Mia on how the WWW is a ‘web’ and thinking through that a bit more. Jane realises that things are immediately near to hand when writing online, and this makes a difference. More significantly it makes a difference to your own writing in an essay for now any paragraph is as far away from another paragraph as any other. Marina on Landow, hypertext, and usefulness. Interesting question, a part from convenience, what else does hypertext teach us? Angus on blogs and realising that medical research is blogged. I’m an academic, there are a lot of amazing academic blogs out there which are more active than many a book or journal. It’s the same with every area, once you realise that informed time based reflective writing lets experts share, then things change a lot. Monique has intriguing comments picking up the elegance (simplicity) of what lies behind Nelson’s things. 

Hypertext and Stuff

Mia on the Landow with a nice observation that blogs aren’t really like blogs, for instance blogs are ‘backwards’, and unlike diaries are public. Tilly pauses on just one thing in there and realises that it inverts 400 years of print. Rebecca writes a post that plays off links (though HTML is a very diluted form of hypertext), and Evan realises hypertext is the name for what has been there all along. Evan realising that perhaps we aren’t readers anymore, a nice realisation, and Gemma wondering if Ted would like choose your own adventure (as hypertext definitely not). Louis realising that linking and joining, deeply, and everything, is a pretty intriguing concept (one that it is still not realised).

Variety (is sometimes good)

Courtney also picks up the video (that Alois and others have found) that is a great info-doco about the network. Monika discusses the long tail and Amazon, though the significance of the long tail is not that old things become hits, but that you can now sell things that aren’t hits, but for all the thousands (or millions) of things that only sell three times a month, that turns out to be more sales than the one book that sells a hundred thousand copies. The value is in the tail… Nga pulls up more stuff that Brian mentioned on the Stuart Hall codes and decoding (though I return to yesterday’s point, if an author has to subject themselves to ‘codes’ to be understood then this is, for me, further evidence that authorial intent is not what matters, codes are social and I have to bow to them, as an author, not they bow to me…), and how tenuous intent is. These blogs for us teachers are a case in point. The variety of interpretations, good and, well, just odd, that are made of what we say are really quite extraordinary in their range. So even in the 50 minutes of that conversation, what we mean goes all over the place with you.

Lauren writes about the unsymposium and wonders about intention and authors and that picture book I showed. What I like is her discussion about authors and intent and then she arrives at “if we write something that allows for different interpretations, we are showing that we are understanding how our audience works. actually, i don’t know. i lost myself just then.”. Notice the last sentence: “i just lost myself then.” If you can get lost in your own writing, and I mean lost as in not sure what’s going on, who’s in control, then again, why do we think authors are any different (they’re not, great authors are people who are OK with this experience of being lost and not in control when they write, their writing writes them as they write it).

Ella does a good job on the ‘long tail’, getting the (economic – which is only one point of significance) importance of the long tail, that the slow sellers actually add up to more than the hits, simply because as the long tail shows, there is just so many things there in the tail. And she’s got a link to Chris Anderson’s video discussing this idea.

Tiana uses Sacha Baron Cohen to make the case you can’t use the work to provide evidence of what the maker thinks or believes. It’s a very good example. Then she picks up that surely authors have some control. Except the sentence is “don’t texts have some sort of aim”. My reply is absolutely yes. Texts do. Texts, not their makers. Their makers are part of it (think back to Actor Network Theory, a novel, a film, works the same way between language, form, maker/s, the work, audience, technology, media, history, genre, style). And once we recognise that texts do this, we can think of them as more like people. They have an unconscious, just like us, and things they want to do. Yes, some of this is what we want to do, but some of it is what it wants to do. I can’t make a film that isn’t a rectangle. No matter what my intent. I can’t write a romance novel that is not then requiring me to subject myself to the codes and conventions of the genre – their intent are what I must negotiate. Tiana then uses the excellent example of persuasive writing, which is supposed to persuade. Yes it is, and we have had rules of rhetoric for 3000 years trying to show us how to do it. If it worked would we need 3000 years of commentary on how to do it? And if we knew how to do it, in other words if it actually worked, then why do most ads, most of the time, miss their mark? (After all this an entire very well funded industry dedicated only to persuasion.)

