Café Cul-de-Sac: Made
Looking back on it there seem four provisional principles
of hypertext fiction which one ought to give no more credence to than
to the scraps
within fortune cookies. Yet in my memory they seem lost directions to
a distant space, a café or cul-de-sac, tiny maps no longer legible,
a pattern of ashes left after these miniscule scrolls have been sentimentally
set aflame in a lover’s ashtray.
1. The polygon is the figure of the flow of so-called
liquid architecture. Its aspect is the uncornered corner, the twenty-faced
die, the café,
the locale which in The Coming Community Giorgio Agamben calls “the
space of ease between everything and itself” (53). There the multiple
story, the hypertext fiction, takes place, occupies itself in the double
sense of marking time and living within a volume, in this case oneself.
Not only is occupation doubled, but inhabitation is also—we are
inhabited by the story which we in turn inhabit.
2. The hyperlink lacks form—it is the form of lacking, longing
for form. There is never a single link and yet the succession of them
is not itself something other than its spatio-temporal experience, a
narrative which fools us into thinking it has a history we have forgotten,
a surface whose trace, like Greg Lynn’s H2 House, our passage discloses
and erases in turn.
3. On the web at least every text is exo-skeletal,
always outside itself as much as we are inside it. Yet its external
being is transparent, more
jellyfish than hermit crab, the without we are within. Nonetheless its “architecture
of dissipative forces,” to use Ben van Berkel’s phrase, “can
offer a pattern, a virtual form that is assembled as a generating multiple
of complex field of forces” (657).
4. Hypertextuality shows itself in the unlinked,
the cul-de-sac, the experience of being unfairly at an ending which
is simultaneously not
an ending, no place unless a place where one intends to be. We always
alternate between backing away from the cul-de-sac, like Benjamin’s
angel of history, and setting forth from it, either as resident angels
or the wayfarer refreshed, having found the place he set out for, a punctum
which sits as a void in the grid, a droplet on the tree branches, the “space
of higher dimensionality” which Brian Massumi suggests characterizes
Lynn’s blob space (Lynn, “Blobs”).
So end the four principles and what follows is to
be read in the light of the flame of their disappearance, a phrase
which, written years ago,
now inevitably takes on poignant and valedictory layers in the history
we have read since both in actual cityscapes and their mediations. Yet
no one reads anything, nothing one says lasts, not even the future. We
live now in what Peter Lunenfeld has termed a permanent future. “If,
from the turn of the century through the 1960s, futures were mapped out,
painted, printed, filmed, animated, and even occasionally built,” Lunenfeld
writes, “today, the fever for what is yet to be has perceptibly
cooled” and we are left with “a disappointment that the present
has not lived up to the past’s hopes for it.”
The prototype for the networked city is the architectural palimpsest of the
cityscape, a permanent future of style upon style, patterns on ash, the carving
into and leaking out from, the eddies in which liquid architectures take on
recurrent, pliant, and supple, if not persistent, forms.
It seems absurd of course on the face of it to claim that the city of text,
whatever that may be, is an actual place we may inhabit or that it offers us
the traditional solaces and stimulations—social engagement, psychological
differentiation, economic opportunity, expanded commerce, spiritual and artistic
expression, erotic variety, intellectual variation, political aggregation and
action, and so on—which the “real” city does.
Yet as soon as we allow ourselves the gesture, so familiar now thirty plus
years after 1968, of considering the real city to be socially constructed—as
soon as we make the claim that different populations occupy different cities
within the actual one by virtue of their interactions, their perceptions, and
their status—then the city’s being seems to depend less and less
upon embodied presence and more upon the mediated story of its forms, whose
unfolding, however paradoxically, depends upon the embodied reader and her
utterances or silences.
As de Certeau suggests, “spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities
. . . and interdictions” which “the walker actualizes,” making
them “exist as well as emerge” (98). For de Certeau the walker
does not merely move about the features of the city, but “he moves them
about and he invents others, since the crossing, drifting away, or improvisations
of walking privilege, transform, or abandon spatial elements” (98).
