Per Interactivity ad Virtuality via Textuality

François Lachance


Romps through media, models and modalization. Alludes to the phenomenon of spirit possession. Invokes a distinction between hypertext and hyperspace. Proposes transactions in networked environments be modeled on the cardinal virtues. Figures the relations between textuality, virtuality, and interactivity as a set of recursive loops linking the functions of sorting, storing and shuffling.


Artefact, Cardinal Virtues, Decision, Hyperspace, Hypertext, Interactivity, Loop, Medium, Notation, Recursivity, Textuality, Virtuality


In honour of Brian Stock, historian, who led me to think through a period and let me think past the period


Theory curves. Sinuous and voluted, theory curves. It twists round its object, round itself, and at times twists itself round itself. Theory moves through squares.

Movement, at every step, can be analysed as a digital selection between alternatives. In or out of the square, top or bottom of the square, above or below, a grid shadows our descriptions, elucidates our decisions.

The grid models the workings of a digital machine. It is a digital machine. Whether the grid signifies the electronic supply for the wired and the webbed or whether it is translated into the matrix of the wireless, there is in the grid's form an invitation to consider a tic-tac-toe flow that maps moves that are possible, moves that are not possible. The grid blocks out so many stage instructions. The digital machine betrays its theatrical origins.

A model is a combination of states and/or instructions. Turing on machines sounds like Marx on reification: "From the first point of view, it was natural to think of the configuration as the machine's internal state -- something to be inferred from its different responses to different stimuli, rather as in behaviourist psychology. From the second point of view, however, it was natural to think of the configuration as a written instruction, and the table as a list of instructions, telling the machine what to do. The machine could be thought as obeying one instruction, and then moving to another instruction. [...] Alan Turing himself did not stick to his original abstract term 'configuration', but later described machines quite freely in terms of 'states' and 'instructions', according to the interpretation he had in mind"[11].


Take the aphorism as signpost. McLuhan's dictum "the medium is the message" acts as a probing prescription. It not only claims to describe a state, it also invites approaches propelled by its own declarative power. In subsequent transformation -- the medium is the massage, the mess-age, the mass-age [16] and in neoMcLuhanesque reintroductions such as "remediation" [1], the medium is dispossessed.

All this discursive making new, all the multifarious repetitions of this particular copular arrangement favours a certain prosthetic relation to media. One puts on the medium. One projects through the medium. If reversing the dictum jars, it is because perhaps it chafes against sensibilities accustomed to assuming a pregiven medium. But if the medium is accessed through projection, if the medium comes into being through putting on, then the dictum could encompass an altered states tradition where the medium is visited. It is perhaps for post-imperialists difficult to maintain a uniquely prosthetic relation to a medium if that medium is conceived as a place. Maps have taught us to respect territories.

In a universe where the medium is visited, the medium is marked, is a marking. In a world where visitations connect, the medium is a relay. In a space of contingency, prepositions follow propositions. You talk to your medium. Your medium talks back. Communication radiates.

Particles dance. Through marks and markings, through entities and actions, a medium, like a message, is textual. Images, sounds, physical mass, the stuff of a medium, need not belong to a natural language. Textuality does not inhere in verbal constructs alone. The textuality of media arises from their situation. The artefactuality of an instance frames a segment of the real. Textuality begins (and ends) in boundaries. Its artefactuality, its position, its placement, allows any instance to be taken up by a system of notation. Media thrive on the comparative impulse because perception is semiotic [13] or at least the information-technology nexus is not mapped precisely upon a disjunction of the perceptual and the semiotic [6]. The workings of a medium begin and end in embodiment.

It is through the forms of the textual (the semiotic and the perceived), the very physicality of artefacts, the exacting systemacity of notation, that a medium, digital or otherwise, provides access to the virtual. The medium is a relay. It provides a phenomenological loop. When activated as relay or loop, the medium provides support for experiences and, in its sense of communicative and perceptual apparatus, the medium invites us to imagine, to represent, to figure, to manipulate minds (fingere animos ) [18]. Pierre Ouellet stresses that such means of access require the work of activation: "Our means of access to the real or to a fictional world is thus modalized by our perceptual activity: we represent to ourselves not only the world, but [also] our own way of representing it through different types of perceptive-cognitive experiences" [18]. With such a set of loops, pertinence and memory play the fine tension between phantasms, objects and signs [10].

