Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 4

Traversal of Richard Smyth's "Genetis: A Rhizography"

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography

These videos are of artist Richard Smyth giving a Traversal of his hypertext novel Genetis: A Rhizography, created with Storyspace software and published in 1996 by Eastgate Systems, Inc. in The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext Vol.2 No. 4 along with Rob Kendall’s A Life Set for Two. Smyth performed the work on June 25, 2021, remotely via YouTube and Zoom with Dene Grigar navigating the work from the lab at Washington State University Vancouver. The work is performed on a PowerMac G3 (“All-In-One”) computer running System Software 9.2.2 with the 3.5” floppy disk. Leading the Traversal was Astrid Ensslin, with Mariusz Pisarski. 

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Part One

The Traversal begins with an introduction by Astrid Ensslin, Research Affiliate of the ELL and hypertext scholar, who explains how the Traversal is conducted: Richard Smyth directs Dene Grigar via Zoom as she navigates the CD-ROM version of the work on a G-3 Power Mac and streams to YouTube. Ensslin describes the history of Genetis: A Rhizography, its relationship to Gregory Ulmer's concept “mystory,” and its status as a hypertext about “writing in desperate circumstances.”

Smyth begins by saying the “flickering screen brings me back, way back” and explaining how he wrote Genetis at the same time as he wrote a dissertation under Gregory Ulmer, the two projects influencing each other. Clicking on the screen itself to default to the first lexia, the opening screen image appears with some orchestral string music in the background. Smyth explains that Roy Parkhurst, his collaborator, found the images for the hypertext (including the cover) in a book by Stefan Brecht, and they are all pictures of puppets used at the Bread & Puppet Theater in New York. Parkhurst found the music through his friend Webster Williams, who composed it to match the images—originally, there was music from Michael Neiman, which Eastgate Systems, Inc. requested be replaced because of a possible copyright issue.

Carrying on, Smyth arrives at the “Instructions” page, and describes how the title Genetis reflects both the myth of Genesis—which is retold and riffed on in the work—and the field of genetics, which is also discussed a lot and reflected in the use of a helical structure for the hypertext. Describing the five “plateaus” (a term borrowed from the work of Deleuze and Guattari) in the work—“Allegory,” “Myth,” “Parable,” “Allegory,” “Legend,” and “Theory”––Smyth gives a brief summary of each and decides to enter “Theory,” acknowledging that although he uses Deleuzian terms, he cites Lacan more often. He mentions that Lacan was introduced to him by Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, a graduate school professor whose class helped him explore the “psychotic breakdown I had when I was twenty years old . . . that story is told at some point in this hypertext.”

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Part Two

Moving from a lexia showing a selection from Shoshana Felman’s Writing and Madness, a book assigned for Ragland-Sullivan's course about the importance of linear thought and expression to philosophy, Smyth enters a description of how “the theory of this hypertext is that of a blindman, groping in his own darkness” and how “it must sustain you in some way for you to know it as it is meant to be known.” Smyth then describes how Genetis is “very much from a powerful emotional experience I had, trying to understand and capture what is behind the trauma . . . and I did it. Because here I am, basically 20 or 30 years later figuring out how to deal with it in a new way” and reads from a lexia called “destination,” which questions the goal-oriented ethos of linear reading.

Continuing the discussion of “paths” and “destinations,” Smyth reads a lexia describing hypertext as “the path of madness,” which says “if this is too much for you, go read a book.” Clicking a book icon at the bottom of the window opens a new window with the different “memorypaths” available for a reading beyond the default path. Choosing to follow the first memorypath, Smyth arrives at a lexia again quoting Felman paraphrasing Bataille reading stories of madness as stories of people who “have been mad in our place,” like Smyth says he has been for us.

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Part Three

Smyth moves to another lexia, describing how the Rhizography became a “catch-all” for everything on his mind at the time, from his poetry, to his theoretical readings in hypertext and psychoanalysis, to conversations had with Ulmer and others. The lexia discusses the chora, a type of place of particular interest to Ulmer and Derrida that is not defined by notions of insideness, outsideness, absence, or presence, but by a sense of in-betweenness and simultaneity. Continuing down the “memorypath of milk,” Smyth arrives at a lexia called “mother,” which describes a “psychotic structure” in which “a mother raises a child for herself, not for the world,” a situation that his teacher Ragland-Sullivan described as like “a three-legged pot” liable to be easily knocked-over. Smyth says that in his case, the pot was “knocked over by getting married at 19 years old.”

