Seduction in Semantic Space
Media language - contextless, monologic, self-referential - invites the recipient to play with the process of self-constitution, continuously to remake the self in "conversation" with differing modes of discourse.
- Mark Poster, The Mode of Information
In switching between different media genres, the text can be played with - "the function Barthes assigns to literature inside the system of linguistic power" - by its writers and readers (Eco, 252). When Barthes began to formulate his theories of text, he was interested in the effects of cutting codes across one another. In moving between the narrative frames of the short story, graphic novel, and interactive game, Ellison also projects the different slides of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" in a blended collage against the canvas of literature. Even though Ellison seeks to retain a fair amount of control with each of his constitutive movements, his authorial monologue is challenged as he moves outward into the other media. One year after the publication of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", Barthes declared the Author to be dead. Although George Slusser wants to know "why should a story not have a guardian presence to guide it through the world, to mediate between it and its audience," authorial presence is a mystical entity invested with belief. Much like Ted invests AM with a significant belief system, so too does Ellison, even adopting the persona of his creation in the interactive adventure. The collaborative exercises that have resulted in the additional interpretations of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" causes Ellison to exist not as the omnipotent creator of the text, but rather as an other continually surrounded by the midst of creation, overseeing but not totalizing the ideas moving within a multi-discourse space.
In "From Work to Text," Barthes explains that this spatial relativity of reference frames moves from the work to the text. The work is a fragment of substance (a word, sentence, or paragraph), while the text is a methodological field of discursive ideas. The work can be seen (on library shelves, in the hands of subway commuters, across a computer screen), but the text is a process of demonstration arising from the act of perception. The work - like a book - can be held in the hand, yet the text only in language. Because of its physicality, the work could cease; a paper can burn. Due to its constitutive movement, the text cannot stop; ideas that are put into motion via the act of perception tend to stay in motion. Within this action, the text becomes a crossing and recrossing of meanings; instead of integration and interpretation, the text answers in an explosion and dissemination through codes which are known but which synthesize in unique combinations. In choosing to view "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" in its various forms, the reader can derive various admixtures of text and, through analysis, produce many discoveries. While Ellison may be loath to relinquish the lions share of his authorial stake, within the stereographic plurality of the texts, he no longer becomes the source for the text but rather a life contributing to the text. Ellison has a strong control fetish when it comes to his own work, including several instances of removing his name from a project and inserting the pseudonym "Cordwainer Bird," publicly lambasting editors who change his stories, and legally instructing his wife to destroy all his extant manuscripts upon his death. In a rather important example directly related to this project, Ellisons authority definitely asserted itself with respect to the graphic novel adaptation by John Byrne. In a telephone conversation, Ellison related how he was extremely displeased with Byrnes work, despite his reputation as one of the most respected illustrators in the graphic novel and comic book industries today. Ellison wanted Dark Horse, the publisher, to pay Byrne for his work (Ellison is always fiercely protective of the rights of other authors in whatever capacity their work manifests itself) but to not run the adaptation. This would have resulted in an almost immediate cancellation of the series due to financial problems, so Ellison made a concession and allowed Dark Horse to run Byrnes story provided that they also reprint Ellisons original text alongside the visual art (Ellison, interview). Providing two principal texts to read (and a third when reading the original story and the comic at the same time) provides some interesting textual opportunities to the reader.
The text, by its nature, interacts with its reader. Barthes does not mean a specific text morphed across genres, editions, and information formats, but rather his theory is designed to be applied to any text considered by any reader. The text, however, resists boredom because, as Barthes says, "to be bored means that one cannot produce the text, play it, open it out, set it going." Certainly the subsequent treatments of Ellisons story directly involve the notion of play. Plot elements have been altered, visual depictions have been changed, and even the methods of physically accessing the information are different. Participants in the interactive plot of the CD-ROM are, though in a limited way, nevertheless engaged in writing the story. Because text cannot be divorced from writing, people must learn to experience both, because the text gives pleasure without separation. The destruction or doubt of metalanguage is part of a Theory of the Text.
Published two years after "From Work to Text," "Theory of the Text" is an extension of previous speculations. In Barthes estimation, text evolves out of a site of production, a space between the relations of the reader and the written. Consumers of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" have moved from passive recipients of the original short story to active participants within the CD-ROM. Although the differences described in "From Work to Text" can be framed in a series of dichotomies - work/text, product/process, signified/signifier - the theory of text restates that these forces are inseparable and further elaborates on the idea that their framework is non-oppositional; areas of seeming ideological incongruity are rather places for production of text. Text then becomes an entity which transcends the author to enact its own meanings, nomadic in wandering significations and resistant to adhering to fixed definition; this investigation into "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" arises from the combination of roving implications which arise from the various forms of the story. This sort of play creates "jouissance": enjoyment that meanders and redoubles on itself to lose the subject in a combination of textual and sexual pleasure - "textasy."
