Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

7.1. Media systems: their evolution and innovation
Herausgeber | Editors | Éditeur: Ernest W. B. Hess-Lüttich (Bern)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Hybridization and literature

José Augusto Mourão (New University of Lisbon, Portugal)


"A poem is a small (or large)
machine made of words."
- William Carlos Williams, Collected Poems

"For those who've only recently lost their footing and fallen into the flood of hypertext, literary or otherwise, it may be dismaying to learn that they are arriving after the golden age is already over, but that's in the nature of golden ages: not even there until so seen by succeeding generations".
- Robert Coover

"Ce qu’apporte l’informatique à la littérature c’est la possibilité de travailler le chaos dans le mouvement du chaos lui-même: apprivoiser l’orde du désordre. Faire de la littérature un écrit vivant où des causes initialement indépendentes mêlent brusquement leurs effets dans la construction d’un sens nouveau."
- Jean-Pierre Balpe.

"This is the design that is the basis of all culture: to deceive nature by means of technology, to replace what is natural with what is artificial and build a machine out of which there comes a god who is ourselves. In short, the design behind all culture has to be deceptive enough to turn mere mammals conditioned by nature into free artists"
- Vilem Flusser.


It is obvious that hypertext is not an indigenous computer genre, but one that can be found throughout the history of writing. Clearly, cybertext is not a new invention. Linking is not new and digital textual machines do so much more than mere linking. The materiality of texts is a very strong point of contact between cybertext theory and the more traditional approaches to (print) literature. Literature has a shape and the Net is shapeless. One should not confuse hypertext theory with hypertext fiction. Hypertext is not so much a theory or a material technology as a technological movement. Cybertex theory is not about literature. "In terms of new serious literature, the Web has not been very hospitable. It tends to be noisy, restless, opportunistic, superficial, e-commerce-driven, chaotic realm, dominated by hacks, pitchmen and pretenders, in which the quiet voice of literature cannot easily be heard" (Coover, 2000). Will the new literature look like the old literature? After all, without the inventive works of Michael Joyce, Stuart Moulthrop and Shelley Jackson we shouldn’t have much to study in terms of digital narratives. What is the status of literature and art work in the age of information and digital media? Hypertext narratives are a site of literature’s adaptation to the digital condition that is perpetually "under construction". Is all electronic literature innovative?

How to characterize innovation in its material support, in the emerging forms of expression, which do not reproduce the old ones? Radical subversion of the classical concept of fiction through the reader’s intrusion? To define the concept and the shape of this new language we may quote Jean-Marie Shaeffer, to whom "the numerical code is different, in a remarkable way, from the linguistic code and from the ensemble of semiotic vehicles. Indeed, the numerical support as apprehended as a semiotic vehicle of its own. Whether on the input or on the output level, the user interprets through his own framework of knowledge a set of visual or sound stimuli and also signs that belong to non-numerical semiotic systems, iconic signs for example, or to written and spoken language...One can thus consider that the numerical code is at the disposal of traditional semiotic vehicles and, from this point of view, doesn’t replace them" ( Shaeffer, 1996) . Moreover, the first purpose of the hypertextual device is of encyclopaedic nature, not poetic and literary. Only when the purpose of this "semiotic machine" is subverted, do the poetic dimensions where hyper-fiction is found arise. In its simplest form, it doesn’t require more elements than those already implicated in the hypertextual mechanics: episodes (topics or lexis) and decisions (links). In a paper of 1987, Bolter and Joyce explained the mechanics behind Storyspace:

"Each link carries with it a condition statement (specified by the author), which must be satisfied in order for that link to be followed. At present Storyspace recognizes two kinds of conditions. The link may require that the reader match a string (answer a question) before proceeding. The link may also require that the reader already has visited a particular episode before proceeding. The author can also specify Boolean combinations of these conditions"( Bolter, Jay, Joyce, Michael 1987: 44) . Obviously, the narrative potential of the interactive text is a function of the architecture of its system of links.

