"Rebuilding Babel: Literary Studies in a Post-Global world", Melus-Melow Journal Vol. 1 (August 2011): 17-28.
1) The Tower of Babel Reloaded
According to the story in Genesis (11: 1-9), an enormous tower was built at the city of Babylon. The people decided their city thought they should have a tower so high that it would reach the heavens. However, the Tower of Babel was not built for the worship and praise of God. Hence the Lord saw this as an act of hubris, and descended to destroy the tower. He confused people’s languages and scattered them throughout the earth so that they don’t repeat their act of vanity.
The myth has been interpreted in various ways. The religious interpretation sees it as act of the Almighty to punish human vanity and ego. The philosophers like George Steiner, Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida read this narrative as the myth about the pure original language of humanity being scattered and dispersed so as to necessitate translation. It is seen as a myth about origin of multiple languages. However, the most intriguing interpretation of the story of Babel is found in the Kabalistic traditions. According to Menachem Tsioni, an Italian Torah commentator of 15th century, the Tower was a functional flying craft, empowered by some powerful magic or technology. The device was originally intended for holy purposes, but was later misused in order to gain control over the whole world.
Let us roll these three interpretations into one and we have the Tower of Babel becoming a metaphor, a symbol, a myth and an allegory of Globalization: of hubris, of technology and of plurality.
2) Some Preliminary Confessions of a Post-Global writer
The phrase ‘post-global’ in the title of this essay implies that one very significant phase of globalization which began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late eighties has reached its conclusion with severe economic global recession after two decades of tremendous changes in the life of ordinary people as well as in the realms of larger geopolitical arena. This is the period in which I grew up as a writer and student of literature, though I should concede that I did my college assignments and doctoral research without Wikipedia and Google. I should also concede that as a writer and a research scholar, I am doing things which were unthinkable in the early nineties. I publish my own poems and articles on the free public spaces like the blog, or online communities or freely available webpage. In what can be described as an online chat poetic Jam session, I exchange poetic compositions extempore with a poet based in Kolkata whom I have never seen in my life. I meet poets and writers from all ages and locations on the social networking sites like Orkut or Facebook. The idea that a published poet is the one whose works are printed is obsolete.
This essay is product of my personal experiences as a writer, translator, research student and university teacher. The argument I make is that the intellectual paradigms of literary studies I grew up with are losing their relevance in the world outside the seminar halls and the university walls, which most of the ‘critics’ and the ‘theorists’ inhabit. The theoretical categories fabricated yesterday exist mostly in the academic discourses, which are notorious for their ostrich-like outlook completely out of sync with the today’s world.
When I was pursuing my postgraduate studies in the mid-nineties, on the pavements of Baroda, I ran into pirated editions of oddly titled book called The Third Wave and Powershift written by Alvin Toffler. Piracy is a very much a post-global phenomenon and its consequences are far reaching. The Third Wave talks of three phases or waves of evolution of human civilization. The first wave, Toffler (1980) asserts, began with the development of agrarianism in human societies some ten thousand years ago. The second wave began in the eighteenth century with the Industrial Revolution. The third wave, in Toffler's schema, began in the post-World War II era, when technology began to outstrip industry as the dominant cultural and economic force in society. The second wave, ‘or smokestack civilization’, according to Toffler ‘, is industrial and based on mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption, mass education, mass media, mass recreation, mass entertainment, and weapons of mass destruction. You combine those things with standardization, centralization, concentration, and synchronization, and you wind up with a style of organization we call bureaucracy." The Third Wave, Toffler wrote, ‘ brings with it a genuinely new way of life based on diversified, renewable energy sources; on methods of production that make most factory assembly lines obsolete; on new, non-nuclear families; on a novel institution that might be called the "electronic cottage"; and on radically changed schools and corporations of the future. The emergent civilization writes a new code of behavior for us and carries us beyond standardization, synchronization, and centralization, beyond the concentration of energy, money, and power.’ Probably, what we need today in India is ‘ The Third Wave’ literary studies. And I believe that the canonical ‘ cultural studies’ paradigm is still grounded on the ‘smokestack’-cold war paradigms.
If newer paradigms for literary studies are to emerge, then we should focus on what Raymond Williams called ‘ emergent’ aspects of culture (1977), rather than focus merely on what he calls ‘ residual’ or ‘ archaic’. However, we must also look at the theories built upon the obsessive concern with ‘ residual’ and ‘archaic’ which render these theoretical paradigms themselves as ‘residual’ and even ‘ archaic’.
