Here we transcribe an extended conversation between hypertext author Bill Bly and Ph.D. candidate Brian Davis that began in January 2018 at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), home to The Bill Bly Collection of Electronic Literature. They discuss Bly's long-term electronic hypertext project, We Descend, Archives Pertaining to Egderus Scriptor (1997-present), as well as the history of electronic hypertext and hypertext theory, the technological challenges of born digital writing and archiving, book-archives and archival poetics, and the value of innovative writing and deep reading amidst the current century's "hodgepodge," "higgledy-piggledy" social media.
Brian Davis: The Fall 2017 volume of The New River features Volume Two of your three-volume work-in-progress hypertext, We Descend: Archives Pertaining to Egderus Scriptor. That's quite a long title. What's this project about?
Bill Bly: We Descend is the short name for an ensemble of writings put together and passed along over a span of many generations. It takes the form of a three-volume hypertext novel that masquerades as a critical edition, with all the commentary, apparati, and other scholarly encrustations appertaining thereto. The overall story (and, since it's hypertext, this story can be got at more than one way) goes like this: an unnamed Scholar discovers the previously unknown work of a humble scribe named Egderus, who lived many generations before. Egderus' writings lead to even older materials, a fragmentary archive which somehow survived a cataclysm that destroyed the magnificent civilization of an ancient people. One survivor of this catastrophe creates (or accretes) the first clutch of writings that eventually form the archives put together by Egderus: these texts are those subsequently discovered by the Scholar, and later yet rendered into hypertext form by the present curator of the archives, a person named Bill Bly, who's been working on them for nearly 35 years. Two volumes of the archives have been published: Volume One on floppy disk in 1997, and Volume Two in 2017, as you just mentioned, online in The New River.
Brian: And you're currently working tirelessly on Volume Three. But it's been twenty-plus years since Volume One was first published and distributed by Eastgate Systems. Why did you make us wait so long for the second volume? Had you been working on Volume Two all that time, or did you take a long hiatus from the project?
Bill: Somehow, every piece of this piece just takes a long time to write. Some of the "delay," of course, is due to the complexities of working up the hypertext part—a readable something that can be traversed in more than one way: you have to imagine every choice any reader might make at every juncture and suss out all the consequences of every one of those choices. But designing the navigation mostly comes in after everything else is written, and I just write very slowly, revising tens if not hundreds of times. Work on Volume One began on paper in 1984, and I submitted the final digital hypertext to Eastgate in 1996. The timespan for finishing Volume Two was about the same: I started in Storyspace in 1999, and most if not all the writings were completed in Tinderbox (Son of Storyspace) by 2011—but over the next couple of years I ported the whole thing to HTML and CSS so I could put it on the web, where it was in public beta from late 2014 until The New River published it last fall. The earliest writings for Volume Three date from about 2012, so if I meet my aspirational deadline for completing it in 2020, I'll be years ahead of schedule!
Brian: The first volume gives the impression of having a long gestation period considering you started thinking about it in 1984 but didn't publish it until 1997. Would you mind talking about the work's origins and evolution, what your process was like then?
Bill: One day, as sometimes happens, five words just came to me: "... if this document is authentic...". I wrote them down, and the phrase stuck in my mind—because every one of those words radiates a whole complex of ideas. The word "if" at the beginning invites some doubt about what follows; then there's a document involved, which means that already, it's not an event we're talking about, but a document describing an event—at one remove, at least. And then the question arises: if the document is authentic, how was it authenticated? If not, how not? Who would do the authenticating—or the disauthenticating (if that's a word)? What would the parameters be for making the call? So, following down every one of those questions, I was led to more questions, more wondering, more writing that up. As for when did those five bare words turn into an archive—I'm not sure I can say. But one thing that quickly emerged from the questions those five words generated was that the phrase "this document" means the author of the five words is talking about a different document—he's writing a document about a document, and this suggests that we're going to be talking about more writings, maybe about writing itself, about text, about what a document actually signifies, you know, in our everyday life. Obviously no document is a present tense thing. It's a material thing in the present—it's written on a piece of paper, or it's stored in a circuit in a computer—but that present-tense material existence is not what's significant. The significance of text is always in the past. And to grasp that significance, because we can't ever with any certainty get back there to find out what really happened, we have to rely on reports. Such as, maybe, whatever "this document" was. Anyway, that's where everything got started.
Brian: Were there any pivotal moments between the mid-1980s and 1996 that significantly influenced the direction We Descend eventually took?
Bill: Yes. Once the work really got underway, there were two things going on: one was just exploring the stories both in and around these documents—the people involved, what mattered to them, what happened around them—you know, what comes up early on in any writing project. But in a fairly short time, there got to be a technical aspect to the project, something that was very new to me. When I started in 1984, my writing tech consisted of a fountain pen and notebook paper jammed in a clipboard. Four years later, my wife and I got a computer, one of those cinderblock Macs with the 9-inch screen and black-and-white display. What a terrific toy! To begin with, a lot of what we did was just play with it, but then we began to see that more and more of the things we needed to do in our life could be put on the computer and saved: not only writing, but correspondence, cataloguing music and books, managing our money, such as it was—all that record-keeping every "family business" needs to do. Those first few years, this made for a good deal of excitement, because it seemed like everything could be transferred to the computer. Naturally, that included the "five words" project.
