Read an ExcerptOthermindedness
The Emergence of Network Culture
By Michael Joyce
The University of Michigan Press
Copyright © 2000
University of Michigan
All right reserved.
Chapter One (Re)Placing the Author: "A Book in the Ruins"
A dark building. Crossed boards, nailed up, create A barrier at the entrance, or a gate When you go in. Here, in the gutted foyer, The ivy snaking down the walls is wire Dangling. And over there the twisted metal Columns rising from the undergrowth of rubble Are tattered tree trunks. This could be the brick Of the library, you don't know yet, or the sick Grove of dry white aspen where, stalking birds, You met a Lithuanian dusk stirred From its silence only by the wails of hawks. ("A Book in the Ruins" Milosz 1988)
The poet stands in the ruins, it is the modernist moment. But, no, this is not what we see. The poet makes his way into the ruins, and in so moving the movement in itself reads barrier as gate. What he reads he writes. Against the unassigned space of the dark building-let us call this space the screen-crossed boards read as sign and juncture, axis and nullification, light on light. A gutted foyer no longer opens to another space but is the space of its own opening. Yet in movement the outward dark gives way to memory and metonymy, to multiplicity, the one continually replacing the other. In this crossing "here" and "there" are interwoven as if ivy. Or wire. Shifting light, dusk or dawn, yields what I have called elsewhere the momentary advantage of its own awkwardness, a slant illumination in which we are allowed to see each thing each time interstitially, in the moment before it assumes its seamlessness in the light of day, the dark of night. The electronic age now enjoys the time of awkwardness before the age itself disappears along with the mark of its name into the day to day of what at Xerox PARC they call "Ubicomp" (Rheingold 1994, 93), ubiquitous computing. For now, in the shifting light of the present awkwardness, even though the figures move asymmetrically (ivy is wire, column is tree), each thing nonetheless remains itself even in the displacement, the chiasmus, of its form. What's changed is not the thing but its placement. Print stays itself, electronic text replaces itself. Electronic text is as apt to evolve before it forms, as apt to dissolve before it finishes. On the screen it takes our constant and attentive interaction to maintain even the simulacrum of static text. The future, too, requires as much of us, and has for some time.
There is a play on words in this formulation, since whatever the future has for some time required of us incorporates the past, or rather pulls it through as through the wormhole of a singularity. The future won't stay still but instead keeps on replacing itself. The page becomes the screen, the screen replaces the page. We could call this placement history. Electronic texts present themselves in the medium of their dissolution: they are read where they are written, they are written as they are read. What "this could be," the poet tells us, "you don't know yet." The boy who stalked birds himself is stalked, circled by history. Only wailing hawks have the perspective of memory, and in memory they are said to circle a sick grove, although one whose locus, we know extratextually, is the golden age, the childhood land, of the poet who here-the year is 1941 and it is Warsaw-is a young man, a janitor in a bombed library, who "carted books from the University Library to the National Library, and from the National Library to the Krasinki Library" (Milosz 1987, 275).
I want to speak carefully. In reading this poem of Milosz as a meditation on electronic text, I do not wish to appropriate the horror of this scission, to trivialize what the space of the Warsaw library opens into or what, in slicing through, it replaces. Alexander's sword cut through the topological manifolds that gave meaning to the Gordian knot-we could call these twined strands ivy or wire, word or superstring-and in this movement he both read and wrote his own fate. "There was a sense then that all cultural values were undergoing tremendous destruction, the total end of everything," says Milosz (1987, 275). The hole replaces the whole, they carted books behind not before the storms. And yet the book in the ruins is always the book of the ruins. We live in a time when the book itself is in ruins, eskhate biblos. I want to read this poem as if the young poet knew that he both read and wrote the space he moved through. The young poet's war was about the end of hierarchy, hierarchy blasted away under the stolen aegis of a bent cross. The war was the second in a series-or the seven times seven hundredth, it does not matter, topologically number furls into metaphor-an infinitely divisible series of forays of movement into form. It is an ancient movement, this cross that both annuls and becomes form. Under its sign the idea of everything is no more privileged than the idea of any thing.
