Interview with Stuart Moulthrop
Stuart Moulthrop: detail from Under Language, Iowa Review Web, 2008.
About Stuart Moulthrop
O ne of the first creators of new media literature and a distinguished new media writer, digital artist, and scholar, Baltimore, Maryland native Stuart Moulthrop is the author of the seminal hyperfiction Victory Garden, (Eastgate, 1991) a work that Robert Coover included in the "golden age" of electronic literature.
His works -- that include Hegirascope, (1995) Reagan Library, (1999) Pax, (2003) Under Language, (2007) and Deep Surface (2007) -- have been exhibited and or published by Eastgate, The Iowa Web Review, the ELO Electronic Literature Collection; New River; Media Ecology; The New Media Reader; Washington State University Vancouver; and the Digital Arts and Culture Conference. Two of his works have won prizes in the Ciutat de Vinaros international competition.
Stuart Moulthrop has served as a Professor in the School of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore where he was the Director of the undergraduate Simulation and Digital Entertainment program. He is currently a Professor in the Department of English University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
He has also served as co-editor for Postmodern Culture, was co-founder of the TINAC electronic arts collective, and was a founding director of the Electronic Literature Organization. He is co-author (with Dene Grigar) of the forthcoming MIT Press book, Traversals - The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing.
In this literate and cyber-literate interview, where, as in the reading of poetry, the reader must occasionally interpret the allusions to other works -- from contemporary literature to philosophy to computer manuals -- Moulthrop recounts the founding of TINAC, the writing of Victory Garden, the founding (with Nancy Kaplan) of a department of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore, and the creation with Flash ActionScript of his textual instrument Under Language. And he looks to the future of electronic literature.
More information about Stuart Moulthrop is available on his home page at
Writer and critic Robert Coover has called your Victory Garden one the early hyperfiction classics. What were the influences, ideas, paths that led you to create hyperfiction?
I take very seriously the idea of life-stories "broken down, and scattered," as one book of revelation has it; or self-assembled into "small pieces loosely joined," to quote another.
"Life's too short because we die," Weinberger and Levine memorably say in the opening verse of the Cluetrain; and while I can't dispute this raw truth, it has always made more sense the other way round. The life we have (or at least, our life in language) tends to expand, or had better do, because we have so far managed to keep breathing. Breath released is utterance, and out of uttering (through confusion, and false consciousness, and metaphysics) come words, and writing, and code, and media, and all the other outerings that mark our distributive humanity.
Cyberspace may be literally everywhere and nowhere, but my connection to hypertext is curiously placebound. My understanding comes in large measure from having weathered the 1970s inside the 200 Megaton High Score Zone of the Chesapeake Basin. To survive the Cold War within tolerable aiming error of the Puzzle Palace (with its semi-mythical Memex) was to receive, however haltingly, a certain insight; McLuhan riffing on Vico says any technology pressed to its limit reverses. Bring the heat of the sun down to earth, (or threaten) and you end up cooling it on the anything-but-final frontier, which is not outer space after all, but an even stranger dimension called the infosphere. Where extinction had been, I realized, we would need to install information, or networks. Having come to "cogito ergo boom," in Susan Sontag's memorable formula, there was nothing left but to invent the Internet, and see what that might gain us.
I did not invent the Internet anymore than Al Gore did. As the non-appointed President might better have said, we have all invented the Internet, loosely joining up what small and scattered peace we can salvage from the globalized military edutainment terror multimart. To be sure, some of us have simply discovered a shortcut to the convenience store (or obscurity) while others have revealed new vistas and horizons, passages that lead where no mind has gone before. I have known more than my share of major navigators: Michael Joyce and Jay Bolter, Gail Hawisher and Cindy Selfe, Mark Bernstein, Cathy Marshall, Robert Coover and George Landow, John Cayley, Janet Murray and Kate Hayles, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Nick Montfort, Ian Bogost, Eric Zimmerman, Espen Aarseth, and even the father of Civilization Sid Meier, and the great name-giver Nelson himself. (This list is merely suggestive; the names one drops are never equal to those one carries.)