Brian: I'm curious to know more about how you began thinking about We Descend in terms of hypertext. Would that have been soon after acquiring your first Macintosh computer in 1988?
Bill: Not quite. In June 1992 I read an article by Robert Coover called "The End of Books," which appeared on the front page the New York Times Book Review. Coover described a new way of writing he called "hypertext," a term I didn't remember hearing before. I couldn't quite understand what he was talking about, but I felt it was important, so I went home to my little Mac and typed up inquiries to every person or group that Coover listed in his article, saying "I'm interested in what you're doing, can you tell me more?" And in a few weeks I had a fat folder full of artifacts—posters, magazines, samizdat, a 5¼-inch floppy disk that actually flopped when you waggled it. One of the mailings was a brochure from Eastgate Systems, which had published a number of the works Coover mentioned, and within a short time I'd ordered a few titles and started to read them. Now back in 1988 our first Macintosh came pre-installed with a funny little program called HyperCard. At the time I couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be for, except that it sure looked cool and was deeply fun to fool around with. Four years later, after sending out all those inquiries, I discovered that HyperCard was one of the programs that a number of early hypertext authors—Rob Swigart, Stuart Moulthrop, Deena Larsen, John McDaid—used to build their hypertexts. At the same time I found out about Storyspace, the authoring environment that Michael Joyce and Jay Bolter created to publish Joyce's novel afternoon (1987)—what the New York Times called "the granddaddy of hypertext fictions," which sure sounded significant. So I tried out both programs, and after a couple years settled on Storyspace.
Brian: So you began reading e-lit in 1992. Between 1984 and 1992 were you writing much?
Bill: Oh, yes. Back then I had half a dozen projects going at once—plays, poetry, "flat" fiction—things I imagined would ultimately be published in print. But after reading Coover's article—as well as his follow-up piece the next year called "Hyperfiction: Novels for the Future" (August 1993)—I began reading more widely in what these days would be called the "e-lit discourse," because I really wanted to find out all I could about this new kind of writing. But I wasn't sure how to do it myself. At the time, the if-this-document-is-authentic project didn't have a name. There wasn't yet much to it beyond some pages of notes, nothing you'd call substantial. Then in 1995 I found out, mainly through correspondence with the hypertext folks I'd contacted, that Robert Kendall was offering an online course called Hypertext Poetry and Fiction, at The New School—a really early distance learning course, conducted via dial-up modem, if you remember that antique tech. I took the course that summer and then repeated it in the fall, thinking: I'm going to be in a class, with people I can show this thing to and get feedback and suggestions — so I pulled the "document-authentic" project out of the back of the clipboard and started working it up on the computer.
Brian: So you didn't really start writing We Descend until 1995?
Bill: Not as such—that's right. In late 1995, while I was still in Rob Kendall's class, Eastgate held a conference in Boston; the guest speakers were Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop, two superstars of the early hypertext movement. The last day of the conference was a kind of writer's clinic—and I'd built enough of the piece in Rob's class that I thought I could demonstrate it, and when I did, everyone was very encouraging. It may even have been called We Descend by that time—working title, possibly...
Brian: Do you think if you hadn't written down that phrase—"if this document is authentic"—back in 1984, and you hadn't decided to save that document, come the summer of 1995 the project would have ever gotten launched? Which is to say, how much do you owe your documenting habits and archival impulses for the birth of We Descend?
Bill: I think that—except for, you know, pawing through stuff in the attic or looking at old photo albums—the only "archival impulse" I had then was what you just called documenting habits, just keeping track of my own writing projects. It's unlikely I was working regularly on what became We Descend before joining that hypertext class. I suspect that what may have started me thinking about archives was the discourse on hypertext I got into after reading Coover's article—which described hypertext linking documents together in a network, which is what an archive is. This discourse—you know, I had no background in the theoretics of these conversations, which for me weren't just difficult and dense, but also intense: hypertext seemed to revolutionize the way we think and talk about authors and readers. All of a sudden... the idea that these magical machines could provide a whole new reading experience—not to mention a whole new way of writing for that experience—that really seemed to take everybody's head off and turn it around. Judy Malloy is the first person I think of here. And Jay David Bolter, and Jim Rosenberg, and Rob Kendall. These people didn't just write words, they wrote code, they could actually invent a kind of writing no one had ever seen before. Michael Joyce's ambition for afternoon was to write a novel that would change every time you read it. You can't do that with print.
Brian: You seem to be gesturing toward one of the hot topics of the time, how electronic hypertext potentially introduces radically new creative possibilities for writers, thus offering radically unique reading experiences as well. Many argued—and whose initial writings on the subject are most notably featured in Paul Delany and George Landow's co-edited collection, Hypermedia and Literary Studies (1991)—that electronic hypertext actualized certain poststructuralist theories and that it liberated writers and readers alike from the coercive shackles of conventional print (e.g., see Bolter 1991, Delany and Landow 1991, and Moulthrop 1991).
Bill: Yes, a lot of folks, as you indicate, talked as if the whole literary enterprise was being renegotiated through these machines. For me, the questions were even more basic: what is an author? who is a reader? and most importantly, what is their relationship? how does it work?
