Das Epos der Maschine

Urs Schreiber’s Das Epos der Maschine (Machine Epic) is a prime example of how digital literature incorporates visuals, sounds and reader interaction into a text to create a previously unknown aesthetic experience. After coming into contact with the text for the first time, a journey of exploration begins. The story unfolds through reader interaction, but navigating to the next piece of information is not what one is used to from reading a book, simply flipping the page. The reader quickly realizes that to fully immerse him- or herself into the story, he has to discard traditional expectations of what a text does, opening up completely to this new content.

The focus of Das Epos der Maschine is the relationship and interaction between man and machine. Schreiber describes the core of his story as a “Machinaut” sitting in his mysterious, black, egg-shaped machine floating through space. He is a foreign body in an otherwise perfectly organized environment, having gone on his journey through space with only a filigree finished black stone which serves him as a guide. The reader has the opportunity to explore the machine and find out more about it and the journey of the “Machinaut” (Dichtung Digital), but to what extent will the reader be encouraged to keep exploring the abstract world of Epos? Is the presentation of the story actually rather discouraging, or will the multimedia simply distract the reader from looking for meaning and leave him focused on  the sensory influences still new to him?

When simply looking at Schreiber’s Epos, Robert Coover’s statement about hypermedia’s threat of reducing lettered art to a surface spectacle seems to make sense. However, after being exposed to and immersing oneself into the story, many layers of potential meaning unfold. The reader can find different ways to explore the text: for example, the searchlight at the beginning of the story or words in the text that act as hyperlinks. Some of those interactive options enhance the the reader’s feeling that he or she actually is the protagonist in the story, as the reader explores the machine from a first person view. Furthermore, Urs Schreiber intended to show the way of his thoughts by using different animations for his text fragments. According to him, they developed over years whenever they appeared in his mind and he was able to write them down. They did not appear in a logically structured order, and that is how the Epos should be read – “pulsierend, rasend, parallel, asynchron, auseinander, umeinander, von alleine, auf Aufforderung, immer wieder oder nur wie in letzter Minute.”  The author calls these techniques “new ways of expressing on the net.” With all this in mind, Schreiber does not fail to recognize that his audience has different approaches to reading a text and this might even result in a superficial reading of Epos, in adherence to Coover. Nevertheless, certainly this is not the only direction where the reader may break in. The metaphor of reading on the net as “diving, swimming and digging” is employed to suggest that the Internet provides the freedom just “play in the surf and drift on the waves,” but diving under those waves results in “a wide, deep silence.” Instead of only superficially clicking through the scenes and paying attention to visual detail, “diving” and “exploring the coral reef, clinching onto lines of text and using them as a vehicle to move through the story” enables the reader to find new connections and content, that stays hidden to the casual observer. “The real spectacle is experienced in [the reader’s] own head, just as it is supposed to for a story.” Schreiber underlines this by saying that his basic idea for creating his story was the search and successive extrapolation of content. Acquiring information on the Internet is intricately linked to a constant succession of inquisitive mouse clicks. Rarely, if ever, is a website filled with text that is concise and to the point; rather it requires the user to look for the requested information. The spotlight at the beginning and end of the story serves as a tool to make the reader actively search for meaning while simultaneously hiding what is out of sight. Continuously searching for new information leads to the revelation of more and more fragments, immersing the reader deeper into the story (Dichtung Digital).

Simanowski looks at Das Epos der Maschine in the introduction to his essay, describing it as “a visual image consisting only of words, since the words themselves represent pictures by moving in a predetermined way.” After progressing a bit through the story, the words begin forming a question mark, with the word truth serving as the period. Clicking on the question mark results in an animation in which ‘Wahrheit’, the stop of the question mark, is swallowing up the question, yet never erasing it since moving the truth, stuck to the cursor now, reveals the original question again (Simanowski). A similar play with words can be encountered in the section ‘Koje’ after reading the description of the granite stone that serves as a navigational tool for the protagonist. Clicking on “Tagträume” (daydreams) reveals the next fragment of text, which follows the cursor and eventually makes its way back to “Tagträume”, where it originated.

Aesthetically, Epos is best described as a kinetic visual poem, a literary form in which additional significance is added to words by the way they are arranged in the literary work. Simanowski points out the example of “Maschine” at the beginning of the story, which serves as a metaphor for the displacement of nature by technology. Interaction with the word reveals new words which push old words out of sight. This can be interpreted as technology controlling the reader, because the movement of the words does not follow the reader but is predetermined and only triggered by him. To Simanowski, this creates discomfort, as the connection between technology and reading seems to be less free than when simply reading books. However, the representation of words and language in general is emphasized, rather than diminished, by adding visual semantics and as I have shown above, the employed hypermedia is capable of inducing much more than just a superficial visual impression.



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