Amerika Online


TRIPTYCH: HYPERTEXT, SURFICTION, STORYWORLDS

Mark Amerika


1.

The 1998 HyperHalloween Festival that took place at the University of South Carolina this year and was coordinated by one of the most important novelists of the 20th Century, Robert Coover, could have easily turned into a relatively subdued event, another in a series of mundane exercises pitting the "outmoded" book technology against the "avant-garde" hypertext technology. In fact, much of the afternoon symposium discussion did, for clarification's sake, introduce hypertext "newbies" to the potential advantages and disadvantages of an emergent electronic literature. And, of course, what hypertext conference would be complete without a debate over the scholarly "footnote" and the digital "hot-link" as The Best Way To Access An Ancillary Text. In the end, the "hot-link" seemed to have won over even the most traditional book-lovers on the panel, but that was the only area where the traditionalists were willing to give ground.

Things heated up when it came to the subject of narrative art itself. The self-declared book-loving traditionalists were quick to point out that only novels were to be considered "real" while hypertexts were to be challenged for their authenticity as narrative art, and were even called names like "hobbies" and "games." This sort of book vs. computer argument has been going on for most of the Nineties and has helped launch a few academic careers focused on the specific tensions that resonate around the issue.

But the state of narrative art is changing faster than most book-lovers and/or hypertext-champions could have ever imagined. The truth is that much of the hypertext work composed over the last eight years for floppy disks, CD-ROMs and early versions of Netscape/MSExplorer, is itself starting to look very outmoded and the discussion is about to shift away from issues of avant-garde technology to issues that should have concerned us all along, that is, issues revolving around the innovative writing styles beginning to evolve on the Web. This more intense discussion that is starting to take shape will now focus on how to simultaneously develop both the literacy we associate with innovative books and the computer or network-literacy we associate with the Web.

There is a reason why, in academia, this continued split, this "necessary duality," between books and hypertexts, still exists, even though the pop-culture is quickly moving beyond it without looking back. First of all, there is the issue of literacy versus what critic Gregory Ulmer calls "electracy." Those of us who grew up reading books know the value of narrative art as experienced in reading novels. And for those of us who have found tremendous value in reading some of the most experimental novels of the last 30 years, we know there still exists a power within the novel form itself to create a narrative interface where we, as interactive readers, are invited to co-create the alternative worlds each writer points us toward. We bring these co-creative reading skills to all texts, becoming what novelist Julio Cortazar called "a co-conspirator," in hopes of generating previously unexplored paths of knowledge, knowledge that the story, contained in a book, mediates for us.

This reader-generated interactivity is the way we use our literacy to create meaning out of texts. But let's face it: with more conventional novels, it's so easy, almost comforting, to pick up a book and get lost in its make-believe world of narrative opacity. As literate readers, we make very little investment in using our literacy skills to challenge ourselves with experimental narrative form, preferring, instead, to leave all of the work to an author who, knowing we seek the comfort of his/her text, composes formulaic "see-through" narrative for us. While reading these conventional stories, we never have to be reminded that what we are doing is reading a text composed by an author. The author becomes invisible, as does the print their story depends on. The notion of "losing yourself in a book" is something most literate readers desire, as if that were the end-all and be-all of a successful literary production.

Of course, the conventional interface I'm describing here portrays a writer-reader relationship that has gained much credibility throughout the history of the novel, one that presents itself in both commercial best-sellers and most quality literature, the kind of relationship we now see being promoted by the big corporate publishers time and time again. It is almost as if our literacy depends on it. But what happens when our literacy requires more than a simplistic interaction with an opaque fictional universe composed by an invisible author who is consciously trying to manipulate readers so that we "lose ourselves" in the story?