Brian: It has always seemed to me, and I'm obviously not alone here, that in the end the hypertext reader is ultimately at the mercy of both the writer and the software, and that hypertext has never been particularly liberating for anyone, as many have claimed. Do you have thoughts on this particular debate?
Bill: I do! I definitely do. George Landow, in his first version of Hypertext, was one of the first to really develop this argument about hypertext embodying poststructuralism.
Brian: Yes, and Landow still defends this argument in Hypertext 3.0. He maintains that the "reader is never locked into any kind of particular organization or hierarchy" (Landow 2006: 58). However, with electronic hypertext, as with all media, there's always going to be structural and technological constraints, even if they're not immediately obvious. Storyspace, for instance, organizes the text according to a dual data structure, what Matt Kirschenbaum calls "hierarchical tress" and "associative nodes or clusters" (Kirschenbaum 2008: 173), which readers can actually perceive when navigating Storyspace's text and map windows.
Bill: These arguments were well underway before I'd even heard of poststructuralism or critical theory. I'd been teaching drama in an acting department for almost twenty years by then, and this was all news to me: I was panting like a dog trying to catch up with a way of thinking that was well understood by its partisans. At the same time, I was trying to learn how to read hypertext, which I found heavy going for quite a while. What you just said—I have to say I never felt liberated much reading hypertext. And learning to use the software to write it with — well, let's just say it was pretty challenging for me. I felt awkward and stupid, but from the first, I just kept thinking: even if I don't know why, this stuff is important, so I'm just going to keep at it until I get it. At the same time, I was already beginning to feel overwhelmed by the how-you-say over-affordance of computing life: way too much of everything, everywhere, all the time—a tyranny that never goes away. The tyranny of abundance—all the choices we're required to make, constantly—I mean, every webpage has a different interface, and you have to figure it out before you can get your work done. It's exhausting! And because this was true, when I started putting We Descend together, I felt most strongly that I wanted to make things hospitable for the reader, to welcome the reader in, because at the time this wasn't the kind of reading anybody was used to—including me! The software, it seemed to me, often made this hospitality work very tricky, and my own lack of experience just compounded the difficulty. Doing hypertext really extends the writing process, in every direction. Much more complicated than pen on paper!
Brian: Could you talk about how you eventually became interested in archiving and archival research, and how these interests found their way into and helped shape We Descend?
Bill: Pretty easy to answer that. My dad retired in 1980 and needed something to do, so he got into the old boxes and folders stashed in closets and the attic and pulled out all the family stuff that he and my mom had collected over the years. Then he took over the game room and spread everything out, in order to organize—but also find a way to preserve (and transmit, to me and my sister)—the family memorabilia. Eventually he created three magnificent photo albums going back to middle of 19th century—the oldest photograph is of my great-grandfather, age 15, in his Civil War Army uniform. I watched as my dad put these things together, how the project grew over the years, and not just in extent, but also in how his scheme for displaying the pictures, for arranging and captioning them, developed—matured, I guess you could say. I was watching him think this through—or rather, because I lived 400 miles away, and could only see my folks twice a year at most, I was reading his thought process from how the artifacts and their organization changed from one visit to the next. Early on he was just sort of laying out photographs person by person, but then, the next time I came back, there was a complete album organized around my four grandparents, with names and dates. I'd sit there with the album on my lap, flipping through the pages, and he'd sit beside me telling the stories that went with them, but also explaining how he'd come to arrange them just that way. That's when I first got a sense of the material aspect of the enterprise—my first real experience of archiving, if only as a witness—the processing of all these things. He'd say, for example, "I don't know where to put Mom-mom's and Pop-pop's baby pictures," and then he'd describe how the album he'd taken them from in the first place was arranged quite differently, and then the conversation would broaden, to what the person who put that old album together must have been thinking, and then to all the things that anybody doing this has to go through to make it happen. I'd always been sort of interested in history, but this was concrete history, these were the historical artifacts of my family, the people I came from and have my life among—in present time, but also through the generations. Once that vista opened up for me, I began to feel this was an undertaking worth figuring out how to do right.
Brian: What about your fascination with old books and authenticating documents?
Bill: In the early 1990s, when I was teaching drama at NYU, I was asked to review a new book about the Rose Theatre in London—its foundation had been uncovered a few years earlier, during demolition for a new parking garage. Shakespeare worked at the Rose as an actor before the Globe was built: his name shows up in the diary of Philip Henslowe, who owned the Rose Theatre in the 1590s. We call it Henslowe's Diary, but it was actually more of an account ledger—who got paid what for doing which play and when, that sort of thing: it's one of the primary documents we have of Shakespeare's era. I got to wondering how the diary had survived, when so much else from that period was long lost. It turns out that after Henslowe died, his daughter packed it in a linen trunk, probably getting ready to move when she got married or something, and then the linen trunk got passed down through the generations of Henslowe's family, until finally someone opened it up and found this notebook—and, happily for us, had some sense of its significance, so it didn't get thrown out. But think how many times someone must have come across some other item like this and said, "Oh, that old thing," and pitched it, and now it's gone forever. This made me start thinking about how the stories of day-to-day life get passed along—like the stories my dad told me—the stories I'm now passing on to my daughter, my successor as Bly Family Archivist—and that got me interested in the artifacts that tell these stories, artifacts like Henslowe's Diary.
