Dissemination: even its most clinical definition implies a contradictory combination of fruitfulness and waste, or at least a partial failure and the production of more than is necessary of both to be entirely useful. The act is often accompanied by a desire to infect the world in some respect, to assert, extend, or replicate the “self”, to plant that which has been created in as many contexts as possible and in thereby doing make the disseminated thing indiscriminately accessible and inevitably present to allor as many as possibleand thus legitimized. And there is something somewhat invasive about the process, unobservant of filters, sanctions, barriers, referees, disrespectful of extant structures, disdainful of the status quo. How is it disseminated? Like Ulysses, is it smuggled over national fronts in borrowed book jackets? Or is it placed conveniently on the night stands of participating hotels like Giddeon’s Bible? Is it read aloud in the streets or excerpted in newspapers? Taught in college classrooms? Made fun of on late-night television? Reviewed? Stocked? Lent? Burned? Buried? Recycled? Slammed? Regardless of their content or fates, disseminated texts leave a wake, a trail. And that can be the case whether or not they are ever even read. (Miller The Books in My Life). A text is a manifestation of will, an attempt to augment the already available for whatever reason; however, the duration of the wake, the text’s resonance, is an issue of both access and reception.
Let’s begin with the latter issue, since it seems most pressing to someone in the process of writing a dissertationa text to be disseminated amongst a committee of four and one that must be well-received if it is to fulfill its function, namely to merit the conferring of a title to its author and a listing in DAI. Certainly, I aim to please my readers here, to reflect their values while making new offers. I will need to show a respect for and a mastery of the tradition in which I’ve immersed myself, must speak the language of the community in which I choose to dwell. Certain expectations will be met; bibliographies will be amassed, theoretical concerns fleshed out to some degree. Respected texts will be quoted. And the tradition will be carried on in this way. I will provide a more detailed explanation of my plan for this further along.
However, the text which will become the primary focus of this paper might not be so readily-received as the academic writing I hope to associate with it, although in reality, it is a text that has already received the attention of a larger, more varied audience than my dissertation more than likely ever will. The text is called www.thelemming.com and it is an online e-zine that I put together in March 2003 with a few of my students from an “Advanced Writing” course at the University of South Carolina in an attempt to put to work a “new” and highly versatile medium to create an artistic community in which the good work that was being done by my best students could continue to grow outside of academe and hopefully find for itself an audience. The necessary assumption on which the project was initially based is that part of the writing process is connected with the desire to disseminate.
The project started off very small but has grown over the past year to boast dot-on-the map status, at least within the alternative online press community. Our submissions are increasing in both number and quality, and our visitor hits are climbing exponentially. We have not yet acquired our own prime-time variety show, but our writers have already made at least one live performance and we plan to continue on with that, bridging yet another gapbetween the virtual and the real. We are now beginning our second year of publication and, as I write this, the files on my computer that will be used to make our 11th full issue wait to be processed, and posted and many artists and writers from around the world wait to see their work appear along side the work of my ex-students and friends. I guess that would be success enough for most people.
But it’s strange. Whenever I talk about The Lemming, I feel a confusing combination of both pride and shame. Electronic literature is still a thing of the future, though many big-name institutions have already cast their lots, using the world-wide web to achieve all kinds of successful and disastrous ends. But it’s what I do nowedit and organize this magazineand the project has already become so big, compared to anything else in my life, connecting the lives and personalities and works of so many different people who would otherwise be completely alienated from each other, that I can’t bring myself to stop: not now. So, I’ve decided to try and merge two previously competing projects, lest I would have to abandon one, by turning the focus of my scholarship toward the medium in which my other project dwells and in thereby doing, hopefully find a way to increase the disseminative possibilities of both.
