Hypertextual Meanderings in Print (Part I)

OK, as excited as I was about Douglas Rushkoff’s Exit Strategy, a novel which is supposedly open-source, I was a bit disappointed. I saw that, although it was published online and its users were allowed to comment on the text, it lapsed into reaffirming the conventions that emerged within the print culture. So, as a way of sharing my thoughts I will publish my discussions of Pale Fire and Exit Strategy in my blog. And since this is part of my dissertation, I welcome any insights into the issue. Let’s make it an “open-source” dissertation, shall we?
Disclaimer: These will be long blog posts, so if you’re not into theory and such, might as well move on to the next big thing:

Hypertextual Meanderings in Print: Pale Fire

At the end of the Forward, Charles Kinbote, the infamous editor-commentator of the poem “Pale Fire,” encourages the reader to consult his commentary before reading the poem, and reread them as she goes through the text, and perhaps consult them a third time after having read the poem to complete the picture. He furthermore suggests that it might be wise to cut out and clip together the pages of her edition or, even more simply, purchase two copies of the same work to place in adjacent position so as to eliminate the hassle of leafing back-and-forth
between the poem and the commentary (Pale Fire 28). His advice proves to be quite appropriate as a reading strategy. By the end of the Forward, Vladimir Nabokov, the master mind running the show,
has already thrown the reader from one section to the other with Kinbote’s
dizzying page references, and has abandoned the reader in the depths of what
Umberto Eco characterizes as fictional woods.

Kinbote’s advice to the novice reader clearly indicates that Pale Fire is not only a work that parodies the editorial processes and explores the boundaries of story-telling, but is also a rigorous experiment in media studies; an experiment which will be continued in various forms by other authors such as Douglas Rushkoff. Predating the electronic technologies by a couple of decades, Pale Fire is one of the many precursors of the electronic text, and as such, it partially steals some of the luster of what media scholars categorized as new media of the late 90s whose emergence has instigated heated debates on whether the book technology will survive or not. Proponents of hypertext theory, in particular George Landow and Jay David Bolter, argue that the idea and the ideal of the book will drastically change as a result of digital technology. According to Bolter, “print will no longer define the organization
and presentation of knowledge, as it has for the past five centuries” (2). While I agree that the electronic media has impacted the way information is organized, presented, and processed, I would like to argue that the affiliations between print and electronic media are stronger than what some of the early new media scholars seem to suggest and that perhaps, as James Morrison claims, the transformative powers of hypertext have been somewhat
overstated (4).

Pale Fire presents a multi-layered narrative in which several stories advance concurrently. As a work, it takes the form of a fake critical edition of a poem, “Pale Fire,” written by a famous American poet, John Shade. John Shade lives in the college town of New Wye amidst the Appalachian Mountains. The editorial commentary to the poem is written post-mortem by his next door neighbor, Charles Kinbote, who claims that Shade was murdered by a so-called Jack Grey who escaped from a mental institution—a tragic incident which leaves Shade’s poem unfinished. While the poem is primarily about the poet’s search for knowledge about the afterlife and his maladjusted daughter’s suicide, the commentary relates different stories pertaining to Kinbote himself. The commentary not only tells Kinbote’s relationship to the poet, but also incredible stories about Charles II Xavier, the deposed king of the “distant northern land” of Zembla who has picturesquely escaped imprisonment by Soviet-backed revolutionaries. Towards the end of the novel, the reader realizes that Kinbote is indeed Charles Xavier living incognito—a realization that suggests that our alleged editor is possibly insane and his identification with Charles and the stories about Zembla are mere delusions of grandeur. A third story told by Kinbote in the commentary is that of Gradus (his name
curiously resembles Jack Grey), an assassin dispatched by the new rulers of Zembla to kill the exiled King Charles. All these stories come to a conclusion with the shooting of John Shade.

The structure of Pale Fire indicates that this novel is presented as a fictional experiment and a commentary on the quest of the editorial community: that of converging on an ideal work by producing an authoritative text. Nabokov’s work, with its four-part structure, comprising the Forward, poem, commentary, and Index (presented in that order), displays a hierarchically ordered text which conforms to the conventions of any critical edition produced in the print
medium. The ideal of converging on a unified, complete authoritative text, however, is undermined by the multi-layered narrative of Nabokov’s work which harbors the possibilities of numerous texts. Even Shade’s poem (the so-called primary text) which is the only section of the novel that displays some kind of a spatial and temporal continuity is incomplete and lacks unity. According to Kinbote, the “professed Shadeans” (referring to the other savants in the field, most likely literature professors) have already affirmed, without having seen the original manuscript (to which only Kinbote has access), that the poem consists of disjointed drafts which do not yield a definitive text (Pale Fire 14). This brief comment included in the Forward—which precedes the primary text and thus serves as an introduction—undermines not only the integrity but also the credibility of the sole section of the novel that has any claim to unity and consistency. Attempting to salvage the integrity of this pivotal section, Kinbote adamantly argues that the poem is indeed complete and symmetrical and that the only missing part is the last line which is, in fact, identical to the first line of the poem. However, a brief glance at the fourth canto raises doubts with regards to its stylistic unity and its consistency with the rest of the poem. These inconsistencies results in “disjointed drafts” and indicate some kind of collaborative authorship between Shade and Kinbote, which, most probably, was not consensual in the first place.

