A Gathering of Threads

A Gathering of Threads

Joseph Tabbi

The culmination of ebr version 2.0 (an html- and java-based Web production), the spring 1999 “gathering of threads” introduced an important component into the journal design: the thREAD that actively conducts readers among affiliated essays.

ebr9 a gathering of threads spring 99

The spring 1999 issue of the electronic book review, a May gathering of loose threads, completes a key phase in the ongoing design of the journal. A cluster of new essays on the hypertextual integration of “image + narrative” wraps up a two-year-long project (lasting from 1997 to 1999) resulting in the Web publication of more than 50 essays and reviews, many of which are themselves fully realized hypertexts. Also, continuing our coverage of online poetics, eco-criticism, writing after feminism, and media discourse theory - areas that ebr writers have invented as much as identified - this issue features essays by hypertext poet Stephanie Strickland and design theorist Lorne Falk, along with ten new reviews on avant garde critical writing in and about new media.

Although this is the first time since our first issue that we’ve presented a collection of miscellaneous essays without a single unifying theme, the “gathering” is in many ways ebr’s most consistent production up to this point. The essays in this issue are coherent not only with one another, but with the evolution of the journal design as well. It is only natural, perhaps, that critical writing on the Web should gravitate toward weaving metaphors. So when Strickland speaks of a single mathematical and poetic imagination, “unraveling the crochet of categorizations used to contain library data,” and when Falk re-tells the story of Arachne, the divine weaver, these writers implicitly reinforce ebr’s own design governing metaphor. In a journal where data/space is treated as a textured field, hypertext reading becomes a gathering together of diverse thREADs - [formerly]identified in the column of special issues on the general contents page - into a self-organizing system of visual, verbal, and, eventually, sonic elements. (A music special scheduled for the Summer of 2000 will introduce sound into the overall ebr design. [“Music/Sound/Noise” eventuated in the Fall of 2001. - ed.])

To facilitate such reading, with this issue we introduce an icon designed by Anne Burdick that will link new essays back to earlier issues. By viewing the colored thREAD embedded at the end of this sentence, for example, this introduction may be recognized immediately as a new addition to the earlier special, now two years old, titled “electropoetics.” The same can be done for new contributions to “critical ecologies,” “internet nation,” etc. - so that, over time, readers may come to recognize groupings across issues as easily as they can read around in a new issue. This simple device not only makes the journal more hypertextual, but it also works against (without subverting) the periodic nature of journal publication. [thREADs will be re-installed for ebr version 4.0. - ed.]

Combining graphic arts, literary genealogy, and standard html coding, ebr employs the hypertext apparatus as a way of tightening the journal structure, not dispersing it into endless footnotes and related sites, as is still the case with too many critical hypertexts on the Web. For this gathering to have happened, after eight issues, the journal needed to reach a density and establish an identity so that the editors, and even occasional contributors, might reflect back on what has been done, carrying some themes forward and revising others, and at times stitching together formerly diverse subjects. A gathering, in sewing, can be a pleat or a fold that brings together areas of a fabric that were once separate, when the fabric was laid out flat. It can also be a fold in time, as certain continental philosophers have argued on various occasions. “An object, a circumstance,” Michel Serres told Bruno Latour in their second conversation on science, culture, and time, is “polychronic, multitemporal, and reveals a time that is gathered together, with multiple pleats.”

A textual object capable of evolving through time by knowing its evolution and applying its own processes to itself: such is the project that ebr has begun with its commitment to hypertextual publication, in its own construction as well as in its content. Indeed, many of the essays in this spring gathering, and the reviews by Linda Brigham, Luca DiBlasi, and Paul Harris, speak of poetry, fiction, philosophy, and other modes of textual organization in just these terms - specifically, as “the active constitution of both self and environment, termed autopoiesis.” Luca DiBlasi attributes certain oddities in Peter Sloterdijk (for which he suffered no small abuse at the hands of German reviewers) to the philosopher’s attempt to raise himself, “autopoietically,” to a point above the pluralistic perspectives that he wants to celebrate and participate in. The potential of constrained writing, for Harris, “is that it ends up an autopoietic textual machine,” that is, a machine that constructs itself and maintains its structure over time by both circling back on itself, and gathering in elements from the environment. Harris is referring here to the obsessed “journalist” in Harry Mathews’s novel of that title, who suddenly realizes that the goal of his journal-writing has been neither subjective nor objective, not self-expression and not world-description; instead, he has been writing for “it,” for the journal itself. In a sense each new ebr essay, in addition to its own concerns and organization and authorial autonomy, also contributes to the self-reproducing structure of “the journal itself,” an autopoietic writing machine.

Continuing the link between “green” and “grey” ecologies established in ebr4, I would suggest that this concept of autopoiesis, or self-making, might be usefully applied to the ongoing and general design of writing/ and data/spaces on the Internet. Autopoiesis in biological systems, as in information systems and Internetworking, requires attention at the edges where participating elements come into contact with the environment, but the overall process is never under the conscious control of any one organism or individual. Rather, autopoietic constructions only take shape after a number of contributing elements are already in place, and after they have reached a density and proximity that allows for interaction and self-reproduction. Unlike most current conceptions of hypertext, this way of thinking has the advantage of giving a flexible stability to information systems, which can remain open to an environment of fluctuating interferences and still have an organization, a continuous identity across various structural states.

A self-creating network, “open” structurally but “closed” in terms of organization, is ebr’s answer to the question of formal coherency in hypertext. It is true that [in ebr version 2.0 - ed.] the journal contents are arranged in neat lines on each of the four main interfaces: thREADs, reVIEWs, riPOSTe, ebrINFO. But that does not commit us to a proliferation of endless links, subject only to the arbitrary “choice” of readers who are conceived, at best, as mere consumers of information. Rather than producing a long network, we’ve begun now to fold the contents into one another, using designed hypertext links. One indication of this process, which the editors “planned” only after we recognized a fortunate accident in some of the sections we’d already named, is expressed in the caps: READing expands in online contexts to a mixture of VIEWing and POSTing INFOrmation of various sorts, both visual and verbal.

The riPOSTe interface is one section of ebr that was designed from the start as a place where spontaneous communications appearing at any time could complement the more formal, periodical journal publications. This section, whose contributions fall somewhere between topical lectures and letters to the editor, is also the place where the issue themes can be updated and rethought in light of political situations which cannot wait on the appearance of a scheduled publication. In the past few months, during the NATO air strikes, contributors to the winter 98/99 special on postmodern writing in eastern europe have been sending in bulletins almost daily. Zoran Milutinovic, who in February with Srdjan Vujica wrote in protest of the Milosevic government’s crackdown on freedom of speech in the universities at Belgrade and Novi Sad, sends in a lecture delivered in April at Princeton University, on moral imperatives and geopolitical interests in Kosovo. In the meantime, Vladislava Gordic, editor of the eastern european special, has been sending in emails regularly, on everyday life under NATO fire in Novi Sad. Lastly, taking up another theme from ebr8 - the conduct of postmodern war as entertainment - Raymond Federman remembers the Gulf War of 1991 as a kind of TV mini-series.

Joseph Tabbi