A Window Toward the Medium: A Media Specific Analysis of Chemical Landscapes Digital Tales


Reading a work of digital fiction can be a challenging experience for anyone who is approaching it from a print-oriented stance. Paying particular attention to the materiality of the medium in which the work is presented can be a useful tool and this is what N. Katherine Hayles has emphasized upon by coining the phrase Media-Specific Analysis. This approach to texts, as its name states, is based on exploring the materiality of the medium in which the work is instantiated as an active component in the signifying process. The case study chosen for this paper, Chemical landscapes digital tales (2006) by Edward Falco, brings its materiality into the foreground and makes it an essential part of the reading process. In order to devise a working method for the media-specific analysis of this work (and other works of web-fiction) three different but interrelated dimensions of the text—physical organization and design, narrative strategy, and reading process—will be analyzed in this paper.

La lecture d'une œuvre de fiction numérique peut s'avérer une expérience stimulante pour quiconque l'aborde selon une optique d'impression. Il peut être utile de prêter une attention particulière au caractère substantiel du médium dans lequel l'œuvre est présentée et c'est sur ce point que N. Katherine Hayles a mis l'emphase en inventant l'expression Analyse Spécifique aux Médias (Media-Specific Analysis). Cette manière d'aborder les textes, comme son nom l'indique, est basée sur l'exploration du caractère substantiel du médium dans lequel l'ouvrage est instancié comme une composante active du processus de signification. L'étude de cas choisie pour cet article, Chemical landscapes digital tales (2006) de Edward Falco, ramène son importance au premier plan et en fait une partie essentielle du processus de lecture. Afin d'élaborer une méthode de travail pour l'analyse spécifique aux médias de cet ouvrage (et d'autres ouvrages de fiction web), cet article analysera trois dimensions de ce texte à la fois différentes et reliées entre elles, c'est-à-dire l'organisation et la conception physique, la stratégie narrative et le processus de lecture.


Materiality, medium, design, narrative, reading, web-fiction

How to Cite

Sedaghat Payam, M. (2016). A Window Toward the Medium: A Media Specific Analysis of Chemical Landscapes Digital Tales. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, 6(5). DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/dscn.19


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On the other side of a novel lies the void. Think for instance, of a striding statue; imagine the purposeful inclination of the torso, the alert and penetrating gaze of the head and its eyes, the outstretched arm and pointing finger; everything would appear to direct us toward some goal in front of it. Yet your eye travels only to the finger's end, and not beyond. Though pointing, the finger bids us stay instead, and we journey slowly back along the tension of the arm. In our hearts we know what actually surrounds the statue. The same surrounds every work of art: empty space and silence. (Gass 1971, 49).


It might seem too obvious that works of digital fiction require a different method of reading than works of print fiction. What might seem even more obvious to anyone who has browsed the works published in the first two volumes of ELO, is that every single work asks the reader to apply a unique method of reading. This is why the "Instruction" section on the introduction page of each work offers guidelines for readers on how they should approach each text. However, is it possible to devise a reading method which can be used for a majority of the works of digital fiction which addresses their media-specificity as well as their narrative(s) and organization? This issue has been explored by several prominent scholars of the field (Ryan 2004, 2006, 2014; Hayles 2008; Bernstein and Greco 2009), but few of these works have suggested practical frameworks for it.

What this paper presents is a method for reading the works of digital fiction presented on the web—referred to as web-fiction here—and analyzing one of these works by this method. One of the prominent scholars in the field of digital literature, N Katherine Hayles, advocates a method of reading called Media-Specific Analysis (MSA) which involves paying particular attention to the materiality of the medium in which the work of fiction is presented. The importance of Hayles' analytical method is that it provides a practical method for thinking about text as a semiotic object, and provides a new perspective to think and write about texts. One of the advantages of Hayles' approach is that it brings the medium to the foreground from the very beginning and can be applied for the analysis of both print and digital works of fiction.

