Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Cyberspacial Hypertext as Art History's Futur Anterieur

"The process of making films in communion with oneself, the way a painter works or a writer, need not now be solely experimental. Contrary to what people say, using the first-person in films tends to be a sign of humility: 'All I have to offer is myself.'"===>Chris Marker, 1997. See also Mark Fisher's Metamute article: Six Re-Views of Chris Marker

"... on Nabokov's Pale Fire as a precursor of hypertext (and hence also of blogs." ...[] ..."As for the connections with hypertext, I’m less convinced. I'm a little suspicious of attempts to find the 'roots' of hypertext in the print medium."===>Mark at K-punk: NABOKOV AND HYPERTEXT

"... it is only with the advent of cyberspace hypertext that we can effectively grasp what Altman and Kieslowski were effectively aiming at". ... [just as, homologously] ... "it was only when cinema was here and developed its standard procedures that we can really grasp the narrative logic of Dickens's great novels or of Madame Bovary."===>Slavoj Žižek

[1] Weblogs. $'s ubiquitous opposition here is the post-modernist turn/retreat, the near-adolescent, existential-subjectivist, accepted position that we should "leave behind" the quest for universal truth — that what we have instead in today's post-political, post-historical cynicism are merely different narratives [with the linear, movement-image narrative remaining the unexamined prerogative, of course] about who we are, the stories we tell about ourselves. According to this defeatist, reality-principle stance, the highest ethical requirement is to respect the Other's story. All the stories should be told, each ageist, ethnic, political, sexual, or kapital-determined, market-defined group should be given the right to tell its story, as if this kind of tolerance towards the plurality of stories with no universal truth value is the definitive utopia, the ultimate ethical horizon.

This lethal ideology - the dominant one in the bloggy universe and beyond - needs to be turned around completely. This prerogative of personal, phantasmatic storytelling is invariably facilitated by a right to narrate, as if the highest act you can do today is to - non-reflexively - narrate your own story, as if only a white middle-class teenager can know what it's like to be a white middle-class teenager, and on and on. Now this little bloggy practice may sound all very nice, PC, and emancipatory. But, following Žižek's contention, "the moment we accept this logic, we enter a kind of apartheid. In a situation of social domination, all narratives are not the same. For example, in Germany in the 1930s, the narrative of the Jews wasn't just one among many. This was the narrative that explained the truth about the entire situation. Or today, take the gay struggle. It's not enough for gays to say, "we want our story to be heard." No, the gay narrative must contain a universal dimension, in the sense that their implicit claim must be that what happens to us is not something that concerns only us. What is happening to us is a symptom or signal that tells us something about what's wrong with the entirety of society today. We have to insist on this universal dimension."

Obliquely countering this are the somewhat pessimistic cultural critics, including Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, who claim - in line with, among other things, witnessing the phenomenon of the narcissistic bloggy bloggers mentioned above - that cyberspace ultimately generates a kind of "proto-psychotic immersion" into an imaginary private-subjective universe of hallucinations, unconstrained by any symbolic Law or by any impossibility of some Real?

"How are we to detect in cyberspace the contours of the other two dimensions of the Lacanian triad, ISR, the Symbolic and the Real?"

[2] The Futur Anterior. K-punk continues: "As for the connections with hypertext, I’m less convinced. I'm a little suspicious of attempts to find the 'roots' of hypertext in the print medium. Such exercises end up presupposing a continuity when it is almost certainly more productive to look for breaks. Hypertext becomes re-embedded into a lineage going back at least as far as Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Yet this ignores the form of the reading matter itself. While certain books may gesture towards rhizomatic connectivity, the physical form of the book imposes a certain linearity on the reading experience. Hypertext – or better, hyperlinking – has no such limitations. With the internet, the very notion of ‘a’ hypertext, a hypertext ‘object’, quickly becomes unsustainable. Rather than being addenda to a free-standing texts, links constitute a plexing technology which don’t so much absorb and integrate outside texts so much as they erase the boundaries between one text and another. There is nothing inside the text. Any ‘text’ is a series of outsides."

Yes indeed: and it is crucial not to conceive of this narrative strategy of seamless, Mobius Strip-like - but de-sutured - multiple-perspectives (encircling a void, an impossible Real) as provoked by, as a linear consequence of, digital and cyberspace technology itself - the fallacy of the fetish MacGuffin: technology and ideology are always-already structurally embedded - ideology is inscribed already in the very technological features of cyberspace. More precisely, what we are dealing with here is yet another example of the well-known phenomenon of prior, historical artistic forms pushing against their own boundaries and using aesthetic strategies which, at least from our retroactive view, seem to point towards a new technology that will be able to serve as a more "natural" and appropriate "objective correlative" to the life-experience the old forms endeavoured to render by means of their "excessive" experimentations. For instance, a whole series of narrative procedures in l9th century novels announce not only the classical narrative cinema (the intricate use of "flashback" in Emily Bronte or of "cross-cutting" and "close-ups" in Dickens), but sometimes even the modernist cinema (the use of "off-space" in Madame Bovary) — as if a new perception of life was already here, but was still struggling to find its proper means of articulation, until it finally found it in cinema.

"What we have here is thus the historicity of a kind of futur anterieur: it is only when cinema was here and developed its standard procedures that we can really grasp the narrative logic of Dickens's great novels or of Madame Bovary."

