An Mosaic for Convergence, Charles Bernstein's hypertext essay from ebr Issue 6 in the Winter of 1997-1998, explores the ramifications of a literature that is not structurally challenged, but structurally challenging. By then, Bernstein could sense a shift in literary sensibility, where it was beginning "to seem as natural to think of composing screen by screen rather than page by page." That was a few years after the flourishing of hypertext, but before the internet made reproduction of our print corpus a dominant practice (as e-books, primarily, with very little print/screen interplay or reader/author/programmer interchange). The moment Bernstein describes, and its instantiation on ebr's Alt-X legacy site, seems to the ebr editors something worth preserving - if only as a measure of recognized literary possibilities that have not been realized.
Bernstein's essay is the first of many that will be recovered by ebr co-editor Will Luers, and re-produced in the journal's version 7.0 (circa 2018-2019).
An Mosaic for Convergence (1997) by Charles Bernstein, with programming by Dante Piombino
Over the past two decades, I have been performing a version of what I call a "shuffle text" in place of reading a keynote paper. I go through my essays and epigrammatic poems and cut them into small slices, which I then paste onto index cards. When the time of the event draws near, I select a set of cards that will create an array or constellation related to the title (or theme) of my presentation. At the lecture, I start by shuffling the cards, often asking a member of the audience to cut the deck. I then read the cards in the newly randomized order.
A shuffle of the deck will never abolish expository logic. But it is an extravagant way to show that an essay read in a scrambled order is just as rhetorical coherent as if it were ordered conventionally –– and that perhaps the unexpected swerve between each card makes the essay more visceral. Of course, it's something of trick, since I write relatively autonomous paragraphs and my concerns are unrelenting focused, no matter what order you hear them. The freshness of the unexpected juxtapositions creates both pleasure and comedy, which can be happily disarming for listeners, making them more attentive. Seriality of this kind does not create a sense of disorder or the haphazard but rather serendipity and felt connectedness. The experience is not one of a string of non-sequiturs but of a network of connections. The synaptic jumps between cards fuels the performance with semantic energy.
In the question period following such performances, I often answer by reading the next card in the series.
It works like a charm.
"An Mosaic for Convergence" is a web extension of my shuffle texts. The order of the screen is randomly generated, so there is no single, fixed order to read the essay. But any way you shake it, you get to a similar sensation of highly interconnected sections that together form an ensemble. The capacity of the parts to be reconfigured adds to the resilience of the work, which operates in an n-dimensional semantic space.
"An Mosaic" appeared in ebr #6 in 1997. I am grateful to ebr for restoring its to it original ingloriousness.
The essay comes from a time close to the first hypertext works that could be created with personal computers on the newly developing internet. Making links was still novel, even if hyptertexts were first envisioned thirty years earlier, with HyperCard a decade later, enabling the first realization of works like "An Mosaic.") There were many precedents in earlier poetry and poetics for the approach of "An Mosaic" (as I discuss in the piece). The novel html environment made it easy to create a background image for each section and also to use font and layout as an active form of meaning making (not, that is, as a standard template or as a decorative element). Looking back these 22 years, it is surprising how anachronistic (or it is iconoclastic?) the essay appears, and, indeed, how what I was doing was not taken up by many others. The web space that was opening for us all did not have to stay so strictly tied to the constraints of print culture. Looking back, "An Mosaic" seems to be related to work in digital poetry (poetry in programmable media) but this work is not a poem but rather a work of poetics. Digital poetics, in the sense of poetics in programmable media (not the "poetics" of the digital), seems to be a nonstarter. But that's not stopping me. I think the essay I recently published on Gertrude Stein and Vichy continues the spirit of "An Mosaic," with its emphasis on cut-up, collage, and hand-made design.
Speaking of hand-made design: with the advent of the html page, writers had a new set of elements with which to work: color, table-width, font type and size, embedded images, and background images or colors. It seemed to me the canvas for the writer had expanded beyond black and white letters on a small white page. In"An Mosaic," I wanted to make my choices as overt as possible, even to the point of creating an ostentatious -- indeed childish -- veneer. But then ostentation is as close to aesthetics as a blossom to a tree.
"An Mosaic" was extravagant in every way. I wanted to push back against the dreariness and decorum of professional writing and also the slickness of so much web design. It comes from the era of "web 1.0," but it was never really part of that, just as it is even further from "web 2.0." Perhaps "An Mosaic" might best be thought of as a prototype for "Web -1." "Web -1" in 1997 or 2019 is a step out of linear time, a refusal as a way of opening new possibilities. Those possibilities are as intangible now as they ever would be.