According to Hayles in Print is flat, code is deep: The importance of media-specific analysis, MSA is defined as: "A mode of critical attention which recognizes that all texts are instantiated and that the nature of the medium in which they are instantiated matters" (2004, 67). This definition of text as a necessarily instantiated semiotic object as Hayles later in the same essay discusses, brings the materiality of the medium to the foreground because it identifies the crucial role that the materiality of the medium plays in the signification and interpretation process. Hayles defines two essential components for the materiality of the medium: "Materiality is reconceptualized as the interplay between a text's physical characteristics and its signifying strategies, a move that entwines instantiation and signification at the outset" (ibid.). The advantage of this definition is that it does not assign pre-defined roles to these two aspects and the first step in interpretation is acknowledging the role that "physical resources" and "signifying strategies" play in shaping its materiality. These two aspects have a dynamic relationship and either one might have varying degrees of "effectivity" in shaping a text's meaning, but breaking the materiality of the text into these two factors means "ensuring that discussions about the text's 'meaning' will also take into account its physical specificity as well" (ibid). Thus, as a model for the study of the works of web-fiction, three different but interrelated dimensions of the fictional text have been identified. The first dimension is Physical Organization and Design in which the materiality of the text from the perspective of the use of its physical resources, its authorship, and design has been analyzed. The second dimension is Narrative Strategy, and through this angle the materiality of the text from the perspective of the use of its physical resources and signifying strategies to create a narrative is analyzed. The third angle is the Reading Process, in which, as its name states, the materiality of the text in the dimension of its shaping the experience of the reader has been explored.

Chemical landscapes digital tales

Edward Falco's Chemical landscapes digital tales as its name suggests has two parts, "chemical landscapes" and "digital tales." These landscapes, in a process which resembles photography but differs from it, have been generated chemically, and stress their non-representational status. In this process light has been emitted from a flash light to the chemicals in a dark room. The digital tales refer to the stories which Edward Falco has written for these photograms. These tales as the meaning of the word tale implies are short narrative works which appear and disappear on the screen along with the eight other photograms. What distinguishes these tales from the other tales is that these are machine-generated and made to disappear before the reader has enough time to read them. By assigning the name of landscape to those swashes of color, the writer is giving those works a value which is arbitrary, just like the conventional relationship between material form of the signs and the concepts to which they refer. While there is no obvious relationship between these two, their presence together in this work highlights that what has been established as the meaning or reference of a sign is maintained by tradition. The author encourages this association by stating: "I hope the relationship of language and narrative to the 'tale' parallels the relationship of light and chemicals to the 'landscape'." In other words, the author here is trying to "parallel" the way the images have been created by fashioning narrative in way that shows that neither image nor words are directly referential, and the meaning which is assigned to them exists by convention. This puts them in complete contrast to traditional works of fiction in which the assumption is complete authorial control over the text. In this work, author does not claim complete authorial control, and instead underlines the role of chance (there is no order/sequence to determine where/which part of the screen the reader should click first) and the control exerted by machine over the act of reading.

Physical organization and design

An important aspect of Chemical landscapes digital tales is how it separately acknowledges its three main features (the linguistic section, photograms, and the digital materiality, that is, its website design and other machine functions and dimensions) by bringing the different names which have been responsible in creating each of them on its graphical user interface. On the level of formal materiality this work takes advantage of the HTML and Dynamic HTML (DHTML) in order to present its GUI through the Adobe Flash platform. On the "instruction" section for this work on the ELO website, the way the reader should engage with this work is explained. This section highlights the different materiality of each work and what is the expected reading process and what should a reader do to be able to initiate the dynamic relationship with the physical resources of the work so that the materiality of the work emerges through this process and presents itself to the reader.

