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.

You Them Us

Jackie has a very good reflective post coming out of unsymposium 0.3 about style, writing, imagined audiences and what her blog does. It is a good explanation if you’re still not sure what this idea of an audience and your blog is about, or who it might be. As she realises, her audience are probably people similar to you, and that this is your imagined audience. The cool thing about a blog, you can imagine this audience but over time an audience will arrive, if you have something to say to other people like you.

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.

Endings Aren’t Really Real

Georgia has an elegant post about things that don’t end. Or where endings become something else, less formal, known, predicted, and well, just plain organised. Like life. (Yep, one of the defences of something like hypertext and other messy forms is that it is more ‘realistic’ than realism in fiction because, well, the real world is not just so cause and effect as a novel pretends it to be.) Tony is not convinced about hypertext and fiction but does make the very accurate observation that wikipedia is a never ending hypertextual non fiction work. Absobloodylutely. It has no beginning (unlike a traditional encyclopaedia), no end, no last page, and as hypertext theorists tells, it really isn’t that hard to use or get our heads around. So, imagine a wiki novel…. (now there’s a project worth thinking about in the future with some students). Sian likes the idea but feels it might be like too much work (reading a multilinear work). As said in the unsymposium, think of them as musical, so you return to them, and let them find you over time (like that song you listened to once, didn’t like much, by the 5th listening you realise it’s actually pretty good, notice already the difference to the novel or the Goosebump series – the 5th time, because if these works are musical we need to read them more than once to let them show us their rhythms). They are also very well suited to some sorts of stories, not others, much like the novel (which sucks if you want to write something that wants to perform change rather than just describe it).

Damn You People Write a Lot

Turn my back and overnight 130 new blog posts have appeared. This is my first go at catch up. And just a heads up, if you are now blogging about readings and classes from any of weeks one, two, three, four, they won’t appear here.

Kevin writes about technoanxiety, and disagrees with Douglas’ claim about book sales. Though to be fair to Douglas things have changed a lot since she wrote the book, particularly with the rise of the franchised novel/film model which, will cinematically artless, is economically very powerful. The refusal to link out, bad idea, it is treated your blog as the internet version of a gated community, kiss of death for the network which is defined by and as its ability to connect (link). One reason some news sites collapse is because of their anxiety about ‘losing’ traffic. Except it is an economy that is about connecting, not funnelling. Boglarka wants to mourn books and notes that “I for one hat readings that are excerpts from a textbook online”. Absolutely, but Douglas et al are arguing for what these days media people like to call born digital works. Things that are made digital not scans, with all the bells and whistles that provides (lines that can stretch automatically to let you write notes between the lines, highlighters in different colours and the ability to automatically export all that you have highlighted, and so on).

Denham has notes on symposium 0.3 and also on books and the pleasure of the physicality. If only to know where you’re up to. However, an ereader like Marvin, for example has a very elegant interface element that automatically visualises where you are in the book, including where the current chapter is, where you are in the chapter, and how big the chapter is relation to the whole book. Even a print book can’t do this so elegantly. Brittany has some takeaways from the symposium too, picking up how books need to become beautiful things that provide very specific experiences to matter now. Lauren has another excellent summary, and yes Lauren, ‘automagically’ is a word we use in this space. Sophie also has notes, and loves books and her e-reader (me too, personally, and I’m serious, if you love what books do, rather than what they are as things, then how could you not enjoy some of the qualities digitisation brings?). And now I bring down the count to below 300 with Christopher thinking also about books, their physicality and the digital. For the fetishists out there, it was, oh, about five years ago when people still insisted that digital video would not replace film in high end production, or projection in cinemas. That argument is now over. Don’t even mention photography (because most of us aren’t professional photographers and are happy with our phones’ cameras, yet to a photographer this is a shocking as us as wannabe tv makers thinking using your phone for video is OK – personally I do – and so it is with books, we’re humanities people, books are our thing, but it doesn’t follow that it is everyone else’s, or that it will stay this way).

