Copyright © 1997 The Purdue Research Foundation. All rights reserved.
Modern Fiction Studies 43.3 (1997) 579-597

Nonce Upon Some Times: Rereading Hypertext Fiction

Michael Joyce

That which is reread is that which is not read. The writer rereads and unreads in the same scan, sometimes looking for the place that needs attention, other times seeking surprising instances of unnoticed eloquence that her attention now confirms in a process of authorship. Most often she looks for the thicket, the paragraph or phrase that relinks a vision or reforms it, a vision she put aside or lost, which dwindled or lapsed, which exhausted her or she exhausted. In the process of reading for what she has not written (or written well) she often does not read what she has written well (or not written).

For over eight years now in workshops with writers exploring hypertext fiction I have posed a question about rereading and held my breath fearing an obvious question in return.

Suppose at this point your reader, before going on, has to reread one part of what comes before, I ask.

No one asks why. There are reasons.

For the writer rereading, the question seems to be one of ends. "What happens at the end of a text?" asks Hélène Cixous. "The author is in the book as we are in the dream's boat. We always have the belief and the illusion that we are the ones writing, that we are the ones [End Page 579] dreaming. Clearly this isn't true" (98). While Cixous is not thinking explicitly of hypertext here but rather the novels of Thomas Bernhardt, she nonetheless evokes the reader's experience of hypertext. Hypertext, only more consciously than other texts, implicates the reader in writing, at least by choosing its sequences. Hypertext, more clearly than other texts, seems to escape us before we have it formed into an understanding we might call a reading. It beckons us as it escapes. The writer reading (or the reader as writer) thinks toward an ending but more often looks for transport and escape, a way out that is, after all, another way in. It is as Cixous says:

We are not having the dream, the dream has us, carries us, and, at a given moment, it drops us, even if the dream is in the author in the way the text is assumed to be. What we call texts escape us as the dream escapes us on waking, or the dream evades us in dreams. We follow it, things go at top speed, and we are constantly--what a giddy and delicious sensation!--surprised. In the dream as in the text, we go from one amazement to another. I imagine many texts are written completely differently, but I am only interested in the texts that escape. (98)

Start again.

Hypertext is the confirmation of the visual kinetic of rereading. This is not a good first definition of the form or art, but rather one made possible by a kind of prospective rereading that, given a world in which ketchup bottles have websites listed with their ingredients, assumes the reader has at least a muddled sense of hypertext from the World Wide Web. Hypertext is a representation of the text that escapes and surprises by turns.

The traditional definitions of hypertext begin with nonlinearity, which, however, is not a good place to start, given the overwhelming force of our mortality in the face of our metaphors. Either our lives seem a line in which our reading has ever circled, or our lives seem to circle on themselves and our reading sustains us in its directness and comforts us in its linearity. My own amended definition of hypertext acknowledged the mortality and turned the metaphor to drama while unfortunately adding an element of the metaphysical: "hypertext is [End Page 580] reading and writing in an order you choose where your choices change the nature of what you read" (Joyce 177).

Our choices change the nature of what we read. Rereading in any medium is a conscious set of such choices, a sloughing off of one nature for another. The computer is always reread, an unseen beam of light behind the electronic screen replacing itself with itself at thirty cycles a second. Print stays itself--I have said often and elsewhere--electronic text replaces itself. What hypertext does is confirm this replacement, whether in the most trivial sense in which we as readers sustain the text before us by merely foregoing the jittery shift of mouse button or "PageDown" key, or in the deeper sense, itself shared with rereading in any medium, where we linger or shift back intentionally upon a text, making each reoccurrence or traversal its own new or renewed text, the exploration of a dark seam of meaning that mere choice seems to illuminate and (we hesitate to suggest) create for us.

Each iteration "breathes life into a narrative of possibilities," as Jane Yellowlees Douglas says of hypertext fiction, so that in the "third or fourth encounter with the same place, the immediate encounter remains the same as the first, [but] what changes is [our] understanding" (118).

Start again.

