Cherchez le texte: Proceedings of the ELO 2013 Conference

E-Literary Text in the Nomadic Cockpit

Janez Strehovec

New mobile technologies shape the way people communicate and perceive reality. Our basic position is the nomadic cockpit (expression coined by the author of this essay) in terms of one being armed with many of the navigating and controlling mobile screenic devices (from cell phones and tablets to consoles, cameras, and various players). When we move around in our surroundings armed with such devices we steadily perceive the data shown on the screen of such a device, which means that both the visual and aural interfaces are integrated in our experience of walking or riding through the environment. Virtual data approaching from the remote context on the screen are related to and coordinated with our basic, non-mediated perception from the physical here and now. Such a digital technology, provoking one’s hands on controls activity becomes incorporated in the experience and understanding of our being on the move.

The focus on mobility and the corporeality addressed by it is close to the cultural shift in contemporary philosophy, where the linguistic, discursive and textual give way to the material, biological, life, event-driven, and post-political (Negri 2011; Agamben 1998; Virno 2004; Thacker 201). By shifting the focus on life, biopolitics and the body, the political issues that concern movement, feelings, affects, and broader perception issues are also highlighted, particularly with regard to the art and (new) media (Hansen 2003; Massumi 2011). When we are addressing the philosophical issues on one’s mobility, De Certeau's regards on pedestrian’s tactics should also be taken into account.

It is characteristic of recent communication with mobile screenic devices that the latter introduce users into situations based on the virtualization of space, for they smoothly incorporate remote data into the user's current position and the “text” connected with it. Such devices, which presuppose the disappearance of hard and fast boundaries between physical reality and virtual worlds, are changing the way we perceive geographical space and encouraging new forms, not only of communication, but also of behavior, movement and participation. The body is stimulated to behave in a special way, one required for mobile phone conversations, which would come off as artificial and unnatural when compared with its ordinary posture and movements. We encounter a series of specific responses of the body to the mobile screenic device; taking a call often requires that we stop, move away from the chosen path, stop and start walking in a new direction. Likewise specific is the way individuals turn away from their physical interlocutors in such moments, the way they cover their mouths and search for a closed-off privacy needed for a calm conversation with a distant caller.

In the present, it can be seen that an individual's path is a function of data being received in real time via mobile screenic devices, including the individual's nomadic cockpit. On the path from point A to point B the individual has an incoming call, which she directs to point C. When she reaches that point there is no guarantee that she will then direct herself to the original destination of point B, but might keep going towards point D, based on a received call or other crucial information, for instance, about the road and weather conditions, which she looked up on the mobile screenic device. The individual's path is a journey, constantly interrupted and modified by different pieces of information and feedback loops. Such a trajectory is non-linear, the contingent, the speeded-up by means of technological advances that occur in networks, in which the flow of data is too fast for the cause-and-effect way of behavior and thinking.

From physical mobility to the e-text on the move

Similar uncertainty arising from mobility and stopping in intermediary positions, defined by the before and after, the not-yet and not-anymore, also accompanies electronic literary text (as one of the topic of this essay), which is a variable, uncertain entity that seems very nervous to a static observer; let's call it a textscape on the move. It is displayed on desktops and laptops and is even more conspicuous on tablets and mobile phones, on which digital literary texts are also starting to be placed, i.e. projects of current electronic literature. This places increasing importance on new media specificity and integration into an algorithmic culture as the principal culture of the present (Strehovec 2012).

This direction is not held by e-writers alone; in the present we are contemporaries to a number of projects in new media art that likewise use such devices, especially in connection with mobile, locative, and tactical media. Along with this practice there are also attempts in generating projects on locative literature, which is in fact disseminated by locative media. Such a practice should not be strictly speaking considered as electronic literature. In describing one such project, Anders Sundnes Løvlie writes:

The most important outcome of the flâneur game, then, is not in the literary texts as they appear on screen, but in the exploration of a new way of perceiving and interacting with the urban environment. Thereby, the texts take on a certain documentary quality – in that they are produced from raw materials that are found in the urban environment. (2013)

In contrary to such movements in locative literature, which is first and foremost born mobile and locative, the electronic locative literature is bound to the screen and deploys the new media specificity as well as the mobility and the speed issues (say, it is born digital as well as mobile and locative).

When discussing e-literature on mobile screenic devices, we must also draw a line between projects that merely use such a device as a medium for e-literary projects that could also be viewed on stationary computer screens and between projects made exclusively for mobile screenic devices, which are adapted to the experience of new modes of mobility. One of the projects that make good use of the advantages of mobility and locative networks is AndOrDada by Bauer and Suter, which is based on an application prepared for the Android operating system.

This piece (subtitled by the road poem), which also has a significant audio feature (the live changeable text is read aloud) is prepared with the intention of generating text depending on the user's passing through locations. The application produces text-under-transformation, depending on the user's path (walking, driving), when the input captured by wide local area network communications at a certain location influences the flow of the text and modifies it. In short, this project expands the area of e-literature by opening itself up to direct influences from the environment. Rather than being a means through which the urban spatiality is formed, the mobility as bodily situated practice generates in a case of AndOrDada also by new media technologies shaped textual event.

