“WHERE ARE WE AT ALL? & WHENABOUTS IN THE NAME OF SPACE?”
When Dante entered the abject world of hell, it was Virgil, a classical poet who accompanied him and explained its mysteries. In a similar retro-gesture, it is James Joyce, as opposed to William Gibson or R.U. Sirius, whom I adopt as my guide to cyberspace. Part of Virgil's appeal for Dante was ancestral, for he had previously taken a journey into the underworld in The Aeneid. As we continue to forge a brave new electronic frontier that goes by the name of cyberspace, Joyce seems a most appropriate guide. He too has been there before, and Finnegans Wake is my Aeneid, since it embodies the convergence of paperspace and cyberspace.
Marshall McLuhan was one of the first to recognize Joyce's importance in the age of media, describing him as a clairvoyant (McLuhan 1968: 74). The radio, telephone and cinema feature prominently in Finnegans Wake, as does the emergent apparatus of television ("the bairdboard bombardment screen") (FW 349). The television program also makes its first appearance in the Wake, well before it was cultural fact. But the Wake has also proven to be something of an index of telecommunicative change, anticipating the cultural impact of the succession of different media forms ("Television kills telephony... Our eyes demand their turn") (FW 52), as well as the advent of hypermedia, such as virtual reality ("a dreariodreama setting, glowing and very vidual") and hypertext ("The proteiform graph itself is a polyhedron of scripture") (FW 107).
In their predictable search for ancestry, commentators from William Gibson to Michael Heim frequently describe Finnegans Wake as an exemplar of hypertext. Ted Nelson, too, has drawn attention to the literary characteristics of the medium; indeed, his most famous axiom, "everything is deeply intertwingled", is distinctly Wakeian. Joyce's exploitation of equivocation is well recognised as a method of dreamwork. But it is less well known as a form of electronic thought, of hyperlogic. Joyce extended verbal freeplay to such a degree that his language space becomes a manifestation of the marvelous, the phantasmagoric, where diversity and convergence know no bounds. The inclusiveness made possible by the Wake in this respect makes Lautr0amont's chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table seem positively banal. We can learn also learn a lot about the concept of extension from the Wake, for its systematic patterns of self-reference create the dense, web-like organization of information ("messes of mottage") (FW 183) that we associate with the term "network". All this was not lost on Jacques Derrida who, in the burgeoning days of the personal computer, recognised such parallels, describing the Wake as a "hypermnesiac machine" that links information about different cultures, religions, philosophies and mythologies at incalculable speed (Derrida 1984: 148). As a dream of human history, it is a collective unconscious ("the law of the jungerl") (FW 268), where all language, all identity fuses into the public domain of universal memory. Nelson's dream of Xanadu still awaits fruition (it is, as the Wake was called before publication, a Work in Progress). Joyce has already created Babel.
The parallels between Joyce's "nightmaze" (FW 411) and the Internet are, of course, irresistible. The common response of newcomers to both is of unmanageable excess; in their own ways they are both unreadable. The lack of co-ordinates entails unintelligibility in Joyce, disorientation on the Net (they are "too dimensional") (FW 154). The defining metaphors of both suggest liquidity, formlessness; Joyce's "riverrun" is cyclical, without beginning or end, and the Net is a bit-stream, a data-sphere. It's worth remembering that cyber is Greek for navigate; a fitting prefix for an environment that, by its very nature, lacks pre-determined grids. The type of involved textual analysis that has persistently been applied to the Wake, exegesis (from the Greek, egeomai, to lead) is also aptly named. In both cases the need for guidance contributed to the rapid formation of communal identity. On-line help, bulletin boards, chat groups and the overall ambiance of a shareware culture are the Net's equivalent to the reading groups and collective study seminars that enabled a generation of Joyceans to negotiate the matrix of Finnegans Wake.
