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SEVEN LEAGUE BOOTS:
POETRY, SCIENCE, AND HYPERTEXT



A print version of the talk.



E. A. Poe: "The highest order of the imaginative intellect is always pre-eminently mathematical; and the converse."


[1] I want to speak to you about a hypertext poetics.

[2] In a hypertext, any part can link to any other, or be unlinked, or re-linked, at any time. Hypertexts live on computers. There is never only one way to read them.

[3] The world's biggest hypertext is the Internet. Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, a powerful Soviet space physicist, who had defected from his country, with wife and daughter, in order to come to Princeton to develop the physics of quantum gravity, quit. Gone was his goal of building a theory integrating all the forces in nature, knocked out of his head by the World Wide Web. Sasha Migdal began, instead, to write software that makes lifelike models of people because, he said, "I had dreamed since I was a child of a giant network connecting everybody like a single brain. Of course, it's not yet true. But there is a real revolution going on, and I just couldn't resist it."

[4] On the Web, to point is to ride Aladdin's carpet, or to stride with seven-league boots. It's a strange way of traveling, outside of fairy tales. Time zones and geographies collapse; but oddly enough, people online feel both in touch and in control, for they move by their own choice in a field of many choices. Poetry and science share three aspects of hypertext—the conviction that any part can link to any other, and should; that it is appropriate to live in an environment that spans space and time; that it is desirable to be both closely in touch and in control.

[5] Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic, proposed that all art and science should reflect our idea of ultimate value. For her, the behavior most appropriate to moral life is what she called "attention," an act of letting judgment fall away and bringing oneself again and again to fresh encounter with the world. She said, "A fixed point of view is the root of injustice," a dictum which shows an appreciation for the re-seeing required by hypertext.

[6] Simone Weil distinguished different ages in the history of science according to the values they embodied. She claimed that Greek science was motivated by ideals of "balance" and "beauty." The Greeks, she said, saw a moving waterline on a hull as an image of balance; whereas Newton, in the next age of science, one that valued energy and work, saw a loaded-down ship, saw force and displacement.

[7] Born in 1913, the poet Muriel Rukeyser took the science of Edison and the Wright Brothers as a tool for her work. Her first book of poems, Theory of Flight, was named for her aviation manual. Working as a journalist and film editor, Rukeyser brought new proto-hypertextual techniques to her writing, creating a swappable stream of scenes on which she imposed cuts, to make associative links.

[8] Rukeyser identified America, as did Whitman, with its diversity; she was certain no part must be excluded. In her second book, U.S. 1, she investigated the fatal silicosis afflicting miners in West Virginia. The revolutionary achievement of this book was to create a poem as database, using materials never before seen in poetry—stock market quotes, doctor's reports, and legal testimony, side by side with lyric and narrative. This database, this hypertextual organization, makes an implicit claim; namely, that the fullest range of textual type is required to understand and combat injustice.

[9] Pulling together yet other worlds she felt had been artificially separated, Rukeyser wrote the biography of the mathematical physicist, Willard Gibbs. Gibbs, in the 19th century, devised visualizing methods which redefined the meaning of space. Instead of being a static Cartesian grid, his phase space could represent every possible lifeline of a system, any system, any number of coexisting systems. Gibbs's method, criticized by some as merely visualizing, was grasped at once by James Clerk Maxwell—the man whose equations define electronic reality—as both profound and productive. The very shapes of graphs and models yielded truths about energetics of the system—the relation of transitions to degrees of freedom and free energy; phase transition itself, as from ice to water, being a change of identity toward which the whole system was attracted.

[10] William Blake also used "visualizing" methods. His poems, made from the interaction of full-scale drawings, patterns intertwined with text, and calligraphic gestures, could not be interpreted by conventions developed to understand print. Blake's work demanded a new poetics of "in-betweenness" in order to understand the relation of text, image, graphic gesture, and pictorial convention. Reading "between"—reading the link, or gap—remains a provocation and pleasure of fully developed hypertext.

[11] Emily Dickinson also refused to commit her work to print convention. She refused to title more than 1700 poems, and she evolved singular methods of both production and punctuation. But her most radical innovation, extraordinary still, was the hyperlink experience she provided in many of her poems. She placed a superscript cross (as we would place a footnote marker) to indicate words, or places, where she wished the reader to consider a range of choices. The choices she wanted to present were inscribed across the bottom of her page. These cross—or crossroads—markers are not signs of preliminary indecision; they are, carefully copied on pages that are carefully sewn together, endorsements of multiple meaning.

[12] Simone Weil died in England in 1943. What word might she have chosen, had she lived, to name value for us, as "balance" and "beauty" named value for the Greeks? I would propose her Greek term metaxu, translated as "resonant communication." Resonance entails response, interaction, co-creation, a space between.

[13] Quantum reality, the reality of electronic computers, works by resonance. It is hard to overstate how deeply our lives are shot through with computation. Computers are not a tool we use; it is closer to the truth to say that computers are every tool we use: our watches, cars, credit cards, libraries, phones…. Insofar as the computer is our tool, we are electronically animate—but what does it mean to be an avatar, cyborg, or animation? Questions of identity, location, change, and closure become acute.

[14] How will the readers and writers of multiply linked text, of hypertext, know who they are or how to trust each other, when comprehensive knowledge eludes them both? How can we build resonant communication—how stay in touch, but also in control, in the face of what easily overwhelms us?

[15] We are overwhelmed, not only by the proliferation of paths which hypertext provides, but by an explosion of data. Data has gotten beyond human ability to process it unaided. The amount and kind of data is now so vast that negotiations need to be made with computers to read it, for they alone can handle the load. NASA collects a trillion bytes of data a day, just from satellites. The self-documenting form our lives take, as we conduct them electronically, every keystroke captured, also leaves data shadows in our wake. Does such data represent our capture by alien, i. e., humanly unreadable, information, or can it be understood as a solicitation of "attention," in Simone Weil's sense?

[16] What we "see," what we get from our electronic devices, are numbers. The decisions we make in order to bring numbers into full "living" color, contain many suppositions and are often aesthetic. If we are living in virtual worlds, it is because we live in worlds furnished with complex visualizations, be these composited news photos, or Toy Story—the first computer-generated film, or Rover on Mars, or holographs, or the Cosmic Voyage IMAX feature which shows the first few seconds of the universe. These late-20th century ways of seeing, of knowing, are easily misunderstood, mystifying on their grand scale. What they most lack is words—the words of poets, or other representatives of the lone human voice, of the great value to be placed on each lone human voice.

[17] The task today, in both poetry and science, is the measure of measure. Which numbers, from an only partially searchable store, will we translate, or render, calling them truths? What colors will we give them to bring them "alive," knowing what we know of the ease with which people are persuaded to cruelty? A poetics of hypertext should answer this question: how to become as resonant and co-participatory as the quantum world is.