Adrian Miles responds to Hypertexts and Interactives

Adrian Miles responds to Hypertexts and Interactives

2004-08-10

Miles Adrian on themes of print vs. digital, engagement vs. immersion, easy vs. difficult, and affect vs. effect, as they appear in section five of First Person.

You have to admire the conceit of a book that wishes to, and in a post-something moment so adroitly, reflexively become that which it cannot be. In First Person we have an object that preserves the fetish of the book by being a book, yet like all recent books in this branch of the humanities can only maintain and insist on its status as the privileged vehicle of knowledge by becoming a desirable object in its own right. Gone are the Guttenberg days of protestant print, simple black on white. Our books now have become designerly, beautiful to view and to use, to touch and look at. To appropriate Strickland in her contribution, such books are to be looked at and through, the flicker between pages as pictures and pages as textual argument. Yet First Person does more than recognise that for a book to survive today it must participate in a design economy, for the specificity of its design is to insert itself into a conversational discourse that owes more to contemporary networked communication than to the quietide of print. Each header appears like a javascript rollover indicating and demonstrating the book’s information architecture, while weaving itself below the major contributions is the conversational text from the essay’s respondents. And now with new commentary, like this, available via ebr this conceit is completed by its insertion into the presumably dialogical time of networked communication. A book that has it both ways.

And then I have to worry about how small an academic field is when I know each of the major contributors to this section. This is the perennial invisibility of hypertext, a practice or discipline that is minor in the face of new media. However, as these contributions show, this invisiblity is ill deserved. Hypertext ought to be a benchmark discipline for whatever we think new media is as it was one of the first domains in these fields to offer an environment for practice lead theory and theory lead practice. That it does not appear to have become a discipline may one day be of historical note, but I remain bemused by the misunderstandings and misreadings that much new media theory and practice exhibits towards hypertext work. Hypertext has for many years produced work and theory that offers complex understandings of the basic problems confronting those wishing to work in new media. Problems of narrative complexity, the role of the reader, the problematic status of the work, functions of repetition, narrative architectures, navigation, and so forth are well documented in this work. These are the same problems confronting those working in networked screen based media more broadly and the misrecognition of hypertext as being little more than point and click branching structures shows that the division between text and image in our community is perhaps as profound as that in C.P. Snow’s famous “two cultures” thesis.

Bernstein and Greco’s “Card Shark and Thespis” is illustrative in this regard. It offers a thumbnail sketch of the three major forms of literary hypertext, derived from their deep knowledge of the history of hypertext literature. From this basis they suggest a counter practice where instead of link building being the constitutive act of hypertext authorship they provide a system where all is connected and authorship consists of the removal of possibilities of connection. This produces a remarkable description of their two prototype systems, but it is of equal significance that their rationale for this practice is that “we wanted to build a strange system” (170), and it is this making strange that is the real import of this contribution. For those of us nurtured on link node relations, on authoring as acts of connection – which outside of hypertext is largely the traditional practice of cinematic, sound and possibly book editing – the effect is to invert what we think making is and to elegantly situate this back into other paradigms, for example design, but also more pragmatically of simpler genre practice. After all, if I decide to write a romance the problem is not what to include and how, but more simply which generic elements to leave out.

It is, finally, the pragmatism of Bernstein and Greco that works for me. Their concluding discussion points out the retrospectively obvious, that in narrative drama everyone except the tragic hero knows what they should and shouldn’t do, so to be able to intervene as a dramatic agent in this environment would risk the drama as a narrative, and all that goes with it. These are good points well made, though I suspect your mileage may vary (and Andrew Stern’s response is well made in this regard, while accepting the general principles of the atomistic design proposed by Bernstein and Greco, he is careful to point out that different narratives are required, where neither of these contributors agrees is in what constitutes a sufficiency for successful narrative), but in work that offers ways of doing with a theoretically informed rationale its ‘roll up your sleeves’ pragamatism is welcome. As academics we are trained and prone to concentrate on the minutiae, loosing sight of the forest for the trees. In a networked world where writers are readers and users are makers pragmatics are important, and such pragmatics becomes the bringing of the intellectual to the everyday. This is to be welcomed.

Douglas and Hargadon’s distinction between immersion and engagement I am less sanguine about. This distinction relies heavily on their use of cognitive schemas and seems to suggest that where a schema is available and more or less stable immersion results, and where a schema is not available or is unstable, engagement is required. Well, yes, but I am not sure if this argument moves beyond tautology, if we accept the role and signficance of schemata, and of the key terms of immersion and engagement, then work that is difficult requires engagment and work that isn’t lets us be immersed. My discomfort is that I struggle to see what is contributed by these terms, what is gained by calling an ‘easy’ read immersive and a ‘diffcult’ read engaged? What is missing, for me, is the connection showing the significance of engagement or immersion to the practice of hypertext or interactivity. They do have a structure for describing these features and demonstrating how a work may be immersive or engaging for an individual reader, but from this point where to next?

Their claim that “the enhanced immersive possibilities of full motion video, not to mention virtual reality, coupled with hypertext fiction’s complex possibilities for engagement, future interactives could easily enable casual readers to experience… flow” (pp. 203-4) sets off warning bells. This could well be the case, but surely this is close to some sort of technological determinism where an imagined lack is ‘corrected’ by more technology to generate immersion. Surely print, film and video have already taught us that immersive works are immersive inspite of, not because of, their technical constraints. There are poorly printed books that are immersive, there are low budget, dark and poorly acted films that are immersive, just as there are well printed books and well made films that require engagement. This is not to discount the contribution of this essay, but I’d suggest it is a point from which to begin, rather than a destination.

Strickland’s “Moving Through Me” lies somewhere between these two essays. It contains the near close readings of specific works that Douglas and Hardagon provide, though rather than introduce another bevy of terms to the task Strickland wonders out aloud about our flickering selves. This is to softly appropriate her terms, where the “flickering signifier” of Hayles becomes the tension between the visual and the textual in electronic poetry, but is also the state of the user of these works as she slides between relay, reader, and writer. In Strickland’s view we are always another node in a network that extends inside of the work, through the network and outside of the work, and this role produces and requires us to be interpreter and player. These two activities are not one then the other, or one and the other, but coterminous with each other.

Finally, I look to Richard Schechner’s response to Douglas and Hargadon for what I think I find most valuable in their contribution and that which also attracts me in Strickland’s essay. He writes “[o]ne measure of pleasure is the surplus of affect over effect” (p. 192). Affect is, I suspect, the unnamed excess that underwrites the potentially problematic economies of new media practice and its capricious artefacts.

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