Technocriticism: An Essay

The development of computer technology and the new versions of texts that are electronic texts to be read on screen rather than in the print form has had drastic impact in traditional literary studies. The influence of technology has always been visible in science fiction. The availability of online shopping, fiction (Judy Molloy‘s Its Name Was Penelope, to name one of them), chat shows, journals and essays on the web (example: Matthew G Kirschenbaum‘s The Cult of Print- Postmodern Culture  are electronic signs of the times. But the impact on the very nature and concept of textuality is a phenomenon associated with the 1980s and ’90s. The age of the hypertext, simulation, computer aided designs and virtual reality requires a whole new theory of reading itself. Technocriticism is the result of these developments. In recognition of the “arrival” of a new age, Modern Fiction Studies brought out a special issue on the subject in 1997. The work of Katherine Hayles (especially in Chaos Bound) and Michael Joyce has been located at the interface of cyberstudies, cultural and literary studies.

The study of narrative is undoubtedly the most fascinating area in technocriticism. The essential features and assumptions of “technocriticism” (in relation to narrative and reading) may be summarized as follows:

(1) Categories and notions like text, narrative, and linearity need to be rethought. The texts is no longer a linear narrative with a logical beginning, middle and end. Various parts of the text may be transferred, sequences rearranged, added to and subtracted from. Commentaries, other texts and notes may be displayed thus altering the way a text looks and is read (on screen), At the click of the mouse, the reader may switch reading material, refer to an encyclopedia, and compose/mark her/his comments.

(2) The reader is now a network, or “a city of texts” (Michael Joyce). The reader is returned to the same “lexia” over and over again in the branching narrative. The reader “scans” a particular passage, word or image. Thus what the text should give you, or what the text means is already in the reader’s mind when s/he clicks on the keyboard or mouse. Reading and re-reading a section of the text is a reconfiguration of the text itself. As a result, the “body” of the book is now a problematic concept. A hypertext, as defined by Jay Bolter in Writing Space, is “a network of texts which allows the reader to choose any path—all paths are equally valid.”

(3)The change that occurs in narrative is that from a closed,linear, univocal authoritative aesthetic which renders , the reader passive, to one which is multivocal, open, non-hierarchical, and non-linear and which is based on active “encounter” between reader and text. This new aesthetic is what Jaishree Odin terms “Net” or “hypertext” aesthetics.

(4) The reader can create her/his own narrative in the space of virtual reality. Interactive fiction and drama are examples of this. New pathways and solutions are offered by the reader/viewer, who is now a player. This is an intensely visual activity, where the writer organizes a shape to the images, but which the reader reshapes on screen.

(5) Internet chat-rooms and interactive dialogues suggest a whole new mode of reading. The solitary nature of reading and writing is no more available to us. Hence the definition of reading “space” requires redefinition.

(6) Simulation and virtual reality is not the obliteration of the object of representation. Rather, simulation brings the object into being, with the active participation of the reader. A new topology develops. This is full of gaps and “in-between spaces” which provide the potential for the reader’s articulation and interruptions.

(7) The hypertext creates virtual spaces. Michel Joyce suggests two forms of these spaces:
(i) Exploratory: where readers create their own paths through a body of knowledge. On the Web, readers mark visited and unvisited sites by changing the highlighting colour of cue material. Destination codes for links are also displayed. Hints about where else to go are available. All this radically alters the way in which we read.
(ii) Constructive hypertexts: where writers collect, shape and act upon information and create visual maps of structures that anticipate what they are becoming. That is, they “write” a structure of something that does not yet exist.

(8) Hypertexts do not aim at reaching a destination. The art of “tracing” or “navigating” is itself the object. The lexias (units) are in random sequence, fragmented and discontinuous. The text and the reader therefore exist in the in-between zone of trans-formation, and navigation.

(9) The computer codes, programmed languages are involved in presenting certain “flickering signifiers” (Hayles) on the screen. A global command can rearrange the text in its entirety. Thus the relationship between the signifier and the signified is entirely arbitrary and temporary. One can retrace a link, “undo” a link or “recall” a lexia. The text can mutate itself instantly. This leads to a “reflexive body writing,” where the path the reader traces is the materialization of her/his subjectivity. The reader is thus an integral part of the topology. The gaps are the sites of potential where the reader may inscribe her/his body-subjectivity as s/he traverses along the paths.

More innovations in cyberculture will see corresponding developments in technocriticism. The relationship of the potential of cyberspace to subjectivity, postcolonialism, race and gender issues are now being tackled. Without a doubt, this is one of the most exciting areas of critical theory today.

Source:  Literary Theory Today, Pramod K Nair


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