Agrippa, the Eversion of Cyberspace, and Games

The Oxonian Review has just published today an interview with Kevin Begos, the publisher behind the experimental multimedia artist’s book and transmedia happening, Agrippa (1992). Agrippa the work included at its center a poem, “Agrippa,” by William Gibson, which appeared ten years after Gibson coined the term “cyberspace.” The poem was found on a floppy disk physically embedded in the book, and the text of the poem famously encrypted itself as it was read, disappearing as it scrolled down the screen for the first and last time.

(from The Agrippa Files)

Except that the text of the poem was very quickly released into the wild, out on the Internet, and remains available in various versions to this day, as documented and thoroughly analyzed by Matthew Kirschenbaum in his brilliant book, Mechanisms (the book takes its title from Gibson’s poem), and on The Agrippa Files website on which he collaborated with Alan Liu and others, a good example of what Peter Shillingsburg has called a “knowledge site,” a kind of collaborative, multimedia archive of the larger work that is Agrippa.

Back in the 1990s, the work was represented by many as a paradigmatic example of the immaterial, disembodied nature of the network and its hacker elite–a text that appeared to literally dissolve into thin air! It took Kirschenbaum’s forensic and materialist textual analysis to reveal that it was actually something very different, a prime example of multiply material textuality in the digital age.

I would add that Agrippa as a work–digital poem, physical book including artwork, performance and “transmission,” afterlife on the Internet–is the far-flung network it spawned, something like a distributed game of meaning, a view that would seem to be supported by remarks made by Begos and his interviewer, Courtney Traub, in today’s piece.

Begos: . . . I doubt that there would be any publisher ready to experiment with such innovation, which tends to be driven by artists and designers rather than the companies themselves.

I would contrast this to the enormous investment that online game makers have made. It’s come out of virtually nowhere to become this multibillion-dollar world market. Hypercompetitive but constantly evolving—there’s this incredible competition to make games more realistic and more experimental, and it’s attracting a lot of creative people.

Traub: I think many people might argue that much of the true narrative experimentation is taking place in the games realm. The experimentation people thought would be happening with books is going on more in gaming.

Begos: I think that’s completely true. That’s where the real developments are taking place and legitimate breakthroughs in terms of how people interact with artwork and with each other. They’ve built platforms that will evolve.

One way to further our understanding of Agrippa now, I’d suggest, would be to compare it to games, and especially trans-platform games such as ARGs, which deliberately play with the interpenetration of digital data and physical objects and spaces. Kirschenbaum recently suggested on Twitter that Agrippa anticipated the New Aesthetic. I’d argue that it’s an early harbinger by the inventor of cyberspace of the eversion of the network, its transformation out into the mixed-reality experienced most effectively and widely embodied today in games. Agrippa appeared in 1992, ten years after “Burning Chrome” introduced the term “cyberspace.” But The Agrippa Files, and thus the involvement of the new Digital Humanities with this mixed-reality artifact, went online in December 2005–a crucial moment when, as Gibson was just then on the verge of saying in print, the network was everting. The timeline is meaningful, and the connections between Agrippa, the new Digital Humanities, the eversion of cyberspace, and games, are richly suggestive, as I’m beginning to see.

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