The Present

Kelly Maudslien. English 111, Cyberspace, VR, and Critical Theory, 1998

Sound by its very nature is ephemeral, fleeting. Words on a page, and to some extent on a screen, are trapped. The reader of print has the leisure of time to trace back the steps of a linear narrative and reread that which was not immediately digested. The immediacy of the present moment is lost. Although an ideal reader might grasp the full implications of a text upon the first reading, such readers are rare. In cyberspace, readers still have the option of retracing the steps of a reading path but they usually feel less motivation to do so. There is something about the immediacy of a mouse-click which gives hypertext the rapid pace of a montage sequence. Since sequence is often sacrificed for branching, the impression of a design or image may take precedence over content. This is analogous to the glance aesthetic fostered by television, as opposed to the more attentive gaze which is appropriate to cinema. Sven Birkerts illustrates the rapid fluidity of hypertext when he creates the analogy to a flowing river:

The page is flat, opaque. The screen is of indeterminate depth­the word floats on the surface like a leaf on a river. Phenomenologically, that word is less absolute. The leaf on the river is not the leaf plucked out and held in the hand. The words that appear and disappear on the screen are naturally perceived less as isolated counters and more as the constituent elements of some larger, more fluid process. (The Gutenberg Elegies)

A listener of Beowulf would not even have the option of sitting still and meditating on a particular phrase for an extended period of time; the scop would continue singing and the present moment would quickly become the past. Like watching a fast-paced action video, one shot follows another at a pace that only makes impressionistic, not logical, sense.To make these oral epics more comprehensible, poets used various techniques such as repetition and variation to slow the movement down to a stately pace.

The ever-vanishing present is the subject of theme as well. Throughout the poem the narrative is interrupted with digressions alluding to future catastrophes. In the midst of a joyful feast, the poet interjects the chilling line: "The Scyldings were untouched at that time/by treacherous words." (Beowulf, ll. 1018-1019) In lines 1758-1768, King Hrothgar warns Beowulf of the ephemeral nature of life and the dangers of pride. This is one example of the poem's emphasis on wyrd, or fate. Since the events of the past have immediate impact on the present, which is in turn always subject to the devouring future, all is transient. A sense of doom pervades all Old English verse. (Hence the black background color. Foreboding, no?) Beowulf in particular has a heavy elegaic or nostalgic tone because the subject matter of the poem was already archaic at the time of its composition. It was transcribed at a time of transition, when oral culture and paganism were being subsumed by writing and Christianity. By its very nature, the Beowulf manuscript is aware of impermanence.

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