3) The Residual and the Archaic Literary Approaches
The paradigms for literary studies in India today are basically of two types: 1) fashionable ones which are ‘residual’ in William’s sense and 2) unfashionable ones or the ‘archaic’. The unfashionable or the archaic one is largely a Romantic theory of literature – by Romantic, I mean the one that became fashionable in the late eighteenth century in Europe and America. It sees ‘literature’ as an expression of author’s ‘genius’ and literature as a receptacle of humanistic and spiritual values of refined and elevated culture. This paradigm is still alive and kicking and often without having a slightest awareness of being kicked in all sorts of places. You just have to glance at the research papers and articles published all over the country. It often combines with the classical Sanskrit theories. I suspect this might be so because historical reasons. John Drew’s fascinating book ‘ India and the Romantic Imagination’ (1998) explores the unacknowledged ‘globalization’ of ideas from Sanskritic texts which permeated the Romantic ideologies. The distinction between the Western and the Eastern was never simple and clear-cut, as the colonial and the post-colonial scholars assume. I notice that one aspect of contemporary globalization is growing irrelevance of such a distinction. The problem with this approach is that it is not really a critical approach. Its terminology is quite vague and its language is extremely clichéd and exhausted. This framework can no longer offer new insights into contemporary literature. Though this paradigm resembles the formalist approaches of the early twentieth century, and often displays a superficial familiarity with the early twentieth century formalist approaches like New Criticism and the Russian Formalism, it has lacks the rigour and training of genuinely close reading of the text. We can call this approach ‘pseudo-formalism’ or ‘pseudo-Romanticism’.
The second paradigm, to which I was exposed only as a post-graduate student in a metropolitan university in the early nineties, is almost a mirror opposite of the ‘traditional-unfashionable’ paradigm. It is the paradigm which has almost ‘hegemonic’ ‘elitist’ -status in the English literary academia today. Paradoxically, the most interesting thing about this paradigm is its verbose railing against hegemony and elitism clothed in the most incomprehensible jargon. It is as brahminical as its alter-ego the ‘ traditional-unfashionable’ paradigm. It often calls itself ‘ Cultural Studies’, and however hard it tries to distance itself from elitist conception of culture, it forgets that this obsession with culture itself is elitist. This approach owns its intellectual heritage to what is known as ‘ Critical Theory’ as manufactured in the Frankfurt School. However, this approach is very prestigious one I believe because it has mastered the art of camouflaging its own Brahmanism. The key terms in this ‘high browed’ theories are the terms it seeks to combat, and it does so without much awareness that its own discourses have the same cultural status as the terms it seeks to combat: ‘hegemony’, ‘ideology’, and ‘power’. Though these terms are so very equivocal and polyvalent, and thanks to certain neo-Marxist (or neo-Althusserian or neo-Gramscian) underpinnings of ‘cultural studies’, there is very little doubt about their meaning in the minds of its promoters. The basic assumption, canonical literature is a tool for political domination manufactured by elites and it is a sacred duty of an academic critic to read it in a way so as to weaken its power. Literary criticism becomes the weapon against the hegemonic and ideological literary discourse. The cultural studies crusader, however, prefers not to talk about the elitist, hegemonic and ideologically prejudiced nature of their own critical discourse. In such a situation, it becomes necessary to look at the foundations of such literary studies once again.
Consider a term like ‘ hegemony’, which means to rule over or to dominate. In Gramscian scheme of the things, it implies ‘spontaneous consent’ of the exploited to the ideas of the exploiters. It comes close to one of the most popular word in the Cold War era- ‘brainwashing’. In the Cultural studies school, which came into prominence in the era of Cold War, ‘indirect brainwashing’ is what the cold war was basically about in the domain of ideas. The important problem with the term is the fundamental assumption that the exploited and the victimized are basically naïve and gullible. To imply that the ‘masses’ are gullible and can be easily befooled and intellectuals cannot be is a sheer sign of arrogance.
Even more important problematic in my view is the distinction between ‘the exploiters’ and ‘ exploited’ and ‘ victimizer’ vs. ‘victimized’. The exploiter-exploited dichotomy assumes universal and absolute positions. It fails to recognize that an exploiter in one situation may be the exploited in another. However, in order to continue the discourse on hegemony, the exploiter- exploited dichotomy has to be conceived of in absolutist terms. In any society, at any period of time, there has always been a hierarchy or wide prevalence of certain ideas. The romanticism implicit in the wish that there would be a society where there is no hierarchy of ideas is nothing but sentimentalism camouflaged as a radical outlook. Probably, Foucault was one of the sharpest opponents of this camouflaged utopianism. This Nietzscheian Foucault is certainly not the Foucault which the Critical theory oriented cultural studies wallahs swear by.
Another interesting case is the use of the term ‘ ideology’ and it is usually used in certain ‘ ideological’ ways. A noted Marxist critic Terry Eagleton (1991) notes almost sixteen different meanings of the term ideology and Raymond Williams (1985) notes how the significance of the term shifted through history. However, in the midst of jargonese verbiage what is sacrificed is awareness of historicity and polyvalences. Hence, the axiomatic assumption that ‘ literature’ is ideological becomes a vague observation of little theoretical use.
