front cover of Wittig's Invisible RendevousI’ve dipped in and out of Invisible Rendevous several times, picking up images of literary construction workers collecting bits of a novel from bypassers, but this weekend I read it outright, in that old-fashioned way from beginning to end. Invisible Rendevous was written by Rob Wittig on behalf of a community of writers in Seattle in the eighties who built novels of text written by a city (the phonebook would be the byline), a country, and who used a bulletin board system as one of their collaborative tools. The book presents a wonderful story of collaborative writing, electronic writing, writing as activity rather than as a work of genius. Lots of this is interesting both as a case study and as an approach to literature and to writing that’s very related to blogging and networked writing and creation today. Below are some quotes and thoughts I’ll want to return to.

The society is programmed to look for the “next big thing” in literature. What if this time the next big thing is not a “hot young novelist” or even a mass migration from the technology of the printed book to the technology of screens and wires? What if the next big thing already surrounds us, embedded in small gestures we perform every day? What if the next big thing is the realization that we have changed the way we use culture–remapping, rewiring, renetworking the same old pool of elements in new ways, adding to them with furtive scribbles, seeking pleasures wtihout naming them? What if that new way of using culture remains invisible because we have been taught to look for the wrong things–for authors, works and readers? (8)

First, they decided, there must be a questioning of the Romantic division of writing into fiction and non-fiction. The three sacred genres–poem, story, novel–had come to claim subjectivity and the imagination as their own. Other forms that had been open to the “creative” writer through the end of the 18th century–bestiaries, handbooks for princes, meditations, hagiographies, etymologies, travel guides–were spurned as utilitarian, industrial, “objective.” At best this world of other forms had been, as Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin later asserted, subsumed into the novel and made to dance to the novel’s tune. Poetry and fiction were held to embody a higher truth than their objective counterparts. (45)

[The diagram of how a book is really read, pages 81-83.]

People changed “nyms” (pseudonyms, heteronyms, eponyms) constantly, choosing a new “nym” for each voice they wished to write with. All the different voices were permitted, encouraged. Writing something in a particular style, genre, multiplying the ways in which you permitted yourself to write rather than searching for your one true voice.

“Literature”–a club wielded to prevent such experiments as this (as in “Yes, but it’s not L. . .”). “Art”–fetish of the closed, polished object designed for eager consumers. “Writing”–ah, now we’re getting closer to what is after all a basic human activity indulged in which greater or lesser degrees of intelligence and delight by many good Americans to whom IN.S.OMNIA [the BBS, the project] offers a perennial invitation to inscribe a first word and follow whereever it will lead. (85)

This makes me think of the essay I wrote introducing electronic literature a few years ago. I’d had to face exactly that question, “Yes, but it’s not literature?” and its close accomplice, “But is it literature?” so many times that I titled my essay “But is it literature?” (though in Norwegian: Men er det litteratur?) and began to find an answer by concluding that it might not be, but that didn’t matter. It’s amazing that people have been working on dismantling this lone genius idea of literature for so long and yet each individual needs to dismantle it again for herself. I certainly was not exposed to this notion of literature in my years of studying comparative literature at a Norwegian university. And still I get the question, when talking about networked literature, networked writing, that question: “but where are the great works? Is there anything as good as Shakespeare?” Perhaps one day I’ll be able to answer, convincingly, that that is not the point. It’s not about reinventing Shakespeare. It’s something different.

So–what to call the new shapes of work on IN.S.OMNIA? As we’ve seen with the novel of Seattle, policing the formal borders adn declaring works “complete” and “finished” is problematic. For the time being we have come to call just about everything a “project.” Project with the accent on the Greek prefix pro- –that which comes before, that which is planned in advance with no worry about its completion, that which is potential–“project” as in a design on the future. (107)
(..)Dreams are sketched in terms of universal access from anywhere to any computers–the whole history of writing at your fingertips. The system that hypertext’s nameer, Theodor Nelson envisions, dubbed Xanadu “provides A UNIVERSAL DATA STRUCTURE TO WHICH ALL OTHER DATA MAY BE MAPPED” (emphasis Nelson’s) (Nelson in Bolter, 1991, 102)

Nelson’s vision is predicated on his data typing and marking system becoming universally adopted. But there are bound to be data that will refuse to be typed and marked correctly, for reasons of economic competition if nothing else. It’s the “nature” of data, the nature of messages. IN.S.OMNIA has shown us that hypertext tends to escape the intent of its creators. (114)

This book was published in 1993. I wonder if I would have understood it if I had read it then, alongside the hypertext theory I was starting to devour, along with the neatly closed works of hypertext fiction I was beginning to read. Joyce’s afternoon, Moulthop’s Victory Garden, Jackson’s Patchwork Girl: I love these works but they are so very whole, such works, though of course insisting on being built from fragments. Mez Breeze wrote a short piece deploring the insistence upon creating closed, finished works even from processes and collaborations. There are others. And to understand how blogs are literature we do need to relearn literature. Perhaps do away with the word all together.

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