After the introduction page comes the front page where one of the photograms stands as the background (Figure 1). Almost all of these photograms are divided into a sky section at the top and another part (presumably land) at the bottom section. It is not possible to click on the sky section, but the land section is divided into eight parts, and depending on where you click, you are taken into one of those photograms. Clicking from left to right, the first few words which appear for each photograms is as follows:

  • Top left: Through this field…
  • Bottom left: Rain
  • Top middle left: The interior of dreamer's eye
  • Bottom middle left: Placid
  • Top middle right: Rough seas
  • Bottom middle right: Sky overhead
  • Top right: A blue spine of land

There is no particular sequence in the way these photograms are linked to each other and the order mentioned above is not made obvious by the text. After several readings, the place of each photogram on the screen can be figured out as it is mentioned above. However, this does not make any difference to the notion of chance as distinct from authored sequence because following the order stated above does not produce a narrative sequence with some sense of completion or closure.

Figure 1: A screen grab of the GUI for Chemical landscapes digital tales.

A screen grab of the GUI for Chemical
            landscapes digital tales.

The design of this work brings together these eight photograms with their ensuing "tale" under the GUI which itself is number four on the list. Such a design incorporates the GUI into the work by making it both the navigation tool and a part of this navigation. By doing that, it makes GUI a "dynamic space" and in this sense it becomes, in Drucker's words, "what we read and how we read combined through engagement" (Drucker 2011, 9).

Since the organization and the borders of each photogram do not follow any specific orders, it is possible to access any of the photograms without going through the others first. The dynamic layering in this work operates in a more literal way because it brings a layer of image and a layer of words together, keeps them together for a short while, and then takes them apart again.

Figure 2: Three stages of the appearance and disappearance of the text on the screen in Chemical landscapes digital tales.

Three stages of the appearance and disappearance of the
        text on the screen in Chemical landscapes
            digital tales.Three stages of the appearance and disappearance of the
        text on the screen in Chemical landscapes
            digital tales.Three stages of the appearance and disappearance of the
        text on the screen in Chemical landscapes
            digital tales.

An important feature of Chemical landscapes digital tales is that it tries to distinguish its webpages from lexia. George Landow (1992) defines this term which has been originally been used by Roland Barthes as "blocks of text…in a digital medium." But in works of the first generation of hypertext fiction, lexia was one stable part of the network which was part of the whole narrative of the work of fiction and could be quite short or quite long. However, the lexia here is transformed into an unstable page which exists in absentia; it only appears when it is summoned by the reader and then disappears right before her eyes before she has had enough time to read it (Figure 2).

The time of the reading becomes quite an important feature here and dictates a specific kind of reading to the reader. This puts the readers in a completely different experience of reading from what the early readers of Afternoon had experienced. For them the text was stable and they wanted something more, so they kept clicking until they became bored and stopped reading. Here the reader must be completely attentive to the text to be able to read a little part of it.

What the writer aims to achieve by adding the "reading time" factor to his work is to highlight the graphic surface of Chemical landscapes digital tales and by doing that draws attention to the role of the medium that instantiates his work. By making the part of the text which traditionally provides most access to meaning unstable, or in other words, unavailable for as long as the reader needs or wants to attend to it, the instability here is transferred from the reader's length of attention to the text's length of appearance which opens up a consideration of the way in which all experience is fragmented, imprecise, and remembered in flashes. Therefore, that which we claim to know from it rests on imprecision and incompleteness.

Narrative strategy

Falco, in the introduction to this work, has stated that "[the linguistic components] like the images, are abstract, mentioning an event or scene and inviting readers to imagine the characters and relationships involved." In this way, abstract chemical landscapes parallel the status of language itself. In the same way that an abstract painting is open to various interpretations without any one of them being the final interpretation, the response of each reader to narratives suggested here by the scenes or events mentioned can be different and in this way the work becomes more similar to the works of minimalist painters and writers.