However, this reified and dogmatic jargon of the critical theory continues to live in the period of industrialization and cold war where the terms like capitalism and socialism, the lefts and the right made some sense. Today when I hold some equity shares of a company in my demat account, I wonder what kind of capitalism is this, where there is no such thing as ‘means of production’ which I own. What I own is merely a piece of information recorded digitally, no not even a piece of paper. What seems to emerge to be emerging is knowledge capitalism, which seems to be an inverted picture of the classical Marxist paradigm of ‘superstructure-on-base’ model. It seems that the economical relationships seem to be based on the knowledge.
The politics and theorization of identity in the post-global world cannot be framed around the paradigms of the cold war era. The third wave Feminist theory is just one instance of how a traditional rhetoric of resistance indulges in a self contradictory registers. On the one hand it denies any admissibility of essentialist notion of gender and on the other hand it talks about retaining the category of woman ‘strategically’. It is ‘If woman does not exist, so we need to invent her’ kind of discourse.
The centrality of colonial experience which the post-colonial studies assumed to be its fundamental premise no longer seems relevant. The politics of identity in the post-colonial situation was usually oppositional to the colonial and orientalist discourses. Nationalism, nativism and subaltern perspectives usually questioned the colonial discourses of identity. If the construction of identity is a dialectical process as Hegel proposed in his ‘ master-servant’ metaphor, then there the distinction between masters and servants has become extremely fragile and volatile today and that ‘the other’ is not homogenous and stable and hence identities today are extremely volatile and heterogeneous. If I consume Chinese food for snacks and continental food for lunch and Mexican dish for dinner, the politics of identity in a Hegelian oppositional framework becomes absurd. The boundaries that which once separated the ‘private’ from the ‘public’ seems to have become irrelevant with the arrival of cable television mania, mobile phones and the internet
If Benedict Anderson’s theorization that nation is an ‘imagined community’ made possible because of print-capitalism (1991) is accepted, then we should be able to postulate an emergent concept of nation as a ‘virtual community’ made possible by digital revolution in general , the internet and social networking in particular. This virtual nation is precisely what it is: virtual, simulated and digital. It exists in cyberspace rather than in imagination of people. It cuts across cultural, national and linguistic boundaries.
If literary criticism is defined simply as a language we use to discuss literature, then what we need today is the third language which avoids the clichéd and predictable languages which dominate the literary studies academia in India today and deals with the ‘emergent’ aspects of the cultures. The emergent aspects of our culture are consequences of the process of globalization which went berserk in the nineties and mid twenties. Hence it is necessary to think about what globalization really is or was in order to speculate on the possibilities of literary theoretical approaches which have contemporary relevance.
4) Globalization and Beyond
Globalization is a buzzword, a journalistic cliché, a term which means many things for many people. Like most of the significant concepts in social sciences, it is fiercely contested. Held and McGrew explain that globalization ‘can be thought of as the widening, intensifying, speeding up and growing impact of world-wide interconnectedness’. Nayan Chandra (2002) points out that it is a millennia old process beginning with out ancestors moving out of Africa and moving all over the globe. He says that even though this ‘g-word’ has evoked extreme emotional responses, it has some utility if it is understood as a ‘leitmotif’ of human history. He notes that it is a trend that has intensified and accelerated in recent decades and come into full view with all its benefits and destructive power. Just as climate has shaped the environment over the millennia, the interaction among cultures and societies over tens of thousands of years has resulted in the increasing integration of what is becoming the global human community.
The critics of globalization point out the perils and destructive aspects of this process: homogenization or Americanization of cultures across the globe, tyrannical post-cold war politics the
US bent upon making the multipolar world into
unipolar one, tyranny of multinational corporations, and so on. They see it
threatening the cultural, economic, and political freedom, identity, and
diversity. Whether good or bad, one cannot overlook the fact that this process
exists, and is transforming the society at an amazing velocity. An
unprecedented interconnectedness and interdependency encompasses the entire
globe, and this is largely due to mediation of information technology and
propelled by the engines of global corporate players. The neo capitalist
mantras of free market, liberalization, and privatization and so on form the
part of the rhetoric of globalization. For some it stands for ‘liberal
free market economy’ or ‘ turbo capitalism’ which exploded globally after the end
of the Cold War. For others it means rampant Americanization of cultures. Some
see it as the Digital and Information Technology revolution and emergence of a
‘ Global Village’, an integrated planet. Many see it as multinational corporate
dictatorship which is ruining this planet.
To avoid the American-centric view of globalization which seems to imply that globalization is a unidirectional movement, the term ‘glocalization’ was made popular by the sociologist Roland Robertson(1997). He used this word as a rendering of a Japanese word ‘dochakuka’. It is actually a Japanese marketing strategy to sell a standard product with the ‘flavour’ of a particular market.
