Faculty Colloquium:


On Teaching the seminar "Invisible Geographies"

Paul A. Harris

We live in age where the technologies designed to build a global village are evolving a planetary virtual network. The currents of what Alvin Toffler long ago termed "Future Shock" are now wired into our mental and physical landscapes, and the sheer speed with which life is transacted produces a state where the basic demands on our body and soul threaten to overrun our inner and ecological resources. Perhaps the definitive characteristic of our environment is that it is simply saturated with information. Communication technologies span and surround the earth, and information circulates in the air all around us. At SigGraph '95, an immense gathering for software and hardware innovators to display and hawk their wares held in the cavernous LA Convention Center, a weird set of unfurled filaments hung down from the Center's ceiling like flypaper. It turns out that these frazzled looking creatures are info-meters, measuring how much information is in the air--they function like weathervanes for the information age, shaking and jumping as if blown by wind when information is transmitted in their presence. Perhaps these frenetic vibrations signal one's net-worth now, the security of one's egg nested in the niches of what already seems to have become an information ecology.

In dark moments I think that "Being Digital," to echo the recent bestselling title, is a mode of existence that does not expand our horizons but reduce our stature: in life on the information superhighway, we may figure as mere bit-players, single node-toddlers left to toggle about bits of information flashing past on the screen. And that's a pleasure that will be reserved only for the fortunate. In more realistic terms though, the immediate visceral effect of the digitization of our landscape is a loss of immediacy. In the computer-inflected vision we have of the world today, we see through virtual reality goggles: from money to Mars, proteins to pop music, the digital medium dominates.

In the context of an information-based ecology, sharpness of perception depends on a sensitivity to differences. And faced with transitional swings in the underlying cultural fabric, we often react defensively. We may fear losing a certain edge in our perceptions and powers of discimination, our basic abilty to discern a shifting world. Two postmodern writers who have figured largely in my work at LMU express these concerns in pointed terms. Italo Calvino has asked,

If a new world were discovered today, would we be able to see it? Would we be able to clear from our minds the images we habitually associate with our expectations of a different world (those of science fiction, for example) to grasp the real difference that lay before our eyes?

And Georges Perec addresses the more mundane fear that we simply cease to see our daily lives, the simpler "real differences" of life:

The problem is not to invent space, much less to re-invent it . . . but to examine it, or, more simply, to read it; because what we call the everyday is not obvious, it is opaque: a kind of blindness, a type of anesthesia.

The sense that a crucial cultural function of literature is to combat this type of anesthesia, this dulling of the senses, has shaped a great deal of 20th century writing. Against the encroaching mechanization and urbanization of modern life, Russian Formalists like Viktor Shklovsky argued that the function of literary art is to produce an effect of defamiliarization or estrangement: to render the reality we think we know in a form that both makes it not the familiar world of habitual perception, and fully expresses a reality we may not realize we already know.

Today I want to speculate about the cultural place and function of literature in the face of exponentially expanding information capabilties and technological advances. My talk will address the following questions: how does the information economy and ecology change the nature of "literature"? what potential function does the literary play in it--how can it "make a difference"? how will texts be most effectively produced and disseminated? This talk is grounded in a course I'm teaching this semester called "Semiotics of Culture: Invisible Geographies"--so it is truly a `work in progress.' I will try to show that literature can still serve to restore humans to a more immediate relation to their world, but that to do so it will inevitably evolve in basic ways. Unlike the literature envisioned by the Formalists, this writing will disperse itself across several cultural contexts outside the realm of high art. It will seek not to re-present the world in intricately crafted verbal surfaces, for its initial concern will be to generate intricate textures of its own. These structural textures will enact possible modes of shaping, inhabiting and reading the environment.

Discussing the course title for a moment will help explain the overarching ideas that inform the class. For the moment we can drop the "Semiotics of Culture" jargon and just concentrate on "Invisible Geographies." This phrase would seem to be an oxymoron: how can one speak of the invisible, a word that connotes mystery and something beyond our ken, in relation to geography, the science of the sensible world, its surface, form, climate, inhabitants, and national boundaries? A central impetus of the class is to sound out this paradox in terms of an opposition between the visible and the invisible--in this context, we think of the visible as referring to a material, physical, everyday dimension, while the invisible is a dimension evoked by words and imagination, comprised solely of differences, or interstitial relations. Under these definitions, "invisible geographies" would correspond to verbally conjured places of the mind, places made from a tissue of differences that leave a lasting impression, verbal offprints that we transform into neural imprints. Texts incisive enough to generate an invisible geography do make a difference, in that they can alter our experience of "real" geographical locations.

