Electronic Literature

Reading Corridors in Built and Electronic Architecture

Many disciplines have enjoyed architecture’s usefulness as a metaphor. Turn to the structural vocabularies of both narrative theorists and programmers and both reveal a fondness for the spatial rendering of complex processes. Such metaphoric affinities bode well for readers of electronic literature, whose explorations of both narrative and material structures benefit from an architectural sensibility.

More can be done, however, to draw out the complex dynamics between architecture as metaphor in this case and the physical experience of the built world. If the challenge facing theorists and teachers of electronic literature is to develop new strategies for reading texts in different media,(Note 1) then the ways in which architecture is “read” – including physical navigation through space and interpretation of signifying strategies – can be particularly instructive as alternative models of reading available to electronic texts which are often interested in their own spatial and architectural processes.

Mary Flanagan’s 2006 piece, [theHouse] (Note 2) provides an excellent introduction to the overtness with which many texts approach the relationship between reading spaces and reading text, and the potential for electronic literature to animate this relationship. In describing the project, Flanagan asks, “How does everyday spatial practice bring into focus the relationship between code, language, and relationships?”(Note 3) The “everyday spatial practice” works on multiple levels in the piece, which abstracts the architectural forms of house, room, and passage into self-generating geometrical shapes that interact with lines of poetry and user movement through and with the geometrical forms. At the same time that the text rejects literal representations of architecture by de-familiarizing the everydayness of the house as a recognizable form, it draws attention to known navigational modes: readers of this text must remember how to read architecture literally even as they encounter its abstraction.

Of course, transit between architecture and its electronic instantiations is not one-way. Contemporary architects revisit architectural forms via their re-imaginings in virtual environments. One can look, for example, at Los Angeles’s Caltrans District 7 Headquarters (see figs. 1 and 2), which revisits ideas of surface/depth, interior/exterior and container/contained by way of screen and interface metaphors. The building’s relative levels of transparency constantly change as it interacts with its environment.

Figure 1 Figure 2
Figures 1 and 2: Photograph from the blogger’s profile:Figs. 1 and 2: Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, Los Angeles

The everydayness of transit through space, foregrounded in electronic works concerned with movement and dimensionality, also requires close attention to the architectural structures and forms that facilitate and circumscribe motion. One way to approach electronic literature from a media-specific point of view is to ask, how does the work think of itself as a medium? In what ways does it refer to its own processes? As an architectural form, the corridor provides a unique answer to this question. Not only does it focus attention on movement, passage, and flow, it also allows electronic works to think through ideas of connection, organization, and noise that are both specific to their medium and involved in the interactions between electronic and other media.

The corridor is the dominant organizational structure in modern domestic and institutional architecture. Its varied historical functions – the separation of the servant classes from the everyday circulation of English aristocracy in the country house, the regulation of movement and privacy in apartment and tenement buildings, or the turn-of-the-century ideal of the ‘functional house for frictionless living’ that extends to the requirements of standardized American suburban living – are each taken for granted in contemporary definitions of architectural layout. In part because of this ubiquity, the corridor tends to disappear from view as one of those necessary yet invisible structures, like a bathroom in a domestic residence or an elevator in a high-rise office building.

The corridor appears as both literal and figurative communications space, and the relays between the two describe a kind of communication with particularly literary ramifications. As a site for the description (one might say communication) and modeling of interiority, literature constantly reflects back on the multiple materialities of communication. In the examples I am describing, physical structures surface as interiors themselves, and more particularly as the interior forms that both organize and signify communication. The network of correspondences contained by the corridor formulates ‘likeness’, or what might be deemed ‘corridoricity’, as the networking of space and the social. Corridors organize and systematize space by regulating the communication of bodies and information and re-encoding other communication systems with that conjunction. What I am thinking of as corridoricity uses the function of the corridor as a hermeneutic at the same time that it refers to the architectural element. Looking at articulations of domestic space, urban networks and communications systems in works that foreground the organization and circulation of interiority brings into focus the relationship between the literariness of space and the corridoricity of electronic literature.