Multi Hyper Stuff

Chantelle ponders the idea of a book that changed each time you read it. This was Michael Joyce’s incentive to help build Storyspace, a hypertext writing and publishing program (before the World Wide Web), and is still one of the most elegant ways to think about the role of digital or new media in relation to making stories. There is order, but it changes, here is story, it is different. And it can’t be a book because paper makes it harder to do this. Rebecca picks up what we call a branching tree structure. I think I will talk about this a bit in the next unsymposium as the difference between a branching tree and a hypertextual structure is, perhaps, from the hypertext part of networked media one of the most important things to pick up.

Dominic has a brilliant post that points out why hypertext was a revolution. Yes, we now take it for granted, but to ‘get’ why it matters you really do need to realise what it was like before. I have taught in the past from hypertexts, but to answer Dominic’s question about why not present material this way? We are, it is niki, and you are building it. Brittany thinks about how a character that dies might be alive again. Two comments, this is a common trope in soap opera and so we don’t need multilinear narrative for it (well, except soap opera is also a particular form of multi-sequential narrative), though more importantly, if a character dies, and doesn’t, then the import, impact and empathy that happens in the death disappears. Which might risk diluting the experience?

Isabella discusses Landow, and likes the way that hypertext (and its progeny) lets questions be asked of narrative causality, character, plot, and story. Allison worries that if a reader can contribute to a text then the literary or narrative contract is broken. Except reader response theory, and all literary theory from around 1970 onwards shows, very clearly that when we read we do not, cannot, get access to the ‘mind of the author’. Their mind is not available, writing is not a pure expression of someone’s intent, even if it were it cannot survive into something else (all meaning is context based, no context is fixed around something, ever), and when we write or make we are as subject to language, grammar, genre, and the reader, as we are in charge (and depending on how far you push it, it is easy to see us as more dependent on these things that free from them). Nadine I think makes a very relevant observation, usefully bringing Bordwell’s film theories into hypertext. Art films pay more attention to reaction than action, they therefore appear cerebral, slow, contemplative. Compared to popular cinema they expand the moments between. This has, largely, been what the best hypertext fiction has, and more recently what a lot of the better interactive documentary does to.

Maths and English – You Bet

Written twenty days ago and it’s a blast. Thank’s Rachel. Yes, everything is interconnected, how could it not? Maths and English, have a look at Raymond Queneau’s delirious beautiful sonnet work Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems). It is elegantly simple. Ten sonnets, in the original you could flip each line individually (like those children’s books to create fantastic creatures), this creates 100,000,000,000,000 possible combinations, it would take somewhere around 200 million years to read them all. Just ten sonnets. This is hypertextual and why hypertextual structures aren’t choose your own adventures. Why elegant? Because immense complexity is built from a very simple set of rules, which produces a very simple system. This is the heart of making complex stories in digital environments. It is what we call generative, a procedure than enables complex things to be made, without having to design or decide all the possibilities in advance.

It Is Not a Problem of No Narrative, But Different Sorts

Erin wonders who is narrating where readers have so much choice? Good question. One answer is why should the author be in charge? If we don’t read, their work doesn’t happen, literally, so they are subject to us, much more than we are subject to them. And no writer is ‘in charge’ of their writing, or our reading. If I want to write a western then an awful lot is already decided for me, before I even begin to write. I need to fit the form, I can play with it, certainly, though the success of that is defined not by me, but my readers (again). Here an author is not the centre of anything, nor source. However, the hypertext idea is not the reader defining how something ends. It is (usually) more sophisticated. There might be an end, which sometimes you get to, other times not. There might not be a literal ending, so now what counts as a sufficient reading becomes interesting. The problem is not that you can’t tell stories like this, you can, the problem is what sorts of stories can you tell.

