TRIVIAL INSIGHT AND THE INTERNET
In one of his articles Walter Benjamin relates the story of the ‘discovery’ he made in Marseille during a hashish smoking session. The revelation that water is wet. Benjamin calls this ‘discovery’ die triviale (profane) Erleuchtung.
Literature is capable of constructing a parallel world that expands the real one through complex phenomenological procedures. In its ‘classical’ avatar, the printed word, literature excludes ‘trivial enlightenment’ as it depends on education and Weltanschauung rather than the ‘de-digitalization’ of our habits and what we call apriori truths.
The Internet, however, resembles Benjamin’s hash in that it creates illusions akin to trivial insight. Everyone feels free to be an author, to participate or to “create” a brand new text. The screen framework helps him ‘discover’ unexpected hypograms in the texts which have been uploaded in the web. It leads him to trust the word-combination programs and to consider their results to be proper texts. To believe that he is witnessing the birth of a new literature.
Technology cannot overcome the limit of the human capacity for perception. Sometimes the sheer sound volume can make the viewer fall asleep while watching a musical film. For example, as a schoolboy I used to like Queen and was very surprised to find myself drifting away on both occasions when I watched the promotional documentary ‘Magic - Live in Budapest’. My reaction was caused by the volume and frequency of the sound. No matter how I tried to keep my eyes open, I failed and dozed off.
Computers did not significantly change cinema. Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book does not expand our perceptive capacity, because the digital montage used by the director obstructs perception and sometimes makes it impossible for the viewer to grasp the whole picture. The effect is tense and exhausting. I’m talking about the practice of using windows which open like Russian dolls inside each other, or parallel windows that follow different plots simultaneously. The effect is similar to that of captions: it’s hard to divide your attention between them and the foreign film. The Pillow Book is a structure with a bad hygiene of readability. That is why such films are regarded as experimental. They serve as border products that mark the outer edges in the attempt to make films tell parallel stories.
The hypertext, which for exalted theorists of the Internet is comparable with Borges’s works, doesn’t offer any technical innovations. Users can’t take advantage of its fluctuality, liquidity, polyvalency more than what the game-books offer. Because even when the hypertext is connected with a multitude of different texts it doesn’t give us other possibilities than the scientific (in its nature) quest. The hypertext simply gives us a better possibility to apply this approach. New sort of text does not exist. Because nobody read the various sites which he opens as common text. He doesn’t read them as text at all. He simply seeks references.
The preferred function of the user of Internet (especially in Eastern Europe) is download. “To pull”, “to draw out from the Net”. Barely after you take down the text you need to start reading it from your hard disk. But then this text is devoid from the provided infinity of possible references in Internet.
Technology meddles with the framework of a text, the principle of its activation. The structure of text never finds in the point of technological innovations. Technics can take part in the theme, the plot, etc. It can be an object of figurativeness, topics. But the methods of creating a literary character are still the same. Confirmation of this are some of William Gibson’s novels. Although with altered decorum, his novels offer structure acquainted from the second half of XIX Century.
It’s worth noting that none of the theorists of the hypertextual boom - George Landow (in his electronic publications), Richard Lanham (The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts), Sven Birkerts (Gutenberg Elegies) - seems to use phenomenological repers of his research. Their bibliography includes Umberto Eco’s ‘opera aperte’, Roland Barthes ‘writerly’ text and Derrida with his non-logocentric text, taken negatively (apophatically) out of his critical project. The reason? These same terms long ago have lost their operationally craft in popular science. They are transformed in secondary images, metaphors. Roman Ingarden is not mentioned. A significant absence. Reception theory is usually absent as well. Why? Because we are not dealing with a new type of text. One phenomenological inquiry can easily display it.
Big software companies are investing in a project called the Open eBook format. It will enable books to get bigger and bigger. To contain images, moving pictures and sounds. The Open eBook format will be the next step towards a new opera, a synthetic form of art whose elements are relatively independent and joined by hyperlinks. But will this synthetic text really be a book? And could it solve the big problem with the two uses of the Internet as entertainment and as a database meant to satisfy a scientific interest?
The Internet has two types of users. The first batch are looking for pornographic sites and computer games, i.e. their defining ideology is hedonism. Others use the web as a giant data catalogue and as a library. Most theorists consider the basic characteristic of the hypertext to be its referential capacity, the fact that it ‘refers’ the user to other texts. Therefore we can divide users into ‘pleasure-hunters’ and ‘scholars’. For the firsts Internet is only one big porno magazine, for the second group - a catalog in which the way from file cards to the texts itself is maximally shorted.
The Internet innovations do not concern art and fiction. They apply solely to the scientific genres. The Internet as a database, a giant reference book. There is no Borgesian infinity here; everything the web offers resembles a scientific apparatus. It is therefore hardly surprising that the first books in Open eBook format were encyclopaedias, software guides, etc. For example in one of his articles (Reading and Writing in a Hypertext Environment) George Landow suggests that the reader of this hypertext version can “take notes... or write against [his] interpretations, against [his] text, “while the reader of the book cannot.” This is the place, the locus of trivial insight. The mistake that technology works like a politically radical instrument. In the fact it can only consolidate the institutions. The people who believe that a literature of hackers will spring up one day are the utmost idealists. The new ‘hacker’ fiction text - carrying the metaphysical claim of literature and radical pragmatism of hackers - cannot exist.
© Yordan Efftimov, 2000