Brian: Would you say that one of your intellectual obsessions is the idea that authenticating an historical document establishes a truth claim about what's real or not?
Bill: Yes. Just about my favorite lecture in those days was the notorious Shakespeare Authorship Controversy, who really wrote Shakespeare's plays, which of course is all about authentication. Authentication, it seems to me, in the end always comes down to what is or isn't believed. The decision whether or not something is true is made (and enforced) by some kind of authority: it's no accident that "authority" and "authentic" have the same prefix. There are many theories about what actually happened at the Rose Theatre, and there's documentary evidence to support each of these theories, but if you don't accept the authority of the entity that authenticates the evidence—and this is the heart of the Authorship Controversy—then the "evidence" has no validity for you: it "proves" nothing. You believe what is true, of course, but it also works the other way: the Truth turns out to be what you believe.
Brian: All textual interpretations are essentially arguments, grounded in some value, assumption, or belief, as all arguments more or less generally are. Perhaps authenticating a document is similar—always provisional, always subject to interpretive dispute?
Bill: First of all, authentication is making an argument, a matter of what can be persuasively asserted. That "what" is an interpretation, a claim about what really happened or who really did something. When you say a document is authentic you're saying you believe that some claim about it is true or real—say, that Shakespeare is the guy who wrote Hamlet—and this belief is based on some kind of evidence or some person's testimony that is brought in to support the claim. But if you follow the evidence or testimony back to its source, to the event itself, to Shakespeare sitting at his desk writing Hamlet, it's still resting on someone else's belief that that's what actually happened. Beyond the fact that somebody wrote Hamlet, which is incontestable, everything's contestable. Even if we had surveillance video of Shakespeare in his attic room above the Rose Theatre scribbling away, as in the movie Shakespeare in Love, the authenticity of the footage would have to be established by some authority, which would have to present its own credentials, to persuade us to trust its claims, to accept that its claims are true because it's a trustworthy maker of such claims. And you believe the authority is trustworthy because it's been validated by some other authority. This is the kind of dispute We Descend started from.
Brian: I'd like to return to issues of legitimacy and authority in a bit, but for now let's discuss an essay of yours from 2000, "Learn Navigation: Doing without the Narrator in Artifactual Fiction." In that essay you describe We Descend as well as other works such as Milorad Pavić's Dictionary of the Khazars (1984/88), John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse (1993), and Deena Larsen's Marble Springs (1993) as works of "artifactual fiction." What is artifactual fiction?
Bill: I got the term "artifactual" from John McDaid, who used it to describe his hypermedia novel Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse. When you ordered the title from Eastgate, it came in a box containing five floppy disks, two cassette tapes, a Getting Started booklet, and a sheaf of printed papers, one of which is a cover letter telling you that you have inherited the (literal) literary remains of Arthur "Buddy" Newkirk, and the floppy disks contain the files that were on the hard drive of your Uncle Buddy's computer. You read the novel by going through those computer files, eventually putting the story together yourself, without help from a narrator outside the action, as you have in War and Peace, for example. Now a good deal of hypertext discourse turns up in Funhouse, and that's where I first encountered the notion of "artifactual fiction": storytelling through multiple objects, separate documents, not a single comprehensive narrative. One striking feature of Funhouse is what McDaid calls "modal appropriateness." If the content of the story was originally produced on a computer, on somebody's hard drive, then the story is packaged in a pile of floppy disks that contain the same data—copies of the same digital files—that were on that hard drive. This idea of telling a story through artifacts isn't restricted to electron lit. Nick Bantock's Griffin & Sabine novels (1991-1993) are artifactual in that they're graphical reproductions of the handwritten correspondence between the two main characters. In fact, all epistolary novels are artifactual in the general sense that their content reproduces the text of the messages exchanged by the correspondents.
Brian: Right. Bantock's trilogy is a collection of letters and postcards as well as various other textual ephemera in which the "originals" are remediated into book-archive form. The reproduced textual artifacts contained therein possess material traces of their original inscription technologies. I sometimes wonder with these works—which I refer to as book-archives and sometimes as archival fictions—what's more important, the event or the documentation of the event. One also sometimes wonders how much time has passed from when an event occurs and precisely when and how it's documented. The reliability and fidelity of a document to any event would seem to always potentially be suspect.
Bill: Even if you're live-tweeting, there is going to be a lag between the event and the act of describing that event, certainly between the creation of the description and its being read by someone else. This can be problematic in a lot of ways. One analogy for the experience of reading artifactual "narrative", as in We Descend, would be similar to my dad's family history project: imagine you're in the attic and you find a trunk you didn't know was there, so you open it up and find a whole bunch of notebooks and loose papers and other old stuff. Each artifact tells a story. There's the narrative within it, the story its author wants to tell, but the artifact itself also has a story. How did it get in this trunk with all these other artifacts? And every one of these other artifacts has a story as well. Not only that, but, in this analogy, as in We Descend, there are many storytellers, not just one as in most books, or the two in Griffin & Sabine. Each of these many authors has a different story, about what happened leading up to the moment he or she composed the writing you happen to be reading at this now later moment. And you begin to wonder, what happened to the artifact after it left the author's possession and began its journey to this trunk in the attic? Maybe there's evidence in the trunk, or elsewhere in the house, or in your memory, or you know someone who might know something about this. And maybe you start doing some research. What I'm saying is, every one of these writings has three stories. The story it tells, the story of how the author came to write it, and what happens to the writing after that. These stories—plus your story, how you got to be just here, reading it just now—are equally important to explore, and need to be made sense of. Combined, all these stories tell the story of this present moment, a story you'll remember later, when it's time to tell it to someone else.