These elements take on the higher dimensionality which Massumi evokes in his
claim vis-à-vis Lynn that “[i]f each independent variable constitutes
a dimension, the blob space has five (circumference, mass, force of attraction,
zone of fusion, zone of inflection).”
The latter three dimensions are literally incorporated within the reader, whose
being is the ground upon which attraction plays, whose presence marks the zone
of fusion, and whose utterance (given or retained) is the zone of inflection.
Under such circumstances embodied presence can threaten to become merely a
quaintly sentimental custom as we begin to endow the virtual city with possibilities
similar to those with which we endow the real city.
Cyberculture forces an urgency upon us in regard to differentiating between
the real and the virtual insofar as our own reality and embodiment are intertwined
with the spaces we think to inhabit. A virtual X, says Peter Skagestad, is “what
you get when the information structure of X is detached from its physical structure.” Architects
know this exo-skeletal and detached form as program—writers see it as
story. Since September 2001 the detachment of information from physical structure
has inhabited our own bodies as well as our histories and cityscapes.
Again—perhaps forever now—we oscillate between detachments and
attachments. My own attachment to the notion of the city of text goes back
to a ten year old essay of mine, “A Memphite Topography: Governance and
the City of Text” (Of Two Minds).
In that decade old text, in another century, I spoke of my interest in the
city “as a place where language transforms us . . . not merely in future
tense, if you will, but future text” (106).
Back then I saw the text as a place of encounter where, like de Certeau’s
walker or Chris Marker’s “story of a man marked by an image” in
La Jetée, we continually, not to say endlessly, create the future.
I had in mind a textuality not unlike Marcos Novak’s “intelligent
paragraph” which for him performs “like an intelligent reader,
constantly reinterpreting the whole text with each new word that is given .
. . [altering] a number of internal, hypothetical models of what the paragraph,
and the entire text might mean.” For Novak intelligent texts offer “a
point of departure for envisioning the potential of intelligent environments
to communicate directly through the new medium of virtual space, without narrative,
linearity, reward, or any other such teleological structure” (Mork).
Within an essay prophesying the data structure as “the preeminent medium
of the new age,” which given recent history now seems almost nostalgic
in its benign melancholy, Richard Powers fancies “the future’s
supreme art form” as a virtual reality simulation of the city whose transportive
jouissance ends in “[t]he sadness of consummation. The sadness of infinite
freedom. Of save and reboot. Of having the world, in all its heft and bruise
and particularity, go utterly your own way.”
Infinite freedom is the space of cul-de-sac or café. As a continual
future it lacks history but occupies experience. It is exo-skeletal, outside
the body, virtual. In the mid ‘50s Joseph Frank’s famous essay, “Spatial
Form in Modern Literature,” is already nostalgic for the end of history.
Frank’s apprehension of what I have called storyspace is tantric, finding
jouissance only in endlessly deferred gratification. “The meaning-relationship
is completed only by the simultaneous perception in space of word-groups that
have no comprehensible relation to each other when read consecutively in time.” Frank
says, “modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual
reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be
apprehended as a unity” (13).
But what are we to do when the whole never again presents itself, or presents
itself as rhizomic, hybrid, fragmented? How do we read rhythms of fissure,
disjuncture, linkage except as story spaces?
Frank’s sense of suspended reference prefigures Lynn’s claim that “stable
architecture must be conceived in a time-based manner, but not exactly move,
rather to conceptualize the dynamic which emerges as field-forms” (“Greg
Lynn: An Advanced Form of Movement” 56).
Rem Koolhaas, too, finds hope in the exo-skeletal. “Through the double
disconnection of lobotomy and schism—by separating exterior and interior
architecture, and developing the latter in small autonomous installments,” he
writes, “such structures can devote their exteriors only to formalism
and their interiors only to functionalism” (28).
