The Contour of a Contour

The Contour of a Contour

Dave Ciccoricco

Despite talk of endings and absences at Eastgate Systems, Dave Ciccoricco investigates continuities in the work of Michael Joyce and Mark Bernstein.

One “is no longer maintaining a public online presence” (as if you could ever really be “present” on the Web). The other blogs away like it’s going out of style (and some can only hope). The first time I used the word blog I was walking through a park long ago and I needed a word to describe what I had just stepped in. At their worst, weblogs promise to be reality television’s revenge on literature; at their best, they are a digital art form that promises to keep us extraordinarily human. I intend to keep my mind open. And my shoes clean. I’m referring here to Michael Joyce and Mark Bernstein, two of the most instrumental figures in what Joyce himself once described as the “earnest, even heroic” project of bringing together the “disparate concerns of scientist and humanist - without sacrificing their particularity” (Of Two Minds 7). Indeed, though Joyce’s own writing insists that he has not “retreated from the hypertextual,” he has at least retreated from hypertext’s most monstrous incarnation - the World Wide Web. And in the more nebulous realm of things “hypertextual,” Joyce, by his own cryptic admission, has said that he “no longer find[s] satisfying factors in its shifting features” (Othermindedness 3). His aversion to the WWW and its “empty room rhetoric” (52) is of course no secret; and the image of a pile of stones effectively marking his online absence is suggestive, though I can only guess what it’s supposed to suggest. In Of Two Minds (233) and in Twilight, A Symphony Joyce invokes the following fragment, “Atom recalling granule, granule stone, stone the great mountain, mountain the first home.” If nothing else, then, the diminutive stone mountain on his Not Home Page suggests something of a recalling or returning. Whether he intends to return home to “his storytelling roots” (as the dust jacket of his recent print novel suggests) or just home for the day is a question best left to amateur prophets; probing his personal motivations, similarly, is best left to the “biographiles.” Meanwhile, somewhere behind Eastgate Systems’ enduring stone-front archway - and a decade is an eternity in the flickering cosmos of the computer screen - Bernstein continues to match minds and machinery for the networked masses.

rock pile image
Joyce’s sculpture

archway image
Eastgate’s archway - design by Stephen Cohen, registered trademark of Eastgate Systems, Inc.

The more I look at these rock piles the more they look like rock piles, which is only to say that I want to see them both as cairns. Cairns are collections of stones that serve as landmarks or memorials commonly found on trails that are otherwise difficult to follow. Eastgate’s archway is a landmark in the young history of electronic publishing. Some would agree that it is also a memorial to soon-to-be updated or outdated institutions of print.

Joyce’s cairn might be a memorial and a landmark as well. The message that accompanies the image on the WWW, voiced in the third-person (” Michael Joyce is no longer… “), has the not unintended effect of someone else placing the stones in Joyce’s absence, as a memorial to an author abandoning his electronic art. Those who think this reading does not bode well for the patron saint of hypertext fiction had best get the revisionism underway. Nonetheless, whether Joyce is writing of the shores of the Great Lakes or the mountains of the Hudson River Valley, he has always found a certain solace in stone, and it would make sense for him to be the artist “behind” the sculpture; that is, the one who “places” it there, the presence marking its own absence. This reading makes the cairn more landmark than memorial, and we can imagine a pathway that continues, and perhaps cycles, beyond. Either way, we can say without elegy that Joyce has marked out a path for others to follow.

But in this essay I will not seek the path to either the stone sculpture or the stone gate. Instead, in light of the divergence they symbolize, I will trace a path - or more specifically, a contour - between the two. The story goes something like this: A scientist and an artist create a trope to understand the qualitative experience of electronic texts. They call it Contour. They each take the trope in different directions, into markedly different contexts, and it undergoes its own series of transformations. Has their subsequent work atomized the concept of hypertextual Contour, or has the work somehow created the concept’s own foundation? In terms of our media ecology and our own cognition, where can we locate the notion of Contour now, and where is the path headed?

