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  • Situating Narrative in an Ecology of New Media
  • N. Katherine Hayles (bio)

A sea change has come over literary studies. As computers are woven into the fabric of everyday life for publishers, libraries, authors, readers, teachers, and students, the concepts that underlie literary studies and the practices that constitute it as a profession are undergoing remarkable and far-reaching changes. Such fundamental questions as “What is an author?,” “What is a text?,” and “What is a reader?” are asked with fresh urgency and answered in new ways in light of these technologies. Especially relevant to the practice of contemporary fiction are the changes that narrative is undergoing. Since Aristotle, stories have been conceived as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. But in electronic hypertexts there often is no predetermined path, so the narrative exists not as a set sequence but as a network of possibilities that the reader can activate in many different ways. Because the look and feel of these texts are intimately bound up with the technologies used to produce them, technology enters the discussion not only as a theme or subject, but also as a modality of production materially affecting how the text signifies.

In this issue, theorists and practitioners of narrative in new media speculate about the changes that new media, especially electronic textuality and virtual reality, are bringing about in electronic and print fictions. Michael Joyce focuses on rereading, a practice characteristic of [End Page 573] all serious literary work but especially foregrounded in electronic texts, where the branching narrative structure frequently returns the reader to the same lexia over and over. How does a text that forces us to reread differ from one that does not? Using a highly recursive style, Joyce enacts the question as well as the answer. He points out that to reread is also not to read, for when one scans a familiar text, one is often doing so with a particular purpose in mind—for example, to find a passage to quote or to identify infelicitous phrasings. Rereading is also a reshaping, a reconfiguration that changes what the text means precisely because what it means has already been established in the reader’s mind. Rereading unsettles as much as it settles, an insight further emphasizing the exfoliating multiplicity of hypertext narrative. Given this multiplicity, it is not surprising that hypertext narrative also leads to a different sense of time than one that follows a more straightforwardly linear progression. The connection between narrative nonlinearity and non-Western time provides the basis for the comparison Jaishree Odin makes between the “in-between spaces” of electronic fictions and postcolonial narrative. Focusing on Judy Malloy’s hypertext fiction Its name was Penelope and the films of Trinh Minh-Ha, Odin shows in lyrical prose how the metaphors, tempos, and especially narrative sequences change when Western linearity is abandoned in favor of more circuitous, rounder fictions. Sue-Ellen Case is also interested in how the new media are decentering normative concepts, especially those surrounding women and gender. Asking whether the new forms will open new possibilities for women to leap into the driver’s seat for a change, Case offers readings of narratives in a variety of media, including Scibe, a hypertext fiction written as a collaborative project, a Grrl Website, and Adriene Jenik’s Mauve Desert, a CD-ROM which is not so much a reading of as a passionate response to Brossard’s novel. Stuart Moulthrop takes on the charge that hypertext fictions are newfangled gimmicks without lasting literary value. Confronting Samuel Johnson’s dictum “nothing new lasts” in all of its tautological wit (if it lasted, it wouldn’t be new), Moulthrop asks what hypertext has to offer that is both new and valuable. His surprising answer is technological breakdown—breakdown not in the sense of the technological glitches that plague electronic texts (and will probably always plague them) but rather in the Heideggerian sense of fictions crafted so as to make the technology a visible subject for interrogation. In this view hypertext fictions [End Page 574] carry on the project deconstruction launched with print, of using textual opacities to bring into view the social, linguistic, and cultural apparatuses...

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pp. 573-576
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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