N. Katherine Hayles responds

N. Katherine Hayles responds

2004-01-08

The “cognitive entailments” of a reader, or “interactor,” are where Katherine Hayles redirects the new aesthetics of electronic textuality.

In calling for an ethics of interactive art, Simon Penny makes crucially important points about how interactive simulations differ from visual representations. Although his primary emphasis is on interactive simulations rather than literary hypertexts, he points out that his argument also applies to the changed conditions under which readers experience electronic literature compared to print works. “In hypertext, the aesthetic work is as much in the design of the system which will present text according to the user’s behavior, as it is in the construction of the textual elements themselves.” As Paul Connerton notes in How Societies Remember, ritual motions and physical habits have an emotional force that can persist long after one’s conscious attitudes have changed; hence the emphasis among revolutionary movements on new modes of gesture, posture, and other movements. Physical motions, especially when they become habitual, carry meanings that influence thought, even though they may remain below the level of conscious attention. To perform a ritual such as kneeling in church, for example, carries implications of obedience and subservience even though one’s conscious thoughts may be entirely otherwise.

What implications are generated by the reading practices required by electronic environments, compared to print? With print, the reader’s physical activity is limited to the relatively trivial action of turning pages. Regardless of how fast or slow the page is turned, the words remain durably inscribed, immune to the reader’s manipulations (short of such drastic actions as cutting or folding the pages). With electronic hypertext, however, the reader absorbs new assumptions about the nature of textuality through physical engagement with the electronic text - assumptions all the more powerful because they are absorbed through physical actions rather than conscious reflection. These assumptions I will call cognitive entailments, because they constitute a form of bodily cognition with powerful implications for what the text means. In recognition of these cognitive entailments, I will henceforth refer to the reader as an “interactor,” a term that more accurately captures the nature of reading in electronic environments.

Consider for example the physical motions involved in the text I discuss in my essay for First Person, Talan Memmott’s “Lexia to Perplexia.” The screen design includes mouseovers that change the text and images when the cursor touches certain areas. Since there are frequently no indications in the design where these points occur, the interactor is apt to suddenly lose a screen of text in the middle of reading and be unable to recover it without extensive backtracking and exploration. These physical enactments teach the interactor, on a level below consciousness, that the text is very unstable, or to put it metaphorically, highly “nervous” and apt to “over-react” to the slightest motion, even unintended motion, by the user. The effect is to “perplex” the interactor in ways that are different but complementary to the perplexing verbal constructions created by the neologisms and creole expressions. Among the cognitive entailments of the physical enactions is the idea that the text “has a mind of its own,” or more precisely that the text as a procedure enacted by the computer has cognitions independent of the interactor’s conscious intentionality. Yet since the interactor’s actions do trigger the changes, there is also the implication of relationality, but a relationality much more complex than that indicated, for example, by a simple “click here” link, where the computer is implicitly constructed as a passive servant confined to carrying out the user’s desires.

We desperately need aesthetic theories adequate to account for these kinds of effects. During the decades when post-structuralism was teaching us valuable lessons about the power of discourse, the body was largely understood as an effect of discursive constructions. With the advent of sophisticated electronic literature and art, it is time to recover a sense of the body as a site for embodied cognition, cognition constructed not through words but through physical interactions with procedural works. Simon Penny makes an important beginning when he points out that “critiques of representation derived from painting, photography, film and video are inadequate for discussing the power of interactive experience.”

In a significant sense, the electronic text is a process rather than an object. As Penny observes, it does not exist as such except when its procedures are processed and/or compiled by the computer. It can be argued that print texts too require “compiling” by the reader’s cognitive system before they exist as art works. Granted - but the processing required for an electronic work to exist is in addition and necessarily prior to the interactor’s decodings. The ink marks that make up print words and images exist even before the user opens the book or glances at the page, but electronic words and images do not exist on the screen unless and until the procedures that generate them are enacted by the computer. For the interactor to be able to decode the words, the computer must first decode the procedural text and carry out the multiple encoding operations required to generate the screen images. This simply has no parallel with print, and the consequences that flow from this difference are complex, diverse, and extensive. All of which is of course grist for the artist’s mill, for it presents a vast new playground to experiment with artistic effects and their entwining relation with the interactor’s embodied enactions.

Eugene Thacker responds

Simon Penny responds