I will not attempt to widen the rift between science and art or mobilize a rhetoric of reconciliation that ultimately reveals only how “disparate” are the fundamental concerns of the scientist and the humanist. Both Bernstein and Joyce - self-described scientist and artist respectively - work toward an understanding of literature, a literature that is increasingly electronic. Therefore, their discipline by definition results from a border crossing and marks a return, in spirit, to a much older connotation of technology (from the Greek, techne = art/skill) as an already artistic pursuit. Rather the intention here is to sustain (or recuperate) a viable way of reading texts that transcend or defy or frustrate our expectations of reading, a practical and pedagogically sound way of understanding the “text beyond the text.”

Constructing Contours

In an effort to better describe the experience of reading “large and complex” hypertexts, Joyce co-authored “Contours of Constructive Hypertexts” with Mark Bernstein and David Levine for the ACM Hypertext conference in 1992. As with books, “small” and “large” are relative dimensions, but from a systems design point of view, a small hypertext often becomes a large one when it crosses a design threshold. These thresholds present themselves in the form of material constraints, such as how many nodes in an overview map “fit” on a single screen (without interminable scrolling) and without, say, sacrificing legibility of their titles. At the same time, these material constraints are always related to cognitive constraints - our own perceptual thresholds. These thresholds tell us to consider as small a hypertext we can read in an hour. A large one could take weeks or more.

Much of the theory of hypertext grew out of the phenomenology of the hyperlink - its typologies, poetics, pragmatics, and so on. This emphasis revealed, among most early theorists, an understanding of the link as the fundamentally “new” element of digital literature and the single most observable element in a confined “locality” - that of [node-link-node]. From this localized understanding, theorists built a bottom-up rhetoric of pathways and semantic neighborhoods that cohered for many in Jim Rosenberg’s (1996) description of a hypertext “episode.” The authors of the 1992 article were looking to represent structure beyond both the local node-link-node and what we can call the regional episode, which is still confined to “all or part of a trail or path” (“Structure” 23). Large, to them, referred to something not easily visualized in “static, graph-theoretic measures” (“Contours” 161), namely boxes and lines with directional arrows that tend to fit neatly on a page or a screen. But the authors also take on two subjects at once that are not necessarily related: large hypertexts and hypertexts that are not fixed. Hence, they wanted to visualize not only hypertexts that were inconceivably big, but also those that were conceivably borderless.

In “Contours of Constructive Hypertexts,” Bernstein, Joyce, and Levine state, “the structures of meaning or contours we observe in current hypertext fiction and scholarship do not appear to reside in static structures, but rather in the complex and dynamic perceptions of the engaged reader” (161). A lot hinges on this statement regarding not so much what they observe but where they observe it. Surveying a new field of possibility in search, not surprisingly, of hypertextual difference, the authors demarcate a territory unique to hypertext literature. They do so carefully, however, noting that their form of Contour does not appear to reside in static structures (read: the literature of print). But given the intense efforts to mine the art that prefigures network culture in light of the now common understanding that the “hypertextual” is by no means exclusively digital, we can justify a renewed consideration of one particular hypertextual theory as applied to specific works of art. Is the hypertextual Contour, for example, bound up in analyses peculiar to electronic art forms?

We know that their Contour traces its own source back to a static medium. The authors “borrow the terms depth and contour from the painter’s vocabulary to describe a similar sense of form which the reader gains as she reads” (164). Even though they work off the early hypertextual ideal that “hypertext dissolves the distinction between readers and writers” (164), their analogy specifically aligns the perception of a painting (by an implied viewer) with the perception of a text (by an implied reader-writer). The analogy emphasizes the visual qualities of hypertext by placing it in the interpretive tradition of ut pictura poesis (as with painting, so in poetry). But their reliance here on audience perception is a slightly confusing gesture given their focus on the Contours of constructive hypertexts, which - by Joyce’s own well-known elaborations - are all about process rather than product. The depth and contour that emerge to the painter (simultaneously her own audience) as she paints might have been an even more appropriate parallel.