Cyberspace, in Michael Benedikt's words, is "a territory swarming with data and lies, with mind stuff and memories of nature, with a million voices and two million eyes in a silent, invisible concert of inquiry, deal-making, dream sharing, and simple beholding" (Benedikt 1993: 2). Joyce's "babbelers" (FW 15) are no less garrulous than today's virtual community, and just as various. The Wake's central character, H. C. Earwicker, is impossible to "idendifine" (FW 51), and the abundant permutations of his name (Here Comes Everybody, Haroun Childeric Eggeberth, Heinz cans everywhere) parallel the diverse interest groups populating today's Huge Cyber Ecology, as well as the role-playing and shifting subjectivities that take place in IRCs and MOOs.
Both cyberspace and Wake are parallel realities, consensual hallucinations that allow for infinite variety and difference. But a crucial question, equally applicable to both, is asked in the Wake of itself: "Where are we at all? and whenabouts in the name of space?" (FW 558). Where are we, exactly, in cyberspace? The cyberpunk vision of being jacked into the machine imagines an alternative sensory condition, a downloading of the mind into the matrix of pure information. While virtual reality environments offer convincing experiences of immersion in artificial worlds, other media such as Internet are inevitably rehearsing familiar terrain. The predominantly text-based character of Internet clearly means that if we are somewhere else, we are there notionally (to use William Gibson's term). The people we communicate with, perhaps fall in love with, swap ideas with, or simply chat with, are imagined in much the same way that we have traditionally come to know fictional characters, or the person whose letter we are reading. Writing entails a virtual reality through acts of faith and consent, the conceptual location of its participants in an "elsewhere", be it novel, office memo or MUD. Cyberspace, itself, is something many Netcruisers would have initially "entered" in just this manner, through reading cyberpunk novels such as Neuromancer. The Wake clearly occupies "paperspace" (FW 115), but it doesn't behave according to the predictable logic of typography and its associated reading practices. Its hyperlogic necessitates the use of an augmented form of artificial memory only conceivable in the computer age (which was not that far away, for in 1939 Vannevar Bush postulated the idea of Memex, or memory extender, the theoretical system recognized as the foundation of hypertext). The best Joyce could hope for in 1939 was "an ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia" (FW 120).
The place of the Wake within the lineage of hypermedia clearly evidences the ongoing evolution of writing as a technology, which needs to continually extend itself to accommodate cultural change: Thoth begat Joyce begat Xanadu. McLuhan asks the question at the end of The Gutenberg Galaxy: "What will be the new configurations of mechanisms and of literacy as... older forms of perception and judgement are interpenetrated by the new electric age?" (1968: 278) With Joyce the writing was on the wall, "telesphorously" (FW 154) speaking. He was, as the vanguard saying goes, ahead of his time in making the jump from paperspace to cyberspace. However it is a mistake to think that with the Wake he simply wrote a book that looks like hypertext. In fact he didn't write a book at all. He provided a complex system of prompting, the primary node in an interface to be activated by the reader. Interface design is in the process of reflecting this generative principle, for as Brenda Laurel has noted, computer scientists have only just begun to incorporate into software development an awareness of the collaborative nature of the human/computer relationship (Laurel 1993). Before software there was "joyceware" (Derrida 1984: 147).
The Wake embodies the fundamental desire implicit in the history of writing: the artificial extension of memory, and the displacement of the self through technology. Hypertext and Internet respectively have become Western culture's most advanced response to this grammatological desire. In this new media formations are not merely catching up with Joyce. They are, as Derrida has noted, "in memory of him" (FW 147).
In the heliotropical noughttime following a fade of transformed Tuff and, pending its viseversion, a metenergic reglow of beaming Batt, the bairdboard bombardment screen, if tastefully taut guranium satin, tends to teleframe and step up to the charge of a light barricade. Down the photoslope in syncopanc pulses, with the bitts bugtwug their teffs, the missledhropes, glitteraglatteraglutt, borne by their carnier walve.
Joyce created a language of "syncopanc pulses", of "doublin existents", of synchronicity. Always on the move, always displacing, splicing into something else in the same word, and at the same time elsewhere in the matrix of the dream of Finnegan. The whole of history, the babble of all languages compressed into a "hypermnesiac machine". "In the beginning was the woid". Joyce's words come at you with the force of association, the riotous logic of the unconscious, the "law of the jungerl". An inexhaustible language, a language definitively unfinished.