In one sense, the class enlists the tools of the invisible to try to dis-locate accepted or extant geographies. We seek to reinscribe geography as a narrative practice, to turn it into a geo-graphic endeavor--recalling that geo is earth, and graphy means both a style of writing and a descriptive science. The class explores the interplay between physical ground and semiotic surfaces: we look into different ways that the visible constantly gets cast in invisible forms. Along these lines, we are collectively manufacturing our own "city of words" as we proceed, as I will detail later. Conversely, another goal is to make the invisible become more visible, to overcome our indifference to the invisible differences of language. Concretely, this task entails that we use the theoretical emphasis in the class on the nature of signifying processes as a means to produce a defamiliarizing effect on the way we perceive language itself.

As a glance through the syllabus will attest, the work we do toward these goals unfolds on several levels: we read semiotic theories of popular culture and mathematics (Barthes, Rotman); we read novels that recast historical cities in landscapes and mindscapes saturated with human desires and dreams (Calvino, Powers, Auster and Pynchon); we investigate how writing responds to the information age, and specifically look into the creative potential afforded by the computer medium (Wittig's Invisible Rendezvous). In addition, we study urban design and architecture, from Italian Futurism to postmodernist architects like Peter Eisenman. Our writing tasks range from narrating our experiences of specific places, to creating our own "mythology" of something taken from contemporary culture; from close readings of the imaginary geographies generated in novels to analysis of the semiotic lessons we garner from texts.

I would characterize the modus operandi of the class as combinatoric in nature. Assignments are designed to make reading and writing tasks combine with one another in different ways, and the readings are broken up in ways that force us to combine texts as we go. Rather than going from one work to another, we read sections of multiple texts alongside each other. The idea is to create a sort of textual itinerary for each class: to take segments that play off of each other as a way to formulate questions and issues to explore. Because these texts span different disciplines, combining them is also a way to make a class more genuinely "interdisciplinary." On the handout I've provided a possible example of such a practice: passages from Calvino's Invisible Cities, Rotman's Signifying Nothing and Auster's City of Glass all share an interest in the potential emptiness that lies behind all semiotic systems, the way that signs can suddenly seem immaterial, in several senses.

This interdisciplinary reading itinerary entangles one in the underlying paradox of the class, the division between the physical-visible and the semiotic-invisible. In our first unit, for instance, we combined readings on how unconscious associations intrude on urban experience with Italian Futurist Sant'Elia's architectural drawings of the "New City" he envisioned; class members made trips to the Bonaventure Hotel and wrote an account of it, and then read Fredric Jameson's theoretical analysis of the building. As the class assignments and discusion moved fluidly between text and architecture, between writing and experience, the two levels begin to become more and more entwined.

This pedagogical approach takes as its theoretical premise a sense that culture is something both physical and expressive, real and imagined. More importantly, this vision postulates that culture produces itself through the interplay between such differences; it is in the differential relations themselves that culture actually persists. Contemporary interdisdiplinary theorist Michel Serres crystallizes this image of culture for us. Serres asserts that

[...] in general a culture constructs in and by its history an original intersection between [the world's existing] varieties, a node of very precise and particular connections. This construction, I believe, is that culture's very history. Cultures are differentiated by the form of the set of junctions, its appearance, its place, as well as by its changes of state, its fluctuations. But what they have in common is the operation itself of joining, of connecting. The image of the weaver arises at this point: to link, to tie, to open bridges, pathways, wells, or relays among radically different spaces; to say [dire] what takes place between them; to inter-dict [interdire]. The category of the between is fundamental . . . for our purposes here: to interdict in the rupture and cracks between varieties completely enclosed upon themselves. "Enclosed" means isolated, closed, separated; it also means pure, untainted, chaste.... (45)

Serres takes an emphatically dynamic view of culture: rather than seeing culture defined by some human capacity (tool-making) or single activity (burying the dead), culture is seen as a process played out across edges of difference, a process made up of the ongoing acts of making connections and designating prohibitions.

Though formulated twenty years ago, this vision of culture is easily adapted to the information-driven culture of today, whose dominant modes of "connection" are technological and communication-based, from faxes to DirecTV. But Serres' definition is especially productive for our purposes because it allots a rather privileged place, I think, to the role that acts of narration play in making culture. We can link narrative practices to Serres' definition of culture as "an operation of joining, of connecting," through Serres' image of the weaver: the Latin textere, the etymological source for our word text, means to weave. Thus a text weaves a tissue of connections; it represents the sinuous overlapping of disparate cultural codes.

