Electronic Ruins: Virtual Landscapes out of History
by: Dave Youssef
Monumental space has always appeared unpopulated; the most ornate furnishings of a civilization’s grandeur have the added feature of being bereft of biological matter and human dwelling. It is this stone-cold materialism, with its inorganic shelters without occupants, that presents to us in monolithic terms the image which will appear of our civilization in the future—one without humans. If we take the opportunity to imagine a major city such as Paris centuries from now, we might encounter exactly the kind of architectural dream informing Hausmann’s early modern urban redevelopment campaign. The reconstruction of the geography of Paris under Hausmann’s aesthetic dictatorship in the nineteenth century resulted in the extensive displacement and removal of the poorer inhabitants of the city, all in the service of creating a geometrical unity to the city’s architectural masterpieces, an entire city structured under the idiom of monumental space. The kind of vantage offered by each location provided an omni-directional sense of esteemed cultural heritage, each item of which, from the Place de la Nation to the Louvre, reflected the austerity of the others. However, the boulevards which cut directly through a dense urban fabric to connect these iconic landmarks also granted military and police power direct access to all sections of the inner city, undermining revolutionary attempts to effectively barricade larger urban areas from the control of the state. From Baudelaire’s poetry of desolate wanderings through an urban landscape robbed of its familiarity, one can gather the pervasive impression that Paris was no longer for the Parisians, even as it could be celebrated as “the capital of the nineteenth century.”(Note 1)
Shifting away from Paris, we can discern a similar logic at work from an unlikely source. Nazi chief architect Albert Speer shared with Hitler a strong fascination with the evocative power of Roman ruins. These buildings, with their persistence in spite of centuries of decay, somehow completed the imperial magnificence of Rome after the fact. With this guiding notion in mind, Speer developed his theory of “ruin value,” an approach to architecture which aimed at constructing buildings for the Reich in such a way as to ensure their transformation thousands of years later into aesthetically powerful ruins.
If we take into account this “dark side” of cultural heritage campaigns—namely that an important dimension of their projects is an investment in the expiration of the cultures they commemorate—we are invited to imagine exactly what kind of meaning these magnificent structures will generate in the future. It seems as though this might be part of the guiding method in Stuart Moulthrop’s “Reagan’s Library.” This work of electronic literature is a hypertext interface, composed of both a fragmented virtual narrative and a virtual geography. The hypertext continually shifts its setting and perspective to various sites within a virtual landscape of monuments, each of which has a panoramic view of the others in four different “world states”, and nowhere are visual representations of people to be found. For instance, within the site of “The Library”, a fragmented text appears which discusses the peculiarity of this place, “The library is not what you expected. It never is… Let us demonstrate. Take that memory and set it aside.”(Note 2) By clicking on “memory”, the setting relocates to “The White Cone,” another site with a nebulous narrative. The entire “plot” of the interface “takes place” within these architectural frames of reference. However, the story is not straight; it is afflicted by a kind of drift, a wandering out of alignment and a constant shortage of contextual information. The user will visit these “sites” repeatedly and encounter various permutations of a set of narrative fragments, whose meaning reflexively congeals only after a kind of extensive feedback relationship is established between the user and the interface. But the user cannot rely on the narrative’s stability; it often seems to be in the process of contingent alteration as if natural forces are slowly clawing away at its form.
Juxtaposed against the screens’ dynamic of becoming more coherent the more they are visited (up to the fourth visit, after which they do not change further we find that the explanatory notes for the narrative undergo precisely the opposite effect. The portion of the text that works to position the narrative into a more historicist framework of “what really happened” and which also explains its guiding principles, erodes and fragments more after each visit. To quote an oft-repeated statement from the “library:” “The facts I don’t recall, so I am condemned to repeat.” (Moulthrop) This dynamic within the hypertext makes a strong commentary on how monumental sites attempt to reconcile events of the past, especially traumatic ones, with the “smooth” surface of the present that does not easily receive impressions or memories. On the one hand, we see the replacement of “history” by “memory” in the sense that narrative coherence is formed out of the memory of past movement through the text rather than the actual background content with which the narrative seems to be working. On the other hand, we see that the negotiation and making-sense of the narratives attached to these monumental spaces actively participate in the erosion of their historical content. Thus, the spectacular, panoramic views afforded by each monumental site contribute to a kind of general amnesia within the structure of this digital universe.