Anything I've done, or may go on to do, belongs to the context of their accomplishments, and to the big job we all have, which after hearing me go on for a while about hypertext, a very wise person once defined to me thus:
"You will have to create a new language."
Her name was Dorothee Metlizki, Professor of Linguistics at Yale, and she said this to me about a year before I started Victory Garden.
Ah -, you send forth a cyber-literary collection of allusions in answer to my question -- techno-poetically telling where you are coming from and setting the stage for the beginnings of cyberspace narrative, reminding me of a story that there was a young woman who read your Hegirascope and simply got on a train and went down to see you. (Do I remember this correctly?)
The incredible way that the Internet -- with hypertext at its core thanks to the web -- has pervaded our lives in only a few decades was perhaps predicted by such individual journeys of discovery; I am also reminded of what a University of California plant pathologist once said to me about science being a river that was fed by many streams of research and documentation, which brings us to the next question:
TINAC has always been a seminal yet mysterious entity to me who arrived on separate paths: library data systems, West Coast cyberculture and in particular Art Com Electronic Network on The Well because art space curator Carl Loeffler -- who had hosted Kathy Acker, Taylor Meade, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Willoughby Sharp, and Lew Thomas, among many others who used text in their work -- was one day visited in his office by Canadian telecomputing artist Bill Bartlett and immediately deciding that the online environment was the place for text artists, enlisted Fred Truck and then, knowing we were on parallel paths, convinced John Cage and then me and Jim Rosenberg and many others of his vision.
Meanwhile, parallel things were happening in other places in the world, and one of them was the group you were associated with: TINAC -- Textuality, Intertextuality, Narrative, and Conscioussness. For many years, I have wanted to know more about TINAC. Can you tell me about its founding. Who was involved? How did it evolve?
On the drop-ins: Donna Leishman got off the train once, around the turn of the century, and I remember how impressed I was with her work; much the way I've felt about yours, especially on first seeing. Ingrid Ankerson and Megan Sapnar, who founded Poems That Go while they were in Baltimore, also stopped by my classes once or twice, though I never had the chance to work with them closely.
I recall feeling in the early years that there wasn't much of a "there" to electronic literature. People seemed thinly scattered across the invisible landscape, and I often felt I was writing for a small circle of friends. (Maybe still the case, and see below.)
The ACM Hypertext conference once described the literary crowd at their conferences as "small but fascinating," a phrase Michael Joyce particularly cherished, if that is the word. But things changed with the Millennium, and I began to meet people like Espen Aarseth, Markku Eskelinen, Adrian Miles, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Nick Montfort, Jill Walker, and Scott Rettberg, who seemed to think electronic writing had some coherence, and a more substantial connection to history. Efforts like Sue Thomas' work on the trAce collective, and Deena Larsen's tireless teaching and workshopping, also helped me to a broader understanding. Many streams, as you put it. (Many muddy streams, my Michael Joyce Emulation Module wants to say.)
First of all, TINAC is almost entirely mythical. I made up "This Is Not A Conference" in the fall of 1988 to describe what Nancy Kaplan might have been thinking by inviting John McDaid, Michael Joyce, and me to spend several days in her house, and maybe teach a class or two. At that point we were neither small nor fascinating, but had already grown tired of academic conferences -- to be fair to the Association for Computing Machinery, mainly with Apple's Macademia events, where we felt increasingly subject to Marketing. I think Michael came up with "This Is Not A Cabal." The reading you cited (Textuality, Intertextuality, Narrative, and Consciousness) is pure McDaid. I suppose there may have been something Oulipian going on -- some conspiracy of art-inventors -- though with the exception of Michael, I wouldn't compare us either to those Parisians, or your friends from the WELL. We were an odd and autotelic assembly, not so much Kids in the Hall (undiscovered talent) as Folks from Downstairs -- a term I borrow from the late, wonderful Diane Balestri who wrote a book called Ivory Towers, Silicon Basements, about introducing computers to college writing instruction.