In the electronic literature classroom, then, the corridor is most useful not as an object for students to find and study in electronic works, but as a method of reading. Not only are corridors readily at hand in (and often indicative of) the educational institution (and in which the institution’s own conception of its communicative functions can be assessed), but they provide models of distribution, organization, and interruption that can be read, played, and interpreted by students. A contemporary literature course might move from the proliferating corridors of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 to the haunted, all-encompassing hallway that becomes Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, to the hallways providing navigation routes through the game-world of Myst to arrive at a corridor method of reading that takes seriously the spatio-architectural aspects of communication taken up by works of electronic literature.

The corridoricity of works such as Geoff Ryman’s 253 (http://www.ryman-novel.com/) make them apt case studies in the interrelations between media, space, and literature(Note 4). Ryman’s novel, developed for the web and later translated into print makes explicit its interest in connecting physical, intersubjective, and intertextual transport; that is, connection itself.(Note 5) The novel’s timeline comprises a journey on a London Underground Bakerloo line train that results in a crash, and the text includes 253-word lexia attached to each of the train’s 253 seated passengers that readers can navigate in order, via maps of cars, or by occasional links within the lexia. The layout of an underground train is effectively (or “like”) an extended corridor, and on the opening screen Ryman tells readers, “In cyberspace, people become places.” This matrix of space, place, and person, made possible through text, offers a model of what Marc Augé describes as “non-place,” a contemporary situation in which means of transport, commerce networks, and subject positions can all be similarly inhabited.(Note 6) The novel also includes descriptions of the moment of crashing for each of the train’s seven carriages (“The End of the Line”), and when the first carriage crashes, the unconscious driver dreams of home, where “the walls of the ice cream shop are lined with books.” The work invites comparisons between walls and text, and meaning emerges in the movement between.

253 also offers a mode of participation that can form a supplement or even alternative to the topical essay. Another One along in a Minute (http://www.ryman-novel.com/info/one.htm), a companion piece to the novel, was at the time of this writing still accepting 300-word submissions describing the 300 seconds, or five minutes, that each character in the train following that described in 253 spends waiting for the train journey to resume. Students of the novel can develop ideas about its processes by participating in them and experimenting with the openness and constraints of its sequel’s format. By incorporating self-analysis, students also return to the question of how to think about the ways in which electronic works think about their own operations.

Thinking about how the corridor becomes a signifying component in electronic literature, and how corridoricity informs its operations, provides access to the strange spatiality of texts and their architectural imaginations.

    Works Cited

  • Augé, Marc. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London; New York: Verso, 1995.
  • "Electronic Literature Collection." ed N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg and Stephanie Strickland. Place Published: Electronic Literature Organization, 2006.
  • Flanagan, Mary. "[Thehouse]." 2006.
  • Grossman, Wendy. "Underground Fiction." Salon.com (1997), http://archive.salon.com/march97/21st/london970320.html.
  • Hayles, N. Katherine. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005.
  • Ryman, Geoff. "253." 1997.
  1. See N. Katherine Hayles, My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005), 11.
  2. Mary Flanagan, "[Thehouse]," (2006).
  3. See commentary, "Electronic Literature Collection." ed N. Katherine Hayles, et al. (Place Published: Electronic Literature Organization, 2006), http://collection.eliterature.org/1/index.html.
  4. Geoff Ryman, "253," (1997).
  5. For more information about the publishing history of 253, see Wendy Grossman, "Underground Fiction," Salon.com March (1997), http://archive.salon.com/march97/21st/london970320.html. Ryman provides a link on his site.
  6. See Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London; New York: Verso, 1995), 77-79. Augé draws attention to the corridoricity of communication in the concept of non-place, which he claims can be quantified by "totaling all the air, rail and motorway routes, the mobile cabins called 'means of transport'(aircraft, trains and road vehicles), the airports and railway stations, hotel chains, leisure parks, large retail outlets, and finally the complex skein of cable and wireless networks that mobilize extraterrestrial space for the purposes of a communication so peculiar that it often puts the individual in contact only with another image of himself."