The abstract landscapes, and the words which are meant to parallel their abstraction, intensify the opportunities to construct narrative discourses and stories out of the words and phrases which are presented on the screen for a short time. The narrative here becomes the result of the choosing of words from different parts of the screen and their coming together which may or may not create a context for their collocation. This kind of arrangement is a direct result of the dynamic layering which now occurs at the level of the linguistic section. The group of words written for each photogram is retrieved on the screen through a single click, then the few words which a reader can read in that short span of time along with the accompanying photogram can suggest a narrative or a part of narrative. So the narrative has to be built piecemeal, and it is the reader who has to bring those words together and move them back and forth, or in other words arrange them according to the way she thinks would make more sense, so that a narrative is constructed.

Another aspect of this abstraction at the linguistic level of this work is that it becomes more similar to flash fiction and minimalist works in which the reader has to fill in the gaps. In this sense the narrative becomes a possibility within a work that requires the reader to actively engage with both the medium and the linguistic signs within that medium to create it. As Ciccoricco (2012) has argued, revisiting those pages brings the close reading of a text to the foreground.

Story (1)

The narrator (I) is in a deeply distressed state of mind following the ending of a relationship, but tries to keep outwardly an appearance of calm and engages with his feelings only in dreams.

Story (2)

The narrator (I) is alone following the ending of a relationship. He tries to find a correlative in nature for his feelings, but has to recognize that natural events have no actual, but only a perceived, connection to his state of mind. The place of their convergence is the border between land/sea and sky, which is also the border between objective and subjective states of affairs, which he maintains by appearing outwardly calm. It is only in dreaming that his subjective situation becomes accessible to him; his dreams manifest the extent of his sense of loss, as he can only recover anything of her in dreams, and those dreams are mostly associated with anger, sickness, emptiness. The one exception is a dream of childhood, of a boy swimming and experiencing complete freedom. But he knows that dreaming cannot change his present situation, and that the hope implied by the change from storm to calm in nature does not transfer to human experiences.

It goes without saying that these stories are highly personalized constructions out of the possible pool of stories, and other postgraduates and colleagues created other stories which range from the story of Genesis to that of a guy who is hallucinating on a stretcher. This wide range of stories becomes possible because each photogram is accompanied by a unique layer of words which becomes available on the GUI for a short time and then disappears. So this abstraction has resulted in a work which through engaging its materiality in the presentation of its narrative has opened up a wide variety of possible stories.

Reading process

The reading process of this work is explained at the introduction that Falco, its author has written for it:

My hope is that the reader will recognize the necessity of jumping around in the text, picking up pieces of the tale to read and ignoring other pieces, thereby creating a different experience with each reading. If you think of reading a traditional story as a journey with a beginning, a middle, and an end, then reading a hypertext is like walking through a field: readers begin at any one of several different starting points, wander around as long as they like, and then exit wherever and whenever they choose. (ELO Website)

The metaphor of walking through a field, as the writer mentions, means that there are no pre-designed paths to follow. Also, as we saw above, you do not necessarily need to visit certain pages in order to get the permission to visit other pages which the writer has placed behind some restrictive system such as guard-fields. You can run in any direction and visit anywhere that you want to. Here the work asks to be read through selecting the pieces, and openly claims that the narration of a work of web-fiction can only be served piecemeal, one bit from here, one bit from there, and you always know that your reading is incomplete and you have to create a narrative from those pieces which you have already read.

The time limit adds a temporal dimension to the text which shows that in the same way that narrative moves in time, the act of reading is also time-based. However since the allocated time for each screen is significantly shorter than the time required to read it, Chemical landscapes digital tales works against normalizing the act of reading and providing the reader with the ease of reading a work of fiction. In other words, the reader has to constantly engage with a medium which at the same time reveals the story and then makes it fade away before her very own eyes. Since the reader cannot click anywhere on the sky section of the work, and the story only appears by clicking on the land/landscape section of the screen, the writer is also implying that the stories do not exist in the immaterial realm of the sky (as opposed to the material realm of the land), and it is through engaging with the material medium and the body, that a (potential) story takes place; these stories may be about the skies or the land, but it is the land which can be the originator of the story, not the sky above. While the text is brought up, the background turns into white and in a way it parodies the act of reading a print work (black on white), and its ephemerality in the culture, as Joyce (1995) had said that the book is "momentarily" an "instantiation of the network."

