Poetics class was always one of my favorite subjects in my college studies – I must admit it, loud and clear, since few of my classmates shared my opinion. My interest in that subject was probably due to the fact that I had become familiar with the foundations of poetics earlier on – and nothing helps as much as a good foundation. Poetics (the university subject) gave me what I was looking for, allowing me to read further chapters of Michał Głowiński’s Zarys teorii literatury (Outline of Literary Theory), Aleksandra Okopień-Sławińska, Janusz Sławiński, and Poetyka stosowana (Applied Poetics) by Bożena Chrząstowska and Seweryna Wysłouch. Thus, I received what I was expecting, and what would later prove to be insufficient. Please don’t misunderstand me – it was no fault of the textbooks, which provide a great foundation for learning about literature, and which equip young adepts of Polish studies with the tools they need better than any other books possibly could. I value very highly what I learned from reading those books – but it was nonetheless inadequate for analyzing works involving new media, or the conditions in which such media operate.
The definition of poetics proposed in Zarys teorii literatury (familiar to everyone in the field) went as follows: “Poetics, as we wish to grasp it here, examines primarily the way the literary work exists as a linguistic production with a particular character of its own, defined by the ‘needs’ of the aesthetic function.” That simple and convenient definition has, over time, revealed itself to be inadequate, because although it is still true today, several decades after that definition was formulated, that literary texts remain linguistic productions, a number of them attempt to cross beyond that dimension, eluding structuralist definitions, their authors strive to expand their texts to include visual, musical, digital, and other dimensions. Though the linguistic dimension appears, naturally enough, to remain dominant (it is difficult to imagine a literary text without a linguistic text), it is enhanced by these other dimensions, frequently becoming a multimedia work. This tendency toward the creation of multimedia literary works, though evident in the twentieth century, really became manifest in the twenty-first century, in connection with the ongoing technological revolution (widespread access to the Internet, and so on).
Structuralist definitions, created several decades ago, have revealed themselves to be of little use in dealing with texts that belong to e-literature, because, as Marshall McLuhan showed many times, “[e]ach form of transport not only carries, but translates and transforms […] the message.” Techsts seem to require the creation of a new, or perhaps rather the implementation of a revised and updated, language and arsenal of scholarly tools. It is also worthwhile to consider not only what the emergence of e-literature means for poetics as a scholarly discipline, but also for poetics as a subject taught within Polish philology programs, which probably are also faced with new tasks. I believe that in this situation, we need to assess how poetics classes can prepare students for reading and attempting to describe e-literature.
Techst On Techst
In order to learn more about what we call techsts, it is best to approach their usual context, the Internet. The main source of knowledge available on the subject of cybernetic literature is the web portal www.techsty.art.pl, maintained and edited by Mariusz Pisarski, author of a monograph on literary hypertexts published in 2013 by the Ha!art Corporation, entitled Xanadu. Hipertekstowe przemiany prozy (Xanadu. Hypertext Transformations of Prose). One of the definitions of hypertext contained in the book declares: “A hypertext is a work that branches out and operates on demand.” Mariusz Pisarski, in discussing that definition, clarifies that “branching out” signifies not so much changes affecting a work’s interpretation as changes in the plot (bifurcations and divarications in the hypertext occur at the level of the represented world and the narrative thread). Espen Aarseth has also defined hypertext as a subcategory of “cybertext,” a machine for producing various kinds of utterances. In his work, Mariusz Pisarski also cites the definition provided by Ted Nelson (creator of the concept of Xanadu), who described hypertext as a digital “form of non-sequential writing.” Nonetheless, we should stress the fact that hypertext eagerly simulates traditional texts (according to a specific kind of mimetism) and, among all the forms of new media works, remains closest to the traditional object of literary scholarship.
The rich literary tradition behind hypertext, whose roots can be traced back to the Torah (some scholars look still farther), needs to be remembered. One work considered to be a classic of the genre avant la letter, or proto-hypertext, is Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman, and such authors as Julio Cortazar, Italo Calvino, and Milorad Pavic are seen as continuators of that tradition. The first hypertexts in the proper sense of the term appeared in the 1980s; worthy of mention are Robert Arellano’s Sunshine ’69, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, and afternoon a story by Michael Joyce.
