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Sedaghat Payam, M. (2016). The Mutual Relationship of Linguistic and Non-linguistic Elements in Breaking Down the Hierarchy of Language in Digital Narrative. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 358-360.
The Mutual Relationship of Linguistic and Non-linguistic Elements in Breaking Down the Hierarchy of Language in Digital Narrative

The Mutual Relationship of Linguistic and Non-linguistic Elements in Breaking Down the Hierarchy of Language in Digital Narrative

Although there have been a handful of transmedial explorations by some novelists in the past, narrative in novels has mainly used linguistic elements in conventional print fiction. When the first generation of hypertext novelists remediated print novels in their works they only used language too. However, images, sound, movies and other non-linguistic elements in works of the second generation digital novels—called web-fiction here—have mainly challenged the hierarchy of language and have posed serious threats to the autonomy of words in novels. This challenge has worked both ways, on one hand, works of web-fiction have tried to distance themselves from works which have been merely linguistic (for instance Afternoon (1990)), on the other hand experimental print novelists have become media-conscious and created novels which have incorporated images, colors, innovative page design and music in their physical body (for instance House of Leaves (200)). Consequently these media-conscious novels, especially in digital media, have posed serious questions for novel. Some of these questions are: How much narrative in novels is dependent upon words and in what ways can it take advantage of the narrative potentials of the non-linguistic elements? In other words how can non-linguistic elements contribute to the narrative of novels in the media in which they are rendered and in what ways does this new synthesis of words and non-linguistic elements can change our understanding of the narrative in novels? Finally how these novels should be analyzed? In order to find the answers of these questions, two works of web-fiction, Reconstructing Mayakovsky (2011) by Illya Szilak and Dreamaphage (2006) by Jason Nelson, and one work of media-conscious print S (2013) by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams have been chosen and the mutual relationship between their linguistic and non-linguistic elements have been explored. All of these works have tried to break down the hierarchy of language in the narrative of the novel and in doing that have highlighted the role of non-linguistic features and have highlighted the ways these features can contribute to narrative in a novel especially in a digital medium.

Analyzing these works will help us to find the answer to a bigger question. How do these mixtures of several media justify their existences as novels? This is where pushing Bakhtin's ideas a little bit further to include works of digital fiction can become extremely useful. Bakhtin’s ideas have been used as the theoretical base of my discussion because out of the three other theories of novel presented in the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Narrative (2005) , it is the only one which takes the materialities of the production of the text into consideration and according to Howard Mancing “seems most justified by an informed understanding of literary history and theory” (ibid, 399). According to Bakhtin “There is no specific form, technique, theme, or approach to character that makes a text a novel; rather, the distinguishing characteristics of the novel are its heteroglossia and its dialogism” (ibid, 400). Since Bakhtin does not limit dialogism to literature only and believes all language (and all thought) is dialogical, in this paper it has been tried to extend these two concepts into “modes” in both digital and media-conscious print novels. In these novels multiplicity of modes can result in novels in which the words’ hold over the narrative is not as strong as it has been in conventional novels. Such novels can potentially provide a dialogical engagement between linguistic and non-linguistic elements which can eventually lead to a different understanding of what novel is (or it can be). In this way, the current proposal aims at providing a theoretical background and justification for these kinds of narratives which claim to be novels and offers a practical method to read and analyze these novels.

1. Historical Background

The introduction of digital media to the literary scene encouraged a number of experimental novelists—some of whom like Joyce had published novels in print—to try their hand at this medium to create works which were both written on the computer and necessarily had to be read on the screen as well. These writers who were later known as hypertext novelists experimented with the materiality of this new medium, and made its materiality an explicit part of the conception of their novels. Although some conventions of the print medium were discernible in the works of these writers, the arrival of the Internet and the developments in digital media provided a significant opportunity for these writers and the new generation of writers to experiment with new conventions for novel writing in digital media. Moreover, these experimentations with the materiality of the medium encouraged the experimental print novelists of the digital era to experiment more extensively with print as a medium.

N. Katherine Hayles is a prominent scholar who has consistently written on the “materiality of the medium” and this paper has heavily borrowed from her theoretical discussions and coinages. Hayles advocates a method of reading called Media-Specific Analysis (MSA) which involves paying particular attention to the materiality of the medium in which the work of fiction is presented. The importance of Hayles’ analytical method is that it provides a practical method for thinking about text as a linguistic object, and provides a new perspective to think and write about texts. Another advantage of Hayles’ approach is that it brings the medium to the foreground from the very beginning and can be applied for the analysis of both print and digital novels.

