The Brown University Unspeakable Practices Vanguard Narrative Festival

A discussion of literary hypertext

The Thursday night program of the 1996 Brown University Unspeakable Practices Vanguard Narrative Festival featured electronic and print artists from around the country including Michael Joyce, George Landow, Jonathan Lethem, Shelley Jackson, Paul Difillipo, Bobby Rabyd and Sol Yurick. The evening's Master of Ceremonies was Alt-X Publisher Mark Amerika.

While Amerika was delivering his opening remarks, the Alt-X/Sonicnet chat space, called Interspews, was projected on a large screen in the background. Alt-X hypertext editor Jay Dillemuth was on stage moderating the Brown side of things while in Brooklyn, Alt-X chat moderator and io magazine editor Ben Cohen judiciously maintained activity on the Net.

Our guest visitors that evening were Jay David Bolter, author of the very influential hypertext theory book Writing Spaces, the eloquent hypertextualist Jane Yellowlees Douglas, and digital poet-pioneer Jim Rosenberg. Hypertext critic Ruth Nestvold came soaring in from Europe and the chat was on:

Dillemuth An interesting question was posed at the symposium this afternoon. Can there be an avant garde in network/Web culture?

Douglas I think most people would say that Web culture is the avant garde, and I'd argue with that. I think there's room, within the new genres made possible by digital technology, for what we'd consider "pop" as well as what we'd consider "avant garde." Put more simply, not every hypertext narrative is going to end up being as challenging as Ulysses.

Dillemuth Isn't Web culture becoming mainstream? Some argue that the avant garde is necessarily a unified "voice," which is impossible in the polyphonic Web culture.

Douglas I thought the notion of the avant garde was precisely a reaction to the unified voice of pop culture.

Nestvold Lots of folks are trying to translate avant garde almost straight to the Web -- but the thing is, a lot of postmodern experiments don't make any sense on the Web anymore. Defying chronology, for instance, is no longer an experiment -- it's the nature of hypertext.

Rosenberg In the poetry world there's a lot of discomfort with the term "avant garde." Very few poets seem really attuned to genuinely nonlinear structure, sad to say.

Douglas I have trouble with the notion that hypertext is necessarily nonlinear. Multilinear or polylinear, perhaps, but not nonlinear. There's the whole notion of perception -- there are cognitive psychologists who'd argue that our perceptual apparatus is prejudiced in favor of perceiving things in a linear, causal fashion. We create causality and sequences in the act of perceiving.

Nestvold That's it -- we always read in a linear fashion, no matter what the narrative does.

Douglas Absolutely. Otherwise, it would make no sense at all.

Nestvold But then what's the avant-garde hypertext writer to do?

Douglas Everything print makes it well-nigh impossible to do. We haven't even begun to realize the ways in which we can argue/tell stories/represent the world in an environment that has yet to evolve the kinds of constraints that print has. It would be impossible for me in the real world, for example, to carry on two conversations at once, the way I'm doing now. Jim and I are talking backchannel about linearity and esthetics and hypermedia.

Bolter What is avant garde or experimental must constantly be redefined, in hypertext as in any genre.

Dillemuth I agree about the necessity of redefinition even in hypertext, which is why I am fearful of deeming all hypertext writing avant garde.

Douglas Why couldn't you just use hypertext to tell a bloody good story that keeps changing every time you read it, as Michael Joyce has suggested? I'd argue that Web and MOO spaces, generally, are fairly simplistic and limited environments: We're looking at a flat surface and a very limited set of tools and kinds of links.

Nestvold Personally, I think you could use hypertext to tell a story, just let the reader choose which character to follow, for example. And I don't know how simplistic MOO spaces are. A MOO could and is being used as a multiauthored forum -- no defined text to study, a constantly evolving text.

Douglas Not being funny, but that's a rather limited, and ratherlinear, way of looking at it. Instead of following one character around, why wouldn't the narrative change, according to whom you were using as the prism through which to view the story? Why couldn't the story change each time you tweaked one of the variables in it? I don't know about anyone else, but I tend to see the world relativistically or pragmatically -- if one variable comes into play, everything else changes.

Dillemuth That may be the difference between "conventional" and "experimental" mindframes.

Cohen But don't writers generally make a certain character the prism, and bring specific variables into play, because they believe it's the most effective way to say what they want to say? If you're adding variables for their own sake and rewriting the story from every character's perspective, are you muddling the reason for writing in the first place?

