Jan Baetens re-reads a print hypertext by France's leading gay author, whose work loses something in the actual translation into electronic hypertext.
The following essay, first published in the fall of 1997, continues a thREAD introduced by Paul Harris (ebr4) and Harry Mathews (ebr5), on constraint-based narratives - editors
In the aftermath of May '68 and its cry to devolve all power to the imagination, the left wing theoretician of the French New Novel, Jean Ricardou, opened one of his famous microscopic readings of Claude Simon by saying bluntly: "If everything is permitted, nothing is possible." ^1. Pour une théorie du nouveau roman, Paris, Seuil, coll. Tel Quel, 1971, p. 118. The original quote goes: "Si tout est permis, rien n'est possible."). It is useful to remember this warning - the meaning of which is of course both literary and political, even when at first sight it is only intended to introduce some notes on the meaning of constraints in literature - when going through the explosive body of essays, manifestoes, polemics, statements, theories, nonsense, etc., on the rise of hypertext and, thus, the fall of text. One should always be very cautious when put in front of a new medium that promises to its followers freedom and happiness, with the sky being the usual limit of the virtual brave new world we are entering. In the same way that the first critics of the electronic universe were wrong when they saw in the computer the privileged tool of complete social control by a mysterious, hidden elite, the contemporary prophets of the hypertext are probably making a similar mistake by stressing only the positive virtues of the web and its liberating impact on reading and writing.
In the following pages (or, preferably, screens, because it is you, virtual reader, whom I would like to convince), I shall bring together some arguments on the necessity of a rule-governed electronic writing, i.e. on the necessity of maintaining or creating a set of strong constraints (those "formal techniques or programs whose application is able to produce a sense of its making text by itself" ^2. see Jan Baetens, "Free Writing, Constrained Writing: The Ideology of Form", Poetics Today, vol. 18, number 1, Spring 1997, p. 1. ), even in electronic writing largely determined by the ideology of free and uninhibited creation.
In so doing, my aim is not to confront text and hypertext, as such a position would be absurd; neither text nor hypertext can by hypostasized as coherent bodies or structures. The first point I would like to make is that text cannot be opposed to hypertext in a dichotic way: the features generally attributed to hypertext (such as freedom, escape from linearity, deconstruction of the subject, infinity of meaning, and reading processes, radical decentering) are not only present in some types of textual writing (especially in the most constrained ones), but they are even more fruitfully developed in text than in hypertextual forms. My second point, then, is that hypertext should learn from those constrained forms of text, and learn more specifically from those characteristics of constrained texts which seem to restrain the freedom promised by the unlimited possibilities nowadays already given and produced by hypertext.
In order to make the discussion as concrete and as straightforward as possible, I shall avoid direct polemics against hypertextual structures (or lack of them) and focus my arguments on one single book, which certainly appears incredibly anachronistic but which at the same time 1) does everything and even more than hypertext has ever dreamt of, and 2) manages to do so by using precisely those features of the text hypertext would if possible like to condemn to oblivion.
But first some words on the book and the author (since there is a 'book,' heavy, uneasy to handle, and an 'author,' omnipresent, uneasily talking about himself). Renaud Camus's P.A./Petite annonce ^3. Paris, éd. P.O.L (with whom Camus has published almost all of his other books as well). The title of the book refers to the small "contact announcements" in the specialized press. is the latest book of a French author who is known in the U.S. as the author of Tricks ^4. English translation by Richard Howard, New York, Saint Martin's Press, 1981 (First French edition: 1979). and the spokesman of the gay community in France, a definition Camus himself feels very uncomfortable with. To Bruno Vercier's question in a recent special issue of Yale French Studies on gay and lesbian writing: "Do you consider yourself a homosexual writer?", he answers that he "would find it annoying and limiting to be locked into the image of a homosexual writer" ^5. Bruno Vercier, "An Interview with Renaud Camus", in YFS, number 90 ("Same Sex, Different Text"), 1996, p. 20. , given the fact that this is only one aspect of his personality and writing.
Although P.A. is sexually explicit, the book is rather part of a totally different domain of Camus' writing, which explores a dizzying variety of genres and discourses. P.A. continues an all-embracing work in progress initiated by four books of "eclogues" during the years 1975-1982, the most "visible" feature of these books being their combination of different texts, fragments, and styles; they are combined first in a classic linear way, then in a spectacular, non-linear way, the pages of the book being subdivided into strokes of continuously shifting format and aspect, but linked together by the play of internal references. Each new stroke is to be read as the footnote attached to a preceding fragment, but very soon things become very complicated, with different footnotes (up to the thirteenth or fourteenth degree!) spreading over dozens of pages in a kaleidoscopic structure that completely destroys, to the despair of the reader, any classic interaction between text and footnote.
Around 1980, these "eclogues" could reasonably be considered prophetic texts since they prefigured the possibilities of what today is labeled hypertext. In 1997, nevertheless, the publication of a work such as P.A. could not less reasonably be spurned as a pitiful anachronism, not only because Camus does not seem to do anything else than what he was already doing twenty years ago, but also because his once revolutionary style now seems pathetically out of date, and very poor in comparison with the innumerable tricks of modern hypertext.