The novelty of these works is related to the architecture of the decision structure, the set of connectivity rules between different places/text. It is this architecture that elevates the author to the status of author/programmer. And I is also this system of over coding that promotes the user/reader to the status of co-author "reader and rewriter", providing him with the freedom to choose among the virtuality of possible paths. Literature adopts a series of principles belonging to the so-called post-modernity: discontinuity, plurality, undetermination, chance as the very deconstructer of the plot’s coherence and, last but not least, the reader’s added role of producing meaning. This is part of the "limit experience" and, at the same time, part of the ghost of "infinity" that electronic literature envisages. Cyber-literature is the most appropriate terrain for the hybridization of narrative genres and of the semiotic systems that support them, mixing text with sound and image, in a radical combination of heterogeneous significant media. Evidently, works derived from this miscegenation are participating in and tending to the dynamism brought and resolved by the digital device alone.


Text is dead

Computer generated literature creates a series of displacements regarding the literature paradigm we knew. In effect, in this kind of literature:

1. Texts cannot be reread. 2. Texts cannot be memorized. 3. Texts don’t have principal versions, nor variants, nor sources, nor manuscripts. 4. Context doesn’t make any reference to the world, but to the constraints of coherence which impose laws captured by the reading. 5. Syntax is a tree of choices. 6. The numerical treatment of information is grounded on an arbitrary codification. 7. Literature can be numerical. 8. Movement belongs to the domain of the spectacular. 9. The problem resides in making literature into a spectacle (Balpe 1996, 1998b). The concept of virtual textures in the horizon of literary practice requires the encounter of the vast context that had been lost by the exclusive studies of the science of the text, before anything else, going against the ontological primacy of the text. The text’s new stature implies some considerations. A text in a constant state of flux is not a text - it is simply a fluctuating text. You cannot escape textuality in real, contextualized everyday speech; a fortiori you cannot escape textuality in an e-mail either. Compared with print, hypertext embodies a different rhetoric, aesthetic, and types of conceptual and topological structures. First, hypertext destabilizes such fundamental notions as the text, the author, and the reader. For the author, hypertext means giving up control over the text, accepting the reader as a partner, finding his voice blended with a chorus of others. The unity of the text also disperses. For instance, in Lanestedt and George P. Landow’s pedagogical hypertext The ‘In Memoriam’ Web (Eastgate Systems, 1992) and certain sections from Alfred , Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name, are linked with other blocks in the poem that resonate with them, as well as with critical commentary - some of it written by students who interpret the significance of the links.


The artificial and the natural

With literature, the visual arts, cinema, theatre, opera and ballet are being translated or transformed into "new" media environments. Traditional media of human expression and communication (writing, visual arts, theatre, ballet, music) and the more recently developed "mass-media" technologies (the book, the press and television media and the Internet) continue to influence in significant ways the development of these hybrid forms of expression in the "new media" technologies at present under development. It is also clear that new forms of expression and communication made possible by new media technologies are continually challenging our emotional, physical and conceptual limits and borders and pushing traditional media of expression in new directions. In the present time each of these supposed categories or clusters of technologies and practices is destined to remain "parasitic" on the other.

Maybe one can say that technology has surpassed art: "The greatest hypertext is the Web itself, because it is more complex, unpredictable and dynamic than any novel that could have been written by a single human writer, even James Joyce." (Manovich) Technology structures literature. As support. As device. Nevertheless, the tools are not accessories we manipulate to serve our purposes, but they conform and shape the range of our directions and expressions (Andrews, 2000). Its exposure to the numerical risk is real. Today everything seems connected; everything seems to work as an interface. Nevertheless, the tendency is taking interfaces to be subsumed by objects and images, becoming more user-friendly and enshrining its existence in virtual hypermedia, thus disguising all its materiality through the processes of invisibility. The result meets the eye: "the most artificial blends in with the most vital" (Bragança de Miranda 2002). In other words: "as everything becomes interface, the border line between what was real from what (yet) wasn’t, is held together, more and more, by technique and is manifested only aesthetically" (Bragança de Miranda 2002).

