Communication Front 2000 Book, "Crossing Points East-West"

Trivial Insight and the Internet

Yordan Eftimov

[This text was first published as a paper for the conference "Reading in the Age of Media, Computers, and Internet - International Conference in honour of professor Wolfgang Iser's Work," New Bulgarian University - Sofia, Bulgaria, 26-28 February 2000. <>]


In one of his articles Walter Benjamin relates the story of the 'discovery' he made in Marseilles during a hashish smoking session. The revelation that water is wet. Benjamin calls this 'discovery' die triviale (profane) Erleuchtung. [1]

Literature is capable of constructing a parallel world that expands the real one through complex phenomenological procedures. In its 'classical' avatar, the printed word, literature excludes 'trivial enlightenment' as it depends on education and Weltanschauung [2] rather than the 'de-digitalization' of our habits and what we call a priori truths.

The Internet, however, resembles Benjamin's hash in that it creates illusions akin to trivial insight. Everyone feels free to be an author, to participate or to "create" a brand new text. The screen framework helps him 'discover' unexpected hypograms [3] in the texts that have been uploaded on the Web. It leads him to trust the word-combining programs and to consider their results to be proper texts. To believe that he is witnessing the birth of a new literature.


Technology cannot overcome the limit of the human capacity for perception. Sometimes the sheer sound volume can make the viewer fall asleep while watching a musical film. For example, as a schoolboy I used to like Queen and was very surprised to find myself drifting off on both occasions when I watched the promotional documentary 'Magic - Live in Budapest.' But it was happening, and it was due to the volume and frequency of the sound. No matter how much I tried to keep my eyes open, I failed and dozed off.

Computers have not significantly changed cinema. Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book does not expand our perceptive capacity, because the digital editing used by the director obstructs perception and sometimes makes it impossible for the viewer to grasp the whole picture. The effect is tense and exhausting. I'm talking about the practice of using windows that open like Russian dolls inside each other, or parallel windows that follow different plots simultaneously. The effect is similar to that of subtitles: it's hard to divide your attention between them and the foreign film. The structure of The Pillow Book makes for a bad hygiene of readability. That is why such films are regarded as experimental. They serve as border products that mark the outer edges in the attempt to make films tell parallel stories.

Hypertext, which in the eyes of exalted theorists of the Internet is comparable to Borges's works, offers no real technical innovations. Users cannot take advantage of its fluctuality, liquidity and polyvalence beyond what the game books already offer. Because even when hypertext connects to a multitude of other texts, all it allows us are searches of a scientific nature. Hypertext only provides more efficient ways to apply this approach. There is no new type of text. This is because nobody reads the various sites he opens as a unified text. In fact he does not read them as text at all. He simply seeks references.

The function of choice of the Internet user (especially in Eastern Europe) is download. "To pull," "to fetch from the Net." Only after you have downloaded the texts you need, you start reading them from your hard disk. But then the texts are stripped of the supposed infinity of possible references provided on the Internet.


Technology meddles with what could be called the framework of a text, the principle of its activation. The structure of a text never shows up at the point of technological innovations. Technology can take part in the theme, the plot, etc. It can be an object of figurativeness, topics. But the methods of creating a literary character are still the same. Confirmation of this can be found in some of William Gibson's novels. [4] Although they offer an altered setting, they follow a novel structure known since the second half of the XIX Century.

It is worth noting that none of the theorists of the hypertextual boom - George Landow (in his electronic publications), [5] Richard Lanham (The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts), [6] Sven Birkerts (Gutenberg Elegies) [7] - seems to look for phenomenological reference points in his research. Their references are to Umberto Eco's 'Opera aperta,' [8] Roland Barthes' 'writerly' text [9] and Derrida with his non-logocentric text, which they negatively (apophatically) take out of Derrida's critical project. Why? Because these very concepts' operational power has long been diluted in popular science, in a row of talks produced in the tradition of conference tourism. They have been turned into secondary images, have been metaphorized.

Roman Ingarden [10] remains unmentioned. A significant absence. Reception theory [11] is usually absent, too. Why? Because we are not dealing with a new type of text. A phenomenological inquiry would easily show this.


Big software companies are investing in a project called the Open eBook [12] format. It will enable books to get bigger and bigger. To contain images, moving pictures and sound. The Open eBook format will be the next step towards a new opera, a synthetic form of art whose elements are relatively independent and joined by hyperlinks. The question is whether such a synthetic text will really be a book. And whether it will be able to resolve the substantial tension between two mutually incompatible uses of the Internet - for fun and entertainment, and as a database meant to satisfy a scientific interest.

There are two types of Internet users. The first are looking for pornographic sites and computer games - the defining ideology of this type of users is hedonism. Others use the web as a giant data catalog, and then as a library to the extent that this is possible. After all, most researchers consider the defining feature of hypertext to be its referential capacity, the fact that it 'refers' the user to other texts. In this sense, we can pragmatically divide the users into 'pleasure-hunters' and 'scholars.' For the former, the Internet is just one big porno magazine or movie theater, whereas for the latter, it is a catalog in which the distance from the file cards to the texts themselves is reduced to a minimum.


The innovations provided by the Internet do not concern fiction, nor art. They apply solely to the scientific genres. The Internet is just a database, a gigantic reference volume. There is no Borgesian infinity here; everything the Web offers resembles a scientific apparatus. It is therefore hardly surprising that the first books in Open eBook format were encyclopedias, software guides, etc. For example, in one of his articles (Reading and Writing in a Hypertext Environment[13] George Landow suggests that the reader of the hypertext version of his article can "take notes. or write against [his] interpretations, against [his] text" in the same environment used by the author himself, a possibility the reader of a book does not have. Here it is, the place, the locus of trivial insight - the mistake that technology works like a politically radical instrument. In the fact it can only - sometimes with the rhythm of a tango - consolidate the institutions. Technology - and the Internet is by no means an exception to this rule - only works to make the strong stronger. Those who believe that a "hackers' literature" will emerge one day, combining the metaphysical claim of literature with the radical pragmatism of the hacker, are the greatest idealists.


[1] German: the trivial/profane revelation, enlightenment, or illumination; cf. <> - eds.

[2] German: general view of life; cosmological philosophy - eds.

[3] Hypogram: underlying key word, or seed word, that may be supposed to generate a text, without itself necessarily being present in the text - eds.

[4] Some of the novels are available online at <>, others at <> - eds.

[5] Cf. <> and <> - eds.

[6] For a paper in which Lanham summarizes his arguments in "The Electronic Word," cf. <>; Chapter 4 of the book is available at <> - eds.

[7] Excerpts are available at <> and <> - eds.

[8] Umberto Eco, Opera aperta, Milano (1962). English translation: The Open Work, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1989). Cf. Eco's conference paper on "The Future of the Book" <> and his lecture "The Author and His Interpreters" <> - eds.

[9] Writerly text: text which is not consumed passively by the reader, but in which the reader actively complements the writing. Roland Barthes, S/Z. Éditions du Seuil, Paris (1970). Translated by Richard Miller: S/Z, Hill and Wang, New York (1974).

[10] Roman Witold Ingarden (1893-1970), Polish phenomenologist philosopher, student of Edmund Husserl, cf. <> - eds.

[11] Reception theory (German: Rezeptionsästhetik) was initiated by Hans Robert Jauss from the University of Konstanz, Germany. For an overview, cf. <> - eds.

[12] Full information about this industry initiative can be found at <> - eds.

[13] Available at <> - eds.

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