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Michael Kuznetsov
Virtual Reality: Hypertext Versus Text (1993)

Язык оригинала: русский

The chioce of the subject of this presentation has been dictated by the course of the discussion now going on for more than a year on the problems of new electonic media, virtual reality, interactivity etc. This discussion has become possible solely due to the institutional support of Soros Center for Contemporary Arts, and it acquired international nature due to the enormous energy of the esteemed curator of the project Ms Kathy Huffmann. The intellectual environment evolving round this entirely new undertaking is heterogeneous to the highest extent, as well as the discourse that is shaping within it. In this, as Anatoly Prokhorov aptly put it, “thick interdisciplinary clear soup” there is room for some philosophical deliberation on this problem.

Among the themes discussed at the latest seminar on interactive TV held by the NST Association, the theme of clearly discernible opposition of such a comparatively new and predominantly electronic phenomenon as the hypertext and such a canon and organism of the European cultural tradition of more than thousand years as the text has not been given proper attention. The comparative novelty and predominantly electronic nature of the text is mentioned here in order to once again remind of the fact that even such a chief inhabitant of “Guttenberg gallaxy” as a printed book in the hypertext form of a dictionary or encyclopedia possesses hypertext structure. Not only this circumstance, but, for example , the work with such a simple hypertext as DOS’ help does not leave any doubt of the genetic kinship of the text and the hypertext. Nevertheless, we can now speak with sufficient confidence of their difference. In her short summary, entitled “Hypermedia: analysis of an artificial system” Sabrina Morreti, touching upon the difference between the text and the hypertext, points out that while the traditional text allows of only one form of the organization of knowledge transmitted by it, that is linear, in which each units happens to be connected with the preceding and the following ones, hypertext suggests quite a different type of relationship between its component parts: any unit of it may be directly connected with any arbitrarily taken number of information units 1. This quite banal and far from exhaustive definition of the hypertext, nevertheless emphasizes that distinctive feature of it which enables to consider the hypertext as a phenomenon lying beyond, on the other side of the text.

The above mentioned linear organization of space and time of the traditional text which is customary to us can be, of course, easily limited by the narrow framework of literature, even if the latter is understood in the broadest possible sense. We consider that the problem we are dealing with here is more significant than the problem of text structure and organization and more global in its scope.

Nowadays, at the end of the 20th century, hardly anyone would dare to answer in the affirmative the question of whether the linear structure of the text narrative is a mere correct reflection of the really existing linearity of space and time. The point of view which regards the question of the primacy of the “material” world over its “ideal” reflection as highly debatable would be more appropriate at present. Such indecisiveness and this is already becoming a generality of the modern cultural context - stems from the realization of the fact that the text is a co-constituent element of the world order, that we are used to considering immutable, God - or nature-given.

It is the text that is the primary locus, in which “the discourse of power”, is being formed, that later at the level of “metaphysics” in Michael Fuco’s terminology, subordinates all the vital manifestations of the human species. And it is its linear structure that represents the matrix on the basis of which mass priduction of uniform standardized ideas on space and time becomes possible. Direct perspective in painting created by the universal minds of the Renaissance epoch, allowing of only linear progression from the preceding (closer to the observer) spatial element to the following ( more remote from him) , and thus, in fact anticipating the figure of the prison warden in Bentam’s “Panopticone” 2, as well as “the absolute chronometer” set by Newton, which permits only a strict sequence of the following moment after the previous one, and, thus, seemingly breaking such a habitual to archaic world perception time “circle” have as their prototype that line of Homer’s "Odisseus’ Wanderings" which mercilessly cuts off, along with the panic terror before the unfathomable power of chthonic and oceanic forces, all the deviant from the linear forms of world perception, that recognize only the inevitable and irreversible sequence of events ( A step to the right, a step to the left - the guards shoot!) 3.

That is why such an innocent at first sight procedure of reading a text, not only literary but visual, for a example a film, that conforms ( as has been convincingly demonstrated by Nikolai Izvolov in his commentary to the films of George Melies shown within the framework of ANIGRAPH ‘film festival ) to Hollywood, Nazi or communist standards of the 30s , can hardly be viewed as quite harmless and non-obligating. The Linear structure of the text narrative, every day, every hour, every minute interiorized by the text user, does not only turn him into the “reader” in the universal sense who is doomed to reading Genesis as a foredestined text, on the margins of which he can leave his notes and commentary, but which he has no power to rewrite. It equally removes from human mentality the very possibility of imagining the existence of a different structure of relationship of elements of space and moments of time, which is dictated by it. The modern man of common sense, for instance, never doubts the fact that the annual Christian holiday of the Nativity is realted to an event, which occurred two thousand years ago, and an absurd thought that we are dealing here with the rotation, cyclicity of time which returns, moving along the circle to a point of a definite event with the same inevitability as the yearly coming of summers and winters, will never occur to him. He does not also call into question the fact that the appearance of stigmats on the body of some saint, Francis of Assisi, for example, can be explained in a natural way, with the help of the same linear sequence of consequtively changing reasons, and not by an instant annahilation of space-temporal distancing from the on-the-cross suffering of Godman and quite incomprehensible to him, becomes the meaning of such a strange procedure as a prayer which for a creature with an archaic mentality marks the fact that, despite his lowliness, he still has an access to interactive (as we would put it today) interference into the devinely established order of things.

