13 May 2008
Professor Rita Raley
University of California, Santa Barbara
Close reading “concatenation” by geniwate
The electronic text “concatenation” written by geniwate and co-designed by Brian Kim Stefans manifests an ostensibly endless combination of words and letters within a disruptive background of conflict and war. The design of the work informs the content. Using Flash as his medium, geniwate collapses, explodes, and disintegrates words through rearrangement and disassembly. The work attempts to decentralize the meaning of and, paradoxically, to illuminate the power of words. Through an engaging dynamic of design elements, user/reader interactivity, and motif, geniwate presents a hypertext work that explores how violence can deconstruct language and affect new sources of meaning.
“concatenation” traces how violence affects language, encompassing how trauma subverts the impact of words. Themes of war and motifs of explosions resound through the text. One screen that often appears when perusing the text reads, “my thoughts explode.” geniwate deconstructs the word explode into single letters and arranges them in a circle around my thoughts, emulating a bomb. The text bemoans that “world is a spelling mistake” and that “we trade syntax for semtex.” The impact of violence, war, suffering on words becomes clear: language degenerates, leaving people helpless and voiceless. Children “play with broken nouns [. . .] while politicians construe verbs” while “soldiers teach the grammar of war.” The text additionally ponders how to reconcile the imposed meaning of a word and how a person experiences what that word describes. One screen asks “how do you say torture” with the letters of torture scrambled, suggesting textually as well as visually that the trauma of torture resists coherent definition. geniwate programs the text to turn phrases such as “home is my screaming” into “my screaming is home.” The repetition of these words and their subsequent rearrangement connote various attempts – and, perhaps, failures – to adequately define trauma. On the other hand, the disintegration of words and their subsequently, seemingly infinite rearrangement often conveys new significance. geniwate intimates that despite the ease with which words fall apart, words are also “bombs scattered,” suggesting the resilience of words and their power to still impact the world.
The title of the work is significant. It means a connection or interdependence between things or events. geniwate employs it as the title of this piece and in many of the scattered letters in the background to demonstrate that while words and letters may suffer violence they can maintain meaning or generate new signification. At the same time “concatenation” aurally evokes the word “cacophony,” which implies a dueling methodology as to how to understand words once they have been disturbed or removed from their original state. This electronic text engages a fraught tension between a loss of meaning and a simultaneous gain of meaning as words fall apart or reform. The screens “meanings confuse bodies” and “bodies confuse meanings” initially appear similar, but contain nuanced and distinct differences. The same is true for the screens that entail de/constructing mis/connections. In one reading, “we are deconstructing misconnections” is echoed by a screen two frames later: “I am deconstructing connections.” geniwate reveals the duality of words and how the meaning of a sentence can chance dramatically if it is rearranged or one word replaces another. In another reading, “we want our vocabulary back” becomes “we want our bodies back.” These screens emphasize the regression of not total loss of language, and therefore agency, when people suffer abject violence. Yet the screens also align a person’s voice with her corporeality, underscoring the importance of language to one’s being. geniwate showcases “concatenation” with two other pieces in a collection called Generative Poetry. The word “generative” in the title of the collection suggests that the works are generated – electronically, “randomly” – and, somewhat paradoxically, that the works themselves are capable of producing or creating their own meaning.
The design of “concatenation” enhances the themes and motifs of the work itself. Flash allows geniwate and Stefans to explore how words function within an aesthetics of disruption and decay. The Flash program generates a pale green frame, replicated exactly in the background of the webpage, with bold red words in the foreground. geniwate typically litters the background with pale red letters and transparent, white rectangles and squares. The washed-out landscape with red letters evokes the idea of fresh or drying blood. Furthermore, the pale letters usually sit on or are akimbo to the aforementioned white planes, echoing the page or linear text; however, the “explo[sion]” of thoughts, alongside scrambled words and detached letters, disrupts this attempt at institutional literary order. The apparent cohesive color scheme of the text is again disrupted by jarringly-colored, horizontal silhouettes of “saints” that sweep across particular screens. The text itself occasionally becomes discordant from its scheme: “help us patron saint of” (in red) “concatenation” (in orange). These design elements align with the content of the hypertext. geniwate and Stefans can literalize the phrases “off the walls discourse ricochets” and “text ricochets off the walls,” which print does not allow. While animating the text as an image or film may have a similar effect, the interactive abilities of Flash grant geniwate a more complex text because each viewing of “concatenation” is different for each reader.
“concatenation” is interactive and its legibility is predicated on the individual reader’s desire to engage the text. The user cannot move to the subsequent “screen” unless she clicks somewhere in the frame of the text. She must also have a cursor that looks like an eraser (from Microsoft Paint) rather than the traditional “arrow” cursor. The program will not change to the next screen if the user clicks on it with an arrow cursor; the cursor turns into eraser (a small white square) typically when it sits on top of or near letters or words in the program. Once the reader establishes how to read “concatenation,” she can begin to erase letters or click to a new screen. When the user “erases,” the background letters disappear first – often leaving behind a scattering of letters before they too disappear – and then the bolded ones. The user can often read or mentally form disjointed words in scattered letters: “concatenation” and “torture” appear regularly. The easy erasure insinuates that words are easily manipulated and that they may not retain their signifiers when language suffers violence. Significantly, the text seemingly does not have an end. It rehashes and reshuffles word order, giving the impression that it will provide continuous combinations. In one reading of the text, the phrase “round and round we go” appears. It is also difficult to discern whether the text has an end point because leaving the window for too long, such as opening a new browser tab or moving into a different program, causes “concatenation” to eventually revert to its title screen. In this way the text resists having an end. A repeated phrase, “time fades discourse,” mocks the reader, reminding her to pay attention. This reversion to the title screen suggests that if the reader does not regard words carefully, they and their meanings will disappear. Contradistinctively but no less importantly, geniwate programs degeneration as well as duration into the text in order to demonstrate how words and violence are continuous elements in modern life, even if they flit in and out of sight. The title screen flashes spasmodically, implying once more that words and letters have transitory yet resounding nature.
Violence and language clash in “concatenation.” The hypertext utilizes its medium, Flash, to further demonstrate how words and letters may be fractured yet retain cohesion and meaning. geniwate and Stefans play with the issues of reader attentiveness and looping, programming frustration into the work because it seems endless but will nevertheless reset if the reader’s concentration falters. In this manner, the text reveals subtly how even passivity can enact violence. These design elements engage the content of the work in that they illustrate how trauma affects language and, further, how words can retain meaning or transform despite violence that seeks to silence if not abolish them completely.
Copyright 2008 Shayna L. Ingram. All rights reserved.
geniwate, and Brian Kay Stefans. "concatenation." Generative Poetry. The Electronic Literature Collection. Ed. N. Katherine Hayles. Vol. 1. CD-ROM. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2000.