Paul Harris explores IN.S.OMNIA’s technographies.
Sleepless in Seattle
Sleepless in Seattle
A postmodern parlor game we liked to play in grad school worked like this: at an appropriately advanced juncture in the evening, distribute a text to each person there. Make sure there is a range of texts - no, a real range, as in not only Chaucer and Erdrich and Pynchon and Acker and Austin, but a cookbook, a comp class assignment, a phone book, an album cover, loose sheets that missed the can. Then take turns driving - the designated driver (sobriety unrequired) points to a person who randomly picks a place to begin reading; that person reads until halted by an open palm from the driver; drivers can have as many or as few reading at once as they please. Continue down this road until each has driven and all are crazy. I thought of this game in reading Invisible Rendezvous, a book that recounts the activities, values, credos, and analyses of contemporary writing by the collaborative group known as IN.S.OMNIA. While Invisible Rendezvous, serves as a manifesto, report, and celebration of one group’s accomplishments, it also provides a clear, cognizant evaluation of several issues that underlie debates about the direction that writing and textuality are taking as we enter the next millennium. Entrenched in the world of writing in a resolutely hands-on manner, IN.S.OMNIAcs avoid some of the shrill-sounding, sweeping claims that fly off the pages of academic discourse about electronic writing and hypertext. At the same time, they display an unapologetically gushing enthusiasm for their new vision and experience of writing.
And what is this reconfiguration of writing? First, IN.S.OMNIA operates from the premise that the domain of literature as such is no longer in synch with cultural experience in contemporary America. Rather than “look for ‘the next big thing’ in literature,” IN.S.OMNIA asks, “What if the next big thing already surrounds us, embedded in small gestures we perform every day? What if the next big thing is the realization that we have changed the way we use culture - remapping, rewiring, renetworking the same old pool of elements in new ways, adding to them furtive scribbles, seeking pleasures without naming them?” Writing, in this account, becomes a practice, a survival skill where these features are, emphatically, played out. IN.S.OMNIA is a writing world that persists on screen, that welcomes all forms of wordplay, where writers enter in under “ ‘nyms” (pseudonyms) at their whim, where they may display skill or just bs on the BBS. In higher terms, IN.S.OMNIA envisions writing as an ongoing investigation that extends and redefines the boundaries and topography of reality - in this book, IN.S.OMNIA defines itself as “finally, perhaps, a structural, geographic model of the workings of language itself.”
Rob Wittig attempts to represent the desire of IN.S.OMNIA to create a sort of geography of writing by playing with the form of the book, even within the constraints of small academic press publishing. The graphic design of the pages purposefully moves through several types and topographies of text, from simple alterations in fonts to reflect shifts in rhetoric to a scroll of “CREDITS” that pay homage to various influences, from a range of photographs of projects to flow charts and diagrams. The diagram format functions effectively as a complement to theoretical prose, as when the meditations on the “death of the author” in theory are accompanied by diagrams demonstrating the different dynamics of the creative process in authored books and collaborative writing projects.
IN.S.OMNIA originated as an electronic bulletin board initiated in 1983 where one found a welcoming orientation message and then entered into a conversation taking place in a “room.” As in many such electronic discussions, some rooms are organized around figures or themes (Derrida, CI-NE-MA); but with IN.S.OMNIA other genres appear: “Travesty-of-Print rooms,” where writers mimic text forms such as “Dear Abbey” or “Reporters at Large”; “Investigation rooms,” where the nature of data and information and text are examined; “Workshop rooms,” where formal procedures guided by constraints are tried out. The latter room follows the example set by OULIPO, the Paris-based Workshop for Potential Literature founded in the 1960s, which became a strong influence on IN.S.OMNIA because of its mechanistic, de-mystified notion of writing and authorship - that is, an approach to language as a set of components susceptible to rigorous combinatoric analysis and subsequent play.
The different types of rooms are worth enumerating because they point to the IN.S.OMNIA attitude that writing is a project, an ongoing event, a vocation. IN.S.OMNIA calls for “WRITING THAT DOES NOT KNOW WHAT IT IS but seeks, rather, to interrogate the world around it, the language within it and within which it takes place. In short, anything goes. Lies, hallucinations, shopping lists… foreplay, wordplay, logomachy, abulia, echolalia, and most taboo of all in the real world, abstract intellectual conversation and scholarly meditation.” While the “anything goes” attitude betrays a certain insouciance - and perhaps promises a democratization of writing available for production and consumption by masses - the actual spirit of IN.S.OMNIA’s explorations of writing has a theoretical inflection in the vein of Roland Barthes. For Barthes, the question “What is Literature?” demanded an “interrogation conducted not from the outside but from within literature itself, or more exactly at its extreme verge, in that asymptotic zone where literature appears to destroy itself as a language object without destroying itself as a metalanguage, and where the metalanguage’s quest is defined at the last possible moment as a new language object” (Critical Essays).