In language which recalls Benjamin’s sense of the arcades’ “continuous
shift of external and internal stimuli” (88), Koolhaas claims that such
doubled spaces “not only resolve forever the conflict between form and
function, but create a city where permanent monoliths celebrate metropolitan
Permanent monoliths to instability memorialize what Guy Debord calls “the
derangement of the unchangeable order of the society” (128). This derangement
results in what I have elsewhere called “changing change,” a notion
similar to what Novak means when he says, “we have entered a time when
the invariance itself is rendered dynamic, when acceleration accelerates.”
We celebrate instability by naming it. The names are stories. Undertaking a
memorable walkthrough of an utterly virtual, cookie-cutter exurb in the mythological,
proto-cyber Texas classic film True Stories, David Byrne says, “Things
that never had names before now are easily described. It makes conversation
easy.” Byrne’s town in the film—Virgil, Texas—has a
name which provides a locale, just as his narrator/developer character provides
a persona, meant to evoke the Divine Comedy.
Novak’s description of a liquid architecture could equally be taken as
a description of Dante’s method:
[A]n architecture whose form is contingent on the
interests of the beholder . . . without doors and hallways, where the
next room is always where
it needs to be and what it needs to be . . . . Liquid . . . cities .
. . that change at the shift of a value, where visitors with different
backgrounds see different landmarks, where neighborhoods vary with ideas
held in common, and evolve as the ideas mature or dissolve. (“TransTerraFirma”)
Through these neighborhoods the shortest distance
is a network. Annette Loudon amplifies Novak: “Hyper-links allow . . . [a]ny space [to]
have portals to any number of other spaces; location is diminished in
importance and non-linear narrative is the natural form. Narratives that
may have been achieved through the natural navigation of space—facilitated
by walls, doors, hallways, and stairs—must now be deliberately
Programming here has a tripled sense—what we experience on a network,
the underlying coding which creates networked representations, and the traditional
architectural program. Over a decade ago, writing in the days before the web,
I contrasted the dry form of exploratory hypertext with more liquid constructive
hypertexts which create “a version of what it is becoming, a structure
for what does not yet exist” (Of Two Minds 42). In structures which do
not yet exist our mortality becomes memory and history and we are the story.
The architecture of cyberspace gives form to deliberately programmed non-linear
spaces which engender stories we may embody.
My web fiction, Twelve Blue, meant to (trans)form memory and history into and
through patterns of interlocking, multiple, and recurrent surfaces along and
within a river in a way not unlike the now familiar, insistently programmed
spatial lamellae of Frank Gehry. In lieu of proprioceptive depth Twelve Blue
subverts the most awkward and insistent programmatic elements of web architecture,
frames and hyperlinks, into unstable elements whose behavior drags them back
toward a more liquid narrative architecture.
Houses stand as markers of drowning time in this fiction. The central house
is imperfectly balanced, flowing between inward as outward, a Moebius space.
The drift of a drowning deaf boy whose sinking and eventual rising again constitute
the spatio-temporal span of the story is charted from the house by a doctor
and her daughter who live at the mouth where the estuary meets a river.
She looked out on the creek and measured out the threads like the fates,
silk thread in twelve shades of blue. The trimmings she saved and cast
out on the water like pollen, all the pretty colors. They would sink
like barren nymphs for the fish to bump with fleshy lips, float for birds
to pluck away and decorate the muddy basket of a nest. She had taught
herself abandon, taught herself to understand that they were not minor
characters, she and her daughter, but at the center of something flowing
Such radiations themselves are rhymed and commemorated in the actual
strands of the interface which form the story frame (and frame stories).
These threads are meant to create a kind of score in the double sense
of music or decorative mark. Parallel narratives are represented by twelve
also mostly parallel but sometimes converging or crossing threads whose
narratives veer nearer to each other when they do. As a temporal field
the twelve lines stand for months but also characters or pairings of
them as well. Eight different strips torn from a title screen banner
constitute these frame elements.
