As I read Scott McCloud’s chapter, a welcome return to a book spirited away from me by a student who “forgot” to return it (alas), I found myself thinking of John Cayley’s work. He started public life as a dealer in antiquities, a translator of ancient Buddhist texts, and a participant in avant garde poetic practice with literal art, and, then became, whew!, a practitioner of “programmable” art. He has interesting essays about the difference between Code (addressed to a processor) and Text (addressed to a reader who’s implicitly asked to accept it as “natural language”), among many other topics.
Like McCloud, Cayley is interested in the experiential dimension of digital literature (not his term)—its presentation to a reader, and its responses to a reader’s actions, and its temporal dimension in presentation, all call for a more complex Rhetoric than classic pomes on the page. Here’s a sample of a bulleted point from one of his ruminations (you’ll need to remember that “signifier” is the physical pointer to the “signified” that is its culturally determined content):
The emergent materiality of the signifier – flickering, time-based – creates a new relationship between media and content. Programming the signifier itself, as it were, brings transactive mediation to the scene of writing at the very moment of meaning creation. Mediation can no longer be characterised as subsidiary or peripheral; it becomes text rather than paratext.
Early hypertext writers were drunk on the way that hyperlinks made visible the call and response between the manifest text and its latent allusions to all kinds of cultural content, not to mention the rest of the work in hand, all affected by the attention span and proactive quotient in the reader’s participation. In going beyond such early enthusiasms, Cayley thinks about how, in the digital environment, mediation both connects and conditions contacts that fan out in many dimensions, in many registers of meaning, in many experiential dynamics as someone encounters a carefully wrought Code/Text.
What McCloud shows you by widening the x-axis of a comix frame, and what he dramatizes by the variations in lettering style and motion lines and (in other chapters) permutations among frame shapes on a page—well, it rhymes in a way with what people like Cayley think about when they program the Cave at Brown (a 3D immersive virtual environment: we have one!).
We’ve classically contrasted the experiential dimension of print literature and performances (theatre and music) and visual art and film/video: the Programmable Arts seem to be on the verge of an exponentiation from mashing up all of these at once. Instead of contrasting, as if different arts appealed to different sectors of the neuroscience of the brain or to different sensibilities or to different faculties in an individeual, programmability equips an artist to deploy all of these in ways that exploit their materiality for designed effects. Harder to repress the materiality of the canvas when you’re in it; harder to repress the physicality of language when you have to face it and work it; harder to valorize the conceptual over the aural or the haptic if feedback mechanisms engage all five of your senses. It all has a lovely potential to dash to bits the less imaginative aesthetic theories still treading the halls like ghosts of Artworlds Past.
Musing on a rainy day.