Robertson uses this word with
another purpose- to demonstrate that the US does not
solely control the process of creating large scale interconnected,
interdependent world, a global village. Robertson
goes on to define ‘glocalization’ as ‘ the simultaneity --- the co-presence ---
of both universalizing and particularizing tendencies’. This term is useful
particularly because it does not consider ‘local’ as a mere victim or recipient
of the process of globalization. It also emphasizes that the binarism between
‘global’ and ‘local’ is not mutually exclusive and unproblematic and both the
terms are interdependent.
The examples of
Restaurants, a global player appealing to local palates and Hollywood
movies dubbed into Tamil and Hindi obviously comes to our mind as the examples
of glocalization. Easy availability of Chinese bhel or a Jain burger in a nearby ‘gobblers’ street’ is not a
radically new cultural phenomenon. Cultures have never existed in vacuum and
instances of large-scale import-export of cultural items can be cited easily.
The notion of a ‘pure original’ indigenous culture is a recent myth and this
notion itself has circulated in an economy of cultures which is transnational.
Various versions of nativism and nationalism have become influential only due
to the context of history of colonialization. One must realize that the things,
which seem natural to a culture (like trousers and shirts), have only been
naturalized beyond recognition by the forces of history. Not many among us are
aware that the potato came from Peru, coffee from Brazil and chilli pepper from Mexico.
That our bhashas or the regional
Indian languages contain words from Persian, Arabic, adjacent languages, tribal
languages and of course English, is overlooked by the politicians of various
forms of nativisms and nationalisms.
Poetics, a complex cultural artefact, has been increasingly ‘glocalized’ in twentieth century. Poetics is a component of ideology that defines both poetry and its social and cultural function in a given society. The globally influential European literary movements like Romanticism and Modernism were themselves influenced by literatures of the East. The Romantic Movement, which travelled from European cultural centres to
America and rest of the world, bore influence of the
Orientalist translations of the eastern literary and philosophical texts. That
the high modernist poets like Pound, Eliot, and Yeats was keenly interested in the Eastern literatures is
well known. The major literary languages across the globe translated,
glocalized, and assimilated the poetics of European movements into their own
literary systems. The study of glocalization, translation, assimilation, and
globalization of poetics would fall under comparative literary studies. One of
the major functions for comparative literature in the era of globalization
would be to study the interaction between the global and local literary systems
in their political, historical, and social context.
In the colonial period, the British literary forms like the novel, journalistic prose, short story and so on moulded similar genres and forms in many Indian languages. The Romantic poetry and the Victorian poetry were extremely popular and influential in Marathi in the first three to four decades of the twentieth century. Chiefly poetics, apart from some literary texts, was translated, glocalized in the regional languages. This of course is not to overlook the context of power and asymmetrical relation between cultures in this process of glocalization.
In spite of sharp differences and controversies, William Scheuerman (2008) in his entry on Globalization in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, points out the aspects of globalization on which there is some consensus. Most contemporary social theorists endorse the view that globalization refers to fundamental changes in the spatial and temporal contours of social existence, according to which the significance of space or territory undergoes shifts in the face of a no less dramatic acceleration in the temporal structure of crucial forms of human activity. Geographical distance is typically measured in time. As the time necessary to connect distinct geographical locations is reduced, distance or space undergoes compression or “annihilation.” The human experience of space is intimately connected to the temporal structure of those activities by means of which we experience space. Changes in the temporality of human activity inevitably generate altered experiences of space or territory.
Scheuerman notes that in spite of great differences among experts on the opinion about the causes of globalization, there is an agreement on five essential characteristics of globalization. The five characteristics of globalization according to Scheuerman are:
1) Globalization is linked to deterritorialization
2) Globalization is linked to the growth of social interconnectedness across existing geographical and political boundaries.
3) Globalization is linked to explosion of the speed or velocity of social activity
4) Globalization is a relatively long term process
5) Globalization should be understood as a multi-pronged process, since deterritorialization, social interconnectedness, and acceleration manifest themselves in many different (economic, political, and cultural) arenas of social activity.
The first feature deals with the disappearance of geographical distances owing to explosion in digital technology, the internet and the like, giving rise to newer forms of ‘non-territorial’ social activity. The second feature is about the world emerging as a complex ‘network’ where diverse parts are interdependent and linked to each other in a dynamic way. The third feature is connected to the temporal dimension of our social life whose speed has increased in a mind-boggling way. The fourth characteristic historicizes globalization and sees it as a process that has a long origin. The fifth and the most important feature is the awareness of globalization as a multi-dimensional process, which affects human life in multiple ways. Globalization is not just about economy or politics or culture, it is about all these things and more. It is about emergence of dazzling new possibilities in almost every sphere of our lives, which were unthought-of before.