Unsymposium 0.3 VoxPops

Shannen’s jumbled notes, useful. Anna on what is one of the best blog posts I’ve read for a while. Thoughtful joining the dots, and while I am not sure I used the word “cadence” I wish I had and intend to do so from now on (thanks). Hypertext and new media is a different cadence (see) to literary reading, I have a chapter about it if you’re interested. Cuong also has good notes, picking up that all things have contexts. What we might not have made clear is that context is never, can never, be fixed. It is mercurial, so if all texts have contexts, and contexts are mercyrial, it follows that what we say, what they say, can never be pinned down. Things cannot say what they mean. Alas. Samuel continues to develop an intriguing voice, picking out an impressive range of salient points (think of the experience as peaks and valleys, which you prefer is up to you). And in relation to context, note how different these readings of the 50 minutes are, context, even in the same place at the same time. Mercurial indeed. Rebecca too has notes, and picks up on context and the multiple meanings of hypertext. I’d add more to that, hypertext is not just multiple meanings, but that the thing you read or watch each time changes in itself, so what we read is also multiple. This is important as it is not just that contexts around that book vary, but that when we read the book, each time the book (the words, the paragraphs) are different too. Anna C thinks the subject is like a hypertext, you need to feed the beast and make connections. Yes, and no. It does model a way the network is, you do need to prod it, but we also offer prompts and probes of our own. Torika thinks the bookstore, not the book, is dead. I’d suggest not quite, as a post some time ago celebrating the bookstore in relation to the experience it offers is what makes the valuable. (And why boutique stores have a better future than try to be all chains, hello Borders.) Patrick thinks about hypertext, music and has very interesting ideas about how books and publishing might look to music as a way to define a viable future (think that would be a very smart move).


I’m going to wield the magical big stick super powers I have a subject coordinator and veto some class decisions that were made about participation in relation to assessment. Specifically, if you claim to do something, and haven’t, then something should happen as a consequence. I’ll explain why, but first I’m doing this not because I think the alternatives developed or other options are wrong, but in the specific context of network media and the trust based assessment model we have adopted we want the idea of trust, reputation, and the concept of a trust or reputation network to be enacted. In this model trust is understood and defined as an obligation you have to another, it is not only a relation you have with yourself. Trust, in this deep sense, is where you have expectations of others and they, in turn, of you. I trust that my friend will do what she says she will do, the people I am collaborating with will do what they say they will do and that I even need to trust other drivers on the road to, pretty closely, follow the road rules, and I will too, so that it isn’t Russian roulette every time I decide to drive a car, or ride a bike.

In this way of thinking about trust we can see that it is not something I can define for myself. It is completely dependent on the judgement of others. It is not up to me to decide that I’m trustworthy – this is up to those that need to trust me to determine. This is similar (not identical, but similar) to how reputation works online. Your reputation as a blogger for example is determined by others judgement, often realised through readership, and more significantly, links in. This is why a twelve year old can be an authoritative fashion blogger, even they when they started they had absolutely no industry reputation or position at all. I could be employed as a fancy professor at an Ivy League university, but when I take up blogging, if my blog isn’t much good, then it simply isn’t much good and its reputation (and potentially mine) will be low. However, as a professor at an Ivy League university I don’t have to do much else to have reputation and authority within the university, simply because it is a hierarchical system and I am, by definition, a long way up towards the top. Being near the top bestows authority – the role and hierarchy guarantee this – whereas when I start blogging, my prestige from my position will probably help, but if I don’t walk the walk in my blog my real world position very rapidly counts for little. This is why we can think of it as a reputation network, because the authority of your blog is determined by others, not by the institutional granting of authority (they are a professor, they must know what they are talking about, they are employed by Vogue, what they think matters more than someone not employed in the fashion industry, they write for a music magazine so must know more than that blogger over there).

The participation assessment is repeating this. It relies on trust as you self audit your participation each week, but it only becomes a trust network when others are able to judge your trustworthiness. Remember, trust is not something you can self define, it relies fundamentally on your conduct in relation to others, and they are the ones who decide. (It is hard to build, easy to break, much harder, if broken, to restore.) Therefore for the participation assessment to become a trust network there needs to be consequences of breaking that trust. What those consequences are, well that I’m less concerned about then making it clear that trust is not something you are able to define for yourself – it is not up to me to claim that I’m trustworthy. I can think I am, I can claim I am, but the proof is what others say about me, not what I say about myself. Why? Because trust relies upon an ethical obligation to an other.