Swiveling My Hips through the Interbunk -- An introduction to hypertext
On 6 December 1969, four people died at a free concert at the Bay Area's Altamont Speedway. Among them was Meredith Hunter, an eighteen-year-old African-American who was stabbed to death by a group of Hell's Angels directly in front of the stage. More than thirty years later, the murder at Altamont still resonates as the symbolic end of the '60s - not the end of the turbulence, for the struggles continued - signaling the passing of the decade's spirit of hopeful activism, its idealistic faith in love and peace
We don't hear too much about Altamont these days. The uncomfortable subjects of race, youth, and violence tend to provoke amnesia on a national level, even as the youths in question approach retirement age. How refreshing, then, to see the story of Altamont evoked so bravely and un-nostalgically in Sunshine '69, the "Web's first interactive novel" by Robert Arellano, a.k.a. Bobby Rabyd, Internet fabulist and teacher of creative writing at Brown University.
Before getting to Sunshine '69, I'd better backtrack a bit, and talk about why a novel written on (and for) the Web is interesting at all. Isn't the Web full of novels that can't get published elsewhere? Why would anyone want to read a novel that contained hypertext links? Shouldn't a story just begin at the beginning, and end at the end?
In the 1940s, hypertext was the imaginary machine of Vannevar Bush, who conceived of the memex as an ideal system for information storage and retrieval, something like a huge Rolodex, in his Atlantic Monthly article " As We May Think." In the 1960s, hypertext was the result of an imaginary machine of Ted Nelson, who imagined a computer system for producing hypertext as "non-sequential writing - text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen…a series of text chunks connected by pathways," as he explained in Literary Machines. In the 1980s, hypertexts were first published on floppy disks by visionary publishers. Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story was published by Eastgate Systems in 1987, to be followed by Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden, John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse, Sarah Smith's King of Space, and many others from the same publisher. By the mid-1990s, hypertext was a bona fide academic subject. Astute critics and writers like George Landow and Robert Coover, quick to recognize the potential of this technology, formed what might be called the vanguard of a new art form.
Practically speaking, hypertext is a way of ordering and arranging chunks of information. A variety of software programs are available for this purpose, including Eastgate's Storyspace, Macromedia's Flash, and a host of Web-authoring tools. (You can also do it with a stack of index cards and some tape, but the result might prove difficult to distribute.) But, technology aside, what is most interesting about these textual experiments is that, by breaking pages of text into chunks and using links to recombine the chunks, hypertext, as both a real technology and an imaginary possibility, expands our usual notions of textual organization (e.g. "narrative" or "argument") to include stories with multiple pathways and endings, and arguments with a non-linear or digressive structure.
Although hypertext refers only to textual information, the fact that any kind of media - images, sounds, video - may be digitized, chunked, and linked, requires the introduction of another new term: hypermedia. Both hypertext and hypermedia add value to the chunks they incorporate, for link structures are more than ornaments or substitutes for other kinds of transitions. Linking styles and link structures generate meaning in themselves. That is, the "hyper" part of "hypertext" and "hypermedia" is not just hype, for it refers to a way of creating substantive connections between chunks of information
Like early cinematography, hypertext is a complex art form with an emerging set of rules and conventions. These conventions are so new they defy most attempts to exhaustively describe them, but by now it seems evident that the rules have something to do with conventions also present in other media, including techniques derived not only from writing but also from film, music and visual art (including, for instance, montage and juxtaposition). The most influential critiques of hypertext and new media are disappointing insofar as they lack sustained involvement with the very works they wish to critique
The most notable salvos have been launched by Sven Birkerts, in a book called The Gutenberg Elegies, and by William Gass, in a long article "In Defense of the Book," that appeared two years ago in Harper's. Notably, both critics expressed a surprisingly powerful nostalgia for the days before the Information Superhighway. Evidently this nostalgia has left them without the bandwidth, as it were, to engage these forms on their own, non-nostalgic terms. Even Gass, whose pioneering, proto-hypertextual writing - particularly the fragmented brilliance of "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" - has provided an important point of reference for many hypertext writers, disparages new media forms as a kind of pernicious child's play appropriate only for kids who're busy "swiveling their hips through the interbunk."
Everybody knows that the quarrel of ancients and moderns is far more ancient than modern. The voice of authority has always opposed whatever may be fastened upon as trendy, or just new, as long as it has already garnered enough share of the public's attention to threaten the sovereignty of said authority. And books, of course, are a significant material link in the otherwise largely symbolic economy of authority and cultural capital, which circulates like specie but doesn't always play by the same rules. Perceived as threats to the stability of this economy, hypertext and hypermedia have occasioned much bewailing of "the end of books" and "the end of print." (The real culprits - media conglomerates who eat up small presses - are never indicted; then again, it was Random House that brought out Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies.) Seen in this light, the nostalgia charging Gass' and Birkerts' criticisms (and, perhaps, envy) is hardly surprising. Times change. And nostalgia, of course, masks anger that the future didn't turned out quite the way one expected. So even if the much-ballyhooed "death of the author" and "end of print" only refer to the perennial necessity of passing the torch, there are those who won't grow old gracefully but intend to fight it, as the nice people at Oil of Olay say, every step of the way.
