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Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Literature

Editor: Jan Van Looy, Jan Baetens
Publisher: Leuven, Netherlands: Leuven University Press, 2003
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Mary Leonard

Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Literature is a collection of readings of electronic literary texts. Together, the contributors show how these texts make use of the creative possibilities of the electronic medium and how they construct meaning in ways which differ from those characteristic of print-bound literature. In the introduction, the editors, Jan Van Looy and Jan Baetens, state that, to the best of their knowledge, this is the first publication to apply the method of close reading to such texts. If so, it represents an important step towards a more concrete and critical appreciation of the evolving relationships between form and content in electronic literature.

Since the development of hypertext in the 80s, great claims have been made about the creative potential of the internet and the alternative non-linear structures of meaning that hypertext makes possible. Developers, programmers, and web junkies have been fascinated by the creative options opened up by each new technical advance. However, for many people, the rather utopian idea of a world of new and varied creative possibilities remains somewhat abstract. Sure the web has changed the ways we communicate with each other, gather information, perform tasks, and play, but how much has it changed our conscious perception of the ways in which we read and appreciate artistic and literary texts?

The nine chapters that comprise Close Reading New Media are divided into three sections: Hypertext, Internet Text, and Cybertext. Each section groups together essays that focus on a particular stage in the development of electronic literature.

The three chapters in Hypertext focus on texts which the editors identify as arising out of the postmodern aesthetics and poststructuralist agendas of the 1980s and 1990s. Joseph Tabbi's reading of Stephanie Strickland's True North (1997-8) emphasizes the intertextuality of Strickland's poem about Josiah Willard Gibbs (1839-1903), physicist and Yale University professor. The poem was first published in book form, and then republished as hypertext on a CD-ROM. Tabbi points out the connections between Gibbs's deviations from linear thinking which prefigure the non-linear characteristics of hypertext, the transposition of Gibb's scientific ideas into literary form by Muriel Rukeyser in her 1942 biography of him, and the links within the hypertext version of Strickland's poem -- which, in turn, establish connections between Gibbs, Rukeyser, and Gibb's contemporary, poet Emily Dickinson.

Elisabeth Joyce's reading of Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995), a text composed using the program Storyspace, employs multiple maps, texts, and body parts to piece together a Frankenstein-like girl. Joyce's design of this multivalent hypertext draws on poststructural theories of subjectivity, writing, and the body found in the work of Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to problematize unitary theories of identity.

Raine Koskimaa's reading of M.D. Coverley's Califia (2000) shows how this hypernovel, in which the central story involves a search for the hidden treasure of Califia somewhere in the state of California, offers a variety of ways to explore its world. The user can read stories about four generations of two families whose narratives relate to the treasure. There are associated myths, legends, receipts, newspaper clippings, journal entries, and maps which can be consulted. And there is information about the state of California. The point of Califia is ultimately not to lead the user to any conclusive answer about the location of the treasure. Rather, it is more about exploring possible ways of organizing the wealth of information it incorporates in meaningful ways in time and space. The great amount of interconnected, realistic information encourages the user to immerse him/herself in the complex fictional world of Califia, thus promoting a non-traditional approach to reading and understanding a novel.

The three chapters in section two, Internet Text, focus on texts developed for the web. Richard Saint-Gelais and René Audet compare 253 or Tube Theatre, a novel for the Internet about London Underground in seven cars and a crash by Geoff Ryman (1996) and Lies by Rick Pryll (1994), arguing that both show how hypertexts can change and influence readers' ideas of how narrative works. 253 consists of 253 short narratives which correspond to the thoughts going through the minds of the 253 passengers on a London train minutes before it crashes. The crash is never directly mentioned and the information provided leaves the reader with narrative gaps. As with Califia, 253 seems to encourage the reader to use the texts provided to explore a multivalent fictional universe rather than find out what "really" happened. In the case of Lies, the user moves through a series of narratives, choosing each succeeding block of text by clicking on either a link called "Truth" or one called "Lies." As Saint-Gelais and Audet point out, it soon becomes extremely difficult to keep track of which information in the increasingly complex story is "true" or a "lie." Thus, the text forces the reader to think more about the nature of the hypertext structure than about solving the puzzle supposedly posed by the narrative.

While the readings of the previous two texts emphasize the ways these texts destabilize meaning, the next reading does the opposite, showing how an internet text accumulates the kinds of layers of meaning characteristic of traditional print-bound texts and adds to them the layers of signification contributed by the visual design of the site. Co-editor Baetens analyzes Eating Books (1996), a linear narrative with no hyperlinks written by Raymond Federman, designed by Anne Burdick, and published on the web in 1996 by the Electronic Book Review. Baeten's essay shows how form and content complement each other semantically since the narrative consists of a single line of text that disappears off the left side of the screen as the reader scrolls to the right in order to read the next section of text. The screen literarily eats the text.

In the last essay of this section, co-editor Jan van Looy revisits Geoff Ryman's 253, and recognizes the polyform sea of awareness and meaning created by the simultaneous perspectives of the 253 narrators on Ryman's train. But he also shows that this internet novel is not just about decentering meaning since, he argues, taken as a whole, the text can also be understood to be a "hypertextual contemplation on modernity." This is, in fact the phrase used to describe 253 in the title of this chapter. The train hurtling towards its own destruction, with all the passengers absorbed in their own lives, can be read metaphorically as humankind, driven by its own self-destructive desire for "progress," rushing towards its own extinction.