But at the time the dichotomy of constructive and exploratory was still relatively unfamiliar, and though Joyce introduces the concept as early as 1988 (in “Siren Shapes: Exploratory and Constructive Hypertexts,” and republished in Of Two Minds), the collaborative 1992 essay implies that the concept itself was something of a construction site. For example, the description of constructive hypertext as “a foundation for what does not exist” (166) follows a broader one that defines it as “the text rewritten by the act of choice” (165). True, the authors refer explicitly to a hypertext that is “open to change and addition and revision” (166). But any hypertext is open to change in the sense that no two readings are assembled in the same way, and any hypertext fundamentally involves an unfamiliar dynamics of selection. Thus, literary theorists, especially those entrenched in theories of reader-response, intuitively saw this choice making as an act of “inscription” - the text re-written by the reader. Those touting the “empowered” hypertext reader were especially quick to conflate the reader’s ability to, on the one hand, change specific nodes or add new ones and, on the other hand, arrange or assemble their order as a necessary function of reading. Contour could describe a user’s experience of an extant hypertext, and so the concept was adopted primarily as a way of reading despite its origins in more writerly theories of constructive hypertext. In fact, some readers reflexively borrow Joyce’s concept of Contour to review his fiction (see, for example, Robert Siegle’s review of Twilight, a Symphony).

Other factors pried Contour away from its purely “constructive” roots. For all its promise, constructive hypertext - like any theoretical model of “becoming” - paradoxically enacts a self-defeating discourse: the more you describe - or inscribe - it, the more you risk pre-programming or pre-empting its future forms and uses. Constructive hypertext, after all, demands a de-territorialized landscape, to borrow a phrase from Deleuze and Guattari. Theorists, more importantly, had to avoid filling this metaphysical void with the promise of technology per se, for technology, ironically, threatened to become the new center of the liberatory, de-centered discourse that it claimed to effect.

Either way, it was not long before structures for what was yet to exist started to fill themselves in and, well…exist (“Every well-designed exploratory hypertext proceeds from a constructive hypertext…” Of Two Minds 44). And it was not long before there was a structure for everything that could ever possibly want to exist (or so it seemed). We call it the Web, and even though it was both large and unfixed, it was definitely not what Joyce had in mind: “The truth is I don’t enjoy the web very much…the truth is that the web puts me at a loss and I do not exactly know why” (Othermindedness 51). But on the Web or not, the architecture of a “city of text” awaited description - a description at once fluid and concrete.

Tangibly Conceptual Contours

As a theory of reading, Contour arises from a particular experience of a given text and finds a coherent form, or rather a procession of transient forms. Articulating Contour, however, demands a turn of phrase (“trope” is from the Greek tropos meaning “turn”), for the procession of transient forms wants to be simultaneously tangible and conceptual. For Stuart Moulthrop, “the contour is real but virtual” (“The Shadow of an Informand” [38]). For Jim Rosenberg, Contour “concerns the geography” of what he calls the hypertext episode, and he too resorts to a turn of phrase when he defines the episode as “simply whatever group of actemes coheres in the reader’s mind as a tangible entity” (“Structure” 23). So the intent is to articulate something co-extensive with object and event, but ultimately something that is very much there - in the mind. We might see it as an indispensable cartographic convention in the creation of a cognitive map. At the same time, geometrical planes necessarily become planes of the tail-spinning variety when we force them into the free-floating topology of network space - regardless of whether our network is digital or entirely conceptual. Thus (as with any conceptual understanding) so much is lost in translation when this representation is mapped onto anything static. Any such representation remains just as inert on the screen as on the page.

Contour became an axis of orientation for early hypertextualists. It inscribed something of an ephemeral terra firma, curving through not only individual hypertext readings but also through a middle-ground hypertextual criticism. Joyce, of course, realized that the task was not to steady the foundation but rather to find new means of measuring the movement: “Previously stable horizons across my psychic landscape gave way to dizzying patterns of successive contours, each of which was most assuredly real, each of which did not last.” Contour derives force from its ability to mediate. Two years before his own “structure of hypertext activity” (1996) took shape, Rosenberg asked, “Can we describe the contour as the attempt to resolve disjunctive experience into conjunctive resonance?” (“Navigating Nowhere” 2). And Moulthrop’s analogy between Contour and his own notion of the “informand” (“the momentary structures of coherence and possibility apparent to the reader as she interacts with the structure” [29]) reinforces the concept’s medial quality. Simply stated, Moulthrop’s informand, like a Contour, is an “object-event.” That it is an object in space and becomes an event in time signals a convergence, in Joyce’s own phrase, of the “space of memory and the time of narrative experience” (Of Two Minds 159-171). Hence, as spatial object and temporal event, Contour can also be said to mediate the vertiginous polemic of space and time.

