Jay Bolter: Writing Space

[Readings] (02.01.09, 2:36 pm)

An early issue is the history of print. Bolter gives the example of Victor Hugo’s story Notre-Dame de Paris, where a priest laments that the printed book will destroy the cathedral. This has not exactly been the case, cathederals arguably remain both standing and well appreciated and attended. Nonetheless, the printed word has changed the relationship between people and text, and thus their textual engagement with the cathederal. How people look toward the cathederal, and indeed anything else, was fundamentally altered after the development of the printing press. Bolter suggests that we are living in the “late age of print”, in the sense that what print is has been changed. With digital media and the internet, the nature of print and its meaning are changing. The printed form has lost primacy as a medium, and the reader and author distance has been contracted.

Cultural evolution has gradually moved text in a more participatory dimension. Medieval texts were paragons of authority and their virtues were aesthetics and precision. Printing gave texts fixity and permanence. In the modern era, they created a form of mass distribution so that texts could be bought by anyone and distributed everywhere. The digital treats texts as fluid and multiple. The roles of readership and authorship have become blended and fuzzy. These changes affect the voice of the text to its readers.

Writing Space looks at writing using a spatial metaphor. “Each writing space is a material and visual field, whose properties are determined by a writing technology and the uses to which that technology is put by a culture of readers and writers. A writing space is generated by the interaction of material properties and cultural choices and practices.” (p. 12) Writing is thus a fusion of both texts and culture. Space is given as the environment in which the text and its conjugates reside. This is a very different space than the fictional world. It nonetheless has similar qualities, and one could argue that both are environments for performance.

Bolter’s aim in this text is to explore how digital texts, and hypertext especially, are remediations of print. These remediations have in turn affected how print is used and approached, from levels both technical and compositional.

Early writing, while not mechanical, was still technology– techne, in that considerable skill was needed to create a parchment and make it a written surface which could be read. Even oral poetry requires techne, in the sense of speech, memory, and composition. In the world of the digital, in terms of hypertext (and simulation as well), the role of techne once again comes to prevalence. Both art and skill are required to create writing. Writing requires mastery over whole new technologies in order to make use of these digital forms.

Since the early history of writing, there has been  a conflict between oral and written communication. Reading is linear, following a path according to textual codes. Oral dialogues are more participatory. Both are bound by codes and expectations. Plato’s dialogues were nostalgiacally backwards-looking toward oral culture. His writing occured in a time where writing was gradually subsuming the Greek oral culture. Dialogic interaction has a resurgence in the form of hypertext and web pages.

In interactive fiction, the spatial metaphor becomes more prevalent. Bolter examines this in the context of Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, where the spatial metaphor is especially apt. “Reading afternoon several times is like exploring a vast house or castle. Although the reader may proceed often down the same corridors and through familiar rooms, she may also come upon a new hallway not previously explored or find a previously locked door suddenly giving way to the touch.” (p. 126) The analogy to exploration refers back to the spaces of textual dungeons and games. The interesting thing about these is that these spaces are textual, they are spaces of writing, not worlds. Sterne, Joyce, and Borges are all predecessors to hypertext, and are arguably hypertext authors themselves. Their texts present fragmented and exploratory spaces, not meant to be understood as ordinary linear narratives.

The conflict between text as a space versus a world is a subtle and important difference. The spatial metaphor applies to the lexia of the text, where what is being explored is the events, scenes, and descriptions. The act of reading a space is a matter of assembling a coherent picture out of these figments. This exploration operates on the discourse layer of the text. The world metaphor applies to the content of the world, the story instead of the discourse (in the Chatman sense). A reader exploring a world is interested not just in what happens in the context of the narrative, but what might happen beyond and outside of the narrative. The world operates on the diegetic level, and exploring it can seek out the space of what could happen, rather than what does happen.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBolter, J. David
TitleWriting Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing
Tagsmedia traditions, narrative, cybertext, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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