The fourth dimension was more than a poetics; it was a prototype of electronic thought. How else do we account for The Large Glass; it is not an object; it's a node in a network of ideas of "indefinite" possibility. Consult The Green Box. Start a chain reaction. Duchamp's "catalogue of ideas" never takes form; it keeps you guessing, invites you to think about it from any possible angle. You can't do it all in one moment of viewing. Dip in today, dip in tomorrow-- anything may happen.
In exploiting randomness Cage went beyond the concept of the line. The line imposes limits, it enforces an obliged movement in one direction. Indeterminacy is the promise of extension, of going beyond the predictable next step. Use a star chart to create a score, imperfections on a sheet of paper, throw dice. Overlap, collision, resonance. "Our ears are now in excellent condition". What you thought you were listening to turns into something else. You need to be "omni-attentive" when "everything happens at once". Don't close the window. Leave it open. All sounds are welcome here. With indeterminacy you no longer take steps. You meander, like a river.
"riverrun"-- where does it run? "from swerve of shore to of Bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs". Go with the flow. The energetic charge of the incipit, of first words. "Once upon a time...", "riverrun..." With first words you haven't gone anywhere, but can still go anywhere. Stories don't have to be the same every time you read them. Don't be fooled. The river isn't the same in any two spots. Make your own rivulet. Don't finish a train of thought. Jump trains. We've gone beyond finished books. It's not the time to finish anything.
Duchamp never finished anything. He created "delays". You never completely look at The Glass. In fact you don't even look at it, since you are already in it. How do you know your not in it when your not looking at it? Fragments from The Green Box can spark a myriad of associations, and these change over time through the very fact of their ambiguity. You never come back to the same Glass. You return in "indecisive reunion". You continue to think about The Large Glass over time. Who knows when you will think about it. But you think about it nonetheless. It exists not as an object but as a series of anachronous moments. The Large Glass is concerned with ideas in time. The fourth dimension is unpredictability in action. Bring things together. See what happens.
The prepared piano creates unexpected sounds that the instrument was not designed to make. What do you hear when you listen to four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence? Like Duchamp's fragments, sounds are as "free as air", liberated for "an infinite play of interpretation". Cage envisaged that no two experiences of any of his works would be the same. Active listening is not removed from the environment. The active listener is already in the environment, is already "inter". In between, amongst other things. Inter: prefix used in English as a formative element. Interactive, interaction, interactivity. In Joyce there is no beginning, no middle, no end, there is only the state of being inter. "A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun". In the midst of things. Look at The Large Glass "from all associative angles": you are always in it. Inter alia.
Once upon a time there was a life form called typographic man. He told stories, stories that had a beginning, middle and end. His kind listened to these stories, but had no part to play in their performance. He evolved into meanderthal man, the nomad, the wanderer. He lives in the waterless ocean of information society. He no longer tells stories that have beginnings, middles and ends, for he works with a different form of narrative-- the theorists call it indirect freestyle. His narrative is interactive. He involves others in the development of interfaces, networks. Instead of sitting and listening to a pre-determined sequence of events, meanderthal man creates his own terrain, establishes his own connections. Meanderthal man comes into being with the birth of the personal computer, which provides him with a powerful new form of reasoning, a hyperlogic.
This is an interesting story, isn't it? My interest in it is twofold. First, like most historical narratives it is very linear; passive typography yields to dynamic electronic text and with a point and a click we've revolutionized all previous concepts of narrative, writing and reading. Secondly, what, or more specifically when is an interface? This story assumes that it only exists in the cybernetic domain, when someone sits in front of a pc and clicks a mouse. An interface, on the contrary, is any act of conjunction which results in a new or unexpected event. A door-handle, as Brenda Laurel reminds us, is an interface. So too is the "chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella". Joyce didn't write books. Duchamp didn't create works of art. Cage didn't compose music. They created interfaces, instances into which someone intervened to make choices and judgements that they were not willing to make. All three actively promoted chance discovery over any notion of authorial pre-determination; Duchamp's celebrated indifference is their signature. To be indifferent is to encourage indiscrimination; come into this work and feel free to go anywhere you like, do anything you like, and whenever you like. You are empowered, you are in control; cough during a John Cage recital and you are part of the performance. That's an interface.
