Lexia to Perplexia (2000 - 2013)

In January 2014, I traveled to Chicago to participate in the annual Convention of the Modern Language Association. There, I participated in a roundtable, Session 583: Electronic Literature After Flash, where I delivered a brief presentation on Talan Memmott's Lexia to Perplexia. I wanted to talk about how this work has stopped functioning in some ways, but rather than focusing on and lamenting its obsolescence, I try to think about it as evolving in meaning as the technologically it relies on has changed. The text of my remarks is below, slightly edited and enhanced for the web.

October 17, 2013. Microsoft publishes version 11 of its Internet Explorer web browser, including in its release notes a statement that the document.all mode will no longer be supported and that websites relying on this feature should update their code. As a consequence, unless its code is modified, Lexia to Perplexia -- Talan Memmott's canonical work of second generation electronic literature will no longer function in current browsers as it once did.

animated GIF of  Lexia to Perplexia
Lexia to Perplexia, approximating full functionality (with Netscape 4.06)
animated GIF of Lexia to Perplexia in contemporary browser
Lexia to Perplexia's functionality in a contemporary browser (Chrome 32.0.1700.76)

Scholars and students of E-lit will henceforth need to run or emulate outdated versions of browser software in order to access all but the opening paragraphs and images of this widely cited and discussed work. So we are standing just past the edge of this work's horizon, so it is a good time to consider what have we lost? what have we gained? And if we take seriously the author's claim that many of its concepts and meanings are expressed through the work's function, what does Lexia to Perplexia express when it stops functioning? What is the afterlife of electronic literature?

The title of this session points to a current situation of the decline in Flash as a dominant platform for animated and interactive content on the web. But by examining a text first published in the year 2000 when flash was only beginning its proliferation, the map of how and when Lexia to Perplexia works and when it fails to plots a course of the evolving web standards and best practices upon which the text depends.

For this reason, Lexia to Perplexia, in its reliance on a specific swarm of web client and server behaviors, has much to suggest about pitfalls of a post-Flash literature as authors move beyond the relative predictability of Flash's compiled SWF format and into (or back into) the messier landscape of HTML, JavaScript and APIs.

I've used the word "canonical," perhaps recklessly -- but if there is a canon of electronic literature, this is certainly part of it. The ELMCIP page cites around 30 critical references, it is included in the Electronic Literature Organization's first anthology, and the URL for its entry in the Electronic Literature of directory is "node/2", implying that its article was the second piece of content created in that directory that now holds about 275 similar entries. Not surprisingly, Lexia to Perplexia also appears in quite a few course syllabi, such as my own, which is where my relationship with Lexia to Perplexia's non-functionality begins.

You see, in 2012, I wanted my students to read/play/use Lexia to Perplexia, but since its core functionality was already unavailable for most contemporary web browsers (Firefox, Chrome, Safari), I decided to fix it. With a surprisingly few edits, I did succeed in making an unauthorized update to Lexia to Perplexia that now works fine in all four of the major browsers, but since the author has asked me not to share that version, it remains offline.

Lexia to Perplexia currently exists in five different versions that I know of: It is hosted online by the ELO, in archives of the Electronic Book Review, as well as those of the Iowa Review Web where it first appeared. It is also available offline in the CD of the ELO's first collection, and a static version of the text appears in Talan Memmott's dissertation.

The digital versions of the text are mostly identical with one notable exception. Whereas the preloading screen in versions that appear on the Iowa Review web and the EBR include an image of the author with a link to his website, the ELO versions replace that image with an apologetic, "Does not fucntion [sic] properly in current browsers for the Mac."

Preloading screen, EBR version.
The preloading screen as it appears in both the EBR and Iowa Review Web archives.
Preloading screen, ELO version.
The preloading screen in the ELO version.

In addition, the box bordering the title image is also a lighter shade of gray because a broken img source reference to a darker gray image tile leaves the background the same color as the foreground, obscuring the author's copyright notice until one acts on it by highlighting that region of the screen.