Each surface twists back upon itself like Ben van Berkel and Caroline
Moebius House, where “as the loop turns inside out the materialization
follows these changeovers.”
Changeovers create for us what Peter M. Canning in a Deleuzian meditation terms “Fluidentity,” which
he suggests requires “a logic and practice of redoubling (the paradox)
in order to break loose . . . and open time enough to get through” (35).
As the stories take place and intermingle there is inevitably a derangement
of expected orders which create what the narratologist Gérard Genette
characterizes as syllepses, i.e. “anachronic groupings governed by one
or another kinship (spatial, temporal or other)” (85).
Anachronic groupings likewise give form to my fiction “On the Birthday
of the Stranger,” where again awkward and insistent programmatic elements
of both web architecture and narrativity are subverted to evoke liquidity.
A generic stranger celebrates his birth in a progression of twenty nine spaces
through an actual, albeit composite, European cityscape accessed through a
generic grey map of a perhaps island city dotted with 29 red “pinpoints” marking
loosely connected narrative episodes. (“Plot,” says Koolhaas in
one of the lexicon definitions which string through his and Bruce Mau’s
text like a stranger’s footsteps, is “[e]ating oysters with boxing
gloves, naked, on the nth floor—such is the ‘plot’ of the
20th century in action” .) This stranger’s footsteps and
the pinpoints are (re)marked by each of the 29 linked words in a series of
enigmatic poetic texts (e.g. “Each of the rows in the garden turned slowly
toward another as I planted it, until they looped like worms, all rhythm and
curve under your crazy blue eye”).
These linked poetic texts are seemingly disconnected to the longer texts of
the episodes. Memory and history are unnaturalized here as well, each episode
in some sense merely an extended caption for an enigmatic accompanying black
and white image, some of which are, however, displaced by the kodacolor dreams
of server-pushed, meta-refreshed color images.
The displacement of image by text and vice versa is the strategy and topography
of my last hyperfiction, The Sonatas of Saint Francis, undertaken in collaboration
with Matt Hanlon, Andrea Morris, and Carolyn Guyer. Sonatas takes place on
an island inhabited by several historical characters (St. Francis; William
Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy—in this fiction they are conjoined
or “Siamese” twins; the engraver and book illustrator Bernard Picart;
the poet Lorca; Blake’s wife, Catherine Boucher; and Bonnard’s
mistress, the painter Renee Monchaty) and a number of locals.
Sonatas means to be a novel about the relationships between word and image
and the slippages as each lapse into each other. Parts of it are in a local
pidgen of the island, which occurring as typos are unreadable or at least obscured
visions, i.e. typographically constructed images of what they mean to name,
and thus are thought to be sacred in this place, i.e. divine inspiration, the
devolution of logo into imago.
In Sonatas an avatar of Picart, a homeless Montreal vernacular artist named
Bernie, creates a huge installation in a squat described by the art historian
Frankie (himself an avatar of St. Francis) as
a narrow and airless room in which the smells of must and lacquer and
the unmistakable hay and dust fragrance of old paper mix with the saddle
and pony perfume of the leather bindings ripped from their volumes and
turned now to a waist-high wainscoting of geometric diamonds . . . .
Exquisite etchings of illustrated volumes plucked from book stalls along St-Denis
are overlaid with scraps from old rotogravure pages, glossy segments of pages
from hardcore porn whose anatomical significance follows behind the immediacy
of their innocence and strangeness, and among them like gargoyles or the leering
herukas, the wrathful deities of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, are marred Disney
characters, palimpsests gouged from the layers below their eyes or breasts
or groins . . . .
The room itself, the Palace, is bookended by ruin, the piss-smelling rooming
house now largely uninhabited, the top two floors in fact tinned up, the lobby
ceiling falling in at a spot near the wrought iron stairwell, a huge amorphous
waterstain draping greenly from the gaping plaster and exposed lath as if a
headless lotus plant, its blossom gone or perhaps never having formed.
