THE TEXT AT PLAY
To interpret can mean two things: in its first meaning, to interpret is to decode, that is, to (seek to) determine what the work "says" by calling upon knowledge and competencies both linguistic (in the case of a text) and extra-linguistic (historical, sociological, and other extrinsic facts, some familiarity with the literary or artistic history relating to the work); in its second, to interpret is to perform.
Traditionally, these two operations had seemed mutually exclusive. In literature, interpretation is considered in the first sense of the term: decoding, deciphering, etc. (its other, performative sense being reserved for the performing arts).
In this traditional perspective, the author's and reader's respective roles are also seen as mutually exclusive. The author has an active and omniscient role of grand architect or overseer, while, faced with the fait accompli, the reader has the more passive one of producing the "good" interpretation, that which reveals what the work "says," that is, what the author "meant to say."
Yet, every reading is interactive, because the reading of every text presupposes an active (re)construction on the part of its reader. Obviously, reading was never, and will never be a word-by-word decoding or decipherment on the simplistic "emitter-message-receiver" pattern. On the contrary, around every text, in every reading, is a "rustling of language" (to borrow an expression from Barthes), a multiplicity of linguistic references on many levels, extra-linguistic as well, all of which fill out the text, thicken its fabric, and play their part in the reading (as in the writing): consonances, resonances, reminiscences…
Contemporary textual theory therefore recognizes the reader's active engagement in interpretative work, now rather considered an actualization of the text than a mere decoding of canonical meaning (or worse, as often, canonical meaning identified with authorial "intention"). The reader comes to be attributed prerogatives previously reserved for the author. He becomes the work's "co-creator."
With hyperlinks, new technology has allowed both author and reader to realize, concretely and in an instantly accessible way, the new textual model advocated by theoreticians - hypertext -, in which one can simply click to go from one word, paragraph, page, or text, to another. Reading indeed becomes labyrinthine. It is up to the reader to elicit the text at every moment: each of his or her actions is a decision that will affect its flow, and its ultimate value. Hypertext is intended to be made as much as to be read. These works bring out what had previously been concealed in literature, namely the performative aspect of the work of reading and interpretation.
Promises and Problems
What are the results of hypertext? Open works (perhaps too open). What are its merits? Showing the work of interpretation and reading for what it is - a co-writing, an actualization of the text. And the risk? The text's dissolution, so "open" that it can become formless. Its price? Disinterest - or at least distraction on the part of the reader, who comes to view the text (which he weaves as he merrily clicks) "from above," "surfing" over rather than "plunging" into it as expected from traditional reading.
All these factors can help explain the relative failure of hypertext fiction (cf. Samuel Archibald (2002), p. 116). Traditional literary text already delivered what hypertext promised, more or less, and it lacks a decisive (there's no better word) element of "traditional" text's success - closure. All too often, a reader of hypertext stops midway, at the crossroads, by chance, or (let's admit) through weariness, but the interruption leaves him yearning for more.
Of course, such closure is essentially an illusion (since all text is engaged in intertextuality, and in the fabric of the world as well): it is a part of the fiction, it makes the fiction. It has psychological, dramatic, cathartic value. Certainly, it is not solely responsible for the interpretation - the latter being work that is pursued, corrected, and readjusted throughout the reading process -, but the text's closure surely plays a controlling role, which serves to validate (or invalidate) the reader's interpretation of the text. Also, in classic hypertext, does the malaise not derive from the text's - and the reading's - lack of temporality? From one click to the next, hypertext stretches out in the (potentially infinite) space of the Web, and its separate moments do not concatenate, but rather cancel each other out in an ever renewed, and memoryless present.
Finally, in hypertext, the text remains primary, illustrations (rather infrequent) only play a supporting role, similar to their function in a traditional text. Hypertext would thus seem to hang precariously in the balance, neither realizing the potential of the traditional literary work, nor that promised and allowed for by the multimedia nature of the electronic medium. True, "classic" hypertext was born in the early days of the medium's short and rapid history, when images and sounds were more difficult to produce and handle than they are now.