Douglas OK, so I only have something specific in mind to say in terms of several variables. But in [Douglas' hypertext piece] "I Have Said Nothing," some characters die in one scenario and continue living in another. That's the way I think about the real world. That's what's particularly timely about the notion of interactivity and hypertext generally. We no longer think about the world positivistically or objectively. The hypertext writer actually can exercise an infinitely greater control over what the reader will see and the sequence in which he or she will read than a writer of print texts.

Rosenberg To use Michael Joyce's terminology, meaning is a constructive act.

Douglas That's the whole reason why guardfields and different types of links/paths are particularly valuable notions.

Nestvold More radical are interactive fictions with multiple authors. But then who wants to give up control entirely?

Dillemuth Jane, do you then see hypertext as a new method of authorial control rather than the democratization of text?

Douglas I think you can reify authorial intention in hypertext in a way nobody could dream of doing in print.

Bolter Hypertext makes the degree of authorial control another dimension that can vary.

Dillemuth How will more immersive 3D technologies like VRML challenge the basic notions of hypertextuality?

Bolter It seems to me that graphic technologies pose a greater "threat" to hypertext than the conservative views of traditionalists. The paradigm of immersive VR is a paradigm that rejects the whole notion of textuality. Instead, it suggests that the new media can allow us to transcend mediation.

Rosenberg Ah, yes, the old "Just text is boring ..."

Bolter Obviously such a view is wholly antithetical to text in any form -- traditional literature or hypertext.

Douglas But that's a fiction itself -- any representation is a mediation. Immersive VR will produce texts that may be more persuasive than anything we could produce in print/hypertext.

Bolter It won't do to say that VR is also textual, unless you can persuade our culture to act on that interpretation. Our culture still seems to believe that visual media are not mediated.

Douglas But Jay, if we follow the "killer technology" model here, cinema and television should have been the coup de grace for the novel.

Bolter They were. Hypertext may now find itself in the same position, in relationship to computer video games, that the novel has been for decades in relationship to film.

Douglas I can picture you saying that, Jay. But there was no coup de grace for the novel. We have a romanticized notion of a past in which people had more time at hand to read. Actually there are more people today reading something like Ulysses than there were 100 years ago.

Bolter Yes, but Jane, there are more people doing everything today.

Douglas I see your points, Jay, but show me representative technologies that ended up being killer technologies in the way that the automobile was.

Bolter I suspect in fact that hypertext and text will continue to attract readers, just as the stage still attracts audiences. And some people even read poetry! But the question for me is, where will the cultural center be?

Rosenberg One of the things that interests me is some of the unique things that can be done with linguistic structure. I don't see how that can ever be subsumed under "graphics." Consider the simple concept of "verb." How would you do that as "graphics"?

Bolter It's not that you can do the same things with graphics. The question is whether people will value what you can do in words.

Rosenberg Sometimes all you can say is, in the immortal words of Tug McGraw, "You gotta believe."

Cohen Do any of you think there are very many interesting literary experiments happening on the Web right now?

Bolter I can't say that I have seen many such experiments.

Cohen Why is that, considering the popularity of the Web and all the people struggling for literary recognition through traditional means?

Rosenberg I think that will change with Java spreading like wildfire.

Bolter Perhaps the Web encourages people to use graphics and be creative in visual rather than literary ways. Look at the explosion of sites by graphic artists.

Rosenberg Writers tend to be slow about changing their ways. It will take time for people to "write native" to the Web.

Cohen For someone interested primarily in writing itself, becoming technologically savvy enough to "write native" can be daunting. Do you think many writers are going to take on this challenge, or will they turn over the presentation side of their work to graphic artists, programmers, etc.?

Rosenberg The tricky part is getting the right "palette" of off-the-shelf word objects, combined with programmability for those who want to go further. I understand what you're saying, though -- I earn my living as a programmer, but when I sit down to write I want to write, not program.

Cohen Will we see the day, Jim, when it's common for major literary figures to create their works, or versions of them, in hypertext? As opposed to letting their publishers design their Web pages as promotional tools?

Rosenberg Sure. It will take time, but I think the number of people writing to the medium of hypertext will increase. The important thing about the Web is that it lets anyone who has something to say publish. The way you get more people to read is to give them a stake, and publishing does that.