Brian: Artifactual fiction, with its layers of textuality, historiography, and interpretation would seem to evoke a readerly experience that is quite challenging and constraining, rather than, say, liberating, especially when composed with hypertext software instead of print. It seems that this artifactual and/or archival poetics we've been outlining shares more affinities to modernist literature than to postmodernist literature, its most contemporaneous historical literary period.
Bill: I have to say that all the talk about the "liberating" aspect of hypertext struck me as a polemical position more than anything—that liberation never really dawned for me. It's just not the word that comes to mind when I read, or write, or even think about hypertext. Early on, as you mentioned, the claim about what was being called "the late age of print" got some serious pushback—quite a few reviewers didn't just not like hypertext, they hated it. A good friend of mine, when I enthused to him about hypertext, said he thought it was terrible, dumping readers in the middle of this tangle of writings, then forcing them to find their own way out: such smart-alecks (which I guess included me) were abdicating their responsibility as authors, which was to tell a good story, not make the reader do all this work just to figure out what the hell's going on in it! Of course this, too, is a polemical position, and I don't agree: I think for some kinds of stories, hypertext offers (or can offer) a much richer reading experience than flat prose. On the other hand, I tend to agree that hypertext, with its new kinds of formal freedom, does place a sort of burden on a new reader who may not be used to having to engage so actively in the reading practice, if I can put it that way. But requiring this active engagement also opens up new ways for entering into a writing—pathways through its stories, for example—which having to rely on a single narrator prevents you from taking. In We Descend, on the one hand, I do want to be as hospitable as I can, to welcome the reader into its cozy little nest of tales, but on the other hand, I don't want to tell her how to read or interpret it. I just want to say here are the stories, here are some paths you can follow among them, and then let the reader go. If I have done a good job of setting things up, then once the reader's got the hang of the way things work around here, she'll want to keep going.
Brian: Do you think that works of artifactual or archival fiction have anything unique to tell us about what it feels like to live in our so-called new media age: the age of Google, iPhones, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and so forth? Do these book-archives push back or critique this all-about-me-environment we seem to be living in? Can they offer an experience that perhaps we can't find anywhere else or with other kinds of media?
Bill: Do artifactual or archival works offer experiences we can't find anywhere else? I'm not sure about that. I'd have to think about it more. But to answer your earlier question about pushing back against this all-about-me environment, I'd say no. If anything, I'd say such works pull back, they want to lure us away from the daily bombardment of hypermediated communication, incoming data pounding us from all directions—ideally, I think, with the aim of forging a deeper, more complex relationship between the author and the reader. A more personal relation, I'm tempted to say, one that involves more work—on both sides of the exchange—but also promises greater rewards than anything that skimming Facebook posts or binge-watching Cheers can ever provide. In such a relationship, both author and reader have to think about each other's predicament, if I can put it that way: what each has to do in order to make this interaction work. Which is to say, if I'm the curator of the Archives Pertaining to the Egderus Scriptor, my job isn't to just preserve and transmit these writings, I also have to present them, to help acquaint the reader with each author's—each person's—voice. It's almost like I, the curator, am introducing an old friend of mine (the author of some particular writing) to a new one (the reader who has just come upon it).
Social media and the internet in general also present many different writings by many authors, just as archival lit does, and each text has to be regarded and interpreted on its own terms, of course. But the internet isn't an archive, really, it's a hodgepodge, though it does perform some archival functions—it preserves texts, keeps them together, and provides a way to re-find a text you've gone away from. And texts argue with each other, as happens frequently in archival works like We Descend. What doesn't—can't—happen on the internet is pondering: there's just no time for that, because once you log on, the info just gushes in from all sides, higgledy-piggledy, in any old order. Relationships, on the other hand, take time as well as work. It's important—it's required—that each person make the time to think about the other person, ponder what's just happened between them. That's impossible with clusterBombs of info bursting all around all the dingdong day.
Brian: The more we surf the web and browse social media, post this, share and stream that, everything seems to take on the quality of yesterday's news—everything is quickly consumed and immediately digested to make room for tomorrow's ephemeral soundbites. I'm wondering how our engagement with hypertext software such as Storyspace, though, is at all different. When we read hypertexts, our tasks are very similar to those of surfing the web, are they not?
