The Digital Loop: Feedback and Recurrence

by Rita Raley


           while (condition)
           {
           // execute statement 1
           // execute statement 2
           // insure that this loop is infinite
           condition = true;
           }

Production environments such as Flash, Director, and C++ builders have facilitated the emergence of the continual replay loop as a formal feature of digital texts. Motion-text genres such as QuickTime and Flash animations work with the replay loop as a constraint within the process of composition, and one result has been that the forms and styles of digital media writing have altered in relation to the different tools used to produce it.[1] As these tools have made it possible for digital texts to move beyond the singular node-link mode of composition, the loop has also been incorporated as both design element and thematic content, much like the link, the path, the map, and the stitch were incorporated by Storyspace and other earlier-generation hypertexts. Witness, for example, Dan Waber's recent 'Strings' [http://www.vispo.com/guests/DanWaber/] compilation, with Flash texts that play with the double meaning of string - code and thread - by using a visual representation of a piece of household string to form words in motion sequences that resemble a digital scroll. The strings metamorphose and fluidly move around the screen, forming words that are not stable but that have behind them a print frame, a fixed point of reference in the form of a title for each textual loop. The 'Strings' texts themselves therefore function with an interplay between the stable and the kinetic words. For example, the wonderfully apposite "Argument" uses the loop to present a repetitively cyclical and material struggle between the words "yes" and "no" as they are laterally and sequentially formed from visually represented and digital strings. The reiterative movement and mutations of the string-based words emphasizes the extent to which kineticism, along with sound, image, and word, is an integral data element within a digital text. The continual replay loop, then, is both structural and conceptual device. Further, in contrast to the static forms of the screen capture, the excerpted still, the singular node, or the singular button, image, or pixel, the continual replay loop is one of the hallmarks of digital textuality and digital art, circa 2002.[2] With this dichotomy in mind, we can investigate two components of the loop as it evolved from textual theme to design principle and the repeatedly executed statements of ActionScript, for example, came into use: recurrence, whereby the loop cycle does not achieve a perfect re-iteration but is instead altered with each sequence, and feedback, whereby the system and its environment interact and modify each other.

When digital media serve as both production and delivery platform, the question of physical textual boundaries comes to the fore. What, in other words, actually constitutes the text, particularly if each reading is different from the other and in a sense unrepeatable? Indexes, link menus, and site maps alike suggest that a digital text might have discernible borders and potentially be sequentially ordered, but these neither guarantee duplicable readings nor are they common to contemporary production environments. Without a repeatable and shared element, we could only have an absolutely singular work, which means that a digital text needs a degree of repeatability in order for it to function as a text. The loop serves as just such a repeatable element. Moreover, it highlights the extent to which the boundaries of a digital text can best be thought in terms of temporality: the time-based period in which both the reader-user and the system are performing.

While it does not primarily feature literal loops in the sense of programming statements, M.D. Coverley's early story 'Fibonacci's Daughter' [http://califia.interspeed.net/Fibonacci/choice.htm] - composed with animated gifs, basic HTML, and some javascript for a scrolling marquee effect in 1999 (pub. Feb/2000) - is an important precursor and illustrative example of a digital text that thematizes recurrence.[3] To enact this thematization, Coverley makes concentrated visual, thematic, and architectural use of spirals, which are, in this instance, a variation and modification of the loop. In its meditation on the spiral, 'Fibonacci' exhibits some of the formal and thematic concerns of digital textuality as they have emerged over the last decade: a striking preoccupation with the originary moment, frequency, reappearance, and boundaries of a textual "event." Coverley employs an epitaph as an internal epigraph that unifies these thematic concerns. The epitaph she cites, 'Eadem mutata resurgo' (Though changed I shall arise the same), is inscribed on the tombstone of Jacob Bernoulli, seventeenth-century Swiss pioneer of fluid dynamics and spatial mechanics; and it informs a dominant thematic of 'Fibonacci': that "life is a recurrence sequence," but that this recurrence is not symmetrical. That is, there is a mystical aspect to the recurrence insofar as the substance will be altered, perhaps even distorted, upon its reemergence. Thus, the idea of a recurrence sequence suggests repetition and temporal return, but with a difference. (One system of reference for this aspect of recurrence is the minimalist music of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and others.) Both Bernoulli's epitaph and the idea that life is a recurrence sequence suggest that there is no originary being; that is, appearance is only by reappearance. One (or "it," a text) arrives having already arrived. In its meta-critical reflection on the browsing of a digital text, 'Fibonacci' thematizes not just recurrence, but also frequency and probability, the likelihood that links, nodes, maps, and images will not just appear but reappear. It makes perfect sense, then, that the very end, so to speak, of 'Fibonacci' spirals back to a re-beginning, as do many basic-HTML hypertexts. This is not linguistically or structurally the same as an ActionScript loop, which will repeatedly execute under a "true" expression, but there are conceptual similarities. A temporary break, or end stop, which is both structural and temporal, can be reached when the cycle ends, but this serves to reinscribe the notion that the text begins when reading begins and ends when reading ceases - when, in other words, the performance of the reader-user and the system come to an end. (We might also look to the structure of the fractal and its self-similarity in order to consider further the endless repetition of loops, cycles, series or patterns, since fractals, too, begin and end without beginning and ending.)[4]

