Friday, August 15, 2008

Hypertext and Nostalgia

Recent critiques of ecocriticism have worried about the element of nostalgia in all ecocritical thinking. That may or may not be a problem. Here is an etymology for the root of "nostalgia":

Indo-European root: nes-1
DEFINITION: To return safely home. 1. harness, from Old French harneis, harness, possibly from a Germanic source akin to Old English, Old High German (in composition), and Old Norse nest, food for a journey, from Germanic *nes-tam. 2. Suffixed o-grade form *nos-to-. nostalgia, from Greek nostos, a return home. (Pokorny nes- 766.) [American Heritage]

Food for a journey that leads us home; I’ve got no problem. If oikos from eco-logy is a form of “home,” then eco [home]-criticism is a critique of home, nostalgia by definition. But critiques of home can lead us forward as well as back. Oikos widens out from house to household, family, and finally to home. We all came from one home: the family into which we were born or by which we were raised, but also the nonhuman world in which we found ourselves as we came to consciousness (an apartment building, a farmhouse, a townhouse, a skyscraper, the edge of the Sahara desert, an Alpine village, the African rain forest).

But we are all headed to a new home as well: our life as adults, the family we make, the places we choose to live, the environments in which we work, or play, and through which we travel of necessity: the Upper West Side, Patagonia, Cleveland, the Grand Canyon. Each of the neutral locations can also become part of a meaningful home. So let thoughts of home continue as always already part of our rigorous critique of the homes–human and otherwise–out of which we came and to which we will return . . . or maybe not? Using your construction of the problem, I would argue that we do not work outside of nostalgia; rather, we work our way out of nostalgia into a world that of necessity houses us: roosting, perching, rousting, resting.

More significant over the long term--and to a wider world--may be the fact that hypertext and hyperspace are themselves tools for nostalgia. Hypertext is based on the principle that units of information, bits and bites or sentences and webpages, are always saved, kept even when they are "deleted," and often archived or preserved in various stages of development or revision. So twenty versions of my homepage may exist in various locations on the web, because my page was created over chronological time, was saved with different extensions and URLs, was housed on different hard drives and servers, was copied or printed by various users for various reasons. Even my emails have potentially been copied or saved at every junction server through which they have passed.

The nostalgia of hyperspace is a bit more complex, in part because hyperspace is not yet a clearly understood or fully theorized concept, but also because hyperspace is a nonmaterial entity--it is space; it does not exist anywhere that can be fully circumscribed (except perhaps the planet earth)--and yet it is also a material entity, since it exists in the atoms of computer chips, silicon surfaces, and motherboards, and if all the computers in the world suddenly ceased to exist, hyperspace would also cease to exist. So it is space rendered real by the material objects that bring it into being, but it also exists only as energy, as the tiny quanta, or charges, that travel through wires--but also through wireless space.

The nostalgia implicit here should now be clearly evident. We long to return to places we have been before in hyperspace, and we long for the texts that we have seen, or created, or revised. We bookmark pages and sites. Indeed, the bookmark may be the undeniable proof of the nostalgia-laden web. We also print out our favorites and create our own home out of our homepage, the homepages of others, and the places we have been in the universe of hyperspace (the "hyperverse") to which we long to return. Desire is the central principle and all true nostalgia: desire for an earlier time, desire for another place than the one in which we find ourselves. No realities in twenty-first century life are more laden with desire than the World Wide Web and the Internet. Whether and when these new spaces and places will become elements of our own homes remains to be seen.

1 comment:

jon said...

I write from my desk at Riverby, gazing out the window of my ramshackle study, peering across the murky waters of the Hudson at that imposing Vanderbilt mansion that looms over this gentle valley. A robin helped me peck my way to your world, dear Doctor. My kind assistant, a Vassar student, brought me this machine through which I am discovering this new wilderness. I have rested here, at your home, because it is like my beloved Slabsides, a place to encounter and make sense of the wildness of this world.

That humble pile of logs west of here I always intended to be a gathering place, not only for the finch, bluebird, woodchuck and fox, but also, and what was my true pleasure, for friends, acquaintances, and inquisitive souls who desire not to retreat from nature, but to dwell within it. Do you know the friends who gathered there dear Doctor? Henry Ford, Mr. Edison, Harvey Firestone, and the president himself, Mr. Theodore Roosevelt. But so many others: students, teachers, and just plain curious folk seeking to discover nature through that simple place. And still they come to smell the honeysuckle, taste the cool spring water, and listen to the oak leaves flapping in the wind that flows through the hollow.

Slabsides was built to dwell within and around, and not above and beyond nature. I venture that the mud and muck that still surround it was much improved, if not by the celery crop that I for so long tended, then by the sounds of the visitors on the front porch engaged in animated philosophical reflection. I suppose this was, as you might say, my web site within nature.

Now my assistant has taken me to another place in your web, dear Doctor. How strange to read there my own writing about that free spirit whom I observe you so admire-- Thoreau! My words live in your wild web world! But there’s more: I can move them here, as if grafting a grapevine, giving more life to these thoughts:

Thoreau was, probably, the wildest civilized man this country has produced, adding to the shyness of the hermit and woodsman the wildness of the poet, and to the wildness of the poet the greater ferity and elusiveness of the mystic. An extreme product of civilization and of modern culture, he was yet as untouched by the worldly and commercial spirit of his age and country as any red man that ever haunted the shores of his native stream. He put the whole of Nature between himself and his fellows. A man of the strongest local attachments — not the least nomadic, seldom wandering beyond his native township, yet his spirit was as restless and as impatient of restraint as any nomad or Tartar that ever lived. He cultivated an extreme wildness, not only in his pursuits and tastes, but in his hopes and imaginings. He says to his friend, "Hold fast your most indefinite waking dream." Emerson says his life was an attempt to pluck the Swiss edelweiss from the all but inaccessible cliffs. The higher and the wilder, the more the fascination for him. Indeed, the loon, the moose, the beaver were but faint types and symbols of the wildness he coveted and would have re-appear in his life and books; — not the cosmical, the universal — he was not great enough for that — but simply the wild as distinguished from the domestic and the familiar, the remote and the surprising as contrasted with the hackneyed and the commonplace, arrow-heads as distinguished from whet-stones or jack-knives.

I am too old and tired to write anything more, and I have learned that there are even rumors of my death. I welcome it, dear Doctor. I have lived a long life, enough to discover this new world of webs and thereby to be of two worlds. But urbanature is for you to ponder, and for you to explore. Teach others well. As John Muir and I had our moments, so you have yours. I know you will not forget what few thoughts we had that might help you. Now, dear Doctor, if you allow, I will rest my weary bones in your place, buried here in your home. It shall be a comfort to me, my cyber Slabsides.