Beware the loop. The medium is not a safety mechanism. Neither is it a powder keg. Pertinence may not inform every experience. Memory may fail. The stringed instrument's infinite features may be modalized in different ways: grain of wood to the eye, resonance to the ear, heft to the hand, number of strings to the ethnomusicological mind, and none of these, nothing at all.

Praise the loop. The virtual is the translation between the translated (source) and the translating (target). There is no medium that can guarantee the passage. But any medium can channel the failure. Faulty reception is something to talk about. Humans do tend to go meta, failures or not [3].

To go meta is to query the products and experiences of textuality and virtuality. Going meta is a question-based activity. To ask about the textuality of a given instance is to question its status as artefact (where does it begin and end, what does it frame) and its place in a system of notation (how is the object caught up in the play of signs). To question the virtuality of a given experience is to ask about ways of world making. To ask, to question, to anticipate an answer, this is the kernel of interactivity. It is so vividly important that Andy Lippman in Stewart Brand's popular account builds his definition of interactivity upon a contrast between conversation and lecture as modes of delivery. [2]. The contrast depends upon the point at which questions may erupt.

In the worlds frequented by Lippman conversations are interruptable and lectures are not. Lippman's concern with turn taking in conversation may not sufficiently value certain skills such as listening [14]. The "mutual" and the "simultaneous" in Lippman's definition risk being read off as equivalent to the "similar" and the "same". The risk is minimized if interactivity is not set the goal of achieving peer-to-peer information exchange. Lippman's definition: "mutual and simultaneous activity on the part of both participants usually working towards some goal but not necessarily" [2] reads like a classic communication situation as captured by Roman Jackobson's model of factors (addresser, addressee, code, message, contact, context) and functions (emotive, conative, metalinguistic, poetic, phatic, referential) except for the added dimension of compressed time. Are there not codes, contexts and means of contact that regulate participants' perceptions of time? Are not the nature of the messages and the psychological, social and physical situation of the addressees and the addressers, all factors that contribute to determining which codes, contexts and means of contact will apply to induce interpellations, provoke acknowledgements and sustain continuation or initiate break-off?

I would change one word in Lippman's definition. I would strike the qualifier "both". The dyad so described privileges the couple as the unit of interaction. Note two bodies interacting may provide the ground for more than two persons to interact. As well, several bodies could be but two persons given that corporations are moral persons. To think interactivity ab ovo instead of in media res entertains the participatory possibility that the bilateral positions emerge from the ongoing appropriations and divestments of attention between personae and corporations. Masks and masses circulate: one to one, one to many, many to one.

Is a mask a medium? Is a mass a medium? Crowds, mobs and groups are networks full, more or less, of nodes and more or less rudimentary relays. Interactivity relies on relay. (Textuality relies on nodes. Virtuality networks.) The simultaneity of interactivity is a mark of readiness to transmit or receive, register or recall. Particles dance. Relays relay themselves.

A question is a relaid relay. A question is not always verbal. To go meta includes actions as well as talk. To go meta one can point to the marks and the markings, one can point to the possibilities and the actualities, one can even loop on going meta. What is a question? It is a pause to open the simultaneous. The simultaneous is between the future and the past but is not present. The simultaneous is an abduction of the surprising intersection of separate timelines into one. Questions tap into the magic of synchronicity. They ride media. They restore mutual simultaneity to the field of synchronous reciprocity.

The very loopiness of questions has almost made me destabilize Lippman's interactivity into simple activity. Certainly our concern for modalities other than the verbal has deconstructed the bilateral underpinnings of Lippman's sense of conversation and lecture. But another loop may be of bracing assistance. Can we not claim that Lippman's model of interactivity with its respect for mutuality and simultaneity is not but a paean to the adjustable in human intersubjective relations cast as a dream for human-computer interfaces? Yes we can and we do. The model example of conversations interrupted by questions provides an intimation of interruptions interrupted. If we approach interactivity in media res we note that participant mobility of attention is being adjusted or maintained.

Mobility of attention is sometimes taken for granted when the reciprocal in a field of synchronicities becomes phased to the strange attractor of mutual simultaneity. It takes a medium to hold the energy generated by intersubjectivity let alone the energies generated by intersubjectivities in interaction. A medium is a transducer. To be interactive is to engage the services of a medium. To be interactive is to expose oneself (and one's environment) to being traduced. To be interactive is to invite seduction. It is to be tempted by intersubjective trips from and to the virtual by way of the textual in all its forms and modalities as well as intersubjective trips to and from the textual by way of the virtual in all its possibility and actuality. It is to tempt. It is to seduce. It is to betray the question of mobility with a contingent answer as to where we are when we might become what we are to be.


