Start reading here: Interactivity and textual power in postmodern literature
Pfahl, Courtney A.
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"Start Reading Here: Interactivity and Textual Power in Postmodern Literature" focuses on books - specifically the Choose Your Own Adventure series, Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961), Marc Saporta's Composition No. 1 (1962), and Steve McCaffery's Carnival, the first panel (1970) - emerging from the transnational and trans-genre trend prevalent in the 1960s-1980s of incorporating interactive devices in experimental literary works. This trend was fueled by the continued modernist rejection of the romantic author and sparked by the idea of the computer entering the cultural imagination during that time. These interactive books were most frequently regarded as precursors to digital literature by first-wave new media thinkers who at the turn of the millennium were captivated by the possibilities of the internet and hypertextual literature. Rather than considering the genre as a precursor to digital literature, "Start Reading Here" connects printed interactive literature to modernism and the avant-garde, exploring the way that interactive literature extends and participates in modernist and avant-garde formal experimentation with the similar objective of changing the way that textual power operates in order to effect social and political change. Like many of the new media theorists and also many of the modernist and avant-garde practitioners and critics, in this project, I am interested specifically in the kinds of reading practices that these interactive books invite and how these reading practices affect the relationship of the reader, author, and text. That is, I am concerned with whether increased activity gives the reader increased authority or control over the text, as many new media critics claim. Unlike the new media critics, I am interested specifically in the direct engagement of the physical texts - for example, in the turning of pages out of order, manipulation of cut or loose pages, or reassembly of loose pages in a new configuration - and not in the similarity of the printed texts to their digital counterparts. I argue that this increased readerly activity does not actually overturn conventional textual hierarchies. Instead, I argue that similar to conventional works, even in these experimental works the reading process is controlled by the material form of the text and reading conventions. Although these "reader-centered" works do not actually revolutionize textual power, because they make visible certain normally unnoticed aspects of reading by disrupting reading habits, these kinds of texts give us the opportunity to examine what all reading is, and how it is shaped and deployed by the material textual form. I argue that the reader is ultimately responsible for maintaining the structures of power that position him or her as the relatively passive participant in the operation of the text. The reader is therefore the participant who is in the position to disrupt the textual operations of power by refusing to perform or accept the role that the text provides for him or her. In the third section of the dissertation, I consider interactivity not just as a formal feature of certain texts, but also as a kind of subversive reading strategy that can be applied to any text, as it has been by reader-authors like Tom Phillips in A Humument (1966-present) and Jackson Mac Low in Words nd Ends from Ez (1989). However, these experiments only succeed at disrupting textual power when they remain reading experiments. When published as new works, these subversive readers become fully functioning authors of new, coherent works that are able to be approached through conventional reading strategies. The relationship of reader, author, and text thus is restabilized. In order to understand what textual power is and how it operates, "Start Reading Here" examines theories of reading and authorship ranging from poststructuralism to reader-response to book history and design, and suggests a broad definition of textual power based on Martin Heidegger's later writings.