afternoon’s Legacy

versu by Emily ShortI was reading Steven B. Johnson’s Wired Magazine post “Why No One Clicked on the Great Hypertext Story” about the failed hype of hypertext today and just had to respond, partly because the magazine did not allow comments, a feature I’ve come to expect from online reading), partly because, well, I was there.

As I Tweeted shortly after reading it, when Johnson writes about the revolution that didn’t happen, the hypertext wonderland prophesied by George Landow, Robert Coover, and yes, Michael Joyce himself, he certainly does capture a portrait of a moment of unrestrained prognostication, but I believe he misses the mark.

I remember being a starry-eyed undergraduate at Brown in 1993 and attending Robert Coover’s Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices conference (seduced by flashing lights and literary superstars). I can remember that heady feeling of euphoria about this new writing medium, the magic of watching Coover or maybe even Mark Bernstein show a print author the basic structure of links. I was also taught the ways in which these links would offer a platform for postmodern marvels, for a de-centered textual universe, for meaningful connections. I was there.

I can remember in the years to come, as graphical browsers became the dominant form of engaging with this network, as the World Wide Web became the place for cheap airfare, gaudy home pages (best parodied in Rob Wittig’s Fall of the Site of Marsha), and, of course, porn. Where was our poststructural theory then? (Paging Wendy Chun.) Where was the promise of meaningful links of a new decentralized discourse paradigm? I was there.

And then I remember watching the dream of hypertext disappear as Storyspace became something included on syllabi of literary historians rather than for experimental writing. (Keep in mind, Mark, I’m on your side.) And then as Game Studies started eating hypertext lunch, thanks to Landow’s disciple Espen Aarseth, and the Electronic Literature Organization’s current President Nick Montfort pronouncing that cybertext killed the hypertext star. I was there.

And what followed was even more disenchanting. Flash added fun to poetry but did little for narrative. Web-based hypertexts offered feeble affronts to the codex books they were seeking to replace. Readers still needed to be introduced to afternoon, and worse yet, taught why they should care. Hypertext was relegated to the shelves beside Middle English poetry and forgotten catechisms. I was there.

But recently something has been happening, and this is where I part ways with Johnson. And I don’t know if it’s the fall of Flash or the rise of the iPad, if it’s the end result of Facebook or Twitter or Web 2.0, if it’s a sign of the first generation of children raised on the graphical Internet becoming adults, or the so-called “Googlization of Everything.” But something has happened.

In the past few years, maybe just 2, I’ve seen a surge in creative activity around hypertext and hypertextual narratives that I had long given up hope on. New works, new software platforms, new literacies seem to be bursting from every corner. The IF community, long working in a kind of subterranean artspace, has fueled many of these developments, but they are not alone.

To offer a few examples: Look at Erik Loyer’s recent collaboration on the interactive graphic novel Upgrade Soul collaboration with Ezra Claytan Daniels and Alexis Gideon. Look at the return of hypertext pioneer Judy Malloy with her new work “From Ireland with Letters.” Look at Mez Breeze and Andy Campbell’s collaboration “The Dead Tower.” Look at Emily Short’s wonderful “period pieces” for Versu. And look at the innovative work coming out of labs around the world, from MIT to UC Santa Cruz, including Aaron Reed’s breathtaking “18 Cadence,” which connects the Flash-like aesthetic of magnetic poetry with Reed’s signature epically rendered, century-wide storytelling.

Then consider all the works from “outside” the electronic literature community. Random House announces a new interactive fiction (publicized in the same publication that houses Johnson’s e-text. Scholastic Books is adding more interactivity to their eBooks (those of us with young children are well-aware of the interactivity and hypermediation of children’s lit). Look at the recent edition of Frankenstein, which could of course still learn a thing or two from a previous e-daptation of that novel. Newspapers abound with articles about the latest, first-ever, iPad driven reading experience.

The platforms are multiplying, too. In CYOA-style platforms alone, there is Undum, Twine and Inkle, joining the many IF platforms, such as the elegant Inform 7. There’s even a new version of Storyspace coming out. But perhaps more importantly, the shift away from Flash (a proposed topic for an MLA 14 panel) has meant that authors are moving to creating open-source works, for which the code is accessible and experimentation is rampant (see the Taroko Gorge adaptations for one small example). Oh, and people are even telling stories on, God forbid, Twitter.

There was a time when I felt compelled to explain that e-lit is not eBooks, but this is changing as more books take on not the epub form (which prohibits the use of JavaScript) to apps.

So, Dr. Johnson, I feel your sense of future-fail. I have suffered the staged of grief for the dream of literary hypertext. I empathize with your sense of a dream deferred. But it was not, it turns out, a dream denied. Just go to the app store. Listen to the readers of all ages who can now take their computers to bed, asking the experts at the literary genius bar if their eBooks could, perchance, do a little a more and are looking for links that will entrance their afternoons. So glad we are finally here.

1 Response to “afternoon's Legacy”

  1. 1 David Golumbia

    Hi Mark,

    I’m pretty much in agreement with you here, and think part of the problem was the overselling of the concept of “hypertext” per se and the underselling of the more general notions of multimedia/new media authorship; in addition, the idea of a total free-play narrative that seemed suggested in some the early hypertext theory never seemed to me to be easily melded with the other desiderata of narrative (and to a lesser extent poetry).

    Since you asked “Where was our poststructural theory then?” of the moment when the web became commercialized, I’ll just point at my 1996 Postmodern Culture essay “Hypercapital,” which offers an explicitly poststructuralist critique of certain hypertextual dreams. Once a skeptic, always a skeptic, I suppose; although my target in that essay is more about the promises for cultural transformation via hypertext replacing “standard” text, than about hypertext literature. I was pretty young then and there is stuff I would change about it today, but there you go.

    That essay loosely served a few years later as the basis for one of the more experimental pieces Postmodern Culture ever printed:

    Daev. Gl=umläia,”Hiiperlexicoasemeopara[=tastrophism: Geo-graphist-insenstiorsme.” Postmodern Culture 12:1 (September 2001)

    which is of course partly broken now, but that was kind of the point.

    Please forgive the self-promotion, but it seemed to speak to the topic awfully directly, and what is the commercial web for anyway, etc.


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