The workshop exercise with which I began this essay seeks to isolate a set of primitive choices that both prompt the visual kinetic of rereading in hypertext and, at the same time, isolate the elements of what Douglas calls "a narrative of possibilities." The attempt is to move from the nonce upon some times--not so much telling an old story with new twists, as twisting story into something new in the kinetic alternation of ricorso, flashback, renewal. The great advantage of this exercise is that it immediately confronts writers who are often quite skeptical about hypertext fiction with literary and artistic questions about linking rather than technical ones about software. It engages working writers with aesthetic and readerly questions about linking rather than encouraging a choose-your-own-adventure sort of drearily branching fiction.

What I do is to ask the writers to write four parts of something, keeping the notion of "parts" and "something" intentionally fuzzy but making it clear we are talking narrative. I ask them to use the hypertext [End Page 581] system (in this case, Storyspace, created by Jay Bolter and myself with John Smith) to create four spaces (boxes) for the four parts. I encourage them to do this very quickly and not to worry about how extensive or finished the writing is.

Once this is done, I first have them recreate linearity, that is, link the four parts, not merely to teach the simple hypertextual skill but also to reinforce the concept that in hypertext even the linear is a choice. Then I ask the question with which I began this essay: Suppose at this point your reader, before going on, has to reread one part of what comes before, which would it be?

No one asks why. There are reasons.

Not the least of which is that writers in my experience contemplate a reader in motion across the space of a text like someone inhabiting a map not as a map but as the rereading of a map which we enact and test in motion. That is, writers imagine readers reading as they read when they reread and rewrite. To try to see this, let us consider a simple story; it is in fact the example I use in presenting this exercise to writers, a sweet, old and endlessly compelling story in which each part is a single sentence. Two people meet. They fall in love. They quarrel and part. They reconcile.

Suppose at this point the reader of this story, before going on, has to reread one part of what comes before, which would it be?

A writer may decide that having read this story and reached its reconciliation, his reader should reread the second section in which the two characters fall in love. Obviously a variant of this strategy (not necessarily requiring that the exact text be reread) is, of course, what constitutes flashback. With Storyspace this link involves a visual stitch, in the case of this example a line between the fourth and second boxes on the screen. For a later reader this stitch will offer a way back into the sequence of the text and beyond.

Once the writer has linked back into the sequence at whatever point, she is confronted with the following analytical situation: We can agree, I suggest, that we always have at least a theoretical fifth space in mind at the point where we intervene in the text to require a rereading. This fifth might have been a virtual closure, an understood (if uninscribed) gesture toward an end or "The End." This end space I call the "metanode." Or, in fact, the fifth space may be a "next" step (a genuine fifth part to the four parts) that the creating mind automatically or [End Page 582] instinctively generates despite the exercise's requirement that there be only four parts. However, it may also be that the very act of rereading, and thus reentering the text, has suggested another direction for the narrative, something which not only recapitulates the story but somehow begins another one newly discovered there, or at least one disclosed in the repetition. "To come back to the only thing that is different is what is seen when it seems to be being seen," Gertrude Stein suggests, "in other words, composition and time-sense" (514).

Once there is a general understanding of these possibilities, I am also prepared to suggest that for the writer only three possible kinds of links exist from the place where we have linked back into the story (in my example only three possible outcomes from our retrospective look at reconciled lovers first falling in love).

If after rereading we go from two to three again (or in fact any part of the four part sequence), the link is a recursus (or cycle), often a stratagem of modernist/absurdist fictions. This ricorso (the nonce: to the begin again) takes the modernist turn around the track, where the mind loops, by commodius vicus of recirculation ever across the space of the same text, with an implicit promise that there is more to be seen in the turning and that we are not (or are, it is the same thing) looped like Yeats in the loops of brown hair.

If we leap from two to the next node, across three and four to the uninscribed fifth space held in mind, then the link is a timeshift, a flashback. That is, the story resumes its intended course (or ends) refreshed by this new look at previous thematic material. Timeshift (the next: a leap to the metanode, onward or ending) is an old friend, alternately refreshing or confirming our sense and indeed the experience of a previously viewed episode. It is the woven etymon, text as textus.

If we go from two to the new space, not an imagined fifth but escaping inward and outward simultaneously, then the link is a renewal. Linking itself--rereading itself--has discovered and opened a story dimension. Renewal is not textus but narrative origami, where what both opens and renews is not the inscription but the narrative of possible inscriptions. This space in which the visual kinetic of rereading unfolds is one where the computer offers a medium for which it is uniquely, though not exclusively, suited.