Such an event based on mobile and locative experience occurs in a world whose main quality is speed, which implies a special constellation, defined by greater or smaller speed, acceleration, riding, and racing. Without being familiar with the hardware and software that generates contemporary textuality, William S. Burroughs wrote in The Invisible Generation:

Take any text speed it up slow it down run it backwards inch it and you will hear words that were not in the original recording new words made by the machine different people will scan out different words of course but some of the words are quite clearly there and anyone can hear them words which were not in the original tape but which are in many cases relevant to the original text as if the words themselves had been interrogated and forced to reveal their hidden meanings. (2000, 218)

Burroughs was fascinated with the capabilities of the tape recorder, whose functions he applied to textual material. His essay, from which this quote was taken, dates from 1962 and everything in it focuses on the technical manipulability of text, which experienced an actual bloom only with the new generation of technologies, namely those that are based on computers and digitization. In any case Burroughs's reference to speed and the acceleration as a generator of new mode by which the modern textuality operates is important even with regard to e-literature as a practice based on placing the textual components into the dry run condition.

Speed brings things to clarity, to an experimental and accelerated state, which makes them to the motion in the sense of riding as an as much as possible intensive, (in the popular culture, e. g. in theme park attractions) often by the loops shaped experience. Such a mobility implies even the condition of being endangered, which the German expression Erfahrung used by Walter Benjamin alludes to etymologically; the expression contains both Fahrt (ride) and Gefahr (danger). In a certain way both of these components are also involved in the English term 'experience', since when one experiences something, one moves around it and if one goes too far, one becomes endangered. Speed is also experienced in e-literary texts (for example in electronic animated poetry and poetry generators), when one “rides” the tapes of words-images-in-motion, yet at the same time with regard to text/film one tries to capture and perceive that which has not yet been included in the ride, is not accelerated and is outside the field of vision, but is also important for the understanding of such a screenic text (Strehovec, 2010).

AndOrDada as a piece of locative textual art presupposes both the motion and Erfahrung, because “in locative media representation becomes secondary in comparison to the sensorial experience” (San Cornelio, Ardevol, 2011), which relates in a same time to textual and physical ride. What is still essential for, let's say, the philosophy of AndOrDada and other pieces of locative e-literature, such as Strange Rain by Erik Loyer (which is formed for iPhone, iPod-touch and i-pad)? First of all it should be mentioned that it concerns an application accessible to a broad circle of users of mobile phones with this OS. The reader/user of the application is by no means not the only one familiar with e-literature (and with mobile and locative media); this application can address an ordinary user as well, for whom this project presents the first, perhaps completely accidental encounter with e-literature, which means that such practice has a highly democratic nature. What is crucial for the understanding of e-literary projects for mobile and locative media is primarily that which comes from the new phenomenology of mobility and location crossing, which means that we are no longer dealing with static forms of reading, but with, for instance, two readings/riding. Namely, one that defines the very journey into artificial e-literary worlds and one that derives from the various physical movements of the reader, i.e. the reading/riding in a physical space.

Suddenly, both rides are important, as well as their interactions (including intervals between them in terms of in-between). This creates a new experience of e-literary space, one that is more complex than interactivity, as seen in opposition to immersive effects. Now the text comes to life during a ride in the physical space, because the user is constantly stimulated by the adventure of the ride, as several crossings (and feedback loops between both rides, the textual and the user’s) provide richer perception and experience of e-literary text, which is the case of AndOrDada.

In relating to this “road poem,” we can talk upon the expanded textuality as a result of stable textual scheme overlaid with mobile informational texts considered as a derivative of writing on the move. Such an expanded textuality that is flexible and nervous to a greater extent is a result of our ability to “move physically/spatially and virtual/informational at the same time” (Lemos 404-405). We are facing a new mode of textual experience in terms of relational text, which is increasingly experienced as shifting, variable and contingent. Such a text is an outcome of our traversing of the relational space generated at the intersection of various practices, discourses, tactics and (bio)politics. AndOrDada also demonstrates that it is no longer point in addressing the e-literary text as being only generated by the author. On the contrary, such a textuality merges into a hybrid one, where one meets both the author's text and the platform text that is shaped with the networks and transmitted by GSM, GPS, CCTV, UMTS, WIFI, and RFID. We live in a mixed and augmented reality, such is also the text consisting of the author's text and by the components of algorithmic culture generated and contextualized textual components.

In the world of reading/riding

In such e-literary projects it is the very integration of mobility (ride) in the physical world that distinguishes the perception and reading of these projects from the reading of traditional texts on mobile phones and e-book readers (e. g. kindle). The philosophy of the latter manner of reading characteristically employs new technology to continue the reading-as-we-know-it, the only change being that it takes place in new locations with the use of new devices. Its aim is the transfer (e. g. the mental ride) of the reader into fictitious worlds, which is adapted to new locations only. Let us mention the project Shadows Never Sleep by Aya Karpinska, a special example of e-literary work for mobile phones, which inventively uses the specificity of Apple multi-touch displays (on iPhone, iPod touch and iPad), which the author expressed with the syntagms “zoom narrative” and “read by zooming." However, this app does not make use of the effects of pedestrian mobility and mobile networks.