This question is not a new one. In fact, it was constantly being investigated by the best postmodern novels of the Sixties and Seventies, works like Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants, Raymond Federman's Take It Or Leave It, Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School, Steve Katz's The Exagggerations of Peter Prince (sic), Ronald Sukenick's OUT, Madeline Gins' Word Rain, Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, William Gass' Willie Master's Lonesome Wife and Donald Barthelme's Guilty Pleasures, works that were devoted, in part, to the examination of how the story itself came to be, creating what has come to be known as Metafiction or Surfiction.

2.

Raymond Federman, in his 1975 book, Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow, issued forth a manifesto called "Surfiction: Four Propositions In Form of An Introduction," where he set the new conditions for narrative practice:

"...[f]or me, the only fiction that still means something today is that kind of fiction that tries to explore the possibilities of fiction; the kind of fiction that challenges the tradition that governs it; the kind of fiction that constantly renews our faith in man's imagination and not in man's distorted vision of reality -- that reveals man's irrationality rather than man's rationality. This I call SURFICTION."

Federman calls his preferred writing style Surfiction not because it imitates reality. Quite the contrary, he is looking for the kind of writing that exposes the fictionality of reality. Just like the Surrealists were keen on calling the locus of man's subconscious experience Surreality, Federman focuses his attention on the kind of experience that reveals life itself as a fiction. As Celine has said, "Life, also, is a fiction...and a biography is something one invents afterwards."

All of the novels mentioned above could be called Surfiction, not only because they "constantly renew our faith in man's imagination," but because they absolutely destroy the conventional techniques associated with narrative composition published in book form. They do this through a variety of ways, not the least of which is reinventing the page as a visual metaphor for a new kind of narrative interface, using graphical icons, open-space design layouts, experimental typography, cut-and-paste collages, and disquieting noises manifesting themselves as unreadable marks and doodles. Besides transforming the paginal syntax of conventional novels by radically altering the way words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters and punctuation literally look on the page, these breakthrough fictioneers were actively exploring the potential of narrative, in books, to generate an entirely new interactive experience that would call attention to the book-artifice itself, many times highlighting the fact that the book was being used as an interface to transmit the fiction one was reading, not to mention the fact that an author, though fluid in his/her "own" fictional identity, was actively involved in the story's composition, many times asserting a fictionalized characterization of "the author" into the storyspace. It was at this point that "the author" as well as the "fictional character" were becoming one continuously metamorphosing linguistic construct or what Federman called a "word-being."

Surfiction, as an activist writerly practice focused on revolutionizing narrative experience, was an attack on the false consciousness that most Modern fiction associated itself with. Modernist writing throughout the 20th century has been interested in presenting a "fragmentary narrative composition" that would give the reader an opportunity to "create a whole" reading experience. For Modernist writers, the notion of interactivity was tied to the reader's desire for wholeness. But for the Surfictionists, the parts were always greater than the wholes, and besides, for the Surfictionists, the wholes do not exist, or if they do, they exist as holes, black holes, for readers to get sucked into, at which point Surfiction writers try to help get them OUT.

Already by the Sixties and Seventies, the experimental postmodernists were enabling readers to involve themselves with more process-oriented texts as creative "co-conspirators," asking them to help invent the story along with the writer. As Federman says in his Surfiction book (remember, this is 1975):

"All the rules of and principles of printing and bookmaking must be forced to change as a result of the changes in the writing (or the telling) of a story in order to give the reader a sense of free participation in the writing/reading process, in order to give the reader an element of choice (active choice) in the ordering of the discourse and the discovery of its meaning."

Of course this sounds very similar to the rhetoric employed by the practitioners of hypertext fiction and theory coming on to the scene almost 20 years later, except you would be hard-pressed to find much critical writing that makes the crucial connection between Surfiction and hypertext. This has to do with the fact that most of the early practitioners of hypertext employ a more Modernistic writing style that attempts to use hypertext as a technology that creates stories whose top priority is to make us feel whole again (a priority not too dissimilar from the conventional novels of the past). In fact, one of the early practitioners of electronic fiction was recently quoted as saying "[o]ur lives are multiple and fragmented. In order to make sense out of them, we have to piece together bits...It is not that computers are magic, it is that the life that surrounds contemporary technology and culture leaves us in pieces and we long to be whole again."

