Twilit Ragas...

by Robert Siegle



1.
... are relatively quiet, meditative compositions in Indian classical music, the musician sensitive in the choice of a raga to the season and to the time of day of the performance, attentive to the interplay of the scale, rhythm, and coloring particular to the raga being played, very far from missing the formal score from which western musicians more closely duplicate the original intentions of a composer. The personal style which individuates the western performer's version of the original varies far less than the flights of improvisation within limits that characterize the performances of Indian masters.

I lived long enough in India to lose the knack of listening to western music with its standardized scale, its metronome rhythm, and what came to feel like grayscale renderings of our tiny sliver from the wide range of historical and human possibilities. At first I was only wry, at my own expense, to see the cover of Michael Joyce's Twilight, A Symphony, considering a bit wistfully the closetful of disabled western classics from my pre-Asian years. In the age of coming out of the closet or, in the case of politicians it seems, being dragged out, I've been shoeboxing and cartoning and leaning tall paintings up against the closed closet door. I'm coming out with my packing all this in because the wry smile haunts me as I sit here writing. The subject of the hour, it seems, is hypertextual fiction, a lovely symphony of links and f/x, poignant phrasings, wistful turns, a careful construction set upon a Wyndham hill. If you've never read Michael Joyce, you should, clearly. The voice is there, the intelligence shapes the emotion lacing these words, the structure of the linkings evoke a resummoning of the scattered ambience of consciousness from the noisy channels and surface scratches and deep warps of this clumping century.

But fair warning, at least about these words set to a different modal scale and drummed to talas that pulse nonsymphonically. I feel the lines drawing the StorySpace links in Joyce's work like meridians of longitude and latitude whipping into place around my body, gridding me with a score when I'd rather play, improvise. The first strolls through the cool fresh air of Joyce's phrasings were exhilarating. I double-returned for the default links, I command-optioned to select my entry into the subliminal traffic flow, I shift-linked my way backwards, I map-viewed my way back out to an overview. I'm no stranger to technology: I am also no stranger to four/four time, to four walls, to the overview that is not, still, my own. Enough of the music story. In addition to ragas and bhajans, I've also been reading, lots, in the fiction slams of the American other press (mags, zines, small presses) and the rapid morphings flowing across the internet beyond the more conventional domain.edus. These are not the sometimes formulaic, sometimes beautiful workshop writers, and these are certainly not the bestsellers; they write with an attitude, they write from an analytical position that may be intuitive, read straight from the veins and the vibes, or that may be quite studied, erudite even, sometimes leaden with allusion to francopolysyllabic riffs on the same mess of postmodernity in which we find ourselves in the outsourced rustbelt and the dioxin canyons of the corporate legacy.

I think there's a different sensibility stalking "us" out there. The spatial form of modern literature does not seem either natural, or normal, or nostalgia to this stalker: it's not even a memory. The stalker's not worried about Arnold Bennett missing Virginia Woolf's gong; the stalker is not concerned with rebelling against Eliot's elitism nor against the formal purities of Clement Greenberg; the stalker is not deconstructing the canon nor the eidos of western humanism, and the stalker doesn't share Wayne Booth's anxieties about unreliable narration or global unstable irony. The stalker's not on foot; we, we're not even the target but the spectators at a drive-by. And these gridlines raising a rash on my fifty-year old skin are a fairy gossamer web flashing by at nighthawk speed for a kawasaki cult further out, much further, than any Burning Man, even if burning wistfully, like incense.

Man and Modernism don't need to be burnt in effigy; they're gone. Not by the numbers, certainly: the republicans will always be with us. But the others, the ones your hormonal residues want to catch in the binoculars scuffing up clouds in the distance, they're moving out. The points of departure are not The Waste Land, they're not even the Coney Island of the Mind. The points of departure are the Burroughs to Acker to Cooper triple play. Routines to intertext to phantasms ones that are way out there. Way strange, um, to us.

I lost hold of the western classics, I lost hold of the well-made whole. I'm here at the near end of the binoculars, not out there, with them, but I hear them out there, my version of the Tulsa Queen calling out to Emmy Lou Harris's songwriter in the night. And they spoil this story space for me, mostly, because I see non-euclidian stories out there, lines written in flight, chunks falling out of the destratifying upheavals of indie energies, I see structures smoking out the second halflife, glowing in the isotopic shadow of this century. I'm still writing paragraphs, they're riding lines. Nothing we think about structure will feel the same to them; our little PDAs of intersecting theme and form are an orphaned architecture. When the batteries run out, we'll paint elaborate illuminations upon them: my paints are readier than my hand or eye.

They'll look back on our storyspace and absolutely blow its maps and links. It could not occur to them to use the infinite interconnectivity of G3s and Pentium IIs and use it to archive bits we're meant to pick out with a pseudo-individual choice according to some xerographic personal preference. Their stuff pops, vanishes, morphs, degrades, feeds off clicks and mutates, invaginates our gaze and bumps and grinds our sunshine faces into mutant ninja culturopaths. Look in the monster's composite eyes: those reflections are the dark legions of our own tarred and wiry wishes and frustrations.

