Hyperrhiz 09: Essays

Tunnel Vision: A Cybertextual Interpretation of Mark Strand's The Tunnel

David Gruber and David M. Rieder

City University of Hong Kong and North Carolina State University


Abstract

Fear of the digital is a persistent theme in scholarship, fiction, art, and popular culture. We fear the ways in which technoculture blurs cultural boundaries, skews perception, augments (read: exagerates) our capabilities, and insinuates us into psycho-social relations with a technologized Other whom we don't recognize. With this fear in mind, Mark Strand's poem, The Tunnel, which depicts a protagonists' failed attempts to escape his psychological other, was our opportunity to dramatize the cultural fear of our techno-Others. As users shift from side to side and gesture in front of the piece in order to read Strand's poem, they perform some of the same gestures of fear depicted in the poem. Based technically on a webcam and Flash AS3 programming, which included a creative application of Justin Windle's "AS3 Webcam Motion Tracking" library, a user's image and movements are augmented, skewed, and insinuated into the presentation on the screen in such a way as to capture an implicit performance of techno-fear in which many of us engage at various points along the digital journey of our lives.

Interacting with 'Tunnel Vision' before the opening of the ID:ENTITY group exhibit at CAM Raleigh

From a distance, watching partcipants move around in front of the piece in order to read the poem — their heads bobbing and weaving, their hands up and waving — is our chance to experience the protagonists' fear in the poem extended into both the museum space and the digital space in which the participants are insinuated. That double extension of selves is an example of the paradoxical play that contributes to our fears of our technologized Other.


Introduction: Strand's Poem

Mark Strand's poem, The Tunnel, chronicles the thoughts and actions of a paranoid man as he endeavors to scare away and evade a stranger who has been standing outside his home for days. The paranoid man, the protagonist, screams obscenities at the stranger and displays "large" suicide notes in the window in an attempt to intimidate him. Finally, the paranoid man breaks up his own living room furniture so that the stranger realizes the protagonist has nothing to lose. When none of these fear tactics work, the protagonist digs a tunnel under his home in order to escape. But when he crawls out of the tunnel, confused and dazed, we, the reader, find him in a "strange" position. Strand concludes with the following lines, written from the perspective of the protagonist (or is it the stranger?):

I feel I am being watched
and sometimes I hear
a man's voice, but nothing is done
and I have been waiting for days.

It would appear that the protagonist has taken up the position of the stranger away from whom he was tunneling. Reinforced by phrases that parallel each other, it seems that the stranger is no stranger to our protagonist — not in the conventional sense. In fact, the protagonist and the stranger are one. The stranger is an aspect of the protagonist that the protagonist is unwilling to accept. The protagonist and the stranger are interrelated, stuck in a psychological loop. The poem explores denial, fear of "the Other," and the escapism that attends it. The protagonist never realizes his duplicitous dilemma and, at the end of the poem, we realize that he remains locked in a state of fear caused by his own "tunnel vision."

Project Overview

Delving a bit deeper into the psychological dynamic in Strand's poem, if we work from the psychoanalytic claim that our sense of self is defined by our break with "the Other," then the poem dramatizes the failed struggle to effect that break. Our protagonist's creative determination to escape his Other is a dramatization of his attempt to form a new sense of self — perhaps a whole, autonomous self, one unaffected by outside forces such as the stranger. Unfortunately, he does not achieve the break by the end of the poem. He is trapped, lost, out of tune with the ways in which he and Other are dis/connected.

Our cybertextual interpretation of Strand's poem extends this struggle to the human relationship with technology. "Tunnel Vision" implies that we are not isolated entities; rather, we are always already becoming what is artificially separated from us as a technological "outside." In an effort to erode the clean bounds of division between a human inside and a technological outside, "Tunnel Vision" loops together body and code, self and projected other, self-identified movement and Strand's poem-as-other.

In addition to these goals, "Tunnel Vision" also raises the question of whether we can recognize or embrace this division between Self and technological Other. Just as the man in the poem does not realize that it is his own face staring back at him from outside his house, so may we never fully realize that the fear of the technological-as-other is a fear of something that has already manifested itself within our bodies, a fear that turns back on itself to see itself. Just as the man is trapped in a loop of becoming what he fears because he does not understand the nature of his own becoming, so may we be trapped by ignoring or rejecting the extent of our co-adaptive development with technology. As David Wills states,

Only by inverting or controverting our presumption of a derivative, contrived technology, one under our control — at the crossroads of our greatest hopes and worst fears — in favor of a technology that is us and that we are through and through, will we adapt to the challenges that, with every step forward, we throw back at ourselves. (Dorsality 17)

On The Surface

The visual surface of "Tunnel Vision" is designed to make conscious the co-developmental relation between humans and machines and to require a confrontation with whatever we throw back at ourselves. Tunnel Vision forces its users into a hyper-awareness of their own body movements in order to (re)experience Strand's well-known poem. Thus, the poem appears or disappears as a result of the user's physical orientation toward the screen. The functionality of the work incites users to assume uncomfortable or abnormal positions in order to read the poem, and the experience of turning the body to try to stabilize the poem awakens the viewer to the role of the body in human-computer interaction.

