"Narrating with New Media: What Happened with What has Happened?"
by Belén Gache
Translated from the Spanish by Raquel Herrera
Edited by Jo-Anne Green, Helen Thorington and Eduardo Navas
This text was originally commissioned by Turbulence and newmediaFIX as part of the series '3 X 3: New Media Fix(es) on Turbulence,' released on January 2007 "New Media Fix(es) on Turbulence" is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Belen has a Master's Degree in Discourse Analysis with a thesis on the argentine writer Julio Cortázar. She has published books such as Escrituras Nómades, del libro perdido al hipertexto (Nomadic Writings, from the lost book to hipertext) (Spain, Gijón, Trea, 2006), El ser escrito: lenguajes y escrituras en la obra de Xul Solar (The Written Being: languages and writings in Xul Solar's works) (Madrid, Museo Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2002), Jorge Macchi, el destino como principal sospechoso, (Jorge Macchi, Destiny as the Principal Suspect) (France, Centre Contemporain d´art, Montebeliard, 2001). As a narrator she has published the novels Lunas eléctricas para las noches sin luna (Electric Moons for Moonless Nights) (Sudamericana, 2004), Divina Anarquia (Divine Anarchy) (Sudamericana, 1999) and Luna India (Indian Moon) (Planeta, 1994). Since 1996 she develops Wordtoys , a compilation of net poems and other non-linear works. http://www.belengache.com.ar
on narrative structures, ideologies and strategies
There has been much talk about the relations between printed books, modernity and metaphysics; and about the relation between new writing applications and philosophical schools such as poststructuralism and deconstruction. The fact is that electronic writing applications involve a new way of writing and narrating, a new grammar and a new semiotics. These days, text is no longer conceived as a consecutive line of words but as a multidimensional space which shapes different possible stories.
I will analyze three specific works from the Turbulence archives: Digital Nature: The Case Collection (Tal Halpern - 2002), Apartment (Marek Walczak and Martin Wattenberg - 2001) and Ground Zero (John Cabral - 2001). In these three works the story is based in a secret to be disclosed. A question is posed in all three cases: what has happened? However, in each case we must deal with a different kind of secret and a different kind of narrative strategy.
A narrative structure is a process of meaning creation. Its purpose is to provide a specific view of events. Narration acts as a dimension which shapes and transforms the chaos of these events in a significant totality and therefore is always related to a particular ideology. We will see how The Case Collection and Apartment create their writing resorting to metatextual strategies. Ground Zero , on the other hand, is based on the idea of a presented time, a very different notion from that of representation of time.
here are no facts, only interpretations of "facts" themselves
In his essay "+Estructura del suceso," ( 1) Roland Barthes refers to the "fascinating and unbearable lapse of time which separates the fact from its cause." For example, the traditional detective story will make use of this lapse of time for the plot. In this model of story, the detective has to fill the gap of time backwards in order to reveal the enigma. In A Thousand Plateaus , ( 2) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari pick up this literary model based on the question: " what has happened?"
In the traditional model, the detective solves the question following a logical causality and tries to recompose the chronological line of events. He will be the one to lead the reader while s/he tries to organize a temporal order of sequences that becomes significant. The reader of the traditional model follows a logic which establishes that meaning stemming from a consecutive and irreversible causality and tries to solve a mystery. This logic does not admit drifts, ambiguities or loose threads. It does not a admit a plurality of meanings or simultaneous experiences either. Obviously, both the Nouveau Roman and the postmodern novel found the traditional model of the detective story very appealing to deconstruct, leaving gaps and emphasizing the fact that there is no specific ontological answer to the question " what has happened?" simply because there are no facts but interpretations of facts themselves. But how does this narrative model work in new media? These narratives are characterized by non-linear presentations, the use of different semiotic systems (linguistical, visual, sound-based), and the fragmentation of information unities -- the lexias , to employ another Barthesian term ( 3) -- without a specific order, where the parts and the whole appear as relative categories. Here is where the reader doubles as detective. The ways s/he solves the enigma will be plural and conditioned by the different reading paths s/he chooses. Now, how might the kaleidoscopical information s/he receives be useful in reconstructing an event? Which kind of structure will s/he be facedwith? What will the pieces s/he will have to combine to solve the puzzle be?
We have stated that both The Case Collection and Apartment have resorted to metatextual strategies, each in a particular way. The concept of metatext is defined by Gerard Genette as a text that talks or instructs about another text ( 4). A metatext might work in different ways: it can be internal, external or a combination of both; it can be a critical discourse, a specular structure, a narrative category, a figure, et cetera. The metatext contributes to the coherence of the text and provides the reader with clues for reading. By avoiding the linear setup of their texts and the classical tripartite Aristotlean structure of beginning, middle and end, alternative writing models have frequently resorted to metatexts in order to organize narrative experiences.
Many metatextual structures have been based on spatial premises. For instance, the text of Jacques Roubaud, Tokyo infra-ordinaire ( 5), is structured from a cartographical layout; the map of the Yamanote subway line, which goes through the center of Tokyo, functions for the narrator as a way of constructing a "subway poem". George Perec presents us in La Vie mode d'emploi ( 6) with the life of the people inhabiting a Parisian building. The reader goes over all the different apartments, which are arranged in the form of a Latin bisquare, and serves as a sort of game board through which the story advances according to the movements of the chess knight. As a matter a fact, game boards have been used several times as privileged metatexts. To offer some examples, in Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch , following the model of the hopscotch game in which the player jumps from one box to another trying to reach her/his goal, the characters jump from one chapter to another similarly to the reader that goes into the reading of the text; or Through the Looking Glass (and what Alice found there) by Lewis Carroll, where Alice is a white pawn in a chess game, and the game can be won in eleven moves.