To be frank, the workshop is always both a fascinating and a mildly disappointing exercise, a bit of formalist conjuring in which all [End Page 583] the ballet of the three card monte is lost in the mere shine of the face cards. That there are three-link primitives does not speak to their myriad types, of course. Of recursus, there is hallucination, déjà vu, compulsion, riff, ripple, canon, isobar, daydream, and theme and variation to name a few. Of timeshift there is the death of Mrs. Ramsay and the near disintegration of a house, the chastened resumption of the Good Soldier, Leopold Bloom on a walk, and a man who wants to say he may have seen his son die. Of the renewal there is every story not listed previously, the unrecollected whisper of your mother, and the barely discerned talk of lovers overheard at the next table as they eat potstickers and drink bad Chinese beer.

The real task of the workshop is thus for the writer to reread the inner folds of sequence and possibility and to fashion what follows from his decision to reopen the text, especially if he has not decided upon the cycle, but rather the metanode or, even more compellingly, the renewal. Allusively, however,

Not "Revelation"--'tis--that waits,
But our unfurnished eyes-- (Emily Dickinson 685)

At this point most writers see that, once the text has been revisited and either the new space or the delayed closure of the metanode has been created, the second space now cries for some way to shape its reading for different readers. We want the reader newly come into this simple story to proceed briskly through its inevitable narrative, pause at the reentry, and then leap, without orbiting endlessly, unless that is our intention. In any text there are ways to do this, by inference, suggestion, rule, music, or seduction. To these hypertext adds memory and resistance. Storyspace and other complex hypertext systems let a writer set conditions that shape the reading according to simple rules that match the reader's experience of the text against the possibilities it opens to her. In a richly linked hypertext these rules (in Storyspace they are called "guard fields") can compound. While a local reading may be as severely shaped as a sestina or a fugue, the permeability of the hypertext makes even a rigorous sequence contingent. You can link in and from any point. A reader may have sailed to this first star from another constellation for which this one forms the third part of a cluster so thick it seems itself a single star and this first star of ours a mere [End Page 584] bright spot on its surface. A hypertext fiction spawns galaxies where such constellations link and spin, where other lovers meet and quarrel and part or live forever according to other local rules. This whole dance of complication finally folds in on itself, not in a black hole but a shower of possibilities.

The leap to the new introduces the paradox of hypertextual rereading. Hypertext fiction in some fundamental sense depends upon rereading (or the impossibility of ever truly doing so) for its effects. Yet in a sufficiently complex and richly contingent hypertext it is impossible to reread even a substantial portion of the possible sequences. Indeed for any but a reader who has consciously blazed his way through the thicket (breadcrumbs, in fact, have become a technical term for computer tools designed to keep track of the reading of hypertexts) it is unlikely that successive readings by a single reader will be in any significant way alike. Even in less vigorous hypertext systems such as current instantiations of the World Wide Web, bereft of the systematic memory that shapes possible readings, the linked surfaces of possibility themselves compound. Despite the most earnest efforts of so-called human-factors specialists, and despite the earnest accumulation of lists, breadcrumbs, and bookmarks and other virtual aides de memoir within the interfaces of web browsers, the narrative of possibilities unfolds. Even the flattest list of visited web pages is thick with possibilities and mixed sequences, like suits and meld are folded within a deck of cards dealt upon a table.

The reader's task in hypertexts becomes a constant rereading of intentions against the rereading of elusive or irrecoverable sequences. We see and lose our hopes for the text by turns in the shifting screens. Again, this experience is not exclusive to electronic texts but rather one for which the computer is uniquely suited and within which the inevitable exchange between our intentions and our recognition of the text's possibilities becomes more transparent. "Genuine books are always like that," says Cixous, "the site, the bed, the hope of another book. The whole time you were expecting to read the book, you were reading another book. The book in place of the book" (100).