But who is the "we" referred to here? Certainly not me. I'm not looking for wholeness, whether that be in my day-to-day life or my works-in-progress. Rather, I'm looking for exemplary parts, stray bits of experience that challenge whatever it is I have inside me that wants to stay rigid, that wants to "build character," that wants to structure a plot that "makes sense." And more than that, I want to get caught in the swarm of a buzzing network that feeds me as much as I feed it, getting drunk on the instantaneous feedback loop being generated by a sensuous writing-machine whose presence is always there, even when I myself feel absent or constantly in flux, composing my next words, network-conducting more immersive narrative spaces for my aging body to interact with.

3.

For those of us who are especially fond of over-the-edge writing, that is, writing that challenges the prefabricated realities of both conventional novels and conventional hypertexts, we are always in search of stories that empower creative-readers to reach their narrative potential. Cortazar refers to this process as "becoming a story," something that can happen on a plane, in the bathroom, at the library or even by typing your computer keyboard. And oftentimes this unique narrative potential manifests itself as the exact opposite of a longing "to be whole again."

As critic and hypertext Kabalist David Porush suggests, the narrative potential being explored in the most daring contemporary stories "court nonsense, chaos, paradox, entropy, silence and oblivion." They, in a sense, ask to be mistranslated, to be encountered as unreadable, unnamable discourses that allow the reader to further fragment her own preconceived identity as an irreducible individual psyche who is subject to a predictable form of characterization.

With the advent of cyberspace, we are already starting to see the development of narrative environments that enable the reader ("co-conspirator") to create viable alternatives to conventional characterization. Whether it be the efflorescence of genderfuck role-playing communities that seriously challenge the politically-correct identity politics of the 1980s, or savvy, young web-designers mocking the technological determinism earlier generations were often programmed to associate with computer culture, one thing is clear: there is now tremendous narrative potential for language artists to investigate, a potential that may invite experimental practitioners to blow a hole through "whole-ness" vis-a-vis a liberatory writing practice that explodes the false consciousness of Modernist nostalgia.

Of course, we already know that Modernism has become outmoded by the exuberant postmodern fictions of the Sixties and Seventies and that yet another kind of storyworld environment is rapidly developing that moves beyond both experimental postmodernism and conventional hypertext. This new, networked-storyworld environment that is just now beginning to emerge, strategically employs some of the revolutionary narrative techniques associated with the best postmodern novels. It also experiments with a variety of media recently invented, most notably 3-D modeling languages, streaming audio, animated gifs, Java, and yes, even dynamic hypertext.

With this in mind, I invite Alt-X visitors to interact with our newest section called Holo-X, a VRML narrative developed by Berkeley Interactive Design that features a 3-D sex.bot named S.L.U.T. (Sorceress of Language in Uncharted Territories) whose complex language structure and behavior takes web-narrative beyond issues of technology and, instead, problematizes the isolationist principles of much uninteresting avant-garde art and conventional hypertext fiction.

Stay tuned for more developments on Alt-X, including our upcoming book and CD projects.


Mark Amerika is Director of the Alt-X Publishing Network. He is author and editor of many books including the novels The Kafka Chronicles and Sexual Blood (Black Ice Books) and the anthologies Degenerative Prose: Writing Beyond Category (Black Ice Books) and In Memoriam To Postmodernism: Essays On the Avant-Pop (San Diego State University Press). His internationally-acclaimed web-narrative, GRAMMATRON, has been performed and exhibited at many international festivals including the Ars Electronica Festival, the International Symposium of Electronic Art, SIGGRAPH, Virtual Worlds 98, and the Adelaide Arts Festival in Australia


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