Monthly Archives: August 2013

Contents of Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse

On August 8, pioneering electronic literature artist, John McDaid, read through his hypermedia novel Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse.  As part of the Pathfinders project, we captured his performance on video.  This small clip of the longer video provides scholars with a complete inventory of the contents of the “black box” in which the work was packaged and distributed.  We would like to thank our videographer Aaron Wintersong who did both the camera work and editing.  The complete “traversal,” as we are calling these performances will be freely available later as a Scalar publication.

Inventories of John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse

931037-MJohn McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse is, as mentioned in the previous post, out of print and impossible to find used.  Therefore, scholars wanting to learn more about the work are forced to turn to secondary sources for  information.  Googling the title nets 32,300 hits, which seems a significant number that, at first glance, could shed light on the novel. In truth, it is really difficult to understand the breadth of McDaid’s genius through secondary sources without having access to a complete inventory of the contents of the box that constitutes the work, the art forms with which he experiments, and the media involved in the notion of Uncle Buddy as a “hypermedia novel”–and none of this information is readily found online.

At a time when works of electronic literature were packaged in slim folios of cardboard or vinyl, Uncle Buddys’ came in a box, a black one with silver lettering.  And because the boxes were purchased from a candy company, the publisher Mark Bernstein, according to McDaid, referred to Uncle Buddy’s box as “the chocolate box of death.”  The conceit upon which Uncle Buddy’s was built (Re:  you receive a box of seemingly random items from your Uncle Buddy’s estate) was derived seesfrom McDaid’s personal experience:  In 1986, the same year McDaid began work on Uncle Buddy’s, his dying Aunt Rita sent him a See’s candy box filled with odds and ends that constituted a portion of her “estate” she wished to give McDaid. It may be impossible to tell from this photo, but some of these contents included a 5 pound note from the Provincial Bank of Ireland, a calendar she used for remembering the  medicine she took each day, and a gift card.

ubpf-boxThe contents of Uncle Buddy’s box includes five floppies (or the later version, one CD); a booklet introducing you to the work with directions for how to get started (in the later version, the booklet is condensed into one small sheet); two audio cassettes of music; one letter from a publisher; and one set of page proofs of a science fiction short story.  While these items, like those in Aunt Rita’s box, may seem at first incongruent, they aren’t. Instead, all equally serve as elements comprising the narrative.  A case in point, the borrowed copy I have includes only four working cassettes, the booklet, and the publisher’s letter.  To access the work, one really needs to load the information on all five of the cassettes into a folder on the computer desktop for the work to function properly–four just won’t do.  The publisher’s letter makes no sense without the page proofs because without them, the reader is not clued into Uncle Buddy’s interest in science fiction or that the genre permeates the work.  Without the audio cassettes, the lyrics that make up part of the work are untethered and, more importantly, it also eliminates one of the media from the multimedia.

Additionally, Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse experiments with artistic forms and genres.  We find generative text, photography, hypertext fiction, musical lyrics, music, sound, images, animation, the multimedia book, and text driving a story that is all at once science fiction, mystery, game, farce, and children’s book.

ubpf-mediaIn a sense, Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse goes beyond even what Ted Nelson claims in  The Literary Machine (1987) literature to be:  a “system of interconnected writings.” McDaid’s literature, instead, includes a vast array of interconnected letters, email messages, tarot cards, riddles, conference program, journal (replete with essays), story story, book, screenplay, poster for a film festival, poetry, and, of course, code.  Also part of this imaginative world are audio cassettes, the system audio utilized in the narrative, a map, and photos and illustrations.  It is important to note that McDaid produced all of the writing and media himself, and the section of the work called Hyper Earth presages Google Earth, right down to naming the view from the street, the “street view.”

Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse is an opus and, I would add, a work of genius. It may very well be the first work of multimedia, and, along with William Gibson’s Agrippa, one of the first works of  electronic literature to come packaged in a box and augmented with additional media.  It may also be considered one of the first artists’ books of electronic literature. When I read this last paragraph, I am glad that Stuart Moulthrop wrote me on that August evening in 2012 from Santa Cruz where he was attending a workshop with Anne Balsamo, Tara McPherson, and other “DH folks” and invited me to join them all in a grant “to make video records of readings of early e-lit works.”  It has turned out to be considerably more than that.  As I mentioned in the previous post, we are contributing to the history of electronic literature, and part of that history is making others aware of the rich and complex works, like Uncle Buddy’s, that generated from the early digital literature of the late 20th century.



