Of Tea Cozy and Link

Of Tea Cozy and Link

2001-01-10

Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink performs an autopsy on the hypertextual corpse.

The hypertext corpus has been produced; if it is to be resurrected, it will only be as part of a patchwork that includes other types of literary machines. (Nicholas Montfort)

Many thanks to Nick Montfort for his “Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star” reviewing Espen Aarseth’s work Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.

Aarseth’s work is part of a valuable base of critical material that has attempted to refine the poetics of electronic literature on-the-fly, so to speak - to establish criteria in a field that is very young. As the form has developed, groundbreaking critics have added to our understanding, diligently updating their assessments. Yet, while the critical language which would once-and-for-all describe electronic hypermedia has not yet been established, we are being asked by Montfort to believe that a universal acceptance has occurred, and that, as a byproduct, we have discovered Hypertext DOA. If the Hypertext corpus has been produced, this act has transpired much in the manner of a “Tea Cozy” (a mystery story where the body is indeed found by a purported someone, but we see no blood, no waxy face; readers are not witness to the actual corpse). I would like to examine the body, verify the autopsy report.

Montfort, using Aarseth’s terminology, has chosen to construct a hierarchy that allows Hypertext to be a subcategory of Cybertext. In outline form, that would suggest that Cybertext is the Topic I. and Hypertext, and the other cybertext machines, are the subtopics - something like this:

Electronic Literature
I. Cybertext
A. Hypertext
B. Games
C. Programmed Puzzles
D. Artiticial Intelligence Constructs

Montfort celebrates, as we all would, the inclusion of more programmatically complex forms of narrative into electronic literature. His next move, however, is puzzling: he declares that, since Aarseth did not deal specifically with the “link,” that this new organization “frees the new category from the chains of a critical-theory-influenced and essentially non-computational perspective.” And it is but a sheet-drop from there, it seems, to declaring that “the old collection called hypertext cannot continue to hold our interest as a critical category or as a category describing what literary efforts should be considered valid and worthy.”

While I applaud the inclusion of more categories into whatever term we use to identify literature with a multilinear structure, I fail to see how that frees us from further consideration of Hypertext as “valid and worthy” - or is necessarily an indication of its recent demise. The evidence we seem to have that the correct Hypertext corpse has been produced is the simplicity of the computation and the link.

Montfort supports his pronouncement by introducing the Chomsky hierarchy into his outline, which ranks coded literature thusly:

1. Finite automata / Regular languages
2. Pushdown automata / Context-free languages
3. Linear bounded automata / Context-sensitive languages
4. Turing machines / Recursively enumerable languages

So the outline now might look like this:

I. Cybertext
A. Finite automata / Regular languages
1. Hypertext
B. Pushdown automata / Context-free languages
C. Linear bounded automata / Context-sensitive languages
D. Turing machines / Recursively enumerable languages
1. Games
2. Programmed Puzzles, etc.

If I were making a matrix for electronic literary forms, I would not necessarily so privilege the computational aspects of the subject in this way. Regardless, having established this partial relationship between e-literature forms, and without further ado, Montfort asks us to believe that Hypertext is moribund. Hummm. Can we check the tag on the toe?

It may well be that those who are interested in “Turing Machines and recursively enumerable languages” have washed their hands of Hypertext. But I am not sure that their departure removes it from the consideration of all literary scholars and readers. With respect to simplicity of the computation: In the way that a sonnet is a simpler form than a sestina, neither the simplicity of one nor the complexity of the other precludes either from evolving or continuing to have creators and audiences. Complexity of form has never been part of the criteria for excellence in literature. Often the earlier, and simpler, hypertexts continue to engage us. They provide, as well, much valuable insight into how hypertexts have functioned and might function in the future.

