Hypertext and self-destructing poems


A few of us attended the Flair Symposium at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin in November. It was an opportunity to hear about literary archives from the perspective of the writers that create them and the archivists that curate them.

While at the HRC, I also found some time to take in their (now just closed) exhibition – The Mystique of the Archive. The exhibition described the contents of a literary archive, exploring its journey from creator to archival repository to scholar. Two items in particular stuck with me. First, the plot chart for Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, and second the display of Michael Joyce’s Afternoon. The first has all the magical qualities of a traditional manuscript – it’s a window on the composition process. The second is one of few exhibits of born-digital archive material that I have seen. Afternoon is a work of hypertext fiction created using software called Storyspace. You can buy both the current versions of the work and the software used to create it from Eastgate. I have never read a work of hypertext fiction, but I understand that the format presents the reader with a variety of paths through the work. Matthew Kirschenbaum of MITH is working with the archive of Deena Larsen, a hypertext author who encourages the extension of her works; this introduces all sorts of interesting questions about the (potential) scope of the archive.

Matt was also the first user of the Joyce archive at the HRC and he writes about this in his book Mechanisms. He writes too of the importance of the physical medium on which data is inscribed and the use of data forensic techniques to recover and examine data. There’s much in Mechanisms that chimes with issues and approaches we have encountered, though the terminology is very different to that used by archivists. At the FLAIR Symposium, Matt spoke about the Agrippa Files (also the subject of a chapter in Mechanisms) and there’s a website dedicated to this. The work that’s been done on Agrippa is an interesting example of data recovery and emulation. The poem was a digital work designed to scroll on the screen, accompanied by the odd sound effect. It was also crafted to self-destruct by encrypting itself after a single reading. The poem has been recovered, using dd, from a 3.5″ disk used with an early 90s Mac. On the website, you can now view a video of the poem running in the mini vMac emulator booted with a System 7 boot disk.

The NEH has funded a collaboration between MITH, HRC and Emory on digital literary manuscripts. The grant supports a series of site visits, which will enable the partners to share experiences and to develop a fuller proposal for the curation of contemporary literary archives. We were lucky enough to meet with the good folk of this collaboration at Texas. As well as hearing about MITH’s work with the Larsen archive, we learned of their work on the Jonathan Larson archive and a project which investigates the preservation of virtual worlds (see Kari Kraus speak on this at the Metaverse conference). We also heard from Erika Farr and Naomi Nelson about Emory’s experiences with the digital elements of the Rushdie archive, and from Gabriela Redwine about the Ransom Center’s work on the digital materials in its collections (including the Joyce and Mailer archives). The stories from all three institutions stem from hands-on engagement with born-digital archives, which makes their telling all the more valuable; others will be able to read about this work when a paper is published toward the end of the NEH grant.

-Susan Thomas

Leave a Reply