In general terms, the dialectic of monumentality consists in the monument’s consistent preservation against ruination and decomposition, a process which removes the work from its environment to such a degree that it will likely outlive the historical context and people that make it meaningful. By virtue of the monument’s projection into a “world beyond” which may not maintain or understand it, allowing it to fall into ruin, it will come to stand in for a historical era from whose everyday practice it remained essentially disconnected. The removal of the work from its historical context is part of the means by which it becomes a monument to that particular context. But how is the embalming of certain works of art and architecture in some trans-historical fluid complicit in condemning the actual historical worlds in which they dwell to oblivion?
“Reagan’s Library” suggests that the preservation of such works is complicit in the ruin of the worlds to which they once belonged, and this complicity is simulated in the format of the electronic text. It seems that an archive of the narrative can no longer “remember” the events and personages which the monumental landscape reflects. At this point the virtual landscape, whose symbolic coherence is being slowly forgotten even as its features remain, begins to resemble the mental geography of an Alzheimer’s patient, recalling eponymous Reagan. An archive not only disintegrates and loses its coherence from a lack of individuals to maintain it but is also subject to inadequacies in its structural integrity that result from its use and constant re-interpretation by outside viewers. These structural problems also plague the genre of electronic literature itself, indicating that Moulthrop’s narrative might be a way of addressing how the very medium which conveys this narrative may also outlive it and render it meaningless at some future point.
As Katherine Hayles states in her essay “Electronic Literature: What is it?”
Over the centuries, print literature has developed mechanisms for its preservation and archiving, including libraries and librarians, conservators, and preservationists. Unfortunately, no such mechanisms exist for electronic literature. The situation is exacerbated by the fluid nature of digital media; whereas books printed on good quality paper can endure for centuries, electronic literature routinely becomes unplayable (and hence unreadable) after a decade or even less(Note 3)
The voraciousness of the digital archive’s appetite for more content is inversely proportional to the longevity of its record. It turns out that the digital archive actually has a much higher degree of vulnerability than paper records to tampering, destruction or eventual outpacing by new innovations in the medium itself. Even though the digital archive, by virtue of its all-inclusive consumption habits, seems antithetical to the monumental construction of history, we see that it serves to accelerate the dialectic of monumentality, in that it enables a faster decay of its meaningful content, while the medium remains.
It is also interesting that the Reagan’s Library narrative takes place within meaningless monuments which seem to represent a fixed archive and a place-bound approach to memory. But the hypertext connects these spatially dispersed sites into an instantaneous temporal continuum experienced by the user, thus bringing them into virtual proximity and ambiguous coherence but also abandoning crucial pieces of information to the wind. Moulthrop’s interface thus simulates how the increased scope of the digital archive through the individual work of its users, creates individual meanings out of the wreckage of the older archive while simultaneously disintegrating its collective meaning.
Even within the text itself, the characters encounter difficulties when trying to access monumental space. In the case of one such monument, the “marble house,” the text states (after the user visits the screen several times): “The point of monumental stairways is that you never get to climb them, at least not right to the top. Just before you cross the last step you run into the velvet rope and nice policeman waiting to apply the move-along or punch your ticket for mopery.” (Moulthrop) This passage explains that monuments are in no way made for dwelling, for the presence of human beings in them is figured as a kind of vagrancy. Therefore, the views they afford are not for the people of this world but possibly for us, we who sit in Archimedian remove and try to put together the pieces. This is possibly why Moulthrop himself likens his interface to a “space probe,” a vessel which explores distant and unfamiliar geographies of unknown worlds but which always remains, even in close proximity, hopelessly out of reach.
- Benjamin, Walter. Reflections. New York: Schocken Books, 1978. See his essay "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century."
- Moulthrop, Stuart. "Reagan's Library" Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1 2006. http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/moulthrop__reagan_library.html
- Hayles, N. Katherine. "Electronic Literature: What is it?." Electronic Literature Organization, v.1.0, 2007. http://eliterature.org/pad/elp.html