Consider the degree of connection between the mapped and the mapper. Consider the social construction of mapping. Imagine. In a culture with strong taboos against soothsaying, a map is less likely to be used as a mirror for scrying. In a culture with strong taboos against idolatry, a map is less likely to be used as a source of recipes for shape shifting. In a culture with strong taboos against dress-up, a map is less likely to be used as an itinerary for transport. Correction: less likely to be used consciously as an instrument to explore a protean universe -- an animated universe reticulated into networks. This is the old terrain of techne and ecstasy where a map is a medium that calls up the ancient question of the proper control of the power of suggestion. Even cultures with sumptuary laws that permit sartorial splendor may rule ecstasy out of bounds. Even cultures that cherish the cult of images may rule ecstasy out of bounds. Even cultures that permit all sorts of fortune telling may rule the paths to ecstasy off limits.

Let us step out of the house of ecstasy. Let us repitch the tent of altered states. Let us consider the degree of connection between the mapped and the mapper. Let us think the movement of map making through the words of Nicholas Wolterstorff: "the centre of the phenomenon of act A counting as act B is not the existence of rules and conventions, also not the existence of intentions, but rather the acquisition of rights and responsibilities" [19]. In repitching the tent, let us remember that every camp, even those that are abandoned, sound the signals of rules and conventions. In stepping out of the house, let us remember that every garden shows the signals of intention. Every clearing-coming-to-be signals. Every coming-to-be of clearing acquires.

Acquiring is akin to seeking and by a recursive analogy we may erode on this occasion the distinction between map and territory. Not that one is the other. But, that every territory can and does function as a map library. Every structure is a medium. Any object acquiring sufficient attention provides access to the virtual. Once map is taken as text, buildings send us, vehicles hold us. Stationary vehicles and moving buildings, once text is taken as map, are not simply the fare and stock of film and theatre. They are the delights and hazards of hypertext enfolding itself in the stories of hyperspace when and where a network of reticulations animates a universe of recursions.

Once upon a time there was a valley called "hypertext" where experts mainly computer scientists devoted their attention to disorientation (the tendency to lose one's sense of location and direction in a nonlinear document) and to cognitive overhead (the additional effort and concentration necessary to maintain several tasks or trails at one time) [4]. There was also a nearby mountain called "hyperspace" where experts mainly physicists could cleverly describe as if in the mode of science fiction novelists [5] how theories of space actually give us unifying pictures of forces: "Each person in higher dimensions would have his or her own characteristic sequence of changing blobs. Over a period of time, we would learn to tell these creatures apart by recognizing their distinctive patterns of changing blobs and colors. Attending dinner parties in hyperspace might be a trying experience" [12] or an experience to try. Then a science-fiction writer with the help of the chattering classes put cyberspace on the map [8]. Then conflation set in. Papers devoted to hypertext navigation appeared with titles about being lost in hyperspace [7]. Then somebody read the story that introduces techno loa on the scene [9] and reread the literature reviews through the charm of voodoo hoodoo transculturation [15]

The literature reviewed by Edwards and Hardman [7] assumes that human-machine interaction is a solitary practice and when one is lost, one is lost alone. One could extrapolate from the assumption and conclude that being lost and having a map is analogous to being lost and having a phrase book or a users' guide [note the plural -- a guide for users] which are both like having a kind and knowledgeable friend at hand. Getting lost becomes the catalyst for making friends. Disorientation triggers dialogue, even inner dialogue. A very good friend can show one how to get lost, how to increase concentration to the point of distraction. Being alone is not so lonely. It may in fact improve one's being with others.

To be beside oneself to be oneself is a condition of learning. The best browsers and the best navigators are continuously learning. They engage in activities "concerned with linking, relating, structuring, restructuring, adding, collecting and adapting" [17]. The list is very similar to the cognitive tasks which produce and rectify the problems for hypertextual authoring and reading which Conklin identifies as disorientation and cognitive overhead: "These problems are not new with hypertext, nor are they mere byproducts of computer-supported work. People who think for a living -- writers, scientists, artists, designers, etc. -- must contend with the fact that the brain can create ideas faster than the hand can write them or the mouth can speak them. There is always a balance between refining the current idea, returning to a previous idea to refine it, and attending to any of the vague 'proto-ideas' which are hovering at the edge of consciousness. Hypertext simply offers a sufficiently sophisticated 'pencil' to begin to engage the richness, variety, and interrelatedness of creative thought" [4].