Unfortunately, things are much more complicated. Indeed, when reading P.A. attentively, one can only observe that thanks to its maintaining the traditional framework of the book, Camus' defiance of the typical linear structures and reading habits of the text are much more devastating than what could be realized by hypertext. How do we have to understand this paradox?
First of all, one should stress that in the case of a book such as P.A., which proposes a large set of reading paths that can neither be followed simultaneously nor simply consecutively, the very limits of the host medium (the materiality of a 400-page volume) continually and painfully remind the reader of the contradiction between the text he is asked to read, and the very incomplete, partial, poor reading he is making of it. Since he can visually survey everything to be read without being able to read it all in a satisfactory way, the reader certainly loses control, but can never feel euphoric about it. He is not surfing on an infinite ocean of linked materials, choosing freely any new directions and new associations unforeseen by the author(s) of the text. Instead, he tragically knows that, however great his efforts to grasp the text, he shall always be missing something. In other words, he realizes that the problem of reading is not in the first place a matter of quantity but of quality: the problem with reading is not that there is always something else or something more to read, but that the things that are read are never read well enough. This is a crucial aspect of reading totally obliterated by most discussions on hypertext and by all those who consider the fading away of the borderlines of the reading process a promise of freedom and discovery.
In addition to this redefinition of the reading problem, there is a second great advantage of (constrained) textual structures in comparison with their hypertextual versions. As is well known, one of the main advantages of hypertext is the many possibilities of interactivity it provides to the reader. In the case of P.A., a work that defenders of hypertext would blame as a ridiculously outmoded mode of pseudo-hypertextuality, cooperation between reader and writer seems to go along the lines of a one-way traffic: the reader has to follow the writer, even if the latter has done his best to bring in every possible booby trap one can think of. But once again, this very narrowly defined and fully constrained reader activity has nothing to envy in the paradise of full and playful interaction proposed by all types of hypertextual tools. Indeed, by painfully learning the difficult rules of the text, the reader acquires the ability to provide a response to the author's challenge that is infinitely richer than the random navigation in the hypertextual labyrinths called interactivity. To put it another way: the discipline required of the reader's response in the case of constrained text is less easy and gratifying than the quick and massive response to hypertext, but there is a good chance that it is the only way to real creativity. While constrained texts teach their readers how to become autonomous writers by themselves, most of the current hypertexts (I know I am exaggerating, but I am not only exaggerating...) tend to lock their readers into the logic of their own system, or they invite them to go elsewhere, always, however, in a rather haphazardous way (which is not the best guarantee for genuine creativity).
Borges once said something which is now becoming very difficult to understand in its full implications: if literature is infinite, it is not because the number of books is countless, but because every text, when well written, is infinite in itself. ^6. I apologize for not giving the precise references of this quote, which I believe is to be found in the Entretiens avec Georges Charbonnier. Borges being Borges, the center being also the periphery and vice versa, I wouldn't however be astonished if the sentence is hidden somewhere else... The great lesson of P.A., that curiously anachronistic opus in an age of electronic reproducibility, is that it teaches us what the hype of hypertextuality is making us miss: the necessity of the quality of reading and writing, the discipline it implies, but also the liberation and freedom it provides to anybody who is willing to work, not to consume, to understand rather than to go with the flow.
Of course, any further conclusion would be impertinent. But the issues I have tried to raise cannot be reduced to the discussion of one single book by one single author. Behind these issues, there are many other questions, both political and literary. From a literary point of view, it would be interesting to reflect more seriously upon the ethics of the writing programs induced by hypertext, with its fascination for all types of combinatory literature. Combinatory texts are not new (starting from Antiquity to Raymond Queneau and the Oulipo-authors, there has even been a never-ending production), ^7.See for instance, among other works, Einzelheiten, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1962. but with the new possibilities of hypertext, it seems as if qualitative discussions have been wiped out by the sometimes infantile pleasures of mass production. Unfortunately, it is not enough to produce all possible varieties of a writing logarithm to obtain a satisfying literary result.
From a more political point of view, it would be ever more interesting to investigate to what degree hypertext and democratization are linked or not (nowadays, it is uncritically assumed that hypertext automatically produces a more democratic functioning of writing and reading processes). Here, it is not completely useless to remember the very critical remarks an author such as Enzensberger made on the rapid spread of pocket books, which, mutatis mutandis, in the '50s and '60s meant a revolution of literary culture and habits not unlike the transformations which have resulted from putting literature on the web in the late '90s, and which Enzensberger precisely called a pseudo-revolution, even a counterrevolution, since the pocket market only heightened the weight of classic authors and of industrial concerns.
There are of course many other questions. What counts now, is to start the debate.*
*I would like to thank my colleague Roger Janssens (K.U.Leuven) for his useful comments on the first draft of this article.
Paul Harris >--- critical ecologies winter 96/97
Harry Matthews >--- (electro)poetics spring 97
An afterword (and some afterthoughts) on P.A.