In the more recent interviews collected in Conversations Milosz speaks of his "incredible fastidiousness and [his] need for a strict hierarchy" (1987, 196). The old man the poet has become might not like this reading of the young poet. "Literature," he says, "is very hierarchical" (196). Yet what was cut was released into meaning, his poem knows this. "Our hope is in the historical," says Milosz, "because history as time, but time remembered, is something different from nature's time" (182). Yet nature's time, too, we are finding is time remembered. "History is important," says the social theorist Sandra Braman. "In a topologically mapped universe, the location of a point is less important than how it got there.... systems also have memories, and when they unravel will retreat by the routes along which they had previously travelled in the self-organizing phase" (1994, 13-14). The knot springs to and from its form, rehearsing the manifold movements of its many tyings, knot on knot.
"Now walk carefully," the next movement of the poem begins. The poem slows into present tense, the meaning in movement is discovered. The light is mixed, not Lithuanian dusk but "a patch of blue" through a "ceiling caved in by a recent blast" (later we will see this is noon, as workmen sit and have their lunch upon a table made of books). The scene moves from the metonymic to the metaphoric. The pages of books are "like fern-leaves hiding / a mouldy skeleton, or else fossils." Every discovered thing is discovered as written on, inscribed: the skeleton etched by mold, the fossils "whitened by the secrets of Jurassic shells" (just as this line itself is now written on by popular culture, a whole epoch crossed over into sign, tradestyle and
Copyright, the Jurassic marketed in every airport shop and shopping mall, cannot be retrieved to mean geologically until the market culture is done with it and still not then), the fossils in turn inscribed by tears of rust. The whole space in turn is written upon by the movement of these lines.
Yet inscription as always is questioned: it isn't clear in these ruins whether the shadow of a dead epoch is a living form. The poem presents the ambiguous figure of a scientist already like the guardian mole of Milosz's later poem, "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto," who "distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor / The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum." In the scission of the caesura in the poem at hand (the English translation is Milosz with Robert Haas) the scientist's mind is split:
A remnant life so ancient and unknown Compels a scientist, tilting a stone Into the light, to wonder. He can't know.
What at the start of the poem was the potential "you don't know yet" is now embodied, characterized and denied, "He can't know." The stone must be re-placed, tilted into light, before the scientist "looks again" and in this recurrence reads. The compulsion to wonder marks the figure of the scientist as no mere polar figure for the poet. A "rust of tears" simultaneously writes and erodes "chalk spirals," and the next caesura in the following lines ("Thus") is an engine, a compulsion to wonder:
He looks again At chalk spirals eroded by the rain, The rust of tears. Thus, in a book picked up From the ruins, you see a world erupt.
The idea of everything is no more privileged than the idea of any one thing. Following the catastrophic eruption of world from book, "Green times of creatures tumbled to the vast / abyss and backward." The one who reads the book in the ruins replaces the one who reads the space of the ruin in the book we read. In its unraveling the erupted world retreats by routes along which it had previously traveled. Thus beyond the abyss of the poem the paleontologist's fossil gives way to the poet's imagined "earring fixed with trembling hand, pearl button / on a glove." Seen is scene.
In the course of what is seen the writer is replaced by the reader (the writer who will be). This is the claim of constructive hypertext, and by extension any system of electronic text, from hypertext to virtual reality to ubicomp. The fossil word, which on the computer screen is always tilted to the light and constantly replaced, again takes its place within the universe of the visible and the sensual. Print stays itself, electronic text replaces itself. With electronic text we are always painting, each screen washing away what was and replacing it with itself. The shadow of each dead letter provides the living form of what replaces it.
The electronic text is a belief structure, and the workaday reader is apt to believe that even the most awkward contemporary technology of literacy embodies the associational schema of the text that it presents. She sees herself there in its form as she finds it, and feels that the form trails behind her as she goes. Scene is seen: this is the shift from the book. Not that the storm of association around the book-the isobaric indices, the note cards, the pages "scattered like fern leaves," or the tropic marginalia-could not encompass the associations within it (they have and wonderfully, this is the history of the book as remembered time); but rather that the electronic form now embodies the same latitudes that once encompassed the book. The storm circles inward and disperses, belief structures saturate the electronic text, raining down like manna, driving skyward through us like the gravitron, sustaining and anchoring its continual replacement.
Likewise with electronic media the image again takes its place within the system of text, that is within narrative syntax, where, as Braman reminds us, "the location of a point is less important than how it got there." What's seen next: what's said next. The constructive hypertext is a version of what it is becoming, a structure for what does not yet exist. As such it is both the self-organizing phase of the reader who replaces the retreating writer, and the readable trace, time remembered in the unraveling retreat of this replacement. The one who will write will have to recall what the one before has written in such a way that the next one, the third self-you who write after us-may find the one finding the other first. Else what either of us have done will be lost to you and to remembered time; in its retreat the space of the story will neither mark the form of its making nor the making of its form. There will be no knot.