Bill: At the basic level, all reading is pretty much the same, online or off: running your eyes across lines of text, one after another, thinking about the words, agreeing or not, imagining what's coming up, remembering what came before or from elsewhere. This involves a certain amount of work: the words don't jump into your mind fully understood, and once they're in there you have to do some processing before you start to get anything from the experience. Most text you encounter these days—and most of that is online—is not meant to be read thoughtfully, but rather skimmed, so you can quickly get on to the next thing. Navigating among these texts isn't random, exactly, but it might as well be. If you recorded your travels around the web in any given session, and then tried to discern the pattern of your movements, it would make about as much sense as running errands around town—the next hop is likely to be whatever's closest. The organization of readings on the web is essentially flat: everything's right out on the surface—you do, in fact, surf it. And you don't have to work very hard to "get" what's being offered, because much of it is "media", not just text—more, media in motion: spoken word, music, video, animation—and anything that moves like that locks you into a timeline, dictated by the producers, a spell of moments of your life that will never come again, and the only thing you can do (unless you turn it off) is sit there until the file runs its course. I got rid of my TV in part because I don't like being trapped like that. When I read text, I can take my time, not someone else's, to experience "content" (hate that word!) that I'm interested in, and I can ponder it all I want, for as long as I want. Hypertext, or any kind of text that you have to intervene in somehow, by following a link, say, or making some other choice, is quite different from consuming media. Reading hypertext, especially for the first time, is more like being a tourist in a new city, or exploring a neighborhood you've never visited before. In addition to enjoying the sights and sounds and feels and smells, you have to think about what you're looking at, comparing it with what you've seen before, deciding to go here but skip going there for now. Through all this effort your mind is creating a rounded multi-sense image of the environment you're traveling through, you're actually reading that environment as you read the text. As John McDaid says, in hypertext, everything is text.
Brian: One of Chris Ware's graphic New Yorker covers (JAN 6, 2014) features a small elementary school auditorium with the perspective drawn from the back of the hall so that you mostly see only the backs of parents' heads as they stare into their devices that are recording and displaying the performances of their children on a stage. Each device's screen, which we can't help but notice, features only each parent's kid. Basically, the parents aren't really watching the play; there is a layer of digital mediation between them and their kids and really the rest of the world. Ware always has a clever way of reminding us how alienating our digital devices are becoming and how we are experiencing the world in increasingly mediated ways.
Bill: O man. That's brilliant. On so many levels. They're not in the moment but they are documenting it. They then possess that moment: it's a thing, a document, a commodity, even, something they can take with them, in their gear, and share it with others, by posting it somewhere on the net. And of course each person's live-editing the event, framing it down to only their kid. Not that I don't do exactly the same at my grandson's School of Rock concerts. But now the "memories" of moments like the school play or the concert have to include the act of recording them, which makes the notion of "a memory" problematic, I think: which is the memory? that file on my iPad? or the image in my mind? I do know which I can make a hypertext out of, though...
Brian: There seems to have emerged quite suddenly in or around 2007, when the first iPhone hit the shelves, an intensified preoccupation with documentation, primarily facilitated, it seems fairly safe to say at this point, by smartphones and the subsequent proliferation of social media. We're producing and holding onto innumerable images in our attempt to capture and preserve experiences that we likely never really had to begin with.
Bill: And then just try to find them again on your phone!
Brian: No doubt you've had to struggle with the challenges of technological change over the past thirty years learning new software and porting data from one platform to another, but it does seem that electronic hypertext, as opposed to print hypertext, is the most appropriate medium for the archival story you're telling.
Bill: That's one thing that has never not been true about this kind of writing—for me anyway. Print hypertext, like Pavić's Dictionary of the Khazars (1984/88), or some of the archival pieces like Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000) that you're studying right now, works in much the same way as electronic hypertext, it's just that with print, the ways you can engage with the text are constrained by its being affixed permanently to pages in a book. Though Anne Carson's book "installations" (Nox, 2010) and Chris Ware's graphic storytelling (Building Stories, 2012) do stretch those constraints considerably.
Brian: In your 2014 interview with Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop for their Pathfinders project, you discuss We Descend as a kind of "archaeological dig." Would you mind explaining what this metaphor of the "archeological dig" is all about?
Bill: The parallel between an archive of texts and an archaeological dig is fairly obvious once you think of it, but it didn't come to me until I started building in Storyspace, which enabled an author to diagram the structure of a hypertext in a number of ways. One was Outline View, which let me put the writings into a hierarchy, and it just seemed natural to organize them in reverse chronological order, like the inbox in your email program, the oldest ones at the bottom and the more recent ones near the top. In Map View, on the other hand, I could lay out all the writings like index cards on a table and push them around to see other ways they might be grouped—the same way I was taught to construct a research paper in high school. Of course every time I rearranged the Map I would see relations between the writings I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. Now I can't draw worth a damn, but these two Storyspace Views, between them, really helped me conceive of the structure of all the writings, and let me layer them in such a way that the further back you go in time, the deeper you are in the structure, the closer to its center. At that point I began to imagine the experience of reading We Descend as moving up, down, and around the levels of the structure, sort of like rock climbing—or rummaging in an archaeological dig: everything at a given level, along the horizontal axis, is more or less contemporaneous; while on the vertical axis, the further down you go, the older is the material you find.
Brian: There's a long poetic tradition, what Brian McHale calls archaeo-poetry in Obligation toward the Difficult Whole, a poetry of stratification and excavation, of fragments and ruins (McHale 2004: 97-134). And of course you have people like Freud and Foucault who employ archaeological metaphors when talking about subjectivity, memory, and knowledge, so it's certainly not an uncommon trope that dates at least back to the high modernists. An exemplary work of archaeo-poetry would be T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," whose final stanza features the line: "These fragments I have shored up against my ruin." Additional archaeo-poems would include Charles Olsen's Maximus Poems (1960), Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns (1971), Armand Schwerner's The Tablets (1971-1999), Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Dictee (1982), and Anne Carson's Nox (2010), which you just alluded to. Much of this poetry is concerned with archeological and psychological depth and with deep time, which reminds me a lot of We Descend. Would you consider yourself as part of this archaeo-poetic tradition?