That which is reread is that which is not read. To read the book in place of the book is not to read the book placed (by whom?) in the scope of our expectations. As is her practice, Cixous seamlessly moves [End Page 585] from reading to writing, seeing in the exchange between them a recognition of mortality, which is to say the body. "What is the book written while you are preparing to write a book? There is no appointment with writing other than the one we go to wondering what we're doing here and where we're going. Meanwhile, our whole life passes through us and suddenly we're outside" (100). It is we who place ourselves retrospectively within the scope of our expectations. Retrospective expectation is fundamental to the experience of rereading in any medium. Outside, our lives passed through us; we are nostalgic for a complex tense in which what was can be again what will have been other than what it is. Like hypertext, the tense disappears in the parsing; we both cannot and must reread the what-was which will have been otherwise.

Yet it isn't difficult to do the impossible. We relive our lives in reverie aware that we cannot embody dreams. We reread any text in humility, not only aware that we cannot recapitulate our original experience of it but also that the experience itself was originally unsubstantiated, its evidences lost not merely to history and memory but to even surface recognition. Où sont les mêmes d'hier?

Start again.

It isn't difficult to do the impossible. It seems merely literary stratagem, the artifice of the avant-garde, to claim that the experience of a new textuality is somehow not reproducible in the old. Innovation (whether literary or rhetorical) reads and is read by what it extends, alters, ignores, or supplants. With enough rereadings it isn't clear that anything has really changed. In Milan some years ago, an exhibit of Rodchenko seemed staid and even conventional to eyes used to computer graphics and morphing fonts; the Constructivist project seemed a matter of the organic quality of pre-offset inks, the geometry of hand-ruled typographical elements, the counterplay of red and green inks against yellowing papers. We reread the prospect of change from the vantage of change and find it wanting, its fulfillment robbing it of its possibility.

Yet this is not simply an aside about the place of hypertext as a literary experiment, but rather an attempt to isolate a distinctive quality of the experience of rereading in hypertext. The claim that hypertext fiction depends upon rereading (or the impossibility of ever truly doing so) for its effects is likewise a claim that the experience of this new textuality is somehow not reproducible in the old. The question at hand is not whether print textuality anticipated or can accommodate [End Page 586] innovations of electronic textuality (it did and often can) but rather whether distinctive differences in reading, and thus rereading, characterize each of them.

To see differences, however, it is not necessary, or even helpful, to argue for or against succession (this is why an avant-garde always dissipates: it means to become what it wishes to end). Instead, it may be useful, and surely is symptomatic of our age, to argue for parallelism and multiplicity. Differences show as differences are allowed. As Mireille Rosello notes, "the delay in the emergence of new knowledge may also be the condition of its future growth. Rather than imagining our period of transition to hypertext as a point where something old is replacing something new, I would be content to see it described as a time when two ways of reading and writing, and two ways of using maps, are plausible at the same time" (151).

This is to see change as something different (the self-referentiality here intended), as if Rodchenko created computer graphics at the same time that he and other Constructivists pushed the limits of print (Richard Lanham argues as much for the Futurists). Or for the matter at hand, this is to say that an independent system of reading exists in parallel with the current system of reading in hypertext; that they do not so much confuse each other as enhance each other; and that they do not promise the extinction of one or the co-optation of the other but rather the permeation of each other. More important, (or closer at hand) the system of reading hypertextually is intimately related to what is called rereading in the parallel system of reading print.

There is, of course, another argument I want to make here, or have been making though not overtly: that reading in hypertext means to recreate the writer's experience of rereading in the process of composing printed works. In fact, many hypertext rhetoricians, critics, and theorists assert this claim with greater or lesser elegance and subtlety. Many commentators append the initial of the writer in the inelegant formulation of "wreader" to characterize the new system and its roots. My own well-known notions of exploratory and constructive hypertext are only slightly subtler. In the sentence before those quoted above, Rosello makes a distinction between screening and reading texts: "For a long time, I suspect, the activity of reading hypertexts (rather than screening them) will be considered acceptable and normal" (151).