To disseminate a textor a collection of textsseparate from an identifiable or established institution and the aura of authority, responsibility, and privilege that institution evokes, (Walter Benjamin “Art in the Age”)as The Lemming has up to this pointis in some ways to accept the plight of the street musician, the missionary, the advertisementto enter the public scene as an uninvited oft ignored occasionally admired rarely remembered ephemeral and relatively slight force canceled, obscured, amplified, or debunked by a veritable crowd of simultaneous attempts by others, similar primarily for their proportionate irrelevance. In order to become relevant, to in essence gain the status of an institution (a signal of a particular kind of success) one must eventually give way to appropriation by the larger forces at hand and be willing to accept the symbiotic changes that will result from the merging. That is what this project is aiming to do: to instantiate a kind of symbiosis between the pop world and the academic world without losing the best of either. However, I do so knowing that the very thing that makes The Lemming such a pleasant pursuit will be changed by its interaction with the world it condemnsthe academic world of regulated literary journalsmuch in the way that Gertrude Stein’s writingat one point, so “avant-garde” it practically defined the movementis, through dissemination, creeping 100 years later into the “main stream”. But before that happens, and before any text is corrupted by those larger entities that would dissemble it, recontextualize it, reinvent and appropriate it, before even the attempt at dissemination is thwarted by sustained irreverence, persistent neglect, or a refusal of the inseminated body to play hostto engage the disseminated text through responsethere is a transitional period marked by the hopeful anticipation of fame and glory, the desire to amass a multitude of followers, an imagined future of largeness fueled by a revolutionary bent that propels the text’s author(s) along with an almost epic sense of purpose and potential. Yet on the mirror-side, those small scale projects take on a level of intimacy that money can’t buy and fame will not uphold. The editors know each other, know each other well. Their rejection letters are personal and the acceptance letters filled with praise. There’s a level of personal investment that is only possible when you are no one, when the effort is not a job to be resented but a hobby, a distraction, a refuge. Success, mass dissemination, and appropriation by the main stream is the end goal, but the getting there is the fun part. Thus the avant-garde simultaneously abhors and requires its own obscurity.
Obscurity at one point was marked by a small or limited existence. In other words, staying in print was a way of staying relevant because of the money invested in concrete publication and the time and labor required to set a text. For eons, texts were disseminated in two ways: they were either passed down through an oral tradition that hardly preserved their initial state, or they were rendered through some kind of fixed (if only semi-permanent) medium. The former was as permanent as human memory; the latter was collected and preserved, its duration limited only by the entropic tendencies of its physical components and the willingness of its caretakers to take care. Now, with the emergence of electronic texts, the medium by which an enormous amount of data is stored and deployed has become too entropic to measurea many-pixelled strobe that tricks the brain into seeing substance. Gone are concerns with the quality of the paper on which a text is printed or whether or not it contains tipped plates. This medium has made anyone with a computer and a connection to the internetand, of course, some degree of technical know-how or at least a willingness to learna potential international publisher, yet there is a consistency in the dissemination that is also lost. New Media is, in its simplest terms, machine conversion of sound into light (and, of course, more sound if it’s coded). But these sounds through which the digital coding is communicated, if sustained, would send most human beings screaming into the night, and the light that is generatedthe machine’s interpretation of those hideous soundshas the power to seduce us into…well, all kinds of interactive scenarios. And I’ll leave it at that.
So hopefully at this point, I have provided put forth enough of the experiences and thought processes surrounding my engagement with this subject to indicate the theoretical direction this project is bound to take. Now, I will try and lay out a plan for the structure of this project, which will be guided primarily by two kinds of questions. The first questions will rise in response to and through the practice of creating an electronic dissertation. These will be questions that will also be addressed in the technical chapter of “The Lemming: a Case Study” to be explained below. Whether or not these questions will be answered before or after the electronic version of this dissertation is produced is yet to be known. At this point, I am hesitant to create an electronic schematic, which is why this prospectus is printed on paperor at least virtual “paper,” a finite and linear narrative with the built-in navigation system of left to write top to bottom reading. It seems to me that in order to meet the requirements of a dissertation and to avoid the occlusion of my project from further dissemination within the academic community, and to avoid subjecting my committee to technical concerns about the project, I will need to write the dissertation in a linear format first. After the “book” version of my project is completed, I will be able to demonstrate some of the principles put forth (especially in the “The Lemming: a Case Study”) using audio visual components which traditional printed matter cannot support. In essence, the end product will be two dissertations: a bound paper copy to send out to potential employers and a DVD to accompany. It is difficult to say at this point in the project what my committee should expect from the DVD, but I will say this: I am going to put to use as much of what I have learned from designing and editing www.thelemming.com as I can when rendering the final product. However, the kinds of assertions I will make in the hypertext version of my dissertation will be less related to the things that are appear in the text boxes than to the relationship between that text and the way it is encouraged to perform within the medium.