Lauren on the other hand is intrigued by the possibility of a book that might change each time you read it. Here the reader has a different sort of agency, beyond just interpretation, and in turn the story or text does too. It becomes even more so a machine for a certain sort of reading. The key point of Douglas (and Landow) though is that reading fiction has always has these qualities and properties, hypertext just makes them explicit.

Daniel has similar concerns about books and the classics are paperbacks. History lessons: the Illiad is a classic, begun in about 800BC, first paperback edition, well paperbacks started in the late nineteenth century, so that’d be over two thousand years later. We could run through classical Greek literature with the same outcome. Or even Don Quixote, one of the first ‘novels’, which also couldn’t appear in paperback for about two hundred years. The point is not that they weren’t paperbacks but that the novel is a recent form and a lot of work that is now in paperback form was never created for the book, a book, any book. So books do not equal literature. They equal a current technology for the literary (one amongst several). So as media scholars we need to think carefully about the relation of media, technology, and form, as this is not a simple relation. In relation to Daniel’s concern about bookmarks and so on. For multilinear fiction the solution is usually to remember where you are up to and offer to begin from where you go to. For ereaders the options are much more sophisticated. It will remember where you are up to, can store multiple bookmarks, lets you highlight passages, share your highlights if you wish with other readers, tell you how long you’ve been reading for, build a concordance of places and characters, visualise how long the work is, how long the current chapter is, where you are in the chapter, where you are in relation to the book, where the chapter is in relation to the book. And so on. I’m playfully intrigued by the roll call of why the physicality of the media matters here with out recognising that we’re humanities students, so we think this matters to us, but as I wrote yesterday, the same conversation happens with photographers and the digital, cinematographers and the digital, journalists and the blog, and so on. We need to recognise what we bring to this conversation as what we bring to it, and not the universalist claims we try to make them to defend them.

Alois expands around some of this, realising that sequence and order really isn’t this fixed ‘right’ thing. It really is very simple to cut up a story, rearrange it, and find yourself with a perfectly sensible new story. Again, with computers we can make this literally the case and so again the question is not ‘but it’s not a novel’ (no it isn’t, we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto), but what sorts of stories work here? Why? Cuong picks up Douglas’ point that each time you read the same book it’s meaning changes for you. This is true, just as different readers will pick up different things. With hypertext though it is stepped up an order. While we can all read the same book and then discuss what we think it is about, when we read a hypertext we can find ourselves having read different things, or similar things but in different orders. And order matters. Rebecca also worries about books that change, the only caution I’d suggest is that the ones that seem to work don’t generally completely change the story itself in fundamental ways, it is closer as I said the other day to music. Riffs, around a theme. More jazz than beginning as symphony then next time it is hip hop. Rebecca M meanwhile thinks about House of Leaves as a sort of print hypertext. Yep, though it is less hypertext than playing and asking questions about the novel, the old fashioned kind, in the face of digital making. The second book is even more complicated, but this work participates in a significant literary tradition that runs from Joyce through Beckett and the OULIPO up to recent work on constrained writing. No it isn’t a ‘normal’ novel, its ambitions are to wonder about the novel rather than take that as a given and pretend to be real.

Lives Are Loose Ends

What Alois says. Key questions. Where does this anxiety of the open come from (if your life was structured like a novel it would be hell, in a novel or a fictional film there is no such thing as chance or coincidence, everything happens to progress you to the inevitable, single, end)? Where does the anxiety about change come from? I believe you can’t stand in the same river twice, it’s an ancient idea. Perhaps because we are change the stability of the fictional is why we hold onto to it?

