for Messenger Morphs the Media
TOWARDS A POETICS OF HYPERFICTION
Necessity of evaluation
Regarding hyperfiction there are four groups to
distinguish: a) those, who produce hyperfiction, b) those,
who read it, c) those, who ignore it, and d) those, who read
hyperfiction to review it. I admit to belong to the last
group. I am not sure, if authors prefer scholars of
literature, who belong to the group of ignorants, rather
than the ones who are reviewers. I also understand, there
might be some reasons that make a meeting of authors and
critics tricky. The sense of innovation, the creative genius
doesn't quite fit with the eagerness to comment and
criticize&endash;especially when old standards for new
phenomena are used. Nevertheless, we need to discuss
hyperfiction from an academic perspective. We need a poetics
of hyperfiction &endash; not as much an aesthetics, which is
about art and truth, perception, social impact, mimesis and
catharsis, but a poetics, which is about the right use of
poetical or technical means. The more the literary field of
hyperfiction is being established &endash; and it is about
to be established considering the number of conferences,
public competitions of hyperfiction, magazines, marketing
companies and a growing hyperfiction-author-society &endash;
the less it can tolerate the lack of a professional review.
Criteria as questions
Now, what are the criteria to evaluate
hyperfiction? This is probably one of the most exciting and
difficult questions concerning hyperfiction, and there is
simply no yellow brick road to follow. This is not about
usability, this is not about ability to design. This is
about aesthetical values of technical devices. Those devices
are so different from program to program that one may object
to constructing general theories about hyperliterature at
all. (1) On the other hand, there are
certain aspects one will find in most of hyperfiction:
navigation, linkage, multimediality. Maybe we can find some
criteria to evaluate hyperfiction by listing the typical
characteristics of it and raising the inherent questions. I
see the following main issues:
- Multimediality: How is the mutual impact of
text, picture, and sound; what about the multimedial
competence of the author?
- Technical aesthetics: How is the relation
between artistical and technical ingenuity; in other
words, does the engineer beat the poet?
- Performance: How and to what end is the
reading process programmed (e.g., by setting time for the
course of nodes)?
- Links: Does the link transfer a specific
- Navigation: Which meaning does the structure
transfer, and which role does the reader play in putting
together the segments of text?
- Screen aesthetics: How is the screen used as a
unit of representation?
Kitsch in hyperfiction
The jury of the German hyperfiction-competition
(organized by the newspaper DIE ZEIT and IBM for three years
now) claimed in 1996, among the hyperfictions evaluated
there was little sentimentality and kitsch but more joy of
playing with the new technology.
The addition was that sometimes this desire to play
seemed to have displaced the search to articulate one's own
This leads to a main question of any poetics: what is kitsch
and what is it supposed to be in terms of hyperfiction.
The question of kitsch opens a big can of worms,
for here we might be well advised just to refer to a common
definition of kitsch, which is based on aspects of
encountering and using the aesthetical material. In this
definition kitsch is understood as 1) the unreflected
desire, without distance for contemplation, and 2) the
oversimplified signification of an aesthetical means.
Considering point 1 in terms of hyperfiction we
have to admit that we find technophilia without distance of
contemplation in many examples of hyperfiction. I mean the
use of technical devices without real meaning, e.g., a link
which is just a link, but doesn't transfer any specific
meaning, or a sophisticated animation effect which does not
represent more than itself. Here the engineer has beaten the
poet. We might call this the celebration of technology; it
fits with what in terms of kitsch is called the unreflected
desire. It is reminiscent of the ornamentation, which kitsch
has been doing to simple, functional goods since the late
19th century. Here, kitsch with a huge aesthetical effort
pretends a special meaning where there is actually no
special meaning. One can find this excessive use of
aesthetical means of attraction in hyperfiction. Well,
hyperfiction can be campy.
Considering point 2, we know that we can find a
lot of oversimplified semantization of aesthetical or
technical means. A link from the word emptiness to an empty
white page might be one example.
Appropriate use of technical devices
There are two ways to produce kitsch in
hyperfiction: either giving the aesthetical/technical mean
no obvious meaning, or giving it a meaning which is too
obvious. I will give two examples of an appropriate use of
A: There is one node (number 047) in Stuart
which starts with the words "This is the dream of remote
control. In this dream you can press a button whenever you
like and totally reconceive the world around you. Click, you
are two hundred feet tall looking down on sleeping suburbia
[...]" Having read approximately to this line, the node
disappears, turns to a black screen with a single word in
the middle &endash; click. Of course, this is a false link.
Nothing happens; one has to go back to finish reading the
dream. One should hurry in doing this, since the screen will
change again and again. So, the reader not only does not get
the promised feeling of remote controls, rather he feels as
though he himself is being controlled remotely. This meaning
of the link and the programmed time-effect complements, or
to say more exactly, modifys the meaning of the letters.
However, there is even more: browsing the black screen, the
reader will encounter many hidden links. The occurrence of
these links modifys the meaning once more and makes the
technical device the major element of meaning.
B: An second example from one of the prizewinners
of the 1998 German hyperfiction-competion is the following:
In Jürgen Daiber's and Jochen Metzger's
DER BILDER a man cut his artery and is watching his
blood forming a pool on the carpet. The round image circling
in the background of text is taken to be the pool of blood.
When the phone rings, the man decides that if it rings ten
times more he will answer it, finish the conversation
quickly, and then call the emergency. It does. But the call
is not what he expected, nobody really cares for him. It's
the pizza service having realized that the man had ordered
pizza nine times they are offering the tenth pizza for free.
As the reader realizes this turn of events, the round image
has turned to a small one at the bottom of the text. It is a
pizza, and it is set now behind the last word like a huge
These are some thoughts in approaching a poetics
of hyperfiction from an academic perspective. At the
workshop I would like to discuss - if the listed criterias
meet the demands - what further questions should be asked -
if kitsch in hyperfiction is to be defined in the way I did
- how the manner of writing and reading hyperfiction affects
the reviewing of it.
(1) Espen J. Aarseth: Cybertext.
Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Johns Hopkins
University Press, Baltimore and London 1997, p. 79: "It is
dangerous to construct general theories about
hyperliterature. Instead we must look at each system as a
potentially different technical medium, with aesthetically
(2) Ludwig Giesz: Phänomenologie
des Kitsches, München 1960.