In her term "screening," Rosello wants to recover something like [End Page 587] the seamless move between reading and writing which I have suggested Cixous sees in our embodied mortality. It likewise means to evoke (and in fact is probably the source of my sense of) how the reader in motion across the space of a text inhabits a map not as a map but as the rereading of a map which we enact in (and as) our bodies. Yet there is a trap in the seam in the seamless, and the map infects the body which enacts it. Rosello speculates whether "a new geometry of space is needed in order to invent communities that will have little to do with proximity and context" (131), and it is a speculation that spills, as light through a screen, on the image of the writer rereading seen as the reader writing. We are not the writer because we are reading; we are not the reader because we are writing. The questions at hand are ones of proximity and context. "While the noun screen connotes an outer, visible layer, the verb to screen means to hide," writes Alice Fulton:

The opposing definitions of screen remind me of stellar pairs, binary stars in close proximity to one another, orbiting about a common center of mass. Astronomers have noticed a feature common to all binaries: the closer the two members lie to one another, the more rapidly they swing about in their orbit. So screen oscillates under consideration. (111)

Start again a last time (at last?).

I know when I confuse, at least when I confuse myself. I reread Rosello and Fulton desperately seeking the thread I saw there, not in them but in an argument as yet unwritten. I reread them for my intentions but then worry that I have misread their intentions. I intend to read them and yet leave unread what I mean to see there. Knowing my confusion is often as much as I can hope for in my rereadings.

In the confusion of reader and writer there inevitably lies the confusion of characters in a fiction, the confusion of episodes in its sequences, the confusion of voices in what we attribute to ourselves as a dialogue. It is not a literary stratagem but a matter of fact that the particular experience of the new, albeit parallel, textuality of reading hypertexts is somehow not reproducible in the old. I said that differently, in inverse, before above. You can reread and find out as much, or perhaps you had kept it in mind long enough to notice as soon as it occurred. [End Page 588]

This is not entirely possible in hypertext. You can neither always go back above nor, in fact, count upon the existence of the same "above" from reading to reading. What follows from this, of course, is that you cannot always count upon the applicability of what you keep in mind to what follows upon the choices you make based upon that mindfulness. Mary Kim Arnold's hypertext fiction, "Lust," is not much longer than a poem (although it starts with one, it is not one), something short of 1800 words in thirty-seven screens (or spaces), fugal, multiple, confusing (even for some readers, my students especially, maddening), haunting, irreproducible here, although I could easily (with permission) include all its episodes.

In the story a woman has hurt a man or the man her; there is a knife and blood and gravel and a rug; they have a child, or she thinks him one, or he does her, or they each or both imagine or desire or recall when they were one; he abuses her or she him, or we imagine as much; they make love or do not; they sleep or do not; she runs off, or he brings her back; they may or may not drink orange juice. There are men named Dave, John, Jeffrey, and Michael; the woman is unnamed, always called "she." It is possible to read all thirty-seven screens in a single reading and possible to read for a very long time without seeing one or a substantial number of the screens. Sometimes the same screens appear in the same order but interrupted by different sequences between them. There are 141 links among the thirty-eight spaces, thirty-six of which begin with the individual words of the following poem that is the entire text of the first screen:

Nearly naked
this summer night
sweet and heavy,
he comes to her.

This night, she follows him,
sweat between them.

They speak of the child
and the summer sun
with words that yield
to the touch. ("Prologue")

[End Page 589]

Let us concentrate for a moment on a single, simple, screen entitled "He and the Child." "He and the Child" engages us with one of the less controversial, seemingly more easily apprehended plot elements. "He is gentle with the child. Speaking softly, deliberately, muscled arms embracing soft naked flesh." This is the text of the screen in its entirety. It happens that there are five screens that can lead a reader to this one (although to know this you have to radically reread or unread the text, in fact dissect it within the Storyspace program in which it was created). The first leads directly from the word "that" in the second last line of the "Prologue" poem; a click on that word will change the screen to the text of "He and the Child." A reader can also reach this screen coming from a screen called "He expects," but only if the reader has previously read a screen called "Touching," which has four links leading to it, including one directly from the word "sweat" in the sixth line of the "Prologue" poem (not from the word "touch" in the last line, which instead leads to a screen called "Penis") but which itself does not lead directly to the screen called "He expects."

A third link to the screen "'He and the Child" comes from a screen entitled "Innocent," which has also four links into it (one from "Prologue") and two other links from it, including one (to a screen called "In noce") that is followed if the reader has already encountered the screen called "He and the Child."

And so on.

No one reads this way, of course, except the hacker or the literary critic. Or perhaps the writer. Although no one writes this way, to read this way while writing is to reread as a prospective reader and, in the process, unread the text in favor of what is not normally read within it.

