Abstract: Only a fraction of today’s critical discourse on technological innovation manages to avoid the pitfalls of techno-euphoria, and this despite the ‘hypermediacy’ of the new media. Paradoxically so, since no medium ever functions in isolation. Along Bolter and Grusin’s ‘remediation’-concept (2000) I argue that every medium is intrinsically a hypermedium on behalf of its reliance on other signifying systems to establish itself by contrast. Even hypertext, with its eminently ‘poststructuralist’ capacity to offer ‘nonlinear’ access to information, at heart is processed in ‘traditional’ linear fashion. Simultaneously with the explosion of ‘new media’ hybrids, we are witnessing the funnelling of all pre-existing media into a single virtual hypermedium based on hypertext: the Internet. More than a mere software protocol and an unwieldy database, the World Wide Web directly affects the vast majority of new technological applications, with digital coding quickly becoming a lingua franca for McLuhan’s ‘global village.’ The first potential global democracy, the Internet was designed to transcend state regulations, top-down agencies of control, as well as the information oligopolies of multi-medial broadcasting companies. In practice, however, matters are markedly different. As demonstrated here by a critical analysis of Wilson, David Mamet’s hypertextual caricature of academic essentialism, not even the internet can claim authentic ‘meta-mediality’ because hypertext – its root algorithm – is understood by an ever-decreasing amount of people. Eliminating the digital interface, as Wilson so theatrically does, though, simultaneously imposes and ridicules the need to construct strings of associations and frameworks of meaning by means of (hyper)textual word play, visual presentation, and auditory associations. Forcing us to look beyond the hype, it presents us with a less ‘automatized,’ and therefore all the more constructive perspective. – Christophe Collard works as a research fellow at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Free University of Brussels), where he recently completed a doctoral dissertation on the media and genre crossings in the work of David Mamet.
Communication unites, communication divides. Just as the communicative act separates signifiers from their signifieds, so does its techno-conventional mediation allow for audience ‘uptake.’ In other words, the technological interface that enables communication constitutes a functional framework for funnelling contingencies into clusters of ‘content.’ ‘Significant’ cultural shifts like the rise and fall of communicative ‘new media’ accordingly must be interpreted “at the level of mediated consciousness” (Nelson 3) in order to be relevant in a study that looks beyond the statistically verifiable. Unfortunately, only a fraction of the critical discourse on technological innovation manages to avoid the pitfalls of an ecstatic techno-euphoria or, conversely, a wholesale dismissal. This is all the more problematic given the conspicuous ‘hypermediacy’ of today’s novel communication devices, especially since the coming of digital coding allegedly imploded the material basis of cultural conventions.1
A medium, indeed, as Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin famously argued, “is that which remediates” (65). Consequently, our contemporary culture of mass-medial communication is fuelled by “a double logic of remediation” (5) where innovation leads to new applications designed to erase their own traces. Seemingly contradictory though mutually interdependent, these two incestuous imperatives for contemporary relevance are as old as communication itself. To media theorist Friedrich Kittler, “[t]echnical media do not arise out of human needs, as their current interpretation in terms of bodily prostheses has it, they follow each other in a rhythm of escalating strategic answers” (121). And since no medium ever functions in isolation, in order to survive in a changing context all must adapt. Moreover, every innovation comes with the promise of greater authenticity. This pursuit of ‘transparency’ – or ‘immediacy,’ as Bolter and Grusin have it – implies a ‘refashioning’ of extant media, which intrinsically makes every medium a hypermedium – i.e. a medium capable of incorporating an infinite amount of other signifying systems. At stake, therefore, is finding a heuristic paradigm capable of representatively integrating the hypermedium’s essentially ‘rhizomatic’ “[driving] principle of asignifying rupture” (Deleuze and Guattari 9) in a user-friendly framework.
Hypertext, for one, functions as a site for two mutually exclusive yet fundamentally complicitous human impulses: a struggle for liberation and a surrender to domination (Rosenberg 270). Similar to the break-through of the historical avant-garde, its supporters present it as a vehicle for intellectual emancipation as it ‘literalizes’ the poststructuralist notion of intertextuality through the capacity of hypertext to offer ‘nonlinear’ access to units of text or information (see Bolter 163). However, an unconditional celebration of nonlinearity would be unfortunate for the very reason that the cognitive act of reading hypertext still occurs in linear fashion. Granted, the trajectories it allows are contingent and the navigable space rhizomatic, but the referential frameworks in which the cognition takes place remains a remediation of the ‘old medium’ of the printed text. Moreover, the visual presentation of a hypertext, too, implies intra-medial2 technological mediation, and thus a compromise to convention.
