Reading Time: For a Poetics of Hypermedia Writing

Discussing the question of closure in hypertext fiction, George Landow wrote in Hypertext 2.0 (1997) that “[u]nlike texts in manuscript or print, those in hypertext apparently can continue indefinitely, perhaps infinitely” (191). Since the publication of Hypertext 2.0, experimental hypermedia has brought to the fore a new variety of open-ended literary works that both challenge and extend the typically link/node and word-based hypertexts to which Landow refers, such as Michael Joyce’s seminal hypertext story, Afternoon. (For online examples of word-based hypertext, see Joyce’s Twelve Blue and Judy Malloy’s LOve One.) A general survey of activities over the last four years reveals prominent changes not only in the way literary materials are composed but also in the tools of their distribution. Networked personal computers, coupled with advanced Web design software, provide a relatively cheap and easy mode of production and distribution not widely available before. As distribution machines, networked computers clearly change the relationship between author and reading public, most obviously in terms of the speed and range of distribution. Furthermore, new programming interfaces offer a whole host of gadgets–including animation, streaming video, vector motion, cascading styles, layering, and interactive behaviors–that together comprise some of the latest compositional tools of today’s screen-based writing. When put to use on the digital page, these devices alter the time of literary performance in ways significantly different from print-based, or even first-generation hypertextual, writings. Duration (scene progression, sequencing, real-time motion) is now built into the metalanguage of literary composition as a device, along with more conventional devices like line, paragraph, prosody, character, and plot. Moreover, the primary locale for this new performance, the World Wide Web, provides a zone of perpetual currency, or fleeting stability, or both (depending upon one’s perspective), which challenges conventional notions of the “past” and “present” of literary activity, in terms of the creative process as well as the distribution of a finished literary product. Three questions thus arise that will be treated throughout this essay: First, what are some of the ways in which computer technologies are currently used to create and distribute a time-based, hypermedia writing (with time-based defined for this study as hypermedia works whose “play” on the screen, either in whole or in part, is encoded into the work and computer-driven)? Second, how can time-based literary works of this kind be read in relation to traditional reading practices? Third, given the ephemeral nature of Web-based hypermedia, how might literary criticism in general accommodate this evolving art form?

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