The Case Collection : the secret and history
The personal belongings of Sir Francis Case, requisitioned by the State, are found years later in the National Archives. They consist of a series of objects that work as textual fragments. Analyzing these objects partly allows us to reconstruct a dark secret in the life of this character.
In The Case Collection , the desktop is presented as a sort of board that works as a structure for the different game pieces. The pieces (two personal diaries, an illustrated children's book, some audio recordings, some medical files, some films) are the objects of the naturalist's personal collection. Each one of them carries a particular testimony, a particular fragment of the story. In this instance we face a dark secret: something terrible has happened. Whatever happened to Sir Francis Case? Was he in his right mind? Whatever happened with the flood? The personal effects of Case and the objects in his collection will be the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle we try to fit together in order to solve the mystery. Each one of these objects offers a narrative by itself. The story of Arloz is the adventures of a little rhino who left home to travel throughout the world; the Black and White diaries compare different narrative records of Sir Francis' travel, the psychiatric notes of Dr. Gerstein are focused on obsessive neurosis, reporter Nancy Lois makes her interviews, and they all belong to a general narrative unknown to us, which appears broken into small pieces; we are never going to know it as a whole. The reader tries to fill the narrative gaps these objects do not speak of, the gaps supposed to hide the secret that gave place to the story, but to no avail. The narration of The Case Collection becomes a metaphor in opposition to the motives of the flood and the colonial narrative, so to speak, the destruction of all possible meanings versus a unique and closed meaning.
Apartment : the cartography of the event
In Apartment we are also confronted with a spatial metatext. A cursor at the bottom of the screen invites the reader to write words that will go on to become stories. In their turn, these written words will end up acquiring their own topology and they will become apartments and cities, invoking personal memories and creating packets of time-space.
While time acts as a constrictive element only allowing us to move in one direction, space on the contrary is presented as free and with a wide array of possibilities, full of deviations and intersections. Text and space are indissolubly connected. By being related to the spatial and visual dimension (unlike the oral word, which is related to time and hearing), writing will unfold in space and this is where it will draw its figures and movements. This relation has been widely emphasized in the course of history. For instance, to create a mnemonic, rhetoricians imagined their speeches inscribed in the rooms of the villas, and they would pronounce and memorized them as if they were going through the spaces, mentally walking through them. For his part, Ludwig Wittgenstein identified language with the layout of a city (7). In Apartment , it is the cartography of the different apartments which doubles as a metatextual element to structure all the stories. Here, the reader her/himself is the one who gives shape to the buildings through the writing of the texts. In their turn, the buildings will construct cities according to their particular linguistic relations.
Regarding " what has happened?" Apartment deals with very different kind of secrets: personal and intimate secrets, daily life secrets. The reader goes all over the rooms, buildings and cities like some sort of voyeur, sneaking into spaces and memories which are alien to her/him. The underlying idea here is that each memory, as well as every story, is just a subjective construction.
Modernity has conceived a one-dimensional, continuous, homogeneous time that goes forward from the past to the future, toward a point of no return. This conception has prevailed in the Western narrative, at least until the beginning of the 20th century, when theories of relativity deconstructed the unified and casual notion of time, opening up, accordingly, a chance to conceive multiple and simultaneous temporalities.
In the seventies, Roland Barthes denounced the idea that the traditional narrative mistook the securing of something for its consequence, which later came to be read as something which is "caused by" ( 8). Traditional narrative therefore becomes a systematic application of the logical fallacy pointed out by scholastics in the expression "post hoc, ergo propter hoc", which means "after this, therefore, because of this". Besides, in this kind of narrative, the representation of time, ordered with a beginning, a middle and end, will be the one to create a whole of meaning. We should realize that while the present "presents" itself, past and future can only appear in the discourse as represented times. Thus, narratives in the present time correspond to anti-representative aesthetics.
Beyond avant-garde experiments with narrative time, Barthes refers to postmodern texts as texts that are not describing facts of the past but things that are happening in the now of the story. There is no other time than the now of speech, and every text is eternally written in the here and now of the reading. This means that writing does not attempt to "represent". The "now" dismantles the difference between story and discourse.
In the third case I am going to analyze here, Ground Zero , the alternative use of the temporal element will demonstrate the crisis of traditional representation. This work breaks the conventional model playing with the absence of a narrative whole and with the construction of different versions of what has happened or whatever is still happening there.
1 Roland Barthes, Critical Essays (Evaston: Northwestern University Press, 1972). Cited edition: "Estructura del suceso", Ensayos Críticos (Barcelona: Seix-Barral, 1983). Original text: Essais critiques , (du Seuil: Paris 1964).
2 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateus (London : Athlone Press, 1880). Original Text: Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix, Mille Plateaux (Paris : Editions de Minuit, 1 80).
3 Roland Barthes, S/Z (New York : Hill & Want, 1972). Cited edition : S/Z , México, SigloXXI, 1986. Original Text: S/Z (Paris: Seuil, 1970).
4 Gerard Gennette, Palimpsestes (Paris : Seuil, 1992).
5 Roubaud, Jacques, Tokyo infra-ordinaire , Inventaire/invention éditions, <www.inventaire-invention.com>, 2003.
6 George Perec, La Vie Mode d´Emploi , (Paris : Librairie Generale Francaise, 2000).
7 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford; Blackwell, 1 68). Cited edition: I nvestigaciones filosóficas (México: Universidad Autónoma de México, 1988).
8 Roland Barthes, "Introduction à l'analyse structurale des récits", in Poétique du récit (Paris: Seuil, 1977).