On a semiotic level, narratives have always served this purpose. Narrative assumes new importance though in a culture whose dominant medium of exchange is no longer goods but information. Jean-Francois Lyotard sees the "postmodern condition" defined by different discourses or "language games" that compete and circulate, and has argued that in this context narrative is displacing rational science as the primary mode of knowledge. Precisely because the fabric of culture becomes increasingly porous as these specialized discourses grow further apart, it is important that literature not retreat into its own corner. Calvino believes that "the grand challenge of literature [for the next millenium] is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various 'codes,' into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world" (Memos 112).

As narratives have combined more cultural codes from a wider play of fields, there has been a corresponding use of "narrative" in many disciplines. Semiotically speaking, in some discourses narrative functions as more than a casual metaphor, because it acts as an organizing principle for the distribution of signs and materials in the system. For instance, narrative theory has played an influential role in postmodern architectural discourse, with the result that architects use narrative models to shape the production, building and inhabiting of space. And urban theorist Michel de Certeau, in his widely read The Practice of Everyday Life, sees narrative acts as potential modes of moving through city spaces: he conceives of stories as performative acts that "traverse and organize places; they select and link them together"; stories turn existing spaces into what de Certeau terms "practiced places" (115). As a space is traversed and organized into a narrative, it ceases to be a single physical entity; it rather becomes a site of ongoing transformations. Stories provide what one could call a dynamic mapping of place: whereas maps demarcate the boundaries and characteristics of fixed spaces, and often serve desires for control and/or colonization, narratives produce imaginary itineraries through places that persist only as the narrative unfolds them; while maps represent the removed observer's perspective, narratives express the active participant's experience.

Seen in this light, texts are more than a woven tissue of signs that represent an external reality. They are simultaneously a means to manufacture and traverse places. In texts that seek to write space, we might say, the text performs a transformative operation on space and the lived experience of a place. And texts weave together not only disparate cultural codes, but different planes of experience: they combine mind and body, imagination and reality. Texts mediate between the experential and existential poles of our lives, between being ourselves and having ourselves, between inhabiting the moment and integrating all moments into a coherent whole. (This was a dominant theme in Wolfgang Iser's recent campus lecture "Why Literature Matters.")

The implications of entertaining this outlook stretch in several directions. If writing is a tool that we use to manufacture culture by making connections among different realms of society and knowledge and different physical spaces, then when we write and read, we become virtual subjects located in and distributed across multiple levels of reality. Critics from Freud to McLuhan have thought of technologies as prostheses for the body, in that they extend the reach of our senses, voices, and (sometimes) minds. And in a technologically dominated age where language games and information exchange rule the day, it makes sense to think of literature as itself a specific form of technology.

But to take this stance, we immediately need to do some work of translation or redescription: how do the components of "literature" change when reconfigured in the information ecology? Perhaps the first obvious effect is that new technologies for communicating have dispersed the realm of writing: critics foresee "books" being replaced by texts that circulate through multiple media and electronic pathways. Already, World Wide Web and Internet publishing enable more words to be read by more people all the time; the print and electronic media co-exist and interpenetrate in multiple ways. This widened dissemination would seem to bring on a decentering of authorial control: texts tend more and more to be written collectively, and they are often designed in formats such as hypertext that encourage readers to take control by choosing the order and form in which they're read. Issues of copyright and ownership undergo analogous changes in the electronic context: the system of textual exchange no longer centers on possessing a book and perhaps loaning it out, or waiting for the paperback; with electronic books you can download it, copy it, reconfigure its chapters, and the "original" you worked from will still exist in the same "place" you found it.

In order to make some of the issues I've raised more concrete, I'd like to discuss briefly a writing collective called IN.S.OMNIA, who produced a book we're reading called Invisible Rendezvous: Connection and Collaboration in the New Landscape of Electronic Writing. IN.S.OMNIA investigates the potential of new writing technologies to rewrite spaces, and have also theorized the changing nature of authorship and reading. The name IN.S.OMNIA, written like an electronic address, alludes to the fact that it is composed of people who work fulltime but stay up all hours doing creative work together. Originally centered in Seattle, IN.S.OMNIA began in 1983. Members produced an electronic bulletin board where one could log on and find a welcoming orientation message that set the menu for the different "conversations" taking place in "rooms." As in many such electronic discussions now popular on the Internet, some rooms are organized around figures or themes (Derrida, CI-NE-MA); but with IN.S.OMNIA more provocative choices appear, like "Travesty-of-Print rooms," where writers mimic text forms such as "Dear Abbey" or "Reporters at Large"; "Investigation rooms," where the nature of data and information and text are examined; "Workshop rooms," where formal procedures guided by constraints are tried out.

