The Electronic Labyrinth


In his seminal hypertext fiction, Afternoon, a story, Michael Joyce offers a reading surface which invites the reader to test the tensile properties of words themselves. Rather than providing specifically marked anchors as points of connection to other nodes, each word in Afternoon is a potential link to some other section of the text. The verb which Joyce chooses to describe this action is to yield, the double meaning of which catches the ways in which words here both submit to the touch and produce a surplus value. The electronic sign for Joyce is a dense, though fluid object; it may explode "with damp, phosphor light should you squish it open" ("Afternoon, A Story" 80). The introductory screens tell the reader:

I haven't indicated what words yield, but they are usually ones which have texture, as well as character names and pronouns. [...]
The lack of clear signals isn't an attempt to vex you, rather an invitation to read either inquisitively or playfully and also at depth. Click on words that interest or invite you.

By refraining from marking the text's anchors, Joyce compels the reader to consider the very materiality of words, their connotative, associative and ideational properties, or what he calls, their "texture." Here words become differently constituted physical objects, each of which has a different valency, a different capacity to yield more words, new perspectives, new narrative trajectories. In an article for Leonardo on Afternoon, Joyce writes, "I wanted to create text which gave way(s) before the touch, which would be caressed into motion or repose without end" (80).

The hypertext form of Afternoon, however, fails Joyce's emphasis on the visceral qualities of the electronic sign. For, while the words themselves may seem replete with sensual qualities, with "texture," the fact that the reader interacts with each one through the point-and-click device of a computer "mouse" tends to flatten the phenomenological differences between them. Each word, in the all important sense of touch which Joyce emphasizes, "feels" exactly like any other; the resolutely unsensous nature of the mouse button, together with the fact that every word will yield to a new space, easily leads the reader to an uninvolved, or at least unfeeling, practice of randomly clicking about the nodes to see where they take you. What Afternoon requires is the kind of force feedback mechanism which virtual realists are currently developing to invest virtual objects, like "real" objects, with a resistant quality, something which makes them seem less "neutral" and more alive. With such a mechanism, virtual apples have the same tensile feel as a real apple; both require the same amount of pressure to bruise, or to bite. As virtual reality and hypertext technology come together, one can envision the day in which, true to Joyce's intentions, we can physically feel the difference between the tube of Dijon and the rectangle of the Heath bar.

Joyce's concept of words which "yield" is an important addition to the rhetoric of hypertext. Just as the hypertext form defamiliarizes conventional reading practices, forcing us to re-consider the ways in which reading is socially and historically constructed through its relation to the book, Joyce's text defamiliarizes the linguistic sign. The reader cannot read through this text to its underlying truth or reality, but must look at it. In this way, he or she must consider again the ways in which language not only intercedes between the real and that which seeks to represent it, but in effect, constructs the real in the very act of reflecting it.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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