88 Constellations for Wittgenstein
by Katherine Hayles — Duke University
February 06, 2012 – 00:00
Long narrative fiction has always been a problem for digital literature. The screen length, the temptation to click, and the hypertextual Web have mitigated against it. Two works, created 22 years apart, show contrasting strategies and suggest how digital literature has evolved in the past two decades. Michael Joyce’s Twelve Blue (1996), programmed in Storyspace, uses connections between literary images and an interface that allows one to play the piece as if it were a musical instrument to achieve its effects. Pronouns abound, and part of the piece’s mystique is to read enough screens so one can recover some sense of the storyworld and the events within it. While highly nonlinear, the piece nevertheless relies on traditional literary techniques to achieve coherence and narrative appeal. David Clark’s 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (2008) in Flash shows constellations; clicking on stars opens screens with animated graphics and over-voice narration that whimsically relate tidbits from Wittgenstein’s life and philosophy as well as other short narratives connected by visual or verbal puns. For example the piece plays on multiple meanings of “88”, from its prohibition on German football jerseys (because H is the alphabet’s 8th letter, “88” signifies “Heil Hitler"), to the 88 piano keys (Wittgenstein’s brother was a professional pianist who lost his right arm in World War I and subsequently commissioned and performed piano pieces for the left hand). The effect is not of a narrative storyworld but rather of an assemblage; an eclectic network of connections. The differences between the two pieces indicate how long narrative fiction is morphing in Web environments. Competing for attention in the Web’s information-intensive environment, narratives become smaller, less connected, tending toward an array to be sampled rather than a whole to be absorbed.