Seriality and Hypertext
The purpose of this essay is to make some broad observations on the topic of seriality and hypertext, in order to then provide some general reflections on the structure of my artistic work.
Seriality is not a new concept for artistic production, yet it may to a high degree be genre- and medium-related. The series as a form, a mode of production, can come into being as a consequence of a further demand or need for a sequel (like it's the case with many film series, when sequels follow the form of "Successful Film Part 2") or out of a certain concept (a storyline planned far in advance and realized rather independently from demand and/or success). You may also try to see the two in combination, a kind of stumbling into each other.
Such seriality may nowadays be normal for television and movie series, just as there are also series of novels &c. It may be rather rare in other forms of art, though there exist elements of such a method. Photography can take place in the context of a larger series, and poems and short stories can also form cycles, as they are called. But in the larger scope, such forms are usually seen as focusing on the singular occurrence rather than the serial one.
In a non-serial approach, the object as such, the single piece of work, is more or less seen as self-sufficient for the purpose at hand. You can understand one thing without necessarily consulting another. That will inevitably increase the load carried by the single piece as such: What you want to express, you need to put into that single frame, that single text, &c. The text itself (understanding "text" as a general term applicable to all kinds of phenomena) becomes authoritative, it becomes representative, it need not necessarily know about its precursors or followers. It is able to stand on its own, in its own scope, it contains an entire universe within itself.
A serial text is able to decenter its priorities in a way, it need not sustain the illusion of complete authority and closure as a single text would, to a certain degree, be eager to invoke. The series as such becomes the text, it also extends its reach into another dimension: time. You cannot any more base your assumptions about the nature of the text just on one single instance within the series; you are virtually lost without the context, without taking into account that what came before, and that what will be after it. A singular text within a series becomes an episode, a moment, something deliberately situated in a greater context.
De-contextualization is still possible, but the results of it will appear drastic and dangerous, for the consequences of such a move will become visible very easily. You cannot assume to understand episode 100 of a tightly knit text without at least reviewing previous threads.
At this point, one may ask, what's the "better" approach. Surely, a serial text will be confusing to someone trying to enter it at a later point, as much as it becomes much more tedious and demanding to follow it through in its entirety. A series, in order to function, demands for loyalty, dedication and a general willingness to play the game for much longer a time and to much higher a degree than a singular text. That will, of course, create a certain resistance to enter the text in the first place. So should we better stick to non-serial forms? Wouldn't that be much easier, much more pleasant, and much more leading to a sense of closure?
That all would depend, of course, on whether such a thing as closure would be a realistic expectation at all. Does a non-serial text create more closure than a serial one? If that were the case, is the assumed closure real (using such crude terms for the sake of argument only, of course)? Can you indeed read Gandhi without having read Thoreau and Tolstoi? Can you read Emerson's "Nature" without also considering "Experience", "Self-Reliance" &c? Can you read Sherlock Holmes stories without taking a look at Poe, who coined the genre? Can you understand "The X-Files" without "Twin Peaks", "Star Trek", "The Silence of the Lambs" and JFK's assassination in mind? Will "Sex and the City"'s Carrie Bradshaw work without a recollection of "Seinfeld"? Can you read "Austin Powers" or "xXx" without knowing James Bond, and in turn can you see the latest Bond without those two in mind as well? Do fighting styles in "The Matrix" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" work without at least having heard of Hong Kong Kung Fu movies? Can you assess "Black Hawk Down", "The Four Feathers" and the general conglomeration of spy films recently seen without the context of 9/11, even if those films may have been conceived of earlier? Can you understand American foreign policy without pondering the issue of "empire", whether it be British, German, Napoleonic or Roman? Can you imagine a view of the USSR independent from being reminded of Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech and Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm"? Can you talk about Israel and Palestine without knowing about the long traditions of Anti-Semitism and Orientalism? I shall not need to answer those questions.
The question regarding the serial form suddenly becomes not an issue of "if" but "how". Why simplify and create the illusion of singularity and closure when there is ample evidence that in "real life" as much as in culture there is no tabula rasa, no unconnected entity, no closure?
The words hovering over this little text since its very beginning are, of course, hypertext, discourse, and the whole bunch of related theories. Seriality is not restricted to an in-text perspective. Seriality extends the limits of one text and taps into others, thus creating a greater discourse, a hypertext even, governed and held together by various inter-, cross- and transcultural links. "Separate" texts merge or at least clarify that they are aware of another text's existence.
Hypertextuality, of course, is a matter of degree also. There is no rule that states the end of texts claiming universality and singularity for themselves. But even those will become more and more integrated within the framework of the greater meta-textual structure. There will also be texts whose sole purpose is such kind of hypertextuality, the "link pages" of culture, so to say. The rest will hover in between, negotiating a position between a certain self-centeredness and a rootedness in the general cultural discourses.
As this is supposed to be some sort of explanation for what I am doing on my web site, I will delve into that issue at last. You will discover that the order of things established herein shows a certain multiplicity. First of all, all artistic content is connected through the Phase structure, meaning a certain relatedness of method, scope and chronological setting. Second, all texts are arranged both chronologically and group-/category- wise, the latter being a combination of theme and chronology. That may imply a certain order to be followed, but it also allows for cross-reading. Structure here is a function of content, not something for its own sake. The seriality I have been referring to extends itself two-fold: The chronological view lets temporal precursors and followers appear more clearly, whereas the thematic ordering puts them into a certain context.
The serial approach softens the lines between the individual texts. That doesn't eliminate the need for a certain pseudo-closure within a specific text, on the contrary, I aim for a certain balance between series and episode. In theory, each episodic entry can represent itself, be it a single picture in a photographic series, the photographic series within its group, the group within the entire section; but that doesn't mean it ends there. The image as such is just a part of a larger context, and at a certain stage, this is the only real way it works. In photography, I often tend towards seeing the photo series as a kind of film, only without the given 24-frames-per-second structure. An item is both an item in itself as much as a precursor or follower. The link itself has specific properties as much as deictic functions in either direction.
The general contextualization works within the partitioning of this site into its different sections. The artistic parts, be it poetry, photography or prose, stand together and are linked on a certain deeper structural level (the phases and certain themes). As both a fundament and an extension and referential element, the reviews and papers, as well as the diary, are supposed to show connections and reflect upon specific issues in different ways. This separation, though not manifesting itself directly into a crude dichotomy, is not accidental, it's supposed to root one part inside the other. From this duality, there are also links, both technical and/or cultural/referential to other sites and/or texts. The aim herein lies both in creating a specific content and hypertext, as well as rooting itself in the general hypertext; making this as much a topical as well as a formal exercise.
The serial approach also seems to be influencing narrative structures in general, but this shall be the focus of another essay.
November 28th, 2002 / January 7th, 2003. (first posted on philjohn.com November 28th, 2002)