The other criterion mentioned by Montfort is that Hypertext had links, kind of:

The defining characteristic of these text machines - what distinguishes them from Ulysses, for instance, however allusive and open to sampling that text might be - is that they calculate. They do not, essentially, have links. They essentially have computational ability. (Montfort)

One is wary of hasty conclusions. Montfort’s statement: “essentially, hypertext does not have links; it has computational ability ” conceals two problems: Problem 1, Problem 2.

Problem 1: Yes, Links.

The presence of primitive links was, as noted above, the second criterion for declaring the dead one to be Hypertext. So let’s assume that the “computational ability” of Hypertext included the function of executing links. That is, Hypertext has/had links.

If the criteria for death is the A:1,2 link of an extended Microsoft Outliner, it is my sense that some hypertext authors used that form initially - quickly moving on to more sophisticated constructions. [Montfort is one of the few literary writers working in the A:1,2 link structure. His honorable-mention novel, The Ed Report (William Gillespie, Dylan Meissner, and Nick Montfort, published by authors, May 2000), is an example of a lively interest in electronic texts that link.]

Regardless, the simplicity of the link in terms of computational power is nearly irrelevant in terms of literary interest. Unlike a game, which has as its outcome a win/lose, black/white result, the purpose of literature is somewhat different - although much literature is a “quest” of some sort.

I would argue that it is precisely the link (and the varieties thereof) that provides the most fertile ground for literary expression. Literature, both print and electronic, has often concerned itself with the shaded areas that exist between winning and losing, between polar opposites - with what happens in the absence of programmed outcomes. The linear quality of bound-print mitigated against the idea of simultaneity. Through the physicality and power of placement, readers were encouraged to foreground Chapter 1, for example, and to consider a last chapter or line the definitive closing statement. However, with a spatial, linked structure, it is possible for a writer to really suggest that two endings are equally valid [or many endings, as was true in Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Book of Endings (published by author)]. By contrast, the aim of subtlety of experience is not, in my understanding, inherent in game-playing. I have yet to see a game where there are multiple outcomes: won, lost, almost won, didn’t win but enjoyed the play, lost but was better able to deal with losing later in life, didn’t win but found out a lot about oneself, won but hated it, won but didn’t learn a thing, play again, quit.

Even on this elementary level, then, the hypertext link enables the spatial and temporal aspects of multilinear electronic texts to function as an erasure of hierarchies - a way of suggesting multiplicty of structural entities. In this context, it is not the computational function of the link that constitutes the literary value - the link is just a device. To paraphrase a line from “Errand Upon Which We Came” (poem by Stephanie Strickland; concept, coding, and design by M.D. Coverley and Stephanie Strickland, Cauldron and Net, 2001), the literary value resides in what the scale hangs on, and what the pointer points to, not how the pointer points. Links have just begun to provide us with a vocabulary of new literary gesture and movement to illustrate “what the scale hangs on” and “what the pointer points to.”

Montfort, though, takes all varieties of links and lumps them into “simple transitions.” This move ignores the important function transitions play in the fine-grained capabilities of language. Notably, they are not, in either print or electronic literature, so many chutes between ladders. Transitions establish relationships between ideas. They can coordinate or subordinate. If they coordinate, they can suggest distinct actions: compounding, subtracting, opposing, intensifying, etc. Subordinating transitions can indicate time, position, and conditionality. What is particularly interesting about the electronic link is that it doesn’t reveal explicit information about the nature of the transition. We are in the experimental stages of determining how to graphically distinguish a link that indicates “But” from one that means “Yet.” Only as our understanding of electronic signage improves can we fine-tune our hypertext syntax, find a fuller and more accurate expression.

In some software, such as Director and Toolbook, it is possible to construct visual transitions between sections, relying on familiar film techniques. We understand the “page flip” to be an “And” and the “spiral in” to indicate a time jump. [In web pieces, it is impossible to use such transitions cross-browser.] In any case, these rough indicators are far too large-scale to signal the nuanced relationships between ideas or events that may be necessary in a crafted narrative. Other methods are being devised as you read, though. In his prize-winning piece, “Lexia to Perplexia” (Iowa Web Review, September 2000), Talan Memmott uses the mouseover as an ongoing “Or” - prompting the reader to consider the multiple alternatives of a line of reasoning. In addition to acting in a wealth of yet-undiscovered ways as coordinators and subordinators, links perform other valuable contextual functions.

