Three-Dimensional Dementia: Hypertext Fiction and the Aesthetics of Forgetting

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Hypertext (the non-sequential linking of text(s) and images) was first envisioned by Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson in its prehistory as an associational, archival storage system suitable for classifying and sorting vast quantities of information. But where library databases, technical manuals and other knowledge-based hypertexts still fulfill this function, literary hypertext overturns this proposed usage, celebrating both information overload and forgetfulness as the desired end of a reading. Promoting disassociation and an awareness of the spatio-temporal dimensions of its environment, hypertext fiction uses the aesthetics of its three-dimensional interface and structure to frustrate memory and to engender a sensory and emotional response in the reader. Focusing on M.D. Coverley's multimedia hypertext Califia, I will investigate how the aesthetics of the hypertext form become an engine of forgetfulness that drives her text through its explorations of lost memories, including the ravages of Alzheimer's, unofficial histories, secrets, missing pieces and the quest for hidden treasure.

An archive is born of forgetfulness (Derrida 11) and Coverley's feminist hypertext is an archival system that embraces contradictions, defining emotional and sensory information as the most important 'knowledge' to be stored. Since hypertext works with association, it is a mnemonic form, but, as an inclusive archival space, it also allows just such a proliferation of contradictions. And being rooted in short term memory as it is, hypertext is therefore by extension also rooted in memory loss. Without a hierarchy, a reader must decide what is important in a text and, working with an associational structure, she is bound to forget details. However, in literary hypertext the real information is encoded, not in the text as such, but in its structure. Dispersing information into the three-dimensional plot architecture, hypertext plays with memory loss as an asset (not a bug) by using a reader's memory against herself, by making the recall of specifics in a text difficult. Through a refusal of traditional plot devices, Coverley's fiction privileges the immersive, sensual experience of reading. Plot still exists, but because it is abstract and spatial--being the very structure and interface of the work--it is difficult to recreate in the mind except as an emotional and sensory response.

Coverley takes literary hypertext's innate associational abilities and incorporates the side effects of information overload into the aesthetics of her fiction, functioning both as plot elements and as the structure of her text. Other authors have used forgetfulness and memory as an aspect of their hypertext works (and I will use Michael Joyce's _Twilight, A Symphony_ as a counterpoint in passing), but never before has the cognitive process of memory loss been transformed into such a joyous sense of exploration as in Califia. This hypertext privileges forgetting and the rediscovery of what has been forgotten, but does not make disconnection or avoidance possible, returning readers to sites of lost memories and old traumas until the text's parameters have been mapped and its treasures recovered.

(Source: DAC 1999 Author's abstract)

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Scott Rettberg