Back in those days, computer labs were almost always in sub-surface, windowless rooms. Maybe it was something to do with bomb shelters. Our day jobs at that point, had we been able to see daylight, all involved some form of College Composition and Communication, another Conference whose badge we sometimes wore; which meant that, again with the exception of Michael, we did not identify primarily as writers or artists, but as teachers. Nancy was and remains a developer of scholastic software for collaborative reading and writing. Michael helped reinvent reading, writing, and the Library at Vassar, and other things besides. John has spent a lot of time defining new communication practices in a high-level business consultancy, and publishing science fiction stories that take on very interesting overtones if you know where he works. After a couple of decades in stranger waters, I have come to rest once again in a Department of English.
Maybe an analogy or two will help. The legend that is TINAC seems less like some intensely obscure indie band whose members are all now shepherds, and more like a college-town FM station that flourished for a year or two before the supremacy of News-And-Talk. By which I mean, there was really not much "there" to TINAC, except as a point of circulation and convergence through which some interesting projects happened to pass -- Michael's afternoon, Nancy's annotation software P.R.O.S.E., John's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse, Jay Bolter's Writing Space, Jane Yellowlees Douglas' End of Books, or Books without End, and my own early tinkerings. TINAC left the air long ago. The call letters are remembered only dimly, the DJs are all forgotten, but somewhere out there, doubtless on the Net, we'll always have the music.
>The call letters are remembered only dimly, the DJs are all forgotten,
Yes, and I would also note that such groups of artists and/or writers who got together and created a school -- I'm thinking of the Impressionists, the Macchiaioli, the Society of Six, the Bloomsbury Group, Oulipo, Group f/64 and many others -- have had a lasting impact on art, literature and culture, although their importance is not always immediately apparent to the wider world.
Now, there are virtual gathering of artists and writers in this Internet world: Cathy Marshall and I sharing meals virtually as we included the details of our daily lives in our correspondence for Forward Anywhere; or the information about the creation and exhibition of new electronic literature in Canada and in California which Fortner Anderson and I exchanged, after we "met" on Art Com Electronic Network. (Actually we have never met in person)
Yet there is nostalgia for a world where the Society of Six went painting together in the hills of California and returned to Selden Gile's cabin, spreading their work around the room and drinking red wine while Selden cooked dinner. It is nice to hear that TINAC began with an actual gathering at Nancy Kaplan's home.
So, in this global village of our pasts, you were born in Baltimore, went to George Washington University, got a PhD at Yale. And then?
And then fell predictably and more or less happily off the Yale tenure track, where I'd unaccountably landed after my doctoral work, then pitched up in Austin, where Victory Garden was born and largely written. I came down with a severe allergy to Texas politics, and for some reason decided the air would be nicer in Atlanta, so left UT for Georgia Tech, where I stayed three years and did a lot of thinking about hypertext, though relatively little creative work. After that it's yet more academic CV, I'm afraid. Two generous job offers at the University of Baltimore sucked me, along with Nancy, back down the gravity well of my Old Neighborhood -- I ended up working about three miles from my place of birth. During a decade and a half in Baltimore, we founded a department of Information Arts and Technologies, which has a graduate program in Interaction Design and Information Architecture, as well as an undergraduate degree in game and simulation design, which I built from scratch with my good friend Kathleen Austin, who had the original idea.
Being in a major center of the game industry, we've been able to place graduates with Firaxis, Big Huge, Bethesda Softworks, and other world-class studios. One of our finest alumnae now works for Sid Meier, who brought the world Civilization. I'm immoderately proud of her.
Building the game degree had other rewards, too: it gave me a practical stake in certain arguments about narrative and ludology, and Espen Aarseth's notion of "ergodic" culture; it also led me to teach a bunch of things I'd never have dared otherwise, including 3-D graphics and game coding. These engagements promoted my tendency to arrested development, so that more than one recent ex-teenager has told me, "you don't really seem that old." More points of pride. Happy as the game program has made me, it was also clearly turning me into an academic administrator; and while I've gotten fairly technical late in life, spending six days a week in meetings meant I had no time to design or code anything. So when University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee went looking for a research professor with an interest in digital media, game culture, and electronic literature, I jumped, and ended up in a very happy place. Even if the state does tend to vote Vogon.