On the other hand, e-literature in projects such as AndOrDada takes into account the context (including the new media paratexts and other nonverbal metadata), the materiality of the non-transparent interface, the specificity of the location and the networking junctures, and introduces this experience into the very concept of e-literary work, which lives off the contents and stimuli received in real time in a specific location, to which it directs the algorithm that is integrated into such a piece.

Through the emphasis on relationality found in such projects, an understanding of context as something open and constantly shifting rather than static emerges, an understanding similarly suggested by socially-oriented locative media projects where what is at stake is not just placing data or locating objects but a dynamic relationality that occurs through the overlapping of different kinds of mapping - geographical, social network, etc - within social interfaces to places ( (Hemment 2004)

Also characteristic of the philosophy of such a piece is that in the age of new media we are encountering an expanded concept of authorship, defined as an art platform (Goriunova 2011). The today’s pluriverse of texts contains both authorial texts written in natural and artificial languages and texts that are machine generated, or a hybrid of the two, as are the poetry generators.

In the case of AndOrDada we encounter an expanded concept of reading/riding, which denotes corporeal experiencing of texts beyond the traditional reading in the sense of meaning decoding and linguistic comprehension (Hoover and Gouch 1990). The reader is a flaneur, who integrates the perception of location in a real standpoint as well as the data she receives from various networks via smart screenic devices that are included in her nomadic cockpit, into her mobile experience. The reader gains “more” from the ride or walk by completing her experience of the real location with the data contents that are being generated in that location and distributed via networks. If the reader enters into the dispositif of reading an e-text such as AndOrDada, it makes sense for her to open up to such multi-modal textuality and follow the moving road poem on the screen. The algorithm for this poem enables the entry of new textual units into the basic poem structure. The reader must also possess prior knowledge in order to experience and read such an e-text. She must start by obtaining as much data as possible on the piece (e. g. reviews, documentation, metadata and statements considered as new forms of paratexts), and becoming acquainted with the new media art of mobile and locative media, with e-literature and similar projects in particular. In order to read, understand and experience such a piece properly one must also possess new media literacy (as an ability to navigate the new media contents) and abandon the established horizon of expectations on textual specificity (Jauss’s term) defined with the print based literature.

Today we are witnessing the closeness of the newer generation of e-literature with new media art, so now let us devote our attention to a typical new media work of art in the field of mobile and locative media. The project The Transborder Immigrant Tool, created by the Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 aims to re-appropriate widely available technologies to be used as a form of humanitarian aid. Such an artistic 'tool' consists of an inexpensive GPS cell phone and custom software. The software directs the user of the phone toward the nearest aid site, be that water, first aid or law enforcement, along with other contextual navigational information. This is accomplished by a Java based application, written by Brett Stalbaum, which accesses the phone's ability to receive GPS information without needing to send out data, that might allow the user to be located or network connectivity.The Transborder Immigrant Tool can be seen as part of a larger shift from tactical media to tactical bio-politics.The EDT seeks to engage the political potential opened up by technologies which can serve to improve people's lives directly, including medical technologies and systems such as GPS.

On the other hand, if we take a look at e-literature, we can find out that this field in its extreme forms, primarily revolutionizes language itself, redefining narrative in terms of replacing its linear forms with the more abbreviated and multi-medial storytelling, establishing a laboratory for the experiencing of the letter and the word under new media conditions (for example, the practice of e-poetry generators and John Cayley’s "Writing to be found" with Google). E-literature also challenges reading by focusing on arrangements of words in a mode of illegibility (e.g. Jim Rosenberg’s Diagrams series). However, with regard to experiencing new forms of social engagement, it is less radical than new media art.
Furthermore, e-literature and new media art are faced with the challenge of significant shifts in their functionality as we know them, as both are expanding the area of activities and aims far away from the canon and the functions of art and literature. E-literary projects are becoming increasingly post-literary in the sense that they are abandoning literariness, narrative, metaphysical qualities and evoking lyrical atmospheres, and are placing other qualities and tasks to the fore, including those that e-literature has in common with new media art. What is essential for the latter is that it is post-aesthetic and post-artistic, meaning that it no longer places aesthetic and artistic values in the foreground, nor the aspirations to exhibit in the traditional places (and institutions) of art that are connected with them.

Since the origins of new media art we have been contemporaries of a strong tendency towards a spectacle, produced with high-tech, towards the surface and the play of attractive signifiers, stimulating the senses (at the beginning of the 1990s, the Ars Electronica festivals promoted first and foremost such pieces). Yet today it seems that an artistic performance of a pure event and of “intensities of direct sensual stimulation” no longer suffices (Darley 2000, 3). It is expected from this practice to contribute some surpluses in outlining the alternative politics (hactivism), alternative approaches to scientific research, as well as on the level of the social organization of life itself and ethics (i.e. helping people in need, spreading literacy). E-literature has a strong presence in this, especially when it concerns education for new media (e. g. digital) literacy and for the critique of metaphysics, connected with the traditionalist literary pedagogy and with the role of the author-genius-brand.

Toward the subtle experience of digital tangible

The new media shaped texts are intended for screenic presentation, which is why we always read them on a very specific technological platform that (over)determines the accessibility of the text, its manipulability, and its ways of reading. The crossing over from the text's physical presence to its digital expanse on the screen presents theories of reading with certain problems.