Early on, however, Contour was used most simply as a new measure of reading, or of movement - again in the realm of the “tangible conceptual.” As both noun and verb, it suggests not only how hypertextual Contours emerge when reading, but also how the reader’s selections actively shape or contour the hypertext. And in the years that followed the 1992 paper, two of its authors would shape the notion of Contour itself in different ways. Bernstein’s Contour would arc toward the operational, the instrumental, the unambiguous. Joyce’s would arc toward the poetic, and the erotic.

Contour of Two Minds

Joyce writes extensively about Contour in Of Two Minds (1995), specifically in the third and final section, “Contours: Hypertext Poetics.” If we can understand Contour only in its liquid state, then Joyce’s definitions are equally fluid:

Contours are the shape of what we think we see as we see it but that we know we have seen only after we move over them, and new contours of our own shape themselves over what they have left us. They are, in short, what happens as we go… (207)

Later in the same essay, other definitions coalesce: “Contour is one expression of the perceptible form of a constantly changing text, made by any of its readers or writers at a given point in its reading or writing” (214). In a formulation that he would later call his “most discrete” and one that “suffers from its fixity” (Othermindedness 167), Joyce breaks the concept into a potentiality of component parts, namely:

Its constituent elements include the current state of the text at hand, the perceived intentions and interactions of previous writers and readers that led to the text at hand, and those interactions with the text that the current reader or writer sees as leading from it. (214)

We can emphasize his repetition of the “text at hand,” for the phrase anticipates the trope’s next semantic accretion: the Contour as caress. “Contours are discovered sensually,” he wrote in 1995. But Joyce waited until his next book of theoretical narratives to explain what he meant.

Contour’s Othermindedness

In his introduction, Joyce resolves to continue “grounding our experience of the emergence of network culture in the body” (4) and it is clear that the writings of Hélène Cixous (who contributes an Afterword for his Moral Tales and Meditations published a year later in 2001) have had a hand in shaping both Joyce’s theoretical narratives and, more specifically, his notion of hypertextual Contour. Indeed, readers can look to Joyce for what was the most visible emergence of an erotics of hypertext.

Though Joyce readily admits at one point that he “honestly believe[s] hypertextuality is about sexuality,” he elaborates only obliquely, musing on a notably gendered excerpt from Vannevar Bush (1945) that seems to him so much like a “comic love story between man and machine” (219). Joyce does not set out to do with literary hypertext what Roland Barthes does with his “text of Bliss” (Barthes uses contour at one point in his Pleasure of the Text to link our physical body to the body of the text, describing a medial “body of bliss” that “consists solely of erotic relations” [16]). The two articulate different, even incompatible, textual pleasures. Barthes’ jouissance calls up a rapturous, climactic, or even violent bliss in which cultural codes and forms are fractured or transgressed. Joyce, by contrast, invokes Contour to feel the forms we create but cannot see: “I had in mind…the sense of a lover’s caress in which the form expresses itself in successiveness without necessarily any fixation” (167). Both seek a pleasure devoid of intention - from the text as it exists, not as it intends. But Joyce plays more to the tune of the never-ending story in that, unlike Barthes, the pleasure of his text comes without necessarily any climax, from a succession more stable and sustained.

