Monday, November 10, 2008

ENG_6801 Draft for Module 3

Reading Electronic Literature

Part I. Introduction: All Hail Electronic Literature!

The weakness of any survey of electronic literature published as a printed book is how quickly it becomes obsolete. So may become the case with N. Katherine Hayles' thoroughly researched and remarkably comprehensive Electronic Literature, which bearing the publication date of 2008 at least the carries the mark of the current year. The purpose of its first chapter - Electronic Literature: What is it? - is to define electronic literature (henceforth EL), survey its genres, expand on its differences with print literature, both in terms of composition and criticism, and provide some ideas on its preservation and dissemination, again emphasizing new challenges and opportunities provided by this medium. This introduction sets the stage for the remainder of the book. What EL is not, is the mere digitization of print literature; there must be important aspects of the work that make it “a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer“ (3). She gives some ground by including in the scope of “the literary” “creative artworks that interrogate the histories, contexts, and productions of literature, including as well the verbal art of literature proper” (4). On this reading, EL may include digitizations of originally print literature, such as ancient Greek texts or the Star Wars screenplay, provided there is a creative element to them that is natively digital.

She offers a broad survey of genres of EL, beginning with familiar “first-generation” hypertext-oriented works that everyone knows such as Michael Joyce's afternoon: a story, Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden, and Shelly Jackson's Patchwork Girl, many of which were created my proprietary software such as Storyspace (6). Both the nature of their composition - blocks of text (lexia) energized primarily by hyperlinks - and their means of production have been eclipsed by new works leveraging a panoply of multimedia components and navigational mechanisms, as well as delivery over the Web via standard browser-based technologies instead of proprietary, stand-alone solutions. Her survey includes many recent examples of EL in genres including “[h]ypertext fiction, network fiction, interactive fiction, locative narratives, installation pieces, 'codework', generative art, and the Flash poem” (30).

New modes of analysis and criticism have arisen along with the new forms. For example, it is worthwhile to examine the similarities and differences between EL and computer games; in both, the user is required to invest substantial effort to engage in the computational mechanisms, but for different purposes: “[p]araphrasing Markku Eskelinen's elegant formulation, we may say that with games the user interprets in order to configure, wheres in works whose primary interest is narrative, the user configures in order to interpret” (8). In many cases it is appropriate to describe EL as instruments that users can learn to play in order to fully appreciate their nuances. Furthermore, the program source code and operating environment supporting EL must be accounted in their analysis, since, as Hayles quotes Alexander Galloway, “Code is the only language that is executable” (35). Widening the scope to include code and operating environments reflects the fact that EL engages many skills beyond literary composition, and point made many times by Drucker and McVarish in Graphic Design History, which Hayles refers to as “a site for negotiations between diverse constituencies and different kinds of expertise”(38). Indeed, the appreciation of the collaborative design and production processes of most complex works of EL contacts the discipline with wider social practices, such as “the development of commercial software, the competing philosophies of open source freeware and shareware, the economics and geopolitical terrain of the internet and World Wide Web, and a host of other factors that directly influence how electronic literature is created and stored, sold or given away, preserved or allowed to decline into obsolescence” (39).

Critical engagement with the social practices surrounding EL foreground the importance of the means by which works are disseminated and preserved, not merely because electronic formats have historically enjoyed much shorter lifespans than printed books, which last for centuries rather than decades, but also because electronic formats involve a host of design decisions that are intimately tied to the early stages of their creation, not merely the publication of the finished product. Thus recommendations are offered concerning the choice of open versus closed systems, community direction versus corporate, plain-text versus binary data formats, and so on. In the sections that follow, three major themes - intermediation, the historical context of EL, and computational practice - will be explored using the examples Halyes provides. In the concluding section, a summary table orienting these works upon a number of dimensions will be presented, including these social and technological concerns that are not necessarily unique to EL but whose implications are clearly significant for its creators and consumers.