Kinbote, however, displays an opposite attitude towards his commentary on the poem. His desire to prove the unity and the consistency of the poem gives way to his eagerness to introduce the “delightful variants” that were eliminated from the primary work. According to Kinbote, the “domestic anti-Karlist” (the poet’s wife) has controlled every line of the poem to make sure that these impurities were expunged from the original, which Kinbote refers to as the Fair Copy. Kinbote takes it upon himself to offer these “cancelled readings” to enrich the meaning of the poem (Pale Fire 16). Recounting his own personal story by way of incorporating the cancelled readings in his commentary derogates the unity of the work at hand.

A quick glance at the fragmented presentation of these canceled readings reveals that the apparent hierarchical structure which conforms to the organizational patterns of the book technology is seriously compromised. The reader is never permitted to follow any single storyline without being interrupted, because all storylines are presented in narrative fragments, cross-referenced meticulously with page numbers; a strategy which leaves the reader disoriented, if not confused, amidst an intricate web of narrative. Right from the very beginning, in the Forward, following the trails of these references take the reader from Appalachia and throw her into the fantastic world of Zembla. From there onwards, the reading experience is a fast-paced journey from one place to the other. Nevertheless, the novel does not comprise unrelated components joined by random links. That is to say, textual unity is not overthrown to generate a narrative chaos. If the reader decides to follow Kinbote’s page references, she is able to unravel the consistencies amongst distinct segments and solve the mystery as early as the Forward. In Shade’s words, she is able to transform what seems to appear to be “flimsy nonsense” into a “web of sense,” or a “pattern in the game” (Pale Fire 63). Avoiding the danger of lapsing into total chaos during the reading process and seeing the pattern is accomplished through the materiality of Nabokov’s work. Presented in the form of a carefully cross-referenced narrative in print, these fragments generate web-like connections between the storylines which provide the reader with a safety net.

The multi-layered narrative of Pale Fire not just subverts one of the most important conventions of print, that of unity of plot, but also its fragmented presentation on paper allows for its consideration within the context of hypertext fiction, an electronic form which challenges the story-telling conventions that emerged in print culture. Hypertext theory, as conceptualized by George Landow and Jay David Bolter in their pursuit to build a bridge between literary studies and computer technology in the early 90s, draws heavily on post-structuralism and deconstruction theory developed by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. It also provides us with a different lens for discussing works that have been created within the print medium. A closer inspection reveals that Landow’s definition of hypertext echoes Roland Barthes’s own description of ideal textuality. For Landow, hypertext is a “text composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains, or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms link, node, network, web, and path” (3). This definition suggests a decentralized textuality made up of networks that interact in many ways, and that lack any sort of fixed hierarchical structure, including a definite beginning and an end, thereby resulting in concurrent diverse texts that require the reader’s active assistance to be mobilized. The digital environment substantiates the decentralized textuality of the Barthesian and Derridean discourse where the work’s visual and semantic fragmentation is reinforced by its fragmented structure. The work’s fragmentation, then, frees information from organizational tools, such as pagination, chapter divisions, paragraphing, index, and bibliography which are crucial to the book technology. Undoubtedly, the absence or the subversion of the organizational tools of print culture affects the materiality, and thus, the performativity of any work published in the print medium.

The fragmented structure of Nabokov’s work that subverts the hierarchical organization dictated by print culture, in many ways, emulates a hypertextual organizational pattern in print. As such, the work enables us to rethink print’s capabilities and boundaries in addition to anticipating electronic textualities yet to come. Moreover, by doing so, it experiments with the performativity of a work published in the print medium. The performativity implied by the work comes through the Kinbote’s character that functions as the Model Reader in Pale Fire, or the set of textual strategies defined by the work which ensures a willing collaborator of the game designed by the author herself. Kinbote, as an intrusive commentator, who simultaneously fulfills the role of an intrusive reader, leaves clues for the empirical reader on how Pale Fire as a work should be performed so that his preferred text can be created. He shamelessly professes that his ultimate objective in this edition is to tell his own story which he deems to be more significant than the primary text. As early as the Forward, Kinbote openly declares that his comments are far more important than the poem he is editing.