Alvin and Heidi Toffler in their book Revolutionary Wealth (2006) point out how the ‘Third Wave’ is transforming the ‘deep fundamentals’ of all our relationships, including our relationships with wealth and power. These ‘deep fundamentals’ are i) time, ii) space and ii) knowledge. Toffler states, never before have we been able to instantly access virtually unlimited amounts of any kind of information for virtually zero cost. Unlike the foundations of past wealth revolutions, the Third Wave's foundation defies traditional economics in that knowledge is not scarce; knowledge is infinite and exponentiates itself. An economy based on knowledge also defies classical economics due to the non-rival property of knowledge. The idea that ‘knowledge’ belongs to ‘superstructure’ in the classical Marxist conception, according to Tofflers is inaccurate. It seems that knowledge has started becoming the base on which economics and other things stand.
Consequences of globalization can vary from being extremely detrimental and catastrophic to enriching and empowering. The utopian or dystopian vision of globalization will always be one-sided. The black and white view of the multi-pronged and multi-dimensional process will always be partial and limited. The opponents of globalization are actually opposing only one aspect of globalization, and those who are praising it are also taking a limited view of the thing. The euphoric cheerleaders of globalization refuse to talk about the cataclysmic effect of unchecked greed on environment or immense rise in the economic and social inequalities in the world, while the pessimists refuse to see the immense possibilities and opportunities opened up by digital revolution and shedding of our antiquated dogmas and prejudices. The anti-globalization campaigners overlook the fact that their movement is also a global movement and hence very much part of globalization.
If globalization has altered the supposedly immutable categories, the ‘deep fundamentals’ of space and time, the texts marked as ‘literary’ as well as language embody this transformed consciousness. The paradigm of post-global literary has to attend to this transformed subjectivities and languages and explain the significance and the implications of such a transformed consciousness.
In my view globalization has altered what the semiotician Yurij Lotman (1984/2005) terms as ‘semiosphere’ we inhabit. Analogy upon which the term ‘semiosphere’ is based is that of ‘biosphere’. The ‘biosphere’ is the term from earth sciences, which indicates the global sum of all ecosystems. Lotman postulated that ‘semantic systems function only by being immersed in a specific semiotic continuum, which is filled with multi-variant semiotic models situated at a range of hierarchic levels’. Lotman opines that ‘semiotic universe may be regarded as the totality of individual texts and isolated languages as they relate to each other…. The semiosphere is that same semiotic space, outside of which semiosis itself cannot exist’. Which means significance of any text, speech act or discourse is realizable only within a particular semiosphere.
Lotman also notes that this concept is linked to a definite semiotic homogeneity and individuality which imply an existence of a boundary between semiosphere and non- or extra semiotic space that surrounds it. Lotman terms this boundary, which is analogous to mathematical notion of border which represents a multiplicity of points, belonging simultaneously to both the internal and external space. This semiotic border is represented according to Lotman by the sum of ‘bilingual translatable filters’, passing through which the text translated into another language, situated outside the given semiosphere.
Because of globalization, I believe, the semiotic borders or boundary which preserves the internal coherence of a semiosphere becomes all the more porous resulting in radical transformation of the sphere in question. Consequently, the status and significance of the texts, identified as ‘literary’ within a given semiosphere also altered. A post-global literary theory will have to account for this altered significance and status of texts within the context of this altered semiosphere. The semiotic universe of today can no longer be delimited to a territory or region nor can be separated by the conventional time zones.
5) The Third Wave Literary Studies: The Rise of the Literary Machines
The great explosion of personal computers in late seventies and eighties opened up new venues for digital creativity and critical speculation. Earliest attempts to theorize the emergent trends were in the area of electronic literature, hypertext, cybertext, ‘ergodic literature’, and the human-computer interface as in the Cyborg theory of Donna Haraway (1991).
N. Katherine Hayles in ‘Electronic Literature: What is it?’ (2007), offers definition of electronic literature given by Electronic Literature Organization, as ‘work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.’ She points out that, ‘Electronic literature, generally considered to exclude print literature that has been digitized, is by contrast "digital born," a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer.’ She also emphasizes that the distinction between print and digital literature is not sharp or water tight as, ‘In the contemporary era, both print and electronic texts are deeply interpenetrated by code. Digital technologies are now so thoroughly integrated with commercial printing processes that print is more properly considered a particular output form of electronic text than an entirely separate medium. Nevertheless, electronic text remains distinct from print in that it literally cannot be accessed until it is performed by properly executed code. The immediacy of code to the text's performance is fundamental to understanding electronic literature, especially to appreciating its specificity as a literary and technical production.’ She points out the different types of electronic literatures like hypertext literature and interactive fiction.
