88 Constellations for Wittgenstein

Curator's Note

Long narrative fiction has always been a problem for digital literature.  The screen length, the temptation to click, and the hypertextual Web have mitigated against it.  Two works, created 22 years apart, show contrasting strategies and suggest how digital literature has evolved in the past two decades.  Michael Joyce’s Twelve Blue (1996), programmed in Storyspace, uses connections between literary images and an interface that allows one to play the piece as if it were a musical instrument to achieve its effects. Pronouns abound, and part of the piece’s mystique is to read enough screens so one can recover some sense of the storyworld and the events within it.  While highly nonlinear, the piece nevertheless relies on traditional literary techniques to achieve coherence and narrative appeal. David Clark’s 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (2008) in Flash shows constellations; clicking on stars opens screens with animated graphics and over-voice narration that whimsically relate tidbits from Wittgenstein’s life and philosophy as well as other short narratives connected by visual or verbal puns.  For example the piece plays on multiple meanings of “88”, from its prohibition on German football jerseys (because H is the alphabet's  8th letter,  “88” signifies “Heil Hitler"), to the 88 piano keys (Wittgenstein’s brother was a professional pianist who lost his right arm in World War I and subsequently commissioned and performed piano pieces for the left hand).   The effect is not of a narrative storyworld but rather of an assemblage; an eclectic network of connections. The differences between the two pieces indicate how long narrative fiction is morphing in Web environments.   Competing for attention in the Web’s information-intensive environment, narratives become smaller, less connected, tending toward an array to be sampled rather than a whole to be absorbed.


Thanks, Katherine, for starting off our week with this fine post.  You nicely highlight not only the challenges faced by digital literature, but also how its genres evolve to meet them.  I’m struck by the way that Clark’s structurally organizing metaphor of “constellations” maps so easily onto the “web”—that familiar metaphor for the Internet’s system of hyperlinked documents: it’s easy to image the web as constellations and constellations as a web.  Clark seems to solve the problem of long narrative by creating a structure that mirrors or resembles in miniature the very thing that’s caused the problem: the web itself.  For me, interacting with 88 Constellations feels a lot like clicking around on a mini-web or literary “weblet.”   

This is the first I’ve seen of Clark’s work. 88 Constellations strikes me as unassailably good. And now I’m forced to reconsider what has been, for me, a problem with digital literature, maybe the problem. I’m talking about the nonlinearity Katherine notes above in her bravura post. There is a certain genre of digital literature that allows me to experience a work in the order of my choosing. (Forgive me for wading out of my depth: is Digital Literature distinct from literature that happens to be conveyed digitally? Surely. Right?) Even as a child sitting in libraries, where I inhaled choose-your-own-adventure volumes hungrily, I was troubled by those multiple endings, the many paths one could take to get to the same destination. Always I wondered, upon reaching the end of my choosing, which of these fates did the author most relish? Sure, there were many paths. Sure, the reader’s empowered (sort of) within certain narrowly established confines. But which of these endings was best? The most poetic or moral or just conclusion? I wanted to know. The loss I felt, and—Clark excepted—continue to feel is the loss of formal shapeliness. Give me nonlinearity in a poem. Give me nonlinearity in essays and stories that function associatively, as a lyrical assemblage. That sort of fixed nonlinearity I can cope with, I can relish, because it’s the author’s chosen path. And goddammit, the author’s is the authority. She’s thought this stuff through. If I’m to co-create meaning as a reader, I want to draw that meaning from the authoritative text. And yet. And yet I’m troubled by this thinking. It has an air of the crank to it, of the curmudgeon, and perhaps too of the digital dilettante. Good to know I’ll be here all week, learning from the best. Thanks Katherine for calling our attention to this beautiful work, and thanks Eric for enabling this forum!


Like John Bresland, I also found myself thinking of poetry when watching 88 Constellations, though I was relishing how the interaction of image with language was creating the same urge to re-read as I feel with poetry. At first I felt challenged, taking in so much at once--the piece has  moments where the image easily furthers the spoken--but in other places I missed nuances (or sometimes something bigger) the first time around. But as with a poem, in the second read I got the same charge as with poetry, when what earlier seemed merely a lovely image resonates with something bigger. Which is so fitting to the subject--as Clark seems to argue Wittgenstein himself can't be pinned in one pass.

At first, I was frustrated by the lack of meaningful interaction in 88 Constellations because, like most gamers I know, I dove in without reading the instructions. It was only after learning that I could trigger additional animations using my computer keyboard--using my left hand--that I began to appreciate the work. This bespeaks another problem endemic to digital literature: innovative interfaces ask a great deal of users, who are accustomed to relying upon muscle memory in their interactions and who have little patience for their own awkwardness. It's a little like asking pianists to play using only their feet. The problem is not merely one of compositional strategies and contexts, but also of physical gestures so familiar to users that their gestures and contexts blend together, delimiting their experiences beforehand. Which is precisely what Wittgenstein was talking about.

Kate, your comparison of Twelve Blue and 88 Constellations is a telling one; there has no doubt been a move toward long-form narrative that invites sampling rather than strongly suggesting a long, involved reading as some of the famous early hypertext novels did. But I wonder, first, about whether this shift is more general to electronic literature; have there been changes in shorter fiction pieces and digital poetry as well? All of electronic literature is competing for attention in an ecology of commercial video games, video from Hulu to YouTube, social networks, and so on. And, second, I wonder if this relates to a particular form of interactive literature, interactive fiction, which hosted long-form narrative works in the 1980s? Interactive fiction seems to have shrunk in size and expected time of engagement since then, thanks in part to the IF Competition for short (about two-hour) games. In IF, however, you are still not expected to sample; works are presented for you to solve, even if they are smaller-scale than it used to be.

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