Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 4

A Critical Essay about Richard Smyth's "Genetis: A Rhizography," by Aidan Walker

"Finding the Start of a Spiral: Genetis: A Rhizography"
by Aidan Walker

Like a Dog Chasing its Tail

To prove to a government that you exist, you must show a text to someone: an ID card or passport will generally do the job. In other situations where you need people to know who you are, a passport won’t work—you need something else. You need to tell a joke or a story for people to understand your personality; you need to talk about your feelings for people to get close to you. These forms of self-expression differ not just in the way they are spoken, but in the words used and the ways we are seen as we engage in them.

To get what you need to get out of society—sustenance, friends, support, whatever else—you need to communicate yourself across all these kinds of discourse. Everyone has to learn both how to cuss and how to politely ask permission, although rarely at the same time or to the same people. A newspaper article and a tweet call for two different kinds of reading, and a healthy democracy depends on people knowing the difference. Defining literacy as just the ability to know words and make sentences is to miss most of what happens when people communicate: literacy means fluency in the ensemble of procedures and skills that make up various discourses, in everything from holding a pencil to waiting your turn to speak.  

Richard Smyth’s Genetis: A Rhizography participates in several kinds of discourse. Sometimes, the Storyspace work is a serious scholarly essay on hypertext and madness and follows the rules of that form of discourse (citations and all). At other times it is an obscene fable, an autofiction, or a joke. However, regardless of what it looks like—poem, essay, screed, or allegory—Genetis is always trying to get at the same question: How can you make a self (or in more Lacanian terms, a “subject”) capable of telling about itself and being understood by others? Since we know our selves by how and what they say, that question is synonymous with another: What kind of text, what kind of discourse, can serve as evidence of such a self and prove it legible, whole, and (perhaps) healed?

In searching for that evidence-of-self, Smyth leaves no stone unturned. He seeks it in the idioms of confessional poetry, the Bible, science, and scholarship. He tries to joke his way towards it, quotes other people talking about him, and arrives at the same dead end. Across five “plateaus” [1] Genetis presents several identity-making discourses available to a literate self in the early to mid 1990s, including the arch language of postmodern theory, the bureaucratic hospital logs written by doctors, sardonic babytalk, mythic language, and lyric poetry. The reader can either navigate across one of five “plateaus,” playing a discourse out until exhausted, or follow "memorypaths" that spiral between plateaus and trace motifs such as "milk" and "madmen." Either way, like a dog chasing its tail, the hypertext runs relentlessly after itself: Every move we make towards the goal of expressing a self is simultaneously a dodge away from it, because none of the linked-together discourses available can do the job.

As he shares both in the Traversal videos in this book and within the hypertext itself, Smyth wrote Genetis as a way to process a traumatic event in his life and figure out who he might be after that experience. The form of the text is his vehicle for doing that task. Since whatever self Genetis seeks is textual, and whatever text Genetis becomes is personal, text and self are two sides of the same floppy disk: the search of reading that we perform in clicking through the hypertext echoes the search of self that Smyth conducts while writing it.

Looking for an Origin

In Genetis, the search for self is first phrased as a quest towards an origin. The work’s title references both the biblical Genesis and the science of genetics, the two deepest-encoded sources of the late-twentieth century Western self––one offering a cultural discourse explaining human society, and the other offering an objective scientific discourse of the body's creation. [2] Both are staged in Genetis, and the kind of language used to authorize and describe them is imitated. 

One of the five plateaus—“Myth”—retells the story of the Fall in all-caps with faux-Biblical syntax, replacing Adam and Eve with “KEN AND BARBIE ROBOTS,” the various elements of earth, water, and firmament with pieces of electronic hardware and the serpent with a “MOMMY” offering “MILK.” Joining these references to Genetis’ fixations (mothers, milk) and contemporary America (Ken and Barbie) are references to the organization of Genetis itself: “KEN” must deal with “MEMORYPATHS” like the reader does, and the created world is made of silicon and wires like the computer we read on. Genetis only imitates Genesis to subvert it and fit the Bible’s ways of expression to its own fixations, riffing on an idea of “Genesis” that the reader already has first by making it all uppercase and then by making the entire story about the text being read. Rather than offering an explanation or origin, Smyth’s version of Genesis just burrows deeper into the issues at hand for the speaker, and the Biblical way of expression gets appropriated by them instead of explaining them. 