The reading process and experience of a digital text are greatly affected by the fact that we click and scroll, in contrast to tactilely richer experience when flipping through the pages of a print book. When reading digital texts, our haptic interaction with the text is experienced as taking place at an indeterminate distance from the actual text, whereas when reading print text we are physically and phenomenologically (and literally) in touch with the material substrate of the text itself. (Mangen 2008, 405)

In fact, in the process of reading we are not in direct physical relation with the e-literary text (we do not touch the pages of printed text, nor turn them), yet this is by no means a drawback. On the contrary, e-text is there in a very subtle interface-shaped dispositif, so that we are in a certain sense closer to it than we are on the printed textual platform, which presupposes merely a sort of rudimentary turning of the pages. Let us note here that turning the pages, touching the paper, and even sensing its scent undoubtedly signals the presence of a text in the reader's physical proximity; however these activities are accompanied by the reader's powerlessness to simply reach into the text and manipulate it. On the other hand, with an e-text we encounter the subtle, interface-based presence of the reader/user in the text itself in terms of her identification with the cursor as a moving avatar, which marks the reader’s position in the textscape. In the digital text the reader is in fact where the cursor is, while the latter is in near proximity to the word itself and to its atomic units – letters. Furthermore, the cursor is not there as a coincidental ornament but is an active factor that can erase a letter, add a new one, or insert a punctuation mark, that is to say, alter the text from the inside in such a way that its operations can be concealed (it is impossible to do this with a printed text). Rather than being a simple opposition (e.g. the material tangible vs. intangible information), the digital and the tangible are linked by new media technologies that enable subtle forms of, let us say, the digital tangible. Such a tangible is not something concrete: we are not dealing with visible and operations, but with very subtle ones. The touch (sense) at work with the digital tangible is a “sense theoretician,” since it is a sense that does not grab in a rough physical relation but functions precisely through its avatar in the textscape. The term “sense theoretician” was coined by Karl Marx in the following context:

The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present. The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as food.(…) The care-burdened, poverty-stricken man has no sense for the finest play; the dealer in minerals sees only the commercial value but not the beauty and the specific character of the mineral: he has no mineralogical sense. (…) The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object – an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians. They relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man. (Marx 2011)

What is crucial in Marx's notion on human senses is the very historical (e.g. changeable) attitude to them. They are mutated across the history, and this point is of significance also in a moment, when we draw upon the senses engaged within the present interface culture, and their deployment in the cognition of digital literature.

We have seen in the previous sections of this paper that the mobile and locative media presuppose one’s mobility and her feedback with regard to the current location, in which the user enters the network. For art and e-literary projects in locative media are significant that they also deploy the sense of touch, which is stimulated by the very nature of tactile interfaces (e.g. touch screens). By referring to mobile and geolocative pieces Kathi Inman Berens argues that “touch became more than navigation; it was also a way to engage the characters.” The touch that contributes to the storytelling itself is not a vernacular one, because it causes the event to happen. Therefore, it could be named a touch theoretician even in terms of aforementioned Marxian theory of sense theoreticians. The touch theoretician is self-learning touch, which makes progress over the ages of its experiencing.

One of the significant works in the field of e-literature, which stages the material/immaterial problem as well as the subtle issue of touching within the interface culture is Serge Bouchardon’s Toucher. Touching ever means exploring, there is a certain curiosity that generates the touch as a sense of proximity and of movement (the touching hand gets more information, when it moves around the object). In Toucher the shift from immediate touching to the interface mediated and driven one is thoroughly demonstrated. The touching requires in this piece an interface mediation by the mouse, microphone, and webcam. Such a subtle touching experience reveals a lot about the way we touch multimedia content on screen, as well as the reading of e-literary contents. We enter them by interfaces, reading mutated to interface reading (e. g. the mouse reading, the term coined by the author of this essay). The reader of this piece is actually the user, provoked to access the text by means of sophisticated interface shaped procedures that include various modalities of touching. This piece demonstrates that its reading is first and foremost by the interface shaped sophisticated experience, which stimulates various senses and puts the reader-user into the riding adventure as an event that stimulates several senses and provokes reader/user’s corporeal and kinesthetic participation.

New generations of digital devices and interfaces most assuredly provoke new forms of perception and action. Their user is expected to enter novel generation of objects and events in a way which basically discerns from her pre-technological relation to reality. With a stylus or touch screen we can come into very direct, although virtual contact with the word, contact that is much more immediate and intimate than using a typewriter, which means that these devices once again establish an immediate relation between the body (in fact, the hand) and the word. This is why they are not subject to Heidegger’s critique intended for the fate of the word in a time of the typewriter :

The hand is, together with the word, the essential distinction of man...Man does not `have' hands, but the hand holds the essence of man, because the word as the essential realm of the hand is the ground of the essence of man...The typewriter tears writing from the essential realm of the hand, i.e. the realm of the word. The word itself turns into something "typed". (Heidegger 1992, 80)

Heidegger was unsettled by the fact that the typist uses a keyboard set in front of her, that she touches only the keys while the text that is created is over “there” and is separated from direct contact with the hand so that the individual letters that constitute it are not physically touched. The directness between the hand and the text may be lost with the typewriter, but in the opinion of the author of this text, mobile digital screenic devices once again enable the proximity of the hand and the text. This proximity now takes place in more subtle and virtual, often just tele-forms, for example in touching the virtual keyboard on tablets (e. g. iPad), digital phones and PDAs (deploying the stylus), or in the touch of an individual letter through a word processor with the use of a cursor. Physical tangibility has been replaced with the digital, and with mixes of both. Real and digital modes have become intertwined in the present reality shaped by the ubiquitous computing; tele-labor and long-distance sensations enrich our activities as we know them.