The category of design is, in this context, essential in assuring that the technological program performs much more than its pure efficiency, but can also hybridize with the human being, conjugating the immaterialization of all works of art with a perceptive numerical experience and the integration of users. "De toutes les hybridations vers lesquelles le numérique incline, c’est l’hybridation du sujet et de la machine, à travers les interfaces, qui est la plus violente et la plus décisive." (Spielmann, 2001).

Diogo de Sá, a Portuguese humanist of the XVIth century, in his Tratado dos Estados Eclasiásticos e Seculares (1557), mentioning the greatness of the things made by God and the existence of only One God, agrees with the Apostle Paul and says there is no idol in the world (Sá, 1557: 186). And goes on to point out three reasons: firstly because "among the creatures God has made, no idol created and nurtured by Him shall be found". And since the idol is created with matter that God has made, whether of gold, silver or similar things, a form created by the folly of men, it is nothing. Secondly because it is made by the hands of men, craftsmen, and as Jeremiah said, every artifice in the idol is fake because the idol is a fake. There is no spirit in it. Thirdly because it displays no resemblance to anything in the world. Between the idol and the simulacrum there is no difference, says St. Thomas, the idol is what has no resemblance to what is natural. But indeed, what is an artifact? An artifact is "something" made with a specific cultural function in mind. In a sense, human cultures are museums of the artifacts built by the gifted animal. Technology is a term used to describe the process through which human beings model the objects in order to understand, and control them better. The issue of the interface is crucial. First because the access to cyberspace demands the opening of "windows", that on a multi-sensorial level allow the integration of the subject on a domain coded by binary language and accelerated to the speed of light; secondly, because, as Manovich stresses on his text From Borges to Html, it is the area of Graphic User Interface (GUI). It is the latter that has been changing culture more deeply, in the organization of symbolic representation of experience, leading to the redefinition of current interaction with History. Generally, interfaces represent the technical appropriation of a metaphysical operation, itself also an interface with the divine. Current interfaces, in the end, imitate what every culture practices: the passage from a visible world to an invisible one.



Mainly since the 60’s and 70’s, the radical abandonment of "manifestos" and the attraction of the eclectic mixture of styles and the fusion of distinct artistic areas is becoming apparent. Hybridization means that "The non-semantic, the spatial, the poly-medial, and the creolized open new registers in possibility for the text" (Loss Pequeño Glazier 2002: 177). José Jimenez, in his text called The Revolution of the electronic art (1999), makes reference to the mutable nature of the new forms of materiality of the digital image, radically different from the weight of the image as picture, embodied in multidimensionality. The integration of language, image and sound on the same horizon of perception reveals the possibility of complete synaesthesia. Current interactive works only make any sense because they are founded in a dialogic mode that enables the user’s integration in the virtual structure of cybernetic feed-back. Equally important is the traditional structure of interactivity in stabilizing the classic spaces of art, built in a one-dimensional system of stimuli-response. What is really at stake here is the emergence of a transversal paradigm in digital art: hybridizing. Hybridization has become the key to rationalize total immersion in a simulated world, from the moment when all positions are transferable and all frontiers dissolved by the binary operator.