The combined text of one sequence of the screens mentioned above would read (does read) as follows:

He touches her. He touches the child. The child screams.
She touches the blade of the knife to him, cold, smooth. He does not speak.
He screams. The child does not speak. The child picks up the knife. There is no blood.
There is no child.
There is only morning. ("Touching") [End Page 590]
He was nearly naked, except for the baseball cap. He does not speak to her.
He expects her to come to him. ("He expects")

No one reads this way, of course. Firstly, in this sequence the text is always bracketed, in the case of the sequence described above, by screens "Prologue" and "He and the Child," which I have not quoted again in this text since they have already been seen. The sequence is also bracketed by the act of the mouse click, or keypress, and the flicker and shift of screens that confirm the intention of the reader to go on. Pages likewise settle and sigh though we no longer account their confirmation.

Secondly, no one (or only one in thirty-six readers making the same choice at "Prologue") comes upon this sequence in this order unless by chance, while any number of readers can come into this sequence at the point past "Prologue" (through another path to "Touching") and some readers can come to "He and the Child" (or "Touching") having already seen either of them in another sequence that, unlike the one from "Innocent," for instance, makes no account for a reader who has already encountered the screen called "He and the Child."

The hypertext sometimes recalls what the reader has read and sometimes not, but obviously only in a systematic (we might almost say mechanical, were it not a silicon-based slab of light) way. That is, if such an inconsistent if not contradictory recalling can be called systematic. Hypertext builds a systematic level of the literal upon the experience of rereading, with words like "recall" and "recollect" taking on (reassuming the name, rereading the sign) their literal meaning: when a text is recalled by the system, the recollection remains within the reader.

"Assembling these patched words in an electronic space, I feel half-blind," Shelley Jackson writes in her hypertext novel, Patchwork Girl or A Modern Monster, a work attributed to Mary/Shelley and Herself. It is part of a long section--multiply and contingently linked in much the same manner that "Lust" is--called "body of text." Most hypertext fictions include these self-reflexive passages. The section seems to oscillate in its voices among these three attributed authors and at least once engages in a dialogue with (a text of) Derrida. Despite this, I think these passages are something more than a postmodernist token for the [End Page 591] pinball game of blur and blink, and, to the extent that my own work can be seen as wellspring, they do not, I think, merely mark the fledgling stream (a flow is hardly a tradition) of a passing form in an uncertain medium. Instead, or more accurately concurrently, these passages are also a gesture toward a parallel system of reading which invites the reader to read as the writer does rereading. It is, says Jackson,

as if the entire text is within reach, but because of some myopic condition I am only familiar with from dreams, I can see only that part most immediately before me, and have no sense of how that part relates to the rest. When I open a book I know where I am, which is restful. My reading is spatial and even volumetric. I tell myself, I am a third of the way down through a rectangular solid, I am a quarter of the way down the page, I am here on the page, here on this line, here, here, here. But where am I now? I am in a here and a present moment that has no history and no expectations for the future. ("This writing")

No expectations except motion, sequences bracketed by the act of mouseclick or keypress, the kinetic of rereading. "Or rather," Jackson continues, "history is only a haphazard hopscotch through other present moments. How I got from one to the other is unclear. Though I could list my past moments, they would remain discrete (and recombinant in potential if not in fact), hence without shape, without end, without story. Or with as many stories as I care to put together" ("This writing"). If no one reads hypertext by dissection (although Jackson's story from time to time literally dissects both Mary Shelley's monster and Frank Baum's girl cut and repatched), how does the reader mark this hopscotch of history, the kinetic text? In a voice that anticipates (or participates in the same swirl which engenders) Alice Fulton's, that likewise recalls (or recollects?) my own suggestion of the renewal link as narrative origami, and that finally marks the commonplace poetry and virtuality of the sewing pattern, Jackson's tripartite narrator suggests that we read along the dotted line:

The dotted line is the best line:

It indicates a difference without cleaving apart for good what it distinguishes. [End Page 592]

It is a permeable membrane: some substance necessary to both can pass from one side to the other.

It is a potential line, an indication of the way out of two dimensions (fold along dotted line). In three dimensions what is separate can be brought together without ripping apart what is already joined, the two sides of a page flow moebiusly into one another. Pages become tunnels or towers, hats or airplanes, cranes, frogs, balloons, or nested boxes.