The “Legend” of genetics is treated more reverentially: that plateau tells about Smyth’s real-life involvement with the Florida School, where he got the idea to mimic the structure of the DNA helix in Genetis, “organizing information three dimensionally in such a way that the structure itself communicated information about the text.” The tone of this plateau is like that of a textbook from the future looking back at what Smyth is currently doing, using the past tense and avoiding any first-person pronoun. Smyth builds a legend around Genetis like the legends created around scientific discoveries and discoverers, mimicking the sort of venerative textbook language that establishes these legends for students and borrowing the authority of biological science discourse. But this self-canonization, like the parody of Genesis, also fails to create anything other than what is already present for the reader: the hypertext itself. The DNA helix of Genetis has the same relationship to the real DNA that biologists study as the biblical Eve does to our earliest Hominid ancestors. It exists only in the text it belongs to and is justified and made legible only by other things in that text and the discursive system around it, not by an objective reality. 

Rather than finding an origin in Genesis (which is parodied and stuffed with the work’s own fixations) or in genetics (which is leveraged by the work as a structuring principle for the work itself), the reader finds a circle: The genesis and genes of Genetis are Genetis, which is about Genetis. Besides being an entertaining postmodern gesture, this kind of meta-loop in Genetis serves a further purpose, representing the breakdown of different discourses available to the self, how all of them fall into circles and fail to explain or express what the self needs them to.

Hypertext and Recovery

Figured in this way, the externalization of inner talk in the form of discourse (whether digital or not) is an attempt at escaping a closed circle. When we feel ashamed, angry, depressed, or anxious, one thing we do is talk ourselves around circles, repeating negative thoughts and postures, re-analyzing the same traumas, unable to reach the outer world because the inner one is so consuming. Repetitive and rotational language is everywhere in discussions of mental illness—we talk of “downward spirals,” “vicious cycles,” and repeat the folk saying often misattributed to Albert Einstein, culture hero of 20th-century science, that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” 

Discourses of authority and origin try to offer an out from these closed loops; to say what the root cause is, where it began, and what’s really going on. Whether they are the remote scientific language of the medical reports Smyth shares from his hospitalization that turn experience into explainable data; literary language that turns experience into an object of beauty; or the essentially mystical use of language by Lacan and other theorists that intends to rupture our habitual ways of thinking, all these modes of expression that Smyth tries in Genetis claim implicitly to transcend the individual self’s limitations and uncertainties. Each of these ways of talking and listening promise some kind of solid ground in a haze of endless iterability and différance—an authority, an answer, an original. [3] They intend to represent a reality, a vantage point from which we can look at ourselves, stand outside our circles, and plan how to perfect ourselves.

Hypertext is a fresh attempt at such a way out. By replicating the spiraling structure of obsessive thought and allowing a reader to experience it as their own spiraling, “to share the breath of this text,” and “experience madness on cognitive (and emotive) levels” as Smyth puts it, hypertext offers another way to use language and express the self. The conversation between the reader and Smyth, conducted through links, becomes a more authoritative discourse than any other: As you become more familiar with the content of the circular thoughts in the hypertext, understanding how Joe Bolton’s suicide relates to troubled relationships with women and to anxieties of facelessness and dreams of grandeur, the content of the hypertext and the discourses it imitates recede. Hypertext’s way of expression allows contradictions to stand and things to stay unresolved without the artificial hedge of an ending. The self producing all these expressions takes center stage, becoming visible as a dynamic and social thing that learns and plays. The type of evidence-for-self that the text of Genetis offers is evidence of motion, relation, the self-as-rhizome—or, quoting Smyth quoting Deleuze and Guattari: “interbeing . . . stream . . . speed.” 

Dis course? Of course.

Michel Foucault said in his famous inaugural lecture at the Collège de France that “in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality.” [3]

Throughout his work, Foucault interrogates those “procedures” for controlling not only what people say and hear, but which people get to speak. Some procedures are concretely legal (censorship, discrimination) and others more flexibly situational (politeness, literary genres). In all cases, however, the need to control discourse arises from its powerful capacity to make people: We become like who we listen to, and the way we speak about the world shapes the way we see it and act in it. The selves created in the various discourses we engage in—passport discourse, casual discourse, scientific discourse—become sources not just of social capital but of deep personal meaning. The expectations and values embedded in discourses in the media and in literature turn into yardsticks we measure our selves against, which in turn become what we measure the discourses against. People listen to Wolf Blitzer because he speaks a certain way, stands on a certain set, fits into the discourse of “mainstream news”—but if you come to his show from outside that set of premises and priorities, and don’t identify as a person in the “mainstream,” these are the exact reasons why you wouldn’t listen to him. The inertness of the discourses around us and their inability to adequately heal and inform has been covered more or less everywhere. 