Bill: Well, unlike the work by some of my heroes you just mentioned, We Descend is almost all prose—but the whole is made of fragments, with only limited connective tissue between them, so it could be said to employ the same kind of archaeo-poetic construction as, say, "The Waste Land". At the same time, every author or curator in We Descend is wrestling with his materials, trying to make sense of the present in terms of the fragments of the past in his or her possession, giving an account, for example, of how a present writing fits in with older ones in the archives, and in the process providing more grist for the mill, making new writings about the ones already there. It's not dissimilar to what we find in Richard McGuire's Here (2014), which tells its stories through images of the same location—a geographical location, but a room, mostly—at different times in its existence, when different people, furniture, objects and the like occupied the same space. The pages of the book are flat, but the images printed on them show some overlapping others, partially obscuring them, another variation on the archaeological metaphor of accumulated time.
Brian: Let's return to some of the tech issues we were discussing earlier. The world of computing has drastically changed since 1997. We've witnessed great improvements with the technology, but as a hypertext writer much of the tech you've used has eventually become obsolete. In a sense, your work is not only an ever-growing fictional archive, you've also amassed an archive of the technology itself; in creating We Descend you've had to become a digital archivist of sorts. Maybe you could talk a little about what it's been like witnessing some of these changes. What problems have you encountered and how have you confronted them?
Bill: Here's some hypertext lore: in summer 1996, I was about to send Eastgate the final draft of We Descend —"sending it in" meant copying it to a floppy, sealing it in a special envelope, and humping it to the Post Office. I launched the file one last time—you know, just to say goodbye—and I remember thinking: dang, I finally figured out how to work on this, and now I have to let it go. Then I noticed on the loading screen that some 500 links had disappeared. When I called Eastgate in a panic, I learned that this had happened to other folks, but no one had figured out a way to retrieve all those links—all 500 of them had to be reconstituted, many of them one at a time.
Brian: 500 links! That's more than half of the total count.
Bill: The whole hypertext structure had evaporated. The text was still there, but you couldn't get at it without the links. Terry Harpold has said that data loss in an information system isn't a glitch, it comes with the territory, though that hardly consoled me at the time. Anyway, when I got ready to submit the thing again—maybe because I really just wanted to keep working on it—I typed "Volume One" on the title page (a joke to myself, really) and sent it off. And then, a couple years later, that became my excuse for starting work on Volume Two. So maybe losing all those links ended up a good thing...
Brian: Since the late 1990s the development of computer technology has only accelerated. I would be interested to know how the writing of We Descend has been affected by these changes.
Bill: Well, certain documents can't be read any more—I mean, I can see them in the list of files, but I can't open them—versions of my work-file, old drafts, almost anything created before this millennium. The way it goes, I guess. You lose things for all kinds of reasons—physical damage, computer crashes, a file gets corrupted, so forth—but the real problem is simple: old programs won't work on new machines; old machines won't work at all.
Brian: Have any of these technological changes fed back into the fictional universe of We Descend in anyway?
Bill: Building Volume One took place in a remarkably stable period: I was able to work in Storyspace 1.0 from start to finish. Around the time We Descend was published in 1997, Storyspace went through a major update to version 1.5. A little while after that, Mark Bernstein, who was in charge of Storyspace development, did a complete rewrite of the program to version 2.0.
What came next was a triple-whammy in the technoLife: Y2K, Steve Jobs returning to Apple, and the World Wide Web washing over us like a tsunami, as I love to say. It's hard to convey how wrenching this perfect storm was — primarily because, since then, it's been obscured by another one, or another rolling cluster of three: the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, then the iPad & app revolution starting in 2010, and social media washing over us like a tsunami just a bit later, certainly by 2014. No doubt that, come the next millennium, historians will see a different pattern in these developments; I can only speak to what happened, on the ground, right where I was standing.
Brian: But have any of these issues influenced the "content" of We Descend? Would you say that these issues get thematized into the work at all?
Bill: Thematized: that could mean a couple things, I think. At the level of any individual story, maybe not so much—I mean, none of the technology employed by any of the authors in the archives is discussed directly, as we've just been doing. But at a more general level, say, the theme of best-laid plans going awry, a lot of that kind of thing happens in We Descend—as in any narrative, I guess, or it wouldn't be much fun to read or listen to. In another sense, though, such experiences (for example, software going obsolete) are completely analogous to the life of any archive, because every archive is made of stories, but itself has a story, a history: parts of it get lost and maybe re-found, the whole thing is shut down, or dispersed, then reassembled in a different way—all the unexpected things that can happen with any human enterprise, especially one carried out over a span of many generations, with lots of hands shaping it. Part of the story of We Descend concerns finding that narrative of the archives, writing by writing, author by author, never being sure how it all fits together, which parts belong with what others, in what order, with how much time between, and so on. In artifactual literature—what you call archival fiction—this is not a bug, it's a feature: there is no single storyteller, there are many, some of whom comment upon and even contradict each other. So the whole story comes to be understood more or less the same way we experience life: piecemeal and parochially, as I've said elsewhere. And this understanding rewrites itself every time the reader encounters a new text or returns to a writing previously visited. Not sure that answers your question, but it may be the closest I'll ever come to an "author's thematic statement."