We have clearly entered a new era of literature’s landscape. But there is a question that still remains and which Glazier puts in a very pertinent way: "Our idea of the digital literary work is confined by literary practice that has become habitual by nature; thus it is hard to see something anew and then part with old habits. The hard choice before us is to identify new forms of literature, expand our habits, and not be restricted to old forms in new clothes". Is all electronic literature innovative? (Glazier 2002: 178). New productivity crosses all domains, from biology to art; is it the dawn of a new age of form, or the final decomposition of all forms, in combination and hybridism? It is therefore pertinent, in the current conditions of globalization, to use the concept of hybridization and cross-breeding. Hybridization, as process of transaction and intersection saves multiculturalism from segregation and instead nurtures interculturalism. A clear theory of hybridization is inseparable from a critical consciousness of its frontiers, of what it allows, and what may or may not be hybridised (Cancilini, Néstor García 2005). Hybridization is today, in the field of media, a constant; it is no longer the exception, but a central form of communication and knowledge, especially of new media. Today, social and textual networks circumscribe digital intertextuality in cyberspace. Hypermedia have, concomitantly, penetrated our daily life, on a regional, national and global scale. And it does so through specific social networks. A text is the converging point of either raw institutional speeches, or of other texts. One of these spaces of discursive convergence is the Internet, where the sciences, the techniques and the arts meet and hybridize. There are today textual and social networks that, together, circumscribe cyberspace in a digital social intertextuality. On the Internet there is a metamorphosis between the natures of art and literature. Today, a literary or artistic piece cannot reach the global audience if it is not exposed in e-books, virtual exhibitions and digital museums. Cyber-literature is conceived as a process, where continuous interpretations and reinterpretations of interconnected literary documents take place, and where relations allow the reader to travel between narrative connections (Nelson, 1992: 2-8).


Reconfiguring narrative

Does hypertext tell stories at all, or is it primarily a machine for the dismantling of narrative? The crisis of the narrative genre is not new. Since Mallarmé (it is not the author who speaks, it is language) a subversive tendency in literature, and more specifically in romance, has gone beyond the mere concern with the refinement of style and contents, affecting the very structural configuration of narratives. Joyce, Calvino, Lobo Antunes have taken the architecture of the novel to its last consequences inside the possibilities of the conventional frame of a book. The advent of the digital support seems to serve as a redeemer for the previous experimentations, subject to the obvious limitations of the conventional book. Art and technique gathered in a new affinity. Jean-Pierre Balpe (1997: 82) considers it a matter of dealing with an inadmissible kind of literature because it accepts no traditional inscription in time. His texts cannot be reread. They are texts without memory. His authors make decisions, as text engineers that only see their own work when the machine has finished its job. He then claims that computer literature exhibits, interactively, the creative process: "La littérature informatique revendique l’irréalisme, l’inutilité première et la non motivation da la création artistique" (Balpe 1997: 87). For us, narrative is everything which arises from concatenation and transformation of passions and actions. And without narrative, interaction or argumentation, there are no processes of communication. Reconfiguration is yet another interesting topic. Landow’s Hypertext contains an entire section called "Reconfiguring Narrative", in which he discusses the plot, "narrative beginnings and endings". For this author, the development of the interactive mechanism is both a new way of telling stories and a generator of new narrative structures: broken up, open, without rise and fall of tension, unstable, multi-linear, created in the act of reading, multiple, and so on. This notion raises ontological issues, the most important being the one by Michel Serres, the notion of quasi-objects. What is called the body turn is no longer considering the body as an object but "how a particular body-regime has been produced, the channelling of processes, organs, flows, connections, the alignment of one aspect with another", as Jacqueline Rose (Rose, Jacqueline: 1986: 72) wrote. Speaking of a technological body, we are speaking of a hybrid that conjugates opposites. The technological body blends the opposites. The technologically altered human body becomes the place to question the identities de-ranged in such blending.


Hypertextual organisation

A decade or so ago, in the pre-Web era of the digital revolution, a new literary art form began to emerge, made possible by the computer’s ability to escape the book’s linear page-turning mechanism and provide multiple links between screens of text in a nonlinear web-work of narrative or poetic elements. We understand digital technologies as a language that organizes new creative ways. This fact leads us to one of its constitutive elements, metaphors, and narratives considered as a way of using language. Nowadays computers are mediating cognitive processes and, consequently, professional practices themselves. It is in paying attention to socio-cultural dynamics, always functioning, that we try to understand how men, together with machines, create, remake themselves and, at the same time, recreate ways of being together and, therefore, ways of acting and being in he world.