Even if some theorists had hoped to parade a more virile brand of hypertextual eroticism, this tack might have been noticeably premature. At the time, hypertext theory was awkwardly re-positioning itself after striking a staunchly antithetical pose toward the linear tradition and its “missionary position of reading.” The phrase belongs to Sven Birkerts who uses it to describe what he sees as the privileged way of reading (Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in the Electronic Age. Faber and Faber Ltd., 1996). Nonetheless, it was the same school of early hypertext theory that, despite its commendable efforts in placing hypertext in plain view of education, theory, and literature, generated easily some of the least sexy terminology for the new medium. This was achieved in part by referring to the building blocks of hypertext as “chunks.” True, “lexia” sounds “sexier” (the two words rhyme in England, Australia, and New Zealand) but a hasty and ultimately untidy union of hypertext theory and post-structuralist theory made it difficult for that term to endure. Other notable attempts at forging a sexually attractive terminology followed, and Nick Montfort offers an example as decent as any in his review of Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. In a section he subtitles “Hot, ergodic cybertext,” Monfort writes, ” Ergodics and cybertext provoke curiosity. Aarseth attracts the reading eye by using one neologism each for title and subtitle. He has also selected terms that sound somewhat similar to the words erotics and cybersex.” Although we can never know for sure with such claims, sometimes we only see what we desire.

Joyce distances himself from the erotics of the virtual as well. Despite all of its free-floating evocations, virtual reality traces the movements of the body to fixed coordinates on what is essentially a three-dimensional Cartesian grid. As Heidi Tikka explains, “In the VR-space the abstracted vision becomes associated with a pointing gesture, moving the user forward in a constant state of erection” (Tikka, cited in Othermindedness 101). “Instead of this ceremony of erection,” Joyce writes, “I have…characterized hypertext in terms of contour” (Othermindedness 101). But more generally, the insistence on grounding the experience of hypertext in the body served to counter-balance the notion of hypertext as metaphor for the human mind or - in the strong reading - an externalized embodiment of our own neural networks. In the latter, of course, the only thing that is embodied is our brain. In line with Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart, and other patriarchs of hypertext invested in augmenting human memory and intelligence, J. David Bolter, Joyce’s colleague and co-creator of Storyspace, adopts the metaphoric reading in Writing Space (1991) when he describes computers as “a new metaphor for the human mind and for our culture’s collective mentality” (11). In Of Two Minds, Joyce explicitly states that he shares this vision (57). Also, in the same work, he is guilty at times of claiming too much in the way of “externalizing” creativity when referring to the Storyspace overviews. It is a claim that J. Yellowlees Douglas takes even further by calling the software overviews themselves “cognitive maps,” a move that draws a footnoted rebuke from Rosenberg, who calls the equation a “serious confusion” (“Structure” 26). Storyspace eventually introduced curves to the lines of its directed graphs, but these contours have little to do with the Contours Joyce would find “not in the text, the author, or the reader, but rather those moments that express relationships among them in the form of reader as writer” (Othermindedness 26). Joyce adds, “its figure for me…is the body…the curve we read in the caress” (44).

At the same time, if he eroticizes the hypertextual body in Othermindedness, then Joyce’s metaphors remain skin-deep (“Skin is screen,” he says in one of his narrative refrains [93]). Harpold, like Joyce, wished to ground the experience of electronic art forms in the body; but unlike Joyce, he was not content to glean an intuitive apprehension of depth by caressing surfaces. In fact, moving from a Bahktinian reading of the “grotesque body,” he employs metaphors that are gastrointestinal rather than erotic: “Imagining the texture of the stuff that moves in your gut is, I think, an appropriate beginning for thinking about the texture of the space defined by the anatomy of an electronic text.” (“The Grotesque Corpus”). Again, hypertext becomes an externalization, but only of what we had for lunch. Did someone mention something about chunks?

Over-arching Contours

If “hypertext is, before anything else, a visual form” (Of Two Minds 19), Contour articulates its visualization. (In fact, partly because of the visual quality implicit in the word contour, the concept persists whereas something more opaque, for example, Moulthrop’s “informand,” does not). Joyce says that the visual form of electronic texts “may include” the following: [1] “the apparent content of the text at hand,” [2] “its explicit or available design,” or [3] “implicit and dynamic designs” such as “patterns, juxtapositions, or recurrences within the text or abstractions situated outside the text” (Othermindedness 22). A Contour may contain these things. And it may not. It may - to quote this candy bar wrapper here - contain traces of peanuts. But a failure to list its component parts does not make it any less palatable as a theoretical idea. After all, we perceive Contour only by gestalt, and any gestalt perception fails to present itself as a coherent whole through a summation of its constituent parts.