Some experimental authors like Gass have attempted to show that the fictional represented world is not a real world and this world is an artifact designed and made by the author. The narrative strategy of this work does the same thing too. As soon as the reader clicks on the bottom part of the screen, one of the eight narratives emerges and then fades into white and fades away before it allows the reader the chance to fully read it. Therefore, the representation moves toward de-presentation and brings the role of the medium, which is the interference of the machine here, to the foreground.

The non-transparent status of the work is also stressed here. By creating something through an artificial method, and then naming it a landscape, one is actually paralleling the act of creating a fictional world and giving its agent/characters and settings familiar names. It is an effort to create a world which is not the outside world, but has certain similarities to that world, in the same way that those landscapes are not real landscapes, but have similarities to the landscape as such.


Every written narrative at its best represents an abstract (fictional) landscape in the mind of the reader and this is something that the figural covers of most books betray. In works of web-fiction the represented fictional world which has been given shape by the author only takes shape in the mind of the reader through the reader's engagement with the text. The underlying physical organization of this work is a window toward the medium, and this is how it becomes similar to Gass's metaphorical statue. The same opening frame is repeated in the text to foreground the experience of reading and in that way it becomes similar to the looking at a statue. The gaze of reader moves along the photogram, but after a short while, the front page re-inserts itself in the experience of reading. In fact, reading is different here in the way that it involves engaging with the medium rather than seeing through it.

This work comments on and criticizes the way earlier writers of hypertext fiction had divided up their lexia for the readers, imposing a rhythm for reading which as Aarseth (1997) depicts is more restrictive than the rhythm imposed on reading by the print narratives. As it can be seen, dividing chunks of texts written by and for the computer is arbitrary, and there are no hard and fast rules for how many words should be there in a lexia (as opposed to a page of a book which almost contains the same number of words as the other pages), and though some lexias are densely filled with words, others contain fewer words, and there are even some with only one or two letters in works like Afternoon. The normal practice for a reader of a work like Afternoon is that she should read to the end of the lexia and then click on the words which yield. However, Chemical landscapes digital tales eliminates this spatial arrangement and exerts a temporal limitation on the act of reading which allows only a couple of words to be read before it fades out. This feature makes media more visible and makes it a part of the message it is aiming to convey. It also forces the reader to make a mental connection between the photogram on the screen, the words which he has read in his previous reading, and the words which he reads at that specific moment when the text fades in again.

Works cited / Liste de références

Aarseth, Espen J. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic literature. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bernstein, Mark, and Diane Greco, eds. 2009. Reading hypertext. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems. Print.

Ciccoricco, David. 2012. "Networked narratives." In The Routledge companion to experimental literature, ed. Joe Bray, Alison Gibbons, and Brian McHale, 469-483. London; New York: Routledge.

Drucker, Johanna. 2011. "Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory." Culture Machine 12: 1-20. http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/viewArticle/434.

Falco, Edward. 2006. Chemical landscapes digital tales. Electronic Literature Collection Volume One.

Gass, William H. 1971. Fiction & the figures of life. New York: Knopf.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2004 "Print is flat, code is deep: The importance of media-specific analysis." Poetics Today 25.1: 67–90.

───. 2008. Electronic literature: New horizons for the literary. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame.

Joyce, Michael. 1990. Afternoon: A story. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems.

───. 1995. Of two minds: Hypertext pedagogy and poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Landow, George P. 1992. Hypertext: The convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2004. Narrative across media: The languages of storytelling. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

───. 2006. Avatars of story. U of Minnesota Press.

───. 2014. Storyworlds across media. Baltimore: Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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Mehdy Sedaghat Payam (Sobhe Sadegh Institute of Higher Education)





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