Hypertext is a system constructed upon the image of the literary system. Instead of the end of literature, it is possible to argue that literature is an unfinished signification process. Hypertext is a new way to tell stories. We know generators of new narrative structures: open, shattered, flat, unstable, multi-linear and created in the moment of reading. But the definition of what constitutes an electronic text is open to some interpretations. We are faced with not only a lack of uniform practice in electronic poetry but also an inadequate vocabulary for discussing e-poetry. Kac’s "Webliography" divides the field of e-poetry into four categories: "Poetry Resources", "Hypertext Resources", "Poet’s Site" and "History of New Media Poetry". None of these include "electronic poetry". How then do we begin to construct a frame that would define innovative practice in digital literature? Following Glazier’s proposition, which is, as he says, a "first draft of a list-in-progress" (Glazier, 2000: 174), we systematize: Firstly, the position of "I". More than a process initiator or "an agent that exists in a problematized or multiple relation on the text", instead of author, it would be better to talk about "programmer". Secondly, we must take into account the material. The text grows from code, draws from the drama of code, and is rooted in the material of C, or HTML or Java. What’s crucial about this is the friction that "warms the text", enabling new tools of intelligence. Glazier mentions that "jazz-like cacophony that sets the stage for the outburst of material properties to illuminate the site of the text" (Glazier, 20000: 175).

Hypertextual organization is what allows us to grasp the rhizomatic nature of any given collective intelligence. It holds, in various points, a privileged relation with the notion of collective memory, as the latter gains meaning from the use (in terms of access and organization) of hypertextual functions (the links). Linking (directions in the text to another part of the text or between texts) has been with us for the longest time. Numerous pre-digital works, from the I Ching to the choose-your-own-adventures, have demonstrated this, as well as footnotes, Egyptian temple wall inscriptions, etc. Espen Aarseth called this technology "Lazy Links", because the text is making the reader do the work (Aarseth, Espen 2005). Literature is a system that evolves from the interconnection of documents. Connection is attained by relating texts with other texts (Nelson 1992: 2-8). Hypertext is a digital system made in the image and resemblance of the literary textual system (Aarseth). Some of the most influential authors in this field (Moulthrop 1989; Bolter 1991; Landow 1992, Synder 1997, Murry 1997) consider that the narrative possibilities of a medium depend, partially, on its analogical or digital character. In digital media analysis, the analogical or digital character of text material is often considered as a factor that determines the narrative possibilities. What is a quality in hypertext? asks G. Landow. The answer is: "Since the link is the characteristic feature that defines hypertextuality, one naturally assumes that a lexis containing a larger number of valuable links is better than one that has fewer"(Landow 2004/3). Mark Bernstein points out that sometimes hypertext might suggest the presence of a link that might not in fact exist. And he mentions the example in Forward anywhere by Stuart Moulthtrop. Allusion, reification, ellipse, might suggest a missing link. It is a strategy in the very navigability of the text.(Bernstein 2002: 91). Behind what seems to be a problem of enunciation in a hypertextual environment we discover a double perspective: to construct the discourse, it is essential to know and control the new codes of enunciation of "piétonnière" (Clément 1995), in which the word shifts and changes axis constantly. It is also a critical function, that of constructing a text. Others besides Glazier insist that "link-node hypertext is not the only form of hypertext; it is simply the most common. "A node-link hypertext can become a book and vice-versa, but text generators require programmatons" (Bernstein 2002: 176). But programatons are, for Cayley, computers. We must not turn digital literature into a link maker art. As M. Joyce has shown, there are good links and bad links. John Cayley has referred to links as "nilsk", an anagrammatic set that emphasizes their "null" value. Rich linking, plus a substantial degree of reader control, thus appear to characterize success in both informational and literary hypermedia. But the coherence criterion is, above all, the most important one.