Since the novel as a specific genre and media form developed its defining characteristics and conventions in association with the evolution of print technology, the question of how narrative in novels is transformed through works of hypertext or web-fiction is a significant one. H. Porter Abbott has a useful definition of narrative and his definition will be used as a guide in the controversial subject of narrative and how it should be thought of in the works of hypertext and web-fiction. In Abbott’s definition, “narrative is the representation of events, consisting of story and narrative discourse.” Story “is an event or sequence of events (the action), and narrative discourse is those events as represented” (16). The main reason that Abbott’s definition has been chosen here is that it can be applied to the study of narrative in an almost any medium.

The non-linguistic elements which have been used in media-conscious novels are referred to as modes here, therefore a novel which has used several modes in its narrative is a multimodal novel. This usage of the term mode is more in line with the way Alison Gibbons has defined this term as “a system of choices used to communicate meaning.” Looking at novel from the modality perspective, provides us a better understanding of how each work is created out of the different combinations of modalities of three different but related categories. A fictional text uses a specific modality of the text which is the narrative genre. It uses the modality of the medium either print or digital. The last modality which comes into play here is the modality of verbal/visual which is part of the modalities of representation. These modalities can work in different combinations, but segregating them in this way, makes them more visible and shows how each writer can create texts, by manipulating either of these so that the reading process would be affected by the way either of these modalities is brought into play.

Thus, in order to study the he fictional works discussed here, three different but interrelated dimensions of the fictional text have been identified. (1) Physical Organization and Design, (2) Narrative Strategy, and (3) Reading Process. This tripartite model can be used by other scholars for analyzing novels which incorporate linguistic and non-linguistic elements in their narrative(s). In the first dimension, Physical Organization and Design a text is analyzed from the perspective of the use of its physical resources its authorship, and design. Narrative Strategy, the second dimension, is the angle through which a text from the perspective of the use of its physical resources and signifying strategies to create a narrative is analyzed. In the third dimension, the Reading Process, the way a text shapes the experience of the reader is explored.

Novels have always been media forms which lead the reader through them to a world which is the real world or like the real world in its spatial/visual form. These worlds exist beyond the page and the language and materiality of the novel are expected to be effaced during this process. However, the digital novels and media-conscious print novels show resistance toward this self-effacement and by mixing different modes in their narrative and bringing their own materiality into the foreground. The narrative and how it is created through the interplay of different modes in a single work is analyzed in these three novels:

  1. Reconstructing Mayakovsky by Illya Szilak. This novel which claims to be the “novel of future” has been published in electronic format in the second volume of ELO in 2011. Later in 2012, a print version of the same novel was published by Revolution Nostalgia Disco Theater. Mayakovsky’s believed that poetry is a mode which can disrupt a fixed narrative and this is exactly what Szilak tries to accomplish in her novel. The narrative in this novel is broken into several modes—or “mechanisms,” as the writer calls them—including text, audio podcasts, video, a live Google image search, etc.
  2. Dreamaphage by Jason Nelson. The interfaces of Dreamaphage have been described as “innovative, surprising, alternately whimsical and unnerving” by ELO website and these words can be used to describe the whole narrative of novel as well. Narrative in this novel is presented through different layers of 3D text with several links to the books which the reader has to simulate the act of turning the page (which means clicking the mouse on the bottom right side of the screen where the edge of the book is and move it to the top left, so that the next page appears on screen), and move through pages filled with squares and circle to read some files which their loose connection together forms a narrative.
  3. S by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams. This print novel comes in a slip cover which has a book named “Ship of Theseus” which is full of handwritten comments, as well as postcards, newspaper clippings, black and white photos, even a hand-drawn map written on a napkin from a coffee shop, which together create a mysterious narrative. These non-linguistic materials play such a crucial role in the narrative, that at times it becomes impossible to follow the narrative and solve the mystery of the novel without them. S is described a “love letter to the written word,” on its slipcover, however it is through the interaction of the linguistic and non-linguistic elements that this love letter finds its true meaning.

  1. Abbott, H. Porter (2002). The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Bakhtin, M. (1981). Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  3. Danielewski, M. Z. (2000). House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon Books.
  4. Dorst, D. and Abrams, J. J. (2013). S. New York: Mulholland Books.
  5. Hayles, N. K. (2004). Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis. Poetics Today, 25(1): 67–90.
  6. Herman, D., Manfred J., and Ryan, M.-L. (eds.) (2005). Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. London; New York: Routledge.
  7. Joyce, M. (1990). Afternoon; a story. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems.
  8. Nelson, J. (2006). Dreamaphage. Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1.
  9. Szilak, I. (2011). Reconstructing Mayakovsky. Electronic Literature Collection Volume 2.