Seen is scene. In the poem the erupting world "glitter[s] with its distant sleepy past." Seen through the poet's eyes, four chapters follow from the book in the ruins: three linked, a fourth marked by a scission and wounded. The first, as always, is light and lovers meeting.
The lanterns have been lit. A first shiver Passes over the instruments. The quadrille Begins to curl, subdued by the rustle Of big trees swaying in the formal park. She slips outside, her shawl floating in the dark, And meets him in a bower overgrown With vines. They sit close on a bench of stone And watch the lanterns glowing in the jasmine.
The big trees are twisted metal columns, we know this from the space where we entered; a bench of stone and glowing lanterns will become a table of heavy books dragged out by workmen in the light of a fire the sunlight kindles on a floor strewn with pages. You can't know this yet from the poem but you know it now from this particular reading. Or perhaps you already know this from the poem and mark it again in this reading. In hypertext each such point of a reading-what you know or don't know, tree or column, bench or table-potentially impinges upon another.
Yet we don't know where or in what form the world will erupt, whether for us, for the lovers, or for the poet who sees a book in the ruins. In "Treatise on Poetry" Milosz questions "whether Hegel's Spirit of History is the same spirit that rules the world of nature ... in what respect history is a continuation of nature" (1987, 174). For him, naturally, it is a question of being versus becoming, Heraclitus flows into Hegel, the confluence overflowing the Thomist channel.
Or so the poet says outside the poem, where he knows no other metric for nature or history. Inside the poem, however, there is, I think, the topological, a truly Heraclitian science. "Space is best mapped topologically, rather than, as has been the Western habit, geometrically," writes Braman,
the latter is capable only of modelling linear movement or change ... [describing] a system at a given moment only in terms of its earlier or later states, meaning geometric mapping can never describe the transformation of a system. Topology ... describes qualitative transformations, including discontinuities so severe they transform the system itself. (1994, 362)
The jasmine light cannot last, scene is seen but sound is a singularity, a discontinuity, space furled in on itself. The next chapter of the book in the ruins is a stanza that won't stand still. Sounds come to the fore, the curl of quadrille and rustle of trees giving way to what you hear here:
Or here, this stanza: you hear a goose pen Creak, the butterfly of an oil lamp Flutters slowly over scrolls and parchment, A crucifix, bronze busts. The lines complain In plangent rhythms, that desire is vain.
The creaking goose pen, like the Escher hands that draw themselves (themselves now gone over into tradestyle and T-shirt, greeting card and wallpaper, an icon of recurrence), writes its own plangent lines, a genuine autopoiesis. In his "Treatise on Poetry" the butterfly serves Milosz as a sign of the power of recurrence; the boy in that poem (the section is a portrait of the artist as Lithuanian boy logician and poet) "looks upon the butterfly's colors with a wonder that is mute, formless, and hostile to art." Outside the poem Milosz (who is not afraid to say what something means outside the poem) says, "That means he admires the butterfly, but art which was supposed to be an incantation and break that cycle of recurrence ... turns out not to have been very effective; the power of recurrence, of the natural order is very strong" (1987, 180). Whether this is so we cannot know, even holding it to the light, but it is clear that the butterfly in this poem flutters over icons of recurrence, from Horace's bronze bust to Jesus cross, from scroll to book, and alights on desire.
I once wrote about electronic text that "our desire is a criticism that lapses before the form and so won't let form return to transparency" (1995, 220). I am not wise enough to be able to say what that means exactly but I know I was trying to think about how to talk about the replacement of author in its double sense: the author moves to another place, the author is put in another place. "We need to surrender control and in that constant declination continually render control meaningless," I went on. The electronic text is such an oscillation, a strange clock that keeps track of space not time, or, if time, what Milosz in the "Treatise on Poetry" (1987) calls "Time lifted above time by time."
Place to place within the electronic text, place itself is replaced in something like Braman's "qualitative transformations ... discontinuities so severe they transform the system itself." So too, in the next chapter of the book of Milosz's poem, "here" replaces "here" in just such a transformation. The earlier line "Here, this stanza" becomes
Here a city rises. In the market square Signboards clang, a stagecoach rumbles in to scare A flock of pigeons up.
Excerpted from Othermindedness by Michael Joyce
Copyright © 2000 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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