Today, simultaneously with the explosion of ‘new media’ hybrids, we are witnessing the funnelling of all pre-existing media into a single virtual hypermedium based on hypertext: the Internet. More than a mere software protocol and an unwieldy database, the World Wide Web directly affects the vast majority of new technological applications, with digital coding quickly becoming a lingua franca for McLuhan’s ‘global village.’ Digital web-based applications currently have extended beyond the confines of computer communication into a ‘reality’ of medial indeterminacy. And yet, as Marie-Laure Ryan points out, just as hypertext is only a refashioning of a much older technique, so is the execution of the digital code ‘the great un-leveller’ that “restores the difference between media” by “output[ting] a sensory manifestation of the data” (29). For, the reasoning goes, a digitized text preserves the major semiotic features of its original (e.g. the online version of a daily newspaper, a DVD version of a TV show played on a computer) despite their new encoding (ibid.). Intrinsically rhizomatic but pragmatically conservative, hypertext then becomes just another ‘intra-medial’ support-medium instead of fulfilling the meta-medial role it carved out for itself. In our current-day cultural complex, Ryan’s argument thus offers a healthy dose of techno-scepticism that reduces essentialist projections to more humble proportions.
The so-called ‘digital revolution’ made hypertextual communication the staple of the mass-medial diet. In theory, this revolution also morphed the ‘traditional’ roles of sender/receiver, producer/consumer, ruler/ruled into a decentralized network in which senders equally became receivers, producers consumers, and rulers the ones ruled. The first potential global democracy, the Internet was designed to transcend state regulations, top-down agencies of control, as well as the information oligopolies of multi-medial broadcasting companies. In practice, however, matters are markedly different. State regulation increasingly finds its way to the Web, companies still control access and connectivity, the manufacturers of software interfaces breach antitrust regulations, and media moguls set up alliances with all three agents “while establishing a form of cybernetic normalcy in the process” (Lovink 4). There is no question about the Internet’s contribution to democratization and emancipation but its extraordinary achievements so far tend to be overshadowed by a rather less encouraging reality.
In this regard Norman Meyrowitz, one of the founding fathers of hypertext studies, warned about the dangers of utopian thinking in the early 1990s when he titled his keynote address to the first major international conference on the subject “Hypertext: Does It Reduce Cholesterol, Too?” (Landow 1994: 7). After all, such was the enthusiasm about hypertext ‘linking’ as a major supplement to traditional reading that hardly anyone bothered about finding a functional framework for it, let alone an ethical one. Put differently, the theoretical basis was there, the technology was fast following, yet concrete implementations of its potential for democratization and emancipation lagged behind. Later, the computerized variant of this non-sequential type of writing that Theodor H. Nelson in the 1960s had coined ‘hypertext’ realized its hypermedial potential – i.e. its capacity to integrate different media – with the advent of sophisticated graphic interfaces, multi-media applications, and finally the World Wide Web itself (Landow 2006: 2-3). However, since “[a]ll hypertext systems” by definition “permit the individual reader to choose his or her own center of investigation and experience” (Landow 2006: 58), the concept remained laden with expectations it could not and cannot fulfil. By the same token the reader is never entirely locked into the constraints of a predetermined protocol, but bound by the algorithm of the interface all the same. As with any ‘ordinary’ text, signification still remains first and foremost a matter of framing with interpreting a distant second. As the engine of creative freedom, hypertext remains above all a charismatic construction that “seek[s] the real by multiplying mediation so as to create a feeling of fullness, a satiety of experience, which can be taken as reality” (Bolter and Grusin 53).
Hypertext epistemologist Stuart Moulthrop has argued that the hypertext rhetoric requires us to look beyond formal layers at the cognitive meta-management, in which the user modifies ordering processes, thereby demonstrating and developing a ‘secondary literacy’ (291, 298). Though hypertext environments have the capacity to stimulate thought patterns in a pedagogically useful way, their added value dissolves once the ‘linking’ activity becomes a mere gimmick. Aarseth therefore proposes “to rethink the concept of textuality to comprise linear as well as non-linear texts” (53). After all, along Aarseth’s definition, a ‘nonlinear’ text is an object of verbal communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (51), as opposed to a nonlinear narrative that describes a sequence of events in a non-sequential way but presents them in a linear way (52). For the Internet, this amounts to thinking about the medium while working with the medium (see also Ryan 127), i.e. simultaneously interpreting the cybertext and acknowledging the interpretation’s opacity instead of losing oneself in an epistemologically naïve illusion of immediacy. The ‘cybertext’ in this case being the ‘self-changing text’ as opposed to the communicative medium of the ‘hypertext’ (Aarseth 71-2).