What differentiates these first hypertexts from their precursors? Surprisingly, not chiefly their place of publication (the Internet): the attribute of being web-based is in fact not the (only) determining factor in a hypertext, as Mariusz Pisarski accurately states; often texts published on the Internet could, without major losses, have been published as paper books. The main difference appears to be the departure from the reader’s habit of reading in a linear fashion. Hypertext aims to shift away from the centre toward Deleuzian rhizomes, a more relaxed, diffuse compositional structure. A similar idea appeared even earlier in the works of Michel Foucault and Jorge Luis Borges. As Pisarski writes:
Hypertekst, in its most Utopian version, throwing literature from the print form onto the electronic screen, promises to fulfil the myth that has long tormented humanity of an ideal book, available to everyone, every era’s library of Babel, the myth of the book of books, the act of whose reading never ends, the Coleridgean myth of Xanadu. At the same time, however, this myth is undermined by hypertext, particularly in that aspect of it that indicates a closing, a definite beginning and definitive end (…).
Thus hypertext, in Seweryna Wysłouch’s poetic phrase, “feeds on” literature, not only using its tradition, but also borrowing its ideals and desires.
Lost in Transmission
This short introduction to the idea of hypertext seems essential in the context of what I was discussing above; a student often finds coming to grips with a postmodernist work to be a tremendous challenge. Let us consider even such a well-established work as Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler; for beginning philologists, it will most likely present a certain amount of difficulty (reading or describing it) if nothing else because of its non-linear narration. The work is not an easy one to interpret, though it falls within the bounds of traditionally understood literariness. Let us move further (a lot of time has passed since 1979) and confront what we know about hypertext with some passages from Ziemowit Szczerek’s recently published Siódemka (Lucky Seven):
“No, OK, I give up no,” you said loudly, in a tone of resignation. “Those elixirs are some kind of a joke. That’s taking it a bit too far. Mieszko the First? (…).”
You took out your revolver, fired, and with one shot, put a bullet in the head of the man who converted the Polish nation to Christianity and took him down (…). You wondered, how much ammunition did you have left? Well, you thought, at first you had five cartridges in the five chambers of the barrel, plus three magazines with five each. A total of 20. The first cartridge fired was there, on the slope, next to the car. That made 19. The second in the dragon. 18. Now the third. 17. Suddenly in the upper right corner of your field of vision something like four icons presenting four magazines appeared, and next to it the word AMMO. One of them only had two full chambers left (…).
And he had made (WT: Bolesław Chrobry) a deft attack, and hit you right in the forehead with the coronation sword of the kings of Poland (…). In the upper left corner of your field of vision there appeared a red line and the word LIFE. And it immediately became a bit shorter.
The short description cited here of the protagonist’s fight with the rulers of Poland presents an interesting object for analysis. Siódemka, in no way a hypertext, since it was published in paper form, adopts a convention taken from computer games, while at the same time having nothing in common with “book-games.” The choice of this convention evokes not only themes relating to cybernetic literature, but also problems of the boundaries or kinship between literature and computer games. Obviously, as Mariusz Pisarski has noted, one of the most important differences between them is the interactive nature of the latter, and also the opposition between the stasis of literature and the dynamism (and simulation) of computer games. Nobody doubts that Ziemowit Szczerek’s novel is literature, not a game; nonetheless, through his references to the structure of computer games, the book somehow steps outside the boundaries of classical narrative art. The narrator in the novel does not simply perform the function of describing events; he is also their guiding force and coordinator. These functions have long been present in literature, but Szczerek takes them slightly further – the narrator not only directs the protagonist of his story, but in some measure interferes in the protagonist’s world, transforming it into a virtual world. Of course in the novel that intervention is justified by the use of the “elixirs” given to Paweł by Wiedźmin (another reference to cybernetic culture). Nevertheless, it is difficult not to notice that a kind of rupture takes place, since the narrator not only has insight into his protagonist’s experience, but also is able to transfer him from reality to the virtual world; Paweł feels like the main protagonist of a computer game (who decides for himself what actions to take), yet doesn’t know that he is really controlled like a puppet. And is precisely that transformation of reality into a computer game that seems particularly significant here.
This task represents a difficult one for poetics (and, as a result, for neophytes in the discipline). The passages cited above could obviously be summarized in terms of computer-game conventions, but it seems that something else is going on in the novel as well (if nothing else, the protagonist’s transformation into a “web” protagonist). In reality, it is only the beginning, an attempt to describe hypertext proves even more difficult, as due to its multimedia nature, it eludes all known categories.
