Cyber|literature and Multicourses: Rescuing Electronic Literature from Infanticide

Cyber|literature and Multicourses: Rescuing Electronic Literature from Infanticide


In response to Nick Montfort’s review of Cybertext, N. Katherine Hayles coins an alternative term, Cyber|literature.

Whenever interspecies mating occurs, the offspring are likely to spark controversy if not fear and loathing – think of the Minotaur, Leda’s two eggs, and in our posthuman age, the androids of Bladerunner. So it is not really surprising that electronic literature, the hybrid progeny of an interspecies mating between computer games and literary traditions, arouses strong feelings from the descendants of both lineages. Scholars mostly interested in computer games, such as Espen Aarseth, cut up the territory so that the literary component is largely obscured; scholars who come out of the literary tradition, such as George Landow, parse the new electronic forms so that they end up sounding like old wine in new platforms. The situation has encouraged partisans to declare that only one parent is legitimate and that the other ought to be murdered outright; witness Markku Eskelinen’s pronouncement at the 1999 Digital Arts and Culture conference that “Hypertext is dead. Cybertext killed it.” While it is understandable that scholars fighting for critical turf want to claim all of the territory for themselves, the nature of the beast called electronic literature cannot be adequately understood if it is orphaned on either side of the family tree. From computer games come interactivity, major tropes such as searching for keys to a central mystery, and multiple narrative pathways chosen by interactors; from literary traditions come devices developed over millennia of experimentation and criticism such as point of view, narrative voice, and literary allusions. To omit either of these resources would be to reduce electronic literature to something beyond our recognition.

Which brings me to Nick Montfort’s “Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star,” a thoughtful, provocative essay that uses a review of Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature as the occasion to suggest that the “real” parent of electronic literature is the computer game. Alert to the importance of terminology in this emerging field, Montfort argues that parsing electronic literature as hypertext over-emphasizes the importance of the link and under-emphasizes other important aspects of electronic literature, for example the materiality of the medium and the reconfiguration of the reader as “operator” or “interactor.” This argument is important, I think, insofar as it correctly points out the major shift brought about by Aarseth’s terminology when he identifies cybertext as essentially a machine that computes rather than a text that uses links.

Other aspects of the argument strike me as simply wrong. When Montfort constructs a typology of computer structures progressing from finite automata to Turing machines, he seems to imply that electronic literature using more powerful programming techniques is a priori better than texts relying on linking structures. Surely the effectiveness of electronic literature springs much more directly from its effect on readers than from the kind of programming structures it uses. Links in themselves, without regard to their context, conceptualization, or dramatic effectiveness, cannot reasonably be considered inferior to other modes of programming, also considered without regard to their use or contextualization. Electronic literature achieves its power not only through computational operations but also through devices that have traditionally been considered literary, for example originality of expression, construction of plot, use of metaphor and tropes, and characterization through action and narrative voice. Just as literary analysis of electronic literature that does not consider the reader’s choice of pathways or the materiality of the medium would be seriously incomplete, so would an analysis that looks only at programming structure without regard for these tools of a writer’s trade.

Indeed, a close (dare I say literary?) reading of Montfort’s essay suggests that it embodies a dual impulse. The explicit purpose of his argument is to shift the emphasis from links to computation. But running throughout are assumptions that implicitly acknowledge the importance of literary effects. His own interests, he says, are invested particularly in interactive fictions, of which he has authored an excellent example, Winchester’s Nightmare. Here more than with many electronic literary texts, the dual parentage of computer game and literary tradition becomes evident. The game structure challenges the reader to progress through the work, but it is the good quality of Montfort’s prose that makes the reader think this game is worth the candle. The very nomenclature that Montfort prefers and defends, interactive fiction, speaks to this dual parentage. If these works are interactive, they are also fictions, and they cannot be understood as meaningful cultural practices without this literary component.

To return to Aarseth’s influential Cybertext and Montfort’s endorsement of it, let me suggest that Cybertext both illuminates and obscures by treating ergodic literature as primarily computational. It illuminates in all the ways that Montfort suggests, but at a price. Especially for texts that achieve signification through literary effects, the term “cybertext” operates to occlude the qualities of language, structure and verbal richness that we traditionally associate with literature. To think of hypertexts such as Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, Twilight, and Twelve Blue, M. D. Coverley’s Califia and Stephanie Strickland’s The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot as depending primarily on computation for their effects is to render them virtually unintelligible as works capable of making readers care about the stories they tell. Works like this proclaim their literariness through heightened language, literary tropes, and extensive allusions to other literature (Frankenstein for Patchwork Girl, Ulysses for Afternoon, California narratives for Califia, ballad form for Sand and Harry Soot). Tom LeClair considers such allusive contemporary narratives as “parasitical” Just as they could not be fully understood if they were taken out of the computer and printed out on paper (as the Norton Anthology does for Afternoon), so they also would become incomprehensible if wrenched out of the literary tradition so integral to our cultural Imagination.