Literary pleasure is not a new idea. In Christopher Butler's essay, "The Pleasures of Experimental Text," he talks about how pleasure from linguistic play - through creation and interpretation - is diffused between conventions of mastering standard literary conventions (such as the five paragraph essay and the research paper with sources) and experimenting with new ones (like a collaborative hypertext or a video documentary). Ellison himself has commented that "I operate at a level where I can best produce material It fits my need. I get pleasure out of it" (Ellison, 2). Explicit or implicit erotic pleasure within the text serves as one model for reading experimental text. Another model concerns itself with linking linguistic revolution to political freedom. Finally, the concern of tolerance with respect to experimental writing is raised, gesturing towards aesthetic pleasure within society:
Barthes tells us society [defends] the given language by reciting the literature, which questions the given languages position Aestheticism consists of believing that life is art and art, life, confusing the areas. (Eco, 254)
Reading advocates the active role of the interpreter of text as much as it necessitates the presence of the text. Since different genres of literature produce different experiences of reading pleasure, the generation of textasy arises from a combination of the act of reading as well as the content of the text. This reconfiguration of the act of composition - creating another text and establishing it within a relational web of previously existing and potentially emerging texts - moves the locus of power into a different relational framework for the writer, reader, and text.
Having played around a bit with Barthes' theories of text, what can be said about the production of text? Obviously, production of text is closely linked with consumption of text:
The gazer is a "coproducer" at a level of involvement and intensity, through the nature of the medium itself, that French critic Roland Barthes...has been trying to make happen with words alone for some time - or words along with lines, used in highly comics-like ways. (Delany, 93)
Barthes refers to the consumption of text as "cruising." By this he means it is a voyage of desire where an author is going to be "picked up" by a reader, and this is a strange refiguring of Ellisons authorial control, although perhaps he would be somewhat amused at this mode of textual transmission. The measure of pleasure, or "textasy," that a reader then extracts from a text is directly relational to its primacy of content or interest to the reader. Some people will be more or less attracted to the short story, graphic novel, and computer game based on their individual tastes. For Barthes, the "first time" a reader interacts with a text is an act of privilege that exists outside of repetition; thus, while the reader may revisit "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," each textual variation could be sufficiently different enough to provide a new sense of adventure. Within this field of diversion, it is possible to avoid standard ideas of repression, authority, and control to instead arrive at a proliferation of meaning.
Escaping into a text is possible through an initial combination of reading and writing (other external factors related to mental as well as physical environment can come into effect). Producing text is not the creation of a paper. Instead, textual production arises from an interaction between reader and additional texts such as essays, advertisements, film, graphic novels, webpages, politics, and a host of other forces; "any act of interpretation is a dialectic between openness and form, initiative on the part of the interpreter and contextual pressure" (Eco, 21). A printed paper is but one of the artifacts through which textual production can be seen and accessed. Interestingly, Barthes refers to a work as "the imaginary tail of the Text" and in grasping too tightly it may break off in a sort of reptilian defense mechanism, leaving the reader holding the paper and not the text(s) and associated ideas it embodies.
A Barthesian theory of the production of text would then be based in a collaborative effort, connecting writers, readers, and texts. In so doing, they become what Harris sees as "simultaneously a part of several discourses, several communities, always already committed to a number of conflicting beliefs and practices." Producing text, then, becomes an exercise in narrative. While this narrative has a moment of germination, it invariably loses any sense of beginning or closure. That is, while the work may certainly be a paper of a definitive quantifiable length, the text exists in a relational web with other texts, however obscure the links. This happens because, as Louise Phelps states, "composing energies disperse themselves fruitfully in many directions, attach[ing] loosely to shifting and shadowy potential texts." The production of text then becomes an interdisciplinary endeavor, an attempt to locate variations on a theme:
a text, once it is separated from its utterer (as well as from the utterers intention) and from the concrete circumstances of its utterance (and by consequence from its intended referent) floats (so to speak) in the vacuum of a potentially infinite range of possible interpretations. (Eco, 41)
The plurality of meaning that suffuses text is a weaving of citations, references, and echoes of antecedent or contemporary cultural language. Ultimately, the production of text is inextricably entwined with the act of communication.
A few years before his death in 1980, Barthes departed from semiotics and turned towards what he called semiology: "the study of how sign systems work within the human language." Roland Champagne elaborates on this idea in his essay, "Resurrecting RB: Roland Barthes, Literature, and the Stakes of Literary Semiotics." The definition of literature is made purposefully vague by overtly borrowing from sources such as art, sculpture, and music. These sources foreground possible extensions into technological innovations like film, audio cassettes, and electronic mail. The opening of literature past the boundaries of the written page refers back to Barthes and his continual engagement with play that leads to liberation of the text - "A text is an open-ended universe where the interpreter can discover infinite interconnections" (Eco, 39).