Experience and Memory

Andres Luco, English 111, 1999

"There is a form of writing which can affect through the senses directly without first appealing to the intellect. In this it acts more like our life experiences, which enter the body directly before we are able to dissect them." -- from "Music," a lexia in Afternoon

Though usually taken for granted in common thought, an interesting distinction exists between experience and memory as two qualities of human consciousness. Memory is not simply experience stored in the synapses of the brain, ready to be summoned into a state of recall. Rather, memory is abstracted experience; it comprises certain impressions that were extracted from the actual experience and reconstructed to form a psychological representation, or model, of that moment. Even in the hypothetical event that several people share the same experience, the mental imprint of that incident will vary among them, since they will unconsciously single out different elements of the experience to commit to memory. In a certain sense, memory can be described as an intellectual capacity, whose primary function is to organize experience. Experience, on the other hand is steeped in sensuality. This very distinction makes its presence in Michael Joyce's hypertext story entitled Afternoon. The story is obsessed with the erosion of memory and the endeavor to reclaim it. Moreover, experience is also brought into question: characters are plagued by a deficiency in being able to make sense of their circumstances; also, discrete episodes filled with sensuous description prevail over the coherent chain of events typical of conventional narrative. These phenomena come together to demonstrate a vanguard style of fiction-writing, where first and foremost, the reading process becomes experience as such, instead of primarily being the quest for intellectual interpretation/discovery.

In the fictional world of Afternoon, the disappearance of memory is a constant threat. In its place, the possibility of experience rises up. An epidemic of forgetfulness, of an inability to make sense out of knowledge and experience pervades throughout the story, as the narrator explains: 'People seem less and less apt -- less able -- to remember. It is simply that there is more now to know, all these indices pointing somewhere, and the thing becomes a web" Apparently, for the inhabitants of this fictional realm, representing and organizing information is an impossible taskˇso impossible that one of the main preoccupations of the story is with the construction of a global encyclopedia, called the Dataquest. The Dataquest system acts as a massive archive, which "has all the information in the world -- at least all that counts to money" (from "but this")." Information is here depicted as a priceless commodity, and the Dataquest is exalted as the great and necessary instrument in cataloguing knowledge. Indeed, a dichotomy between man and machine is formed in Afternoon. Where apparatuses such as the Dataquest connote storage, index, information, and memory, human beings are portrayed purely as creatures of experience.

Many of the lexias in Afternoon are loaded with sensual description that emphasize sensory receptivity as a paramount human attribute. Detailed descriptions of sexual activity are especially prevalent, as are frequent mappings of the human body: 'She is all sinew, even to her sex, and the air in this room is humid with the warmth from our cooling flesh, and the fire, and the slightly cinnamon incense of the bedside candle (from "Octopi")." In addition, Basho's Haiku poetryˇfamous for its elegance in vividly capturing sensory impressionsˇis interlaced throughout the story. Joyce's attitude toward sensation becomes readily apparent in one character's comparison of people to octopi: 'The frost makes tentacles and I have you now (from "Octopi")." One imagines an organism that probes the world with its multiple sensing organs, taking in every impression, allowing itself to be ceaselessly aroused by the outside world. The importance of sensuality in Afternoon comes to the fore when we account for the reader's experience in apprehending the story.

Another lexia in the Afternoon web, "Humo non intelligendo" reads as follows: "man becomes all things by not understanding them -- for when man understands he extends his mind and takes in things, but when he does not understand he makes the things out of himself and becomes them by transforming himself into them." The arbitrary, indefinite structure of Afternoon relegates the reader to a state of constant uncertainty while passing through the story. Plot lines, or "threads" in the narrative frequently interrupt each other in continually varying ways so as to disallow a strong sense of narrative continuity. There is simply not enough information given to salvage the necessary material for prediction or analysis, as one would have in a more traditional novel. With all possibilities for a higher understanding of the story properly obstructed, the reader's only recourse is to experience the particular reading path they are following, lexia by lexia. In essence, the reader makes the object of his misunderstandingˇthe storyˇout of himself. He does not passively take in what another has written for him in total, but independently makes the associations necessary to superimpose a logical continuity onto the chain of a unrelated lexias. For these associations to be made possible, the text must be read as an unfamiliar set of sensory experiences before any intellectual criticism can be made. The interaction between the lexias of the story behave much like the notes of a musical score, where the arbitrary relationship between each individual unit in the sequence allows the reader to first experience the pleasure of sensation, and perhaps later on proceed to hypothesize about what 'story" the total piece had to tell. Because the connection between lexias is, for the most part, subject to judgment, the reader is given the opportunity to 'write" in his own meaningful connections.

The analysis presented above is merely the culmination of one hypothesis among many possible others. It is one unique "writing," one pathway traveled in a constellation of lexias, and each of these offering up bundles of sensory information, ultimately lending to new perceptual experiences each time a new sequence is followed.

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web