, as McLuhan shows, always used technology to extend our senses–long before the age of electronic communication. Birkerts could be more precise in recognizing that such “extensions” would include the technologies of writing and print and bookmaking that informs the books that thus inform the selfhood he fears we are loosing. Books are part of an earlier hive of information and communication network. But no matter; he elsewhere in this book admits that his beloved book is, of course, a form of technology–even if that view is kept to a minimum. Birkerts gets not the technology wrong nor its implications (the extension of senses); he misses the point in fearing the connection to others. That is to say, I am troubled most by the “condition of connectedness” that Birkerts, it seems, forbids the act of reading. Why is connectedness the problem and solitariness the goal of our selfhood or of the creativity of reading and writing that informs it? Why must we think of creation in solitude?
Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before it, suggests that Birkerts’ problem is to see connection as the problem…
My example of a critical application of Birkerts, stitching in, through paraphrase and direct quotation, a key idea from his conclusion to then set up the focus I will use to read Patchwork Girl: in effect, using Birkerts’ own terms and language (connectedness vs. solitariness) for my own thesis, though reversing his view, drawing distinctions.
It is worth noting that I have only recently discovered a thriving community of blogs out there that focus on books–passionate readers of books who blog about the books they are reading, want to read. A community of readers using the “condition of connectedness” of the web and blogging technology to extend their interest in book reading. What would Birkerts think? Here is a link to one such blog, So Many Books, which offers in its blogroll quite a list of book blogs. I look at this blog with interest in the social connections it makes between readers and books, through its “amniotic environment.” I am overwhelmed not by the electronic impulses, but by the reminder of the sheer number of books out there that we can, it seems, never catch up with and fully read.
On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, by Rick Prelinger: A recent article that takes up the problem of originality in the digital age, and proposes that we think instead of collage and patchwork. He speaks of orphaned works of creation and quilts: the echoes of Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl are noticeable–as are the concerns of Plato.
There is a line from the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in the 19th century (in his essay “Nominalist and Realist”), long before digital hypertext, that makes me think of some of the issues raised and provoked by Shelley Jackson. Here is Emerson:
“No sentence will hold the whole truth, and the only way in which we can be just, is by giving ourselves the lie; Speech is better than silence; silence is better than speech;–All things are in contact; every atom has a sphere of repulsion;–Things are, and are not, at the same time;–and the like”
This notion of truthful fragmentation is where I start to make some sense of Patchwork Girl: Jackson’s interest in hypertext writing as a resistance not just to traditional views of narrative or novel, but to conventional definitions of writing as such. In “Stitch Bitch” Jackson connects her understanding of the feminine, “banished body” at work in hypertext and at play in her novel with “what we learned to call bad writing.” So hypertext is a kind of writing that traditional (masucline) literature has edited out: a body and its loose aggregations.
This suggests to me that we are supposed to spend our time looking at this body (and multiplicitous embodiment) of writing; and are greatly helped in resisting the tendency to look through it, which is to say, look past it. She goes on to use the word ‘composite’; think how this resides in ‘composition.’ Jackson also links this in to the machinery of argument: where traditionally readers are not to be given a choice.
In a text like this, gaps are problematic. The mind becomes self-conscious, falters, forgets its way, might choose another way, might opt out of this text into another, might “lose the thread of the argument,” might be unconvinced. Transitional phrases smooth over gaps, even huge logical gaps, suppress contradiction, whisk you past options. I noticed in school that I could argue anything. I might find myself delivering conclusions I disagreed with because I had built such an irresistable machine for persuasion. The trick was to allow the reader only one way to read it, and to make the going smooth. To seal the machine, keep out grit. Such a machine can only do two things: convince or break down. Thought is made of leaps, but rhetoric conducts you across the gaps by a cute cobbled path, full of grey phrases like “therefore,” “extrapolating from,” “as we have seen,” giving you something to look at so you don’t look at the nothing on the side of the path. Hypertext leaves you naked with yourself in every leap, it shows you the gamble thought is, and it invites criticism, refusal even. Books are designed to keep you reading the next thing until the end, but hypertext invites choice. Writing hypertext, you’ve got to accept the possibility your reader will just stop reading. Why not? The choice to go do something else might be the best outcome of a text. Who wants a numb reader/reader-by-numbers anyway? Go write your own text. Go paint a mural. You must change your life. I want piratical readers, plagiarists and opportunists, who take what they want from my ideas and knot it into their own arguments. Or even their own novels. From which, possibly, I’ll steal it back.