Which brings us to Twilight, I think, the twilight of archived bits, structural imperatives, and the trivialities of our implanted robotic psyches. In Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics (University of Michigan Press, 1995), Michael Joyce eloquently espouses the "constant reconfiguration" of hypertext, "before anything else a visual form, a complex network of signs that presents texts and images in an order that the artist has shaped but which the viewer chooses and reshapes" (206). Given the constraints of our storyspace, this may seem like utopian fantasies in the paddywagon of the thought police. Choosing from three options and reshaping an itinerary among the hot one hundred links is as far from this utopia as being l'étranger in the Land of Opportunity. We want myth, we live history.

But I'm also enamoured of this essay's "What Happens as We Go?" spirit. No winking emotives here; Joyce's theories are deeply, deeply pleasurable, as in this paragraph: I speak about the becomingness of hypertext in terms of contour. Contours are the sensual whole that we move over: transitory, evocable, multiple, and generative structures that make up our experience of interactive arts. We most often perceive contour in the sensuality of constantly reinscribed, impinging surfaces of word, image, and perceived shape. Contours are, in short, what happens as we go, the essential communication between the artist who gave way and the viewer who now gives ways to see. (207) Go back and read the whole paragraph, the whole essay: Joyce evokes the beauties of "the new contours of our own [that] shape themselves over what they have left us" (207). Do that with your hand, making the shape of what the shaping has left. Paradox, these contours that take shape by forming over what they've already left; paradox, that tropes a form out of the already passed by.

These contours are the beautiful form of Twilight, A Symphony and, at the same time, the baffling figure by which we have two things in one place, the minimal condition of Modernism itself. I.e., making form, in the present, as the present, out of what time has left: that is how you get form and time into the vortex of image, the futurist moment. From the later (shaping) perspective of what time has left us, we, our minds, are in the between of that paradox. Michael Joyce is precisely right to describe this as the experience of hypertext within our storyspace. If the shape of storyspace has already different contours even as we speak (write, read), that is only to say that this practice is already a contour of displacement as well as one of having been displaced. I got as far from symphony as raga before I realized that I too want two things in one place.

Not at all unlike the characters in Joyce's wonderfully made text windows, if we play out the convention of taking them as persons perpetuating the personal space of their individual autonomies. "They are sitting in the darkness of the screen porch at twilight," we read in one of the 389 text spaces with their 1337 links interweaving them, "one alone, one dying. Each one each. Why didn't you let me die? How ever did this happen to us?" "Each one" strives to form the contours of the past that constitutes their present, each a private interiority in a storyspace designed to duplicate the ambience of the classic private interiority of modern Euro-American culture. Joyce's success in evoking that space--there are sounds, images, even a bit of film here--explains the reverential language Eastgate System's marketers quote on the packaging ("a legend," "an information age Odyssey," tributes to the author's resonance with classical structures of thought).

They can even voice their awareness of just such resonant contours, these voices: "we are the last race of the carbon copy, the generation before the migration into light," not a Heaven's Gate cultist, but someone aware that "the Royal Standard" typewriter being used is a signifier of the carbon-based life form's twilight. This liminal zone takes some adjusting: And now I even write in an actual box, this one actually an actual Japanese box, the SENSEI 2000 portable computer, sleek and lean and grey as dreams, with a four-line window and mama-san chewing gum keys and a plug-in bubble memory I'm afraid to use, wanting something palpable for my troubles, if not hardcopy at least the little cassette valises full of memory. We're meant to notice the emphasis upon actuality, I take it, dating the speaker as much by that anxiety as by the degree of comfort in using "mama-san" as an adjective and the extent of discomfort with virtual memory. This narrator has not migrated into the light: it wants a natural grounding to these reveries, as we see in this commentary on narrative and technology:

In time I will tell everything and all in detail, but for now it has a form that I am unwilling to disturb, lodged in memory like stones in the water, a natural pattern, and older than stars.

I like to think that within this machine it is likewise so. The electrons of silicon possessed of a memory predating the one they have been formed to serve. Atom recalling granule, granule stone, stone the great mountain, mountain the first home.

Memory a "natural pattern"? "Older than stars"? This is a nonmigratory voice, one insulated from the forced migrations of history, one that can sustain a remarkably classical sense of homology between narrative form, memory, identity, and cosmos. A voice that "like[s] to think" the machine is like this story of humans, is endowed with their memory and identity, their need for place, belonging, rock solid identity.

Isn't it strange to think of so conservative a metaphysics, so familiar a narratology, in a work presented as the avant-garde of hypertextual writing? The hand tracing that contour, far from passing into some free form of light, seems to be patting history down into place, into familiar grooves. In a sequence that includes ripping hooks out of "primitive" fish, we read a scene about watching television for its clues about this sensibility:

Emily attending with half an eye but mostly intent on moving Brooke Shields in miniature from piece to piece of Barbie's furniture, when Peter Jennings enunciating onward suddenly became a clip of film from El Salvador or somewhere, raw and unheralded, a soundtrack of women weeping. We all stopped and looked up in the way you do when it seems real, Bess and I caught off guard, too late to change the channel now that Em had seen. They piled bodies onto the bed of a half-ton truck, more women wept, flies settled on the stiff and jutting tongue of an awkward scarlet chested corpse. Chickens pecked dust elsewhere in the courtyard. Sad eyed children gazed at the camera.