Part II. Intermediation: Interpreting Electronic Literature

In the second chapter of Electronic Literature, Hayles develops the concept of intermediation as a way to examine electronic texts without binding them to the traditional modes of interpretation that have been used for critical study of print literature. The mark of digital born works is the non-trivial role played by nonhuman, technological components in not only the preparation of the work, but its dynamic rendering to readers, viewers, listeners - many prefer the term 'interactors', since many senses may be elicited at once in activities that go beyond passive consumption - and how it abides and potentially mutates within information systems. Departing from the traditional model in which “it's all in the head of the reader,” meaning develops through the interaction of human and machine in ways that are often emergent, associative, layered, and adaptive through various levels iteratively feeding back into each other. Through process of intermediation, a term Hayles adapts from Nicholas Gessler, as it is often employed in the context of computer software simulating artificial life,

whereby a first-level emergent pattern is captured in another medium and re-represented with the primitives of the new medium, which leads to an emergent result captured in turn by yet another medium, and so forth. The result is what researchers in artificial life call a “dynamic hierarchy,” a multi-tiered system in which feedback and feedforward loops tie the system together through continuing interactions circulating throughout the hierarchy (45).

Such systems typically employ multiple, intermediating levels of processes that may be digital, analog, or a combination of both, so that their overall effect resembles a self-emerging, living system. Hayles' maneuver is to “make a speculative leap and consider the human and the digital computer as partners in a dynamic heterarchy bound together by intermediating dynamics” (47). To support her position, she invokes computational models of consciousness that counter the Cartesian model of an irreducible rationality by theorists including Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel C. Dennett, and Edward Fredkin. Hofstadter emphasizes the importance of pattern recognition and extrapolation from analogy as playing roles as important as literal, logical deduction in rounding out models of cognition. Dennett uses thought experiments to demonstrate how human intentionality may emerge as an artifact from subcognitive processes. Fredkin contributes the concept of “aboutness,” to align the meaning of information with the process that interprets it, whether it is a music player generating sound from digital files or a human appreciating the details of the musical work reproduced (52-53).

Taking something of a leap, Hayles joins these theories together to posit intermediation as a symbiosis of human and computer, with each partaking in the layered processing of emergent, high-level responses from lower-level operations in both the reading and writing of EL, making the claim that cognition occurs in both. “The result is a meta-analogy: as human cognition is to the creation and consumption of the work, so computer cognition is to its execution and performance” (57). How meaning evolves through the interplay between human and nonhuman cognition will be examined in three works: Twelve Blue by Michael Joyce, The Jew's Daughter by Jud Morissey, and Birds Singing Other Birds' Songs by Marcia Mencia.

Intermediation explains that cognition arising from iterative associations occurs in both human and nonhuman systems. The uninformed reader will bounce around the space of possible hyperlinks and absorb, through repetition, what we might otherwise explain through associations. Jill Walker, in her interpretation of Joyce's earlier Storyspace output afternoon, relays J. Hills Miller's 'Nietzschean repetition' in “[r]e-reading nodes in new surroundings is a form of repetition typical of hypertext. Often, re-reading a node invests it with new meaning.” The work is a series of lexia, generally a page or less, some containing hyperlinks, or images, which are also hyperlinks. The oft-repeat quote from William Gass describes this gentle type of intermediation - many of the other works to be reviewed forcefully jar the interactor from one component of the text to another - "So a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word the way lint collects. The mind does that."

Users interact with Twelve Blue via generic HTML browser parsing 208 text, image, and image map source files; the only session information that is intentionally part of literary work as planned by the author is the effect visiting links has on making parts of certain files disappear from the client display because the link visited color is identical to the background blue color. Here is how it works:

Two HTML frames separate the view into a navigation area on the far left of 85 columns, and a viewing area on the right that is the rest of the screen. In the starting page (Twelve_Blue.html) the two frames contain 'subtexts' (identified via SRC tags) titlepage.html and twelvepic.html, respectively, that are displayed, and offer the initial user interface of navigation choices. The left (title) frame offers a single hyperlink called “BEGIN” that points to sl1.html. The main frame contains a large image of twelve colored 'threads' (twelvepic1.gif), eight hyperlinks for the “BARS” referred to in the title frame, and the quote from William Gass. Each of the numbered “BARS” 1-8 below the image point to sl1.html, sl2.html, etc. The image itself is defined with a map of hyperlinks so that various rectangular regions of the image point to the same eight destinations as the “BARS”. For example, the region spanning the Cartesian grid beginning at the upper left-hand point 3 on the x-axis and 2 on the y-axis to 42 on the x-axis and 227 on the y-axis links to sl1.html. The region beginning at point 43 on the x-axis and 2 on the y-axis to 85 on the x-axis and 227 on the y-axis (coords="43,3,85,227") links to sl2.html, and so on. This means that while a horizontal sequence is established, the threads themselves are indistinct. Subsequent pages will allow offer different destinations depending on the thread. Using the available navigation links, therefore, the user has seventeen entry points into the work, although there are only eight different destinations. This mobility invites playing the work like a musical instrument, rather than passively reading pages.

The literary technique of flash-forward and flash-back includes post-mortem awareness resembling conscious reflection; the narratives of the drowning deaf boy and Ed Stanko continue into a dreamy state as they die. Moreover, there is no clear ending to the work, although the disappearing links do provide a sense of temporality. Hayles describes this break from the traditional plot as “one in which life and death exist on a continuum with flowing and indeterminate boundaries” (69). The overall effect is coming to know the story from multiple perspectives, from different characters at different points in time, piecemeal, so that eventually through associations the intertwined bars come together, collecting like lint or snowflakes.

Interacting with Twelve Blue retains much of the control enjoyed by readers of printed pages, whereas Jud Morissey's Mac or Windows binary executable The Jew's Daughter (TJD.exe) subverts the interactor's control. At one point it reads, “The broken sum of its parts is a great agonist.” The entire work is 22 lines of black text on a white background with blue text that behaves like a mouse-over hyperlink, instantly changing some of the text, forcing you to re-read and try to remember what you just read, slowly building the narrative in a more broken manner than Twelve Blue's clean transitions. You learn to read it after a few mouse-overs of the blue text, when “It is an ultimatum, one that” ends the page and continues at the top. The text pretends to be intelligent. Some thoughts finish before they are started. At one point the letters appear one by one; “In Java she had seen a woman decapitated.” Like Twelve Blue, this counts as literature because it tells a story. At some points new words appear one by one. Hayles views the work as a very rich but complicated reinterpretation of consciousness as an epiphenomenon in which there is no self, only an illusion of one. The focalized reader consciousness gets fragmented into strong memories of persistent text on the 22 lines and into weak memories from associations. It can be the reverse mirror image of the unintelligent machine fomenting consciousness as the closed-loop feedback, dynamically self-reprogrammable control system symbiosis with humans known as cyberspace, the internet, the WWW, and so on. Like Twelve Blue, it takes a while reading the disjointed pages before the story coalesces, although this experience is no different than reading the first hundred pages of a very long novel before grasping the story lines and identity of the various characters. “Are you going to risk the night?” seems to begin a dream sequence. The whole work now seems like a dream, the piecing together that is a dream to the semi-conscious dreamer, then trying to remember the pieces while awakening. By focusing on a word, mousing over the blue words, like the semi-conscious dreamer trying too hard to focus on something in the dream, the scene is distorted as more connections are made with the other world.