"The routes through Stuart Moulthrop's new hyperfiction "Victory Garden" are almost literally countless," Coover wrote about the work in The New York Times. Can you talk about the creation of Victory Garden? What was the role of the Gulf War in the work? How did you begin using Storycpace. How did you structure and interface the work? Or whatever you want to say about Victory Garden.
>Can you talk about the creation of Victory Garden? What was the role of the Gulf War in the work?
The first Gulf War grabbed my attention about as strongly as September 11 did a later generation's. While my Texas boots were never on the ground -- Victory Garden is largely about war As Seen On TV -- there was one arguably related fight to which I was party: George H.W. Bush's decision to launch a "culture war" (his words) against American progressives. After the horrors and excesses of his son's regime, people tend to forget that rightward lurch by the old man -- a somewhat feeble attempt to spin up the Nixon-Reagan Southern Strategy. I choose not to forget, just as I somehow can never overlook Mr. Reagan's decision to curtail my teenage brother's survivor benefits the year after our father died. True, as some of the Gulf War vets I've worked with have reminded me, you only really understand how stupid it is to call anything political a "war" when the first actual bullet goes past your ear. But words do not just go past, they enter the ears, and other orifices, and there we are.
>How did you begin using Storyspace. How did you structure and Interface the work?
I started playing with Storyspace in the late 1980s, when Jay and Michael handed me early beta versions. At the time I was more interested in HyperCard, largely because of its multimedia features. There are painters and visual artists in my family tree, I've always been powerfully attracted to comics, and HyperCard seemed a better solution for images, animation, and sound. I might have been stumbling toward something like the Miller brothers' Myst, though clearly I was never going to get there, or anywhere very interesting, on my own. So when the intense desire to write something out of the events of 1990-91 presented itself, I turned back to Storyspace, which was and remains a marvelous tool for a certain kind of writing.
Moving to Storyspace initially took interface issues off the table. There were three sorts of reader module, and I chose the one that was closest to what we would now call an e-book, because Victory Garden was meant to be mainly a literary hypertext. Graphics sneaked back in, of course, in places like the cracked screen, and the graphical map; but these moments came later. The map, which was the very last thing I added to the project, represents the Return of the Repressed Interface. Somewhere along the line I had decided that Victory Garden would have about three dozen default reading paths, all of which could be accessed by repeatedly pressing the Return key after a certain point. (Michael had introduced this idea in afternoon.) Attempting to represent those paths in visual form led to the map, which bears only a highly metaphorical relationship to the actual arrangement of the text.
I also like to point out another component of the VG interface, which is the accreting sentence the reader may choose to construct, one word or phrase at a time, in following initial links into the work. For some reason -- mainly, I think, the fact that the old Macintosh interface has been replaced by the more powerful scheme Mark Bernstein developed for Windows -- not many readers notice the old forking-paths machine. This makes me a little wistful; though not really upset, since it means people are far more interested in following links than in flipping virtual pages: so much the better.
Thanks Stuart! As we move into the present, your words bring up the role of the writer and the role of the reader in new media literature. Having recently played with eliciting language in quite a different way -- Andrew Plotkin's Interactive Fiction Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home is currently featured on Authoring Software -- I'm interested in the role of the writer/poet, the role of the software, and the role of reader in your contemporary works, such as Under Language. In Under Language, the idea of language and of a poet's written words as gift is compelling. The reader participates in the creation of "the poem" (if he or she plays to win) while at the same time spoken "under language" challenges the reader to explore implicit meaning. There is a pleasure in the receipt of the poem, and the whole calls attention to the value of a poet/storyteller's words.
What led you to work in this way?
Simply put, an even-now-still-growing conviction that the idiom of code and the older idiom of human expression are both valid constituents of poetry. I won't begin to claim originality for this idea -- see the work of Jim Carpenter, or Daniel C. Howe, to cite two cases of prior art. I do feel, though, that this sense of convergence is important, especially as writers become increasingly familiar with procedural tools and methods.
"Actionscript spoken here" a voice informs me; clearly there is a relationship between the poem and the authoring system. Can you talk about the software tools you used to create Under Language?
