Metaphoric Networks in Lexia to Perplexia

Metaphoric Networks in Lexia to Perplexia

Katherine Hayles

Reading subjectivity into the software interface, N. Katherine Hayles offers a compelling case for computational authorship.

As leading theorists and practitioners Marvin Minsky (1985), Daniel Hillis (1999), and Brian Cantwell Smith (1998) have been telling us, computers are much more than hardware and software. In their most general form, computers are environments of varying scope, from objects that sit on desktops to networks spanning the globe. Indeed, in Edward Fredkin’s (1990) interpretation, computational processes ultimately generate the fabric of the universe. It comes as no surprise, then, to find researchers arguing that computation is fundamentally altering the ways in which humans conceive of themselves and their relations to others. There are, of course, many approaches to this issue, from sociological studies to human factor analysis. Among these approaches are artistic works that tell new stories about the formation of human subjects, instantiating these stories in images as well as words. To explore this systemic shift, I will take as my tutor text Talan Memmott’s (2000) Lexia to Perplexia. In this complexly coded work, human subjectivity is depicted as intimately entwined with computer technologies (see sidebar).

Memmott’s work reveals the co-originary status of subjectivity and electronic technologies. Instead of technologies being created by humans, this work imagines digital technology present from the beginning, with subjects and technologies producing each other through multiple recursive loops. To develop this idea, Memmott devises an idiosyncratic language, a revisioning of classical myths, and a set of coded images that invite the reader to understand herself not as a preexisting self with secure boundaries but as a permeable membrane through which information flows.

Three principal strategies enact this transformation. The first category is linguistic. Rather than writing standard English, Memmott devises a wide range of neologisms – coinages made from existing words that express new syntheses. In addition, he also creates a creole discourse (defined as a new language that arises when two different language communities come into contact). This creole is not, however, made up from two natural languages but rather from English and computer code. Code erupts through the surface of the screenic text, infecting English with machine instructions and machine instructions with English, as if the distinction between natural language and computer commands has broken down and the two languages are mingling promiscuously inside the computer. In addition to these linguistic strategies are rewritings of myth. Drawing on a range of classical references from the story of Echo and Narcissus to Minoan funeral practices, Memmott reenvisions this material to make it enact narratives about how human subjects misunderstand themselves as autonomous agents when, in fact, they cannot be separated from the information technologies that, more than expressing, cocreate them. Finally, Memmott develops a symbolic visual language that images the interactions and structures leading to the “cyborganization” of human subjects and resulting in mutations that fundamentally alter what counts as human.

One way to bring these issues into focus is to notice at what points the screen displays cease to be legible as readable texts. These occluded representations create visual images that mark the limits of what human perception can discern. Illegible texts hint at origins too remote for us to access and interfaces transforming too rapidly for us to grasp. The text announces its difference from the human body through this illegibility, reminding us that the computer is also a writer, and moreover a writer whose operations we cannot wholly grasp in all their semiotic complexity. Illegibility is not simply a lack of meaning, then, but a signifier of distributed cognitive processes that construct reading as an active production of a cybernetic circuit and not merely an internal activity of the human mind. The effect of cybernetic circuits on narrative patterns is explored in more detail in N. Katherine Hayles (1999), “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers,” Chapter 2 of How We Became Posthuman.

When Lexia to Perplexia hovers at the border of legibility, it hints that our bodies are also undergoing metamorphoses. What we read when we cannot read is not so much the disjunction between us and the computer (for it is always possible to access the underlying code and hack our way into a readable version of the nonreadable text). Rather, the occluded display signifies a trajectory in which we become part of a cybernetic circuit. Interpolated into the circuit, we metamorphose from individual interiorized subjectivities to actors exercising agency within extended cognitive systems that include nonhuman actors. In this broader context, illegible text reminds us of the changes our bodies are undergoing as they are remapped and reinterpreted by intelligent machines working within networks that bind together our flesh with their electronic materiality. In this posthuman conjunction, bodies of texts and bodies of subjects evolve together in complex configurations that carry along the past even as they arc toward an open and unknown future.