But when we begin to consider also those “abstractions situated outside” of the text, we approach a more comprehensive phenomenology of reading. Indeed, Joyce’s later articulations of Contour gesture not simply toward one observable element of a manifold system, or one moment that affords its articulation, but rather toward a demonstration of a system in itself. In an “Intermezzo” piece in Othermindedness, for instance, the Contour becomes nothing short of an encompassing - albeit multiple - totality: it is “how the forms of things mean,…the totality of the work” (130). Therefore, if a hypothetical graph of the history of Contour is level and steady when it describes a de-territorialized “space of inscription for a reader,” then it undoubtedly spikes when it becomes, for Joyce, a space for the “real”: “What you cannot describe but you can only see is the inverse of the simulacrum, the real for which there is no fixed representation, or what…I’ve [previously] called the contour” (128). Setting aside what his notion of Contour includes, we might ask instead: what doesn’t it include? At what point does an array of smooth Contours become a tangled mess?

Bernstein’s Patterns

It is a question Mark Bernstein, upon presenting his “Patterns of Hypertext ” in 1998, does not have to ask. In fact, Bernstein takes the trope along what seems like an opposing trajectory, engaging in a pragmatic pinning down of sorts while his colleague revels in poly-semantics. Citing continued calls for structured hypertext in what was by then more clearly a defamiliarized rather than an intrinsically disorienting medium (much to Bernstein’s own credit), he aimed to devise “an appropriate vocabulary” that would allow us “to discern and discuss patterns in hypertexts that may otherwise seem an impenetrable tangle or arbitrary morass” (1). “The problem,” according to Bernstein, “is not that the hypertexts lack structure but rather that we lack words to describe it.”

His “structural vocabulary” identified ten patterns, including the hypertextual Cycle, in which “a reader returns to a previously-visited node and eventually departs along a new path” (2). The Cycle gives rise to an assortment of other rhetorical or literary effects that arise from the experience of textual recurrence, repetition, or refrain. But Bernstein’s emphasis is not rhetorical; instead, it’s exacting and literal. Strictly speaking, Contour in “Patterns” is something other than a trope, since it is intended as part of a new vocabulary with a singular connotation, as opposed to an “existing” word that assumes new ones. Contour, here, is an effect of Cycle. More specifically, a plurality of Cycles produces Contour: it is “formed where cycles impinge on each other” and allow “free movement within and between the paths defined by each cycle” (3).

Affording Contour an unambiguous role allows Bernstein to represent it in a static graphic image. More ideogram than graph, it looks like this:

pattern image

Bernstein employs these patterns in the service of an earlier - and perhaps too early abandoned - project of “providing a richer vocabulary of local structure” (2). And we can recall that in the 1992 article the authors put faith in static representations to “facilitate understanding of local hypertext structure” (161). Bernstein, then, both stabilizes and localizes the concept of Contour in “Patterns.”

Nevertheless, the Contours described by Bernstein and Joyce are not mutually exclusive. In fact, their two trajectories can be said to intersect in the service of a theoretical discourse that seeks to articulate the paradoxical stability and dynamism of the electronic text. It is the same discursive role Moulthrop considers over a decade earlier: “A rhetorical theory of the contour augmented, perhaps, by a practical technique of contour representation and navigation could yield an important shift in our understanding of hypertext [my emphasis]” (Informand [44]). Hence, we can compute a pattern of Contour in the local, without impinging on the expansive conceptual domain of Joyce’s poetics. Bernstein’s Contour works as a ground to Joyce’s figure. Both, however, are rooted in a ground that moves, not only in the rhetorical sense of shifting discourse, but also in a material sense, with regard to software systems.