The memorypath of milk leads on to “allegory 1” a lexia about suckling involving a “boy with big hands” and “a mommy with eight breasts,” which Smyth says came from a painting by someone he knew in Florida. Continuing to “allegory 2,” Smyth describes a dream-like situation in which the boy’s blood is replaced with the milk he suckles. A series of poems tell about the boy––now in the first-person “I”––continuing to search for milk, which Smyth relates to how “I was essentially abandoned in my childhood, I think a lot of us were, it’s just the way things were back then.”

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Part Four

Reading down the memorypath, Smyth admits that revisiting the poetry is "intense" for him, since a lot of it deals with raw subjects. But he “jumps back into the poetry” with a parable, which tells the story of a boy who doesn’t recognize his own face in the mirror, and carries into a discussion of a “suicide boy.” The “suicide boy” is poet Joe Bolton, a fellow graduate student at the University of Florida who Smyth saw as similar to himself and “on a path I wanted to be on” who then killed himself, an event that shook Smyth. Genetis quotes Bolton’s work, particularly a poem comparing mannequins to women and men in love. Smyth explains that the "parable" section describes his relationships with women and how the trauma of his early life informed them. 

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Part Five

Moving to the “memorypath of madmen,” Smyth reads a medical report written about him at the time of his hospitalization for the psychotic breakdown, describing “some family dysfunction” and how “his mother thought his thinking and speech were somewhat bizarre, but she attributed it to his intellectual abilities.” As soon as this lexia occupies the screen, a drawn-out voice says “bizarre.” Still on the same memorypath, another medical report describes Smyth’s adverse reaction to the drug Haldol, including a graphic description of a seizure he experienced. The medical reports continue, describing Smyth’s suffering during a high fever and hallucinations on Haldol that he says involved a “snake being tortured by aliens to learn how to talk.” The doctors thought Smyth’s condition was caused by taking illegal drugs, which he had not done, and once a test came back negative, they transferred him to another hospital which took him off Haldol––leading to improvement in his condition. Smyth shares that he considered filing a lawsuit, but his lawyer told him that “since I was back in grad school doing okay, there was no case here, there had to be permanent damage.”  

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Part Six

The memorypath winds into the Legend section, where “I talked very directly about the Florida school, Ulmer's theory, and hypertext.” Smyth reads quotations about the “metonymic speech” of schizophrenics, and the way in which madness disrupts the way we communicate. He shares that his mother, after his first psychotic episode, shook her finger at him and said “no more philosophical bullshit!” an admonition he did not follow but did put into Genetis in the form of an audio clip that plays on some lexia. The “memorypath of madmen” carries into a full quotation of a Joe Bolton poem, and a description of his suicide––“blew his brains out on the threshold of his woman’s house.” Smyth shares how deeply that suicide affected him since he knew Bolton was dealing with many of the same mental health and addiction troubles he was dealing with. 

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Part Seven

The memorypath continues with a quote from Donna Haraway’s work, referencing a possibility for a cyborg future without gender—or at least the utility of dreaming towards one. Switching from there to the “memorypath of hybrid,” Smyth reads a quote from Deleuze and Guattari defining the rhizome, and then clicks onto a lexia called “Desire,” explaining his interest in hypertext as a way to “equalize discourse,” and write in a “three-dimensionally.” Smyth discusses the ways in which scholars tend to act as if their work is not connected with their personal lives, when really research is all about something internal, performed, and personal, and scholars are always “adopting their subjects as masks to wear.” This fits into the theme of “hybridity” in the memorypath because it describes the joining of discourses that are traditionally kept apart. Smyth shares that the idea of people reading and studying Genetis helps him, because it’s good to know “what I’ve gone through . . . might make some contribution.” 

