At the heart of The New River, there's a question: what kind of art will be made with hypertext and hypermedia? That a new kind of art is evolving seems self-evident. One need only look at the critical and creative work being produced by the writers associated with Mark Bernstein and Eastgate Systems. In the work of Bernstein, Guyer, Joyce, Landow, and Moulthrop--to name only a few Eastgate authors--an aesthetics of hypertext is being articulated, argued, defined, and manifested. On the World Wide Web, a quick visit to Michael Shumate's Hyperizons site further illustrates the point: there is a new kind of literary art-making evolving, and it is a kind of work essentially different from anything that has preceded it. With the evolution of the computer, we have the potential for a form of art that fluidly integrates previously disparate media. On the computer screen words, video, visual art, and sound can be easily integrated by one person sitting alone in her bedroom in front of a computer screen. How easy? My seven-year old step-son and my fourteen-year old daughter have no problem with it. Will opens up ClarisWorks, dips into the paint bucket, and he's off making his seven-year old art. Susan, more sophisticated in her fourteen years, produced the piece below using Claris.
She calls it "The Peace Bird." The writing
integrated with the art reads: "The peace bird is many many colors
and not all of them are pretty: but that's what makes it a peace
bird." Probably it's just because I'm her father that Blake comes so
readily to mind. Still, when I watch my children working easily with
software that manipulates and integrates words, sounds, colors,
designs, and video, I have no doubt that there are new Blakes growing
up all over the world, and that they will make culture-changing art
on the computer.
But what kind of art? It seems clear to me that it won't be anything much like our old and wonderful novels and poems, sculptures and paintings. Those forms of cultural artifacts are, in my view, permanent. Books, paintings, sculptures: they're not going anywhere. Because hypertext and hypermedia are so essentially different in nature from traditional art, I don't see them as in competition. John Unsworth, Director of the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, sees a useful comparison in the relationship between television and radio. Television didn't, as many feared, eliminate radio, the way the CD eliminated the LP. Television was a different kind of medium. It didn't do the same thing radio did, only better--as was the case with the CD and the LP. Hypertext won't eliminate the book. Hypermedia won't eliminate traditional art. They are not the same kinds of things. Literature and poetry have been described as sophisticated linguistic timing devises. The powerful effects of stories and poems are entirely dependent upon the timing of the presentation. Imagine trying to comprehend a great Chekhov story by reading the last sentence first and then popping around in the text reading sentences here and there. The notion is absurd. But that's exactly what one does with hypertext: in a hypertext work, the reader controls or significantly influences the order of presentation. The authorial control of timing is eliminated, calling into question everything about traditional art, including the role and position of the author.
So we're back to our question. What kind of art can be made with hypertext and hypermedia? Those interested would do well to examine the novels, poems, and critical writing of the Eastgate authors, and to explore the vital world of hypertext thriving on the World Wide Web. And to bookmark The New River, where I plan to publish hypertext and hypermedia that speak to the question. In this, the first number of The New River, the published works illustrate two very different approaches to the possibilities of hypertext.
David Herrstrom's "To Find the White Cat in the Snow," takes the modernist practice of thematically or associatively linking sections of a poem, and carries it a step further with hypertext. Like Wallace Stevens in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Herrstrom provides no narrative links between the sections of his poem. Unlike Stevens, Herrstrom is not constrained by the technology of print to present the stanzas of his poem sequentially, in a manner best suited to narrative. His poem is not a narrative and it is not ordered as if it were. It's ordering is hypertextual: the reader controls the sequence in which the stanzas appear and disappear. "To Find the White Cat . . ." is about, among other things, the difficulty of apprehension and the interrelationship of the phenomenal and the conceptual. It seems to me a remarkably appropriate poem for hypertext.
Eugene Thacker takes a more radical approach to the use of hypertext. His piece appears at first to be nothing more than a black screen--but move your cursor around and it will signal links hidden in the dark; press down the button on your mouse and whole fields of language will come into view. And what to make of the language that appears in the several screens connected by the linked words? Apparently that's entirely up to the reader. In "fleshthresholdnarrative" traditional notions of authorship and design are exploded. Since it is evident that Thacker did not create the text of "fleshthresholdnarrative," (the text is appropriated from other sources), and since he can not control the order in which you read these words that someone else wrote, in what sense is he the author of the piece? I assume of course that the posing of that question is part of Thacker's intent.
I'm pleased to be able to publish two pieces as different as Herrstrom's and Thacker's in this first number of The New River. I hope it will dramatically suggest the journal's editorial range. The question at the heart of The New River is, again, what kind of art will be made with hypertext? I see my role as editor not in proposing an answer to that question, but in listening to the answers that are being proposed by contemporary writers. I would like this to be a journal where all literary explorers might find a home.
And, so . . .
Welcome to The New River.
15 October 1996