For hypertext and hypermedia to become more than mere late 20th century curios, the unanchored criticism of Gass and Birkerts must be countered with close readings, with discussions of real, extant works of hypertext and hypermedia. The growing body of precisely this sort of literature is pitched, unfortunately, toward an academic audience that excludes the educated lay reader. The news media is not helpful either, for it has covered these works in a piecemeal and rapid-fire way, as befits journalism, which must make do with the soundbite and the column inch. Accessible and sustained engagement with even a single work is astonishingly hard to find. Hence, my encounter, over the course of several weeks, with Robert Arellano's Sunshine '69.
Sunshine '69 is not the first successful hypertext. Other innovative writers, most famously Michael Joyce, Mark Amerika, Stuart Moulthrop, and Shelley Jackson, have produced exceptional works in this medium for online and offline distribution. But Arellano's Sunshine '69 is of special interest for three reasons. First, although not unique in this regard, it's available for free on-line. Despite this year's bad economic news, this publishing channel may still throw an intriguing monkey wrench into the usual, and usually dismal, economics of literary publishing. At the very least, the Web cannot possibly make the situation worse. Second, the work is highly collaborative in nature, incorporating the talents of several artists and programmers in addition to Arellano, so the resulting work includes images, design, audio, and some programming. (It is also collaborative in an additional, and temporally quite expansive sense, for readers are invited to add their own stories to a bulletin board, thereby extending the process of textual creation, and making Sunshine '69 a perpetually unfinished work, open in Umberto Eco's sense.) Finally, and perhaps above all, there is the way that the narrative structure of Sunshine '69 warps received ideas of cause and effect - that doubled, uncanny hobgoblin of both history and storytelling. The topic is worthy of several dissertations; what I have to say is impressionistic and brief, and may be summed up by the work's own splash screen: "History," the work begins, "takes a wicked twist when you plunge into SUNSHINE69."
A wicked twist, indeed: Sunshine '69 consists not of a single story, but of a series of story fragments, akin to movie scenes, each from the point of view of a different character. (The cast, manageable at nine, includes Mick Jagger and a deliciously neurotic Lucifer, often referred to as S'tan.) History has provided the climactic moment - Meredith Hunter's death at the Rolling Stone's Altamont concert - but Arellano begins where history leaves off, at the near-ineffable level at which everyday tragedies so often begin: with a string of bad decisions, with personal idiosyncrasy, misfortune and contingency. In brief: Mick Jagger has made a deal with devil - immortality in return for the Devil's own heart's desires: a moment onstage, a song about him. When Jagger defaults, Lucifer calls in his henchmen (none other than the Hell's Angels), and one thing leads to another.
Instead of following a storyline in which cause and effect are made manifest in the usual order, the reader of Sunshine69 navigates through the story's timeline, which is the last six months of 1969, by clicking on a calendar. A literal chronology of events is also included; the reader locates it by clicking on a link that invites him or her to be "a bird" - to get a synoptic, bird's-eye view. The reader also gets a rap sheet for each character, and may investigate (among other things) the contents of each character's pockets. (This brilliant bit of characterization using a navigational, hypertextual function is worth a good deal more reflection than I can give it here.) The reader follows links to discover various turning points in the story, like Mick's deal with Lucifer.
The story's greatest appeal lies in how it works, not by a driving plot, but by accretion. As the timeline and the calendar show, history itself - not the Big History of the historians, really, but the little-h history of quotidian accretion, the accumulated detritus of ordinary events - carries the burden of moving the story forward, replacing a mechanism of plot with an ordering that simulates "real time," "lived time," one day at a time. So the reader filters and sorts, organizes and backtracks, and eventually comes away with an understanding of the complexity involved in any project, historical or otherwise, of telling the truth by telling a story
This proves a far more honest approach to the fragility and ultimate ethereality of hopes and expectations, historical or fictional, than the hysterical antics of Gass and Birkerts. In demanding that stories should only be comforting and familiar, with nice cloth bindings and neatly organized plots, these critics have taken the easy way out. It is simpler to resort to jeremiad than to figure out what readers really stand to gain and lose with the advent of these new forms.
I have no doubt that Gass and Birkerts, both respected veterans of the page, have valuable insights to contribute, but the sad fact is that neither seems willing or able to move beyond their own disappointed hopes - and this, too, is a loss. Hypertext and new media need lucid, articulate criticism, not least because a rigorous descriptive vocabulary might go a long way toward bringing appreciation and knowledge of these forms out of the cloistered world of universities, where much of the most interesting work in these media now takes place. It's worth recalling that the technologies of storytelling-from the earliest muttering to Gutenberg to radio, cinema, and now the Web-have never impeded stories themselves, which do get told, according to their own imperatives, in all sorts of ways.
Permission to repint this article came from Pif magazine and the author. A version of this article appeared in the December, 1999 issue of Pif Magazine