Click here: In This World You Matter

“Climb high enough in this not-quite world and you could lose your way between flying and falling. Blue above, blue below, soft bright white between; the waters of the earth and the waters of the firmament.

Wordhoard… Modally appropriate headgear…

Take him to the theatre who loves to dream. I still lose my way between falling and flying.

Had this been a virtual emergency you would have been. This sentence is nonsequential. Please identify the path. Please disregard.”

This passage from Stuart Moulthrops’s Reagan Library is both intriguing, and amusing, like a complicated riddle. The descriptions in this passage directly address the complex new world of digital media, the literary world of Reagan Library included. “Climb high enough in this not-quite world and you could lose your way between flying and falling.” This is exactly how I feel when reading digital texts, such as Reagan Library. On the one hand, I feel a sense of freedom—I can click on a number of different words, and they’ll lead me to different places. On the other hand, I have no idea which passage I am going to land on next. I cannot flip back a few pages to check a fact, or reread a character description. I must simply plummet forward into the text, no matter where it takes me, and hang on for dear life. While this is a thrilling reading experience, unbeknownst to me until quite recently, it is also unsettling.

A book, bound at the spine, with its pages in a definite, unchanging order, and exactly the same each time I pick it up, is comforting. I have hundreds of books lining my bookshelves, and when I walk away from a text for days, months, or even years, I don’t have to worry about it changing while I’m gone. The reading that was most frustrating to me, during our digital literature quest, was Stuart Moulthrop’s Hegirascope. I sat down at my computer, attempting to settle in with the text, as I would with a good book, pulled up the first page, and before I had reached the bottom, the screen changed! The page had “turned” of its own accord! I spent the rest of time reading each page at fast as possible, and when I finally decided to stop reading (I had absolutely no idea how far I was through the text, so I had to decide where to stop at completely random), I felt hurried and stressed, the opposite of how I feel after “curling up with a good book.”

The lines, “Blue above, blue below, soft bright white between; the waters of the earth and the waters of the firmament,” create a senses of this work being infinite. The vast waters of earth and the infinite sky, or “waters of the firmament,” give the reader a feeling of endless possibilities. This text can be arranged any which way you choose. You, as the reader, could read this text a dozen times, and each experience would be different. This point is driven further by the illustration of the blue water and the blue sky above the text. The reader can scan the illustration by revolving to the right, or to the left, and he can read further in the text by clicking on either of the underlined words, “wordhoard” or “dream.”

The passage above ends with, “Please identify the path. Please disregard.” This sort of instruction in a literary work directly addresses the reader, and indirectly tells him to make his own decision. You, as the reader, are not leashed into following the author’s set path—you can create a path, formed from your own decisions.

The rearrangement of the typical storyline and the remodeling of the plot, create a literary world of an entirely different structure. If we were to describe traditional literary storylines as roads—the reader starts at the beginning of a road, he views different sights in whichever order the author decided on, and finally meets the end of the road—everything has been mapped out already. The text is predetermined, and the reader has no say in journey—he is simply supposed to “hop in the author’s car” and go for a ride. Digital literature is different because it is interactive. Instead of resembling a road, it resembles a piece of still life that the author can observe at his own will—Moulthrops’s Reagan Library illustrates this point. The drawings above the text are able to be seen from different viewpoints, giving the sensation of standing in the center of the scenery, and slowing revolving on the spot, to observe the scenery at one’s own discretion. The author presents the reader with the material, and allows the reader to take part in the assemblage.

This is effectively illustrated by Shelly Jackson’s Patchwork Girl. The text allows the reader to click on different body parts (the truck, right arm, left arm, etc.) and the patchwork girl tells a story about the people from whom she received each of her body parts. The reader can click on the body parts in the order that he wants—sometimes he will be lead to a picture of the body part, and other times to a description. The entire experience is interactive, and allows the reader to become a part of the experience. This new digital literature essentially makes the reader into a character, himself.

This contemporary world of digital media opens endless possibilities. There are negative aspects to this newfound literature—it does not create such a leisurely reading experience; it is pieced together like a quilt (or rather a patchwork girl), which, although interesting, can be somewhat of a burden when one just wants to passively enjoy a text. However, there is equally as much positive at there is negative—I believe the key is to “think digitally” when taking on a work of digital media. I do not view these digital texts as a substitute for traditional literature, but rather as an addition. They are fascinating, and fun, and sometimes quite thrilling—it’s a foreign experience to feel like I am an active, contributing character in the novel, rather than a passive bystander. This digital world is full of new opportunities. I am eager to read more digital literary works to see where they take me, and where I, in turn, take them.

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2 Responses to Click here: In This World You Matter

  1. lightsabretoothtiger says:

    I think your assertions about the “blue above, blue below” is very true to the experience of reading works of digital literature. It is an endless experience, if you allow it to be. But the ocean does have an end–the ocean floor is there somewhere, even if it’s miles and miles below the surface, which I think is representative of our experiences with digital literature so far (as far as I can tell, none of us are still stuck in an endless loop of “Reagan Library”).

    I think the idea of endlessness is important to keep in mind while reading electronic texts. We’re so used to reading texts that effectively end, but what do we do when the texts we read have no conceivable or visual end? This is the challenge we have to overcome. As a society, we are used to keeping an end goal in mind, but, with electronic texts, we are unable to do this since we can’t even tell where the text truly begins much of the time.

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  2. This is a very interesting engagement w/ Moulthrop’s Reagan Library, and I appreciate your effort to ask bigger questions about electronic literature, but like lightsabretoothtiger, I would caution you against giving the reader as much agency as you do, as well as thinking about the “infinity” of the text. You say that “This text can be arranged any which way you choose.” You need to read the text much more carefully as this is certainly not the case with Reagan Library at all. In fact, the opposite is the case. The text arranges itself differently each time someone visits one of the geographic markers in the rendered environment, and it wholly depends upon how many times the user has visited a given place and how many other places they’ve visited that dictate what readers may see. In other words, the text appears to be deliberately “controlling” certain aspects of the reader’s experience and taking away their agency. Further, I urge you to temper the strands of utopianism in your reading (i.e., that electronic literature opens up endless possibilities) w/ much more careful attention to the text, particularly its irony, the way it challenges and deliberately thwarts meaning-making. The text reads, at one point: “Things will become clearer as you go.” I find it hard to take Moulthrop completely at his word here.

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