What This Means for Poetics – and Criticism
The multimedia nature of e-literature is not the only thing that can lead to trouble for poetics. The question of this multimedia aspect could be dealt with in terms of concepts already familiar to poetics, such as intertextuality, or intersemiotic translation, referencing the hybrid character of e-literature (I have in mind the expansion of textuality to include visual, audio, and other dimensions, and so forth). There is also another important element linked to the multimedial aspect: the non-linearity of the hypertext work. By its interactivity, hypertext encourages (or even forces) us to take a non-linear approach to reading – not only through the many stimuli it offers, but also through constant departures from inside the text. Works of this type are based on hyperlinks, which means that their center is washed away; instead of concentrated reading, the reader is faced with the task of constant movement from one association to another. That unfathomable number of connections, reminiscent of the Deleuzian rhizome mentioned earlier, determines the hybrid character of the hypertext, its ungraspable nature.
This fundamental variability seems to be the main problem that poetics must address if it is to develop any kind of classification framework for e-literature. That variability is the result of the essential anatomy of the cybernetic world and culture – the extemporaneity, speed, and eternal, ceaseless change that constitute it. The world of the Internet possessing unusual dynamism, mobility, and apparently unlimited possibilities for creating new data, naturally influences newly arising forms of cybernetic literature which, combining literariness and the traits just referred to, produce a hybrid culture text impossible to classify.
The nature of web-based works (which would include e-literature) can be gleaned quite splendidly through the example of the meme, the poetics of which are perhaps impossible to narrowly define. Naturally, almost every web user would be able intuitively to answer the question, “What is a meme?”; but delimiting any kind of boundaries appears a pointless task. One of the main features, the one that in some sense is the basic unit of Internet communication, seems to be suppleness in the midst of change, readiness to respond to the spontaneously arising needs of users.
The hybrid character of hypertext is not, however, based solely on its complex multimedia nature, but also on its interactiveness, which is a result of (among other factors) the hyperlinks authors use. The reader of e-literature should be prepared to come into contact not with a finished text perfectly formed by the author, but rather a kind of literary possibility. It is the reader who decides how the text will look, and who furthermore often becomes a co-author of the work; the accent previously placed on the author’s role in the creative process dissolves, his central role disappears, making the reader share responsibility for the shape of the text.
The concepts we know from poetics must be redefined in dealing with e-literature. That task seems difficult to the extent that, as I have mentioned, hypertext strives to make its boundaries fluid. How to classify what by its very nature aims to break down all forms of classification? The premise is evidently a Utopian one – cybernetic texts, as has already been noted, feed eagerly on literature, so it is not difficult to find points of contiguity, and what is more, total fluidity of genre boundaries is an unachievable goal. Nonetheless, the extemporaneous and mutable nature of cybernetic works would appear to provide literary criticism with more opportunities to shine than poetics, where describing e-literature is concerned.
In dealing with e-literature, the aces in criticism’s hand are its spontaneity (in response to ongoing developments and vital, pressing literary problems) and its greater freedom in the form of its utterances. What I have in mind here are, for example, the lack of linguistic or stylistic limitations (in contrast to poetics, which tries to maintain its scholarly complexion), and, therefore, a certain elasticity that manifests itself in the possibility of using form to reference the form of the work under analysis. That seems particularly important in the case of internet works, whose authors devote a lot of attention precisely to the text’s formal layer. Furthermore, in the case of e-literature, criticism can take place in that literature’s natural environment – the Internet. Additionally, it can take one of the forms typical for web discourse, for example, the meme, referred to above, which often corresponds better to a cybernetic work than would a classical (critical or poetological) text. Of course works dealing with poetics can also be released in digital form, but even then, they retain their (strictly) textual character.
Not every manifestation of literary criticism published on the Internet has to use the medium I mentioned above, but it does seem that for understanding and attempting a critical description of the phenomenon of cybernetic literature, being conversant in the language of the Internet is crucial (if for no other reason than that it forms the basis of digital works’ diction). An inscription from the website techsty.art.pl may serve as an example:
Rozdzielczość Chleba’s long-awaited cybertramp “Nośnik” (Conveyor) has finally seen the light of day (…). Łukasz Podgórni, Leszek Onak and Piotr Puldzian Płucienniczak together announce the celebration of the “bummer” that the digital era provided them with – “after a pretty decent binge.” And they invite other authors, including Kinga Raab and Weronika Piła (two hemispheres of the cybertramp world) to celebrate with them. The authors declare:
Don’t misunderstand us, we are not converts to offline; we are not pushing you to “log out and start living” (eww), though offline paradoxically gains from being online. Partying with the net and computers was fucking awesome, worth almost anything, but now we feel very, very bad, though in an alternative system we could still go on partying. Meanwhile, on the desktop – the landscape screensaver has helpfully been replaced by a screensaver announcing: We have to get high on internet (…).
