This entry was drafted at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, during the Winter 2013-14 term, as part of the author's PhD in "Materialities of Literature" funded by The Foundation of Science and Technology (FCT)
A lonely old man is disquieted by strange dreams. He cannot move and he is unable to wake up. The dreams are so vivid that he cannot distinguish between the real and the imaginary. The man addresses the reader in a semi-conscious state. He is being slowly poisoned by a gas leak. Inside (released in 2000 and revised in 2002) is a journal in which his unsettling dreams were recorded. This work resembles an artist’s book comprised of seemingly unrelated items in which Andy Campbell stitched various media affordances together. What seem to be book's pages are accompanied by a soundtrack and often lead to video files or static images: cinema, photography, digital art, literature and music collaborate to produce an exquisite reading experience. The pages are discretely and continuously flashing, as if they were simulating our eyes (and the protagonist’s eyes) blinking and adjusting to a new reality. Readers can rotate the journal, zoom in and out on pages or browse through the book. The sound of something mechanical runs in the background. Is it the gas fire slowly releasing the poison or the textual machinery fabricating the narrative? Reality, memory and imagination are unavoidably intertwined.
This piece exemplifies how computers can be powerful simulators of other media. We will find sentences, sounds and videos fused together to create a dense narrative representing the character’s delirious state of mind. Inside may also be described as a simulation of a collage book replenished with memories and random thoughts. Film, photography, music or audio files are ghostly apparitions, emerging and disappearing as an interrupted chain of thoughts or a slip of the tongue. The media used in this work highlight the main character’s feverish state of mind as he lets himself go adrift: “I’m falling into a void. There is an infinite chain nearby, keeps coming into view, close, within reach, sometimes I manage to grab it and hold on for a few fleeting seconds before having to let go. I keep falling and falling” (62).
As the protagonist’s physical health deteriorates, the reader finds new signs of a troubled mind. We can now identify erased or underlined words, mirrored texts and texts written upside down. Some words are loose and keep spinning, doing somersaults and escaping the reader’s control. According to Manuel Portela, visual and kinetic poetry "call our attention to reading as a cognitive process" and they often "play with readers' awareness of eye movements" (Portela, 2013: 24).The arrangement of words and metrical structure indicates that Inside is a collection of poems somewhat reminiscent of concrete or visual poetry. However, in Campbell's work, the border between prose and poetry is constantly shifting. The abstract and introspective tone, traditionally associated with poetry, is counterbalanced by descriptive moments and by the existence of a plot. Inside reignites the debate over literary genres and finds its own middle-ground.
Literary genres have been considered, particularly since post-structuralism, a prescriptive and elitist method to describe works. Roland Barthes, one of the leading influences on the post-structuralist movement, stated that “the Text does not stop at (good) Literature; it cannot be contained in a hierarchy, even in a simple division of genres. What constitutes the Text is, on the contrary (or precisely), its subversive force in respect of the old classifications” (Barthes, 1977: 157). Gérard Genette observed that the traditional tripartite division between lyric, dramatic and epic literary genres, had been erroneously attributed to Aristotle and Plato: “by usurping that remote ancestry, the relatively recent theory of the ‘three major genres’ not only lays claim to ancientness, and thus to an appearance or presumption of being eternal and therefore self-evident; it also misappropriates for the benefit of its three generic institutions a natural foundation that Aristotle, and Plato before him, had established” (Genette, 1979: 2-3). The absence of a “lyric” genre from Aristotle’s Poetics (the attribution of this category to Aristotle was based on the belief that the dithyramb illustrated the "lyric genre"), and the uncritical naturalization of this tripartite classification, led Genette to describe the genre system as “a retrospective illusion” which was “deeply rooted in our conscious, or unconscious, literary minds” (2).
Like Genette, Jacques Derrida believed that both Aristotle and Plato had been misinterpreted. In order to challenge these categories and their “taxonomic certainties” he underlined, using a double negative, that “a text cannot belong to no genre”. To Derrida, there was no such thing as a “genreless text” and every text could participate in one or several genres (Derrida, 1980: 65). Markku Eskelinen defined a genre as “a hopelessly contested and historically fluctuating concept within which multiple theoretical and practical interests are in a permanently unresolved conflict” (Eskelinen, 2012: 91). Nevertheless, Eskelinen does not completely reject genre classification: as “a rule of thumb device connecting the expectations of audiences and artists” (273), a genre taxonomy is simultaneously “necessary and impossible” (idem.).
Even though it depends on order and reason, the concept of genre is difficult to describe and explain. Derrida considered that madness and genre shared an inseparable bond. Besides that, as previously mentioned, the genre system was built on a "retrospective illusion" which Inside seems to depict. As soon as we start reading this work, we are immediately misled by print conventions: the shape of the text makes us believe that we are reading poetry. This optic illusion is exacerbated by the flashing pages simulating our eyes’ syncopated contact with the text. To Derrida, a text “belongs without belonging” to a genre. Any distinctive trait which might fit a text into a genre is illusory and momentaneous. As stated by Derrida, it “appears only in the timeless time of the blink of an eye (Augenblick)” (65).
Besides blurring the distinction between poetry and prose Inside also interrogates the binary reality/fiction: “I fell into a strange sleep in my chair. It was like I wasn’t really sleeping because my dream was exactly the same as being awake except that everything was darker and greener.” (2) Reference to ordinary activities indicate periods of awareness (“I got the gas fire looked at today”, 11) but these are followed by fading memories or visions of a condemned future (“It was the future - society collapsed”, 59). Inside is like a stream of consciousness experiment that gives the reader intimate access to the character’s thoughts.
As with print works, Inside is anchored to static pages. It is simultaneously dependent on pre-programmed textual responses. However, this piece continuously exceeds its margins. Videos overlap the pages and hyperlinks lead the reader to other dimensions of the work. Moreover, there are several words which, when selected by the reader, offer a portal to hidden places in the protagonist’s mind. Even though the main character is alone and trapped inside his house he is able to describe different settings. The reader in front of the computer screen follows him. Like any work of fiction, this piece overcomes itself (and its page limits) through the reader’s imaginative participation. All in all, Inside not only explores themes such as the Cartesian dichotomy between body and mind but also reminds us of fiction’s never-ending possibilities.
BARTHES, Roland (1977). Image, Music Text. London: Fontana Press.
DERRIDA, Jacques, and Avital Ronell (1980). “The Law of Genre”, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 1. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 55-81.
ESKELINEN, Markku (2012). Cybertext Poetics: The Critical Landscape of New Media Literary Theory. New York: Continuum.
GENETTE, Gérard (1979). The Architext: an Introduction. Berkeley: University of California Press.
PORTELA, Manuel (2013). Scripting Reading Motions: the Codex and the Computer as Self-reflexive Machines. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.