What, then, is discourse? Are we discourse? Foucault brings up its “ponderous, formidable materiality”—the materiality of his discourse would be a voice delivering the lecture, the famous hall in which those sound waves reverberate, or—for those of us reading it after the fact—the inert page or screen it rests on. Past what you see and touch, however, discourses are made of invisible rules and rituals, pressures and predispositions consciously and unconsciously felt as you read, speak, write, and listen. Foucault’s view is that the historical discourse around mental health offers a particularly useful case study in how people frame the world and societies: Trauma and mental illness have always existed, always inspired strong feelings, and always had a complex relationship with authority.

As Smyth says in the Traversal videos, our society has made a lot of progress in discussing mental health. That shift in how we talk about mental illness and trauma in the West impacts everything from our most intimate inner lives to the way we understand the violent histories of our societies. Our growing awareness and honesty about what is going on inside of our skulls is often articulated in networked online spaces that allow readers to dialog with writers, range rapidly between registers, and claim a right as individuals to speak to their experiences. We use different words to discuss these things than people did 30 years ago, do it in more settings and with more people, and hold conversations on different technological interfaces.

The “ponderous materiality” of hypertext writing and reading spaces, where much of our new discourse about mental health takes place, is entirely different from the archives and libraries Foucault interrogated in his exploration of the history of madness. In addition to being much more ephemeral than print works (making the preservation efforts of books like this one necessary), the position a hypertext puts the reader in is also entirely different. Reading on your computer is as different from reading in an archive as writing a post to social media is from talking to a therapist. 

Pushing a cursor along the screen, to me, feels like pushing a cart down a supermarket aisle. Everything is open to my choosing. Hypertexts like Genetis push the reader to continually articulate a self in dialogue with the assumed self of the author: Every click is a choice, and every new screen that renders a reminder the reader can choose and has chosen. No form more clearly dramatizes and affirms self-determination than hypertext, with its inherent availability to readerly intervention.

Ultimately, this way of breaking the loop and looking at the self can be truly transformative––but even as, like Smyth and everyone else, I crave to figure myself out and communicate that, I am suspicious. In Genetis, the form of hypertext offers a kind of healing catharsis and a healthier perspective on the self––but learning who we are through reading and writing interfaces that fervently affirm self-determination has had other consequences as well. 


[1] The notion of “plateaus” employed by Smyth is taken from French thinkers Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980), a work which joins the psychoanalytic and Marxist traditions criticizing and reframing both. It is one of the most prominent works in poststructural and postmodern thought. The book is organized and ordered in a way that is reminiscent of hypertext, seeking to imitate a “rhizomatic” structure and reject logic and linearity as instruments of power. The metaphor of “plateau” refers to a level discourse, in which different thoughts can be connected without any sort of linear (“arboreal” in their terminology) hierarchy involved that puts one before or behind another. Like Smyth, Deleuze and Guattari also draw their terminology from the hard sciences: “rhizome,” “plateau,” and “arboreal.” I think a link can be drawn between this choice and Lacan’s penchant for using mathematical equations to express psychoanalytic concepts: Both represent a desire to escape from the discourse of critical theory and into the seemingly more objective discourse of the sciences, a desire which has always existed.

[2] The psychoanalytic tradition that Smyth draws on can be understood as another search towards origin, an attempt to understand our pasts as they resonate through our present and futures. Yet another search towards origin animates readership: Who hasn’t googled an author’s name and read their Wikipedia article before finishing the novel, or felt as if a personality sprang from the prose to meet them? Our relationship to a text’s “lore” and its origins is as crucial and idiosyncratic to our reading of it as our relationship to the language it is written in.

[3] “Différance” for Jacques Derrida refers to a process by which the real meaning of a sign is always differed across space and deferred over time—that we only know things by what they are not or are like, by what they were or would be, and there is no firm, clear way to fix and authorize knowledge of the world outside a web of endless reference and contingency.

[4] Foucault, Michel."The Order of Discourse." Literary Theory, an Anthology. ed. by Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. Print.

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