Typical is the opening screen locating the origin of the self in a specular play with an Other:

The inconstancy of location is transparent to the I-terminal as its focus is at the screen rather than the origin of the image. It is the illusory object at the screen that is of interest to the human enactor of the process – the ideo satisfractile nature of the FACE, an inverted face like the inside of a mask, from the inside out of the screen is the same HEAD{FACE}BODY, BODY FACE/BODY rendered now as sup/posed other.

Read as HTML, HEAD{FACE}BODY has two opening tags but no closing tags, which would indicate that FACE is part of HEAD but is not included in BODY. A different interpretation is suggested by BODY FACE BODY, which indicates that FACE is tagged as being the BODY. These creolized puns make a serious point, for they allude to the mind/body split in which the face, the most intensely signifying part of the human form, is alternatively tagged as separate from the body and part of it.

Parsing body parts as textual components initiates a connection between flesh and electronic materiality that is further underscored by the electronic signature “Sign.mud.Fraud.” Inserting the dots references their use in program names to delimit a file extension. The dots also divide the name so it functions both as an allusion to Freud (Fraud), announcing its ironic appropriation of this seminal thinker, and also punctuating (or as one of Memmott’s neologisms would have it, “puncturating”) the signature so it performs what “cyborganization” implies by transforming a proper name into creolized sign.

This performance of hybridity is further reinforced by the passage’s content, where the self is generated through a reflection on the inside of the screen, as if on “the inside of a mask.” The dislocation from traditional subjectivity is here doubly articulated. First the face is seen as a mask, implying an inside different from the outside, and then this traditional trope of the persona is further dislocated by metaphorically connecting the mask with the screen, so that the interiorized life of the subject is positioned inside the technology.

Thus inside and outside, terms conventionally generating the boundaries between subject and world, are reconfigured so the subject and the techno-object are both inside, interfaced with the world through a screen that functions at once as display and reflecting surface. These metaphoric connections are created in part through the screen display, for as the user moves the cursor over the passage quoted previously, stylized eyes appear along with terminal screens. This iconography can be read either as interiorized eyes looking out at us through the screen-mask or reflections of our own eyes looking at the screen, thus positioning the reader as Narcissus gazing at an image that he fails to recognize himself.

By implication, this narcissistic doubling positions us inside the screen as well as external to it, intimating that we too have become techno-subjects. Although this specular play obviously alludes to the Lacanian mirror stage, it differs significantly from the Imaginary self that Lacan theorized. The subject generated by the reflections between terminal and I/eye is inscribed as cell…(f) or cell.f, expressions that visually display their infection by code and hint that the subject has been fused with the technology. From this dynamic emerges the subject as an “I-terminal,” an expression recalling Scott Bukatman’s (1993) punning phrase “terminal identity.” Acknowledging the illusion of an autonomous I/Eye, “I-terminal” subverts autonomy through the hyphenated appendage that connects human vision with the scanning electrode beam of a computer display.

A word about creole. Typically, first-generation speakers who encounter another language community develop a pidgin, which is not a true language but an amalgam using a reduced vocabulary and simplified verb forms to communicate. By the second and third generations, a creole generally emerges. Unlike pidgin, a creole has its own syntax, verb forms, and vocabulary, thus qualifying as a language uniquely different from the two communicating languages of which it is a hybrid.

As we have seen, Lexia to Perplexia moves toward a creole devised from the merging of English with programming code. Creole expressions include the cell…f (and cell.f) noted above, homophones for self that conflate identity with a pixilated cell and the notation for a mathematical function, respectively; inTents, a pun that collapses intensity into intentionality and also references the programming practice of using interior capitalization to make clearly visible two functions in a variable name that allows no spaces;, another pun that references and inverts the usual use of the exe.extension to denote an executable program; and *.fect, a neologism that alludes to the programming practice of using * as a wild card, so *.fect could be read as infect, defect, disinfect, and so forth.

