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don't believe the hype(rtext):
a meta-meta-criticism of meta-criticism
by curt cloninger

"The banks are like cathedrals, Since casinos took their place."

-- U2

I don't really know what the above lyric means, but it sounds so good. Did the casinos replace the banks, or did the casinos replace the cathedrals? It's not really clear. Maybe casinos replaced cathedrals in that people are now worshiping money, gambling on fate rather than trusting God. If so, then why are the banks now like cathedrals? The banks house money, so there is some connection between casinos and banks. That's about as far as I can take that interpretation. Or maybe the lyric is saying that casinos replaced banking, so gambling is now considered as conservative as investing, and investing is so conservative that it is considered medieval worship, and cathedrals are so conservative they don't even exist anymore. What we have here is a great pop lyric that makes a lousy meaningful sentence.

Great Concept/Lame Art

Similarly, hypertext literature is a wonderful subject for discourse, theory, and intellectual hobnobbing; but in the final analysis, there's really not that much to it. Insofar as hypertext binds the Web together, it's wonderful. Insofar as hypertext allows multimedia Web art to function, it's great glue. Insofar as hypertext comprises a new literary genre, it's about as riveting as those "write your own story" books that came out when I was a kid ("If you choose to fight the dragon, turn to page 72. If you choose to elope with the maiden, turn to page 287").

Like Dadaism, some things are better in theory than in execution. The iconoclastic idea of Duchamp's urinal as art is much more impressive than the urinal itself. And of course, that was Duchamp's point. Likewise, the elaborate theories expounded on interactive novels and stream-of-consciousness-enabled poetry make much better reading than the hypertext poems and novels themselves. Jorge Louis Borges foretold interactive literature in his 1941 short story, "Examen de la Obra de Herbert Quain" from the collection Ficciones . The story itself is not interactive literature; instead, it is faux criticism of a piece of non-existent interactive literature. Even back then Borges must have known what I've recently come to suspect: Critical theory of non-linear text is much more fun to write and read than non-linear text itself!

Of course many a progressive online literary magazine might not agree with me, but I have two good objections: 1) Text yes, but why hyper? and 2) Hyper yes, but why text? Catchy, concise, and very, very linear. I'll present these two objections later down the line, but first...

What exactly is hypertext?

The Web has inundated our culture with reams of new technologies and communication paradigms over the last five years. Consequently we're so overwhelmed with buzzwords, we can't tell a neo-media environment from an interactive literary community. (Or was it net banking, or did online casinos take their place?) So what exactly is hypertext?

Hypertext is just text that links. OK? That's it.

Much has been written about the wondrous paradigm-shifting nature of "the linking event." For example, isn't it interesting how the human mind interprets the Web as a place? We feel we are hopping from site to site, when in reality, we are merely requesting different documents from different machines, and those documents are being sent to our machine while we don't move at all.

Argh! See how tempting it is to expound on the depths of the interactive Web experience? Here I am writing an article trying to debunk our overblown fascination with hypertext, and even now I am succumbing to the temptation. Theorize on, dear friends. I won't cast stones.

Hypertext without the Web and its resources is really nothing much. Tim Berners-Lee originally invented HTML to allow physics researchers to communicate with each other via the Internet in a way beyond mere e-mail and file transfer protocol. Tim's purpose for adding the hypertext element to his markup language was twofold:

1. If I have a table of contents at the beginning of my long physics paper, I no longer have to say "Chapter 5: Non-linear experiments in fluid dynamics (p. 45)." I can merely link all that text straight to page 45, and leave out the reference to page 45. So hypertext was originally meant to save its readers the trouble of having to "flip through" the digital pages of their digital documents.

2. If in my physics paper I want to refer to another physics paper, and I know the location on the Internet of that other paper, I can send my readers straight to that other paper via hypertext. Let's liken this function to using the yellow pages, except instead of reading a number from the Yellow Pages and dialing it into a phone manually (the old ftp method), you simply press the number right there in the directory itself, and the phone number is dialed for you (the new HTML method). Sure, a great time saving device, but an advancement in literature?

We all know what Berners-Lee's Hypertext Markup Language spawned, namely Ye Olde Web. But note, Berners-Lee wrote his markup language for research papers and physics databases. Is there a difference between reading an instructional manual and reading a novel? You bet. The former is non-linear, and the latter is linear. And necessarily so.

Objection #1: Text yes, but why hyper?

Wordsworth subscribed to a theory of organic poetry which I find instructive. It's been a while since college, and I'm grossly oversimplifying, but basically Wordsworth says that every piece of a poem should be essential, adding to the whole. A poem should be constructed so that if any bit were added or removed, it wouldn't work. Furthermore, a poem should be organic like a flower is organic. A poem should begin as a seed and proceed into full blossom so that each part rightly relates to the parts which precede and follow it in sequence. A good poem should grow from beginning to end. In other words, linear cohesion is part and parcel of good poetry.