Indeed, the process of engagement mocks what Anna Munster calls "the command-and-control scenario" and, rather, favors a blending of "human and computational 'cognitive' processes" that lends agency to the machine in the mutual production of experience, expunging the view of the human mind standing unaffected and in control of a static technological object (21). However, the recognition of mutual production does not necessarily produce a better poem, nor does this visible manifestation of the entwined human-technic existence prove to be necessarily emancipatory. In fact, the experience of the poem is frustrated, and the text is disrupted. The gesture needed to enact a reading of the poem is both that of erasing and polishing, leaving users confused as to whether the loop they are throwing back at themselves is illuminating or obscuring the process of human becoming.

Blending images of mass production, ecological destruction, and psychological torture, the looped video projected out from the window of the house, and cut with live images from the webcam, reinforces the idea that our fears of the technological involve a deep anxiety about the paradoxical dynamics of human becoming and extinction — an anxiety with material and imaginary referents and one offering the potential to illuminate and obscure as it is (re)encountered. Since the video is interrupted every few seconds to include a webcam image of the scene in front of "Tunnel Vision," the viewer is implicated as the Other who is feared (from the webcam's point of view) and the one who fears. In this way, the piece makes evident the role of the user's psychology and body in a loop of mutual Self-Other becoming. Likewise, the music filling the video is a series of looped sounds composed with stops, interjections, and interruptions. The most prominent of these looped sounds is the voice of Stephen Hawking, which, cutting through an otherwise repetitive structure, warns of human obliteration in the face of technological danger. But this extinction scenario, as an ultimate stop, must be rejected in order to compel us to embrace further human becoming, even if it means living with/in fear; as such, the sound with/in the video loops again, starting over.

'Below the Surface,' Or Along Another Surface

It is relevant to recall that the loop gave birth not only to cinema but also to computer programming. Programming involves altering the linear flow of data through control structures, such as "if/then" and "repeat/while"; the loop is the most elementary of these control structures.
— Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media

Manovich draws our attention to the importance of loops in both cinematic production and computer programming. But there is no reason to stop there. Loops, both iterative and recursive, are ubiquitous. They are found throughout natural environments, habits and habitats, in language, and at a biological level. "Tunnel Vision" is based on numerous interconnected loops. There is the recursive, psycho-social loop implied in the final stanza of the poem. There are the recursive feedback loops introduced by the camera and the two images on the screen — loops which implicate the user in the cybertext. And, at the computational level, there are numerous single and double for loops iterating through arrays of alphanumeric data related to both the motion-tracked position of the user in the webcam and each individual character in each line of the poem. Loops — recursive and iterative — are everywhere.

From a critical (code studies) standpoint, we might ask ourselves for whom the for loops are for?

for (var user:int = 0; user < theOther; user++) {
Poem(theTunnel[user]).visible = true;
}

Embodied movement is abstracted, made numerical, and then passed around to various functions comprising the cybertext's code. Those movements-turned-numerical are the basis for the constantly-changing view of the poem.

explanation() {

As a user's movements are tracked by Windle's software, the technical bases of which he explains in detail on his website, a rectangular "target area" with accompanying center point is generated by the motion-tracking software. The x/y center point and the width/height of the rectangle are then mapped on to the poem, which has been defined computationally as a grid of rows of letters. As the rectangle of movement defined by the software moves, growing and shrinking in height and width, so, too, does the area of the poem that can be seen/read. The vector space or velocity of a user, defined by Windle's software, becomes the computational bases for both a dynamic, embodied reading of the poem and an allegory of our machined self.

}

Perhaps, like the stranger/Other from whom the protagonist in Strand's poem cannot escape, neither can the numericalized movements in the coded that runs the cybertext. Embodied movement is reflected and refracted in an endless sequence of loops. Like the protagonist, cybertextual movement becomes a ghost within the machine, its outward manifestation is the changing block of visible text on the screen.

Intertextual References

In addition to the various themes mentioned thus far, "Tunnel Vision" incorporates a visual intertextual reference to Ted Warnell's codework, "Lascaux Symbol.ic." The reason for this reference is related to the hand in the background of the poetic text. The hand in Warnell's codework fascinates us because it invites a comparison between two non-phonetic forms of writing separated by millenia of alphabetic time, the cave painting and the codework. The first is pre-phonetic, and the second is an Other that is post-phonetic.