Invisible Rendezvous begins like a sort of manifesto for a new literary movement that will reflect a change in the culture at large. IN.S.OMNIA pronounces that their goal is not to "look for 'the next big thing' in literature"; they rather ask, "What if the next big thing already surrounds us, embedded in small gestures we perform every day? What if the next big thing is the realization that we have changed the way we use culture--remapping, rewiring, renetworking the same old pool of elements in new ways, adding to them furtive scribbles, seeking pleasures without naming them?" (8). These collective efforts would take Literature (with a capital L) out of the institution and relocate it squarely in the daily life of a culture. Indeed, "culture" would reside or persist only in an ongoing active play, a continual recombining of differential elements into new forms. This writing mode could be compared to narrative practices such as digital sampling or improvisational rapping.

Not surprisingly, IN.S.OMNIA does not place any confines on what qualifies as this kind of literary production. IN.S.OMNIA calls for "WRITING THAT DOES NOT KNOW WHAT IT IS but seeks, rather, to interrogate the world around it, the language within it and within which it takes place. In short, anything goes. Lies, hallucinations, shopping lists ... foreplay, wordplay, logomachy, abulia, echolalia, and most taboo of all in the real world, abstract intellectual conversation and scholarly meditation" (22). The ludic spirit and technical wit of IN.S.OMNIA writings make reading some of these interrogations quite entertaining. For instance, IN.S.OMNIAcs create hybrid texts such as Miss Scarlett's Letter, a delectably perverse crossbreeding of Hawthorne's Puritan New England with Margaret Mitchell's antebellum South.

These textual games played in the electronic medium took on print form when IN.S.OMNIA published a novel in 1987 called Invisible Seattle. Because the term "invisible" is significant in our class, it merits a brief gloss. The goal IN.S.OMNIA had in generating an invisible project was to create neither a "world apart" nor "a reflection or imitation" but an "alternate use" of something already persisting, "with which it coexists and which it interpenetrates" (118). The invisible is in this sense a manufactured realm: not an Ideal domain of invisible Platonic forms, but a dimension where the material world and immaterial plane of the sign intersect. From a semiotic viewpoint, this invisibility is, paradoxically enough, produced by a certain opacity--for it occurs only when the sign materializes, when the semiotic surface takes on a "life" of its own. This invisibility is like Poe's purloined letter--on the one hand, a material thing, right there on the wall, though turned inside out and crumpled up; on the other hand, a "letter," a written mark, or a message, an information content which we never see. The decisive quality though of Poe's invisible letter is its circulation--the places and people's hands that it passes through in the story. And its dynamic, elusive nature springs from its double nature as both an object and a sign. In a similar vein, then, just as narrative can transform space into what de Certeau calls a "practiced place," IN.S.OMNIA transforms the everyday into a sort of virtual, written double of material culture: "Everyday creativity, because it most often uses recycled materials ironically recombined, takes place on at least two levels. It is always within another context" (132).

IN.S.OMNIA may come off as a sort of literary junkyard, where narrative is merely a way to recyle cultural information. But this freelance spirit is laced with a certain formal rigor, for IN.S.OMNIA invents specific procedures for projects. They term Invisible Seattle an "algorithmic novel" because it was generated according to rules including instructions for how to integrate physical participation, formal linguistic axioms, and the computer environment into a text. The rallying cry of the project was "Function Follows Fiction," meaning that the tanglible city could be reclaimed by being reimagined and rewritten by its inhabitants. Flyers went up around the city inviting people to record events at specific locations, to rename buildings, to append to the city of daily life "three zones of INVISIBLE SEATTLE: the Ignored, the Imperceptible, and the Impossible" (35). (see handout for sample invitations to write.) IN.S.OMNIA drew a Map of Invisible Seattle, where Seattle landmarks are recast (see handout): the Kingdome becomes the Coliseum of Rome, dubbed the Dome of Kings; an office tower morphs into Breughel's Tower of Babel, which the legend names Bibioteca Jorge Borges; the Space Needle is restored to its quoted source, the Eiffel Tower. And Invisible Seattle can best be seen by riding the monorail, renamed "The Disorient Express."