Because it is a potential line, it folds/unfolds the imagination in one move. It suggests action (fold here), a chance at change; it also acknowledges the viewer's freedom to do nothing but imagine. ("Dotted Line")

What we read is suggested action, one way out of the two dimensions, a gesture toward Rosello's "new geometry of space" beyond proximity and context. It is this gesture which Jackson marks in the only link from the space "Dotted Line," a link which discloses the dots in its lack of gap, the directness of its bracketed action for the reader: "I hop from stone to stone and an electronic river washes out my scent in the intervals. I am a discontinuous trace, a dotted line" ("Hop").

Poet, hypertext theorist, and computer scientist Jim Rosenberg, in his poetic sequences Intergrams and The Barrier Frames, has created new poetic textuality that is quite literally not reproducible in this older one. His poems flicker and focus from a dark sea of blurred and overprinted language as the mouse moves over their surfaces, clearing suddenly into discernable patches, like the backs of golden carp rising briefly to sunlight in a dark pool or floating into focus like the fortune-cookie scraps of text of the old prognostic eightballs. No sooner do they snap into clarity than with the least movement they are lost again and again as soon as they are gained. His is, he says, a hypertext of "relations rather than links" ("Structure" 22), and it is no wonder that, when he comes to propose a hypertext poetic, it is one which attends to action. His paper, "The Structure of Hypertext Activity," argues that "readers discover structure through activities provided by the hypertext" and offers a three-level taxonomy of the activities of reading from [End Page 593] "acteme" to episode to session, where his coinage "acteme is an extremely low-level unit of activity, like following a link" (22).

Or rereading, which in hypertext rhetoric becomes dissected (along dotted lines) into varieties of "backtracking": "One may revisit a lexia simply to read it again," says Rosenberg, simply throwing the baby of this current essay out with the golden carp's dark bathwater, "or it may be a genuine 'undo,' perhaps the reader didn't mean to follow that link at all" (22). His immediate, low-level, interest here is in how to represent the meaningfulness of an action for the reader. "These [backtrackings] are arguably different actemes," he says, "though typically not distinguished by the hypertext user interface" (22).

His higher-level interests, however, (or are they the Chomskyian deeper structures, or perhaps instead--simultaneously--the topsy-turvy, each-side-up, permeable membrane of body or screen?) are in episodes and sessions where "the episode itself emerges from reading activity" (26), and where, in place of closure, the reader may at the end of a session "obtain a sense of completion about the gatherings, i.e., the reader's sense of completion is exactly a writer's sense of completion: the gathered result 'works' artistically as is, now is a good time to stop" (28).

Under such conditions, rereading and unreading are alive in contention, and vie like subjects of a fugue. "Whether an instance of backtracking is really an 'undo' may be rephrased," says Rosenberg:

Does backtracking revoke membership of actemes in an episode? It depends on the circumstances both of the hypertext and the reader's frame of mind. The reader might revisit a previous lexia to read it again--perhaps for sheerly "musical" repetition, or to reread a prior lexia based on some resonance or reference in the present lexia. Here one might argue that all the backtracking history is part of the episode. Or, the reader may be backtracking to undo having arrived at the current lexia by mistake--backtracking to remove from the episode the acteme that caused arrival at the current lexia. The episode is thus a combination of history through the hypertext, the reader's intention, and the reader's impression of what "hangs together." (24)

[End Page 594]

Emerging meaning gathers in episodes which combine in sessions of reading and rereading and sometimes seem (to the reader) to mean on their own. "There is a kind of thinking without thinkers," says Jackson, "Matter thinks. Language thinks. When we have business with language, we are possessed by its dreams and demons, we grow intimate with monsters. We become hybrids, chimeras, centaurs ourselves" ("it thinks"). Such a thinking without thinkers occasions Rosello's notion of screening as well. She speculates about "what kind of context is being created as the result of experimenting with apparently arbitrary connections . . . not . . . the kind of arbitrariness that comes from conventional forms and discourses, but rather a deliberate incursion into the messy realms of chance, random connections and meaninglessness" (134).