Some unconventional stuff for a writer to write, sure. But at the same time, there is in this, strange as it sounds, the hear of what we do in the conversation of academic writing.
Hayles, in her analysis of the novel and in her contextualizing of its interest in 18th century discussions of authorship and copyright, provides a rationale for understanding the body of writing and the body of bodies. She connects Jackson’s interest in the (multiple) bodies of her text (author, character, novel, computer) to her argument for media specific analysis: it matters, Hayles asserts, which textual bodies we are dealing with when we write and read. Jackson goes even further: the bodies we write and read with matter as well.
I am curious, reader. Do you also view bad writing as bodily–as those elements of your writing that are in some way too physical, in need of surgery? Do you think, as Jackson seems to think, that we read with a body I wonder, certainly, where this finds us: we, in a composition and literature course, working on our writing and reading. And I wonder, I speculate, that engaging Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, with better attention to this sense, these senses, of an embodiment of writing and reading, will allow us to make more sense of the text. I would suggest that this way of making sense is one version of what Hayles means by “cyborg reading practices.” This is not about becoming plugged in, as in the cyborg of film; it is to recognize that we already are. In other words, I think much of what we experience today with ‘web 2.0’ (as it has been called), the read-write capability of many digital applications and sites, can be likened to the characteristics of bad writing as traditionally viewed.
And, Birkerts, in his use of ‘process’ as a pejorative, as something that good writing should not reveal, would agree. See my next posting: process and privacy.
So, if you think Patchwork Girl is in some form bad writing and are having difficulties with it, you might be on to something.
By the way, for those interested, here is an electronic copy of Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz, one of the many sources/intertexts/bodies that are taken up in Jackson’s composite. [thanks to Joannafor the reference] There is an original copy in the Sophie Kerr room, if you want to browse through it.
The New York Times has a review of The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, by Peter Ackroyd. It is a new novel that re-imagines and retells Victor’s story in a more authentic context: that is, the one in which the author creates it. So, Percy Shelley shows up in the novel, for example. This sort of ‘postmodern’ version of Frankenstein, stripping away the stereotypes from the film history, is another version of what Shelley Jackson pursues in Patchwork Girl. In both cases, the stories seem to take off from Mary Shelley’s introduction, where she puts her own authorship up front, weaves it into the story: her hideous progeny is the writing, the creation of her novel. As you will see, Shelley Jackson runs with that strand. But she also remediates the novel with digital technology: in the way that all the various strands of story and history that inform or influence her vision of the novel are brought into her version, rather than edited or hidden.
Perhaps it is something like an essay that has been revised many times, but in which the final version contains all the versions in one. Why do this, you might ask?
But it is also worth asking you: have you also, before Patchwork Girl (and even if you have never before read such a text in digital form), read or viewed or played a text that was non-linear, that offered lots of material and options for reading, that had more than one place to go? That, at some level, in some form, invited the reader to become a writer? If so, then you have experienced what can be called “hypertext.”
For more on Shelley Jackson, you can go to her web site, Ineradicable Stain.
Our focal point in the fourth project was critical application: stitching in the argument from a critic to set-up/clarify/elaborate/distinguish your own critical vision and reading of Patchwork Girl.
I saw a variety of effective applications in the essays. I wanted to highlight a couple examples where the critical application is effective in helping the writer set-up the argument clearly in the beginning of the essay. In other words, where the critical application (the use of Birkerts or Hayles) helps the essay establish its thesis and stay focused on it. Something to keep in mind for future writing assignments: the use of a particular critic or critical view to establish/develop your own argument/thesis. Check out how Mike P. and Stephan handled it. Both writers have had on their to-do lists getting a better grasp on a thesis and keeping focused on it throughout the essay. I think they got that grasp in this case through the critical application. I also see a good example of using the critical application to set up and introduce the essay in Chelsea’s essay.