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Politicising hypertext narrative

Ingrid Hoofd, National University of Singapore

Moving partly away from Aristotle's notions of a narrative, but also trying to take on board several of his concepts, and trying to conceptualise as the 'ideal' hypertext narrative in more Brechtian subversive terms, it might be handy to collect several implications for the transformative power of artworks in our postmodern era as posed by Jean-Francois Lyotard, Mikhail Bahktin and Roland Barthes. The latter importantly pointed at the importance of re-reading a text, which saves it from meaning the same... "re-reading is no longer consumption, but play that is the return of the different."

Lyotard interestingly posed that the postmodern condition was exemplified by a decline of the grand narratives', and all that was left is 'competing little narratives' or 'differends', as he calls them. In his argument that is very much directed at making the reader aware of the existence of these differends, Lyotard draws upon the notion of the Sublime, an experience of both pleasure and pain, that is used by modernists in the form of nostalgia or regret of a loss for unity which then is expressed in the consolation of a recognisable format. Postmodern art, however, should affirm and show the disappearance of unity with 'avant-garde formlesness', or better: through startling new non-traditional forms.

Bahktin posed his politicising concept of the 'carnivalesque' that aims at a similar effect in the reader, namely to make her or him aware of the non-hierarchical co-existence of many potentially contradictory point-of-views in a society. The carnivalesque was particularly present in many medieval theatre and prose. The carnivalesque is

"a spectacle, but without a stage; a signifier, but also a signified... Two texts meet, contradict and rivalise each other... it is both discourse and spectacle. A carnivalesque participant is both actor and spectator; he loses his sense of individuality, and is split into both subject of the spectacle and object of the game. Figures of the carnivalesque language are repetition, 'inconsequent' statements (which are none the less connected within an infinite context) and non-exclusive opposition... The carnival challenges god, authority and social law; it is dialogical."
(In: Julia Kristeva: "Word, Dialogue and Novel.")
The carnivalesque, Kristeva explains, is not just some simple sense of irony but is deeply seriously socialy engaged.

All the above three theories can be seen as very suitable for hypertext narrative. The potential hypermediacy of hypertext allows much more for the arisal of the canivalesque where the reader is simultaneously an actor and spectator in the construction of the spectacle. The multiple voices and narrative lines through a docuverse may make a reader aware of the fact that there is no grand narrative any more, only 'differends', and hypertext has many options of causing 'avant-garde formlesness'. And finally, hypertext lends itself explicitly often to re-reading (see figure 3), because it defers any final closure and can be potentially infinitly re-opened. Indeed, as Michael Joyce, the author of Afternoon put it: "I wanted, quite simply, to write a novel that would change in successive readings..." (Hypertext 2.0, p.179).

figure 3

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Cyberspace Web Hypertext