Traditional definitions of hypertext begin with nonlinearity, which, however, is not a good place to end given the overwhelming force of our mortality in the face of our metaphors. "I align myself as I read with the flow of blood," says Shelly Jackson's triple narrator,

that as it cycles keeps moist and living what without it stiffens into a fibrous cell. What happens to the cells I don't visit? I think maybe they harden over time without the blood visitation, enclosures of wrought letters fused together with rust, iron cages like ancient elevators with no functioning parts. Whereas the read words are lubricated and mobile, rub familiarly against one another in the buttery medium of my regard, rearrange themselves in my peripheral vision to suggest alternatives. If I should linger in a spot, the blood pools; an appealing heaviness comes over my limbs and oxygen-rich malleability my thoughts. The letters come alive like tiny antelopes and run in packs and patterns; the furniture softens and molds itself to me.

(I do not know what metaphor to stick to; I am a mixed metaphor myself, consistency is one thing you cannot really expect of me.)

What I leave alone is skeletal and dry. ("Blood")

Screeners and gatherers, we do not know which metaphors to stick to, although the body is our type for stick-to-itiveness. And so, as autumnal readers, we wait for the leaves to fall. What we leave, alone, is skeletal. [End Page 595]

Start again (backwards, back words).

"We live," says Shelly Jackson,

in the expectation of traditional narrative progression; we read the first chapters and begin to figure out whether our lives are romantic comedy or high tragedy, a mystery or an adventure story; we have certain hopes for our heroine, whose good looks can be expected to generate convoluted formations among the supporting characters and indicate the probable nature of her happy ending; with great effort we can perhaps lean sideways and veer into a different section of the library, but most of us do our best to adhere to the conventions of the genre and a kind of vertigo besets us when we witness plot developments that had no foreshadowing in the previous chapters; we protest bad writing. (We are nearly all of us bad or disorderly writers; despite ourselves we are redundant, looped, entangled; our transitions are awkward, our conclusions unsubstantiated.) ("Lives")

In the process of reading for what she has not written (or written well) she often does not read what she has written well (or not written). Most often she looks for the thicket, the paragraph or phrase that relinks a vision or reforms it, a vision she put aside or lost, which dwindled or lapsed, which exhausted her or she exhausted. The writer rereads and unreads in the same scan, sometimes looking for the place that needs attention, other times seeking surprising instances of unnoticed eloquence that her attention now confirms in a process of authorship. That which is reread is that which is not read.

Michael Joyce is currently Associate Professor of English and Director of the Center for Electronic Learning and Teaching at Vassar College. His hypertext fictions include the novels, afternoon and Twilight, A Symphony, as well as shorter fictions, including WOE, Lucy's Sister, and the web fiction Twelve Blue. His essays on hypertext theory and pedagogy appear in Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. He serves on the editorial boards for Works & Days and Computers and Composition.

Works Cited

Arnold, Mary Kim. "Lust." Computer software. Eastgate Review of Hypertext 1.2 (1993).

Cixous, Hélène. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Trans. Sarah Cornell and Susan Summers. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Douglas, Jane Yellowlees. "The Act of Reading: the WOE Beginners' Guide to Dissection." Writing on the Edge 2 (1991): 112-25.

Fulton, Alice. "Screens: An Alchemical Scrapbook." Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Machines and the Muse at the Millennium. Ed. Sven Birkerts. St. Paul: Graywolf P, 1996. 102-19.

Jackson, Shelley. Patchwork Girl or A Modern Monster. Computer software. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1995.

Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds:Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995.

Lanham, Richard. "The Electronic Word: Literary Study and the Digital Revolution." New Literary History 20 (1989): 265-90.

Rosello, Mireille. "The Screener's Maps: Michel de Certeau's 'Wandersmänner' and Paul Auster's Hypertextual Detective." Hyper/Text/Theory. Ed. George Landow. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. 121-58.

Rosenberg, Jim. The Barrier Frames. Computer software. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1996.

------. "Intergrams." Computer software. Eastgate Review of Hypertext 1.1 (1993).

------. "The Structure of Hypertext Activity." Hypertext '96. New York: ACM Proceedings, 1996. 22-30.

Stein, Gertrude. "Composition as Explanation." 1926. Selected Writings. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Vintage, 1990. 511-24.