Individual Work

"What if the word will not be still?" are the opening words of Stuart Moultrop’s dynamic, meta- or anti-theoretical "web fiction" Hegirascope, first released in 1995. This entry is based on an extended, visually enhanced second version, which was launched in 1997. It incorporates 175 pages and more than 700 links, which are only partially visible and controllable. According to the author himself (1997), most pages "carry instructions that cause the browser to refresh the active window with a new page after 30 seconds. You can circumvent this by following a hypertext link, though in most cases this will just start a new half-minute timer on a fresh page." The best starting point is, as Moulthrop suggests, to either "dive in" or navigate via an index page to the most significant sequences.

Hegirascopeleaves the ultimate control over the reading process to the program code. Timed links make the lexia change without giving the reader a chance to take control via mouseclick. Notably, version 1.0 refreshed its pages after only 18 seconds and was thus far more challenging to read. One could therefore argue that, with version 2.0, Moulthrop takes a step backwards, reducing the power of the machine to the advantage of the reader. The intention behind this move was to give more weight to content and language, which was, in Moulthrop’s case, a provident thing to do, as both his style and treatment of subject matter lend themselves to close analysis.

Sarcastically, Moulthrop mocks aspects of hypertext theory and culture such as the alleged empowerment of the reader, as well as many recurring catch phrases and quotations with which hypertext readers and researchers are normally bombarded. Via quasi-Socratic fictional dialogues as well as monologous passages, Moulthrop takes hypertext and New Media criticism ad absurdum. Vannevar Bush and his visionary Memex idea, foreshadowing the capacity to store and infinitely access human knowledge in its entirety, and Marshall McLuhan, with his largely television-focused concepts, are amongst his favourite targets.

Moulthrop humbly points out that "much of what [he] was doing in Hegirascope was indeed just playing," which is believable only to the extent that he was indeed playing, but with serious intentions. The title itself, which alludes to the Arabic word "hejira," Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina, and, on a figurative level, an escape from danger, contains a hint of pessimism in relation to the main subject matter, the internet and its implications for the seduced surfer. Hegirascope may be read, as suggested by Aarseth, as a parody of hypertext (1997: 81) or even the Web itself. Evidence for this is provided in many places throughout the text: Moulthrop not only mentions but virtually stages the random clicking of hyperlinks via the onomatopoeic "zick," his narrative is convoluted to the brink of cognitive exhaustion, and speed and quantity replace calm and diligence: "We can expect a billion Web pages by 2000. Some of them will even be worth reading" (Epigraph).

At the center of Moulthrop’s work lies a narrative, which, due to its lack of coherence in character, setting and plot, is strongly reminiscent of prototypical postmodern novels such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Matevoy’s picaresque dreams mingle with Gina’s terror upon observing a dead body, other characters appear out of nowhere, such as Hattie and Pirate Queen, holding conversations. Among the most recurrent motifs are dreams and voyages, which are at the same time frequently used metaphors of surfing the web.

Every lexia is framed by four text links, which lead the reader on to other theories and postmodern personae. The author avoids links within the text but places them in the margin. Moulthrop’s intelligent poetic style causes the text to be pleasant and stimulating to read, confusing though it may be in its entirety. The willing perceiver feels encouraged to look up previously unfamiliar theories and biographies, which adds a touch of academic prestige to the work and clearly shows Moulthrop’s vocational and writerly claim.

The academic character of Hegirascopeis reinforced by lists of references displayed in some lexias. They give account of the author’s commitment to academic study and convey a high degree of authenticity and realism to the fiction. The rigidity of the text itself is a clear indicator of Moulthrop’s skepticism towards blind web fanaticism. At the end of each narrative strand, the screen grows either black or wight, signaling the end of color and, on a symbolic level, the loss of all so-called knowledge upon the downfall of the machine.

Simanowski (1999) focuses in his extended essay on hypertext aesthetics on one particular section of Hegirascope, which promises to recount a dream placing the reader above human civilization. In reality, however, this empowering dream is deconstructed by the shortage of time allowed to read the lexia, which swiftly switches on to the next one, thus forcing the reader to press the ‘back’ button to return to the target lexia. In this respect, Simanowski understands the text as a double reconstruction, of both the reader’s semantic expectation and the assumed power he or she has over the reading process.

Another, exhaustive review of Hegirascopewas published by Lee (2005), who investigates the use of hyperlinks and color codings as "instances that exhibit the fluidity of digital materiality" (2005) and demonstrates how "order is buried in the disorder of the apparent "narrative confetti'’’ (ibid). In doing so, Lee ventures the bold thesis that, in analogy to Victor Shklovsky’s claim of Tristram Shandy being "the most typical novel in world literature" (Shklovsky, 1991), Hegirascope is "‘the most typical hypernovel in digital literature" (Lee, 2005).

This entry has been adapted from A. Ensslin (2007) Canonizing Hypertext: Explorations and Constructions. London: Continuum, pp. 106-8.

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