The term ‘hypertext’ was coined by Ted Nelson in the sixties to indicate a special type of database system in which objects (text, pictures, music, programs, and so on) can be creatively linked to each other. When you select an object, you can see all the other objects that are linked to it. You can move from one object to another even though they might have very different forms. For example, while reading a document about Mozart, you might click on the phrase Violin Concerto in A Major, which could display the written score or perhaps even invoke a recording of the concerto. Clicking on the name Mozart might cause various illustrations of Mozart to appear on the screen. The icons that you select to view associated objects are called Hypertext links or buttons.
Hypertext systems are particularly useful for organizing and browsing through large databases that consist of disparate types of information. Hypertext actually is a way of dealing with information overload. As can be seen, the term hypertext can be misleading due inclusion of such as graphics, animations, video and digitized sounds. The term ‘hypermedia’ seems to be a better term for these kinds of texts.
The development of electronic literature has coincided with the growth and proliferation of hypertext development software and the emergence of electronic networks. Two software programs specifically designed for hypertextual literature Storyspace and Intermedia became available in the 1990's. Storyspace v2.0, a professional level hypertext development tool, is available from Eastgate Systems. Several important hypertexts fictions were created in the nineties which include Michael Joyce's afternoon: a story, Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl, and Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden. Theorists like Jay David Bolter, George Landow, Stuart Moulthrop, J.Yellowlees Douglas, Robert Coover, and Michael Joyce, among others, have made significant contribution to the area. Jay David Bolter’s Writing Space (1991) outlines a historical view of hypertext as a successor to print technology and George Landow’s Hypertext (1992) views the development of hypertext from the framework of poststructuralist theories of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Giles Deleuze. Hypertext theories usually see hypertext as a postmodern mode of communication which exemplifies theorization of the likes of Jean Baudriallard, and JF Lyotard, in the sense that it occupies a virtual simulated space, enmeshing with other multiple texts, and increased reader participation in the process of producing reading experience.
The focus of hypertext and interactive fiction is on what is termed as ‘non-linearity’, interactivity, changed sensory experience of the reader and heightened participatory involvement of the reader. In fact, theorists like Aarseth (1997) emphasize these aspects emergent literature instead of its digitalness or electronic media. He coins terms like ‘cybertext’ and ‘ergodic literature’ to highlight this altered reading experience. Aarseth calls for the need to evolve a new paradigm a new way of theorizing literature based on this rather different cultural experience (1999, 31) rather than following the older paradigms of literary theory based on poststructuralism and postmodernism like Landow and other hypertext theorists do. Using cybernetic theories of communication, Aarseth coins the concept of ‘cybertext’ which is focuses on the mechanical organization of the text, by positing the intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange. However, it also centers attention on the consumer, or user, of the text, as a more integrated figure than even reader-response theorists would claim. The performance of their reader takes place all in his head, while the user of cybertext also performs in an extranoematic sense.’ Aarseth emphasizes the fact that the concept of cybertext is not limited to digital or electronic text but also the written or printed text like the I-Ching which require more than usual active participation of the reader, or texts like Nabakov‘s Pale Fire or a play like Night of January 16th by Ayn Rand (1936), which is about a trial where members of the audience are picked to be the jury. The play has two endings, depending on the jury's verdict. Cybertext, according to Aarseth is not a "new," "revolutionary" form of text, with capabilities only made possible through the invention of the digital computer. Neither is it a radical break with old-fashioned textuality, although it would be easy to make it appear so. Cybertext, according to Aarseth, is a perspective on all forms of textuality, a way to expand the scope of literary studies to include phenomena that today are perceived as outside of, or marginalized by, the field of literature--or even in opposition to it, for purely extraneous reasons
To describe such literary texts, digital or printed, where reader decides not only the meaning of the text, but also the course and the outcome of the plot, Aarseth uses a term ‘ergodic literature’. The term ‘ergodic’ according to Aarseth is taken from physics and is derived from the Greek words ergons meaning work and hodos meaning the path. He says, ‘In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.’ The most important element of ergodic literature is its ‘game-world’ experience. Replying to the charges that, ‘these texts (hypertexts, adventure games, etc.) aren't essentially different from other literary texts, because (1) all literature is to some extent indeterminate, nonlinear, and different for every reading, (2) the reader has to make choices in order to make sense of the text, and finally (3) a text cannot really be nonlinear because the reader can read it only one sequence at a time, anyway.’ Aarseth replies that these objections typically came from persons who, while well versed in literary theory, had no firsthand experience of the hypertexts, adventure games, or multi-user dungeons I was talking about. He notes that the term ‘non-linear’ was one the reasons of this confusion. In common literary theory it is used to describe narratives that lacked or subverted a straightforward story line; for others, paradoxically, the word could not describe Aarseth’s material, since the act of reading must take place sequentially, word for word. Aarseth makes a crucial distinction between the reading experience of cybertext and ergodic literature and the reading of non-ergodic literature by using following analogies,
‘A reader, however strongly engaged in the unfolding of a narrative, is powerless. Like a spectator at a soccer game, he may speculate, conjecture, extrapolate, even shout abuse, but he is not a player. Like a passenger on a train, he can study and interpret the shifting landscape, he may rest his eyes wherever he pleases, even release the emergency brake and step off, but he is not free to move the tracks in a different direction. He cannot have the player's pleasure of influence: "Let's see what happens when I do this." The reader's pleasure is the pleasure of the voyeur. Safe, but impotent.