However, especially in the last two or three years, another type of work has become a lot more prevalent in electronic literature: works (often created in Macromedia Flash) in which the images (and sounds) rather become the text's support, to the point where text, playing on its material, visual, and audio qualities, tends to blend into a work that is intentionally limited in space and time, yet total. Here, the reader is invited less to surf in Web space than to immerse himself, as he would in traditional literature. But this immersion takes place in the virtual two- or three-dimensional space of the little theatre that is his or her computer screen, instead of in the imaginary space of the book.
Less dependent on the "interactivity" of hyperlinks (often non-existent in this type of work), and showing a preference for animation (of both text and image), these productions allow text to regain temporality. Indeed, the text often scrolls before the viewer-reader's gaze, beyond his or her control, sentence by sentence, word by word, even letter by letter. What distinguishes the medium (from the public theatre hall) is its intimacy, along with the fact the viewer-reader can always start the work over again, see (read) it anew, (re)play it to heart's content. This type of work recalls the first experiments in "animated images," like the picture boxes and devices of pre-cinema days (like for example "Kircher's "magic lanterns" of the seventeenth century, the phenakistiscope (J.-E. Plateau, 1832), Horner's zoetrope (1834), Emile Reynaud's praxinoscope theatre, and Marey's chronophotograh (intended for physiological study, and preceded by Muybridge in the U.K.). Finally, worth mentioning is Edison's Kinetoscope, a projector in which, for a nickel, a single spectator could watch one-minute sequences recreate the movement of beings, objects, life - the equivalent of our slot machines"1), made for one viewer at the time, and little more than a toy.
Such works may seem to pose a problem exactly opposite that of "classic" hypertext: no longer "too open," they are rather "too closed." They turn away both from "interactivity," as we've already seen, and, it seems, from any active intervention or invention on the reader's part, something promoted as much by hypertext as by the post-structuralist concept of text. But, is this criticism justified?
Adaptation: interpreted, or thwarted?
We note, first of all, that there is a third function in art, an intermediary between author and reader (or spectator, here): that of the interpreter [in the performative sense], who plays an instrumental role, relaying and revealing the work, between the author and the audience. Traditionally, the function doesn't exist for literature per se, but was rather a quality of the performing arts: music, theatre, cinema, performance…
This interpreter is not necessarily an actor, dancer, or musician; he or she can also be a director, or an "adapter," who recreates a new work from an already existing one, either by translating it, or by transposing it from one medium to the another. Adaptation often seems more intrusive than the interpretative work of actor or musician (or even director). The latter interpret the work following authorial directions, or at least continue to work in the medium for which the work was originally conceived. The apparent wrong done to the work seems all the more significant when the original medium differs from that of the adaptation: thus, a theatre play turned into a movie seems to undergo less transformation - fewer simplifications and betrayals - than a literary work adapted to the screen.
Does the adapter do the work injustice? Does he betray the author's intentions? Finally, does he diminish the reader's prerogatives by imposing his reading on a work, interposing his own vision of the work between those of the author and reader? Language always has greater evocative power than the image, it is more general and more abstract. To film or stage a text, visually and aurally, is naturally to make certain choices to the exclusion of others, and therefore to reduce, or at least orient, the spectator-reader's interpretative work. It is in this sense that the works mentioned above can effectively appear as being "too closed."
Besides, every text is made to be read. And every reading, even the most "open" and respectful of the text's inherent multivocality2, necessarily implies making certain interpretative choices that will cancel out others. It is a question of knowing whether the adaptation of a work in another medium constitutes an interpretation among others, or whether it "forces" the original into a form that distorts it, turns it into what it isn't. In other words, is such an adaptation from one medium to another an interpretation, or rather, truly a hijacking - when the original text was conceived for a traditional medium (on paper), or worse, when the author of the text is dead and incapable of approving the adaptation of his text?