From now on, [the living present] bears death within itself and reinscribes in its own immediacy what ought as it were to survive it. It divides itself, in its life, between its life and its afterlife, without which there would be no image, no recording. There would no archive without this dehiscence, without this divisibility of the living present, which bears its specter within itself. (Jacques Derrida)

As a work of electronic literature, Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story exists on various levels, the ones experienced by the average reader (as opposed to those critiqued by the metareader, or the translator for that matter who both have to peer into the code as well) being parcellary by definition. The underlying layers of code underpinning the text-to-be-seen remain obfuscated below the visible surface of the screenic interface, offering only a partial view of the text which comprises both lines of code and strings of English interspersed with a few graphic elements. To further complexify the reader’s relation to the surface text, the fragmentary nature of hypertextual lexias prevents the recomposition of an ever elusive and paradoxically impossible totality since some narrative lines are simply incompatible with one another unless one should decide to embrace a form of quantum textuality. The inaccessibility of the work as a whole etches out a ghostly body of text, a hazy halo that haunts the margins of each lexia notwithstanding the underlying layers of code whose presence is to be felt, if not actually seen or read, in the performance of the text. What is to be translated then? Or, to put it differently, is the code to be deemed part of what is usually designated as “the text” as if it could be abstracted from its medium? It ensues that the relation between the underlying code, or layers of code, to natural languages must be interrogated. This even though “the code is not the text,” (Cayley 2002) to quote John Cayley, and yet clings to the body of text from which it cannot be dissociated, nor repressed along the translating process even though code does not translate per se.

As the reader navigates through the maze of afternoon’s hypertextual architecture, a sequence of competing narrative variations seems to emerge from a chaos of innumerable possibilities without ever allowing her to draw the contours of a clearly delineated figure. As she explores the work further, each lexia haunts her memory with its ghostly presence while pointing to yet unseen combinatorial configurations, always lurking in the periphery of her field of vision, always there at least in potential. Or in Michael Joyce’s own visual imagery :

Contours are the shape of what we think we see as we see it but that we know we have seen only after they are gone and new contours of our own shape themselves over the virtual armature, the liminal form, the retinal photogene (after-image) of what they have left us (1995, 222).

Whenever she chooses to click on a word that may or may not yield, following Michael Joyce’s metaphor, which incidentally poses a challenge to the French translator striving to combine the erotic charge of the verb with a more utilitarian sense, she is always anticipating the meaning of invisible connections which actually make more sense in retrospect even though the act of clicking is obviously based on a combined sense of extrapolation and expectation, or in Susana Pajares Tosca’s analysis grounded on the linguistic theory of relevance: “Every link communicates a presumption of its own optimal relevance.” (2000, 80) Should the translator then focus on the shifting rhetorical value of each and every connection? Privileging such a level of granularity would probably enhance the disjunctiveness of hyperlinks, thus threatening both form and meaning. One of the issues encountered here consists in striking the right balance between the innumerable interruptions of the narrative flow initiated by a network of 948 hyperlinks working against structure while preserving a general architectural coherence deceivingly loose as it may seem due to its intrinsic complexity.

Not only do hyperlinks virtually rupture narrative syntax, but they also rip sentences apart given that a single word may yield and disrupt the syntagmatic flow projecting prose into the tabular realm of poetry. The hyperlinking process on which electronic hypertext relies defies totalization as it keeps fraying a textual fabric that is bursting at the seams while begging for an endless recomposition that points to the seriality inherent in the concept of translation (Littau 1996). Each reading is akin to a versioning of a text that remains ungraspable as a whole, be it only for the cognitive overhead any attempt at holding all the threads in one hand would most certainly cause confusion for the translator/reader. No (human) translator can ever commit to memory the totality of the work’s multiple forking paths and recurring loops, even though she still needs to build a mental overview of the general architecture, somewhat intuitively. Now, the maps available for the metareader fail, however, to account for the complex topology of the work. The issue is to preserve, or at least to try to preserve, the frayed isotopic threads that maintain the coherence of the text as a whole. As Jean-Pierre Balpe puts it:

Hypertext enacts the same upheaval at the level of narrative syntax as the poem at the level of the sentence syntax. Similarly to the way poetry unbinds words from the fettering linearity of the syntagmatic axis to project them into a network of thematic, phonetic, metaphoric etc. correspondences which delineate a pluri-isotopic configuration, hypertext frees narrative sequences from the yoke of traditional narrative grammar to usher them into the multidimensional space of an entirely new and open structure (n.d.).