Unassailable fortresses have a knack of collapsing in an instant. With the appearance in the 1980s on the world market of such a commodity as a personal computer the indisputably dominant status of the text as the only topos in which an intellectual effort could be realized is called into question. Despite the fact that the first considerable successes that led to a gallopping demand for PC were achieved in the field of compiling text editor programmes the integration of the text into a new, unusual environment, the environment that was electronic and progammable, could hardly be painless. The convenience of a text editor to the user, stemming from the fact that its interface allows interraction with any byte of the text file often appears to be black humor derision of the sacred principles of linear srtucture organization of the text narrative. And in this connection we cannot but give credit to those programmers who, guided more by their intuition than professional knowledge in the field of modern science, art and philosophy, managed to embody in their programme products the world attitude which had been obtained at the cost of enormous, often resulting in personal psychosomatic catastrophe efforts of the whole galaxy of the outstanding minds of the present and past centuries, that so devastatingly deconstructed the paradigm of linear text narrative, but never dared - with the exception of cases of illness, insanity, suicide - to go beyond the limits of that ultimate text which the world surrounding us is.
The term “virtual reality” nowadays already as “a trademark” that has firmly attached itself to technologies of a definite type, making use of such high-cost equipment as “helmet”, “glove”, “suit” and, for example, Silicon Graphics workstations quite correctly convey the fact environment generated by computer technology in all its parameters is alternative and is beyond the world which we are used to considering solely real. The norms of spatial ordering of events and phenomena are not observed in it, since in conditions of a global computer network created by the efforts of Internet and this country’s Relcom, which following the prophet of modern cyberpunk William Gibson received the tittle of “cyberspace” , it becomes quite irrelevant, where “in reality” the file you are looking through on your computer display actually is - on a hard disk of your computer or the one that is tens of thousands of miles away from you. In this environment it is necessary to specially indicate the manufacture date of this or that software, since with the exception of the damage done to it by the computer hardware the time that has elapsed from its day of birth does not - contrary to the hackers belief that the programmes that are not in use have the capacity to disintegrate - leave any imprint on it; it just does not conform to the law of inevitable aging of physical objects, as even being miltiply “copied”, it remains in all its digital replicas, strictly speaking, not a copy, but the same software. Finally the intergral entity of the human I of the user, which is so significant in the real world, becomes unobligatory in it. The users of some networks in the United States have already acquired the habit of representing themselves in network communication with arbitrary varied icons: here you can at will change your sex, age, nationality, race, profession, etc. You may apparently construct any kind of hybrids, which opens such prospects for the practice of psychocorporeality, that could surely be envied by not only those who experiment with schizo-restructuring of personality on their own psychosomatic, but by such theoreticians of schizoanalysis as Jacque Delez and Felix Guattary.

Hypertext represents one of the first attempts of conceptual comprehension of a specific spacio-temporal structure of virtual reality, as well as navigation, that is in practice, realized within its framework. The mode of movement it allows is radically different from the linear one. The type of causation between the elements constitutive for hypertext that enables any of them to combine directly, that is, by-passing any intermediate stages, with any number of other elements in any arbitrarily varied sequence appears at first sight to be generating chaos, impeding any attempt of a purposeful advance from some elements to others. Taking into account that for many areas of modern knowledge the theoretical significance of “rhizomic” structures which in many ways are similar to hypertextual has been convincingly proved by the above-mentioned founders of schizoanalysis 4, and the example of some forms of organic life, namely the plants that have the structure of a tuber, and not a tree, testify to the fact that some, though remote, analogies of hypertext are found even in nature, we may venture to put forward some considerations on the possibilities that are concealed within this outwardly chaotic structure.

Here we would like to empasize the fact that hypertext for the first time gives an opportunity to realize the truth of the ancient maxim: “One is all and all is one”. And it brings us to the conclusion that our universe may be organized quite differently from what we tend to believe, and that the inexorable course of time and insuperable abyss of the cosmic space may be merely artful settings, called upon to engender in us illusions of not only optical but of totality existential nature, while “in reality” a single moment of time contains all moments of the present, past and future, and a single point in space is at the same time the totality of them all. These are the conclusions we arrive at, reflecting on an entirely digital nature of that dimension of reality, the way to which is paved by the concept and pratice of hypertext. It cannot be excluded that it is just from the area of rapidly developing computer technology that we can expect the creation of something similar to the mystical teaching on number, which in the old days was a component part of the mathematical doctrine of the pythagoreans which enabled them, as it appears, to more fully realize what they were dealing with than mathematicians of later epochs managed to do; since they oriented themselves to the identity of ideas and numbers asserted by Plato in his later years.