Flashing back to middle school plot diagrams, you've got your initial incident which builds to a climax and then falls to a resolution. It's left to right, in a sequence, in a line. It actually is a line, come to think of it. And why is it that good poems and good stories by their very nature tend to be linear?

The answer has to do with the nature of existence, space, and time. We exist in a sea of millions of possible future events that may or may not happen. Every day we wake up and begin bringing into existence a series of those possible events, turning them from the possible into history, and stringing them together in a chronological line. We call this activity "life." We enjoy stories and poems about life that proceed from beginning to end, because we live life in time from beginning to end. Tension and release are the essential elements of pleasure. "Will such and such happen? I'm waiting... I'm waiting, Yes! It did happen!" So great writing is writing that presents a meaningful mediated "life experience." And since our life experience is linear, non-linear writing is less likely to be great writing.

Do you have the burning desire to describe several possible linear life experiences? Write several novels. Otherwise, your single hypertext novel will just wind up having the dramatic impact of the end of Wayne's World. If there's more than one ending, then there's really no ending at all.

Films like Groundhog Day are amusing because they ask, "what if life weren't linear?" But note, Groundhog Day is still a linear movie commenting on non-linear/cyclic possibilities. If every time you watched Groundhog Day the movie itself changed order, how would that increase the impact of the narrative? (I dare say the same holds true for Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, stream-of-consciousness as it may be.) Once again, a linear analysis of a non-linear event proves more compelling than the non-linear event itself. Was Bill Murray's character enjoying his non-linear life in Groundhog Day? Or was his life very disorienting and frustrating? Most non-linear writing is just that: disorienting and frustrating to read. Are you into near-Broadway impromptu theater where actors throw fruit at you and verbally berate your grandmother? Do you enjoy that kind of paradigm-shifting avant-garde experience? Then curl up to a cozy hypertext novel and suck marrow, baby.

Objection #2: Hyper yes, but why text?

I used to teach a class on Web site design at a two-year technical college. When we got to the "make a site with whatever you want on it" phase, everybody wanted to write about their cat. Second only to the pet-glorification sites were the hypertext poem/essay sites. "Look, I wrote a poem where one word in the poem links to a second page with an entirely new poem based on that first word. And look, in the second poem there is another word where if you click on it..."

The reason my students were drawn to these hypertext poems was that we hadn't yet gotten to graphics. Once they knew how to create and incorporate images in their pages, the hypertext poems suddenly seemed old-school. That's the way I feel about hypertext literature. With so much media converging on the Web, why not use the Web's interactivity to do something other than merely write words?

My favorite piece of interactive art (apart from the universe) is the CD-ROM "game" "Riven." If you're going to ask me to forge the outcome of your art, then at least make me the main character and give me some moving objects and people to look at and listen to so I can have some virtual fun. In other words, make a fully mediated world and drop me in it (vis-ą-vis Nell's primer in Neil Stephenson's The Diamond Age). Otherwise, I'll just continue to enjoy the media-rich interactive experience that is my life, while occasionally reading sci-fi novels.

Interestingly, Robyn Miller, the primary creator of "Riven," has now gone into linear filmmaking. His reason? Greater control over one's narrative leads to the construction of a greater narrative. There's no chance your viewer is going to wander into a corner, or go out of order, or never arrive at the main point. You can choose the one plot that most communicates your message, hone that plot for maximum impact, and then present it with the assurance that if your viewer doesn't get it, it wasn't for your lack of trying.

Personally, "Riven" rocks my world. I do get it. I also get and enjoy many interactive multimedia Web installations. Yes, interactivity does immerse and involve me in art by empowering me, but what exactly is it that I'm empowered to do? Am I empowered to blend various audio loops and in so doing create a correspondent video collage? (See Peppermint Lounge). Am I empowered to modify a surrealistic landscape by tweaking various controls that are themselves part of the ever-changing landscape? (remember the old snarg.net?) Or am I merely empowered to wander around a few discrete word chunks that I can only read but can't rewrite or influence in any major way? The first two interactive multimedia scenarios empower me to co-create my own unique immersible experience, the last raw hypertext scenario empowers me to be disoriented and bored.

In the final analysis, hypertext literature may prove to be the deconstructivist critic's secret fantasy realized: a literary genre better known for its literary criticism than for its actual literature. Personally, I'd rather pore over obscure U2 lyrics. How are banks like cathedrals? Let me count the ways...

Copyright © 2000 Curt Cloninger. All Rights Reserved.

Curt Cloninger lives at lab404.com . He likes his art with a bit of beauty to it. Anything else is just an idea.

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