In other words, confronted with a fragmentary and elusive complex of textual fragments that sometimes may wear down to a single word, let alone a mere letter, the translator will have to attune herself to the numerous echoes and resonance phenomena specific to what may be called afternoon’s polyphonic melody (a metaphor incidentally central to another of Michael Joyce’s digital works, Twelve Blue (1996) ) to reveal the work’s hidden systematicity. In contradistinction with the formalisation of binary code, the task of the translator therefore remains somewhat intuitive and yet constrained by the interface logic. For instance, the functionalities of the Storyspace Reader enable the metareader to perform a search on keywords which ties the emergence of isotopies to a machinic form of parsing. The Storyspace Reader interface brings fiction into the realm of scholarly editions, the search function playing a role analogous to that of an index highlighting recurrences and variations while limiting the reader’s interpretive possibilities, subsequently fettering the translating process.

The paradigmatic shapes the syntagmatic into interlaced and yet shifting configurations that cannot be dissociated from the invisible hypertextual architecture, and more generally from its software environment as the code remains embedded within the verbal weave. The translator is therefore caught within a double bind: either focus on the letter of the text, importing the foreign hypertextual and verbal syntax into the translating language to the detriment of meaning, or conversely remaining hypothetically “true” to the spirit of the so-called original while repressing the hypertextual drift at work in afternoon. Since hyperperlinks appear as part of a metagrammar ruling over the behavior of the work, a mere transposition of the general hypertextual architecture combined with the translation of the verbal contents of each lexia may end up not doing justice to the intricacies of an already hybridized, and as such foreignized language embedded with code.

Should one follow Antoine Berman’s critique of Benjamin’s essay, “The Task of the Translator,” it appears that form, i.e the letter of the text, should prevail over meaning, therefore distorting, or foreignizing the translating language to let the so-called original shine through the translucent surface of the translated text according to Berman retranslation (2008, 168) of Maurice de Gandillac’s previous attempt. Interestingly enough, Steven Rendall translates durchscheinend into English the same way as Gandillac’s rendering of the word in French: “True translation is transparent, it does not obscure the original, does not stand in its light, but rather allows pure language, as if strengthened by its own medium, to shine even more fully on the original.” (1997, 162) Harry Zohn has also opted for the same term in English: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not black its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium to shine upon the original all the more fully.” (1968, 21) Now the adjective durchscheinend literally means “shining through” in German, and it may be interpreted as transparent or translucent, a semantic choice which either invisibilizes or reveals the act of translation while keeping the original at a proximate distance. This is no small matter considering the politics of the translator’s repressed authority.

Now, before pursuing this specific path, it might prove useful to examine a quotation in which Michael Joyce describes the experience of reading in an electronic hypertextual environment in quite similar terms. Joyce highlights the paradigmatic thrust of digital hyperfictions while he incidentally offers a theoretical commentary upon the cybertranslator’s task: « the text becomes a present tense palimpsest where what shines through are not past versions but potential alternate views.” (1995, 3) In other words, there is no original as such, but mere potentialities waiting to be actualized by the reader, a process analogous to the relation a translation bears to the translated text. The palimpsestic nature of any text, and more particularly digital texts embedded with code, calls for an act of translation that may reveal, or at least make partially visible the various layers it comprises. However, as aptly remarked by John Cayley in his critique of digital utopianism: “there is no mutual transparency or translatability of code and language.” (2002) The underlying code is not primarily meant for the reader but actually addressed to the sole machine unless it is codework, which could lead to the conclusion it completely eludes the translator’s task. This is, however, more complex than it actually seems.

Two instances of codework based on LISP may be found in afternoon (see screen shot reproduced below), metafictionally pointing to the digital nature of the work while obliquely raising the issue of remediation even though the code proper has ceased to be operative. What’s more, these strings of code call up one of the central questions arising from various narrative paths: did the main character, Peter, actually kill his wife and son in a car accident that particular morning? The issue of scientific truth as a fictional construct (Regnauld, 2013) is one of the themes running through the work. Now, breaking down the actual function which is more complex than the following pared down version, it should be noticed, for instance, that the sequence “(LAMBDA (TRUTH))” returns any input value that is submitted as “truth,” ascribing a double meaning to the variable depending on the narrative context. Now, a value may certainly be “true” or “false” within a computer program, but the labeling of a list of values under such a conceptual category as “TRUTH” proves too radical a move not to bear some ironical flavor which should not escape the translator’s attention. What is lost in translation, though, is the possible interplay between LISP as a coding language and the English language from which it has been partly derived, a form of estrangement that could be partially compared with the difference to be found in proximate languages that have evolved from the same linguistic core with one crucial distinction: programming languages are not meaningful but purely performative. Here the ambiguity lies in the status of codework for the translator who may decipher instructions as actual words such as “car,” meaningless though the syntax may appear, which stands as quite a confusing element in the chain of signifiers considering the general narrative context. More specifically the seminal event of the car accident in which Peter may or may not have seen his wife and son die that morning.

WCodework has a doubly foreignizing effect on the translating language as the proximate relationship of English with higher level programming languages is irremediably lost, unless one should invent a new version of LISP, for instance, in which one would derive the coding instructions from the translating language. The reference to the original language known by programmers would not be entirely erased as the non-linguistic signs and general syntax and non-linguistic characters could remain unchanged while the connotative value of code as code would still be perceived by less computer-literate readers.