There are other reasons not to kill off the literary parent. Nick Montfort implicitly alludes to one of them when he suggests that interactive fictions ought to be taken “seriously,” or to say the same thing in another way, ought not to be dismissed as “categorically less…worthwhile” because they rely on computation. We might ask, taken seriously by whom? Since he is presuming that his interactors like computer games, it seems that the resistant readers he evokes here are precisely the folks who like to read literature. What is gained from the viewpoint of these readers by arguing that interactive fictions do not have qualities traditionally associated with literature? Electronic literature comprises a tiny percentage of texts that can lay claim to the close critical attention and careful reading that Montfort wants to gain for interactive fictions. Trying to kill off either parent, literary or computational, is more apt to result in infanticide rather than parricide. Literature and computer games are both doing very nicely these days; it is their hybrid offspring that is in danger. To see critics argue against either of this offspring’s parents reminds me of Freud’s analysis of the “narcissism of minor differences.” The phrase describes a common tragedy: a small group, infinitesimal compared to the mainstream, engages in fierce ideological battles that result in splintering, thereby reducing its already problematic effectiveness. The American Communist Party splits into two and these factions split yet again; the Mennonites split into two and continue to splinter until common sense finally takes hold and they begin to reunite. Let us not make the same mistake with electronic literature. This new-born hybrid, still so young many do not know it exists, desperately needs all the parents it can get.

To this end, I want to propose another terminology, one I hope will be inclusive and synergistic rather than exclusive and confrontational. For the broad category of texts generated through computation and relying extensively on literary effects, I propose the term “cyber|literature.” The two halves of the word allude to the two parents, connected by a vertical line that in programming is called a “pipe.” Two pipes in C++ denotes a “logical or” (I am using one because the “l” in literature can be understood as alluding to this second line), which says that if any statement in a set of statements is true, the entire set shall be considered true.” In the case of cyber|literature, the set of statements are 1) the literary tradition is its parent, 2) the computer game is its parent, 3) the link is the essential feature, and 4) computation is the essential feature. The pipe implies that foregrounding any one of these aspects necessarily opens the door to the others as well.

A final word on terminology. As many commentators have noted, including Marjorie Luesebrink, Carolyn Guertin, and Daniela Daniele, cyber|literature with its links and computational permutations is especially well-suited to fragmentation, rupture, combinations of disparate discourses, and multimedia. To put this another way, cyber|literature is not well-suited to coherent continuous narrative. A glance at two sites, “Progressive Dinner Party” curated by Marjorie Luesebrink and Carolyn Guertin, and “Jumpin at the Diner” curated by Luesebrink and Jennifer Ley show that most of the 79 web-specific works at these sites employ multiple discourses as well as text, image, animation, etc. Consider geniwate’s “Rice.” It includes autobiography, travelogue, poetry, fiction, non-fictional narrative, and philosophical meditation. No generally accepted term exists to describe the promiscuous mixing employed by this work and many others. Luesebrink and Guertin use the term “blended genre,” which has the disadvantage of masking ruptures (by implying differences have somehow been “blended” together), and of using “genre,” a term loaded with specifically literary meanings that do not map well onto the multiple discourses and multimedia effects characteristic of these works. To describe these ruptured, fragmented multiplicities, I propose “multicourse,” a term that can be understood as a neologism for “multiple discourses” but that also alludes to the multiple reading pathways generated by links and computational combinations. Like “cyber|literature,” “multicourse” acknowledges both of electronic literature’s parents.

Others will no doubt have different ideas about creating a critical vocabulary to describe electronic literature. All efforts are welcome, but especially urgent at present is crafting a vocabulary that opens the way to consider how computational operations work together with linking structures and literary devices to create richly textured works that are something like computer games and something like literature. Like a child who is first parsed as a combination of her parents and gradually understood as fully a person in her own right, so cyber|literature, now in its infancy, will begin to take on its own unique characteristics. When that happens, we will learn to read cyber|literature not as an etymology marking its origins but as a signifier richly resonant with its own specificities and meanings.