Although the very concept of hypertext is not new, it required an electronic application for its emancipative potential to become prevalent. Once the vulgarization of the World Wide Web had set in, it seemed this electronic environment had all but discouraged conceptual thought in favour of finding practical applications. While today’s explosion of web-based ‘new media’ has doubtlessly taken communication into a ‘Brave New World,’ hypertext itself, the root algorithm of the ‘digital revolution,’ paradoxically is understood by an ever-decreasing amount of people because of the increasing difficulty to oppose Lovink’s ‘cybernetic status quo.’ At first a playground of virtual anarchy, today’s Internet is moving more and more towards Jean Baudrillard’s ‘hyperreal’: a regulated chimera of freedom, and a perversely charismatic one at that (256). With an ever-growing number of Web-users catered to by an ever-smaller number of ever-stronger global players, the myth of ‘e-egalitarianism’ looks just too bankable to be deflated.
Interactivity, the buzz word of the digital age par excellence, for Gabriella Giannachi can only live up to its hype and generate genuine ‘authenticity’ through “the ‘happening’ of the interface” (27), i.e. by staging hypertextuality to extract its emancipating potential. This is ironic, given that precisely the theatre, arguably the oldest of all self-reflexive media, should be called upon to remediate the ‘real’ and come away smiling – less bound by technical concerns, but more capable of integrating them while retaining its integrity. For, a medium that stages its own artificiality has nothing to lose and everything to win, unlike the Web, allegedly the Meta- of all hypermedia. Linda Hutcheon accordingly was right when she provocatively stated that even “pen and paper and the call and response of gospel and jazz music are more interactive than the electronic media today” (138). The confusion, though, is understandable. Digital technologies have increased the potential for an axiomatic interaction with the kind of ‘text’ that is ‘atomized’ and ‘dispersed’ in hypertext (Landow qtd. in Gaggi c21), which itself “represents the embodiment of the poststructuralist concept of text” (Aarseth qtd. in Giannachi 14) where reader and writer become intertwined. By exploring the hypertext, the reader irreversibly ‘inscribes’ his presence into its texture. In doing so, he becomes aware of its de-centeredness, yet not necessarily of its mediation. Even if a computerized code evolves in rhizomatic fashion, its algorithm, contrary to human language, is bound to a rigidly circumscribed type of in- and output. In the theatre, on the other hand, the sensory experience between performer and spectator remains a “disruptive intangibility” (Boenisch 115), its capacity for the simultaneous transmission of heterogeneous sensory stimuli transcending by far the common denominator of visual immediacy.
In fact, Giannachi’s theatrical metaphor intended to frame her call for more hypertextual self-reflexivity, found an unlikely illustration in Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist David Mamet’s outlandish foray into hypertextuality, Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources (2000), despite being neither a theatrical production nor electronically mediated, is a mischievous pseudo-hypertext, as well as a parody of deconstruction. The climax of three decades of generic and medial explorations that took Mamet from the experimental Chicago theatre scene in the early 1970s3 over the ‘hardboiled’ film noir4 to queer drawing room comedy5, and from courtoom drama6 over the UFO/ESP-play7 to the musical8, this novel addresses contemporary culture’s alleged “spiral of degeneracy” (Mamet 1991: 386) without proposing the absurdity of a flawless, ‘transparent’ alternative. At the same time, it comes in the wrappers of an old-fashioned medium. Schizophrenic to the utmost, it confirms that not even the Internet, the hypermedium that would overarch and include all other communicative media, can claim ‘authentic’ meta-mediality. And the only way Mamet could do so, was by eliminating the interface.
Wilson’s title likely refers to David Wilson, author of “Electronic Versions of Public Domain Texts Draw Praise and Fire” (1992), a pioneering article on the digitalization of printed texts to make these “available to everyone, all the time” (A16). The book’s impossible subtitle – A Consideration of the Sources Containing the Notes, Errata, Commentary, and the Preface to the Second Edition – as well as unwieldy content in turn strike quite a few resemblances with the now canonized novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), by Laurence Sterne,9 as Wilson ‘reconsiders’ the media and information surfeit by fictionalizing the implosion of reality under the weight of its own digressions (see also Callens 2000: 6, 13). In this sense, the only truly obscure and deliberately inaccessible work in Mamet’s oeuvre still abides by a self-imposed doctrine of reflection through recognition – absurd as this piece of writing may seem.