Of course, electronic artefacts are highly fungible. It is a condition that plays to the desire and the need to collect, disperse and organize information. I wonder if the affect attached to being lost is not unrelated to the reactions to the degree to which the managerial impinges upon the intellectual for in the realm of digital machines where a document becomes a record through a transaction, where inventories and objects are housed in the same format, where inventories can become the object of other inventories, to think is often to sort, to store and to shuffle: humble, embodied tasks.


Meet the digitalized cardinal virtues.

Prudence is responsible for juggling bonds that link the here and the not here, for the means that link the this and the not this, and the norms that link the now and the not now. Prudence asks the question: is this or is this not the correct question. Prudence invites us to choose between concentrating on time, on person or on place.

Fortitude deals with cognitive overhead with a fight or flee response. Fortitude is concerned with space. Fortitude asks whether to stay or to go. Fortitude manages bases.

Temperance asks whether it is time or not. Temperance manages messages and cues.

Justice assesses who counts as a person and by which names they are to be known.

Their portfolios can be shuffled. Prudence need not be the exclusive metacognitive virtue, that role can be played by the time management guru, Temperance. Fortitude is sometimes needed to ask the question about the question. Justice can sit in judgement, of course.

The sorting functions of the portfolios dovetail. Where and when provide clues to the authenticity of a who. The correct combination of where, when and who, a repetition in sequence of a pattern of blobs, responds to a what question.

I've yet to find a named virtue which will digitalize a why. I am beginning to suspect that involves respect for random event generators in the time and places where Tyche, the goddess of chance, meets techne. But then that begins to sound like the virtues acting in concert for the delight and frustration of that great random event generator which is the embodied thinking being in action playing its own states as instructions ever ready to re-assess its status or its imperative to be a random event generator to dispose of its stores and stories.

Post Proem

Imbrication: textual, virtual, interactive.

Animation: shuffled, stored, sorted.

Circulation: virtuous


  1. Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.
  2. Brand, Stewart. The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. New York: Penguin, 1987. pp 45-50.
  3. Bruner, Jerome. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990. p. 55.
  4. Conklin, Jeff. "Hypertext, an Introduction and Survey" IEED Computer 20:9 (1987). p. 40.
  5. Delany, Samuel R. Stars in my pocket like grains of sand. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.
  6. Duguid, Paul. "Material Matters: The Past and Futurology of the Book" in The Future of the Book. Ed. by Geoffrey Nunberg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. p. 77.
  7. Edwards, Deborah and Lynda Hardman. "'Lost in Hyperspace': Cognitive Mapping and Navigation in a Hypertextual Environment" in Hypertext : theory into practice. Ed. by Ray McAleese. Oxford: Intellect, 1989.
  8. Gibson, William. Neuromancer, New York: Ace Books, 1984.
  9. Gibson, William. Mona Lisa overdrive. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
  10. Greenstein, Jack M."Icons and Memory: Aristotle on Remembrance" in Public 15 (1997) p. 25.
  11. Hodges, Andrew. Alan Turing: The Enigima of Intelligence. 1983 rpt. London: Unwin, 1985. p. 107.
  12. Kaku, Michio. Hyperspace : a scientific odyssey through parallel universes, time warps, and the tenth dimension. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 59, 338.
  13. Lachance François. "Storing and Sorting" in Sense: orientations, meanings, apparatus. Toronto, 1996.
  14. Lachance François. "Reading, writing, listening, speaking" Humanist 13:252. 1999.
  15. Lachance, François. Per Interactivity ad Virtuality via Textuality. 2001.
  16. Levinson, Paul. Digital McLuhan: a guide to the information millenium. New York: Routledge, 1999. pp. 36-37.
  17. McAleese, Ray. "Navigation and Browsing in Hypertext" in Hypertext : theory into practice. Ed. by Ray McAleese. Oxford: Intellect, 1989. p. 11.
  18. Ouellet, Pierre. "The Perception of Fictional Worlds" in Fiction Updated: Theories of Fictionality, Narratology and Poetics. Ed. by Calin-Andrei Mihailescu and Walid Hamarneh. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996. p. 84
  19. Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Works and Worlds of Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. p. 205.

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