However, on the other hand, the reader of ergodic literature and cybertext is,
‘ Is not safe, and therefore, it can be argued, she is not a reader. The cybertext puts its would-be reader at risk: the risk of rejection. The effort and energy demanded by the cybertext of its reader raise the stakes of interpretation to those of intervention. Trying to know a cybertext is an investment of personal improvisation that can result in either intimacy or failure. The tensions at work in a cybertext, while not incompatible with those of narrative desire, are also something more: a struggle not merely for interpretative insight but also for narrative control: "I want this text to tell my story; the story that could not be without me." In some cases this is literally true. In other cases, perhaps most, the sense of individual outcome is illusory, but nevertheless the aspect of coercion and manipulation is real.’
Aarseth attempts rethink their concepts and the metaphoricity of terms from literary studies and narratology. He is keen to point out that the term cybertext is used to describe ‘a broad textual media category’. It is not in itself a literary genre of any kind. Cybertexts share a principle of calculated production, but beyond that there is no obvious unity of aesthetics, thematics, literary history, or even material technology. He notes that the cybertext reader is ‘a player, a gambler’ and the cybertext is a game-world or world-game and ‘ It is possible to explore, get lost, and discover secret paths in these texts, not metaphorically, but through the topological structures of the textual machinery. This is not a difference between games and literature but rather between games and narratives. To claim that there is no difference between games and narratives is to ignore essential qualities of both categories.’
According to Aarseth, hypertext and interactive fiction would fall under the category of digital ergodic literature. Ergodic literature thus is a broader category of literature than hypertext interactive fiction and parallels to postmodern poststructuralist categories of ‘ writerly texts’. The close link between postmodernist and poststructuralist theoretical categories and ergodic literature can be theorized more clearly from a semiotic perspective. The very idea of distinction between verbal, written and audio-visual texts collapses, once we use the theoretical framework of semiotics.
However, Aarseth says,
‘As the cyber prefix indicates, the text is seen as a machine--not metaphorically but as a mechanical device for the production and consumption of verbal signs. Just as a film is useless without a projector and a screen, so a text must consist of a material medium as well as a collection of words. The machine, of course, is not complete without a third party, the (human) operator, and it is within this triad that the text takes place. The boundaries between these three elements are not clear but fluid and transgressive, and each part can be defined only in terms of the other two. Furthermore, the functional possibilities of each element combine with those of the two others to produce a large number of actual text types.’
We can consider the works of a radical visual artist named Eduardo Kac in the light of above discussion. Eduardo Kac is an internationally recognized experimenter with new media and art. Biography on his fascinating website ekac.org tells us that Kac is, ‘A pioneer of telecommunications art in the pre-Web '80s, Eduardo Kac (pronounced "Katz") emerged in the early '90s with his radical works combining telerobotics and living organisms. His visionary integration of robotics, biology and networking explores the fluidity of subject positions in the post-digital world.’ He composes what is termed as ‘holopoetry’ or poetry conceived, made and displayed holographically, and ‘space poetry’ or poetry conceived for, realized with, and experienced in conditions of micro or zero gravity. In other words, Space Poetry is poetry that requires and explores weightlessness (“micro or zero gravity”) as a writing medium. A holopoem is holo-textual work displayed in three-dimensional space, and change according to time and the viewer’s position in relation to the text.
Glazier (2002) discusses Kac’s holopoem named ‘Adhuc’ as follows, ‘ Kac’s holopoem “Adhuc” (shown from six different points of view on Kac’s page), for instance, is “an example of the complex discontinuities that structure the syntax of ... holopoems” (“Holopoetry: Complete”). In it, letters and words seem to drift into the distance, superimposed on each other, eerily suspended in a spherical mist, or atmosphere, the color of which varies from red, green, yellow, and blue, depending on the viewer’s position. Words that are readable include “whenever,” “ever” and “or never,” reaffirming the temporal nature of the piece and the fact that the text is not fixed.’