For academic readers, the presence of an intellectual, scholarly register in IN.S.OMNIA discourse marks its difference from most iconoclastic groups seeking to bring writing out of its ivory tower of babble. (Invisible Rendezvous dog-ears pages from Influential French of the 70s (Derrida, Barthes) and aligns itself alongside hypertext champions from within the institution (Jay Bolter and George Landow), but it also differentiates itself from either set of writings by its joyful pragmatism and savvy. For instance, while they embrace the Derridean aphorism that makes “the end of the book” the condition for “the beginning of writing,” IN.S.OMNIA also vouches for a culture in which novel and electronic writing coexist; countering the claim that the screen will render books obsolete, they point out that indeed book and technological texts interfere with each other all the time - computer manuals are books, and the fax machine has produced a resurgence of handwriting.
The first literary product that emerged from IN.S.OMNIA writings was (Invisible Seattle, a book assembled out of text accumulated in innovative ways. The formal conception of the project emerges from a combination of sources: the theatrical events staged by members of IN.S.OMNIA, the constraint-based practices of OULIPO, and the notion of the computer as both tool and analogy. Together, these informing principles make Invisible Seattle an “algorithmic novel,” one generated according to definite modes of procedure that integrate physical participation, formal axioms, and the computer environment. The rallying cry of the project was “Function Follows Fiction,” meaning that the tangible city could be reclaimed by being reimagined and rewritten by its inhabitants. Flyers went up around the city inviting people to record events at specific locations, to rename buildings, to append to the city of daily life “three zones of INVISIBLE SEATTLE: the Ignored, the Imperceptible, and the Impossible.” The Map of INVISIBLE SEATTLE, where Seattle landmarks are recast, sets the tone for this venture: the King Dome becomes the Coliseum of Rome, dubbed the Dome of Kings; an office tower morphs into Breughel’s Tower of Babel, which the legend names Biblioteca Jorge Borges; the Space Needle is restored to its quoted source, the Eiffel Tower.
One could say that IN.S.OMNIA’s notion of a geo-graphy is well-grounded: a writing of and in environs, in which projects draw in and transform the level of the “everyday.” Following Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and Oulipian Georges Perec’s notion that the everyday remains opaque and unreadable to us, they attempt to re-incorporate the city by integrating on-site data and text collection with on-line exchange and writing collaboration. By combining the theatrical dimension of staging cultural events with the actual work of writing, the hypertext format of writing is enacted in a public sphere. For instance, participants would step up to a terminal-cum-video game called an IN.S.OMNIUM and write, making the computer screen not simply an isolated place - one often claimed to be a site where democratization will suddenly break free.
One historical context within which one might explore this geography of writing is the debates about urban space that unfolded in the 70s and 80s. IN.S.OMNIA’s confidence in the creative impetus of the person to refashion the city environs recalls the work of Jonathan Raban, who in Soft City (1974) argued that “living in the city is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relation between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living.” On the other hand, IN.S.OMNIA augments this potentially alienated aesthetic of the free consumer with local political praxis - in response to a Tom Robbins article eschewing the wanna-be yuppies invading Seattle, IN.S.OMNIA put Robbins on trial at a coffeehouse, an event sufficiently publicized to attract media coverage and a packed house. At the instantiation of the novel site for Invisible Seattle, Mayor Charles Royer “threw out the opening word.” Unlike some discourse about the computer as scene of writing and hypertext in particular, then, IN.S.OMNIA does not hypostatize the virtual domain into a playground disconnected from public places.