Taken as a whole, this project represents the desire of IN.S.OMNIA to "tickle a city into writing a novel about itself" and thereby provide "Finally, perhaps, a structural, geographic model of the workings of language itself" (28). This grand-sounding claim expresses the desire to immerse oneself in language to the point that the medium becomes an environment. This desire translates the problem of how to render geographical locations in writing into questions of how to model the formal relations of the text. This turn follows directly from the electronic medium, which enables writing to be manipulated by authors and readers. In Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics, Michael Joyce explains that in electronic texts where the reader (Joyce says "scriptor") can choose the order they read its different sections, the reader's chosen itineraries through the text "are maintained as trails, paths, webs, or notebooks, but they are versions of what they are becoming, a structure for what does not yet exist" (42). In summary, then, Joyce posits that the hypertext is "a tool for inventing, discovering, viewing and testing multiple organizational structures as well as tool for comparing these structures of thought with more traditional ones and transforming one into the other" (42-43).

A characteristic effect of the electronic medium is that it generates its own internal geography, to make us encounter texts as both writing and diagram. Yet this topographic quality of the medium is offset by a certain immediacy it affords by virtue of the fact that electronic writing can be manipulated by striking a few keys as one reads. In speaking about his hypertext fiction Afternoon, Joyce alludes to the sense he wished to create that "words have texture," thereby making possible "a way of reading sensually [that] imagine[s] the screen as giving way before the touch, lapsing in the rhythm of caress" (11). This paradoxical formulation encounters writing as words and representation on the one hand and as an abstract set of unfolding formal relations on the other. This vision reveals an electronic textual semiotic where writing is always "within another context" as IN.S.OMNIA puts it, or in Joyce's phrase, where writing is always "of two minds."

These theoretical considerations and the sheer ludic spirit of IN.S.OMNIA have influenced my conception of the writing assignments for our Invisible Geographies class. I try to encourage an openended, playful investigation of the possibilities of writing, on both a purely technical or semiotic level, and on a geographic one. Thus as we read Pynchon and Richard Powers, we will write texts that refigure a geographic landscape as a series of imagined zones; under the sway of Calvino's Invisible Cities, we will generate a text under formal constraints that comprises an empire of signs and the mind; in the context of Rotman's semiotics of mathematics, painting and economics, we will find a contemporary sign to submit to semiotic analysis. All the writing done by each member of the class serves two functions: it is part of a continuous text comprised of pieces written for each unit along the way, and bits of it will figure in a collectively written text made up of work from all of us.

Originally, I set out to teach the course with the idea that I would write a new scholarly work as the class progressed, in order to combat the separation between teaching and research that makes it so hard to get work done during the semester. But this vision has already changed: I no longer am looking to write my own article or monograph, but I hope to use all work for the class (including this talk) as material for a World Wide Web site. I have found innovative work about writing in the information age on the Web of late, from a full-fledged hypertext study of everything from new softwares and relevant novels called The Electronic Labyrinth to a set of notes and descriptive overview for a course on the Virtual taught at Paris-8 by Pierre Levy, a social theorist and philosopher.

I'd like to come to an end by describing the collective work that the class is producing. It is sort of our own local version of Invisible Seattle, entitled (for the moment at least) "City of Words." The format for generating this text is sure to change as we go along. The first installment of "City of Words" (see handout) grows out of the trips class members made to the Bonaventura Hotel. The text is composed almost entirely by passages lifted from student narratives, which I cut and spliced into mini-narratives with titles. For each course unit, different students will assume this editing function. This pratice makes the text collective on many levels: the "hand" of all writers appears in "City of Words," and the vision of each of us as shapers of raw materials also will enter into it. A quick glance through the "BONADVENTURES" text shows how even this first run-through can transform a single space into a multi-dimensional virtual narrative. The diverse experiences we had at the hotel, broken up and recombined, generate several "invisible" Bonaventuras, and of course there are innumerable potential Bonaventuras ("invisible" in a different form) that could still be produced from the same materials. Ideally, we will be able to put this up on the Web in hyptertext, because then a reader could do this recombinative work with the text, and the words we've written will continue turning into different versions of "City of Words."

I'll end with a small self-reflexive remark. Writing this talk-slash-text has been an exercise in the very practices I've been describing. This text is a hybrid: both a faculty colloquium talk and a text for the Web, addressing theory and pedagogy, and, when we include the handouts, it incorporates multiple voices and visions. In fact, I should confess that I got the idea to put the classwork on the Web in writing this talk. It demands a new frame of mind to teach this class, and to write responses to student texts and texts of my own. This is a peculiar state of mind where there is no beginning or end, where what matters and doesn't constantly shifts, where each class period seems like another version of the same idea, where buildings or architectural drawings can be worth a thousand words or make many thousands of words superfluous. I would term this frame of mind "enactive": not inactive, but en-active. But that's another story, the reading for next time.

Back to Invisible Geographies syllabus

Back to Courses

Back to Online Works

Back to Home