To what purpose is this creole concocted? Compounded of language and code, it forms the medium through which the origin of subjectivity can be redescribed as coextensive with technology. Just as these hybrid articulations do not exist apart from their penetration by code, so the subject does not exist apart from the technology that produces the creole describing (or creating) the techno-subject Nowhere is this circular dynamic more on display than in Memmott’s revisioning of the myth of Echo and Narcissus. About Narcissus who mistakes himself for an Other through the mediation of a reflective surface we have already heard, but Echo’s role is equally important. She reacts to her exclusion from the narcissistic circuit by losing her flesh and becoming a mediated repetition of what others say. In this regard Echo is an appropriate nymph to haunt this text, for Lexia to Perplexia is permeated by echolaic articulations. Memmott says that he created the text by selecting passages from such seminal thinkers as Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Deleuze and Guattari. He then “mediated” them (or remediated, in Grusin and Bolter’s (1999) term) by “puncturating” them with neologisms and creolized transformations.

It was my method for the development of this piece to collect a stack of books that I thought may be helpful, distracting, add to or subtract from the argument. As I passed through these volumes I would pull texts for later mediation. When there was enough text to begin this mediation work, which in fact began by the selecting of various volumes, I compiled the excerptstogether and began parsing for context…. So, I became I-Terminal; you, she, he became X-terminal, and so on. This made the collected texts, the analects very messy so I endeavored to rewrite only using this premediated text as reference. The context is built from the simple replacing of “selves” and “others” with cyborganized values. Then it is a matter of creating the connective, conductive space between. [Memmott, e-mail communication (November 12, 2000)]

To see the results, consider the following passage describing the appearance of Echo, associated with the collapse of the original into the simulation, so there is no longer an ontological distinction between “real” and “artificial” life.

From out of NO.where, Echo appears in the private space of Narcissus.tmp to form a solipstatic community (of 1,ON) with n.tmp, at the surface. The two machines – the originating and the simulative – collapse and collate to form terminal-I, a cell.f, or, cell…(f) that processes the self as outside of itself–in realtime.

Through the neologism “solipstatic,” the state of mental isolation denoted by solipsism is conflated with static, which in a machinic context references both the inevitable intrusion of noise and the on-off functionality of the machine. In contrast to living organisms, the machine can undergo a period of inertness and still be capable of reanimation when the switch is turned on. The neologism thus combines two very different forms of intelligent life with the result being a “solipstatic community,” an oxymoron whose strong internal tensions sprang from the combination of fleshless Echo with doubled Narcissus. The oxymoron is then further assimilated with the programming function n.tmp, a name customarily used for a function that will be replaced by another. As the nomenclature suggests, n.tmp immediately slides into another union as the “originating” and “simulative” machines collapse into one another.

If we like, we can suppose that the originating machine is the human and the simulative one the computer. But any such assignment partakes of the Imaginary, for the emergence of the I-terminal reveals that the division between the human and the technological is an origin story that narrates as a temporal process something that was always already the case. So the cell.f imagines “the self as outside of itself” in “realtime.” “Realtime” is a phrase programmers use to indicate that the simulated time of computer processes are running, at least temporarily, along the same time scale as the “real time” experienced by humans. Thus the temporal language used to authenticate the evolutionary story of an “originary machine” separate from a “simulative machine” is already infected with the technological. The collapse of the simulative into the original can be imagined as an event at a discrete moment in time, but the language reveals that this narration is always after the fact, for the fusion has always already happened.

