Hope for Empowerment, Fear of Control

Hope for Empowerment, Fear of Control

1999-12-30
Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media
Silvio Gaggi
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Jan van Looy reviews Silvio Gaggi on hypertext fiction up to the early ’90s.

Gaggi’s point of departure is the seeming crisis of the postmodern subject. Since Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and to a lesser extent, Lyotard, the subject is generally viewed as a construction coming from outside man rather than an ontological a priori. The concept of the self seems to be imprinted by language into our thinking. The way we see and feel ourselves is the result of influences and discourses from the world surrounding us, rather than from some preexisting entity within. Alongside this theoretical challenge to the subject, there is also the more recent, more pragmatic attack from theorists such as Jameson and Baudrillard. They have observed that in a world where media images are becoming more and more important, these images exert a growing influence on how we see ourselves, and how our self is constituted.

No wonder critics have posed the question of whether the subject is still valuable as a theoretical concept. If the subject is a construction that is decentered, fragmented, and altogether unstable, why should we accord it a special value? Gaggi mentions a building, an automobile, and a computer - all of which we can construct and destroy without moral regret. If we regard the self as a mere construction, is this not equal to opening the gates for a totalitarianism where human beings no longer count? Gaggi believes otherwise. The traditional subject has been deconstructed, not destroyed, and through this deconstruction its phallocentric, logocentric, and carnivorous aspects have been laid bare. Now we have the opportunity to reconstruct from the bits and pieces of the traditional subject a new, more tolerant and democratic subject. Very likely, a not insignificant part of this reconstruction will take place in the media. For this reason, Gaggi claims that:

critical analysis of representation, representation of the subject in particular, remains an urgent issue. The critic’s role is examining how texts speak to the social subject, how they imply or construct a subject to which they speak, or how they deconstruct that always spoken subject. (xi, xii)

This is the strategy Silvio Gaggi pursues through most of his book. He analyzes subject construction and deconstruction in selected examples of painting and visual art, literature, film, and electronic media. Each chapter is devoted to a different art form, concentrating on a few paradigmatic works. Gaggi contrasts the photography of Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger with fifteenth-century paintings such as van Eyck’s Wedding of Arnolfini. He analyzes the “subject of discourse” in works by Conrad, Faulkner, and Calvino and explores how the subject is dynamically represented in films such as Coppola’s One from the Heart and Altman’s The Player. Why these works are so paradigmatic or even why they have been chosen for analysis is not always clear. But, then again, this non-methodology is becoming a habit in contemporary criticism. In the wake of the Canon debates, the reader is simply not supposed to pose any questions regarding the grounds for selections within, or even subjective takes on, the written corpus.

Most of the discussion of hypertext is based on Landow’s work with Intermedia, a hypertext system developed at Brown University (101). Therefore, what we get is a very conventional, almost traditional, enumeration of claims put forward in early hypertext criticism. For those readers seeking a nice and neat overview, this may be convenient, but people who are up to date with the subject will experience deja vu. Very briefly: hypertext is supposed to reduce the sense of primary texts and thus decenter the canon. The distinction between text and context and reader and writer is lost. Every reader is empowered in that she can append her own comments and responses and add links at will. Due to the ease of collaboration, learning and writing become a communal rather than an individual endeavor. In this way, the transition from text to hypertext may change our consciousness possibly to the same extent as did the transition from oral to written culture.

For Gaggi, hypertext involves a paradoxical relationship to the subject (114). The reader of hypertext or the user of networks is both empowered and enfeebled at the same time. She is empowered because she can move freely within the electronic space, access information of all kinds, and communicate with diverse individuals and groups, regardless of their physical location. At the same time, individual identity diminishes due to the separation from one’s name and material body.

Wonderfully indifferent to race, gender, beauty, and station in life outside the Web, the network absorbs the individual into an interactive dialogue in which the conversation assumes a life of its own and threatens to eclipse the participants who provide its content. (xiii)

However, the discussion becomes more animated when it gets to hyperfiction and more particularly Michael Joyce’s self-proclaimed hypertextual classic Afternoon, a story. Gaggi’s critique of Joyce’s work is devastating. When he discusses his own reading experience, Gaggi denies the surplus value of the format:

One becomes involved in Afternoon in much the same way one becomes involved in conventional stories, except that navigating one’s way through it is more demanding and confusing. (124)

But his critique reaches a more personal level when discussing the overall structure. “Sometimes lexias get linked in ways that don’t make sense, or, if they do, it may be a strange sense that they make.” Moreover, as a reader one cannot but link these remarks to an earlier passage, when Gaggi discusses the negative potential of hypertext:

Although the reader’s ability to make choices seems to indicate control and empowerment, that empowerment may be specious. The complexity of the web and the possibility of having to make decisions without sufficient information regarding where any choice may lead can result in a disorientation that precludes meaningful freedom. (104)

Aside from Afternoon, Gaggi extensively discusses Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden. Although the analysis itself is thorough and at times absorbing, the fact that he does not go beyond these “canonized” works left me with a bad taste. On the book’s cover Emory Elliott, the series editor, writes:

Gaggi also observes the impact of literature created on computer networks, where even the limitations of CD-ROM are lifted and the notion of individual authorship may for all practical purposes be lost.

Unfortunately, that is about all Gaggi does observe. For about half a page, he discusses the new possibilities of on-line artistic and literary collaboration. But that is as far as he gets, which, to me, hardly seems worth mentioning on a cover, except, of course, for marketing reasons.

Finally, I would like to dig deeper into a message more implicit than explicit in From Text to Hypertext, one expressing fear and hope at the same time: fear of control, hope for empowerment. When reading Gaggi, one becomes increasingly aware of the author’s sense of unease about the current crisis of the subject, particularly as it has been used against poststructural ideas.

Attacks on postmodernism and poststructuralism have been increasingly common, choreographed in part by the conservative political establishment, part of a continuing attack on intellectuals, artists, and the academy itself. (144)

At the same time, Gaggi seems to fear the consequences of Baudrillard’s hyperreality. He seems to be afraid that the deconstructed subject will be recuperated by the wrong people and thus, “regardless of the ethics and politics of those who theorize the subject, license the construction of social subjects who behave and consume in ways most beneficial to those who control representation.”

In this context, the passages dealing with the negative side(s) of television are undoubtedly the juiciest of the whole book:

In television it is the proliferation of irrelevant choices that produces a specious freedom that obscures increasingly powerful constraints Jan Baetens discerns freedom within the constrained writing of Raymond Federman on imaginable possibilities. Ninety cable channels might broadcast shows that entertain but none of which contain serious social or political analysis. Thus, viewers are provided with an illusion of freedom that is really equivalent to a grocery aisle filled with different brands of laundry detergent. (120)

The controlling forces, “Madison Avenue, MTV and reactionary political groups” (sic.) seem to have a stranglehold on culture and ideology. A typical example is the Gulf war, which - according to Gaggi - can be seen as an attempt “to recoup the control of reality and representation that was traumatically lost in Vietnam.”

However, Gaggi has high hopes regarding the potential of hypertext to “supplant MTV, which, for all its efforts to create spectacular visual effects and shocking content, has, for the most part become highly conventionalized and uninteresting” (120). For the first time since the 1960s, there is an opportunity for culture to be produced from the bottom up rather than be imposed from the top down. Thus, there is an important difference between Baudrillard’s hyperreality of mass media and the hypertextuality of electronic networks, although they are often discussed in the same breath. In hypertext we have at least the possibility of a democratic world created by the interaction of great numbers of participants, instead of a few powerful controllers.