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Riddles of the Interface: Hieroglyphic Consciousness and New Experimental Multimedia

From: Wide Angle
Volume 21, Number 1, January 1999
pp. 95-103 | 10.1353/wan.1999.0006

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Wide Angle 21.1 (1999) 95-103


In Reginald Woolery's CDROM World Wide Web/Million Man March (1997), one clicks on a link labeled "spirit" and enters into a mystery. The elusive message --one might call it a video cartouche -- is a hieroglyphic representation of the controversial Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan. Shot through with Dada inspiration, this mediagenic name is broken down into its "elemental" mediagenic components: "farrah + khan=!?!" Here, Woolery regales us with clips of "Charlie's Angels" and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and everybody's in "let's kick some ass" mode. Calls for "full impulse power" given by Captain Kirk are interlaced with calls to "full power" in the speeches of Farrakhan. There are some more dreamy segments of the loop ("We are now entering the Motara nebula") that remind one of the cosmic nature of the hieroglyph and the forms of thought it encourages.

On the one hand, this hieroglyph-loop, in the spirit of hypertextual thought, creates complex linkages: "Star Trek" (the cultural equivalent of utopia for technocracy), "Charlie's Angels" (the cultural equivalent of blaxploitation for feminism), Khan (the outsider to the utopia), and black men (arguably the Khan of certain feminisms, but most certainly the "real" of Woolery's piece) compose the Ubu-like limbs of a cybernetic Farrakhan body. The perception engendered by hieroglyphic consciousness, moreover, brings the viewer to some place not immediately identifiable, beyond the merely parodic; it is as if the viewer is carried along a hidden impulse, past what is at one moment the Farrakhan sensorium and another the Farrakhan galaxy towards an idea that has not yet evolved. As thought-objects in a force field of uncertain allegiances between knowledge, sense, and time, the montage elements and related system of links within World Wide Web/Million Man March become place-holders for a future configuration that the unified idea of Farrakhan cannot contain. Farrakhan fragments into "farrah + khan" which in turn fragments into a million men which in turn fragments into everybody behind a screen, the "communications fabric of the country," the fabric of the universe. For Woolery, the question seems to be "who's universe?" because even in that ultimate unificatory substance of all things, there is a potential conflict between the technognostic legacy of Silicon Valley and a black noosphere.

Ultimately, one might understand experimental CDROMs and the future of multimedia art by returning to basic modernist insights on the nature of hieroglyphic or ideogrammatic representation -- forms of representation that have always been tied to "higher" cosmic communiqués. From Eisenstein to Sun Ra, the hieroglyph has a strange twentieth-century history. It is a history that, by the way, has been catagorized as Orientalist, even as it is an inspiration for re-orienting the excesses or banalities of metropole language practices. Eisen- stein saw some Japanese films, Artaud went to the World's Fair, Sun Ra reconnoitered the heavens while American satellites exploded on launch pads. What they all came back with were ancient insights into the problem of representation. Artaud, upon seeing the "animated hieroglyphs" of the Balinese theater, raved, "these spiritual signs have a precise meaning which strikes us only intuitively but with enough violence to make useless any translation into logical discursive language. ... It is certain that this aspect of pure theater... transforms the mind's conceptions into events perceptible through the labyrinths and fibrous interlacings of matter." The hieroglyph, as a language which still maintains a visual, intuitive association with the matter for which it stands, brings one back to the body as spiritual sign and away from the chaos of signs in the vacuum of simulation. Art Jones in his CDROM Culture Versus the Martians (1998) gives a hip-hop spin on this hieroglyphic desire:

Whut I doo with words is make them xplode sodat the nunverball ape-ears in the verbell. That is to say that I make the words funktion in such away that at a certain moment they know longer blong to discourse, to what regulates thiscourse --hence the homonahomonyms, the fragdented words, the propa names that do not esscienceially belong to language... N if I luv words it is...

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