Brian: It seems to me what's important here is textual interpretation: characters within We Descend offer different readings of individual texts and also provide different, even conflicting accounts of historical events. This results in a number of interpretive disputes over the meaning of certain writings and to what extent they accurately represent history.
Bill: Very true. History isn't just facts, and by the way, facts never speak for themselves: someone has to interpret them, say what they mean. And any interpretation is based on what a person thinks is true, what that person believes is possible or likely in a given situation, or with certain people.
Brian: In many ways, though, as you said earlier, the issue is less about verification and veracity than it is about determining who is the most believable or trustworthy—it's about ethos, the quality of one's character. And it's not until after we make those evaluations that we can commit ourselves to a reading of the entire archive, acknowledging of course that our interpretations must be provisional because things can potentially change down the line when writings are reread in a new light or juxtaposed with others in new ways. From a strictly epistemological perspective, most issues are indeterminate in We Descend because we can't ever know anything for certain.
Bill: That's certainly for certain! We all experience this sooner or later: conflicting accounts of the same event or situation, where if one is true the other has to be false; if one person's telling the truth, then the other one's lying—unless they both are. Just about the time I was trying to digitize what became We Descend, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings were being held, and you couldn't imagine a starker example of this issue—until recently, of course. Both of them couldn't be telling the truth, but each one had partisans defending their case by attacking the other side's motivations.
Brian: Right, it's not merely a matter of believing who's telling the truth, there's also issues of authority and legitimacy when it comes to seeing how these kinds of interpretations pan out. With We Descend, for instance, the archives are confiscated from the Scholar by some shadowy authority, which suggests he does not have the authority to possess or interpret them. "Effective democratization," As Derrida writes in Archive Fever, "can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation" (Derrida 1996: 4fn1). The world of We Descend is certainly not democratic in this regard. When we first read the Scholar's Diary and the commentary in the Scholia, these issues of interpretation and authority are more or less visible. Which is to say, from the very beginning, the veracity of each document and the motivation of each character is already suspect.
Bill: Right, and those questions just hang there: none of us, reading it, really has a place to stand for making decisions about the legitimacy of this or that interpretation.
Brian: And yet, one is invited to think that the reason the archive is confiscated isn't because it's bogus scholarship or pure fiction, but because certain documents are actually true. A similar thing, of course, happens to Egderus, and more generally throughout the archive it's often a question of authority or jurisdiction whose interpretation is considered legitimate or not. It's like what Foucault writes in The Archaeology of Knowledge, "the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality" (Foucault 1972: 216). There's too much for the powers that be to potentially lose if they give up absolute control and authority over the archive.
Bill: Yes. One of Egderus' last writings is fairly explicit about what would get anyone in trouble with the authorities of that era: denying that the Ancients were deities instead of ordinary human beings like ourselves. At the time, such a claim would amount to heresy, with pretty dire consequences. After all, questioning the Ancients' divine status might lead one to conclude that they themselves brought on the calamity that destroyed their magnificent civilization—which would be disrespectful, to say the least.
Brian: Right, and this is one of the potential secrets implicitly disclosed in the archive, making it a highly desirable and also contentious object. We see this played out in what are called Interviews that take place during the age of Egderus, but which are more like interrogations by an inquisition than anything resembling an interview. We also learn that there is some kind of fellowship or secret society that is determined to possess and conceal the archive. Maybe the members of this fellowship know that the Ancients weren't deities, but what they want to do with that knowledge isn't at all clear. It's also not clear who's a part of this secret society, if it also exists in the age of the Scholar, what its members do, what they know, if they're good or evil, and more generally what the stakes even are for everyone involved across the archive's many generations.
Bill: Indeed. Whatever else it is, the question of the Ancients' divinity is a political matter—i.e., who gets to say How It Is—and maintaining the power to say How It Is and make it stick is the essential thing, whether or not it's true in any absolute sense (however that would be determined). And it looks as if this fellowship or secret society operates in opposition to whatever powers-that-be happen to be lording it over everybody else at the time. Until the Scholar outs the archives in his presentation, it seems this fellowship was responsible for preserving and transmitting at least some of the writings from Egderus' time and maybe before. Not much except vague hints about this "conspiracy" appear in the first two volumes; there may be more in Volume Three, or that's what it looks like from this far out...
Brian: So when should we expect Volume Three to be ready?
Bill: I'm giving myself a round-number deadline, my birthday in 2020. At this point, a fair share of the writings in Volume Three are more or less complete, though of course I'll edit and re-edit them lots of times before they're ready. Many of them have also found their "place" in the structure, and that structure generally resembles that of the previous two volumes. So: more text to be prepared, and along the way I'll be laying out the various pathways through the writings, which can be tedious and dithery, if that's a word. After that, revise, revise, revise—in short, lots of backing and forthing until everything is fully what andwhere it wants to be.
Brian: Backing and forthing, you mean ascending and descending, right?
Bill: I do indeed. Thanks, Brian.
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