Reagan Library as Operationalized Rhizomatic Semiotics

Deleuze and Guatarri argue that traditional thought, philosophy (or at least our traditional understanding of such) is tree-like, in that it follows a linear pattern, branching off at various clearly-defined points. In these systems there is an origin, an end and cemented limits—and the literary modes created in the past mirror the system. Rhizomes, taken from a kind of root system found in nature, are non-linear, and non-hierarchical. The rhizome is a network without beginning or end, without center or periphery—it functions as a series of subterranean (root) passageways. It is an unclear, yet metric, coded plane (of potential structure) of passageways that so confuses the definition rhizome (can it really be “defined” in a holistic, rounded way?—can anything in it?)—there is a seemingly infinite, unfixed number of ways to get from one place to another.

In fact, “places” don’t so much exist.  Deleuze and Guatarri refer to points as mere plateaus that result from “a model that is perpetually in construction or collapsing, and of a process that is perpetually prolonging itself, breaking off and starting up again (20). The authors continually warn against the dualisms and tree-root structures of the past, those that exist as mere tracings of parts of the map.

The experimental interactive literature of the 1990’s is highly self-aware in its indebtedness to rhizomatic theory. It seems that each text that we have read attempts in some way to operationalize the concept a “collective assemblages” (language; signs) on the flattened plane of the internet (code; machine; object). As Deleuze and Guatarri explain, “collective assemblages of enunciation function directly within machinic assemblages; it is not impossible to make a radical break between regimes of signs and their objects” (7).

Turning to Stuart Moulthrop’s Reagan Library, the text works to expose the state of signs and objects within the network asking the reader to “consider the nonsequences.” The meaning of the text on each page in contingent on the makeup of that particular page at any point in the sequence of hypertext—it is also contingent on our memory of previous passages. There is a diminished causality to the page makeup—the system of passageways that form via hypertext isn’t readily distinguished by the reader, and the passageways are formed with or without our consent, as the pages change automatically. In this mode of readership, a sense of agency is lost, but the form mirrors the way language and story works in the distributed network. While we are free to make unabridged connections between and among the various sentences, the text offers no linear causality, no rising action, no formal structure to mediate our understanding.

Take, for instance, the following sentence assemblage:

Standing in the fire is good for you, or so the folks here tell me. Everyone needs to purge, and some more than most. The sad, eager doorman proceeds with caution. You don’t understand. This sentence is out of order. No response has been recorded. I’m afraid it’s serious hypertext. Who makes the world?

Nothing changes. There is no pain, for I have no body to suffer, but in the mind likewise nothing stirs.

The past remains closed to me… Catachresis five… Like putting out more noise to blight our fates… More than this… Limbic system error… Analog, digital…

This passage and many others ask us to consider the physicality of the text and of our own bodies in relation to the digital machine. “Limbic system error;” “no response has been recorded”—reads that we are cyborgs. “Catachresis” is a word used in several assemblages and it refers to a semantic misuse, or error in word choice given the context of a sentence (eg: using decimate for devastate). This refers again to the contingent meanings of anything in a rhizome–order or context or ideology, each as overarching systems of meaning, are rendered useless.

Reagan Library is a task in rhizomatic semiotics, and quite literally follows the structure of Deleuze and Guatarri’s blue-print:

…we watched lines leave one plateau and proceed to another like columns of tiny ants. We made circles of convergence. Each plateau can be read starting anywhere and can be related to any other plateau. To attain the multiple, one must have a method that effectively constructs it; no typographical cleverness, no lexical agility, no blending or creation of words, no syntactical boldness, can substitute for it. In fact, these are more often than not merely mimetic procedures used to disseminate or disperse a unity that is retained in a different dimension for an image-book (22).

This description begins with “we watched,” which conveys the “death of the author” mantra that they clearly believe in. The “plateaus” of Reagan Library operationalize this diminished authorship and the purposeful causality associated with it when the page-structures form at random. Recalling the passage above: “Who makes the world?”—certainly not the “authors” of this text.

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3 Responses to Reagan Library as Operationalized Rhizomatic Semiotics

  1. lightsabretoothtiger says:

    Diminished authorship isn’t something I had been thinking about while reading electronic texts, but definitely will be keeping in mind now. The question of who makes the world a particular text takes place in is interesting to consider. Surely, an author wrote the words that appear on the screen, but they don’t choose the order the words and passages are read in. A computer program and/or the reader does.

    It really puts into perspective how different electronic texts are from traditional texts. However, it also points out how unexciting and, dare I say, boring traditional texts can be. Electronic texts allow for so much more freedom than traditional texts do, both freedom of the reader to decide how to read the story and the freedom the text has to change.

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    • strikefacehwc says:

      I’m not sure I agree that interactivity within a text gives the reader more freedom necessarily. It can certainly give the appearance of agency, but ultimately any decisions about how to interact with the text must be contained in the text itself. Whether those options exist in its overt, interface-level content, or integrated within the code behind-the-scenes, the Creator of the work has control over the boundaries of interactivity.

      That being said, even contained within predetermined boundaries, content that exists only when “enacted” by the interaction of user and machine almost seems like a sort of performance art. Someone else has written the script, but ultimately the reader is putting on the show. I find that concept very interesting, especially as video games continue to dominate more and more of our narrative space.

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  2. I know I’m jumping the gun a little since we haven’t discussed Quantum Poetics: Six Thoughts by Stephanie Strickland, but I’ve decided to cover this piece for my third blog post and can’t help but feel obligated to draw blatant connections between Strickland’s piece and Deleuze and Guatarri’s Rhizomes. There seems to be this resonating idea in both works that the literary world has conditioned even the critical mind to to think through stale literary modes that operate along linear dimensions. They’re dimensions that possesses both a beginning and an end with an ability to trace “origins”. As you have quoted in your post, “in these systems there is an origin, an end and cemented limits—and the literary modes created in the past mirror the system”. It’s a point Strickland also discusses in the first segment of Quantum Poetics, entitled “Time Dimensions”. She discusses our understanding of time as a conviction we natural adhere to but essentially “we have no ‘feeling for,’ no intuitive sense of what it is to travel on a world line in an irreducibly compound space time. We do not understand kinesthetically that a world line never ends or begins, that it can time reverse without violating laws of physics”. Strickland interprets our presumptions of time, or what we believe time to be, as merely a feeling of progression and subsequently measure time through events and objects: solar and lunar cycles, the rhythms of the tide, the hear, the menstrual cycles, and etc. They’re constraining factors that perpetuate an adherence to thinking along linear world lines. So taking this into consideration and combining Strickland idea of time with Deleuze and Guatarri’s idea of the tree, both writer redefine or explore text/literature through different literary modes to thereby banish linearity and the tracing of origins.

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