We are facing, undoubtedly, the emergence of a new paradigm of knowledge, in the conjugation of digital technologies. The sciences and the techniques seem, at last, to converge into a communicational, informational and aesthetic space never seen before: a new epistemology, a "cognitive ecology" (Pierre Levy) in which the concept of interface is central (a device of translation and re-expedition) and the concept of network as collective shatters the Kantian transcendental subject. A new relation between brain and calculus is set up. The technical objects and their practices turn into fetishes, imposing themselves as non-human objects. The idea is that literature is more of a technique of the imaginary than a technology. Computerized literature is essentially revealing the metamorphosis in which the product reflects on the screen the process of its electronic genesis. In hypertext, where literature and technology converge, according to Derrida, literature reveals, in its own mode, the "essence" of techniques. Hyperfiction is supported by the same parameters that were first used in other areas. This new media arena will thus make it possible to express a new kind of subjectivity and bio-politics. We are not far from the utopia anticipated by H. G. Wells in World Brain. Wells looks forward to "a world-wide network", not far from Mallarmé’s dream, to accomplish an "integral book, a multiple book that would potentially contain every possible book."(Machado 1996: 196).

Changing technologies continually reshape the very nature of the artistic enterprise. And, as R. Coover points out: "Like composers, artists, and filmmakers before them, writers will learn to battle through the new tool-learning tasks, or to collaborate with other artists, designers, filmmakers, composers, and the tools themselves will become easier to learn and use and will interact more smoothly with other tools" (Coover 2002: 6). Experimentation remains the privileged domain of contemporary art. A new medium will thus enact and express a new kind of subjectivity. Laurie Anderson, Roy Ascott, Jenny Holzer have brought something never seen before in the paradigm that preceded what we now call cyber-culture. Numerical technology has confronted literature, releasing it from the rule of canon and narrative laws. Artists are now emphasizing the textuality of writing, seen as a visual form that works inside a specific space, and not as transparent vehicle of the word. Is cyber-writing indicating the end of literature or its re-discovery as matter artefact, constructions that resemble that which the quantic universe calls wave function? The emergent forms of expression may not necessarily be recognizable as variants of previous forms. In the digital medium, forms that are "live" (Glazier), that execute in the presence of the reader, offer experiences in textuality, a world apart from the rigidity of fixed paths through a textual field. "Such concepts help locate new media within the innovative tradition"(Glazier 2002: 177). The intuition of Laruelle that the textual machines are grafted in a willed and mechanical process, deconstructing the previous idea that there is only a text, goes in the sense of the actual literary practice as flux, and testify at the same time to another intuition of Landow, the revelation of metamorphosis in which the product reflects on the screen the process of its electronic beginning. Is this new form of literature an indication of a New Renaissance? Or rather, because of numbering, and an imminent total deletion of verbal language is, Vilem Flusser right in saying that: "The easiest way to represent the future of writing, if the current tendency for a culture made of techno images is to stay, is to imagine culture as a gigantic decoder which transforms text into image (Morley, Simon 2004: 204)"?

© José Augusto Mourão (New University of Lisbon, Portugal)


Aarseth, Espen J., 2005: preface to Cibertexto. Perspectivas sobre a literatura ergódica,

tradução portuguesa de Maria Leonor Telles e J. A. Mourão, Lisboa, Pedra da roseta.

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Bernstein, Mark 2002:, "Padrões do Hipertexto", in INTERLAB. Labirintos do pensamento contemporâneo, FAPESP, Iluminuras, org. Lúcia Leão, p. 91.Bolter, Jay, Joyce, Michael 1987. "Hypertext and Creative Writing", in Proceedings from Hypertext’87: 44.

Clément, Jean 1995: "Du texte à l’hypertexte: vers une épistémologie de la discursivité hypertextuelle", in Hypertextes et hypermedias: Réalisations, Outils, Méthodes, Paris, Hermès.

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Shaeffer, Jean-Marie 1996: "Arts et médias numériques", in Revue virtuelle nº 16, février. (author’s translation)

7.1. Media systems: their evolution and innovation

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