It can not also be ruled out that what is now still quite modestly and with a look back at its immenent predecessor is called hypertext, opens access to a radical change in our attitude to such a fundamental area of reality as the past. In spite of all its invalidity - the past is always something that has gone and is never to return - it is the past that is determinant for the actual perception of the real world around us: the line of our organic ancestors, going back into the depths of thousands of years sets the genetic code in accordance with which our present psychosomatic is structured. No less rigid linear sequence of cultural patterns passed from generation to generation dictates those stereotypes and cliches within the framework of which we are allowed at present to live act, think and perceive. Past events may be likened to the files of some supergigantic CD-ROM, which could , with the help of a mechanism of organic and cultural nature perfected over thousands of years, be output on the screen of our consciousness, but which by their nature do not allow interactive interference either in their content or their sequence. However, Freud’s psychoanalysis has been already nothing else but the first attempt in European culture of intrusion into the hitherto inaccessible content of the events of the past. Despite all that rational form that Freud tried to give to his teaching, he still failed to completely camouflage the genuine meaning of his discovery, that is the transformation made by psychoanalitical theraphy of some traumatic experience of the patient’s life into a natural one is nothing else but a manipulation with an event from his past that seems to have sunk into oblivion. In its turn the widespread practice of religious repentance, allowing to neutralize a crime committed in the past, appears to be based on a conviction that the past is not so inaccessible to the present after all. What is ousted by the norms of the real world to the periphery of treating cases of clinic psychopathology or spiritual transformation in religious experience, becomes central in conditions of virtual reality opening to us in the hypertext. Within the latter it is quite natural, not absurd, that any of its elements, for example, “a subfile” containing the text of some past event, may be opened in this or that editor, and using the possibilities of the latter, altered. In the case of the hypertext no less natural is the fact that texts which act as its component parts are appropriated by it as mere quotations, while any author’s text - hyperauthor’s, so to say - text is enterly absent, which brings back to mind Walter Benjamin’s idea, that has never been realized, of a text consisting only of quatations. This tendency of discrediting existential significance of all texts - up to such a text as the real world arouses, in my opinion, a particular interest of modern art.
Nowadays there can be no doubt about the correctness of Marshall McLuhan’s definition of artists as “Antennae of the human race”. The event, on account of which we are gathered here, once again confirms the correctness of the truism that artists are the first to begin to open up regions of the unexplored. “The New Media Art Laboratory” project did not merely assist in the creation of one more Moscow art-crowd, it, to a cosiderable extent, facilitated the formation of an interdisciplinary environment, within which projects capable of radically changing the image of the contemporary electronic media are ripening. I would like briefly to dwell on one of them.
The project “Cinemaproduction of the future” (authors - Vladimir Mogilevski and Oleg Filyuk) by its unambiguous title declares, in my opinion, its implication with the above tendency of hypertext structures to appropriate as its elements text masses of any nature. In this respect the latter are similar, even if for the sake of economy we try to abstract from the practice of socialist art and conceptualism, to such phenomena of modern art as performance and installation. It has even grater similarity (as Victor Miziano pointed out in his presentation at the “Modern communication technologies” conference in March this year) to the emerging tendency towards the appropriation by the field of art of not only , some parts of exhibition space or spectator audience, but of such business as an art gallery, which generally happens when the artist and not a businessman becomes its manager. It appears that to this tendency, but already using the opportunities of electronic media belongs the project “Cinemaproduction of the future” which is conceptually based on William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer”, and which envisages the creation of a complex hyperstructure of mixing and collage of video - and audiomaterials and presupposing at one of its stages even and, I quote, “a final renunciation of the author’s plots and the temporal length of artistic process”. Of particular interest to me is the intention of its authors to widely use on-line possibilities of Relcom-Internet, since it is here that a most tempting, in my opinion, prospect of the appropriation by virtual reality of cyberspace of those structures that seem to have had their day is opening up.
In conclusion, I would only like to point out to the fact that the future and that is what the authors of the programme, volantarily or not, seem to be hinting at, is, to a certain extent, programmable: to a considerable degree it depends just on those gathered here, whether the traditionally concealed regions of the sacral would be open to the man, as it has been predicted by Mircha Eliade not long before his death (quoted from Nicole Stenger’s article “Mind is Leaking a Rainbow” in the book Cyberspace: First Steps) or, as has been clearly stated in Nickolai Izvolov’s above-mentioned presentation, the nowadays sufficiently obvious possibilities of the new electronic media will suffer the same fate which has befallen the promising finds of the early cinematograph.

Foot notes:

1. Sabrina Moretti. Hypermedia: the Analysis of an Artificial System. IMES - Universita di Urbino. IMES-LCA WP-12 February 1994, p.2.
2. Foucault M. Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison. Paris, Gallimard, 1975
3. Horkheimer M., Adorno Th. W. “Exkurs I: Odysseus oder Mythos und Aufklaerung”, in Dialektik der Aufklaerung. Frankfurt a. M., Fischer, 1969.
4. G.Deleuze, F.Guattari. “Introduction: Rhizome” in Mille plateaux. Paris, Minuit, 1980.

In Russian: Виртуальная реальность: гипертекст versus текст?

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