Amerika Online

The Rival Tradition: Writers Into the 21st Century

Mark Amerika

In an essay published in the Spring 96 issue of The Wilson Quarterly called "State of the Art," the award-winning novelist John Barth, admitting that the new media technology's effect on the practice of writing makes him feel his "dinosaurity," confesses that he maintains a benevolent curiosity about electronic narrative "out of [my] longstanding interest in the nonlinear aspects of life and of literature." Barth's "long-standing interest" can be traced to an important essay he wrote in 1967 called "The Literature of Exhaustion," where, at the beginning of the essay, he exclaimed "that a great many artists for a great many years have quarreled with received definitions of artistic media, genres, and forms...pop art, dramatic and musical 'happenings,' the whole range of 'intermedia' or 'mixed means' art, bear a recent witness to the tradition of rebelling against Tradition."

Barth's writerly focus on these rebellious intermedia forms parallels similar strands of intellectual curiosity pursued by many of his postmodern writing colleagues, most of whom helped explode the form of the novel in the 60's and 70's and who have, as I suggested in my last column, created a collective body of work that should be seriously considered by emerging narrative constructivists in the new media environment. Young artists immersing themselves in web-based literary production would be well advised to read these early postmodern impresarios, especially in light of the fact that current developments in the literary book-writing scene are so predictable, boring and genre-oriented .

As Ron Sukenick, who along with Barth, Raymond Federman, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme and other pomo fictioneers, changed the way we interact with novels, has said: "Genre is traditional, medium is technological. We live in a technological culture, not a traditional culture."

Which is why, I suppose, some of the most exciting narrative projects being composed today are taking place on the web. It has to do with what Walter Ong, in the subtitle to his often-cited book, Orality and Literacy, calls "the technologizing of the word." This "technologizing" process is opening up huge opportunities for narrative artists to

1) experiment with formal issues that have been exhausted in book form

2) pioneer new modes of cultural production and distribution

3) problematize the individual Author-As-Genius model by way of collaborative authoring networks that sustain non-heirarchical group production and teamwork

As the mainstream publishing industry takes pride in its role of commodifying THE novel, as if THE novel were a prefabricated thing that one need only produce formulaically for a consumer market of novel readers, the intermedia environment offered by the web, on the contrary, enables digital artists to experiment with a multitude of novel forms that move beyond the book and challenge us to reconfigure contemporary narrative practice. One project that that attempts to seriously play with these new opportunities presented by the web is an Alt-X co-creation called Holo-X.

This futureworld narrative, developed by the 3-D design firm of Berkeley Interactive Design in conjunction with the Alt-X Online Network, has already received critical acclaim in The New York Times, Wired and Le Monde, among other places.

Holo-X is a 3-D VRML project that interfaces literary art, virtual sex games, electronic commerce and network technology by way of its horny hyperstar, the Sorceress of Language in Uncharted Technologies, also known as S.L.U.T. S.L.U.T. is an artificially intelligent that emits a language-driven, gaseous eros meant to challenge the user's conventional reading of their own desire. Reading desire, by way of S.L.U.T.'s narratological behavior, as experienced via both her animated movements in 3-D space and the secret writings available in her 3-D bedroom, becomes part of the interactive fiction, and forces the user to reconsider what role virtual reality plays in their own role-playing fantasies as a social creature navigating pornosophic hyperspace.

I would suggest that this writing-enriched VR world is both post-literary while at the same time narratively-driven. The various options available to the interactive-reader enable each reader to choose from a variety of options that include looking into writings from S.L.U.T.'s journal and notebook, taking peeks inside her PC laptop, scamming copies of her D-I-Y zine, following her travelogue, or listening to the latest tracks from her band, The Lotus Eaters. The interactive-reader can also click right on the pixellated-creature herself, thus setting loose a "natural" language that promises to play with the reader's unique position as "outsider" looking in.

The underlying structure of S.L.U.T.'s "natural" language is straightforward -- there are twenty "scenes" or monologues which range between 1.5 and 3 minutes, each of which ends with a yes or no question. What makes S.L.U.T. unique, though, is the fact that at any given moment, what she says is being randomly selected from five possibilities (an accomplishment which requires custom JavaScripting to extend VRML's capabilities). This creates a kind of OuLiPo-like restraint mechanism that forces the writing team to produce lines of text that fit a predetermined length or what project co-cretaor Jay Dillemuth calls an "array." Most interesting to me as a writer who is always looking for ways to "let the language speak itself," is how this kind of restraint-oriented writing imposes a more abstract hypertextual structure that enables S.L.U.T.'s caricature to maintain lingusitic momentum in a highly-charged meaning-making environment.

