Hyperrhiz 15: Essays

Rime of the Reagan Library: Remixing Digital Literature as a Critical Method

Richard Ness, Margaret Bertucci Hamper, and Lauren Gottlieb-Miller


Abstract

Our project remixes Stuart Moulthrop’s 1999 hypertext novel Reagan Library. Moulthrop’s work suggests that hypertext fiction is a “crime against the humanities,” a sardonic reference to the academy’s trivialization of electronic literature. We argue that Moulthrop’s work invites its readers to engage with his text at the level of code, and our project takes up this challenge through the performance of a remix. It is a scholarly intervention in the field of software studies, demonstrating one way in which new interpretive frameworks can be applied to produce meaning from electronic texts. We argue that remix is a key method for engaging electronic literature because it allows us to access the expressive capacity of computational processes. Our remix of Reagan Library allowed us to understand the underlying structure of Moulthrop’s work while simultaneously providing a new framework to revisit a canonical text, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and engage with it in a new way. We used the remix as an occasion for exploration and invention and as a new way to approach scholarship in the humanities. Engaging with Reagan Library’s code allowed us not only to better understand its narratives but also to uncover a more complex, nuanced argument about the nature of memory, both human and nonhuman. Our essay guides readers through the process by which we gained access to the digital underbelly of Reagan Library, explores our findings, and showcases the website and remix that grew out of this work. Ultimately, our project attempts to provide scholars with another possible intervention for writing and thinking about electronic literature.


Video: Remixing Reagan Library: Engaging with Code in the Humanities.

Description

By 1999, the year Stuart Moulthrop’s Reagan Library was published, hypertext fiction had already captured the attention of a large group of scholars and had inspired the founding of the Electronic Literature Organization, whose mission was to “recognize the promise that electronic media offered literature” and to “foster and promote the reading, writing, teaching, and understanding of literature as it develops and persists in a changing digital environment.” While Moulthrop’s first hypertext, Victory Garden (1991), established Moulthrop as an early adopter and talented author, electronic literature had already begun to enjoy a marginally established status in the world of fiction by the time Reagan Library was published. It did, however, bring with it something new: Quicktime VR and Javascript.

In fact, Reagan Library was borne by virtue of what Matthew Kirschenbaum would call its “formal materiality.” That is, without QuickTime VR, there would be no Reagan Library as, Mouthrop explains, the story grew out of his experimentation with rendering images for QuickTime VR. Importantly, however, Apple discontinued the QuickTime VR plug-in in 2008 and Moulthrop was forced to remake the panoramas using Flash. This change in “formal materiality” is a rich source of analysis in thinking through the very nature of digital texts — that is, while in some sense the digital world provides for more reliable storage because copies can proliferate throughout the internet landscape, unlike print media, the usability of digital texts is reliant on third party software which may change or cease to exist at any moment. Digital texts, then, unlike their print counterparts, require vigilant caretakers whose work is the preservation of an increasingly anachronistic text that must continue to conform to the ever changing digital landscape.

In the years before Reagan Library was published, the digital landscape had undergone significant change with the introduction of the GUI in the late 1980s and high-resolution computers in the 1990s, and the time was ripe for commercially available products that made use of these features. Though Apple released its first version of QuickTime in 1991, it was suited only for live-action and cartoon-like videos. QuickTime Virtual Reality (VR) was not made commercially available until the release of QuickTime 2.5 in 1995. Once Moulthrop had composed the actual image in Bryce 3d Package (released in 1996), creating a panorama with QuickTime VR still required the $2,000 QuickTime VR Authoring Tools Suite, which included three intimidating binders, a video tutorial, and a set of floppy disks. With no formal training, Moulthrop quickly made sense of rendering other-worldly panoramic images inspired by the computer video game Myst and importing them into QuickTime VR to develop user-interactive panoramas replete with “hot spots” or hyperlinks in specific image locations.

After these QuickTime VR panoramas were rendered, however, there was still much more code to be written in a recently developed computer language: Javascript. While the advent of sites like Geocities in the early 1990s enabled laypeople to create websites without HTML coding, the advanced capabilities offered by Javascript required a knowledgeable user. Though it had been developed by Brendan Eich at Netscape in 1995, Javascript was not standardized and ready for commercial use until 1997 — just two years before Reagan Library was completed. Though Javascript is now one of the most popular programming languages, Moulthrop’s discovery and use of Javascript in the late 90s was a significant advancement in hypertext fiction. Javascript allowed Moulthrop’s hyperlinks to do more than simply send the user off to a pre-defined location (more on this later). Reagan Library’s use of Javascript-supported hyperlinks makes it what Espen Aarseth calls an ergodic text because traversing it requires a “nontrivial effort” (1).

