Monthly Archives: December 2014

Jorge Luis Borges and the Vindications

A short fiction by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges  called ‘The Library of Babel’ uses the word ‘vindication’ in such a way that merits further discussion. (It would perhaps be more accurate to say that Borges’ translator, in this instance, James E. Irby uses the word in an interesting way).

‘The Library of Babel’ describes an infinite library. There are an infinite number of books that print every possible combination of twenty-five “orthographical symbols.” Namely, the alphabet, a space, a comma and a full stop. The Library is populated by automata without definitive gender, living in a state of monkish aestheticism. The dry, reserved tone of the fiction only contributes to this sparsity of a response in the face of infinitude.

It can be difficult to engage with this narrator and these ‘characters’ because of arid quality the prose has, but as this analysis will show, they do engage in a number of identifiably human behaviours. That is to say, the most fundamental human impulse, the determination to create meaning and order out of such an immeasurable amount of information that it can be said to amount to a conceptual nothingness. Throughout the fiction, the narrator tells us of various sects that have existed within the library who all formulate different, but decidedly reverential strategies in order to grasp this amount of text.

One group, called the Purifiers, declare entire shelves impure or blasphemous, and destroy them. Object fetishists who prefer ‘real books’ and shun e-books may blanch at such a manoeuvre, but as the narrator reminds us: “the Library is so enormous that any reduction of human origin is infinitesimal…every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma.”

Some modes of veneration go out of style, some sooner than others. One cult opts for a religion of chance to determine the sacred texts, desperate to find a point of departure or standard to compare the rest of the vast collection to. The narrator recalls seeing one of these enactors of the old faith: “in my childhood I have seen old men who, for long periods of time, would hide in the latrines with some metal disks in a forbidden dice cup and feebly mimic the divine disorder.”

It is with the use of the word ‘vindication’ that this fiction takes on its particularly haunting quality. If every possible combination of these twenty-five symbols appears in each book’s neatly formatted “four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines,” an idea takes root for another group, the searchers, that there exists Vindications: “books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in  the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future.” This narrator is blessed/cursed with old age and permitted to see these interpretative strategies for what they are, passing fads that become schemas to help the existentially confused deal with infinite meaninglessness and reminds the reader that though the Vindications do exist, “the searchers did not remember that the possibility of a man’s finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.”

This is possibly one of the most haunting lines I have yet come across in all the books that I’ve read as it posits the existence of the Vindications and, because of how infinity ‘works,’ one could be misled by the infinite number of personal Vindications with significant misprisions and erroneous information. Furthermore, it presents  me with the question as to, if I was faced with this library, would I be brave enough to not look at any of them, knowing how fruitless the search for my Vindication would be?


Hypertext and Textuality

The current trend within literary studies is to define a text as being a discontinuous, contradictory and open-ended entity. In Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992), George P. Landow argues that there is a continuity between these traits that are ascribed to text, as put forward by theorists such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and how hypertextual literature actually functions. For Landow, what these theorists have in common in that they “argue we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of centre, margin, hierarchy and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks.”[1] This nebulous approach  as regards hypertext is fitting because what is innovative about hypertextual narrative is that it contains links that allow a reader to click on a particular word and arrive at a different part of the text. Other navigational aids can also be a part of a hypertext’s interface. Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) allows the reader can click on different parts of the Patchwork Girl’s anatomy. The reader is exposed to different lexia or units of text depending on how they navigate and therefore, each reader could ostensibly have a quantifiably different experience of reading the narrative. For Landow, this constitutes a breakthrough in textual theory and means that the theories of the poststructuralist critics mentioned above are vindicated.

Landow identifies Barthes writings in S/Z as productive in describing how hypertext creates meaning. For Barthes:

the good of literary work…is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. Our literature is characterised by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of its text and its user…between its author and its reader.[2]

What Barthes is describing here is the familiar idea of the death of the author. Under this schema, the intention of the author in the creation of meaning is marginalised in favour of the reader’s ability to read the text in a more unrestricted way. When reading a hypertext, the reader is allowed freedom of movement within a textual network. The reader is allegedly emancipated from the tyranny of linear, sequential reading and is free instead to plot their own course and develop their own understanding.

This presents the question as to whether pre-hypertextual narratives did not allow the reader free reign of interpretation. A pre-digital or analogue text that may prove illuminating in this context is J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country (1977). The novel is narrated by Magda, an unmarried South African woman living in the veld. Magda is an unreliable narrator and often informs the reader directly that what she is saying is not necessarily to be believed. It is also possible for the reader to notice inaccuracies for herself. On more than one occasion, Magda describes murdering or assisting in the murder of her father in a number of different ways, yet he appears to be alive at points following on from these various murders and also by the end of the narrative. The novel is arranged into lexia in much the same way that hypertexts are. They are rarely longer than a few paragraphs and are numbered, from “1.,” at the start of the novel, to “265.” at the end. Also, like hypertexts, they are non-sequential; the narrative thread that the reader follows depends on their own view of the events that Magda narrates. Perhaps Magda did succeed in murdering her father at the start of the novel and everything that follows after is a contrivance, a justification or a fantasy. Or maybe it is the other way around, and Magda is, as he suggests that she is at times, making the whole thing up.