The main difference between this sort of abstract hypertextual writing and the more controlled style promoted by early practitioners of digitext, is that Holo-X does not rely as much on creating "hot-links" that "yield" other texts. Yes, it has that too, but what's foregrounded here is the narrative environment itself, a 3-D interface that suggests hypertext "links" are just one more potential narrative device that the storyworld creator has at their disposal (in addition to streaming text, audio, video, animation, A.I. behavior, etc.). It is, perhaps, the most advanced experimental 3-D narrative on the web, meaning there no models to work after and the artists involved were clearly making it up as they went along.

All of which suggests a technical awareness achieved the old-fashioned way, through endless trial and error, with an affinity toward sleepless nights and day-time hallucinations filled with lines of code blurring one's vision.

As Holo-X's VRML architect Jay Dillemuth tells me over email:

"I suppose it is a bit of a curiosity to find an experimental poet with not an iota of programming or computer science training embroiled in the creation of virtual worlds. I find it curious and somewhat inexplicable myself. Really there are two major factors that conspired to put me in this position. One is an increasing interest in the artistic and literary potential of technology, based on the aesthetics I embrace as a print writer. The second is an increasing dissatisfaction with the literary avant garde and its relationship (or lack thereof) with its audience.

"As my own print work is aesthetically influenced by language poetry, the New York School, Surrealism, the OuLiPo, and Avant Pop, I have a certain fascination with the mechanics of language and narrative, often resorting to source texts, collage and generative constraints as an integral part of my writing process. To me, narrative complexity and semantic indeterminacy are the primary attractions of experimental literature -- that special feeling of befuddlement we all experience when interacting with a challenging text, and the concomitant pleasure we derive from following the many semantic threads from their place on the page to the vast associative network of our own memory and experience. It was this fascination with language, narrative, sound, the visual image and the way they independently and collectively create meaning that led me to investigate hypermedia as a poetic and narrative medium."

This fascination with writing's potential to morph into something completely different in network culture is partly responsible for what I am now recognizing as a wave of resistance to the predictable world of "creative writing professionals" we now associate with adjunct and tenure-track teaching gigs in most Amertican universities. Which isn't to say that that's not a viable survival strategy for innovative artists (although it necessarily comes at a cost). Rather, it helps us focus our attention on a new generation of techno-savvy writers, some of which have even gone through M.F.A. programs, writers attracted to both the creative and professional potential of engaging themselves in a new media practice, one that is fueled by the exploding Internet economy, pursuing dreams of creating both provocative art and company profits while consciously bypassing the conventional publishing and gallery systems in lieu of something more engaged with the ebb and flow of the digital currencies that power the global capital markets.

All of which begs the following question: is this just more cleverly disguised California Ideology posing as leading-edge artistic entrepreneurialism, or are the Internet-based industries, now generating record highs in the wildly speculative NASDAQ stock market, enabling the development of a new role-playing game that anyone, including interventionist poets of the avant-pop variety, can forthrightly play?

"What makes our projects unique and, I hope, powerful," continues Dillemuth, "is their informed and intimate engagement with these radical narrative strategies coupled with the vast potential of immersive multimedia technologies like VRML to actualize the postmodernist aesthetic. In recent years, much academic discourse has been generated regarding notions of the observer and the observed, the male gaze, the body as text, the relationship between technology and gender, the subversion of the subject and the dialectics of desire, the sociopsychological theory of mass culture as a 'dreamworld' construct, and the general destabilization of identity in the postmodern era. All of these complicated notions played an important role in providing the theoretical armature, the conceptual foundation upon which these projects rest."

In fact, both Holo-X and B.I.D.'s more commercial, multi-user 3-D adult community called XRave, begin conceptually from the destabilization of linearity, temporality and identity which were, and are still, to a large degree, the primary obsessions of many of the most engaged metafictionists in the 60s and 70s.

It's enough to make me wonder if leading-edge web artists and new media businessmen alike, see their position here as being firmly aligned with the tradition of rebelling against Tradition and, if that's the case, then what does that say about so much of the oppositional role-playing that takes place in both the online art world and Western-styled consumer culture in general. Perhaps what makes Dillemuth and his B.I.D. partner Alex Cory most unique in this context is that they seem to have already adjusted themselves in light of these concerns and have started creating something more immediate and lively, like a group of artists who, working in the trenches, see the practice of writing, in whatever medium and under whatever circumstances, as THE crucial mode of cultural survival.

Creating web art for distributed global audiences is risky business, especially for the young intelligenstia who know the value of making money. But there's more to the new media economy than simply generating revenues. There's still this need to rebel, to create freedom-loving avatars that let the language speak itself. As S.L.U.T. herself says in one of her poetic, artificially-intelligent rants:

"The multi-national / corporate criminals // and their babbling, / robotic spokesmen // really have no idea / how intelligent we are // and think of people / as abstract markets."

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.