Kac’s more recent works explore convergence between digital and the biological. In his online essay on ‘ Biopoetry’, Kac says, ‘ Since the 1980s poetry has effectively moved away from the printed page. From the early days of the minitel to the personal computer as a writing and reading environment, we have witnessed the development of new poetic languages. Video, holography, programming and the web have further expanded the possibilities and the reach of this new poetry. Now, in a world of clones, chimeras, and transgenic creatures, it is time to consider new directions for poetry in vivo. Below I propose the use of biotechnology and living organisms in poetry as a new realm of verbal, paraverbal and nonverbal creation.’ Kac goes on to discuss twenty kinds of biotechnological art practice of biopoetry including ‘nanopoetry’, ‘transgenic’ poetry’ and ‘atomic writing’. Transgenic poetry for instance would, ‘ synthesize DNA according to invented codes to write words and sentences using combinations of nucleotides. Incorporate these DNA words and sentences into the genome of living organisms, which then pass them on to their offspring, combining with words of other organisms. Through mutation, natural loss and exchange of DNA material new words and sentences will emerge. Read the transpoem back via DNA sequencing.’ Kac, his website informs us, opened a new direction for contemporary art with his "transgenic art"--first with a groundbreaking transgenic work entitled Genesis (1999), which included an "artist's gene" he invented, and then with his fluorescent rabbit called Alba (2000).
Using language of genes to create new organism might be an excellent metaphor of how poets actually ‘create’ new works by modifying the genetic make up of the language, but in Kac it becomes a literal experiment to fuse biotechnology with creativity and pull out fluorescent rabbits out of his magician’s hat. Kac’s website tells us that Kac merges multiple media and biological processes to create hybrids from the conventional operations of existing communications systems. These ‘hybrids’ can be called cyborgs and science fiction of yesteryears becomes a lived reality in contemporary times.
One remembers Aarseth’s observations regarding the fluid and transgressive boundaries which separate machine, human beings and language would invariably lead to profound questions regarding subjectivity, identity and culture. Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1991) has offered deeply political and powerful theorization of the very blurring of borders which separate human body and subjectivity from machines from the perspective of the ‘third wave feminism’ or rather Gender studies.
The myth and image of cyborg, in Haraway’s formulation, cannot be classified as human being or as a living being or even as a machine. This collapse of boundaries, which separate these categories, result in deconstruction of the western thought based on the essentialist, originological and metaphysical systems. Haraway notes that cyborgs are not just beings living in science fiction but, ‘by the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. This cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politic’.
The Cyborg myth resists essentialist and totalizing discourses of the west. She points out, ‘The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity.’ She further comments, ‘ The cyborg skips the step of original unity, of identification with nature in the Western sense. This is its illegitimate promise that might lead to subversion of its teleology as star wars. The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence.’ The Cyborg Manifesto declares that it is not just the god who is dead but also the goddess and declares I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.
6) Rebuilding Babel:
I believe that the most important problem with the New Media theories of hypertext, electronic literature, cybertext and ‘ergodic literature is their obsession with digital media at the expense of locating the social and historical context of globalization. The new media theory seems to overlook the complex multilevel and plural dynamics of globalization.
A more comprehensive post-global paradigm for literary studies have to take following into account the altered nature of literary text, its ergodic and hypermedia qualities, the altered role of the reader as the producer of the text in a radical way and the altered semiosphere and changed ‘ deep fundamentals’ of the post-global world.
However, the velocity at which cultural landscape of the world and breakneck speed at which new technology is emerging making today’s technology obsolete makes it impossible to frame an overarching ‘global’ theory of literature possible. Probably in the Lyotardian postmodern condition, there is no need for newer ‘ metanarratives’ once the older ones have become ‘incredulous’. Probably to wish for such a theory is outrageous. Such a desire is hubris of the builders of Babel, which the Almighty (the Almighty, who?) dislikes and hence descends on the theorists and scatters them and confuses their tongues.
Suniti Namjoshi’sBuilding Babel: A Novel with Interactive Hyperlinks (1996), an obvious example of ‘ ergodic literature’ dramatizes the problem. The novel is ‘about the process of building culture in the teeth of Crone Kronos’. Namjoshi is the post-feminist fabulist of our age. Her introduction 2 enacts an imaginary ‘power struggle between writer and reader’ where the reader demands to know on whose terms she should read the text and why. The fascinating exchange is typically about ergodic nature of the texts such as Building Babel which claims to give a different kind of power to the reader. The novel consists of characters from fictions, myths and fairy tales. However, one the most important character is Crone Kronus whose disciples want to build Babel. Where precisely was Babel built?
“In the Gobi or the Sahara? Or the Rajputana Desert? Where do the sands sweep to the sea? Babel was built in your brain cells. Surely you know the memes of Babel are colonists. They are your RAM, your instant available, accessible memory. The ruins of Babel, the growth and degradation, the endless adaptation, the building and rebuilding, they are on your hard disk.’ (1996: 7)
If the memes of Babel are colonist then it is clear why the Lord God scattered it. But the building seems to be, in Namjoshi’s fable, more of a Sisyphusian task of endless adaptation, building and rebuilding. The theories, concepts, paradigms come with an expiry date and from their ruins one rebuilds structures. However, our predicament is that the next date is the expiry date, today’s software is no longer compatible with yesterdays’ operating system, and tomorrow’s applications will probably no longer run on our present operating systems.
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