The first trap, we learned, would lead us back to the streets of Rayuela, to the structuralist frenzy of the couplage and the combinatoire; or to the Proppian machine that vows to tell, by permutations of a fixed program, each and every possible fairy tale that could be told. The hero is herein transformed into a goose. Oulipo.
The second trap leads to where it’s led us: Ludology, Cybertext, “Interactive Fiction,” the consecration of the Choose Your Adventure Book as very serious experimental fiction or, alternatively, a bizarre mass migration from Experimental Fiction to Videogame Studies. Either the added difficulty is now paradoxically a tool for reader’s immersion (as Murray would have it), or the participation turns reading into a game - the Aarseth alternative -, with a story that fades into backdrop.
Plot-based hypertext, with its interlacing stories and its mysteries to be navigated through - from Infinite Jest all the way to Joyce’s afternoon - looks today like clumsy first attempts, Meliès magic tricks to be shelved under Historical Curiosities hardly one or two decades after their bombastic inceptions. Plot, so unfashionable throughout the past Century (it was, it was), was never the point. Some recognized this from the start - Caitlin Fisher, Shelley Jackson - and plot couplage gave way to the associative operation of memory, or to an identity that is dispersed and diffused in the body, quite non-cartesianly. Almost before everybody else, Milorad Pavic invented the Encyclopaedia: linking as an explosion of the point of view, the multitude of perspective, veiling as it reveals, ever incapable of retrieving the original, the thing in itself in the gleam of its presence. The Dictionary of the Khazars is the story of the failed reconstruction of the Dictionary of the Khazars. But where does this lead us?
Of course, it doesn’t need to lead us anywhere. We don’t need to go anywhere. We can stay put, or we can go at our own pace, excited with the long footnote.
The book is a convention: the XVIII/XIXth turn of the Century reader is trained, Kittler and Hayles reckon, to disregard whatever is specific and variable in the physical artifact of the book, and focus instead on the legal fiction of immaterial text (or, according to Hayles, to the legal fiction of style). Whatever media effects cannot be effectively erased in the cognitive process of reading become an intromission. Contra this a tradition of “Artist’s Books” - lovely artifacts nobody reads -, and William Blake, and the history and pre-history of printing itself (the Incunabula, the Golden Ratio in Gutemberg’s page).
Is immaterial text to be denounced? Insomuch as “immaterial text” is an entity that can only comfortably manifest itself in print, why, of course. It is an awfully impractical idea. But please, good folks at the ELO: let us not denounce immateriality, for literature has always been, in the good sense, immaterial, and being media-specific has little to do with being immaterial or not. Even though there is still a readership for Jane Austen’s novels, media have effectively freed text from the “recording of the Real” and the “hallucination of the Imaginary” Lacan-Kittler speak of, and can now focus on the by definition untouchable realms of the symbolic, where it, in a sense, belongs. The struggle with materiality as condition will only eventually restore text to a novel concept of immateriality. Literature won’t be reduced to videogame and animation by today’s material constraints just as the embellishment of the medieval page did not make of literature one of the visual arts.