With the help of QuickTime VR, Javascript, and HTML, Moulthrop’s Reagan Library places the reader in four cryptic worlds nearly simultaneously, requiring its reader to work with the text in making sense of its four interconnected narratives. The central themes of Reagan Library are memory and time, made evident both by the narrative and the very nature of the text, which distorts the way readers experience memory and time, passing them through a serpentine path of seemingly disjointed narratives and spaces. Moulthrop's Reagan Library is a book that is not a book experimenting how we conceive of space, time, and memory.


Structure Overview

Reagan Library is made up of four “worlds”: blue, green, black, and red. Each of the four worlds has a separate narrative and employs its own distinct visual rhetoric. Structurally, all four worlds are the same: each page is made up of four frames (only three of which are visible). The first frame lines the left side of the page with a block of color and a title denoting locations such as “pavilion” and the “obelisk.” Next to this frame are two larger frames, the first of which holds a panorama powered by QuickTime VR which allows the reader to see some of what the character sees (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Panoramic view of the blue world designed with QuickTime VR.

Each world is made up of 28 htm pages; these pages are further divided into 7 “chapters”; each chapter is made up of 4 “levels.” Upon clicking the ominous “begin” button on the Reagan Library start page, readers will end up on one of four pages: the chapter 1 - level 1 of any of the four worlds (rl00.htm, rl70.htm, rl210.htm, rl140.htm)(see image map of the begin button in figure 2). Readers then progress through the text by choosing one of the several hyperlinks located in the body text which takes them to another page (more on this later).

Figure 2: Image map of the “begin” button.

Moulthrop’s Javascript function “keepTrack,” however, uses the two arrays — “place” and “fourState” — to keep track of which pages readers have visited in each world and chapter (see figure 3). These visits are then logged in the invisible fourth frame (see figure 4). If a reader has visited the blue world’s chapter 3 — level 1, for example, we’ll eventually be directed to the level 2 page (never to visit chapter 3 — level 1 again) and we will now see two colored blocks at the bottom of the page, signaling to the reader that they are progressing through the text (see figure 1).

Figure 3: Moulthrop’s code for tracking the reader's unique path.
Figure 4: Reagan Library’s invisible fourth frame, which logs the reader’s path.

The Text

Each page is made up of some static text and some pseudorandom text (or rather, pseudorandom sentences). Each level contains less and less pseudorandom text and more and more static text. As a result, the more time a reader spends with Reagan Library, the more the text begins to make sense. The random text is also the explanation for one of Reagan Library’s most charming features: that no page is ever the same. Disorienting as it may be at first, each time the page is reloaded the program calls for new random text. It’s still the same page and the static text is still the same.

The pseudorandom text is fed into pages using the functions “numeric,” “advice,” “sententious,” “fragmentary,” and “nominal.” Inside each of these functions is an array of sentences and sentence fragments. Each time the page loads, one of these sentences will be randomly chosen to inhabit a space on the page. For example, the sententious function (see figure 5) has an array of 104 sentences (which are sententious in theme) that may be placed on a page (pictured in pink). Likewise, the “nominal” array is made up of names, the “advice” array is made up of advice, and the “fragmentary” array is made up of sentence fragments. As a result, while the text is in some ways random (we don’t know which sentence/sentence fragment we will see), the kind of sentence we see has been carefully chosen (advice, fragments, names, and so on).

Figure 5: Moulthrop’s code for the “sententious,” function that generates pseudorandom text.

Black - Chapter 3 - Level 1

For example, in this page (see figure 6), the Javascript code has been rewritten to better demonstrate the workings of the page. Here we can see the static text (“The prisoner… monolith,” “The deal… knew,” “and now… humanities,” and “Does this black… memory?”) and the “random” text more clearly. The random text has been renamed by function (“sententious” and “fragmentary”) and number to demonstrate the way Moulthrop designed this page. For example, Moulthrop chose five sentence fragments to precede and follow the “The deal was sealed” section of static text. So, while the final sentences that appear are “random,” Moulthrop has ensured that the nature of the text that appears in each section fits with the static text.

Figure 6: Here we have rewritten the text to illustrate how Reagan Library’s screen level output relates to its code.

If we look at the same page at the level of code, our understanding of the page deepens (see figure 7). Here we can see more clearly the line of static text and the following call for five “fragmentary” sections, then more static text, then a call for “superNoise” which calls up random sections from fragmentary and sententious, then more static text, and then a call for five sententious sentences.

Figure 7: The actual code that generated the page in Figure 6.

Hyperlinks

Moulthrop’s carefully designed hyperlink system is also made clear here. Moulthrop suggests — both in the introduction and in the red world — that some links are more meaningful than others. This is certainly the case. In the Javascript code above, we can see that there are three different kinds of links: hTransit, qTransit, and rTransit (see figure 8). Importantly, hTransit and qTransit will send the reader to a place in the text that is reliant on where they’ve already been, allowing the story to progress meaningfully. rTransit, on the other hand, will send the reader to a random page, disregarding the reader’s view history. More importantly, hTransit and qTransit links are only found in the static, narrative text while rTransit links are only found in the random text.