The directory structure of the work is slightly different as well, and the presence of a "Thumbs.db" file in each of its folders suggests that this anthologized version of Lexia to Perplexia has at some point been edited on a Windows PC.

Including those unused hidden DB files, Lexia to Perplexia is all together about 199 files in 4 folders, including 22 HTML documents, 8 JavaScript files, 15 jpeg images, and 147 GIFs, some of which are animated. I say "about" because many of those files are not linked to or otherwise incorporated into the visible HTML components of the work and as such do not contribute to a reader's experience of the work.

Looking into the code of each page, one also finds unused markup, including a charming bit of CSS code which defines element classes in names that seem to create the phrase, "start me up dear". Although this code block appears in 3 of the works HTML files, none of these classes are actually applied within its code.

.start{font-family:verdana,arial,helvetica; font-size:11px;color:#eeeeee;}
.me{font-family:verdana,arial,helvetica; font-size:40px;color:#111133;}
.regUP{font-family:arial,helvetica; font-size:12px;color:#ccffcc;}
.ogUP{font-family:verdana,arial,helvetica; font-size:10px;color:#0033ff;}
.dear{font-family:verdana,arial,helvetica; font-size:20px;color:#c0c0c0;}

Class names suggest the phrase 'Start me up dear'?

What I'm suggesting is that, through all this unused, invisible or operationally vestigial code, Lexia to Perplexia has always relied on what Marie-Laure Ryan refers to as non-operative code that nevertheless, in various ways, still "works".

In describing its lexical content, which might generally be called codework, Katherine Hayles arrives at a concept of, "Creole", for Lexia to Perplexias blend of typographically code-like puns and neologisms, but Marjorie Luesebrink takes this balance between performativity and readablity and moves the dial all the way to the right in her hypertext essay on the "Personalization of Complexity." Instead of using computational punctuation to invent codelike neologisms as needed, Luesebrink begins with the HTML of Lexia to Perplexia's 03metastrophe.html and treats it as a canvas, making typographic adjustments and small edits to produce a new work out of the otherwise-functional code by Memmott.

Interestingly, Luesebrink's deformancing -- composed in 2001 when Lexia to Perplexia would have still behaved normally on a majority of web browsers -- points directly to the now-problematic JavaScript function that fails to make Lexia to Perplexia's text visible to contemporary readers.

Excerpts from 'The Personalization of Complexity' by Marjorie Luesebrink

An epigraph calls out an anchor tag, waiting for the "show" that cannot begin. Below, the label that defines that function, the word "show", is highlighted in the same shade of red, where an inserted question mark also generates the first JavaScript syntax error one receives should one attempt to run Luesebrink's modified text in a browser.

In other words, what Luesebrink created is already dealing with this work's horizon: pointing toward a purely lexical, graphical afterlife of Lexia to Perplexia that is nevertheless generatively semantic -- a limitation but an altogether less bleak proposition than the future Hayles imagines when its attendant platforms become obsolete and it, in her estimation, ceases to exist.

Like Luesebrink's, my unauthorized modification of Lexia to Perplexia made small changes, primarily to replace this function with some jQuery, but by restoring Lexia to Perplexia's ability to show us its lexical text, I also managed to hide its dependence on the swarming metastrophe of its artificial environment.

What I did: Original code with my comments, alongside the 'fixed', jQuery equivalent. [Sublime Text with Monokai theme.]What I did: Original code with my comments, alongside the 'fixed', jQuery equivalent.

Memmott's appendix-1.html points to the works's performative status when he describes its creole as "temporary terminology that may only carry a use value within a specific context." In terms of its code, that specific context points directly to Netscape 4 and Internet Explorer 4, so perhaps Lexia to Perplexia's gradual obsolescence, prolonged only by backward-compatibility, is just the final part of its fictive performance.

Word Count: 1441

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