Given that these features, interface and indeterminacy, are a characteristic of interactive media, a question arises about contexts of use. Joyce, Duchamp and Cage had all been called unintelligible during their careers. However such accusations are firmly premised on the understanding that unintelligibility is to be expected in the experimental arts. It is where transgression and idiosyncrasy are played out. Indeed, the links between certain tendencies in modernist art and hypermedia are striking. Surrealist cinema, for instance, was, in Adrian Martin's terms, the search for a hyperlogic, a "dizzying, revelatory version of psychoanalytic free association". There's that word again, hyperlogic, that distinctive marker of electronic difference. Similar charges of unintelligibility have also been laid against new media. First time cruisers of Internet frequently complain about its vastness, its lack of pre-determined grids and the ease with which one can get lost, or spend a lot of time wandering aimlessly with little to show for all that URL jumping.
Interactive adventures such as Myst or detective comedies such as Sam 'n Max Hit the Road are equally criticised for being frustrating, since so much is left up to the player. You have to navigate an unfamiliar terrain with little internal assistance, find things and learn how to use them, all the time assembling a narrative sense of where it is all ultimately heading. But there is more. You are also required to uncover secret functions, weapons or sources of information so cunningly hidden that an entire culture of cheat codes has developed to aid the hapless gameplayer, who by this stage may be on the verge of flinging his rom into the rubbish bin. Try playing Doom without the aid of IDDQD or IDKFA and see how you like it-- and I'm not talking about Hurt Me Plenty; check out Ultra Violence! Perhaps every interactive gameplayer secretly yearns for our old friend, the pastoral narrator, who does all the work and spares us from such anxiety. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Of course such interactive features have also been highly praised, for all the opposing reasons; so much is left up to the player, etc. And as far as vicarious experience is concerned, Doom can't be beat. It gives a whole new dimension of meaning to the concept of catharsis. Indeed, if Aristotle were living in the late twentieth century, I'm sure he would have developed this theory of pity and terror while playing Doom.
Similar feelings of abandonment and disorientation have been raised concerning hypertext. When I first used a multi-media encyclopaedia I was struck by the speed and facility with which I moved from a high resolution image of an African village to plate-tectonics to Geosyncline theory to the Devonian period. It was impressive in that I had pursued a series of unexpected links that opened up an ever-expanding web of information, that was not linear and was not restricted to following a single topic. You can hardly call it a narrative, in any conventional sense of the term, though it observes the important narrative principle of contiguity; the proximity of any given piece of information to something with which it has affinities (the prehistorical evolution of the African continent). And all this, of course, was merely one of many possible paths I could have strolled down. On the other hand, I was troubled by the fact that I had lost interest in returning to my African village. This is the nature of a virtual document, such as a hypertext; you are somewhere doing something (reading screen-text about an African village), and all the time you are being prompted to go somewhere else, to a parallel, linked document. This can have its drawbacks, and feeling lost in the woods is certainly one of them. Disorientation and information overload are the price to be paid for such a powerful medium. But within archival and recreational contexts this is to be expected, and people will be happy to pay such a price in return for the rewards, or simply concede it as an occupational hazard. After all, it is just a matter of degree. You can just as easy feel dazed and confused watching Last Year At Marienbad or cross-referencing a topic in the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia.
Hyperlogic, or thinking electronically, is not actually confined to hypermedia. It is a form of thinking based on association, on accident, on suggestion. It is exactly the kind of logic usually implied by the term brainstorming. In other words, the kind of electronic thinking made available by interactive media, rapid linking and lateral jumps, unexpected fusions of ideas, indeed, the invention of ideas, is something we are all familiar with in pre-electronic forms. Just think of Surrealism. Or think of how much accident plays a part in writing an essay or a TV script. In terms of the question, "What has interactive media given us that we didn't have before?", I suppose it is a heightened, very powerful extension of this mode of thought. My observations have largely been confined to ready-made multi-media. Authoring software, on the other hand, is what interactivity is really all about. Instead of a mental image of The Large Glass when I read Joyce on the screen, I can import one, and if a piece of John Cage comes to mind, I can blend it into the entire ensemble. My matrix of ideas has become a multi-media "docuverse".