Figure 8: Reagan Library’s hyperlink system: this code creates a sense of randomness while maintaining narrative coherence.

For example, we can see in figure 6 that, of the three links on this page, only one is in static text. In other words, while “sententious46” and “sententious26” will use the rTransit function (taking us to a random place in the text), the “throbbing pink interior” uses the hTransit link (taking the reader to a place in the text based on where they have already been using the “keepTrack” function described above). As a result, if readers pay careful attention to the links they choose and if they choose links inside the more narrative-driven static text, they will progress through the story more quickly.

It is important to note that what Moulthrop does with hyperlinks here was unprecedented. In 1999, hyperlinks were understood only as vehicles of transit to a specific, pre-defined location (Moulthrop, personal). Moulthrop bucked this tradition, which — for a 1999 audience especially — further disorients to reader who understands transit through a web page only as a predefined path.

The Four Worlds

Moulthrop began the composition of Reagan Library by designing the QuickTime VR panoramas, each of which took many hours to render. Moulthrop recalls taking his laptop to bed and waking up in the middle of the night to check on the rendering process (Moulthrop, personal). The panoramas, then, are not only integral to the narrative, but the narrative's progenitor. Moulthrop's goal was to create a world that was new, unlike anything we have seen before (Moulthrop, personal). In many ways, he has certainly accomplished this goal.

The blue world (see figure 9) — a world with Trebuchet and Palatino fonts and which the panoramas tell us is full of deep blue hues, ocean, beach, and sky — contains a story told by Emily Saint Cloud. Emily, grieving for her dead father, tells us of her youth, her experience with psychotherapy, and her visions, and her film career. The story moves without attention to time. Rather, like a shared memory or stream of consciousness, Emily tells us about how she sees the world.

Figure 9: The blue world, narrated by Emily St. Cloud.

The black world (see figure 10), as one might expect, is dark, with traditional Times New Roman font and the panorama’s black sky and aging images. We are told that “the prisoner will approach the sinister black monolith” (chapter 1 level 4). The “prisoner," is sure that he's done something wrong and “lit out” for the islands. He cannot, though, remember how he got where he is or why he is being punished and he must wait in a purgatorial state until he does. This character again sees a black cone (just as Emily does), and while this cone comforts him, it is dark and ominous looking (while Emily’s was filled with stars). Furthermore, both are seen in dreams. The prisoner seems to be traveling in a world of dreams from which he never escapes.

Figure 10: The ruins in the dark and dreamlike black world, narrated by a prisoner.

The green world (see figure 11), with its bright beaches, bright sky, and comic sans text, is far more whimsical than the other worlds, at least on the surface. The narrator, who was once a stand-up comedian, is talking to a psychologist, Dr. Chandra, recalling memories. He comes across “the house that jack built” that was aging and broken in the black world but looks new here. Interestingly, this person’s white cone looks a lot like Emily’s, although it is described as a “white metallic witch hat with a light show in the belly, big enough to sit in, not that you ever would.” He continues,

Figure 11: The green world, narrated by a stand-up comedian.
No one was sure what it was supposed to be, not even the art director, or what scenes it went with or even where it came from. One of the more bizarre stories said there was a tag on the back that read ‘property of Ronald Reagan library.’ I never looked. In fact, nobody in cast or crew would come within arm’s length of it. The bloody thing glowed in the dark, and worse than that, it hummed, giving off this constant NNNNNN on some frequency too low to hear, a buzzing you felt in your breastbone. We christened it The Artifact. I’m not surprised to find it here. Are you?

The cone is a tantalizingly cryptic object that elicits curiosity and scrutiny, mirroring the reader’s experience as she navigates her way through the four worlds. The red world (see figure 12), rife with dark and ominous imagery, is the only world that speaks directly to the reader. The text of the “advice” function only appears in the red world, suggesting to the reader that, among other things, they “can end this” and should “move the camera.” The red world’s use of direct address evokes the sense that it is your world — that you, like the characters in the other three worlds, are working to figure out where you are and how got there.

Figure 12: The ominous red world, the world that addresses the reader directly, giving her cryptic clues for navigating the text.

Taken together, we know that these stories are about memory, media, mental health, and death. These characters are traversing the same world, but are experiencing it differently. What's more, all three of the characters worked in the entertainment industry, were from California, and have recently been on a plane. Likewise, in the red world we are told that “some trees grow after they are dead,” and Emily explains that God always spoke to her in landscape dreams. Is it possible, then, that Reagan Library is the story of three dead people…and you?


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DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/015.e04