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PhD

Form & Content

Baldur linked to a summary of what’s wrong with hypertext fiction. And I find myself agreeing with an awful lot of what Ben Vershbow has to say:

“It’s always felt to me like a too-literal reenactment of Jorge Luis Borges’ explosion of narrative in The Garden of Forking Paths.

I’ve always found it odd how people (techies especially) seem to get romantic (perhaps fetishistic is the better word) about Borges. Prophetic he no doubt was, but his tidings are dark ones. Tales like “Forking Paths,” Funes the Memorious and The Library of Babel are ideas taken to a frightening extreme, certainly not things we would wish to come true. There are days when the Internet does indeed feel a bit like the Library of Babel, a place where an infinity of information has led to the death of meaning. But those are the days I wish we could put the net back in the box and forget it ever happened. I get a bit of that feeling with literary hypertext — insofar as it reifies the theoretical notion of the death of the author, it is not necessarily doing the reader any favors.

What are offered as choices — possible pathways though the maze — soon start to weigh like chores.”

I’d largely agree with those summaries. There’s nothing massively wrong with the nature of hyperfiction, it’s just, well, stunted. The possibilities are somehow self-limiting, and in a way that bothered me when I first studied it in any detail a few years ago, and it’s what prompted my endorsement of Tlön Uqbar’s structure as an alternative to Paths in the thesis:

Borges’ tactic, employed, among others, by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose and Mark Danielewski in House of Leaves, asks the reader to participate in the construction and construction of an illusion. In addition to simply reading a narrative, they are complicit, in their assumption that each imagined text referred to exists outside of the narrative, in calling those writings into existence. This subtle displacement of the reading experience is used to a lesser extent within all fiction; the reader conjures into existence characters, settings and motivations described by the author; however Borges, Eco and Danielewski conjure something more than simply a reader’s imagination. Initially, the fictional realms of Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius only exist within the volumes described by Borges’ text. However, evidence subsequently surfaces that this may not be the case. Borges raises questions about the nature of the creative act: might imagination, to some extent, manifest reality? The interactive process, as has been suggested earlier in this thesis, represents an opportunity to co-author an emergent text. If the displacement of reader into participant within Borges’ text is reminiscent of an ergodic reading experience, it is through similar instances of narrative, and reading, disruption, that interactive authorship manifests itself.

To me, that’s a far richer use of the medium, the imaginative potential of it, and the degree to which reader and author pool their resources in the creation of an interactive text.

But it bothered me, because that explanation (the one from me, above) seemed too pat, too easy, and seemed to be missing something about the nature of writing. Then this morning I remembered something in Robert Bond’s book on Iain Sinclair. With reference to Charles Olson’s take on poetry:

The (third) feature was ‘the process of the thing, how the principle can be made so to shape the energies of the form that is accomplished’. Yet ‘the principle’ (the second feature of composition by field) was that ‘FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT’, and for Olson the poem’s content holds more than  its own drive towards form: he calls this ‘the going energy of the content toward its form’.”

So, applied to a meta-level critique of hyperfiction; the form of the thing is defining the content, constraining it within a set of principles that shape it insofar as its content (conversely) can only exist as an extension of that form. It’s an approach to writing interactive narrative that has its head on backwards. If the field was concerned with content first, with the form being directed by the subject and content one is writing about (which is partly what the Nouveau Roman is striving toward too), then what results, or what has a decent chance of resulting, is a native form, and one that breaks out of the constraints of accepted and somewhat formulaic hyperfiction.

Discussion

3 comments for “Form & Content”

  1. “It’s always felt to me like a too-literal reenactment of Jorge Luis Borges’ explosion of narrative in The Garden of Forking Paths.”

    You took the words right out of my mouth. Too forking literal.

    Posted by mongo | March 4, 2008, 6:01 pm
  2. Mmmmmmmm burgers

    Posted by Andrew Crist | March 7, 2008, 12:05 pm
  3. Burgers explosion

    Posted by Andrew Crist | March 7, 2008, 12:05 pm

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