The foreignizing effect of translation on the translating language is akin to Benjamin’s understanding of the concept of aura in A Short History of Photography as “a peculiar web of space and time: the unique manifestation of a distance, however near it may be.” (1931) Code always casts a long shadow on the observer as it cannot be observed in the here and now of its performance. It lines the visible and readable surface of the work while remaining at a distance, withdrawn from the reader’s gaze. What’s more is that the performance of the work itself, as a text-to-be-seen that is, always leaves an ungraspable spectral body unread and yet radiating, or shining through. This could provide us with a redefinition of aura in the digital age as an aspect of the work revealed and possibly destroyed in the very act of translation: the absolute singularity of aura as defined by Benjamin would paradoxically lie in the iteration pertaining to the archival nature of such digital works placed under the translator’s authority as the one who ensures the texts’ afterlife. Indeed iteration implies alteration, and not a mere reproduction of the same on an industrial scale as deplored by Benjamin. Paraphrasing Derrida’s comment on the task of the archivist, I contend that:

“The [cybertranslator] produces more [digital] archive, and that is why the archive is never closed. It opens out of the future. How can we think about this fatal repetition, about repetition in general in its relationship to memory and the archive? It is easy to perceive, if not to interpret, the necessity of such a relationship, at least if one associates the archive, as naturally one is always tempted to do, with repetition, and repetition with the past. But it is the future which is at issue here, and the archive as an irreducible experience of the future.” (1995, 38)

In the context of digital literature what is “a peculiar web of space and time” then? This metaphor possibly reflects the way the relationship between natural language and code affects the auratic quality of digital works, as both natural language and code fade out at radically different paces. The accelerated obsolescence of programming languages results in the necessary porting and regular remediation of such works as afternoon which already counts numerous versions [2] as if the editorial process of this most unstable work could never actually stop. Digital works beg for remediation in the same way as print literature begs for translation but on a radically different scale, further complexifying the task of the translator while reinforcing the auratic quality of the work as a digital archive. Following Derrida’s analysis of the spectral structure of the archive, it appears that its untranslatable idiomaticity preserves it from the destructive power of repetition:

“… the archive always holds a problem for translation. With the irreplaceable singularity of a document to interpret, to repeat, to reproduce, but each time in its original uniqueness, an archive ought to be idiomatic, and thus at once offered and unavailable for translation, open to and shielded from technical iteration and reproduction.” (1995, 50)

Now, as the use of LISP within the text-to-be-seen serves as a metafictional gesture that takes us back to the 1960s when this language was invented, the question of updating the reference for the contemporary reader becomes as problematical as that of whether archaisms should be left as such or translated into a more modern version. John Cayley is right when he concludes his essay claiming that “it must be possible to recompile the codes as operative procedures, as aspects of live-art textual practice. The code is not the text.” (2002) It ensues, however, that keeping the code alive, or rather, preserving its “afterlife” [3] is also part of the cybertranslator’s (most likely collective) task (Regnauld and Vanderhaeghe, 2014). The question remains as to whether this should take place through a fully destructive gesture of remediation or not. This is not a mere issue of computer logic as there is a definite aesthetics proper to the Storyspace interface that may be affected by any reprogramming of the work. The remediated excerpt of afternoon (Joyce, 1987) as made available on the Web by Norton is, for instance, parasitized by supplementary parergonal elements. Remediating afternoon on the Web has not only transformed the underlying code into HTML and other web-specific programming languages, but also the visual reception of the lexias. Their online configuration does not direct the reader’s gaze in the same way as the original rectangular windows; in addition, there is a different set of colors and graphics absent from the Storyspace version of the work whose semiotic value needs to be taken into account. Any reprogrammation, or porting of a work onto a different platform involves the destruction of the initial programming. Now, the question remains whether it should allow for a more or less analogous emulation of what may be called the initial version of the work. Or is there such a thing as an initial version? Bear in mind one generally remediates the latest version of the code while always going back to the so-called original when translating from a natural language.

What about a tactile version on a current tablet considering the haptic dimension of afternoon which does not allow the user to read from the map? Doesn’t the introduction of a help button (as is the case for Steve Tomasula’s iPad version of TOC: A New Media Novel) making instructions readily accessible in the iPad version of the work run counter to the blindly groping heuristics specific to navigation in afternoon? What’s more, there are at least two levels at which the work can be apprehended, that of the reader and that of the metareader who can peek behind the scenes, which raises another aesthetic issue: should the code enabling authors to create conditional links (see screen shot below), for instance, in the Storyspace environment be emulated for historical reasons, or remediated using an entirely different set of interfacial buttons in a dedicated menu for instance? This question may not apply to other works using different authoring systems, but it so happens that the development of Storyspace cannot be dissociated from the writing of afternoon, Michael Joyce being one of the conceptors of the computer program.