Dead Trees

Gabrielle has also picked up, like others, on the ‘death of the book’ versus literature conversation in the unsymposium 0.3. But note she collects books. This is the language of the collector, and collectors collect what they value. Old things, blue things, new things, round things. Peugeots, classic bicycles, football jumpers, beer coasters. You name it, people collect it. The mistake we make in this conversation is to confuse our passion for the thing itself. If I am passionate about reading and the ‘literary’ it does not follow that I am passionate about ‘books’. I can, for instance, certainly imagine book collectors who don’t necessarily read, use, what they collect. And I can imagine passionate readers who don’t feel obliged to hang on to their books. Nadine enjoyed the symposium, recognises that the essence of the literary is not paper (it is language), but also has an excellent outline of what we said about hypertext and cinema. To repeat, imagine a film where instead of Shot A always followed by Shot B it is sometimes followed by Shot C, or F, or H. This is hypertext, except hypertext does it usually only with words. Same idea, same principle. Personally I find the idea intriguing and a way of making potentially amazing things. That not so much has been made is, I think, because of how stuck we are, but we’re slowly getting unstuck.

Kimberely believes books will stay, and they will, but as scholars notice how in this post book already means literature. Books though don’t mean literature, and literature happens outside of books (drama, spoken poetry, electronic literature, literary games), and the novel is not all of literature. So, in many ways, when people argue that books are forever they actually mean the novel. And the problem with that is that a novel seems to work perfectly well not on paper. James makes a similar point. What is interesting is how we know that a novel is not about the paper, it is about what happens on it. That is why they can be translated into films, plays, retold verbally to someone else (“oh, that novel’s about….”) Yet in the late age of print with an anxiety of relevance (no one needed to defend the book in this way 50 years ago, it is similar to the way, say, film makers insisted on the special aesthetic qualities of film before they went and bought their first red camera and realised they were aestheticising the wrong thing), yet now we are going to think that the essence of why that book is valuable is not what is on the pages, but the phenomenal experience of the thing. That is rubbish. Push the argument. That book over there is now my most special book because its pages feel and smell the nicest? Novels matter because of the words, not the paper.

Landow, Hypertext, the Mess of it All

Alois has some riffs on the idea of hypertext that are speculative and helpful. Necklace I’m less convinced of personally since things only have a before and after on a necklace. Gabrielle discusses hypertext and narrative and the question of plot. In narratology plot very specifically means the order in which a story is told. So you have a story, what happened, and plot, how it is told. Some stories have plots where they’re told in order, some don’t. In hypertext, order is one of the key things that comes to matter as order always changes. Jennifer does an interesting speculative turn where if hypertext keep changing, then are they, in some small way, alive, or at least, like something living? I think the answer’s probably no, but there is an interesting relation between the complexity that some sorts of hypertext (particularly the fiction discussed by Landow), network graphs, and the living world that is worth thinking about. Most of that last sentence will only make sense after the next two lots of readings… So keep it in mind. Complex networks share common self organising structures/patterns, in both the natural world, and in hypertexts. Which is kinda spooky, kinda sci-fi, and kinda exciting. Anh thinks the idea of hypertext fiction is exciting, only to then decide the novel is the way to go. Except what if we just think of hypertextual fiction as not a novel, but still a work of literature? Then you get both. In relation to ‘authorial voice’ to date most hypertext fiction very much has an authorial voice, certainly as much as a novel. On the other hand there is plenty of experimental fiction, electronic and plain paper, that deliberately messes with any notion of authorial voice. So hypertext does not equal no author, though it can, but print has played that same game for a long time.

Please End It Nicely

Prani is not sure about books without specific endings. Note though, we have lots of examples of stories with indeterminate endings, even in traditional books and films, and also from ‘being swept into an author’s world’ it does not follow that there has to be determined ending. Soap opera is the canonical example of stories that, by definition, don’t end. Dickens is the template. Both have perfectly viable ‘worlds’. But the idea that we’re swept into the author’s world, now that is concept that is going to need some work. If nothing else, one thing university needs to instill is that the relation there needs to be reversed.

Lucy likes that Douglas isn’t a believer that books will die. Though Douglas was writing before the rise of the tablet and ebook readers that actually worked, so I think this claim is a bit more at risk now. Also here as media scholars the material nature of our media becomes problematic. What is a ‘book’ now? And if wrote a novel, and it was only ever available in various ebook formats, is it still a book? Why? At what point would this novel like thing not be a book? And outside of literature, is the book relevant? Why?