A Case for [Electronic] Literary History: John McDaid and Pathfinders


The Pathfinders Team (sans Moulthrop) with John McDaid in the Electronic Literature Lab at WSUV

The Pathfinders team worked this week with John McDaid to preserve his work, Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse. Begun in 1986 as a challenge to write a novel that no one else could write, Uncle Buddy’s was expressed in hypermedia and published by Eastgate Systems in 1993.  It constitutes the second work we have documented now––Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden was the guinea pig that tested our theories and plans.  While we recognized the importance of documenting these works for posterity,  it was Uncle Buddy’s, a work out of print and impossible to find even used––that made us acutely aware of the historical implications of our efforts.  The fact of the matter is, Pathfinders is about contributing to the future of literature through documenting its past––and the past we are documenting focuses on the digital literary experiments that emerged in the 1980s and has continued to grow and develop into what we call electronic literature today. We are, in effect, involved in creating the infrastructure for a literary history of electronic literature.

IMG_1572I have to admit that I love literary history and have, in my life, collected volumes of books about it. Baugh’s A Literary History of England, published in 1948, is a case in point. Close to 1700 pages, the book covers over a thousand years of English literary heritage, beginning with the middle ages. The copy I own was purchased second-hand well after I finished my undergraduate degrees in French and English and merely studying British literature for my own edification. I was delighted to find the previous author’s marginalia and underlined text, for they linked me to the book’s own history. At the first university where I held  a tenure-track position, the PhD students in my department were required to know the literary history of England and America, in a strict chronology, for their exams.  The department has long since revised this requirement, but during those early years of my career the “Baugh,” as I called it, served as a sort of bible for me because I was not an expert in British  literature and needed to have at my disposal the information it contained between its covers.  Keep in mind this was the mid 1990s when the browser was just introduced and the web still in its infancy. Books like the Baugh constituted the references we used for research.

Eschew literary history all you want––and, yes, making grad students memorize historical “facts” found in them for their exams is a good reason to complain––but print literary scholars at least have a documented history to argue about or from.  Those of us working in electronic literature should be so fortunate. We are working to construct ours, pixel by pixel, frame by frame, tag by tag.  Making the task challenging is the fact that the works we seek to historicize are rendered obsolete sometimes seemingly overnight.  The truth is, in order to have a history, one needs a stable present so that one can readily study the works one needs for that historicization. Pathfinders represents one of many efforts scholars in the U.S. and abroad are undertaking to document the heritage of electronic literature before it is too late.

I use the phrase, too late, not so lightly.  During the panel presentation that I participated in at the 2013 Digital Humanities conference held in Lincoln, NE, an audience member asked the panelists how early electronic literature was received by the public when these works were first released.  Two of us in the room (a man in the back of the room and me) of about 50 people could share with the audience the memory of picking up the slim folio (that contained the floppy disk and directions for how to install and interact with the work) of a hypertext novel in our hands and trying to figure out how to begin reading the work.  The truth of the matter is that when that man and I are dead and gone from this world, it may very well be up to pure conjecture to figure out what people thought of these works when they were first released.  We absolutely have no idea what people thought the first time they heard the Odyssey recited by the Homeric poet either, but we expect to have this gap of cultural history with a work written thousands of years ago when orality was the only mode for sharing one’s heritage.  However, in an age when we have such such a wide variety of communication channels with which to express our views, not having a record of human experience with a cultural object produced a mere 20 years ago is a problem.

More challenging is that even if you got your hands on a copy of Uncle Buddy’s (doubtful, as I mentioned earlier, since it is currently out of print), you would need a Macintosh computer running the Classic operating system with the ability to read either floppies or a CD and loaded with Hypercard.  Without it, you cannot do much except explore the contents of Uncle Buddy’s estate contained in the box with little idea of how the various items connect to the story.


John McDaid giving his traversal of Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse

So, this week the Pathfinders team documented John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse.  McDaid was on hand to give a traversal;  an in-depth interview about the works’ origins, its influences, and its challenges; and a public lecture. Two readers joined us to traverse the works themselves.  Taken together, these activities should provide information that will help others to gain a better understanding of this particular work and the experiments that led to the development of electronic literature.  We will post here at this website information about the work, including: 1) a complete inventory of the contents of his box (replete with photos of each), 2) a complete inventory of the media included in the work itself, and 3) a complete inventory of the art forms he experiments with in the work.  The special video of John opening the box containing Uncle Buddy’s (what he said Mark Bernstein referred to as “the chocolate box of death”) and talking about each item and the part each plays in the story will also be made available.

So, I have a vision.  Hear me out, and don’t laugh. One day, 70 years from now, literary scholars will argue about the 1700 pages (or screens or whatever the heck they  call the presentational modality at that time) of electronic literary history that some future Baugh has painstakingly detailed.  These scholars will exclaim that such labor is not necessary, will complain that such work is hegemonic, a  master narrative in need of overhaul. In that imagined future, these scholars can well afford the luxury of rejecting literary history.  But we can’t.  Not today when we cannot even locate Uncle Buddy’s at our local library.