Individual Work

Directions by Rob Swigart is "a quasi-sentimental pseudo-scientific hyperpoem" (Swigart 1994), or rather a cycle of hyperpoems, made in HyperCard and readable on historical Macintosh machines running System 7. It was originally published in issue 1:4 of The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext (1994), along with Giuliano Franco’s historical-scholarly hypertext, "Quam Artem Exerceas?". This material placement of works is not coincidental, as both feature radically different approaches to hypertextualizing scientific historiography: whilst Franco follows an informational hypertextual model of maximum structural and semantic clarity and logical coherence, Swigart adopts a radically dissonant, yet affectively cohesive poetic agenda. Directions features an array of different semiotic modes and textual genres, including scientific representations, poetic fragments, philosophical and anthropological scholarly prose, black-and-white BITMAP images, and diverse sound effects. Readers start from and keep returning to a stylistically and poetically adapted, periodic table of elements called “Elemental Table of Directions,” which reflects the historical status quo of chemistry in the mid-1990s (elements 107-118 were still undefined and therefore missing from the table; see screenshot). Each element in the table is linked to a text/image lexia that takes readers on an indefinitely looping, occasionally multilinear journey through the cycle. Each text-image BITMAP has to be read as an inherently meaningful multimodal cluster, and the reading process becomes a performance of the core thematic concern of the text: the tension between cyclicality and teleology in human orientation and existence.

Swigart’s pictorial images involve symbolic and geometric shapes and diagrams, ethnological objects, desert landscapes, waves, and an animated Greek column that can be destroyed and/or erected as a “consequence of failure” or “success” respectively. A bird's eye view of an archeological site has a text box displayed above it, which runs animated text that the reader has inserted. Perhaps the most powerful, linear sequence of image-text lexias depicts a large eye looking directly at the reader, accompanied by the text, “The mirror, widened, defeats loss”. Upon click, the eye gradually becomes larger, breaking apart along the center. The text under the final, split eye, reads, “The shattered eye sees deeper, without deceit” (sic). The image-text combination thus suggests a rhetorical metalepsis, i.e. "a small window that allows a quick glance across" the fictional and the actual world (Ryan 2006: 207): between the poetic agent, represented by the eye, and the reader, who is led to feel addressed by the eye, and to seek comprehension beyond the sensorily intelligible.

Clicking hyperlinks often triggers sound effects emulating explosions, blast-offs, gongs, but also more esoterical, seemingly extraterrestrial notions, connoting metaphysical transcendence and a bridging of ontological spheres that are incomprehensible through conventional, linear human communication. Paratextual material published in the accompanying folio is scarce and leaves readers largely to their own meaning-making devices.

Recurring themes include death and decay, starvation, injury, pain, and other aspects of human loss, suffering, uncertainty, and destruction. Yet there is also a strong counter-narrative of cyclicality and rebirth, which is paralleled by the reader’s looping movement through the hypertext. Whilst the poem does not offer any clearly intelligible characters or voices, in some reading paths, figures of a priest and priestess occur, framed in an ancient Egyptian fertility myth that evokes rebirth out of lost memory, “beginning with death.” Another key parallel between content and form is the idea of directionality in navigation. A nodal lexia, which branches into five, one-lexia sub-paths, reads, “Direction is neither casual nor easily known … / Yet it is as always, indirect" (sic). The rhetorical figure of kyklos evoked by the reiteration of "direct" (“direction … indirect”) appears in morphologically adapted and semantically reversed form, thus undermining its own potentiality for absolute closure. The lexia thus epitomizes the way in which Directions thematizes, through diverse textual, modal and multimodal constellations, the deconstruction of straightforward, monolinear navigation in a dated, teleologically oriented world picture that is in the process of departing and deviating from established, arborescent, logocentric and unidirectional structures.

This anti-logocentrism is further augmented by an abundancy of sound effects throughout the poem. When read on an original Macintosh Performa, for example, the sound is more than auditive in effect: the integrated speakers make the entire hardware resonate with the sound, lending the experience an additional, haptic feel and enhancing the metaleptic, world-transcending effects of the image-text on screen. The link “To the Real World” in the bottom right corner of the entry lexia offers readers a figurative way out of the fictional universe of the poem and into the actual world of the reader. Readers can close the program by making a binary decision on the following, final lexia, “Elementary particles,” where they can choose between “Yes, I want to go back to the Real World,” and “No, I don’t want to leave these wonders.” The former will figuratively catapult readers out of the poem’s universe of elementary, transcendent particles, accompanied by a loud, explosive noise. The latter will return them to the periodic table as primary, atomic orientation device that maps Swigart’s poetic universe of “peripheries” returning “to the elemental.”


Ryan, Marie-Laure (2006) Avatars of Story. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Special thanks to the Electronic Literature Lab for providing access to this pre-web hypertext on a Macintosh Performa 5215CD.