“And now for something completely different,” as the Monty Python meta-narrator used to say. At the far pole of intermediation is the destruction of narrative into the experimental, such as the investigation of basic aural and visual phenomena in Marcia Mencia's Birds Singing Other Birds' Songs. Moreover, like TJD.exe, this work is delivered as binary data in Macromedia Flash format, offering no plain-text, prima facie clues to the underlying source code. skymove.swf plays via Flash plugin for a generic browser such as Mozilla Firefox. Clouds drift by horizontally, and at the bottom of the screen are 13 numbered sets of buttons using the common symbols for PLAY and STOP. Each button seems to run a program displaying a bird-like silhouette, and letters, and accompanying sound is produced from a generic audio subsystem. The letters are sometimes the edge of the bird's outline, inside it, pushed in front of it, and so on. Activating the first bird brings forth a silhouette of a bird flying left to right across the screen whose outline is composed of the letters of its song, which is heard on the computer speakers. The second button elicits the formation of a large, single bird image from dispersed symbols that immediately flies off the screen once assembled. By the sixth button, the characters of this large, single, immobile bird are much more difficult to discern, moving around overlapping each other within the confines of the bird's silhouette. Rather than spelling out the song, one letter at a time shifts into visibility and then back into obscurity. In the seventh, the letters circulate around the form like a serpentine belt, with no spaces in between to suggest distinct words. The twelfth button invokes a single large, white semi-transparent silhouette whose song emerges one letter at a time coming forward overlaying the other letters, “see see” and then there are too many letters piled up to make sense of it. Activating all the birds at once - the first thing a child would be likely to do - creates a cacophony that eventually regulates itself. The author describes the works as an exploration of “kinetic typography, the animation of images and sound.” She noted similarities between the phonemes of the transcript of birds' songs in The Thinking Ear and phonemes used in her other works. So these are translations of birds songs into written human language, interpreted back into human voice. Hayles interprets this work as intermediating the habitual, automatic cognitive decoding of print as subvocalization, for here the vocalized sounds dominate and are only suggested by the display of characters.

Part III. Historical Context

To describe a historical context for EL reflects a particular ontology; Hayles places it within the perspective of Friedrich Kittler's media theory, for which the essence of literature is in its material medium, or media, if multiple, such as visual and aural media, pictures and sounds, and therefore, Hayles argues, “[l]iterature acts on the body but only within the horizon of the medium's technical capabilities” (89). Kittler saw a great technological advance in Heinrich Stephanie's phonetic method of reading, which occurred around 1800 - something most readers of the 2000s do not realize, that there had ever been different ways of reading - “erasing the materiality of the grapheme and substituting instead a subvocalized voice” (89). Other great innovations include the gramophone, film, and typewriter, if this can be intuited from the title of one of his most famous books. Kittler's theory reflects a deterministic approach to the philosophy of technology; it ignores the deep interaction between technical processes and human societies and cultures. Hayles points to multiple critics who argue that Kittler focuses on war as the primary influence determining the course of technological change for media precisely because military exigencies seem to offer the only compelling reason to advance the state of the art. No doubt he would say the same for the Internet, as do most networking textbooks when they trace its origins back to the need of the US military to develop inter networking and electronic communications standards. Yet as Hayles is adamant, “media alone cannot possibly account for all the complex factors that go into creating national military conflicts. .. media transformations alone are not sufficient” (93). Her counterexample describing the combination of technological and cultural conditions that shape the fascinating lifeworld of global currency traders reveals both a media specific component, the different sense of time created by their monitors displaying global, real-time market conditions, and social formations such as male aggression, antagonism, and warfare that are common to the high stakes, rapidly transforming trade floor arena.

The human components, especially physical attributes of human bodies, also play a role. Mark Hansen is a proponent of the position that embodiment - “proprioception, kinesthetic, and haptic capacities” - plays as important a role in experiencing media as the primary senses like vision and hearing, citing research in “virtual reality sickness” (106). Hayles is not satisfied with this reductive stance because, like Kittler's technological determinism, it fails to keep in view the materiality of the human/machine interface: “[i]t is as though the feedback loop between technical object and embodied human enactor has been cut off halfway through: potentiality flows from the object into the deep inner senses of the embodied human, but its flow back into the object has been short-circuited, leading to an impoverished account of the object's agential capacities to act outside the human's mobilization of its stimuli” (109). Hayles claims her own framework “entagles body and machine in open-ended recursivity” so as not to concretize the possibilities of electronic literature in particular technological or anthropological paradigms (130).

