So, despite the attention paid to hypertext with respect to contemporary avant-garde literary theory, and to tropes from physics, we can see how the docuverse enacts, simulates in fact, an intertextuality that demonstrates, through its non-linear symmetries, how entrapped we remain within the geometry that dominates our awareness.What I find much more interesting, and which in fact reinforces some of our intuitions about how the strategies of Deleuze and Guattari, specifically their notion of a micro-and-macro politics of creativity (influenced by Nietzsche, Bergson and Prigogine), is premised upon a liberatory state possible only with the death of Geometry. The RHIZOME Project is guided by this intuition. The fork-in-the-road, the bifurcation point in the history of a system, represents the moment when Nietzsche's Eternal Return acts upon a system, its always-already contingency destroying the sense of past and future. Made possible by geometry, this sense enables the evaluation of exigency with respect to expediency which is the cornerstone of classical rhetoric and of logocentrism. The destruction of this sense constitutes the horror of the avant-garde moment.How we construct an environment in hypertext to horrify our users seems to be the task at hand, but we have a long way to go before we can do this. We have to be willing to become horrified ourselves, and then ask whether this kind of terrorism constitutes the tactics that we wish to employ on our virtual battlefield. We can sense how Michael Joyce's notion of real-time hypertext, with its analogy to avant-garde jazz ensembles, or Donald Byrd's collaborationist Awopbopaloobop Groupuscle, and especially the dislocations inherent to Virtual Reality systems, may provide possible ways to create terror.Or, we may wish to take the next step and see contingency as Bergson, Whitehead, Fraser, Prigogine, and Deleuze and Guattari see it: the initial condition for all creativity in intellectual systems, and and for life in physical systems. Here we are back to valorizing creativity and freedom over non-linearity and system. But at least we are away from the model of hyper-freedom associated with Jung and the so-called New Physics, a "liberation" that celebrates a bankrupt transcendence complicitous with the prisonhouse of logos.-- Michael Rosenberg, "Contingency, Liberation, and the Seduction of Geometry: Hypertext as an Avant-Garde Medium" (1993)
Although people who have read other things I've said online may assume otherwise, I have not chosen this text because I think it's especially scintillating stylistically or intellectually. I find it just as tedious, pretentious, and pointless as you (likely) do. What I'd like to draw attention to instead is an element of Rosenberg's article that could only become apparent for the contemporary reader, 17 or so years later: the contrast between, for lack of a better set of words, its form and its content.
Is form is just what you would expect of a cultural-studies article written in the early nineties: bombastic, referentially overloaded in a curiously predictable way, full of blithe statements about large abstractions and tendentious interpretations of cultural commonplaces. In its preSokallapsarian innocence the text even displays no compunctions about quoting physicists alongside theorists. Content-wise, however, the story is somewhat different. A few theories about "hypertext" are referenced here (though, of course, from a critical point of view)--"its remarkable capacity ... to 'literalize' the post-structuralist notion of intertextuality," say, or "the capacity of 'wreaders' to jump through links from lexia to lexia, forwards, backwards--at the will of the reader in control of the cursor." Are these really that different, once the buzzword-mutandi are all appropriately mutati'd, from the way we talk about electronic writing, Internet communication, and "new media" today?
They aren't different. This point was driven forcefully home to me on Sunday, when I went to hear a colloquium about poetry and new media at Berlin's Akademie der Künste. My German isn't especially great, but I could understand almost everything that was being said--mainly because I had heard all of it so many times before. Enraptured astonishment at the idea that poetry could be presented non-linearly or centered on an "interactive decision-making process"; demonstrations of flashy and pointless online poetry-gadgets, which have in recent years begun to look more and more like the intros to corporate websites; airy theorizing about the way users interact with digital literary texts by people who wouldn't know a usability study if it smacked them upside the head with a copy of Writing Degree Zero. One particularly amusing story was related by an author and Slavist who, at one point, decided to make her next book online and interactive, until she actually tried to use it, and figured out that, in reality, a nice, linear printed page is a perfectly okay and even kind of comforting medium of expression. The only two important poets anyone brought up were Allen Ginsberg and Frank O'Hara (whose book Lunch Poems, when referenced by name, drew titters from the audience, as if no one had ever heard of it before), neither of whom, of course, ever got any mileage out of the Internet at all. In short, the panel (or at least the part I was present for) was a total fiasco unrelieved by any serious attempt to say anything interesting or new.
Nothing of what I've seen of the "digital humanities" or the discussion of literature on/and/with the Internet suggests that this panel was an exception to the rule. By and large, with the exception of a few narrow technical applications and "digitization" as such, the humanities have failed catastrophically to confront computer technologies with anything like the close attention that they deserve. The two most common responses are either empty, empirically disconnected theorizing--as described above--or vain attempts by Ye Olde Intellectuales to rally the forces of technophobia, nostalgia, and "I own more books than you do" puffery into a massively self-righteous holding action against anything electronic that might contaminate their precious, precious paper books. (Cue the inevitable pseudo-Proustian invocations of their special "smell" and "feel." Come on, you haven't opened that copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance since you finished eleventh grade; don't pretend you stand around on a regular basis smelling it.)
The problem, I suspect, begins with the very term "New Media" as well as its various analogues. It displays and justifies the kind of laziness that has consistently proven fatal to thoughtful study of the phenomena it is supposed to denote--as if the ability to get stock quotes and text messages on a cell phone were in some way the same as editing PDFs or watching pornography on a twenty-four- inch desktop display. An eighteenth-century book historian who conflated pamphlets, newspapers, books, and broadsides into some umbrella term like "print media" and then proceeded to make judgments about them in an abstract way would, at this point, be laughed out of the field, and a good thing too. (Well, that may, unfortunately, be an exaggeration.) Yet similar lapses occur all the time in discussions about "new media," and as a result, the various and constantly diverging directions of electronic communication have lost their uniqueness and distinct relevance for scholars of thought and ideas. The effect is apparent: the growth of a body of electronic practice that does fine without any theory at all, and a body of theory that is both stagnant and useless. (I should say that I don't have in mind the various digital-sociology studies that have emerged to continue Sherry Turkle's pioneering work in the field. It's a shame that humanities students rarely read them.)
My proposal, then, is simple: stop thinking about "New Media" as something that's always in the theoretical future, and start thinking of it as a wide-ranging flora of practices that's happening right now. This means more than making the occasional nod to YouTube (a uniquely poor medium for humanities anything, as users themselves tend to recognize) or Twitter, which, coming from us, sounds like a lame teacher referencing last year's hit song. It means recognizing that we don't live in the theoretical world of hypertext, where all literature follows a "decision-making structure." We live instead in a world where we consume lots and lots of linear media, sometimes skimming it, sometimes rereading it intensely--and this world is in some ways not all that different from the one that came before it. If we can painstakingly reconstruct how people read books in late-eighteenth-century London, we can reconstruct how they read their daily crop of RSS feeds today. What's more, we can think about it, we can debate it, we can consider its implications. Neurologists might be able to tell us whether the Internet really reduces our attention spans, but humanities specialists, if we make an effort, will be the ones best equipped to explain to \ the world what that will mean. If we don't, then what's the point of the job in the first place?