The term "enabling technology" is used a lot these days. I think it is fairly accurate. Interactive media don't necessarily offer us anything new, but rather enable us to improve the creative potential of things we are already doing. Multi-media brings together or converges different, previously discrete media forms; for instance, video, or quick-time movies can accompany text, a picture of a Fender Strat can be enhanced by sampled sound.
But does hyperlogic have a function beyond the archival and recreational contexts I have referred to? What happens when you shift context? Claims have been made that the non-linearity of interactive media offers us a new form of communication. But is anything communicated in the interactive environment? Given that so much emphasis is placed on navigation and discovery, or role play and problem-solving, it seems to me that nothing is actually being communicated. Communication assumes an end point, something being transported, re-located from one context to another. In this sense, it is a transitive form of language use; an activity that takes an object, which gives meaning to the activity. The activity, the process of communication (be it a news broadcast or a recipe in a cookbook) completes itself by delivering its message. The academic lecture is typical in this respect.
My own experiments with introducing interactivity into the lecture format reveal that students have very deep, expectations about the verbal presentation of information: the lecture is linear and has an endpoint outside itself. It is ultimately going somewhere. Multi-media lecture presentations, accordingly, run the risk of being unreceivable; there is too much information, not all of it verbal, and it has no clear endpoint. Such presentations demand reciprocal activity in a context in which students expect narrative guidance. Rather than being told a story, they have to negotiate various informational sources, determine in what ways such information is to be linked, and then work out how it relates to the topic at hand, whatever that may be. As with the example of my African village, purposive action (the exchange of knowledge) is frustrated by purposeless distraction. Some lectures have been more successful than others, and as a style it can be very useful in drawing students into the productive nature of the learning process. But when they don't work, you'll be told in no uncertain terms that the lecturer has lost the plot.
This situation reveals both the trouble with, and the attraction of interactivity: it is intransitive. It is activity that does not lead to a point, or give up an object. And being intransitive it is all-consuming and self-absorbing. Think of the San Fransisco lawyer who stayed back all night playing Myst after a hard day at the office: "The only problem was when I began clicking on things in real life. I'd see a manhole cover and think, 'Hmmm, that looks pretty interesting', and my forefinger would start to twitch. And then I'd realize, 'No, it's real life. Real life is the thing that happens in between Myst'". Cage talked of a purposeful purposelessness, Joyce demanded an ideal, insomniac reader doing nothing but read Finnegans Wake, Duchamp wanted the experience of his work to be "indefinite". Communication or absorption, that is the question.
This is for me the most fascinating aspect of interactive media. They share with the experimental arts the desire to sustain the creative act, the act of engagement, and the pleasure of feeling that you don't have to go somewhere, but are simply going. You are as much interested in what you are doing as any reason you might be doing it for. I am listening to John Cage, I am playing Doom. Please don't ask me why. The concept of communication as a transitive act holds no truck here. I've got another inter word to add to the list: "interplication". Unlike explication, which opens outward to arrive at a meaning, interplication, to quote Stephen Heath, is a "folding and unfolding in which every element becomes always the fold of another in a series that knows no point of rest". Although he was referring to Finnegans Wake, (Attridge & Ferrer 1984: 39) Heath's term is a nice description of electronic thinking, and it neatly focuses the emphasis on doing, on process, on making and discovering that interactive media offer us. No one I know has found the out door of Internet, because they are not interested in trying, and there isn't one anyway. I gave up trying to get through Sam 'n Max a long time ago. The longer I can keep putting off completing it, all the better.
All references to Finnegans Wake are from the 1975 Faber edition.
Benedikt M (1993) (ed.) Cyberspace. First Steps, Massachusetts, MIT Press.
Derrida J (1984) "Two Words for Joyce", in D Attridge & D Ferrer (eds.) Post-Structuralist Joyce. Essays from the French, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Laurel B (1993) Computers As Theatre, Addison-Wesley.
McLuhan M (1968) The Gutenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press.
© Darren Tofts
|volume 1, issue 1, 1995|