“Nośnik” was divisible into a few separate: Quarter-Internets, jpgs, Tumblr vs. Vkontakte, the section $(beer).click(function() and [Photos]. The fullest container, Crumbs of Life Under the Keyboard, contains “narratives, statuses, epistles and evidence of persecution sponsored by the producers of appliances equipped with a screen and modem.”
We encourage you to read it! “Nośnik” is digital culture in a live, rebellious, linguistically and artistically progressive, state, courageously, even on a bummer, carrying the torch of our avant-garde great-great-grandfathers’ fathers.
The passages in the above text only announce the contents to be presented in “Nośnik” (edited by Łukasz Podgórni) published by Rozdzielczość Chleba (www.ść-ch.pl). With cybernetic or post-cybernetic literature, the border between criticism and literature itself is obliterated, since both forms of art, using the same medium (the Internet), readily take advantage of its potential, not only the technical possibilities it presents, but above all the language it has created. The text cited above is only comprehensible to active Internet users (and not all of those, but exclusively those among them interested in literature). Inscribed in the hybrid nature of e-literature, it seems, is the search for a new language of expression, and accordingly, eager use of the language of contemporary technologies; hence one of the sections of “Nośnika” is called “$(beer).click(function()” referencing the language of programming. The language of criticism is thus applied to the language of the object being described – perhaps that is the only way to approach the phenomenon of (post-) digital literature, which willingly replaces reality with a (post-) cybernetic world.
It is hard to imagine how poetics, if it desires to maintain its scholarly orientation (without giving up the set of tools it has created), could reference Internet language so prominently; for that reason, well-aimed and, more importantly, up-to-date description of e-literature has presented no small challenge for poetics. That does not, obviously, mean that poetics should simply give up on the study of cybernetic literature, but it does mean that poetics will probably have to accept the fact that being a less extemporaneous form, it will remain, at least for a time (until the moment when its arsenal gets an update), one step behind the literature of the Internet.
In that case – what about poetics taught in universities? Perhaps the first step of consequence would be familiarizing students with articles presenting not a poetics of e-literature, but criticism about it. It is criticism, after all, which presents the first “filter” in mass reception of literature of the (post-) digital and (post-) cybernetic era. Moreover, reading criticism of e-literature seems a good place to start learning how to read multimedia works of literature.
We find, then, that poetics as a university subject is tasked with a new assignment: preparing young scholars of Polish philology not only for reading e-literature (which most of them in fact are being prepared for by using the Internet on a daily basis), but also for attempting to describe it, and providing them with the critical tools to engage in discussion and further study of techsts.
translated by Timothy Williams
The purpose of the article is to consider to what degree the changes that have taken place in literature (the turn toward cybernetic literature) have directly influenced both literary criticism and poetics understood as a scholarly discipline and academic subject. Based on various examples, I reflect on whether the Polish philology students of today are equipped with tools for studying “techsts,” and also whether the creation of new tools is needed. The student perspective adopted here is meant to permit an analysis “from below” of the influence of new media on culture, and the question of how literary works are experienced by their audience in the (post-) digital age.
M. Głowiński, A. Okopień-Sławińska, J. Sławiński, Zarys teorii literatury, fourth edition, Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Szkolne i Pedagogiczne 1975, 6.
See Mariusz Pisarski, Xanadu. Hipertekstowe przemiany prozy, Kraków: Ha!art, 2013, 15. All further references to the work are to this edition.
M. McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, 90.
This does not, however, represent a complete and utter rejection of the arsenal of tools previously developed – works of e-literature are still, prefix aside, works of literature.
M. Pisarski, Xanadu, 11. This definition is a hybrid of those formulated by Nelson and Wardrip-Fruin.
M. Pisarski, Xanadu, 11.
M. Pisarski, Xanadu, 12.
M. Pisarski, Xanadu, 9. Here, it should be noted that the term “hypertext” refers not only to works of literature but also to the method of their creation. Moreover, one scholar of new media, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, has risked the thesis that hypertext is not a tool, but a medium of communication. See M. Pisarski, Xanadu, 11.
M. Pisarski, Xanadu, 13.
See M. Pisarski, Xanadu, 14.
M. Pisarski, Historia hipertekstu (The History of Hypertext), online version: http://techsty.art.pl/hipertekst/historia.htm, (last accessed: 20.01.2016).
M. Pisarski, Klasyka powieści hipertekstowej (Classics of the Hypertext Novel), online version: http://techsty.art.pl/hipertekst/hiperfikcja/klasyka.htm, (last accessed: 20.01.2016).
M. Pisarski, Powieść hipertekstowa (The Hypertext Novel), online version: http://techsty.art.pl/hipertekst/hiperfikcja.htm, (last accessed: 20.01.2016).