Links operate in ways unique to electronic literature. A link on a web page that takes the reader to another site represents a rupture in the ontological world. A change of image with a click or mouseover can indicate a simple alternative in place, change perception of the screen contents, alter the background, open another window, take us to another segment of text or image, initiate sound, or begin animation. Links, or the absence of links, indicate the boundaries of the structure. They control the pace. They indicate time and rhythm. They introduce media. Links can also form the meta-language of a piece. In Deena Larsen’s Samplers: Nine Vicious Little Hypertexts (Eastgate Systems, 1997), the links are 2001 stitches on a quilt. Christy Sheffield Sanford and Reiner Strasser’s ~water~water~water~ (published by the authors, 2000) allows the reader to arrange windows and internal panels that slide on the face of a liquid world.

Consequently, while there is almost no computational difference between links, the effect of link configuration on literary style and content is significant.

Problem 2: Who computes.

“Essentially, hypertext does not have links; it has computational ability.” OK. Hypertext did not have links. But neither did it ever actually have computational ability.

Most traditional hypertexts did not have computational ability. While it is true that certain pieces - for instance, Rob Kendall’s Penetration (Eastgate Systems Reading Room, 2000), or Stuart Moulthrop’s Hegirascope (The New River, 1997) and Reagan Library (published by the author, 1999) - use the techniques of timing cues or random sampling to generate the screen text, and that guard links were used extensively by Michael Joyce, I am not sure that this comprises “computational ability.” The Turing Machines that Montfort cites as his prototypic Category 4 works are intended to accept complex input and to, within the confines of their coding, create and execute new commands. Category 1 Hypertext, in its simple form, was always already in place. A reader might experience a random sampling of lexia, but the number would have been finite.

In a hypertext, the reader is doing most of the computing. The reader assesses the possibilities inherent in each link or navigation option, judges the probability of a desired outcome, executes the action that triggers the response; the reader commands. In essence, the traditional hypertext construct ran on a machine; the machine executed the selections, but the literary piece did not have a computational engine of its own. Instead, the computational processes involving the choice of reading material (not the display) were taking place inside the brain of the reader, herself. [The reader was not usually occupied with keeping the computer-engine running, although sometimes this was the case.]

Literature is not a destination but a way of travelling. The joy of reading a story is not entirely situated in knowledge of the ending. Nor are hypertext readers expected to passively click through until the outcome is computed for them. Readers are engaged in a continual “computing” process as they accept data, evaluate it, and use it to make judgements. We could gain nothing from literature if we did not actively participate - everything from constructing a virtual world-map to estimating the actuarial odds for the characters. Electronic hypertexts do not eliminate the need for imaginative reader engagement - rather, they allow writers and readers to explore complex and layered structures, multi-linear threads, the multiplicity of relationships, richer sensory worlds, and more finely graduated subtleties of depiction.

“The paradigm of the hypertext is the least powerful computational machine, the finite automaton. The prototypical cybertext is of the fourth and most powerful computational class - a Turing machine.” I am eager to see the narrative that a Turing machine might produce. It could well resemble Markku Eskelinen’s work-in-progress. As it stands today, those artists working in Category 1 have yet to discover the possible gestures and techniques, the syntax, the inflections, the semiotics of electronic literature. Some would point out that we don’t even have a stable delivery mechanism. The body I see on the slab is a full-grown adult, rigid with rigor mortis and hide-bound with traditional paraphernalia. It might be the big brother, Very Old Hypertext Criticism. But Hypertext Literature is just a toddler. Nick Montfort seems to have the wrong victim.