Reproduction of a screen capture of Warnell's 'Lascaux Symbol.ic' (2000) from Rita Raley's article, 'Code.Surface | Code.Depth.'

In the background, behind the hand, is a cave painting, an early, "audiovisual" form of communication that paleoanthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan characterizes as a prehistoric form of writing practiced millenia before writing's phoneticization. In Gesture and Speech, Leroi-Gourhan argues against the assumption that cave paintings were attempts to accurately depict life outside the shelter of the cave. They were not early attempts at a primitive or naïve realism in art. Rather, they are the visual remnants of an early form of writing in which graphical elements served a much broader set of purposes than do the twenty-six line drawings comprising our alphabet. Leroi-Gourhan explains, "in its origins figurative art was directly linked with language and was much closer to writing (in the broadest sense) than to what we understand by a work of art. It was symbolic transposition, not copying of reality" (190). He goes on to argue that cave paintings "do not represent a hunt, a dying animal, or a touching family scene, they are graphic building blocks without any descriptive binder, the support medium of an irretrievably lost oral context (190). As an early form of writing — one that predates phoneticization and linearization — the kind of writing found on cave walls, such as those at Lascaux, supported speech in ways that were not limited to the faithful depiction of the (presumably) discrete sounds of speech. In the "broadest sense," as Leroi-Gourhan puts it, writing served purposes well beyond representation. Millenia later, in Warnell's work, we have another form of writing in excess of the alphabetic principle.

In the foreground of the screen capture, overlaying the hand, is a JavaScript program. It is both the executable code that generates the number "07" in the palm of the hand and in the bottom-right corner of the matte, and it is the text of the poem. The mixing of code and text is paradigmatic of codeworks such as Warnell's. Alan Sondheim, who introduced the term, characterizes them as one possible future of writing (1). Sondheim argues that the computer and the internet have "opened up a whole (and indefinable) world of possibilities" (1). Codework is one such possibility, extending in its hybridizing way, the value and importance of writing in computational environments such as the web browser in which Warnell's work is executed and read. Albeit from a quite a distance both conceptually and practically, Warnell's work is another contribution to a form of writing that exceeds the logocentric mandate. The hand in his poem hails us to recognize and celebrate the connection between a pre-phonetic past and our post-phonetic future. The hand brings them back together.

Conclusion

Ultimately, "Tunnel Vision" dramatizes what the protagonist in Strand's poem was unable to see, e.g. that the attack he feared through the looming presence of an outside actor territorializing his space was, in fact, the production from his own gestures. In this way, the work should cause users to consider how they are moving in relation to the technological, since how they move determines how they (and the poem) are reflected back at them. Thus, the dark and frightful tunnel vibrating through the body of the man standing outside of the house serves as a warning about a co-developmental journey rife with future transitions. As Tim Lenoir notes when discussing the work of Terrence Deacon, "any change in the way information gets processed and represented inevitably constitutes a change in the cognitive economy of the subject, a difference in psychic architecture and ultimately of consciousness itself" (Lenoir). What Lenoir does not say is that a human future dependent on these changes in technological representation is not necessarily going to be a clean, unmarred journey to posthuman ascendency. If one is to extend the co-adaptation thesis out to the posthuman future, as Lenoir has done, then there is little reason to believe that great fears, pains and losses are not also tied up in the evolutionary process. The way we move within and react to our technologies builds possible futures; in the end, the challenges "we throw back at ourselves" (Wills) may not produce a more beautiful or well-functioning poem, but the way we adapt might make all the difference.


VIEW Tunnel Vision in the Gallery


Works Cited

"ID:ENTITY. Self : Perception + Reality." Group exhibit at CAM Raleigh. 18 November 2011-13 February 2012. Web.

Lenoir, Tim. "Contemplating Singularity." On the Human: A Project of the National Humanities Center. 4 August 2009. 2 January 2010. Web.

Leroi-Gourhan, André. Gesture and Speech. Trans. Anna Bostock Berger. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993. Print.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002. Print.

Raley, Rita. "Code.Surface || Code.Depth." Dichtung-Digital: Contributions on Digital Aesthetics. 2006 (36). 2 January 2010. Web.

Sondheim, Alan. "Introduction: Codework." American Book Review 22.6 (September/October 2001). 2 January 2010. Web.

Warnell, Ted. "Lascaux Symbol.ic." Poems by Nari: Visual Poems from the Cyberstream. 2000. 2 January 2010. Web.

Wills, David. Dorsality: Thinking Back Through Technology and Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print.

Windle, Justin. "AS3 Webcam Motion Tracking." Soulwire: Art & Technology. 2 January 2010. Web.


Permalink

http://dx.doi.org/10.20415/hyp/009.e03