Similar to Eco’s description of the role of the reader, Vladimir Nabokov, in his autobiography Speak, Memory, emphasizes the role of the reader as a player. Visualizing the reading process as a chess game, he posits that the competition in a first rate fiction is between the author and the reader who assume the role of the composer and the hypothetical solver respectively. Nabokov is suggesting a reading process that is akin to a game played between two willing parties who are able to take risks to overcome the challenges posed by the text. As the reader performs Nabokov’s work, as in a hypertext, she assumes the role of a player who has a lot invested in the entire enterprise, and more importantly, who throws herself at risk, the risk of being rejected by the work. The characterization of Pale Fire as “a difficult work to read” suggests that most readers do indeed fail to perform Nabokov’s work, and thus, are ultimately rejected.

Apart from operating as the main link between the concurrent variants of the story, Kinbote also acts as the link between the empirical reader and the author. With the help of Kinbote, Nabokov is able to set the rules of his game, the traps, and the delusive opening moves. Kinbote’s page references, suggestions, false comments particularly serve this end. However, he is also the fictional representative of the empirical reader. Essentially his role is that of reading John Shade’s poem and producing his own variation. Therefore he provides us with guidance on how to become a better player in a game that is built on discontinuous narrative segments. The ability to survive this web-like narrative is contingent upon whether one is able to develop into the type of reader that Pale Fire anticipates. As hypertext published in the print medium, Pale Fire reveals its mysteries only to a rereader like Charles Kinbote.

If reading Pale Fire produces an experience comparable to playing a game, then one might wonder what the purpose of this game is and what is at stake in playing it. The term “loss” is critical in unraveling the mystery surrounding this question. Within the hypertextual structure of Pale Fire, the true story is hopelessly fragmented, destroyed, and some parts of it are inevitably lost. The quest to recover the lost story, or the canceled readings, is the driving force behind the game-like experience in Pale Fire. The connections between the narrative fragments are set and possible solutions to the enigma are presented in its many forms. All that is left to solve the problem is what Brian Boyd characterizes as “the swerve of thought, a knight move of imagination” (129). Charles Kinbote encourages the empirical reader, his ardent follower, to make that leap. The ultimate reward is forming its text and eliciting a meaningful
outcome.

The emphasis placed on the role of the reader in Nabokov’s work invokes many aspects of Barthes’s writerly text. Barthes’s own critical commentary on Balzac’s Sarrasine, entitled S/Z, is a performative essay on writerly text and bears striking resemblances to Pale Fire. Complaining about the pitiless divorce between the producer of the text and its user, Barthes characterizes the writerly text as a text where the reader undertakes the task of writing. The goal for him is to make “the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text” (4). Joint authorship is the determining principle behind what Barthes envisions as ideal textuality which aims to generate a work in constant movement and in perpetual progress.

For someone who is acquainted with the media theory that surrounds recent electronic technologies such as Web 2.0, Barthes’s view of the writerly text and his desire to institute the reader as its producer or at least co-producer sounds extraordinarily familiar, and comes as second nature to the way electronic technologies are experienced today. To accommodate the extraordinary familiarity between older technologies and the newer ones, recent media scholars such as Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn, now conceptualize a model in which new media systems set in motion a more complicated and unpredictable process in which established and infant systems co-exist for an extended period of time. Instead of viewing emerging media as systems that obliterate its predecessors and bring in brand new functionalities, they develop a model for the era of media convergence, during which time, they foresee older media developing new functionalities and finding new audience as the emerging technology begins to occupy the cultural space of its ancestors (Rethinking Media Change 2). More importantly, emerging media help us rethink and reconceptualize our vision of the previous media forms. Hypertext theory, provided critics with a different lens for discussing works that have been created in print medium. In the final section of this chapter, I will look at Douglas Rushkoff’s Exit Strategy, an open-source novel, which was initially published online before being moved to
the print platform, and analyze how two different technologies interact and inform one another.

2 thoughts on “Hypertextual Meanderings in Print (Part I)

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog with its provocation of an open sourced dissertation. I am exploring the idea/s of how to perform a thesis without being bound by linear script. Best wishes with your studies.

  2. Tnx Ailsa for your comment. Let me know how the performative thesis works. Definitely an idea that needs exploring. Glad you enjoyed the post…

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