The transformation of the self into a cell.f does not end with the individual subject, for the process extends from “local” to “remote” bodies. “The bi.narrative exe.change between remote and local bodies is con.gress and compressed into the space between the physical screen and the Oculus of terminal-I.” As a result, the progression into the “solipstatic original” is succeeded by the “cyborganization of any/every para.I-terminal,” so that the individual is subsumed into the “greater X-terminal” formed by “component I-terminals.” Thus human community becomes indistinguishable from the global network of the world wide web. “The completion of this circuit is an applied communification – synamatic programs and values shared by… other applications and detached machines.” “Synamatic,” a homophone for cinematic, perhaps alludes to the Symantic (semantic) Corporation, creator of the Norton Anti-Virus and Norton Utilities, in a conflation that implies computer health is integral to the reproduction of screen image and therefore to subjectivity. “Communification,” which can be read as a neologism conflating commodification and communication, arises when the circuit is completed; that is, when humans and intelligent machines are interconnected in a network whose reach is reinforced by naming the few exceptions “detached” machines.

The graphics accompanying these texts include, in addition to terminals and eyes, the letters E.C.H.O. dispersed across underlying text and animated rollovers that appear in quick succession, occluding portions of the screen. Particularly significant is the image of double funnels with the small ends facing each other, a sign that Memmott associates with “intertimacy,” the process by which two selves (cell…fs) meet in the computer “apparatus” and, through their interactions with the apparatus, reconstitute from bits and bytes an impression of an other in a relation that Memmott appropriately neologizes as “remotional.”

Seen from one perspective, as Memmott points out, the cone with an elongated end is a funnel condensing the cell…f so it can circulate through the network; seen in mirror inversion, the cone becomes a megaphone, an amplifying device that lets the receiving cell…f construct an image of the sending cell…f. As Memmott (2001) makes clear in the companion work “Delimited Meshings: agency|appliance|apparatus,” Lexia to Perplexia must be considered not only as text but as what W. T. J. Mitchell (1995) in Picture Theory has called textimage, a fusion of text and graphic into signifiers that function simultaneously as verbal signs and visual images. Memmott, who came to graphic design from a background as a painter, notes that

much of the writing is integrated with the screen design. In addition to this, much of what was written prior to the development of the hypermedia work has in fact been incorporated into the functionality of the work. Portions of the text that I thought may be better served as screen interactions do not appear at the superficial text level but inspired some of the animations as actions that occur in the piece. [Memmott, e-mail communication (November 14, 2000)]

These actions often surprise and frustrate a user. Slight cursor movements cause text the user was reading to disappear or become illegible as new images and symbols are superimposed on top of it. Lexia to Perplexia is a very “nervous” document; it constantly acts/reacts in ways that remind the user she is not in control, for not only are the cursor movements extraordinarily sensitive but some of the actions are animations controlled by timed computer sequences. Eugene Thacker, commenting on a version of this essay, writes about his encounter with the work. “A first-time reader of this work is, among other things, struck by the activity of the work: like many hypertext and works, it seems to be alive, sometimes frenetic, sometimes frustratingly inert, and usually hypersensitive to any action on the part of the reader/user…” [Thacker, this volume]

This dense layering of the screen display, insofar as it interferes with reading, manifests itself as a kind of noise that is simultaneously a message. The linking structure works not by moving the reader from lexia to lexia – the standard form used by first-generation literary hypertexts such as Michael Joyce’s afternoon – but rather through a combination of user and computer actions that nervously jump from one screen layer to another, as if probing the multiple layers of code used to produce these effects. Marjorie Luesebrink printed out the source code for one of these screens and reported that it came to twenty-five pages for a single screen [E-mail communication (November 17, 2000)]. Thus, the action of choosing that first-generation hypertext theory attributed solely to the reader here becomes a distributed function enacted partly by the reader but also partly by the machine. Memmott interprets this design in “Delimited Meshings: agency|appliance|apparatus” as creating “a text that does what it says – confronting the user as it mimes the User’s actions.” The “I-terminal” is thus at once a theme within the work and a performance of techno-subjectivity jointly enacted by computer and user.

