Amerika Online 16

Designwriting: A Post-Literary Reading Experience

There is something about the visible forms and structures that we've associated with the world of books and literature that we are now leaving behind. As we begin to recognize the more fluid forms of writing being developed on the web, it becomes immediately apparent to us that graphic designers, in particular, are participating in the emergence of more visually-stimulating writerly forms being distributed in cyberspace. In fact, many of the most experimental web-writing projects coming online today are being created by design professionals who juggle their roles as artists, educators and commercial consultants whose clients are in desperate need of their skills and talents.

One of the more vocal advocates of a new form of "writingdesign" is Anne Burdick. In a forthcoming essay of hers, the term "new narrative" comes up and is immediately called into question:

"In spite of the promise embodied in such a term," she says, "I want to begin with the assumption that there can be no such thing. Narrative is old. Good old narrative. It's one of our most ancient structures for making sense of the world; some say its roots lie in our everyday experience of time and language. Narrative's particular attributes--a temporal dimension and, according to some, a causal relationship between events--define its distinctive form. Therefore it stands to reason that if there's a change in this basic configuration, what we've got on our hands is no longer a narrative in the strictest sense. You can only stretch the definition so far before it either pops, takes on a new name, or snaps back into its old shape. Can there be such a thing as a 'new narrative'?"

If, as we have been suggesting in previous Amerika On-Line columns, our literature has been finally, once and for all, exhausted (and the bookish form of The Novel along with it), this does not necessarily mean that emerging new media writers will abandon the practice of using narrative (and rhetoric) to locate significance "in our everyday experience of time and language." Quite the contrary. Rather, we must ask ourselves what IS our everyday experience of time and language, assuming we spend a great deal of our waking hours surfing the web, sending and receiving email, listening to randomly played songs on our portable mp3 players, talking on the cell-phone, etc.

In other words, the narratives of our time are deeply embedded in the new media experience itself. Our continual interaction with the evolving languages these new media present us with mark our time even as we, intelligent agents equipped to turn the machines off, intuitively know that by leaving the machines on, we are, in a sense, moving beyond the Literary itself (that heavy burden).

This act of cultural disobedience, that is, leaving the Literary behind, is not as easy as some would like. For those of us raised on books and the idea that the very best of Man can be found in Great Literature, just the idea of conscientiously saying good-bye to The Novel as a kind of narrative interface, feels like an act of betrayal, one that is forever going to make us feel guilty until the day we die.

Unless, of course, we open our eyes and live for the moment. Our moment is one that intentionally explores the new media's potential to innovate the writing practice yet again, this time with more immediate results. As Burdick, the Design Editor for the electronic book review, continues in her essay:

"So here's where the 'new' in 'new media' comes in. A weave requires a different kind of space than the printed page in order to realize its full potential. Within electronic space, the potential exists, although I would argue it has yet to be exploited fully. Nonetheless, in this environment, the arrangement of textual units has an entirely different set of possibilities than it does within the confines of the printed page. Writing can incorporate strategies of simultaneity, juxtaposition, placement and proximity--each of which can serve a semantic function and impact the experience and order of reading. Not dissimilar to charts and diagrams, the information such attributes delivers makes for a cumbersome translation into linear verbal form--if it could be translated at all. It's all about the visual arrangement."

Enter The Designwriter. In a very straightforward way, we might say that all writers are Designwriters. It is, after all, up to each author to conceptually design the verbal landscape their stories will play out in, oftentimes spending an excess amount of time revising their every sentence and word in search of a syntactical rhythm that will characterize the literary figures whose language-shell their words fill up. Except that I would call this conventional usage of characterization and, for that matter, plot, Noveldesign.

I call it Noveldesign not because it is new, but because it is ever reliant on the ancient formula of conceiving a story for print manufacturing, one that has paragraphs with indentations, uniform typography, and a set of readerly expectations that will allow the author to cleverly disappear behind the curtain, like the Wizard of Oz, cranking out their fantasy trips through the Land of Suspended Disbelief. This is where most writers, even those who call themselves literary, find their comfort level. For some, it's as simple as tapping their shoes together three times while repeating the mantra "there's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home..."

But the new media Designwriter, creating a spatial architecture that enables them to turn their conceptual language art into a navigable, visual interface, has a different approach to experimenting with the evolving forms of rhetoric so as to innovative Other texts for this still somewhat foreign locale called cyberspace. Says Burdick:

"While such arranging strategies are available in print form, the interrelationships they set up are fixed in place. It is the movement between elements or of elements that truly alters new media writing. The behavior of words can be a signifying attribute that actively shapes a reading and a story. In new media, words act--they do more than just sit there. If you poke them, they lead you down new paths. When you watch them, they dance or disappear. (Hopefully they resist the urge to spin.) They can also be shuffled, sifted, isolated, located, or reorganized, for a weave not only looks different but it behaves and performs differently than does a line. That's where new media begins to look like new narrative--or at least new narration."