It follows that an epitaph would bring the structure of the loop and the thematic of recurrence to the fore because it is death that functions as a metaphor for the endpoint of a textual event and that brings a stop to the play of signification (or to the "flickering" of the signifier, as Katherine Hayles would suggest).[5] So, too, does it gesture toward the obliteration of a meta-system of reference, that is, to provide a way out before the meta-pattern or master code needs to be transmitted. As "hypertext theory" was emerging as a school and within the school, particularly in the Storyspace era of the mid 1990s, this theoretical and aesthetic project of engaging and disengaging the master code would have been attributable to the operative discourses of postmodernism.[6] The use of death as a metaphor for closure in the hypertexts of this earlier generation opened up the possibility of apprehending a practical end to the seemingly labyrinthine structure of a digital text. Why else should Geoff Ryman's novel '253' [http://www.ryman-novel.com] end at the end of the line, in a London tube crash; Matthew Miller's 'Trip' [http://raven.ubalt.edu/guests/trip] link dying and ending ("We never die. It never ends," one character moans); Jane Yellowlees Douglas' I have said nothing (Eastgate) partly explore two spectacular car crashes in relation to narrative structure; Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden (Eastgate) implode with the dropping of a Gulf War bomb; or Michael Joyce's influential fiction and criticism open into scenes of death and decay?[7] With William Gibson's "Agrippa" as another precursor, more contemporary digital texts composed with ActionScript or JavaScript go beyond treating death as a metaphor for closure in order to perform their own self-erasure or self-destruction, to partially fail, close, or cancel themselves out without the aid of a self-infecting virus.[8] As just one example, Talan Memmott's 'Lexia to Perplexia' [http://www.uiowa.edu/~iareview/tirweb/hypermedia/talan_memmot/i ndex.html] beckons to the reader-user to elect to "pull the plug why don't you," a link that closes out the open window and necessitates a restart. Reader-user intervention, in other words, is required in order to bring a stop to a repeatedly executing loop, and an exit from the text constitutes its end.

What follows from the restart, a kind of loop in itself, is feedback, whereby system and environment are both altered as a result of their interaction.[9] Within a feedback loop, information is not simply circulated; rather, the environment affects the system (input) and, in turn, the system affects the environment (output). Both input and output are bound up in a loop, such that each in turn receives and then sends back information that transforms the other. There is a temporal division between the two, but each wields a material, performative, and generative power. Often generally discussed in terms of distortion, dissonance, and interruption, the feedback loop within the context of digital textuality might also be understood in terms of the interaction between the human operator and the machinic processor.[10] Digital textuality, then, has a feedback economy, wherein input and output are linked within a complex process of performance, "performance" here referring both to the actions of the computer and to the relationship between reader-user and screen. The process of interaction between operator and machine gains greater sophistication and visibility when it is inscribed into the digital text-a moment that loops into itself.

Notes

1 To browse examples of the motion-text genre in digital poetry, see 'Poems That Go' [http://www.poemsthatgo.com]

2 Lev Manovich briefly comments on the loop in relation to the still photograph as "the new default method to 'critique' media culture" in a recent series of Nettime postings entitled, "Generation Flash." "Generation Flash 1/3," April 9, 2002.

3 For a review of Coverley's text, see Jane Yellowlees Douglas, "Playing the Numbers: M.D. Coverley's 'Fibonacci's Daughter'," SIGWEB Newsletter 9:3 (October 2000). Reposted on 'Word Circuits' [http://www.wordcircuits.com/comment/htlit_9.htm]

4 For a basic description of the structure of fractals, see Hans Lauwerier, "Fractals: Endlessly Repeated Geometrical Figures" (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991); Harold M. Hastings and George Sugihara, "Fractals: A User's Guide for the Natural Sciences" (New York: Oxford UP, 1993); Heinz-Otto Peitgen, Hartmut Jčrgens, and Dietmar Saupe, "Chaos and Fractals: New Frontiers of Science" (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992).

5 Hayles, "How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics" (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

6 For example, one can look back to George Landow's institution-building labors at Brown and his influential attempts to fashion a theory of hypertextuality out of a few strands of contemporary continental philosophy.

7 See Michael Joyce, 'afternoon, a story' (Eastgate) and "Notes Toward an Unwritten Non-Linear Electronic Text," which opens in the contemplation of "a mausoleum of books," "awful makeshift morgues," "the union dead," "orphaned victims," and "the library mortuary" (173). Reprinted as " 'The Ends of Print Culture' (a work in progress)," "Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics" (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

8 Alan Liu's forthcoming book, "The Laws of Cool" (Stanford UP), concludes with an extended discussion of the aesthetics of destruction and virus art.

9 "Feedback" [http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/FEEDBACK.html], Principia Cybernetica Web.

10 I have elsewhere written of performance with respect to digital textuality; see "Reveal Codes: Hypertext and Performance" [http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/pmc/v012/12.1ralet.html], "Postmodern Culture" 12:1 (September 2001).

(c) Rita Raley 2002

Rita Raley is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches courses in the digital humanities and global literary studies. She is completing work on her book, "Global English and the Academy", and also currently at work on a book about digital textuality. Her most recent article concerns hypertext and performance, and her ancillary research topics include codework, net.art, molecular computing, and the electronic empire.