M. Pisarski, Hipertekst, książka i druk (Hypertext, Book and Print), online version: http://techsty.art.pl/hipertekst/ksiazka.htm, (last accessed: 20.01.2016).
M. Pisarski, Hipertekst, książka i druk. Spelling as in the original.
S. Wysłouch, “Literackość i medialność pierwszej polskiej powieści internetowej (‘Blok’ Sławomira Shutego)” (The Literariness and Mediality of the First Polish Internet Novel [Sławomir Shuty’s Blok (The Apartment Block)]), Techsty 2014, no. 9 (1), online version: http://techsty.art.pl/m9/s_wyslouch_blok.html, (last accessed: 20.01.2016).
Mariusz Pisarski devotes considerable space to non-linearity in texts and hypertexts in one chapter of Xanadu.
Pisarski, Xanadu, 96-103.
The novel was also published by the Ha!art Corporation, which notably is the main center (perhaps excepting techsty.art.pl) of reflection on cybernetic literaure.
Z. Szczerek, Siódemka, Kraków: Ha!art, 2014, 118-119.
Z. Szczerek, Siódemka, 120.
I have in mind here books constructed on the model of computer games, such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series, in which, depending on what steps the player takes, the persona can “win” or “lose.” Their structure tends to feature a block of text, with two options underneath it – the reader/player is directed to a different page depending on which option he or she selects, etc.
Pisarski, Gry i opowiadania – różnice (Games and Stories – Differences), online version: http://techsty.art.pl/gry/opowiadanie_roznice.html, (last accessed: 20.01.2016).
The creation of this web protagonist represents not only a departure from classical narrative structure, but seems to be something entirely new in narratology (even though Siódemka appears to have little in common with most works of literature that we might consider representative of postmodernism).
One writer who has addressed this is Bożena Witosz. Mariusz Pisarski adds, however, that “old theories” cannot always encompass in their scope everything that is happening in the new media. Furthermore, “new theories” can prove to be useful in working not only on old, but also on new texts. Pisarski does not propose abandoning known methods entirely, but rather focusing on analysis “sensitive to the medium.”
See Pisarski, Xanadu, 73-76, 260-263.
Pisarski writes more broadly on the problem of intertextuality in relation to hypertext in a chapter of Xanadu. There, he elucidates the difference between intertextuality and hypertext, which can often be “intratextual.” Pisarski, Xanadu, 42-44.
Perhaps it would be better to speak of an “intersemiotic work” – a hypertext composed of many semiotics systems, beginning with text and going on to include sound, illustrations, etc.
M. Pisarski, Hipertekst – definicje (Hypertext—Definitions), online version: http://techsty.art.pl/hipertekst/definicje.htm, (last accessed: 20.01.2016). It should be obvious that I am simplifying things here somewhat. The problem of different kinds of hypertext has been extensively described by Mariusz Pisarski in his monograph Xanadu; among other distinctions, he distinguishes among axial, arborescent, and web (true) hypertexts. See Pisarski, Xanadu, 39-41.
To be clear, this does not exhaust all the features of hypertext that result from its medium; Mariusz Pisarski enumerates the following properties of digital media: they are numeric, web-based, modular, multi-channel, and dynamic. M. Pisarski, Xanadu, 30-33.
M. Pisarski, Powieść hipertekstowa.
Naturally this does not mean that criticism of poetry appears in the form of a poem, but the critic in his discourse can invoke the typical features of the work being discussed.
M. Pisarski, Zwał cyberżula | ćpanie internetu, czyli poezja cybernetyczna na zakręcie (The Cybertramp’s Bummer / Internet Junkies, or Cybernetic Poetry at the Turning), online version: http://techsty.art.pl/?p=1808, (last accessed: 20.01.2016).
It seems that when we talk about the description of cybernetic literature, poetics (alongside the accusation of overgeneralizing) is exposed to the accusation of becoming obsolete or being out of touch with regard to the fast transformations occurring in the internet context.
Mariusz Pisarski advances a similar proposal – in his book, he does not propose to utterly discard “old” theories, but to adapt them to the conditions of new media. Thus the idea arises of the “multiple-phase critical procedure.” He claims that the analysis of hypertexts should begin with structural analysis, followed by polysemiotic (numbering the channels in the work), before proceeding to examine the mechanics of the hypertext and look for hypertext patterns, including narrative regularity. M. Pisarski, Xanadu, 262.
In any case, net users constantly encounter hypertext, since “ht” (which stands for hypertext) is also the beginning of “http” and “html.” See M. Pisarski, Xanadu, 9.