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Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology & Literary Theory

Editor: Marie-Laure Ryan
Publisher: Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999
Review Published: June 2002

 REVIEW 1: Sara Jenkins

The collection of eleven essays in Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology & Literary Theory, edited by Marie-Laure Ryan, delivers what it promises: an in-depth discussion of computers and literary theory, which should be welcome by any literary-minded person in search of a detailed, scholarly discussion of the new forms of textuality. Beware, though, for the book assumes an audience with at least an intermediate knowledge of literary theory -- one needs, for example, a working familiarity with the ideas of Jaques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Jaques Lacan. A basic understanding of feminism, performance theory, and hypertext theory wouldn't hurt either. Yet despite this apparent potential difficulty, each essay is written accessibly and the entire volume bulges with interesting observations and insightful criticisms about cyberspace textuality.

In her introduction, editor Marie-Laure Ryan describes three main "genres" of electronic textuality: the computer as (co)author, the computer as medium of transmission, and the computer as theater. It is this last genre, the computer as theater, that Ryan calls "the area that presents the greatest potential for literary innovation" and it is therefore where she focuses the attention of this book (16). Ryan wants this text to "usher in" the next stage of cyberspace criticism; instead of following previous critical attempts that merely looked at cyberspace through technophile or Luddite lenses, Ryan calls for a criticism that positions electronic textuality within contemporary culture while examining it with tools tailor-made for the new medium.

The first section of the book, "Cyberspace Theory," begins with Espen Aarseth's essay, "Aporia and Epiphany in Doom and The Speaking Clock." Aarseth describes the differences between narrative and ergodic (that which produces a different sequence of events every time it is experienced, such as hypertext, MOOs, or computer games) modes of discourse, and then discusses how the narrative elements of aporia and epiphany figure differently in ergodic discourse. Instead of aporias and epiphanies being employed to heighten narrative interest, they become essential to the navigation of the ergodic space. Aarseth argues that because of its challenge to narrative discourse, ergodic art opens up a myriad of possibilities to explore within the expanding notion of textuality.

In "Theorizing Virtual Reality: Baudrillard and Derrida," Mark Poster briefly explains then counters both theorists' views about the new medium. Each one attempts to fit their theories to the new medium, but Poster argues that that cannot work since the new mediums are just that -- new mediums, with new elements, and they must be examined for what they are before they can be theorized. In "Virtual Topographies: Smooth and Striated Cyberspace," Mark Nunes focuses on the two popular metaphors for cyberspace, "surfing the 'Net" and "information superhighway" and uses them to differentiate between the two ways we conceptualize cyberspace. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari's theories of "smooth" and "striated" space, Nunes details how the "surfing" image corresponds to "smooth" space and the "superhighway" image to "striated" space. The former flows freely, suggesting a more communal or democratic notion of space, and the latter is ordered, laid out on a grid, and subject to rules and regulations. Far from being mutually exclusive, each needs the other and indeed seeks the other (when surfing randomly one may seek out a "place" to go, or when being directed from place to place on the Internet one may decide to forgo direction and strike out randomly). It is because cyberspace "hovers between these two regimes" that it is virtual, "always in the act of becoming: real, yet never completely determined" (74). The first section ends with "Cyberspace, Virtuality, and the Text" by Marie-Laure Ryan. She explains the origins and development of the term "cyberspace" and then moves on to discuss the "virtual," using the work of Pierre LÚvy as a point from which to differentiate between "fake" and "potential" virtuality.

Section two, titled "Cyberspace Identity," opens with "Women Writers and the Restive Text: Feminism, Experimental Writing, and Hypertext" by Barbara Page. Page discusses several contemporary female writers who write "non-linear, anti-hierarchical, and decentered" texts in reaction against the literary realism that feminist theory recognizes as oppressive. In "The Souls of Cyber-Folk: Performativity, Virtual Embodiment, and Racial Histories," Thomas Foster points out that cyberspace discourse has neglected any discussion of race. Through a close reading of the comic Deathlok, with its focus on race and the cyborg, Foster calls for a re-examination of notions of performativity with specific regard for race. This section continues with "The Disturbing Liveliness of Machines: Rethinking the Body in Hypertext Theory and Fiction" by Christopher J. Keep. By pointing out how books are to readers like mirrors are to infants (in Lacan's famous mirror stage), Keep illustrates how the body is defined and reinscribed through traditional texts. He then describes the difference between the "knowable" realist novel and the unknowable electronic text, and explains how this electronic textuality thus calls for "a new body," one based not on "completion and closure" but on "connectivity and openness" (171). In the last essay of this section, "Postorganic Performance: The Appearance of Theater in Virtual Spaces," Matthew Causey claims that current performance theory is unable to successfully conceptualize "postorganic" performance (performance that privileges medium instead of presence), and postorganic performance is unable to conform to performance theory. In a vein similar to Mark Poster's call for new theories for new technologies, Causey calls for "an expanded performance theory that can address the issue of digital media performance and theater" (185).

Section three, "Cyberspace Criticism as Writing Experiment," calls for a criticism that engages the new notions of textuality, and all three writers heed this call. The section opens with an essay by N. Katherine Hayles, titled "Artificial Life and Literary Culture." Hayles begins by starting one "thread" of her subject, a discussion of space and simulation from a scientific point of view. Two paragraphs later, she switches to a discussion of space, sign, and simulation in a literary context, but this thread is entirely italicized in order to differentiate it from the other thread. This two-threaded discussion continues throughout the essay, until the end, when both discussions converge and Hayles says, "I no longer know which voice is speaking" (219). The similarities between the two threads brings them together as they merge, showing how they are "constituted through a chaotic dynamic that generates global patterns out of local differences" -- just as are "literary culture" and "artificial life" (220). Lance Olsen's "Virtual Termites: A Hypotextual Technomutant Explo(it)ration of William Gibson and the Electronic Beyond(s)" begins with a 33-word passage from Gibson's Neuromancer. Olsen uses each word as a point from which to discuss Gibson's work and the elements of language, form, and function that Gibson's work challenges. The end of the essay offers four different concluding assertions, the fourth "ending" with several sentences taken apart, with words and phrases placed somewhat randomly over two-thirds of the page. The essay ends with "Period. The end. Completion. Conclusion. Cessation. Culmination. Closure. Or not" (253). In the final essay, "Myths of the Universal Library: From Alexandria to the Postmodern Age," Jon Thiem discusses the culture of texts and their readers -- both pre- and post-computer -- but does so as a fictional character, telling his "tale" circa 2056.

As is evident from the range of topics covered in this book, Cyberspace Textuality attempts to pull together many different theoretical concerns into one organized volume. Although its range of topics appears disparate, the book works as an introduction to ways of theorizing cyberspace textuality. For readers who remain fascinated by what the Internet and computers can teach us about how we understand the notion of a "text," this collection provides plenty of intellectual stimulation and fertile ground for continuing research.

Sara Jenkins:
Sara Jenkins is a graduate student and instructor in the Department of English at the University of South Florida, as well as an adjunct instructor for Hillsborough Community College. Currently serving as the Associate Coordinator of Computerized Instruction, her research interests include computers in composition, computerized pedagogy, postmodern theory, and 20th century literature.  <saraj33@yahoo.com>

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