An important component in the process of configuring the subject as an “I-terminal” is noise, which can play a productive role in complex systems by forcing them to reorganize at a higher level of complexity. For a further discussion of this characteristic of complex systems, see William Paulson (1988), The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information and N. Katherine Hayles (1990), Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. “Minfesto 1” seems to evoke this possibility when it proclaims, “Bi.narrative communification is rendered in the wreck, the mess in the middle, the collision of incompatible transmissions, arising from the eroded ruins of miscommunication.” Recalling the phrase that circulated through the post-World War II Macy Conferences on Cybernetics of the “man in the middle” (i.e., the man spliced between two automated cybernetic machines), the “mess in the middle” promises to self-organize into a new kind of message, an emergent articulation produced by subversive “Secret(e) agents” who “produce narra.tive singularities throughout the apparatus.” The “apparatus” names not only the technology but also the interpolated subjects who have become indistinguishable from electronic messages. “The earth’s own active crust we are,” “Minifesto 2” proclaims, “building – up and out – antennae, towers to tele.*. We *.fect the atmosphere as we move through it, striving toward communification. Our hyperlobal expectations knowledge into no.ledge, far, wide, thin… I cannot contain myself and so I spread out – pan – send out signals, smoke and otherwise, waiting for Echo. Waiting for logos to give me a sine.” “Hyperlobal” neatly sutures lobes – presumably of the brain – into the hyperglobal expectations of a worldwide communication system, creating a technohuman hybrid. A similar conflation resonates in logos as a mathematical (sine) function and a word capable of signification (sign). If reorganization occurs, these neologisms suggest, it will operate to fuse human subjectivity with silicon processes. In fact this transformation is already underway as the creole performs what it describes, creating a narrative that reaches back to an origin already infected (or *.fected) with technology and arcs forward into a future dominated by “communification.”

As we learn to make sense of the creole, we are presented with an ironic description of our attempts to make everything “crystal clear and susynchronized,” to reduce its polyvocality so that the “passage of meaning through the bi.narrative conduit is smooth, without catches or serration and the doubled trans/missive agent(s) never meet, combat or challenge. The combined inTents perform as components of a single ideocratic device, de.signing, de.veloping and exe.cuting the mechanism that permits their passage.” At times the “doubled trans/missive agent(s)” of code and language cooperate to yield a consistent meaning, as in the neologism “hyperlobal.” But these moments of clarity are embedded in screen designs where they are transitory at best, flashing on the screen in quick bursts broken by animated graphics that intervene to obscure text and layer one image over another. The noise that permeates the text may serve as a stimulus to emergent complexity, but it also ensures that meanings are always unstable and that totalizing interpretations are impossible.

As the transformation of self into cell…f continues, the work imagines flesh becoming digitized into binary signs.

From here, the analog and slippery digits of the real are poured into the mouth of the funnel… Flowing further, the variable body, the abstracted and released continuum of the body is com/pressed, reduced and encoded, codified… made elemental… Now we are small enough, we hope–it is the hope of communification that we minimize the space of the flesh.

Significantly, there are no intact bodies imaged at the site, only eyes and terminals (I-terminals), along with creolized text, mathematical functions, and pseudo-code. Of course, everything is already code in the programming levels of the computer, so in this sense the human body has already been “reduced and encoded, codified… made elemental.” If the body of this text aspires not merely to represent the bodies of writers and readers but also perform them, then they too become code to be compiled in a global dynamic of “communification.” In a startling literalization of the idea that we are bound together with the machine, this vision implies that at some point (or many points) our flesh will circulate through the cybernetic circuit, miniaturized so that it can slip through the “mouth of the funnel” and merge with other subjectivities into a collective “we.”