There is another thrust to the IN.S.OMNIAc geography, though, one that projects more into the invisible domain, where the political fragments into individual users playing their own games. This invisibility is a manufactured realm, not the invisibility of Platonic forms but of the purloined letter, a textual object created by some transformative operation on an “original” source. The transformation of the everyday opens out a sort of persisting virtual double of a material culture: “Everyday creativity, because it most often uses recycled materials ironically recombined, takes place on at least two levels. It is always within another context.” Invisible Rendezvous compares its activities and projects to Rotisserie League baseball, where people draft actual players onto virtual teams and then play a season contingent on the performances of the “actual” players in the major leagues. The goal in generating an invisible project (Invisible Seattle, the sprawling conception of Invisible America, a “game/novel” or “test-tube novel - literature by artificial dissemination” is to create neither a “world apart” nor “a reflection or imitation” but an “alternate use” of something already persisting, “with which it coexists and which it interpenetrates.” A nifty literary project along these lines is Miss Scarlett’s Letter, where Hawthorne’s fierce rejection of one myth twists around one antithetical in culture and spirit.
The work of IN.S.OMNIA may be examined fruitfully in another contemporary context, that of hybrid post-colonial identities, modes of experience, and texts. Invisible Rendezvous touches on several forms of hybridity in writing and its culture: the simultaneity of old and new worlds and habits peculiar to them; cross-bred, oxymoronic-sounding genres like “hypertext novel”; video arcade/writing station installations; multiple selves inhabiting a single user; the city as both material and invisible. The book opens by seeing IN.S.OMNIA as typical of a new form of “cultural activism” - the production of all kinds of “objects, events and publications.” Is this a sort of treatise for cultural nomads - a whitish collar version no doubt, but one that nevertheless has structural features analogous to the post-colonial hybrid subject? Unlike the academic contexts in which such questions might be posed, IN.S.OMNIA retains a resolute optimism by virtue of cataloguing accomplishments and focusing on events at hand. And unlike a narrower hacker mindset, IN.S.OMNIA does not express a desire to escape into a better world promised by the digital. For IN.S.OMNIAcs, the hacker axiom “always obey the hands-on imperative” extends beyond mere technological expertise and independence. Writing and creative cultural output remain local, concrete, and contextual, or rather emerge by creating their own context.
Still, from a cultural studies perspective, this work does tend to champion the private individual as the agent of cultural activism - and in the domain of cyber-activity, this still means a predominantly white, male, relatively comfortable demography. The persistence of this underlying model of subjectivity is made slightly more complex, though, as it is inscribed in a division in IN.S.OMNIA discourse between giving up the stable world and self, and retaining a sense for the power of the individual cultural user. “Network communities” are not portrayed as viable political alternatives, but seen as play-spaces where the on-line person splits into a virtual and actual person, in two worlds and being two selves at once.
The rather celebratory discourse of multiple selfhood is among the less convincing dimensions of Invisible Rendezvous, however; there are bold statements that take the electronic playground a bit literally as modes of subjectivity, such as “the fluid world of ‘nyms” seemingly holds out the potential for each one of us to be “several.” And, perhaps predictably, a certain hold to the self sneaks back in curious ways - while an IN.S.OMNIA user ‘nymed Person sees the danger of multiple personality discourse, she/he/it wonders whether a central “control might NOT be identical with a single self but more of a baton that is passed from self to self.” And then this baton, in a different context, reveals itself to be nothing other than the TV remote control: “Armed with a remote control, stocked with a cableful of channels, the home viewer creates montages of unspeakable originality, editing parallel transmissions into an individual blend. This art form is rhythmic, improvisational, and ironic” - and banal, too, unfortunately. It is ultimately disappointing to find this kind of celebration of the “individual”: one who can surf virtual spaces, creating as they go, and making something of their own. That something of their own, I would suggest, is prone to a kind of screen-overload entropy: the attention of a viewer atrophies and falls into very predictable habits, as one immediately sees by virtue of the simple fact that sitting in a group flipping channels, the decision about where to flip is so easily a matter of consensus.
But it would be unfair to reduce the value of IN.S.OMNIA’s work to some of its more naive philosophical assertions or facile apologies for cultural activism in the information age. Indeed, as the Internet gets bought by corporate entities and becomes increasingly privatized, the issues of cultural activism and individual access and creativity will only assert themselves more strongly. As this occurs, the predominant image of the individual user may well shift from an implicitly held one of the hacker/techno-player to that of the creative cultural activist, and IN.S.OMNIA does hold out a genuine source for inspiration in this vein. To recognize its full importance, perhaps Invisible Rendezvous should be read less as a manifesto of a particular group’s accomplishments and beliefs than as a symptom or indicator of directions that the culture of electronic writing could develop in ways that contribute to a greater social vitality. The attitudes of IN.S.OMNIA might do many weary academics a spot of good.