An exemplar of an electronic text that is open ended, entangling human and machine in recursive intermediation is Talon Memmott's Lexia to Perplexia, a Javascript enhanced HTML text that works in standard browsers by combining navigation via the webserver responding to hyperlinks executed by the interactor and the 'client side' dynamism offered by Javascript, albeit originally programmed using non-standard extensions only supported by current versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer browser. The author's description notes that “[a]t times its interactive features override the source text, leading to a fragmentary reading experience. .. certain theoretical attributes are not displayed as text but are incorporated into the functionality of the work.” It develops its own terms and is “play between the rigorous and the frivolous.” Hayles write about “[t]he notorious 'nervousness' of this work, whereby a tiny twitch of the cursor can cause events to happen that the user did not intend and cannot completely control, conveys through its opaque functionality intuitions about dispersed subjectivities and screens with agential powers similar to those we saw with international currency traders” (120). Like Twelve Blue and many lexia-based EL, following the default entry into the work offers the interactor with a small number of selections akin to chapter headings. Once entered, navigation within one of the headings (“The Process of Attachment, “Double-Funnels,” “Metastrophe,” and “Exe.Termination”) is suggestive, experimental, often surprising, through the combination of traditional mouse click hyperlinks and Javascript code that activates features by mere mouse over. By “taking fingersteps into the apparatus” the materiality of the text is highlighted, although really mouse gestures moreso than keyboarding. Images, diagrams, moving lines and pointers, as well as large and small blocks of text compete for the interactor's attention, often obscuring one another. This work is not narrative in the sense of Twelve Blue or The Jew's Daughter; it is more a quasi-academic exegesis of the four movements from “The Process of Attachment” to “Exe.Termination” that illustrates Hayle's interpretive framework.

The first part, “The Process of Attachment” seems to depict the human eye attaching itself to the nonhuman, machinic system, not as a proxy of the self but transformed, mediated: “It is never I that enters. .. The screen-bound avatar is a micromental reproduction of the trans|missive hero-agent. .. Though the delivery-machine feels no-thing, the mediation, all co-operation between the I and the apparatus is con.sensual.” Memmott's neologisms can be exasperating to the detail-oriented interactor, never sure when their temporary meanings will transform into something different, or whether their 'codework' genuinely reflects the design of the underlying source code or merely suggestive of imaginary operations. When the possibilities of this part seem to have been played out, the interactor must return to the “main menu” by clicking the ever-present “LEXIA to PERPLEXIA” in the upper left-hand corner.

Once attached to the system, intermediation occurs through a model of “Double Funnels,” the second main heading, symbolized by these expressions:

[local.{[*...(*] | )}(...^...){( | [*)...*]}.remote]


The code-work attempts to encode a mechanisms for uniting local and remote (s)'s (eye icons). A way for the “analog and slippery digits of the real” to exit to the remote, distant other as if poured into the funnel. The screen briefly displays, in very large characters, EXIT, and below, (s)T(ex)T(s), in which texts unmistakenly appears although it is better understand as another representation of the code-work below it. Mousing around and clicking suggestive hyperlinks again produces a collage of images, diagrams, and lexia, all the while maintaining the auspices of an academic presentation. A lengthy commentary upon the communication process, 'exe.change', reminiscent of Shannon's theory, notes that because it is shared conduit, “[b]etween the local and the remote, the success and failure of communification in the middle, the mess in the middle is prone to various mechanoid intensities borne from the simultaneous passage of others through the general conduit.”

The third part, “Metashtrophe,” begins with “Minifestos,” complete with timestamps (in the future 2000), mouse-overs producing secondary pop ups giving definitions of certain words or adding more figures to the background diagram. The final part, “Exe.Termination,” presents two columns with a large white word changing to form different combinations, the lefthand side like minutes, the righthand side like hours, and the center large grey symbols like seconds. Images that look like pages of printed text, when mouse over, add a diagram or explanatory lexia for a few seconds. Some of the images resemble rough blackboard sketches of the design of L2P itself. (Following “TALAN MEMMOTT” from the main page to the “ABOUT” offers another glimpse into the behind-the-scenes perspective of the work, including a photographed image of a pile of books for the bibliography.)

