Computer Technology and Literary Theory
Marie-Laure Ryan, ed., Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. vii + 285 pp.
This collection of essays contributes to the field of hypertext and cyberculture studies, which has developed in parallel with the Internet and the World Wide Web over the past ten years. Its main purpose is to elaborate and apply to the field a new rhetoric that would be suitable and original. Or, as Espen Aarseth puts it in the introduction to "Aporia and Epiphany in Doom and the Speaking Clock: The Temporality of Ergodic Art": "The race is on to conquer and colonize these new territories for our existing paradigms and theories, often in the form of ‘the theoretical perspective of [fill in your favorite theory/theoretician here] is clearly really a prediction/description of [fill in your favorite digital medium here]'" (31). Aarseth is right in claiming that the theme of poststructuralist "influence" on the development of computer-supported hypertext is exhausted by now and that it is time to think of a new theoretical language, one that will provide the appropriate description and explanation for this Brave New World called Cyberspace in all its varieties (see Marie-Laure Ryan's introduction to the collection). As a part of this project, Aarseth proposes the term ergodic in order to distinguish between computer-supported art ("produced by some kind of cybernetic system, i.e., a machine [or a human] that operates as an information feedback loop, which will generate a different semiotic sequence each time it is engaged" [32–33]) and other types of artistic discourse, which are often compared to it without actually being "ergodic." The same trend is represented by Marc Poster's "Theorizing Virtual Reality: Baudrillard and Derrida." Poster criticizes the automatic applications of Baudrillard's theory of simulation to virtuality, demonstrating the difference between Baudrillard's position and the actual state of virtual reality. According to Poster, neither Baudrillard nor Derrida provides the concepts needed for the analysis of new technologies.
The articles by Aarseth and Poster belong to the first part of the collection, which is focused on terminological problems. Another article in this first part ("Virtual Topographies: Smooth and Striated Cyberspace" by Marc Nunes) looks for the appropriate precursors of cyberspace. Nunes demonstrates how the metaphors of smooth and striated space used by [End Page 361] Deleuze and Guattari are realized in cyberspace. Marie-Laure Ryan, in her article "Cyberspace, Virtuality, and the Text," analyzes the possible relations among virtuality, cyberspace, the Internet, and so forth, focusing on the special characteristics of each phenomenon.
The second part of the collection is devoted to the problem of cyberspace identity. Barbara Page ("Women Writers and the Restive Text: Feminism, Experimental Writing, and Hypertext") chooses to describe hypertextuality as "a way of writing the feminine" (111). Thomas Foster ("‘The Souls of Cyber-Folk': Performativity, Virtual Embodiment, and Racial Histories") focuses on the influence of cyberbody politics on the racialized representations in contemporary American culture, providing examples from the Deathlok comic. Christofer J. Keep ("The Disturbing Liveliness of Machines: Rethinking the Body in Hypertext Theory and Fiction") centers on the way in which the body, or more precisely, our concept of the body, is reconstructed in the process of reading hypertext fiction. And finally, Matthew Causey ("Postorganic Performance: The Appearance of Theater in Virtual Spaces") deals with the inevitable changes that the new technologies produce in the idea of the performance and their consequences for performance theory.
The third part of the collection, which is subtitled "Cybertext Criticism as Writing Experiment," consists of three essays ("Artificial Life and Literary Culture" by N. Katherine Hayles, "Virtual Termites: A Hypotextual Technomutant Explo(it)ration of William Gibson and the Electronic Beyond(s)" by Lance Olsen, and "Myths of the Universal Library: From Alexandria to the Postmodern Age" by Jon Thiem) that attempt to devise a perfect correspondence between their form and content. Hayles uses the form of polilogue, which is characteristic of hypertextual structures, in order to analyze the affinities and differences between recent scientific developments and new literary cultures. Olson writes a hypertextual commentary on a sentence from William Gibson's Neuromancer: "He'd operated on an almost adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix" (224), linking every single word to the explanatory passage. But the most daring and ironic of all is Thiem's list of imagined groups working the Universal Library (UL) cult.
Also worth mentioning is the extremely useful appendix, which lists
the most important Web sites, theoretical as well as creative, on
Cyberspace Textuality. This collection may be characterized as
another attempt to establish some order in the field, especially the
medium, whose main features are self-organization and chaotic dynamics
(see Hayles's article, 205–23).
Liza Chudnovsky, Tel Aviv