At first glance In The Heart of the Country may not be visibly replete with links or concordances in the same way that Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, a story (1990) is but this is to underestimate the ability of the reader to recall links that in analogue novels are more subtly embedded, in descriptive motifs or in imagery. For example, when Magda is narrating, she will often use language that relates to knitting or braiding textiles: “When I was a little girl (weave, weave!)”[3] and “More detail I cannot give unless I begin to embroider, for I was not watching.”[4] This is used to draw attention to the gap that exists between events as the really happened and how amenable they are to being related in narrative form. If In The Heart of the Country was to have a hypertextual interface, uses of the word ‘weave,’ ‘braid’ or ‘embroider,’ would presumably be linked, in the same way that the hypertextual concordance of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is. This would have the effect of concretising or making overt the more subtle connotations of word usage. In short, it would be an interpretative mechanism that would, rather than lift the restrictions on the reader to form individual impressions of the text, coerce them into particular readings that are pre-ordained by being constructed within the hypertext.

Landow conceives of hypertexts as having an encyclopaedic functionality, wherein each word would provide the reader with related information that would in turn branch off in different directions ad infinitum. One of the examples he presents is a hypertextual edition of a novel by Charles Dickens that would provide a historical background, such as information on child mortality, harsh conditions within factories of the time and a history of nineteenth-century London that informs so much of Dickens’ writing. What is problematic about this amount of information being contained within a hypertext is a similar one to the point raised about the overt interleaving of words with one another; it is an interpretative act that would incline the reader towards a socio-historical or Marxist critique of the text. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, of course, but rather than leaving the reader open to pursuing their own autonomous lines of inquiry, interpretations are instead codified into the structure of the text they are reading.

Despite hypertext seeming to be a proof for literary critics who in their theories view text as having neither centre nor periphery, the question is whether hypertext really is a proof, or indeed if this really needs to be proven. Is it instead the case that hypertext is codified to be labyrinthine and interconnected and therefore a visualisation of the kind of text that Barthes describes in S/Z. This is not to say that hypertext is wholly without merit or does not present the critic with useful means of analysing texts, particularly literary works that pre-date the advent of computation to which hypertexts are heavily indebted. The aforementioned Patchwork Girl contains references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913) by L. Frank Baum and also includes a number of quotations from the writings of Jacques Derrida. The title of Afternoon, a story (1990) is derived from a line in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), a short story about contingency, infinity and concatenation.[5] The sustained engagement of authors of hypertexts with canonical predecessors can be seen in more recent examples of the form, as in Will Self’s digital essay Kafka’s Wound (2012), which borrows both from Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller. While hypertext may not have much to offer to contemporary textual theory other than a fabricated proof of the infinite referential potential of any given signifier and differential networks of meaning et al., it is perhaps in theories of media or film theory in which it can prove rewarding or productive. Kafka’s Wound, as an example of hypermedia rather than hypertext may serve as a good example of the kind of meaning that is generated when different forms are so closely interlinked and connected, something that could be understood as being truly innovative or at least to some extent without precedent.

[1]Landow, George P., Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (The John Hopkins University Press: 1992), p.2

[2]Ibid, p.4

[3]Coetzee, J.M., In The Heart of the Country (Vintage: 1999), p.6

[4] Ibid, p.1

[5] Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths (Penguin Classics: 2000), p.48


Primary Sources

Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths (Penguin: 2000)

Coetzee, J.M., In The Heart of the Country (Vintage: 1999)

Jackson Shelley, Patchwork Girl (Eastgate Systems: 1995)

Joyce, James, Ulysses (Vintage: 1993)

Joyce, Michael, Afternoon, a Story (Eastgate Systems: 1990)

Self, Will, Kafka’s Wound: A Digital Literary Essay by Will Self (London Review of Books: 2012)

 Secondary Sources

Gabler, Hans Walter, ‘The Segments and the Whole: An Aspect of Joyce’s Art of Construction,’ (Modernist Versions Project: 2012)

Greetham, D.C., Theories of the Text (Oxford University Press: 1999)

Landow, George P., Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (The John Hopkins University Press: 1992)

Schreibman, Susan, Siemens, Ray & Unsworth, John, A Companion to Digital Humanities (Blackwell Publishing: 2004)

Siemens, Ray & Schreibman, Susan (Editors), A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Blackwell Publishing: 2007)