To read most of the texts discussed in the previous two sections of the book, the user progresses through the narrative by clicking on links. The possibility of selecting from among options that lead in different directions opens up narrative possibilities, but the mechanical process of clicking on links remains fairly straightforward. The Cybertext section of this book focuses on internet texts in which this mechanical process is more complex. In these cybertexts, the computer not only provides the building blocks of narrative by providing the reader with access to static images or blocks of text with which he/she can then compile a story, it also "generates signifiers via the manipulation of data arrays, functions, logical operators and programmatic objects" (20), as the editors explain. The greater number of functions performed by the computer provide the user with more ways of interacting with the text. The ways meaning can be generated therefore multiply.

Jack Post looks at how the process described above occurs when a user engages with the website Darren Aronofsky created in 2000 to publicize his film about drug addiction, Requiem for a Dream. This award-winning site uses Flash animation to blend images, text, and sound from the film with a variety of other animated textual and visual objects, in ways that are both seductive and frustrating. The site is aesthetically richer than sites created without Flash. As Post writes, its typological experiments in style, which juxtapose partially illegible scrawled handwriting, printed text, HTML Code, and ASCII text -- used not to represent words but to construct visual images such as skulls -- are reminiscent of the sophisticated stylistic experiments of the Russian Constructivists, the Bauhaus School, and the Stijl Movement. But, the site is also confusing because it lacks the kind of obvious links typical of earlier hypertexts, thus forcing the user to have to search for ways to move from one place to another. The frustrating experience of navigating the site in search of connections that will help things "make sense," in combination with the continuous onslaught of difficult-to-interpret animated Flash images, immerses the user in an experience which mimes the over-stimulated, paranoid world of the main character of the film. It is analogous to the way the film, with its disorienting optical effects, digital manipulations, and rapid-fire editing, creates the same kind of atmosphere. As in the case of other texts discussed above, the purpose of the site is to immerse the user in the world it creates rather than lead him or her through a teleological plot. It goes further towards undoing the linear narrative structure than they do, however, since words and meaning are always in the process of disintegrating and sliding away as the user tries to make sense of them on this site. The ways Aronofsky's site visually twists and manipulates signifiers on the screen could in fact be considered the defining characteristics of an innovative literary style made possible by electronic technology. As Post writes, "if the substance of the signifier becomes of secondary importance, the 'poetry' of the text is of primary importance" (135).

The last two chapters in this section look at how web texts are evolving and may evolve in the future. Paul A. Harris looks at the continuing metamorphosis of a print publication, American Book Review, as it first changes from a print publication to a website, Electronic Book Review, and then continues to reinvent itself to take advantage of the possibilities of the web. Harris shows how the ongoing e-mail conversation between the editor of the journal, the designers, and others has contributed to the evolution of this web publication, leading it to shed characteristics that tie it to print conventions -- a table of contents, a unitary hierarchical organization of information -- and open up a more plural conversation among the users of the site.

In the final chapter, "Hypertextual Consciousness: Notes Towards a Critical Net Practice," avant-pop novelist, internet artist, and founder of the digital art and literature site Alt-X Network, Mark Amerika, contributes a free-flowing experimental text that takes a hypertextual approach to thinking about how to create meaning on the web. The notes consist of over fifty brief titled texts, which propose approaches to thinking about and using hypertext. They address both technical and narrative possibilities, and, in them, ideas and writing styles combine in a variety of ways. Amerika proposes approaches to conceiving of narrators, characters, dialogue, rhetoric, narrative, and books in a hypertext context. He also thinks about bandwidth, dynamic protocols, connections, hosts, links, virtual objects, and virtual reality. The texts include lists, expository writing, autobiographies, dialogues, manifestos, narratives, poetry, and other types of writing. The fact that these notes are printed in a book conditions us to read them in linear fashion. But, this chapter of the book is really structured in the non-linear, non-hierarchical manner typical of many hypertexts. The notes do not necessarily have to be read in the order they are printed in. In fact, the point seems to be to break down the kinds of printbound approaches to thinking and writing which books encourage in us, and imagine new possibilities.

Taken together, the chapters in Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Literature show how electronic literature, freed from the linear structure the physical format of a book encourages, includes texts which explore the possibilities of non-linear textuality, multicourse thinking, and the incorporation of a variety of perspectives within the scope of a single site or narrative. Multicourse texts have always existed, and experimental writers have consistently challenged the linear structure of the novel but, as the editors of this volume point out, the web, because of its associative structure of linking, was from the beginning a literary invention (17). So, it is not surprising that it is generating a body of literary texts with recognizeable characteristics. The open-ended nature of the last two essays in this collection suggests that we are only beginning to imagine the ways developing technology may influence how we share our ideas and tell our stories in the future.

Mary Leonard:
Mary Leonard is Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. Her teaching and research interests include modern and contemporary literature, film, and other media - old and new.  <mleonard@choicecable.net>

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