Now, I will explain the over arching structure of the traditional version of my dissertation: the linear argument will be laid out in two major parts. The first part will be broken down into three chapters, the first concerning hypertext as a medium in the technical sense, to be followed by a brief history of the way that medium has been used by avant-garde literary movements and how the result is similar to or different from the small press publications of avant-garde publications that emerged before the internet existed (my focus will be on Gertrude Stein and her circle), and finally an examination of the problems and possibilities with which this medium provides its users. I will pose questions concerning the history of this medium in so far as it relates to avant-garde endeavors in the arts, primarily the written arts, although the nature of the medium and the possibilities for linkage of text and image and sound, tend to subvert any attempt at focusing solely on the written word, as well as connecting the concepts to modernists like Stein who can hardly be examined apart from her participation in the art scene during that time; in other words, the central question here is, “What happens to avant-garde projects when dissemination becomes extremely easy, relatively inexpensive, utterly temporary and virtually impossible to avoidbut only to those who have the necessary hardware and the capacity, the willingness, and the desire to master the computer languages and software packages that make this form of dissemination possible?” However, in the creation of this history, several other questions are bound to emerge such as “What attempts have been made at creating online literary communities” (and I will take this opportunity to limit my subject to strictly those online projects that emphasize the electronic versions of their texts over any associated printed versions), “In what way has the medium affected the way that editors, publishers, and writers approach electronic literary endeavors,” “Who is supporting/funding/carrying-out these projects,” “How have they been received,” “How have or how might they evolve,” “In what social climates were such publications constructed,” “What types of literary endeavors emerged from this form of dissemination,” “What possibilities does this new medium bring to the construction of literary texts,” “What is the impact of new media as a recontexualizing force on older texts,” (Blake, Joyce) “How are the acts of reading and writing altered by electronic media,” “What happens when publication is unregulated,” “How do publishers make their publications accessible,” “What sorts of financial issues are involved,” “How are electronic publications received by academics,” “What can be done in hypermedia that can’t be done on paper?”
The second part, “The Lemming: a Case Study” aims to facilitate a better understanding of online publication among scholars of the humanities, in order to make accessible and to contextualize some of the deeper-reaching theoretical concerns that spring from questions of technology. The first chapter of this section will include a discussion of The Lemming’s inception, development, reception, and evolution from a small classroom based project to an international venue for artists across the globe. Technology as both a hindrance and an asset will be examined, as well as some of the effects necessary (but oft ignored and underlying) structures have on the final product. Questions such as “What is possible with hypertext that is not possible in other media,” “What must one consider when attempting to create an online community,” “What are the pitfalls,” “How do the fundamental elements of web design both confine and explode the texts that they render,” “What kind of audience does the online publisher have to deal with and how must those audiences be handled differently than those of printed media,” “How does the boundlessness, amorphousness, ephemerality, and inconsistent appearance of an online text alter its audience’s ability to engage it with/in conversation,” and finally “How does the medium affect a work that has been disseminated online with regard to accessibility and respectability,” “How avant-garde can a publication be when it lacks obscurity and is available to many?” These questions will be handled in relation to some of the fundamental issues surrounding hypertext composition:
The second chapter of the second part will concern some technical and theoretical issues that emerge from the practical application of larger/general technical concerns which fall into three opposing but connected camps: the concerns of the webmistress, the concerns of the reader, and the concerns of the writers and artists who are contributing their art so that it may appear in a medium they don’t exactly understand such as: the principles of design which will address some crucial starting-up questions relating to things such as the use of buttons, animated transitional interfaces, entertaining intermezzos, standard text, animation, and the convergence of image and text. The concept of the labyrinthor webis also crucial from the perspective of the webmistress as her intentions concerning her visitor’s experiences will influence the ways in which she creates, administers and acquires layers, thresholds (time-outs), windows, doors (static addresses) and guides (domain holders) for her guests use to explore.