Part IV. Computational Practice

When referring to computational practice, Hayles means the active role of “technological nonconscious” embodied in modern electronic computing systems, as opposed to the affordances provided by print technologies. Computational practice intermediate the experience of EL, in particular two ways: “verbal narratives are simultaneously conveyed and disrupted by code” and “distributed cognition implies distributed agency” (136). It is important to believe that knowledge can be transmitted through social practices and enactments, such as craft making, dance, and other demonstrative activities without consciously verbalizing it. Otherwise, it is hard to understand the epistemological function of most mixed media. Contemporary computational practices erode the privileged role of the coherent, well-formed lexia while offloading more and more cognition and agency from human to nonhuman mechanisms. The result is that “[e]lectronic literature can tap into highly charged differentials that are unusually heterogeneous, due in part to uneven developments of computational media and in part to unevenly distributed experiences among users” (138). This effect is a result of the combination of the 'ergodic' nature intrinsic to of much EL, inexperience with the new stylistic conventions that have been surveyed here, as well as the non-trivial art of literary interpretation that may not be shared by those who are highly skilled in the other areas. Thus the experience of EL will vary greatly from interactor to interactor, depending on their particular computing environments, their ability to use them, their experience with formal theories of print literature, and also their ability to peer into the creator's world if they choose to “hack” the work. While Hayles does not investigate this potential, it is certainly one of those “highly charged” zones that interest the technically savvy who want to know “how it works” or wish to rework or build off of the underlying programmatic aspects.

When it is impossible to peer into the inner workings of a literary work with a high degree of computational complexity, it is nonetheless possible to intuit the underlying algorithms. John Cayley's work is a prime example. In Translation, three blocks of symbols are in constant motion to the with the accompaniment of a soundtrack. In a computational procedure he calls “transliteral morphing,” a source text in one language is slowly translated into a target text in another language, letter-by-letter. Hayles explains:

Cayley conjectures that underlying these “higher-level” relationships are lower-level similarities that work not on the level of words, phrases, and sentences but individual phonemes and morphemes. .. Just as Mencia invokes the philological history of language as it moves from orality to writing to digital representation, so Cayley's transliteral morphs are underlain by an algorithm that reflects their phonemic and morpemic relations to one another. (146)

Like Mencia's Birds, visual language is disconnected from subvocalization and rendered letter by letter. However, Cayley's theory is that microstructures bind translations between different human language, and also within machines. His selection of Walter Benjamin's “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” positions this new possibility against a theological interpretation going back to Berkeley that it is God that ensures the possibility of translation from one language to another. Of course, viewing Translation renders the appearance of a complex, underlying algorithm, but it could be a trick. Something presented in a movie format offers little access to the means of production in a much more profound way than any plain-text format. While it was possible to delve into the inner workings of the hypertext works like Twelve Blue and Lexia to Perplexia, it is not part of the design for the interactor to actually see the source code of the translation algorithm. Moreover, this and all works encoded in Apple Quicktime format are difficult to view on generic x86 GNU/Linux systems. Choice of a commercial, proprietary, patented or copyrighted encoding format is a gamble that future interactors will incur the cost to compute it.

Brian K. Stefans work Star Wars, One Letter At A Time presents the entire printed screenplay of the 1977 movie Star Wars as typed one page at a time on an electric typewriter one key at a key at an average rate of about 10 characters per second. 10 Hertz is about the human limit of 'intelligibility' for discrete sound units as distinguished from very low frequency bass sounds. For each typed letter is the same sound; the space bar and carriage return keys have distinct sounds including a bell. The temptation is great to play the audio soundtrack along with it. There are two files, an HTML file starwars_one_letter.html that invokes the other one, starwars_one_letter.swf. Shockwave Flash movies play readily on generic x86 architecture GNU/Linux browsers with the appropriate Flash plugin. Running Ubuntu Linux 8.04 this was much more “working off the shelf” than the fussy-to-configure WINE software required to view the Apple Quicktime work Translation. A feature of this work is that it can be viewed in a very small window since only one character is ever displayed at a time. Like its two counterparts in Birds Singing Other Birds' Songs, there is nothing else to see on the screen but the rapid changes of this small field. It is difficult for an unfamiliar reader to make sense of it without access to a more familiar page version. The movie Star Wars captivated a generation, and combining replay of the original soundtrack, or even playing the movie itself, with executing starwars_one_letter.swf will be experienced differently by different age and social groups, attesting to an example in which there are few deep program secrets to learn about the work, as opposed to exploring the depths of the source code of Twelve Blue and Lexia to Perplexia.