As we veer more and more toward the virtual, the unseen unscene of the
play of our unplayed actual actions, it is more and more our lot to occupy
spaces gone before they have actually ever formed. We always look through
layers, as if not just the world but our actual vision (itself increasingly
overlaid with media projections) were a palimpsest. We become virtual
archeologists of actual spaces, exfoliating an endlessly regenerating
set of surfaces and volumes alike.
Stefan Schemat is a psychologist and an electronic artist from Hamburg who
has created something of an audio guide to the universe called Augmented Reality
Fiction (ARF), a Buck Rogers ensemble of contraptions consisting of a mini-computer
worn at the belt and a stylishly matching mini GPS dish worn like a dark parrot
upon a shoulder.
Schemat’s complex authoring system makes it possible to manipulate several “voices” (from
twice the four quarters plus one “inner” voice) which can pour
forth readings and other sounds that shift according to the fix fed to the
computer by the dish. “Walking sounds” mapped upon a city space
can wander off ahead, speeding up, slowing down, or lifting off in the most
convincing fashion, making the world a radio drama and overlaying it with the
possibilities of narrative, thus the augmented part of ARF.
In 1998 I collaborated with Schemat and others on a piece, which garnered honorable
mention at Ars Electronica, titled Alexanderplatz 5.0 (Döblin’s
novel being version 2.0 of version 1.0, the “real” place, while
an early radio play was version 3.0 and Fassbinder’s TV mini-series was
My contribution was a little Hörspiel based on the real-life misfortunes
of the writer named (I swear this is true) Michael Joyce, whose story, “Vielleicht
ein Traum,” was published in the Frankfurter Zeitung on July 19, 1931
under the name James Joyce, leading the latter to threaten a lawsuit upon my
previous namesake, the Zeitung, and the translator named (I swear this is true)
The events of September 2001 made the prospect of a GPS based interactive public
art work situated in a New York City landmark locale unlikely, especially one
whose scenario involves stories of people leaping from high windows of a flaming
building, so another collaboration with Schemat has at least been put on hold
if not cancelled outright. In that project I had been collaborating with architectural
historian and theorist Nicholas Adams, multimedia artist and DJ Herr Colin
Hough-Trapp, sound artist and anthropologist Tom Porcello, and Schemat to create
another ARF, “Triangular voices,” set in Washington Square Park
in New York. In “Triangular voices,” the square would be continuously
reimagined as an urban mix, a liquid medium of sound waves wherein urban space
and data space surge in an interwoven vortex of sounds. Architectural and cultural
spaces as well as the history of the square were to be embodied by the voices
of passing figures, from Henry James to present-day junkies to Crystal Eastman,
Vassar graduate and a blueblood among the village reds.
Besides the wandering voices and ambient mix of the spatio-temporal cityscape,
we anticipated creating particularly dense concentrations of intersecting and
interwoven sounds signaled by either recurring audio icons, an urban equivalent
of chutes and ladders where a participant can descend into the flow and layered
caverns of history or ascend to the overviews and dove-like vistas of holy
The proposed fiction took its name partly from the triangulation of the satellite,
viewer, and actual space, which gives voice to history. Yet the title was also
meant to commemorate other lost voices which we triangulate as locales for
memory, giving voice to the future. Triangular voices include the dead of the
potters field which lay below the square, the muffled voice of the brook which
still flows buried beneath it, and most of all the screaming victims of the
fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist building which once bordered it .
On the sidewalks there many years ago a garden of dead seamstresses was laid
out in a makeshift morgue, black faces like masks, their long skirts like scorched
geraniums upon the pavement. It is too much to say that in our proposed work
we had hoped to raise them up once again, to build a crystal palace wherein
they would twirl like disembodied dancers, a pyramidic and virtual botanical
garden, a liquid architecture in which the past would flow like a lost brook
through the looking glass space of the (ever) present computer screen.