In “Card Shark and Thespis: exotic tools for hypertext narrative,” Bernstein takes sufficient note of this shifting movement when he asks, “Are the properties of hypertext fiction…intrinsic to hypertext, or do they arise from the idiosyncrasies of specific systems?” (41). He sets out to test this hypothesis by building not a “better system,” but rather a “strange system that might let us step back from Storyspace and the Web in order to gain a better perspective” (41). It is more likely that such a perspective will be possible only after another system, ideally created by someone other than Eastgate, pervades the artistic community to the same degree as Storyspace has. In the meantime, criticisms leveled at either Eastgate or its systems (what some have referred to as the “Church of Hypertext”) accomplish little when they fail to imagine a material alternative let alone build one.

Bernstein applies the same logic of perspective to the work of others. In a review of Rebecca Blood’s Weblog Handbook, he writes, “While Blood is fascinated by the social and hypertextual structures that bind the Web, she has no interest in software or in the ways particular tools may shape weblogs and weblog clusters” (“A Romantic View of Weblogs”). With regard to Storyspace, Bernstein sees potential and limits concurrently: “Conventional node-link views like Storyspace and MacWeb represent isolated cycles fairly well but provide little support for visualizing contours created where many cycles intersect” (“Patterns” 13). Furthermore, as Moulthrop notes, “we must understand that the two domains of virtual space, the architectonic space of mapping and the semantic space of conceptual development, do not perfectly correspond” (“Where No Mind Has Gone Before” 206). A poetics of Contour comes into play when visualizing both the complex interstice of cycles Bernstein describes as well as the broader cognitive landscapes of Moulthrop’s semantic space.

Contours of Course

But now that Contour has inscribed the critical landscape with both conceptual breadth and pattern precision, we can ask where it might be headed from here. How does it lend itself to analyses of texts in print? How does it resist such readings? We know that networked narratives are true topologies in that their structure moves; they can be said to make space move (and not necessarily as a literary “work in movement” in the sense of Eco’s Open Work, as Aarseth points out [Cybertext 52-53]). Aside from the odd exceptions - the cards of Marc Saporta or the confetti of William Burroughs - most narratives in print do not share this quality. If we bend back hypertextual tropes to describe pre-digital works in print (such as a novel by James Joyce), or post-digital works of print (such as a novel by Michael Joyce), we do so with this qualification in mind. That is, we need to engage with narrative topology on its own material terms.

In a borrowing that is noticeably scientific in nature, Joyce seizes on topology, or “rubber-sheet geometry,” to re-vision his already pliant illustrations. But, for Joyce, it is ultimately the jellyfish that best animates this gelatinous geometry. The movements of a jellyfish (at any or all points we choose to measure) are not determined by what Sanford Kwinter calls the “quantitative subspace (the grid) below it” (cited in Othermindedness 23). The jellyfish, moreover, maps the space of which it is itself substantially a part - in the literal sense, as part of the same substance - for the jellyfish forms the water and is a form of it. It illustrates a reflexive flow in topological space. It is the same space that Umberto Eco (1962), also a mentor for Joyce, describes decades prior in a parodic essay concerning the “Paradox of Porta Ludovica,” which is a purported phenomenon of urban space that leaves the inhabitants of Milan in a perpetual state of bewilderment:

It is therefore a topological space, like that of a microbe that chooses as its dwelling place a wad of chewing gum for the period of time…in which the gum is chewed by a being of macroscopic dimensions. (Misreadings 81)

And it is the same space that physicist Alan Sokal, who published the infamous “pomo-babble” paper to question the credibility of the inter-disciplinary project, describes in that hoax paper as “ ‘space-time foam’: bubbles of space-time curvature, sharing a complex and ever-changing topology of interconnections” [Sokal published, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Theory,” in the journal Social Text in 1996].

Clearly, all three have dramatically different intentions. In the preface to Misreadings Eco writes, “If its aim is true, [parody] simply heralds what others will later produce, unblushing, with impassive and assertive gravity” (5). The irony here of course is that Sokal’s parody, though gravely assertive in tone, was designed to disprove nothing other than gravity itself, explaining it away as just another social construction. Joyce is sincere, Eco is sincere in his parody, and Sokal is none of the above. More specifically, Joyce is sincere in his attempts to visualize topological movement in literature. He wants to describe the act of reading electronic texts as at once systematic and sensual: “Previously I have talked about the qualitative transformations in electronic texts in terms of contours, borrowing a geometric term for what I now think I have always really understood topologically, sensually (as a caress)… (Othermindedness 22). What these ostensibly diverse methodologies share is an insistence on visualizing complex, physical phenomena.

