Swiveling My Hips through the Interbunk Lisa Ciccarello Craft

build Swiveling My Hips through the Interbunk

by Lisa Ciccarello

Published in Issue No. 32 ~ January, 2000

December 6th marked the 30th anniversary of the ill-fated
concert at the Bay Area’s Altamont Speedway where, during a free rock-n-roll
event attended by 300,000 fans, four people died. 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. For many,
the murder at Altamont marked the symbolic end of the ’60s – not the end
of the turbulence, for the struggles continued –signaleing the passing
of the decade’s spirit of hopeful activism, its idealistic faith in love
and peace.

The anniversary passed with nary a word from the national news media,
hardly a surprise since journalism is not a medium of memory (and besides,
there was the pressing issue of what to say about Seattle.) But if Altamont
has passed from national consciousness, at least that consciousness reflected
in the twitchy mirror of the news media, who or what remembers? This brings
me to the twin imperatives of historical writing (and to this essay’s
topic, hypertext): “Tell me a story” and “Tell me the truth.” How to tell
it? What form suits best? I submit that it’s this counterpoint of history
and memory, factual truth and the narrative organization that lends stories
their coherence and intelligibility. Regardless, it’s precisely this counterpoint
that is evoked so bravely and un-nostalgically, by Sunshine
, the “Web’s first interactive novel” by Robert Arellano, a.k.a.
Bobby Rabyd, Internet fabulist and teacher of creative writing at Brown

What is Hypertext?

But before getting to the fable of Sunshine ‘69, I’d better backtrack
to engage a different fable, one that will provide a context for what
follows and some definitions. I am sure many of you are wondering, “what
is hypertext?” What is a hypertext? My answers, I admit, are partial
and subjective, for hypertext means different things to different people.
There is a great deal of academic debate, much of it admittedly a mere
pissing contest, about who did what, and when, and who should be awarded
credit, and perhaps – who knows? – a tenured position.

So let us leave the academics aside for the moment (and hope to be forgiven
later). The word “hypertext” may be used to refer to a constellation of
things. It is at once a medium, an ideal, a technology, an imaginative
point of reference, and an imaginary machine that computer scientists
have used to project very interesting pictures of the future of reading,
writing, annotation, indexing, and many other useful things. To paraphrase
Sherry Turkle, hypertext is good to think with.

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, kind of 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
, John McDaid’s Uncle
Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse
, Sarah Smith’s King
of Space
, and many others. 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 Director,
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).

Nostalgia for the Book and Oil of Olay

There have been few influential critiques of hypertext and new media,
and those that have appeared are disappointing in their lack of sustained
involvement with the very media they wish to critique. The most notable
salvos have been launched by Sven
and William
Gass, whose criticisms evince a surprisingly powerful nostalgia for
the days before the Information Superhighway. Evidently this nostalgia
has left both critics without the bandwidth to engage forms birthed, however
monstrously, from new media 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 — ah, these pundits — has
always opposed whatever may be fastened upon as trendy, or fashionable,
or new, as long as it has already garnered enough share of the public’s
attention to threaten the sovereignty of said authorities. 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 and spit out so-called
unmarketable literary fiction — are never indicted; then again, it was
Random House that brought out The Gutenberg Elegies.) Seen in this
light, that Gass’ and Birkerts’ criticisms should be so charged with nostalgia
(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, to paraphrase the hawkers
of immortality in the form of Oil of Olay, intend to fight it, every step
of the way.

an instance of hypertext, a hypertext of instances:

      Sunshine ‘69

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. There is a growing body of precisely this
sort of literature, but unfortunately much of it is pitched more to other
academics than to everyday folk, making it hard to find (and occasionally
difficult to decode). 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, a publishing model which, if
adopted on a large scale, promises to throw an intriguing monkey wrench
into the usual, and usually dismal, economics of literary publishing.
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
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 cinematic scenes, each
from the point of view of a different character. (The cast is manageable
at nine, but includes Mick Jagger and a deliciously neurotic Lucifer,
mostly 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 direct 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 kind of synoptic, bird’s-eye view. The reader also
gets a kind of rap sheet for each character, and may investigate (among
other things) the contents of each character’s pockets (a brilliant bit
of characterization with a navigational, hypertextual function and 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, but for me 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.

I want to return to this issue of nostalgia, in particular, its resentment
of history and the unfortunate fate that sometimes befalls great and cherished
expectations. It’s certainly no coincidence that Sunshine ‘69,
a story about the ’60s – an epoch that still serves as a receptacle for
so much nostalgia – quietly captures the aspirations of its characters,
particularly of Murdock, who stands in for Meredith Hunter. Murdock’s
wish, while dying, to see his ex-girlfriend one more time reminds the
reader of a loss that might, under different circumstances, animate nostalgia.
But Arellano transcends that bitterness and resentment, focusing the reader’s
attention on the magnitude of the loss itself. This proves a far more
honest approach to the fragility and ultimate ethereality of hopes and
expectations than the antics of Gass and Birkerts. These critics have
taken the easy way out, for 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 expertise and insight 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 beyond the narrowly circumscribed world of universities, where much
of the most interesting work in these media now takes place. In this regard,
it is worth noting that, in Sunshine ’69, it is the neurotic Lucifer
who gets the last word. Taking the opportunity to set the record straight,
he points out that although commentators thought that, at the time of
the Altamont murder, the band played “Sympathy for the Devil,” in fact,
the song was really “Under My Thumb.”

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Lisa Ciccarello wishes she could "get it right one more time every time."