Either life is experienced as a series of multiple parallel destinies that interact and are crucially affected by meaningless contingent encounters, the points at which one series intersects with and intervenes into another (The films of Robert Altman - especially Short Cuts, previously satirically anticipated in the work of Luis Bunuel), or different versions/outcomes of the same plot are repeatedly enacted (the "parallel universes" or "alternative possible worlds" scenarios - in Lynch's Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., in Kieslowski's Chance, Veronique and Red.

"This perception of our reality as one of the possible — often even not the most probable — outcomes of an "open" situation, this notion that other possible outcomes are not simply cancelled out but continue to haunt our "true" reality as a spectre of what might have happened, conferring on our reality the status of extreme fragility and contingency, implicitly clashes with the predominant "linear" narrative forms of our literature and cinema — they seem to call for a new artistic medium in which they would not be an eccentric excess, but its "proper" mode of functioning. One can argue that the cyberspace hypertext is this new medium in which this life experience will find its "natural," more appropriate objective correlative, so that, again, it is only with the advent of cyberspace hypertext that we can effectively grasp what Altman and Kieślowski were effectively aiming at."

There are, Žižek outlines, two standard uses of cyberspace narrative: "the linear, single-path maze adventure and the "postmodern" hypertext undetermined form of rhizome fiction. The single-path maze adventure moves the interactor towards a single solution within the structure of a win-lose contest (overcoming the enemy, finding the way out…). So, with all possible complications and detours, the overall path is clearly predetermined: all roads lead to one final Goal. In contrast to it, the hypertext rhizome does not privilege any order of reading or interpretation: there is no ultimate overview or "cognitive mapping," no possibility to unify the dispersed fragments in a coherent encompassing narrative framework, one is irreducibly enticed in conflicting directions — we, the interactors, just have to accept that we are lost in the inconsistent complexity of multiple referrals and connections… The paradox is that this ultimate helpless confusion, this lack of final orientation, far from causing an unbearable anxiety, is oddly reassuring: the very lack of the final point of closure serves as a kind of denial which protects us from confronting the trauma of our finitude, of the fact that there our story has to end at some point — there is no ultimate irreversible point, since, in this multiple universe, there are always other paths to explore, alternate realities into which one can take refuge when one seems to reach a deadlock. — So how are we to escape this false alternative?"

Consider the narrative structure of what Janet Murray terms the "violence-hub" - portrayed in such films as Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line and, earlier, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon: always narrating an account of some violent or otherwise traumatic incident (murder, suicide, rape, etc), which is then positioned as the kernal of a contradictory web of alternative narratives that explore the core trauma from multiple points of view (perpetrator, victim, witness, survivor, investigato, etc: could , would any contemporary film-maker or multi-media advocate articulate the Event that was 9-11 in these terms?):

"The proliferation of interconnected files is an attempt to answer the perennial and ultimately unanswerable question of why this incident happened. /…/ These violence-hub stories do not have a single solution like the adventure maze or a refusal of solution like the postmodern stories; instead, they combine a clear sense of story structure with a multiplicity of meaningful plots. The navigation of the labyrinth is like pacing the floor; a physical manifestation of the effort to come to terms with the trauma, it represents the mind's repeated efforts to keep returning to a shocking event in an effort to absorb it and, finally, get past it."===>Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, The MIT Press: Cambridge (Ma) 1997, p. 278.

Returning to Kieślowski, Žižek argues, in his book on Kieślowski, The Fright of Real Tears, that Kieślowski's is a "universe of alternative realities". The films keep open a series of unresolved possibilities shown simultaneously (the "parallax view"), showing how the lives of characters are changed by the simple fact of (crucially, not to be confused with the New Ageist Chaos Theory), for instance, missing a train, as in the early Kieślowski film Blind Chance.

Žižek believes this approach can be seen in the context of contemporary processes such as hypertext, and is in this respect highly contemporary (despite what can also be seen as an old-fashioned romanticism of the films). In fact, the motif of much of his work is one of "multiple imperfect universes". He also draws attention to the recurrence of themes, situations and characters which he terms "narrative echoes", not just within Decalogue but in the later films (most notably in the final shots of Red, in which the three key couples of the trilogy are the sole survivors of a ferry disaster).

Welcome to a cyberspacial [filmic] universe in which different, mutually exclusive fantasies co-exist:

David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (Above).
Krzysztof Kieślowski's Double Life of Veronica. (Left).

[3] Multi-Media. Geoff Ryman's 253 is one of the most well-known early explorations of a hyperlink fiction.

Chris Marker's multi-media work is another superlative example. Interestingly, Chris Marker's most innovative work cannot be shown in a theatre [unless ...]. In the late 1990's, he produced a CD-ROM, Immemory. Composed of stills, film clips, music, text and fragments of sound, Immemory is divided into zones — Poetry, Cinema, Photography, Travel. There must be more than 20 hours of material, and so many different ways to explore it. Marker is already at work on a more sophisticated version of Immemory (in line with cyber-technology changes.). What it already amounts to is a trip through one man's archive — or memory. This increasingly seems the most likely future, not just for film, but for multi-media and hypertext — a new kind of post-cinema - "private", intense, solitary, exploratory, yes, yet full of revolutionary epiphanies and profound traversals, like the breathing face in Le Jetée. Rhizomatic connectivity ...


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