Yet even if this project is postponed or itself lost, its fundamental energy
is reified by recent history. How will we remember among the fragments, in
fragments? How can we turn back toward the world we turn our back to in anger
and grief? How can we not?
In this regard I am taken by the reflections of my friend and would-be collaborator
in this project, Nick Adams, who suggested to his architectural history students
in a recent lecture that “in the weeks since September 11th I have had
occasion to rethink my sense of the singularity of that day, and think now
that to emphasize the singularity of the moment is a form of self-indulgence,
one that undermines our ability to act effectively in the world.”
In the place of such self-indulgent singularity Adams suggests a multiplicity
that belies the dull drone of the self-indulgent slogan “United We Stand” plastered
on shopping bags, automobile bumpers, and frayed flags fastened to helpless
and angry cars prowling empty American streets.
“If we look at it properly,” Adams says, “art and architecture
offer us the chance to think beyond the place we now inhabit, the dull walls,
the slovenly design of our streets and cut-rate strip malls. In the face of the
knife-edge along which we are all inching, day by day, week by week, month by
month, and year by year, architecture offers us the chance to think our way out
of the place we are in into another world.”
Café and cul-de-sac are locales for thinking our way into another world,
which is to say another body. What Adams describes is, of course, no less than
an exo-skeletal storytelling, the embodied stories we tell each other in our
lives as we, in his words, “take up our burden in two hands and move
it forward deliberately.”
Café and cul-de-sac take the inside of the city out and the outside
of the city in, respectively. They are symmetrical and even complementary eddies
in the flow of our lives. United we stand has ever been a lie; those things
stand best and longest which are multiple and even contradictory.
In The Arcades Project Benjamin characterizes the city as “the dwelling
place of the collective” where occupied space splits into “dialectical
poles” and opens up to the flâneur “as a landscape even as
it closes around him as a room.” There, according to Benjamin, “the
collective is an eternally wakeful, eternally agitated being that—in
the space between the building fronts—lives, experiences, understands,
and invents as much as individuals do within the privacy of their four walls
. . . . More than anywhere else, the street reveals itself in the arcade as
the furnished and familiar interior of the masses” (423).
The space between the building fronts mark what Molly Nesbit, in speaking of
Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, calls “sights that slip, part held,
part lost.” The interstitial vista is the link which turns the city to
a film of memory. “How did humans remember,” Marker asks in Sans
Soleil, “before they taped, filmed, photographed?”
We might argue that they did so by retracing steps, the characteristic experience
of the hypertext, café, and cul-de-sac alike. “There is something
revelatory” about retracing steps, Lucy Lippard writes, “each detail
is constantly renewed by changing light, seasons, personal moods . . . until
that specificity doubles back into generality, then back, and forth, with the
rhythms of walking, day after day” (125).
These interstitial energies—of specificity doubled back and forth into
generality, of the space between the building fronts—summon something
like the signifying energy of the collective that Mumford evokes in his famous
image of the city as magnet (9).
Mumford argues that “with the magnet we associate the existence of a ‘field’ and
the possibility of action at a distance, visible in the ‘lines of social
force,’ which draw to the center particles of a different nature” (82-83).
Those lines form for him the “glyphs, ideograms, and script,” along
with “abstractions of number and verbal signs,” which contribute
to the pliable notion of city as container contained in its own inscription,
a constantly renewing space of memory and our own making (97).
It is this that I see as I look back in passing, a memory of our making, like
the hyperfiction perhaps, or the scrap of a lost story of the future once curled
like a foetus within the shell shaped womb of the fortune cookie and now flown
away like a bright angel formed of ash.
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Michael Joyce is the author of numerous hypertext
fictions, as well as a novel, Liam’s Going (McPherson and Company,
2002), and a collection of short fictions and prose pieces, Moral Tales
and Meditations: Technological
Parables and Refractions (SUNY, 2001). He is currently Associate Professor
of English at Vassar College.
Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 2 (Fall 2002)
Copyright © 2002 by the University of Iowa