This at least is the ideology of the text, but the actuality of its materialization is more complex. At the same time the work appears to banish the flesh, it also relies on embodied responses to its digital performance. Consider the homophonic puns that the work mobilizes to create multiple levels of meaning. I am indebted to Mark Hansen for suggesting this point to me and encouraging me to expand this portion of my argument. For example, “inTents” references the motivations that drive the creation and consumption of the text; it also is a pun on “intense,” the state of focused alertness necessary to comprehend this difficult text. Moreover, through internal capitalization it suggests that the state of in-tending can be read both as inwardness and as a trajectory “tending” toward some end, presumably “communification.”

To decode these multiple meanings, the reader needs to employ at least three different sensory modalities of sight, sound, and kinesthesia. To catch the intents/intense pun, the reader must “hear” the sound through subvocalization, a process that involves the body in the silent but muscularly distinct action of using the vocal cords without allowing air to pass through. Garrett Stewart (1990) has identified subvocalization as essential to the literariness of literary language, precisely because it activates a nimbus of homophonic variants that hover around the written word (much as Borges imagined alternative futures “pullulating” in the air around Yu Tsun in “The Garden of the Forking Paths” [Borges 1962, 99]). In a print medium, the durable inscription of ink marks on paper normally requires that only one word be written in one place. I speak here about normal print practice, to which there are of course many exceptions, especially in the tradition of artist’s books and in such experimental novels as Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

The multiple layers embedded within a single screen in Lexia to Perplexia routinely violate this presumption, revealing multiple encodings piled on top of one another on the same screen. Like Intergrams (1999) and The Barrier Frames and Diffractions through (1996) by Jim Rosenberg, the electronic medium is here used in ways that create “noisy” messages, making the noise itself a message about the distributed cognitive environment in which reading takes place. These changes in reading practices expand the sensory experiences involved in reading, so that vision, subvocalization, and kinesthetic manipulation of fine cursor movements all become highly sensitized modalities. It is against this background of complex bodily performance – considerably more complex than that involved in reading a traditional print work – that the text proclaims “it is the hope of communification that we minimize the space of the flesh.” In this sense the text precisely does not enact what it articulates but rather creates conditions of consumption that if anything expand the “space of the flesh.” Simon Penny has written cogently about the role of physical training and embodied actions in electronic works in “Representation, Enaction and the Ethics of Simulation” (this volume).

Similarly, the text also takes an ironic stance toward the future of “communification” when it explores its own obsolescence. “Minifesto 3” proclaims, “the machine is built in expectation, more than as an object – the tangible machine, the one you are seated before, is dead already, or returns a dead eye – slowly – I can’t think fast enough; or, if today you think I think fast enough for you, tomorrow you will reject me – this is my destiny I know.” This narrative voice – which can be read as that of the techno-subject as easily as that of the computer – teases the reader with the bold-faced taunt, “pull the plug why don’t you.” If the reader clicks on the phrase the program immediately shuts down, throwing her back to the preliminary screen from which the program loads. In this way the work anticipates its own inevitable future when the platform on which it runs is obsolete and it can no longer be opened. In a real sense the work at this point will cease to exist, for properly understood it is not a web site or a CD-ROM – in fact not a product at all – but a series of dynamic processes created when the appropriate computer running the appropriate software executes the commands. The work can no more escape its materiality than its human interlocutors can escape their bodies. Whatever future “communification” holds for us, it will not do away with materiality or the constraints and enablings that materiality entails.

Amid these complexities, what is clearly established is not the superiority of code to flesh but metaphoric networks that map electronic writing onto fluid bodies. Lexia to Perplexia intervenes at beginnings and boundaries to tell new stories about how texts and bodies entwine. The shift in the materiality of writing technologies that electronic textuality instantiates creates new connections between screen and eye, cursor and hand, computer coding and natural language, space in front of the screen and space behind it. Scary and exhilarating, these connections perform human subjects who cannot be thought without the intelligent machines that produce us even as we produce them.


Sidebar images


Bill Seaman responds

Eugene Thacker responds

N. Katherine Hayles responds


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