More seriously: I thought it was important to reverse the figure and ground of code and literary expression, because for me at least, the latter seems unimaginable sans the former. I should point out, though, that "ActionScript spoken here" is at least initially an option, not a prescriptive. That is, the player/reader/poem-operator may bypass this possibility and opt instead for "Plain English, please." If thrown (or expressed) the plain-English switch (or gene) renders all audible/computable statements in pseudocode, which I tend to prefer.
And then in a work where reader response can be quite different, there is the question of how the creator of the work knows what the reader will do. In the work that I am now writing, (Part II of From Ireland with Letters) the reader sees four parallel columns where text appears polyphonically at the will of the author, but the reader can also chose to click on any column and advance the text, while surrounding the text that he or she is controlling, other texts will continue to appear. When my work was disk based, and I saw it running in installations, I could watch people interact with it and sometimes I even made changes as a result of this. But on the web, I don't know if most readers watch while the narrative produces the words, or take control themselves. I suspect the later, but I don't know. The work was designed to work either way.
The question is: Do you know how readers play Under Language? Is this important?
First, I very much want to see/hear/play the work you just described. Which is a way of saying what you just said, namely, How Does Such A Thing Work? I have no idea what anyone does with Under Language. User testing was confined to an N of one, (Jill Walker Rettberg) who crucially advised that the poetry was not good at all. So I stayed up all night, wrote something marginally better, then shipped. Which either makes me a typical software engineer or the evil opposite of one, depending on how long since your operating system last crashed.
Again, though I play here for (probably imaginary) laughs, there's a serious point lurking. As e-writers, *we don't know enough about what readers do with our stuff*, especially on the Web. Like you, in the very early days I had the chance to work with captive reader/players, mainly my own and others' students. But not in a long, long time since, and I think this is bad.
It could be exceptionally important to create a testing program for electronic literature. I am not kidding. I would give huge kudos to anyone willing to operate such a thing. We should write a grant. Or someone should. Anybody?
And the last questions are:
What are you working on now?
>What are you working on now?
Right now I'm trying to teach two new courses in Milwaukee while running away to Australia, but in one of those classes, my first ever creative-writing workshop in newly-mediated lit, we are producing "poems of internet of novel." These are partly found, partly hand-crafted, poem-like objects that begin life as Google searches using phrases from Michael Joyce's "novel of internet," known as Was. Since Michael wrote in part under the inspiration of the Searching Muse, ("Googlemena" as he names her) this is a curious exercise in reverse engineering. It's also (in my mind anyway) a kind of response to the recent "flarf" outbreak in contemporary poetry, which I love and deplore; and also perhaps an experiment in writing-as-reading, or literary reception as (re)production. Also, historians of minor writing take note, this is my very first significantly multi-authored literary exploit, soon perhaps to be some kind of hypertext, or maybe even, who knows, words on actual pages.
Beyond that, I have plans for something called Videogame, a novel, which will of course be neither.
>And how do you see the future of Electronic Literature?
On the one hand, glorious and boundless so long as our species endures (arguably afterward) -- because the literary impulse is really nothing but the respiration of language, which I affirm to be cosmic and immortal. On the other hand, perhaps extremely brief -- I wouldn't go beyond the 2020s -- because as Kate Hayles points out, "Electronic Literature" is the opposite of an oxymoron, (not oxygenius, but pleonasm) since these days there's effectively no Literature absent Electrons. In 1990, the computer scientist John B. Smith predicted the term "computers and writing" would seem increasingly ridiculous by the end of the century. Smart man, Dr. Smith. I'm not sufficiently cynical to suggest the Death and Transfiguration of Electronic Literature will stop the experimentation you encouraged me to try. You and I belong to an early generation (probably not the first) of Interface Artists. There are and will be others; but I wonder if they will come to regard the fundamental plasticity of the medium inevitably as an unmarked term. Can we imagine a mate of Proteus, and what s/he must have thought of the marriage?
Anyway, they'll be on to neutrinos any minute now.
This interview was created via email and posted in October 2011
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