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Q & A Part One

The Q & A session begins with Ensslin remarking on the “beautiful” chat, and then asking about the “genesis of this work” and the role of Ulmer and the Florida School in its creation. Smyth describes Ulmer’s classes and work as “all over the map,” ranging from “Spenser criticism” to “neurology” through “artificial intelligence.” He goes on to describe the way Ulmer gave him good counsel and supported him through personal turmoil (including a divorce and his father’s cancer diagnosis) during his dissertation process, praising his “emotional intelligence” and calling him an “absolute genius.” Pisarski then asks, “while we are on the genesis of Genetis,” about the differences between two published versions of Genetis—one in Perforations and another in The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext. Smyth says the main difference was the addition of citation links in the former, and while there were possibly little edits done to improve the flow of the piece, the “meat of the hypertext” is the same.

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Q & A Part Two

Pisarski points out how that in her notes on the hypertext, editor Diane Greco encouraged Smyth to use more in-text links, which he didn’t do, sticking instead to the use of spiraling memorypaths. Smyth explains how he thought that method made the hypertext make more sense, because “it is easy to just become a hodge-podge,” comparing hypertext to “a landscape that can be entered at any point,” and stressing the importance of “considering the reader, being considerate ultimately” given the often-confusing nature of hypertext.

Richard Snyder from the YouTube Chat asks about how the hypertext nature of the work connected to Smyth’s experience of it as memory, and how remembering through hypertext is different than remembering through print. Smyth says that he knew “the reading could be a mess,” and he wished to “take us through in a way that would make sense,” and that it was “depressing” to revisit the past sometimes.

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Q & A Part Three

Grigar asks about the joining of scholarly work and personal search that Smyth discusses in Genetis, linking it to Sherry Turkle’s recent work The Empathy Diaries. Smyth brings up the work of Maggie Nelson and the 1990s school of “confessional criticism,” and says “it can only be good” to bring together scholarship and a personal search. He adds that in the 21st century, “there is much more understanding of the effect of trauma on the body . . . and that is where you have to do the work” and talks about how “as a culture, as a society, we are beginning to understand how trauma works and how to deal with it.” The two then discuss the importance of embodiment in feminist scholarship and continuing efforts within academia to bridge the personal and scholastic and challenge tradition.

Ensslin brings up a discussion from the chat about the plateaus in the work and the “compartmentalization” offered by hypertext. Smyth describes how “blending the two interface metaphors” of the plateau and the DNA spiral (memorypaths) was extremely helpful. The plateaus are linear loops, while the memorypath spirals move up and down between them. Smyth discusses the “ideology of depth” that goes along with literacy and how the “postmodern and post-structural are ways to elevate the superficial,” suggesting that he wanted to let readers “skate along” and encourage a different sort of reading.

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Q & A Part Four

Pisarski follows up on a discussion from the chat about the terminology of what are commonly called “nodes” and “lexia” but which Smyth terms “cells,” offering a genetic or architectural metaphor. Smyth highlights the importance of “the memory palace” to his work and how “hypertext is a three-dimensional writing space.” He jokingly asks for a job in virtual reality, which he sees as the future of three-dimensional writing. He goes on to discuss how crucial spatial metaphors have been to Western philosophy (e.g. inside/outside, above/below) and expresses his interest in how to mindfully reflect on our use of those metaphors and what that use means for the way we think. 

Traversal of Richard Smyth's Genetis: A Rhizography, Q & A Part Five

Kathleen Zoller from the chat asks about Smyth’s view on hypertext as a tool for self-reflection, and Dan Walker asks about how Smyth would write Genetis today. Answering Walker, Smyth says that he currently uses the software Inform 7, and remains interested in “thinking in or with three-dimensional spaces.” Answering Zoller, he explains how he once produced a questionnaire for a conference run by Mark Bernstein that used some of the tropes from Genetis and finds a lot to hope about when he thinks about hypertext and the multiple paths available through it for self-reflection. Ensslin tells about the use of hypertext as an intervention for young people with self-image issues, and Smyth, Ensslin, and Grigar discuss how times have changed in mental health and that more tools are available for people today.

Stella Wisdom from the chat asks about virtual reality spaces, and Smyth replies with an appreciation of online spaces where “you can be anyone you want to be,” and think in ways other than “conceptually”—such as “deceptually,” in the sense of adopting a character different than yourself and finding in that process “a fresh approach to thinking . . . and (finding out) how electronic media can help with that, which is what we need.” The Q & A concludes with Smyth thanking everybody.

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