SIDENOTE: The hostess-guest relationship is useful as a metaphor for not only the creation of a website, but also its deployment. Here’s a metaphor to help you understand what actually takes place on the electronic level when a user makes a request for data, but I’m going to couch the story in terms of this host-guest relationship: The host (domain holder) answers the door (static address) directing the guests (requests for data) to their seats at the table (hosting platform) and the waiter (the host server) brings the guest their food (data).
Issues of containment will also come to bear, which will require a discussion of linking, archiving, and file maintenance as well as off-screen objects, monitor resolution rates, and user restrictions. I will also address the problems associated with accessibility, which crosses over into issues of adult content, directory listings, subscription software, URL masking, security certificates and bandwidth restrictions. One cannot avoid the concept of navigation, a subject which is inextricably bound to the graphic interface as well as link-related issues such as anchors, toolbars, cells, tables, frames, “BACK” buttons, distractions, pop-ups, banner ads, URL forwarding, opening to a “_blank”, and the replacement of traditional tables of contents with juxtaposed words, images, and sounds that change in response to user interaction. Tracking or mapping the experience of reading an online text is also key in that the inherent difficulty of identifying the order in which a text is experienced or the inability to annotate a text composed in this medium forces a different kind of engagement than what readers of books normally experiencethese texts are in a state of constant flux, they can be edited without notification, they can be accessed initially from a porthole over which they have no control, they can disappear or reappear or be made temporarily unavailable. And, if they receive more traffic than they’ve paid to accommodate, they can be withheld from those who request them.
Subterranean concerns for the webmistress such as issues of space, storage, data transfer through-put and uploading and downloading speeds, filing system architecture, required plug-ins, and system resources must also be considered as well as factory, network, and security settings that may affect the way a web page is experienced by certain users. Interactivity is another element of concern for the web designer, and a discussion of this subject will turn us toward “Calls for Submissions,” site promotion, messageboards, chat rooms, live web-cams, real-world renderings of virtual collections, biographies, email address listings/mass-mailings, featured prompts and submissions from readers, screen names, live journals, advice columns, “flamers” (the Viking Invasion), “lurkers,” aficionados and clouted members as well as the way in which the interactive, real time nature of the medium creates a more intense immediate type of community, though one that falls short in other ways.
At this point in the proposal, readers may be concerned that the previous section is far too technical to be in an English dissertation; however, I am confident that the chapter itself will adequately define and explain any terms that may at present appear murky. In the paper-version, this will be done using extensive footnotes. In the hypertext version, the footnotes will be replaced with hyperlinks, so this chapter will necessarily be comprised of small packets of information unified by a larger framework (i.e.: the linear, paper version).
To finish off this study, in conclusion I would like to explore the relationship between the wanderer, the hostess, and the medium in a way that connects this study to the concerns of literary scholars by recontextualizing what has already been laid-out within a project I have been working on for years and one that connects well with the avant-garde movements of the 20’s. In this closing section I will explore the way in which certain kinds of autobiographical narratives, particularly those written by artists who considered themselves to be cutting-edge for some reason, lay their focuses on the act of wandering and experience of various venues self-consciously created by others, in a way that reflects and affirms much that has been discussed already in this study. The subject of dissemination will be returned to once again and its relation to the technology that has made it both easier and harder than ever to achieve and avoid.
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