Which brings up an interesting question: do the emergent forms of database technology replace narration, supplement narration, or reinvent narration?

Moving away from Noveldesign and its utter dependency on a limited set of options that leave the contemporary writer with very little to strategize with, we can now see emerging in cybersapce yet another model of language practice that purposely blurs the distinctions between image and text, page and screen, sonic and visual, publication and exhibition. I would call this emerging model of language production Designwriting.

In this instance, to de-sign, if we want to get technical, would be to de-contextualize, de-construct and de-familiarize the ordinary experience one attributes to everyday web life by actively intervening in the e-discourse now taking shape in the global economy. Similar to Brechtian theater, the central idea behind an online Designwriting practice would be to intervene in the dynamic space of experiential expectations that are already being developed by the commercial captains of e-commerce whose bottom-line rigidity and lack of interest in privacy matters emanate out of a growing Doubleclick mentality that chases consumer demographics wherever they may cluster.

Examples of this kind of interventionist practice are many, including the art sites discussed in my last AOL column focusing on satirical action-writing. You can also sense the development of writing as a "de-stablizing" visual art form in the more subtle yet also interventionist writer-artist collaborations found at design sites like Thirstype. Thirstype contributor and Designwriter Rob Wittig likes to talk about something he calls "experience design":

"Experience design (which is another way of looking at interface design) thinks about the time a user spends with a text in the most holistic possible way: what is going on with the user physically, cognitively, emotionally, psychologically, socially. My school of experience design is founded on the assumption that readers use and mold texts for use as fragments in the greater purpose that is the reader's life, rather than the assumption that whole texts mold and change readers in accordance with the whole purposes of the author."

He goes on to say that those of us from a literary background rarely, if ever, were encouraged to think and talk about reading as an activity or, at the very least, an interactive form of cultural behavior. In fact, Wittig insists, an assumed model of "correct reading" formed the basis of many of our work-related habits. Among the usual elements of this "correct reading" are, according to Wittig

  1. strict linear reading
  2. reading of every word
  3. reading with an equal amount of concentration and attention to every word
  4. reading without other simultaneous input (music, radio, television, conversation)
  5. monogamous reading (one text at a time, beginning to end, without interruption)

But Designwriters like Wittig are hip to the changes taking place in digital culture and are beginning to see new modes of online writing worth investigating, as opposed to, say, bemoaning the fact that there may be a lost literary landscape never to be found again. Some older writers, especially some of the more explosive postmodern fictioneers of the past 25 years, are also welcoming the change. As author Ron Sukenick, the elder statesman of American experimental fiction, has said:

"To take stock of the technological situation briefly, we now live in what I call the electrosphere. Book production has been overtaken by a new electronic technology that eliminates the job of composition, or rather, makes it part of the writer's art rather than the technician's craft. Books now increasingly go from disk to printing press directly. That means that the writer is also the compositor, and can compose a page on the electronic screen as s/he wishes, making the graphic quality of the page an expressive, rather than an inert, element of fiction. No reason to go left - right, left - right, left - right, all the way to the bottom of the page like a typewriter."

Designwriters are not Typewriters. They tend to be collaborative engineers of the web interface whose screenal presence challenges the Author-as-Genius model so many literary figures have depended on (and still depend on). As Burdick reiterates,

"Within a print-based division of labor, graphic designers and writers are kept separate until after the writing is complete, leaving writers and designers few choices other than the previously established sizes, shapes and strategies with which to work. Therefore, if graphic designers want to contribute to new narratives in writing, they have to be involved at the level of structure.

"This means that from the outset, writing and design must work in step with one another, creating a collaborative partnership between the visual form and the writing. As designers construct spaces for writing, they're impacting the writing strategies that are possible. By the same token, as they find new ways to tell stories, writers are actively creating the visible, material spaces needed to hold those stories. As these new configurations and operations arise, the question is, who will take the lead? The writers or the designers?"

Or how about the Designwriters, those willing to experiment with the evolving forms of Visible Language? Maybe these distinctions are no longer valid. Especially given the conceptual complexity of new media interfaces that integrate metafiction, hypertext, mp3, streaming media, VRML, dynamic HTML, Java, Shockwave and other programs, one can not help but wonder if this "economy of ideas" we keep hearing about isn't on the cusp of ushering in a e-Renaissance of post-literary writing.

Parts of this essay consists of sampled remixes from a forthcoming essay entitled "Ways of Telling, or, the plot thickens, fragments, reconfigures, branches, multiplies..." in New Media, New Narratives, Chicago: The American Center for Design, 2000, Anne Burdick and Louise Sandhaus, eds.

Mark Amerika will be exhibiting his GRAMMATRON site at the Whitney Biennial 2000. His most recent online project, PHON:E:ME, is on exhibit at the Walker Art Center.

(Mark Amerika)