The book opens with a preface to a non-existent second edition (Mamet 2000: xiii). As such, it immediately presents itself as a verbal simulacrum. What follows is an essayistic bric à brac that seeks to integrate random bits into a coherent history documenting the period before the ‘Cola Riots,’ which led to a general breakdown of the Internet. Prior to the cataclysmic revelation that Pepsi™ and Coca Cola™ were actually based on the same formula, all sources of information had been transferred unto the Web on a wave of digital-euphoria. Ironically, with the Internet now disabled, historiography is forced to resume its ‘traditionalist’ sway in an old-fashioned, page-numbered medium with “print publications emulating webpages and hypertext” (Callens 2005: 39) and with a grotesque use of footnotes. As equally argued in the Preface, this effort is nonetheless possible because
all knowledge, of course, was not lost. What was lost? That which is always lost, in the transition from one age to another, from one mood to the other, et cetera. Something. But not all. “All” was but a sentimental fiction (Mamet 2000: xiv – original emphases).
The data generated along arbitrary conventions and functional media was lost, but not the principle that generated these data. To counter the hermeneutic circle of wholesale gratuity, the reader hence must become a meta-reader. Not quite the “reductio ad absurdum” (Bigsby 218) most critics took it for, Wilson, beyond its mock-scientific assumptions, aporetically imposes and simultaneously ridicules the need to construct strings of associations and frameworks of meaning by means of (hyper)textual word play, visual presentation, and auditory associations. At the dawn of the millennium, Wilson echoes the Web’s rhizomatic character while refusing the euphoria it commands, as confirmed by a scrupulous ‘consideration’ of the footnotes that lead nowhere. The Internet, too, in spite of its de-centeredness, can only be experienced through the linearity of digitalized text rather than the sensory simultaneity called for but never achieved by the book. Ironically, the one medium that does achieve this ‘liveness’ is conspicuously absent in a 300-page collage of pseudo-references such as Highsticking by “Hillary Rodham Clinton Rodham” (Mamet 200: 21), the likes of “’The “Trent” Saga: Trent’s Lost Case,’ in Anton de Meulemestière (“Scruffy”), Belgian National Archives, Neue Zeebrugge, Mars” (169), or “Bullshit, Proceedings of the Council, 2193” (151).
Considering the theatre’s relatively stable requirements of an audience and a set duration, it simultaneously funnels attention and stimulates associative thinking, whereas the internet all too often distracts attention or promises instant gratification:
theatre extends a mental space that itself is consistently reinscribed and reconfigured by the users’ observation of media […]. While all media remediate, theatre therefore (re)mediates (re)mediation (Boenisch 113).
By dramatizing the simulacrum in the re-institutionalized context of the novel, further legitimized by the ‘official’ “DM-approved” logo on the dust jacket, Wilson batters the reader into critical humility. A caricature of academic essentialism already announced in the blurb (“nothing is certain except the certainty of academics”) and by the ‘traditionalist’ publisher (Faber and Faber), this polemical work by a now canonical artist unambiguously subverts institutionalization and charismatic discourses alike by constantly wavering between the seduction of frameworks and their rejection:
In Wilson, scholarship crushes and deforms, or simply ironizes what it affects to address, its scientific or pseudo-scientific assumptions resulting in laughable affectations and still more laughable conclusions (Bigsby 217).
Mamet once stated that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by those with an academic bent” (1987: 94). And although with Wilson he unabashedly aims at alienating the reader, the work refuses to yield to such reductionism – precisely through its reliance on traditional formats, no matter how eroded they might be. As Ira Nadel rightly reasoned, Wilson “stands apart [from the rest of Mamet’s work], but it cannot be dismissed” (219). A “flag of convenience” (Mamet 2000: 19) to air some ideas too complex for rigid generic frameworks, this “theatrical” intermedial novel, from which the liveness of the theatre nonetheless remains absent, confirms its resistance to techno-euphoria in a conspicuous return to old-fashioned print techniques, but only to mine the new media for their ‘theatrical’ conceptual potential. This potential indeed would have been ‘lost’ in the chaos of ‘pure’ automatism had not the interface been undermined and so its aura of ‘transparency’ problematized.
