Assuming an intermedial and multimodal perspective when looking at John Barth's short story “AUTOBIOGRAPHY: A Self-Recorded Fiction”, first published in 1968, is an unconventional undertaking, because a written narrative is traditionally considered as belonging to one single medium. The story challenges this attitude, as it employs several means of communication and covertly refers to the relationship between written language and other modes/media. In doing so, the text also draws attention to problems of definition concerning the terms 'intermediality', 'medium' and 'mode'.
Various scholars have recognized the ambiguity of the term 'medium', which is caused by the myriad of manifestations of this abstract concept (cf. Wolf 2). The attempt to acknowledge the entire range of manifestations leads to a definition too broad to be useful, such as “any extension […] of man” (Hiebel 3; qtd. in Wolf 2). A more differentiated approach is provided by other scholars such as Ryan and Kress. Using the definition of the Webster ´ s Dictionary, Ryan distinguished two types of medium, namely the medium as “channel or system of communication, information, or entertainment” (16) and as the “[m]aterial or technical means of artistic expression” (16). The first definition refers to media that “encode[s] [a message] in the mode specific to the medium” (16), such as television, radio and the book, whereas the second definition recognizes media that realize this message in the first instance, such as oil, letters or musical instruments. Through these definitions, Ryan acknowledges intermediality in the sense that there is usually more than one medium involved in encoding, realizing and transmitting a specific message.
Moreover, Ryan mentions the term 'mode', which, in social semiotics, is defined as a semiotic resource “separate from the actual material production of the semiotic product” (Kress 6). A semiotic mode such as language, writing or narrative can be realized in different media. Language, for example, can materialize as speech or writing, which, in turn, can be realized in handwriting or print, and the print can then appear on glossy or matt paper (cf. Kress 6). The traditional novel is widely considered to be monomodal, but “strictly speaking, layout, black letters, paper, and margins on the page are also different modes and meaningful semiotic resources” (Hallet n.p.). Thus, monomodality is merely an accepted assumption when reading literature instead of an actual reality.
The text at hand is an interesting study from an intermedial as well as multimodal point of view, because it employs and refers to different media, questioning conventional notions about written narratives. Typically, printed narratives are analyzed with focus on the temporal nature of the linguistic channel (cf. Ryan 21). Wolfgang Hallet questions this purely philological perspective and calls for a changed approach in order to grasp the multimodal novel, which consists of several media such as printed texts and photographs. However, a more holistic approach is also useful for texts that seemingly apply a single mode, namely writing.
As John Barth's short story illustrates, meaning cannot only be found in linguistic signs, but also in the spatial arrangement of the text. After all, as Ryan rightly states, “narrative is a spatio- temporal construct” (8), not just through the creation of a fictional world, but also in the sense that the space of a page can be actively used to create meaning additional to the text. The traditional negligence of this physical space is similar to the former neglect of spatial descriptions within a literary narrative. Descriptions of narrative space were for a long time considered to be mere decorative support to the narration and it is a fairly recent phenomenon that scholars have begun to analyze the semantic potential of space within narratives (cf. Hallet and Neumann 19). Similarly, the visual and spatial aspects inherent in written texts were for a long time not acknowledged as means of communication distinct from language, or rather, as means as significant as language itself.
Barth uses the book page consciously through the careful arrangement of words and sentences. Whereas the first page and the last two pages consist of many gaps between words, sentences and paragraphs, pages 34 and 35 in the middle of the narrative only feature conventional spaces, such as single gaps between words. The additional spaces on pages 33, 36 and 37 carry meaning that complements, emphasizes and shapes the meaning of the text. The three wide gaps found in the very first sentence of Barth's “AUTOBIOGRAPHY” break up the sentence unit into four subunits of varying size. Through the spatial arrangement, high emphasis is placed on the word “listen” (33), because it is the smallest subunit standing alone. The wide gaps do not only have a visual effect, but also a verbal or temporal effect: The sentence is read more slowly, because the reader stumbles. Relating this difficulty in reading back to the title “AUTOBIOGRAPHY” and to the placement of this sentence at the beginning of the text, one interpretation of the spatial configuration is that the beginning of life and/or a text is a slow and difficult process. On page 33, there are also many short paragraphs which often only contain a single sentence. The observations made concerning the first sentence thus also apply to the rest of this page. In contrast, pages 34 and 35 are filled with linguistic signs, possibly representing the busiest time in human life, when adults want to advance their career, built a home and have a family - all at once. This comes to a halt in the middle of page 36, when the narrator begins to long for the ending of the text/life. Blank spaces again slow down the reading process and separate the introspective thoughts of the narrator from the rest of the text. Most importantly, the last page of the story is almost empty. This emptiness is fairly abrupt as the narrator does not even properly finish his last sentence with a punctuation mark. Empty space, here, is a powerful tool to represent the end of a life and thus nothingness. The specific visual arrangement of the text hence has an effect on the temporal reading process itself, but also on the interpretation of the story. Gaps in writing are used as a method to work around the limits and constraints of language, since blank spaces can express the notion of emptiness/nothingness in a manner that language cannot.
The printed letters of the story are also a “meaningful semiotic resource” (Hallet n.p.) as they are the specific realization of the writing mode. Differences in font as well as the use of capital letters, bold letters or italics have semantic implications. The full title of Barth's short story is “AUTOBIOGRAPHY: A Self-Recorded Fiction” and puts a clear emphasis on “AUTOBIOGRAPHY”, simply by capitalizing the word's individual letters. The title and subtitle as well as several words throughout the text appear in italics. They usually signify that there is a discrepancy between the words in italics and other words, as they are used for French and Latin expressions as well as to portray the introspective thoughts of the narrator. However, italics are not used consistently to mark foreign expressions. For example, “sans ante” (Barth 33) and “in utero” (36) are not italicized. This inconsistency could be a way of drawing attention to the functions of italics, as the reader is puzzled by their arbitrary use.
As has been described, formal features, such as the spatial configuration and the choice of font, challenge the purely philological approach to literature by emphasizing the fact that any text consists of several semiotic systems, even though it may not feature two media that are conventionally defined as distinct.
Statements about visuality can mostly be found in the form of the story, but through the content, the text also refers to the medium of speech. According to the narrator, the text was produced through the merging of a writer and a machine that recorded the writer's voice. It is the child of an author who has told the story to “a mere novel device, just in style” (Barth 34). Intermediality in the form of 'medial transposition' (cf. Rajewsky 51) is thus found in the fictional origin of the story, since Barth characterizes his text as a narrative that was originally an oral narration, which was then recorded and transcribed.