By mentioning Sokal I broach the broader issue of art/science border crossings, when my focus is tracing a literary trope from “static” media to digital media and (conceivably) back again; that is, I’m concerned here with the border of print/digital literature, a border that is to me more familiar but no less suspect. In the two-culture debate, there are compelling arguments on both sides and radically different degrees of borrowing. On one hand there are those “humanists” who search for metaphorical semblances in the language and logic of “science.” On the other hand, there are earnest attempts to find mimetic parallels between the two, using a language that is referential without reservation. Predictably, the most useful border crossings are made by those not seeking to dismantle or destroy one body of knowledge in order to validate another. Nevertheless, as Matt Kirschenbaum makes clear, “information technology will not - not ever - allow communication between the Two Cultures that is totally free of noise… [see “Designing Our Disciplines ” in ebr].

With regard to the print/digital divide, Aarseth (Cybertext) and others have identified noticeable examples of disjunction or “noise.” This said, if and how we can use hypertextual poetics to theorize works in print depends, as always, on the creativity of individual critics reading individual works, but it should appear to us more interdisciplinary than contradictory. Furthermore, with regard to metaphor, the same noise allows for unexpected synergies; old metaphors acquire new resonance. In “Beyond the Electronic Book: A Critique of Hypertext Rhetoric,” Moulthrop warns of an “absurd regression” resulting from taking a “rhetorics of integration” too far. He notes that “compensatory or reformist rhetorics take the ‘romance’ - or we might say the difference - out of hypertext” (difference is Moulthrop’s word, romance belongs to his source Davida Charney) (294). But Moulthrop’s examples of “too far” do not go far enough. He cites McLuhan, who observed that “rapidly changing societies tend perversely to assign new technologies the work of old, producing oxymorons like ‘televised hearings,’ ‘live recording,’ or ‘electronic book’ ” (294). Clearly, “electronic book” is an oxymoron with which the eponymous review journal is quite comfortable - not despite, but because of the new possibilities such combination allows. To see it otherwise is to ignore the extent to which the “old” rhetorics have informed what follows.

With regard to our trope, since Contour emerges through the tracing of an object, it is not only “what happens as we go,” but also what remains when the object is gone. As Robert Siegle writes, “Hypertext can, indeed, stimulate the ‘becomingness’ Joyce celebrates in his theory, but also, just as clearly, hypertext can facilitate retracing the shapes of what tradition and individual talents have left us” (Twilit Ragas). The conventional wisdom of print has never threatened to occlude the literary creativity of a digital age, and the contours of print literature will continue to inscribe the literature of hypertext. This does not inhibit innovation or postpone the emergence of what Joyce himself has called a “true electronic form” (Othermindedness 181). True forms arise whenever creative people see “embodied expression” as transparent intuition rather than contemporary theory.

Above all, the Contour aspires (as does this essay) to be nothing more than a site of gathering. It is a trope that forms of and conforms to the spaces in between. That said, Contour itself should be free to weave its way inter-medially, in the space of various disciplines and media. For whatever our artistic or scientific leanings, we can ultimately only work with what we can see - and feel. And I for one, despite the risks, am inclined to swim with the jellyfish.


works cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Noonday Press, 1980.

Bernstein, Mark, Michael Joyce, and David Levine. “Contours of Constructive Hypertexts.” ECHT, 1992 (161-70).

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1991.

Eco, Umberto. Misreadings. Trans. William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1993.

Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Othermindedness. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Moulthrop, Stuart. “Beyond the Electronic Book: A Critique of Hypertext Rhetoric.” New York: ACM Press, 1991.

— “Where No Mind Has Gone Before: Ontological Design for Virtual Spaces.” New York: ACM Press, 1994.

Rosenberg, Jim. 1996. “The Structure of Hypertext Activity.” New York: ACM Press.