Aarseth, Espen J. 1994. “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory.” Hyper/Text/Theory. Ed. George P. Landow. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 51-86.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. “The Precession of Simulacra” [trans. Paul Foss and Paul Patton]. Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Ed. and introd. Brian Wallis. Forew. Marcia Tucker. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984. 253-281.
Bigsby, C.W.E. 2004. “David Mamet’s Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet. Ed. C.W.E. Bigsby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 194-219.
Boenisch, Peter M. 2006. “Aesthetic Art to Aisthetic Act: Theatre, Media, Intermedial Performance.” Intermediality in Theatre and Performance. Eds. Freda Chapple and Chiel Kattenbelt. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 103-116.
Bolter, Jay David. 1991. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Bolter, Jay David with Richard Grusin. 2000. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Callens, Johan. 2000. “David Mamet.” Post-War Literatures in English 48:1-21.
—–. 2005. “Remediation in David Mamet’s The Water Engine.” American Drama 14.2: 39-55.
Deleuze, Gilles with Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gaggi, Silvio. “The Body and its Limits: Spilling the Guts, Spilling the Paint, and other Messy Transgressions.” Degrès 101: Intermediality. Ed. Johan Callens: c1-24.
Giannachi, Gabriella. 2004. Virtual Theatres: An Introduction. London: Routledge.
Hutcheon, Linda. 2006. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge.
Kermode, Frank. 1967. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kittler, Friedrich. 1987. “Media Wars: Trenches, Lightning, Stars.” Literature, Media, Information Systems: Essays. Amsterdam: OPA, 1997. 117-129.
Landow, George P. 1994. “What’s a Critic to Do? Critical Theory in the Age of Hypertext.” Hyper/Text/Theory. 1-48.
—–. 2006. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lovink, Geert. 2002. Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Mamet, David. Writing in Restaurants. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
—–. 1991. “On Directing Film.” A Whore’s Profession: Notes and Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1994. 341-412.
—–. 2000. Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources. London: Faber and Faber.
Mosco, Vincent. 2004. The Digital Sublime: Myth Power and Cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Moulthrop, Stuart. 1991. “Beyond the Electronic Book: A Critique of Hypertext Rhetoric.” Hypertext ’91. New York: Association of Computing Machinery. 291-298.
Nadel, Ira. 2008. David Mamet: A Life in the Theatre. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nelson, Robin. 1997. TV Drama in Transition: Forms, Values, and Cultural Change. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Odin, Roger. “Une approache sémio-pragmatique de l’intermédialité.” Intermedialität analog/digital: Theorien – Methoden – Analysen. Eds. Joachim Paech and Jens Schröter. Munich: Wilhelm Fink. 103-111.
Rosenberg, Martin E. 1994. “Physics and Hypertext: Liberation and Complicity in Art and Pedagogy.” Hyper/Text/Theory. 268-298.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2006. Avatars of Story. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Stam, Robert. “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation.” Film Adaptation. Ed. and introd. James Naremore. London: Athlone. 54-76.
Wilson, David. 1992. “Electronic Versions of Public-Domain Texts Draw Praise and Fire.” Chronicle of Higher Education 12 August: A15-6.
1)For a detailed discussion of this debate, see e.g. Mosco 2004, pp. 3-83.
2)Roger Odin proposes the term ‘intra-mediality’ to denote the existence within a given medium of various other media at a technical level, a concept comparable to the ‘synthetic’ and ‘synesthetic’ qualities of e.g. theatre and cinema (Odin 109; see also Stam 161).
3)Lakeboat (1970/80), Duck Variations (1972), and Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974).
4)The Postman Always Rings Twice (film, 1981 – Dir. Bob Rafelson).
5)Boston Marriage (play, 1999).
6)The Verdict (film, 1982 – Dir. Sidney Lumet), Romance (play, 2005).
7)No One Will Be Immune (unproduced – copyrighted 1990) – cf. Sauer and Sauer 2004: 231.
8)A Waitress in Yellowstone (scheduled for production in 2008, but unproduced so far – based on the published but unproduced television script with the same title, copyrighted 1984).
9)Conceptually, however, Wilson is closer to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s ‘nouveau roman’ Les Gommes (1953), described by Frank Kermode as “a novel in which the reader will find none of the gratification to be had from sham temporality, sham causality, falsely certain description, clear story. [It] repeats itself, bisects itself, modifies itself, contradicts itself, without even accumulating enough bulk to constitute a past – and thus a ‘story’ in the traditional sense of the word. The reader [here] is not offered easy satisfactions, but a challenge to creative co-operation” (19).