Considering the general aesthetics of afternoon from an editorial point of view, it must also be noted that contrary to the codex, we do not have a conventional or stable model of reference as to what an electronic scholarly edition should be despite George Landow’s Dickens Web or Jerome McGann’s Rossetti Archive (the William Blake Archive). Storyspace as an interface remains bound to the print model even though it is also akin to Hypercard and the Macintosh GUI aesthetics (Matt Kirschenbaum extends the list of influences to “literary experimentation and postmodern theory — notably that of Eco —, but also interactive computer fiction, artificial intelligence and story generators, word processing, desktop publishing and the then-new GUI conventions of the Mac, hypertext system research, and interactive videodisc technology” (2008, 177) ). The set of instructions clearly invites the reader to “turn pages” by clicking the Return key while the writing spaces, that is the textual boxes that pop up on screen, are highly reminiscent of the page format. From a technical point of view, the Cd-Rom on which afternoon has been marketed so far tends to disappear as a material substrate for electronic works as it is gradually relocated in the clouds of remote servers from which they can be downloaded. As a matter of fact, the current version of afternoon cannot be read under the latest operating system for Macintosh or under the 32-bit version of Windows 7, a technical parameter which certainly shifts the task of the translator who can no longer work on her own, unless she develops programming skills as well.

The code is what produces the text, insists John Cayley in his critique of the very notion of “translation” as a process that carries across some shared thing among languages: we should concentrate instead “on the ‘translation’ of concepts and corresponding methods of textual production rather than on the texts themselves.” (2014) A digital artwork is not a text proper, but a dynamic, generative system, and this machinic assemblage must be translated into the target culture as well. The half-life of digital works entails their constant dislocation and relocation, which is all too often conducive to “the erasure of the memory of defamiliarization devices that accompanies the displacement of these translations,” (Joyce 2014) a homogenizing process apparent in the different versions of afternoon, a story. Now, if we are to follow Walter Benjamin’s notion that a translation always begs for a retranslation as part of the afterlife of any literary work, it would seem that it has been submitted to a temporal shift, a technological acceleration involving a whole chain of production. The work exists, or remains alive through the multiple versions it comprises.

Any electronic work is characterized by its intrinsic lability and quick obsolescence. Print is evidently subject to a certain number of variations too, be they typographical or editorial, for instance, but we are confronted with an entirely different scale when dealing with the transience of digital works. This involves transformations which may produce effects that lie beyond the aesthetic scope of the text-of-inscription. The fact is the author can never control all the parameters presiding over the execution of a program, starting with the speed of the microprocessor, let alone the wider technological context in which the work is read, which may change the semiotics of the work to the point of corrupting its code to death. Paul de Man’s reading of Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator,” highlights the fragmentation lying at the core of the translating process: the work exists only through the multiple versions it comprises. As claimed by Walter Benjamin in “The Task of the Translator,” a work always demands a translation which is both an alteration and a guarantee of its perpetuation, be it as a ghost:

“… it can be demonstrated that no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife -- which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living -- the original undergoes a change.” (2000, 249)

This conduces me to reinterpret the singularity of aura in the light of the “spectral messianicity” (Derrida 1995, 27-28) pertaining to any archive whose revelation, in the photographic sense, is always already deferred, always lying at a proximate distance and yet ungraspable as such, “always struggling painfully out of darkness” (Benjamin 1931, np) (to quote Benjamin's praiseful comment on the light in Hill’s photography). The endless translating/remediating process of both code and text paradoxically ensures the work’s afterlife precisely because it proves to be an impossible challenge. It can never exhaust the potentialities of the archive that remains always open onto the times to come. Besides, technical reproductibility does not automatically entail the destruction of aura whose messianic nature seemed to be already part of Benjamin’s reflection as illustrated in the following comment (the picture of Dauthendey) on photography as an archiving technique opening onto the future:

However skillful the photographer, however carefully he poses his model, the spectator feels an irresistible compulsion to look for the tiny spark of chance, of the here and now, with which reality has, as it were, seared the character in the picture; to find that imperceptible point at which, in the immediacy of that long-past moment, the future so persuasively inserts itself that, looking back, we may rediscover it. (1931, np)


The translating process may be construed as a form of archiving as it involves a selection which is also a destruction of “the original,” a form of erasure especially acute in the case of code and paradoxically meant to ensure the survival of the work as the translated fragments migrate into a new spectral body of text spliced with updated strings of code enabling its performance, or becoming-text. The act of translation is both a performative repetition and a critical alteration which renews former interpretations of the archive it keeps open onto the future of its re-translation. This process can be thought beyond the metaphysics of an ultimate version of the text in the light of what Derrida terms the messianic and defines as follows:

It is a question of this performative to come whose archive no longer has any relation to the record of what is, to the record of the presence of what is or will have been actually present. (1995, 27-28)

Reading/translating afternoon, a story is akin to being caught within an infinite feedback loop which exacerbates the iterability of any textual form in its very performance. Each attempt at translation can be interpreted as a terminating condition which interrupts the potentially infinite loop on which afternoon’s performance is based and thereby offers transient islands of stability in a sea of proliferating and monstrously hybridized and dreamlike possibilities, each time begging anew for a redrawing of the limits of the wor(l)d. Or, as Michael Joyce put it back in 1982 [4]:

Words seem more like the hive of electronic hashmarks to me than these carbon strikes before me. It seems right to construe language as a series of switchmarks, loads and unloads, zeros and ones. The form it eventually takes is almost incidental; do we always write down dreams? (Kirschenbaum 2008, note 18, p.169)

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