These observations are relevant here because the electronic literary works belonging to the second group described previously appear to be veritable adaptations of texts to the computer screen. Indeed, it is very often the case that the texts "staged" in this type of work are borrowed from the traditional corpus (normally published "on paper"); furthermore, the text, even when still considered primary, is integrated as one element among others (sounds, images, movement), which serve to reveal and express it. Finally, these works are often collaborative, as in film, work being shared between author, designer, visual artist, musician…
The Text at Play
To conclude, one could put forward the assumption that what such works put into play is less a text than the revelation of the work of reading, conceived in terms of performance rather than of decoding. What the adapter reveals to the reader-spectator in these works is a possible posture of reading vis-a-vis [approach to reading?]such or such text, sheding light on the process - and the game - of reading as such. A text is like a "message in a bottle" (Eco (1985), p: 65): the adapter collects this bottle........ opens it, and interprets it in his own manner - and the fact that he can do this in a completely different context or medium than that of writing on paper proves two things: the value of the text, if it succeeds in still saying something in its new incarnation - even if this new meaning is somehow shifted, or partial, compared to the original intentions of the text and its author -; and the talent of the interpreter, if he manages to translate for the reader/spectator a manner of apprehending this text in a new medium, one that will not betray it, but reveal it in at least one of its fundamental aspects.
In closing, let us look at two exemplary and very different works (besides the five works examined in this issue). The first is entitled Dakota (2001), by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. It is an adaptation of Cantos I and II by Ezra Pound3 (but as Young-Hae Chang says in an interview, "Of course, you don't need to know this to enjoy the piece"4). Intentionally spare5, the work simply highlights the text that scrolls by in large black letters on the white screen (in Monaco type, as the authors specify), generally word by word (or at most two to four words at a time), very quickly (the reader strains to read them, catching snippets here and there as they whizz by) to a fast, syncopated jazz beat (Art Blakey). The result is a powerful work. Whether the reader/spectator is familiar or not with Ezra Pound's opus, Dakota succeeds in conveying, not so much the materiality of the text (although the one-by-one word presentation, the large letters clearly and purely cut out, underlines the visual quality of each word), as the essentially incantatory and performative force of the language - the essence of poetry -, which, in Pound's work, also takes the form of invectives, onomatopoeias, cries, songs.
The second work is Natalie Bookchin's adaptation for the Web of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled The Intruder (1999). The very text of this short story is certainly presented here, visually as well as orally (read by a female voice), but only in a measured way, blow by blow, as the reader/player successfully makes his way through a series of ten interactive games. The work illustrates, quite literally, text at or in play - a text put to the test: in the arena of reading, in action, at play with the reader, who's in the game, bandying words and meaning - text subjected to interpretation which is in fact its raison d'être. The text, and its reading, thus become a real game, with tests and rewards. The reward is the text, which progresses, interpreted and pushed forward for and by me, the reader, thanks to my "successful" actions.
2: A multivocality that is nevertheless never "infinite," contrary to the claims of some "post-structuralist" theoreticians and authors. cf. Umberto Eco (1992), pp : 7-10).
3: American poet (1885-1972), forerunner of the Beat Generation. The first Cantos were published in 1925.
4: Entrevue avec Young-Hae Chang, par Thom Swiss.
"Dakota is based on a close reading of Ezra Pound's Cantos part I and part II.
At first, we didn't realize we were creating an animation. But it seems that by a certain new-media-art definition of things, when you use Flash you're doing animation. Someone suggested recently that we're doing motion graphics - O.K., except we don't really use graphics, just the Monaco font.
We came upon moving text because we wanted a website, but quickly discovered we didn't know - or care to know - how web designers created online graphics, colors, photos, illustrations, and text. Frankly, we dislike graphic design, and we also dislike interactivity, which are the two staples of web design, if not the web itself. Being artists, we like to do things wrong, or at least our own damn way. We ended up with a moving text synchronized to jazz, which was (and still is) all we could do."
Archibald, Samuel. (2002) « Sur la piste d'une lecture courante »,
in Hypertextes. Espaces virtuels de lecture et d'écriture,
sous la direction de Christian Vandendorpe et Denis Bachand, 2002.
Éditions Nota bene, Collection Littérature(s), pp: 115-137.
Barthes, Roland. (1973) Le plaisir du texte, Editions du Seuil.
Eco, Umberto. (1979) Lector in Fabula. Le rôle du lecteur ou
la Coopération interprétative dans les textes narratifs,
trad. fr. Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1985.
Eco, Umberto. (1990) Les limites de l'interprétation,
trad. fr. Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1992.