English 532: Defining ‘Cyberliterature’

It is my hope throughout this course to evolve a definition of “cyberliterature”. The idea is that I’ll start with two or three basic principles, and as I continue with my research, the concept will flesh itself out into something that approaches a veritable object of study.

As always, the best place to start is the dictionary. Obviously, there is, as yet, no dictionary definition of “cyberliterature”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cyber-” as:

Of, relating to, characteristic of, or involved in (the culture of) computers, information technology, and virtual reality; futuristic.

The OED also defines “literature” as:

a. Literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general. Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect.

b. The body of books and writings that treat of a particular subject.

c. colloq. Printed matter of any kind.

By inference, we could then define “cyberliterature” as the body of writings produced by (the culture of) computers, information technology, and virtual reality.

We can also take it a step further. The OED does have a definition for “cyberculture”:

The social conditions brought about by automation and computerization; computers and (in later use) esp. the Internet viewed as a cultural phenomenon.

“Cyberliterature” is thus a cybercultural production that implies a preexisting set of social conditions for it to come into being. The notion, of course, that cyberliterature can suggest, in particular, texts that are produced and published on the Internet should not be overlooked. I will devote more time to that particular aspect of the concept later in the course when I complete my research on Wikipedia and Livejournal.

In How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles elaborates a new semiotics that she calls “flickering signification”. She draws upon Lacan’s “floating signifiers”, which are based on a presence/absence dialectic, in order to define “flickering signifiers”, which by comparison are shaped by a pattern/randomness dialectic.

Lacan believed that meaning was structured primarily by sentences, since the sense of an individual word is uncertain until a complete sentence can provide it with context. Without the structure of the sentence, the words– or signifiers– simply “float” and remain ambiguous until connected with other signifiers (and, in other words, the signified– the object or concept(s) the signifier references– remains indeterminate and/or manifold) (The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Floating signifiers develop from the notion that “signifiers are defined by networks of relational differences between themselves rather than by their relation to signifieds” (Hayles, 30) and that the signified is an ephemeral concept that “flows” through a network of signifiers, signifiers which themselves are fluid and everchanging. Therefore, according to Lacan, meaning is derived entirely by the presence or absence of connections between signifiers, and incidentally by the presence or absence of their signified(s). Hayles indicates that, from the perspective of language as being print-based, using a dialectic of presence and absence would seem to be a no-brainer; the text, virtually unmediated, is either there or it’s not, since it is not encoded with multiple systems of representation as it is in a digital medium (ibid) (I’m not sure I agree with this argument, but I’ll leave it for now).

“Flickering signifiers”, on the other hand, are highly mediated by the various devices within which they operate:

…the signifier can no longer be understood as a single marker, for example as ink on a page. Rather it exists as a flexible chain of markers bound together by the arbitrary relations specified by the relevant codes. (31)

Let’s take, for instance, this blog entry. I’m typing it on my computer, and I see it as a series of lights on my monitor. The computer, for its part, reads the words I type as electrical impulses. And naturally (Hayles points this out as well), intersecting my interpretation and the computer’s is the code that translates my letters, words, and sentences into ones and zeroes. Let’s not forget the other support systems that translate the binary into more symbols, and these symbols into others that determine how the text is finally displayed on your monitor. I haven’t even touched upon the fact that this text is further encoded in HTML, and that my blog uses PHP and CSS scripting as well, and that the specific web browser you happen to be using may interpret these languages differently than another web browser (although, considering the amount of time I’ve devoted to making sure this last does not happen, I hope for my sake it’s not the case). “A signifier on one level becomes a signifed on the next-higher level,” Hayles writes. And the idea is, as she describes it, “the longer the chain of codes, the more radical the transformations that can be effected.” Think of just the HTML tags I’ve attached to my text, the use of blockquotes and italics in my entry, of hyperlinks to my sources, the image tag I’m using to display my header. Already I’ve significantly surpassed what is possible with only the use of a pen and a piece of paper. Hayles explains that the increase in the degree of transformation is made feasible because the property that models these succeeding layers of coding is pattern, not presence. Indeed, any attempt at applying a presence/absence dialectic to digital media is seriously complicated by the insubstantial quality intrinsic to information; information is both present and absent, capable of massive transformation and influence, yet bodiless, intangible, and mostly invisible.

The more “pattern” there is mediating our text– our “flickering signifiers”– the greater the possibility of randomness, or “noise”. It’s possible, for example, that when I publish my entry online, just one missing tag could reduce everything I’ve written to gibberish. Any breakdown in the flow of succeeding layers of coding would mean a breakdown in the pattern, and thus the introduction of randomness. Moreover, we can also consider “noise” in terms of probability; the more possibilities exist, the more probability diminishes and uncertainty increases. According to Hayles, this also means:

For an individual message, the information increases as the probability that the event will occur diminishes; the more unlikely the event, the more information it conveys. (32)

As Hayles points out, if she were to write an email telling her students this week’s text, the most unlikely or surprising message she could send them would be a string of random letters. It’s important to note that information is not equivalent to meaning. A string of random letters can be meaningless and yet, paradoxically, contain more information than the sentence “This week we’ll be reading The Maze Game.” (I know, I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one) What’s important to keep in mind is that noise and randomness contain information just as pattern and coding contain information; the difference is one obliterates meaning while the other produces it.

Lacan’s theory was largely concerned with reconciling desire and the Oedipal child Freud had introduced. The heart of his psycholinguistics was a metaphoric castration, where the (male) subject realizes that subjectivity, like language, is founded on absence– just as without context signifiers are simply left “floating” and purposeless, the subject’s desires are impotent until qualified by the imperatives of his society (what I believe Lacan refers to as the nom du père or the Big Other). The subject aspires to be the focus of his mother’s sexual desire until the father (representating social Law) frustrates this impossible goal and thus “normalizes” the subject by redirecting his desires.

Floating signification differs from flickering signification because the elemental forces at work in each system are different.

In contrast to Lacanian psycholinguistics, derived from the generative coupling of linguistics and sexuality, flickering signification is the progeny of the fascinating and troubling coupling of language and machine. (Hayles, 35)

Hayles uses one example when describing how the a pattern/randomness dialectic would suggest different choices for tutor texts, which I found rather interesting. It appears to sum up what’s really at stake in this new semiotics:

…theorists interested in pattern and randomness might point to David Cronenberg’s film The Fly. At a certain point, the protagonist’s penis does fall off (quaintly, he puts it in his medicine chest as a memento of times past), but the loss scarcely registers in the larger mutation he is undergoing. The operative transition is not from male to female-as-castrated-male but from human to something radically other than human. Flickering signification brings together language with a psychodynamics based on the symbolic moment when the human confronts the posthuman. (33)

By now you’ve probably figured out where I’m going with all of this. Not only is “Cyberliterature” a) the body of writings produced by (the culture of) computers, information technology, and virtual reality, b) a cybercultural production that implies a preexisting set of social conditions, but also c) literature that is entirely ruled by a semiotics of flickering signification. Already we have three properties that make “cyberliterature” a unique and rich phenomenon worthy of study.

[This is a draft of my first response paper, due Oct 22-28.]

Useful Links:

“Jacques Lacan”, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006.

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