We watched Emily and wondered what she would say.

From Barbies to a seemingly "real" it, an "unheralded" and "raw" reality not yet cooked in the Jennings stew, a piece of the real from "El Salvador or somewhere." No wonder these characters are lost and nostalgic for an identity or a "first home" or a "primum mobile," as one of them notes at one point: they are aware of themselves on the eve of some sort of historical migration (let us hope not simply into the "teevee" light), but they are fatally alienated from their own point in history, loutish in their fear of children noticing that the "raw" or the "real" might be happening (if only in a generic there, it seems), utterly passive in watching Barbies, half-watching newscasts, hanging on their daughter's potential infection by a soundbite of historical consciousness. "How ever did this happen to us?" they ask. As easily as the mannered syntax imitates the literariness of a gone era.

I'm being unfair. I've mixed characters without straightening out for you which ones are speaking, who is married to whom, which one is ill and which one is merely neurotic and symptomatic of an age of displaced anxieties and drives. The Solidarity background of the Polish poet is ambience, not politics; the passage of the "twilight doctor" (Dr. Kevorkian, I presume?) is a pang, not a question; the childnapping is more plot convenience than even a casual sign of the times. That is, the windows onto social reality in this narrative are hermetically sealed, no doubt to conserve the ideological air conditioning by which an environment safe for late modernist egos can be preserved even as the hypertextuality of daily life threatens to overwhelm utterly the last narrative practices of the "carbon copy" era.

What do I think about Michael Joyce's achievement here? It is beautiful, it is ambulatory, it is as dreamy as the narrator considers his SENSEI grey case. Joyce has managed to use Eastgate's Storyspace program for a classical storyspace indeed, one in which readers may drift within a well-made virtual reality, breathing deeply the familiar fragrance of sensitive observation, poetic responses, evocative language. He has done so at considerable risk, of course, to the kind of consciousness to which these characters cling. Because form threatens to overwhelm the content to which characters and language cling: the very limited hypertextuality of this piece comes very close to melding all of the alleged characters into a single voice, a single symptom of an era's nostalgia for a kind of consciousness gone forever. Paradoxically, their individuality, their most precious atom of possession, approaches the vanishing point as we move even on the limited perspectival driftlines available to us. Certainly these characters are comically far from grasping the import of one of Twilight, A Symphony's most reverentially quoted passages: "My coming, my going. / Two simple occurrences / That got entangled." Very Zen, we New Agers say on our migratory path into our air-brushed light effects. But "entangled" means attached, and these characters are deeply attached to the kind of ego Kozan Ichikyo has let go. Joyce runs the risk, in other words, that we may experience a version of these characters that undoes every structure of coherence he or his characters attempt to weave for them ("listening how the birds wove the twilight into a tent, all their night music becoming an actual fabric of caring. I mean the whole landscape was mapped into it, each song a patchwork and all of them one fabric"). The holes in the tented fabric show large, the stitching of the patchwork coarsens into view and separates, the oneness of the fabric becomes at most the won-ness of its fabrication before, perhaps, dissolving altogether.

Our age, in other words, is also that of Dennis Cooper, Black Ice, the Grammatron, and a stunning array of performances and parodies and fictions out there, really out there, hiding on web pages next to vendors and info-marts and ad-mazes and even more conventional fiction given away for free in the self-publishing paradise of the internet. For some of these writers, the "becomingness of hypertext" pulses within traditional forms of publication (Cooper's books, netpages without hotlinks) because it is conceptually and culturally hotlinked to the multi-textual universe in which we find ourselves and to the gritty historical realities that flow in and out of its phrases. Hypertext can, indeed, stimulate the "becomingness" Joyce celebrates in his theory, but also, just as clearly, hypertext can facilitate retracing the shapes of what tradition and individual talents "have left us." In the tightly scripted world of traditional conceptual storyspaces, these contours have a familiarity comforting to minds as much in the dark as these characters'. But such contours are curious in their familiarity, like quotations that come to mind with a faint wisp of the irony of anachronism. To whose reality do our fictions speak? The question troubles me when I read lovely writing like Michael Joyce's that seems out of keeping with its format and, perhaps, its age. Can carbon molecules of narrative and ontological form survive the format of hypertext without morphing, without migration, without taking flight into utterly new molecular forms unimaginable in the nostalgic ambience of Twilight, A Symphony ? I'm not sure of the answer. I know that I can admire the phrasing in this work, but I know also that my body squirms and finally rebels at being chained down by 1337 links that fence me off from the real business of narrative in our era. I don't get hyper about writing until it takes me on a real migration--not just a lovely play of light and shadows, but a movement beyond front porch nostalgia to the ultimate art and craft of surviving recombinant capitalism's latest mutation.


Robert Siegle, Professor of English at Virginia Tech, is the author of The Politics of Reflexivity, and Suburban Ambush, both from Johns Hopkins University Press.





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