Halloween night. A clumsy hand-held camera shot ascends the steep steps outside a narrow red brick house in Cincinnati, Ohio. Camera operator trips on the final step, staggers across the porch, and the camera smashes into the front door providing an extreme close-up of several dead insects caught in the deteriorating screen. Hands are seen fumbling with house keys. Finally, door is unlocked and opened and shot enters a small apartment cluttered with books. Camera attempts to display some of the book titles but has difficulty maintaining focus. Shot proceeds into the next room, which contains a double bed, a desk completely obscured by huge piles of paper, and numerous bookshelves crammed haphazardly with books. Shot focuses on a man, smoking a large calabash pipe, his back to the camera, working at an extremely ancient computer that apparently uses some form of the obsolete Hamster Wheel Drive.
Occasionally, squeaking is heard as the hamster makes attempts to run in its metal wheel.
Narrator: Welcome to this week’s edition of Hard_Code Theater, sponsored tonight by the Unknown. And now here’s your host, Dirk Stratton.
The man at the computer attempts to swivel gracefully to face the camera but, as he is sitting in an ordinary chair, only manages to do a spectacular pratfall that leaves him prostrate at the foot of the bed. His pipe has flown from his mouth only to land on the bed where the ashes begin smoldering. A small fire begins consuming the down comforter and the man frantically extinguishes the fire using an American Heritage dictionary. He picks up the pipe, places it in his mouth, composes himself, and begins to speak.
Dirk Stratton: Greetings. Tonight I’m standing in a room that has seen its share of history. Just over two years ago, at this very computer, the Unknown composed the infamous “Halloween scenes” of that landmark piece of hypertext fiction, The Unknown. Other scenes, of varying quality and importance, also originated at this location, as well as several fascinating and wide-ranging freewheeling discussions fueled by excessive drinking and the ever-fertile minds behind the twentieth century’s grandest hypertext experiment. Unfortunately, those conversations have been lost, due to faulty taping equipment and the subsequent black-outs suffered by the participants, but rest assured, they were stimulating and insightful and the literary world would undoubtedly have been altered forever had even small portion of what was said in this cramped locale survived. In an attempt to recapture some of the passion of those legendary bull sessions, Hard_Code Theater has returned to this hallowed spot in order to cast some light on the pressing questions being posed by the forthcoming Hard_Code anthology. We don’t pretend to understand exactly what the editors want for this anthology, but clueless ignorance has never stopped the Unknown from blindly forging ahead into… well, the unknown. Join me now for an exhilarating hour of intellectual hi-jinx and theoretical acrobatics as the Unknown wrestles with the implications of coding and literature.
Dirk uprights the overturned chair and settles down in front of the computer. He begins typing. Camera zooms in on the screen, but is again unable to maintain the proper focus. Camera gives up and wanders off. Eventually, its meanderings are violently interrupted by an obviously irritated Dirk who forces the camera to begin filming him again.
Dirk: What are you doing, you moron? Follow the script, goddammit!
Camera Operator: Dirk, there is no script. We’re making this up as we go along.
Dirk: Oh. Right.… Well, when I was first contacted about contributing to the Hard_Code anthology, my thoughts immediately turned to Roland Barthes’seminal work S/Z, in which Balzac’s short story”Sarrasine” is masterfully deconstructed by revealing the intricate play between, what Barthes called, “codes.” As I recall, Barthes identified five codes: the… uh… semiotic, the… the cultural, I think, the… dammit, what the hell did he call them? Let’s look it up. I have the book here somewhere.
Dirk begins looking through his books, alternating between mutters and curses.
Dirk: Jesus H.! Where the hell is that damn book? I’ve got to get these things in order some day. Shit. I know I have it somewhere. Or did I lend it to someone? Fuck! I don’t know what I have and what I don’t anymore. Goddammit. Where is the friggin’ thing? It should be easy enough to recognize, the pale yellowish cover… Christ almighty, I give up. This sucks. Shit! Shit shit shit shit shit.
Dirk stands motionless for a moment, takes a visibly deep breath, and then turns once again to face the camera.
Dirk: My apologies. It seems that my copy of S/Z has disappeared somewhere, so I guess I’ll have to forego that part of my presentation. Just as well, probably. Wouldn’t want to get all esoteric and lose whatever audience is still with us. A English major’s bad habit, anyway, running immediately to some theoretical authority to pad out some weak premise and add a bunch of footnotes. But believe me, I’m sure Barthes could well be relevant to these proceedings. And S/Z is a great book. Read it some time… if you have the time and can find your copy. And the Balzac story ain’t bad, either. All about castrati and… and other interesting things.
Anyway, my whole point was going to be that it’s time to add a new code to the list, the Hard_Code, however you define it, and I’m guessing that such a definition is one of the goals of the Hard_Code anthology. William has recently begun an ambitious series of Unknown scenes to dramatize this crucial search for definition. In this first scene,”coding” is taken extremely literally, though everyone was too embarrassed to point out to William that he was actually describing a cipher, not a code. Cipher? Code? Why get picky? Everyone knows what he means, right? I don’t see why we have to continue harping on this matter, the fact that I am currently consuming Harp Lager notwithstanding.