Before digital computer screens, the tachistoscope was a high speed slide projector that could flash images at 'subliminal rates' in experiments that demonstrated that viewers picked up subconscious cues such as “buy popcorn” when suggestive text and images were delivered via the tachistoscope. William Poundstone notes in the one of the links encircling the START button on Project for Tachistoscope: Bottomless Pit that

The tachistoscope used in early perceptual experiments were slide projectors capable of flashing images as brief as 1 millisecond. This speed was overkill. No matter how brief the image, the retina's afterimage persists for c. 50 milliseconds .. The briefest full-screen image on a 75 Hz CRT lasts 13 milliseconds. .. A given phosphor, or a group of them forming a small image, remains illuminated for about 4 milliseconds. LCD monitors do not scan, but their pixels have a mechanical afterimage of up to 25 milliseconds. .. This site will run on an LCD monitor, but more of the flashed images are likely to be perceptible.

Ironically, most CRT monitors have been retired in favor of energy and space saving LCD units. If starwars_one_letter.swf modulated the 10 Hertz range of aural and visual human perception, William Poundstone's Tachistoscope.swf therefore modulates the up to the 20 Hertz range of visual perception while playing music modulating a much broader aural spectrum than the digital tones of Stephan's work using the same runtime environment (generic x86 architecture GNU/Linux browsers with the appropriate Flash plugin and audio subsystem).

The work presents one word at a time at a quick rate, in the center of the screen, with a pulsating, colorful background and a set of repeating images vaguely related to the story or the current word. Occasionally a second word or additional images or pictures will flash by in very rapid succession, bordering on the subliminal. Meanwhile a minimalist, hypnotic musical accompaniment plays reminiscent of Phillip Glass composition. It takes a number of viewings to grasp the overall narrative, which is about a large pit, bottomless pit that has opened near the town Carbondale during road construction activities. The fictional narrative is often injected with subliminal words such as “Heidelberg”, “Chinatown”, “Chomsky”, “Kuwait” and sometimes what may be complete sentences but are impossible to discern because the only control operation is to EXIT and start the work over. Rather than interpreting itself like Lexia to Perplexia, the outer band of the START screen provides seven lexia that explain the tachistoscope principle, the historic controversy surrounding subliminal messages, system requirements for viewing, and the concept of “semantic priming” that is the key feature of the work.

Summary Table for Reading Electronic Literature




Source Media

Run-time Requirements

Why it's Literature

Twelve Blue


Michael Joyce


Generic browser


The Jew's Daughter


Jud Morissey


Windows binary executable


Birds Singing Other Birds' Songs


Maria Mencia

Shockwave Flash

Generic browser
Shockwave Flash plug-in

Audio subsystem

interpretive art

Lexia to Perplexia


Talon Memmott



IE extensions

Internet Explorer browser

philosophical essay




John Cayley

Quicktime movie

Apple Quicktime Player

theoretical demonstration

Star Wars, One Letter At a Time


Brian K. Stefans

Shockwave Flash

Generic browser

Audio subsystem

interpretive art

Project for Tachistoscope


William Poundstone

Shockwave Flash

Generic browser
Shockwave Flash plug-in

Audio subsystem


These contemporary examples illustrate the electronic computer playing a much more engaged and dynamic role that the hypertext viewer characteristic of EL the 1990s. To Hayles, the unique possibilities the computational practices bring to literary creation invite a revaluation: the technoculture should no longer be seen as an unimaginative outsider, providing merely an updated support mechanism or prop to the codex book, but instead an integral component of creative endeavor, “a performance that addresses us with the full complexity our human natures require, including the rationality of the conscious mind, the embodied response that joins cognition and emotions, and the technological nonconscious that operates through sedimented routines of habitual actions, gestures, and postures” (157).


Hayles, N. Katherine. (2008). Electronic Literature. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Walker, Jill. (1999). “Piecing together and tearing apart: finding the story in afternoon.” Retrieved 10/10/2008 from

Note: all of the electronic texts discussed in this essay were included on the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1 CDROM provided with Electronic Literature.


Thanks to Sonia Stephens for editorial assistance.