My thanks to my partner, Ted Cabeen, who wrote the PHP code for this piece and nudged my HTML into submission. He also installed a more functional FTP program and a more advanced version of Notepad on my laptop (wonders never cease). I asked him whether he believes that code can be poetry or if there is “perfect” code. He replied that he believes that code “is out there somewhere,” but he has not written it. Our project is not exactly poetry, but we hope that you took something away from it. Ted resists the title, but he retains co-authorship on “The Effect of Text.” He was essential to the process. This project would not have materialized without his technical expertise or his intellectual input.
In Haroun in the Sea of Stories, a children’s novel by Salman Rushdie, Iff the Water Genie tells the young protagonist that “No story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old – it is the new combinations that make them new.” Through the guidance of the kind water genie and the metaphor of a teeming ocean with fluid, overlapping, and nonetheless unique stories, the young Haroun slowly begins to realize how narratives can add to as well as complicate each other.
The goal of “The Effect of Text” is to illustrate how literary works of all kinds and ages constantly reflect, engage, inform, and affect one another. This project composes new narratives from pieces of other texts. It functions upon Julie Kristeva’s conception of intertextuality, in that any “text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another” (“Word, Dialogue and the Novel”). My project throws together passages, typically one to three sentences from a varying set of novels, short stories, essays, poems, and ergodic hypertexts, in order to create a new text.
“The Effect of Text” spawns from a personal curiosity about the appearance of intertextuality in literature and its function in literary traditions. The work considers how a new narrative might be created from “found” texts (found generally, that is, on my personal bookshelves) and how an electronic, online medium would demonstrate the importance of intertextuality. The random generator that Ted constructed cannot be replicated adequately beyond the computer, nor can the reader actively participate in this text without it.
My project exemplifies an almost radical bent about intertextuality because instead of merely alluding to, parodying, or referencing different literary works, “The Effect of Text” is a complete pastiche of other people’s words – including the reader’s words, if she or he chooses to participate in the text. Yet with each attempt, a unique and meaningful text appears before the reader. As the passages slip around each other, they reveal intriguing, navigable spaces for interpretation not only of the new text but of the texts from which they draw.
I approached this project with an interest in random generators (e.g., automated poetry) and how they can generate meaning from seeming chaos or discord. I wondered how random generators might create new meaning from “random” words on a larger scale; more specifically, I wanted to know how a generator might construct a new narrative from sentences that did not directly relate to each other. I also like the transient quality of random generators, because the generated text is forever fleeting. Furthermore, the reader can quickly throw away what they do not like and the reader is likely to never see the same thing twice. Hopefully you, the reader, will find something unique and compelling in the generated text(s) that differs from the experience of your fellow readers.
The design of the text evokes phosphor monochrome computer monitors in order to underscore the impetus of the project: something “old” can be made into something “new.”
Judd Morrissey’s The Jew’s Daughter originally inspired this project. The hypertext maintains a static page whose text progresses only when the reader rolls his or her mouse over certain words, letters, or punctuation. (I originally wanted to construct an interactive Flash program that started with one sentence that gave two to three text rollover options, which the reader would subjectively pick, and the text would grow until it took over the screen. While we went in a different direction, I think this would be an interesting course to take in a similar hypertext.) The interactivity between the program/text and the user/reader that Morrissey permits in his text intrigued me most; however, I felt the level of engagement with Morrissey’s narrative was ultimately quite limited. It does not allow choices or a way for the narrator to guide him or herself through the text: Morrissey directly leads the reader through his text by only allowing forward progression and giving no real alternatives to explore the narrative space. I wanted you, the reader, to take part in the project and be able to decide how and what to read. The reader can even input his or her own sentences of any sort – prose, poetry, gobbledygook – into the generated narrative.
The project consults the reader: the reader must choose how long his or her personal text will be, and can even partake in the writing of the text. We do not completely direct the work. The reader can also reject the generated texts as much as she or he wants, until she or he feels satisfied. “The Effect of Text” contains several constrictions, however, against which the reader will necessarily want to push. We both allow and restrict the reader’s engagement with the text. Ted and I, of course, programmed limits into the project. The reader has only 139 passages to choose from and these are not passages from texts you would necessarily choose to read. We carefully assessed how a reader might try to meddle with the text, e.g., by demanding too many or too few passages, in order to devise a constant tension between the role of the reader and the so-called author, or authors, of the text.
The limits of this electronic text began with the sheer number of passages provided: as the numbers swelled to over 170 passages, we realized that our text generations bordered on incomprehensibility. We had to scale back. Another “problem” is to consider where the passages originated and why they were chosen; I have clear biases, even though I endeavored to choose passages as randomly as possible. The passages in many respects became thematic: the night, the moon, the universe, death. I feel anxious about this because while I sought to be random, I gravitated toward particular themes and inserted an overriding tone into the project that somewhat subverts my hope to construct new meaning from supposedly divergent elements.
Another drawback of this work is potentially suggesting that writers as well as readers do not, and cannot, have original ideas for literature. I do not think this is true. What I do suggest with this work is that we are nonetheless affected by narratives that we have somehow encountered, from fairy tales to Shakespeare to modernist poetry to hypertext fiction. Writers and readers equally operate with and against works that came before them.
Despite the aforementioned problems, “The Effect of Text” seeks to illuminate how remarkably and inextricably connected literary works are to one another.