Hypertext

At last, now, I turn to "hypertext," which I take as paradigmatic of electronic text. Ted Nelson, the computer activist and visionary who coined the word "hypertext," defines it as "non-sequential writing--text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways."/25/ Thus, hypertext consists (here the language varies) of nodes or writing spaces, connected by links created either by the author/creator or by the reader/user. By activating an existing link or by creating a new one, the reader can jump from node to node, and thus blaze a trail through the network or web that is the "docuverse"/26/ of the hypertext.

The experience of navigating through a hypertext is not entirely alien to readers of print. For example, the cross references in a study Bible are a type of hypertextual linkage, but the reader has to do a laborious manual search to find the cross-referenced text. Imagine if it were to pop onto the computer screen instantly. Or again, jumping from the main body of this paper to the footnotes below is also a hypertextual jump./27/ But if this paper were constructed as a hypertext, I could create links from the footnotes to their own footnotes, or to computer files containing the complete texts of the works in my bibliography, which themselves could be linked to still further texts, and so on, as long as human perseverance and computer storage space permits. Theorists of hypertext commonly suggest that many of the most intriguing works of modernist fiction strain against the limitations of the printed page, crying out for the freedom and fluidity of hypertext. Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and Borges's "Library of Babel" and "Garden of Forking Paths" are a few of the modernist works of fiction that might be more at home in hypertext than in print./28/

Hypertext is not just words. Since it operates on digital electronic computers, hypertext can include anything that can be digitized electronically: scanned images (including color photographs), stereo sound, video, and animation. Therefore, when I use the word "hypertext," I use it broadly to include "hypermedia" or "interactive multimedia."/29/

Hypertext is not limited to the storage capacity of one's own desktop computer. By its nature, electronic media is networked media, and the computers of the world are increasing connected in networks such as the Internet./30/ Through the World WideWeb (="WWW"), one can explore the riches of the Internet through hypertextual connections between various resources on the Net. At the 1993 AAR/SBL meeting in Washington, in the Computer Assisted Research Group exhibit, "Mosaic," a graphical "frontend" for WWW, was demonstrated./31/ Ray Harder logged onto the Internet, went to the Library of Congress electronic Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, and opened up a WWW guidebook for the exhibit. When the guide refers to a primary or secondary text about the scrolls, available on the Internet somewhere in the world, the reader merely clicks on the reference, and the Mosaic software communicates with the computer in Jerusalem, Oxford, Claremont, or wherever that document is stored, and instantly the document appears on the computer screen. Even more magical, if the user has the right equipment and enough Internet bandwidth, Mosaic allows one to view digitized photos or graphics, or to play a video clip, or to listen to a digitized sound, again, accessed on any distant Internet computer in the world. We are approaching rapidly the type of world-wide, hypertext docuverse that was only dreamed of a few years by fanatics such as Ted Nelson./32/

In as much of a hypertextual style as I can muster in print, I would now like to walk through a gallery of the characteristics of hypertext, pointing out along the way some of the implications for the notion of canon.

(1) Hypertext demands an active reader; it blurs the distinction between author and reader/33/

It is impossible to be a passive reader of hypertext. The reader of hypertext has no choice but to be "active," "responsive," even "aggressive." Even in the most restrictive hypertexts, what Michael Joyce calls an "exploratory hypertext,"/34/ the reader must pick her way from node to node, thus determining the pathway to be followed through the hypertextual network. In a more loosely constructed, less restrictive hypertext (what Joyce calls a "constructive hypertext"), the reader is granted freedom to annotate existing texts, add new texts to the network, and create new links between texts, often with remarkable power to change the appearance of everything by manipulating windows and changing fonts.

The distinction between author and reader blurs and can collapse altogether. Merely by choosing one's path through the hypertextual space the reader, not the author, is determining the "text" to be read. When the reader adds new text material and new links to an existing hypertext, then the reader has indeed become the author of the text:

The interactive reader of the electronic word incarnates the responsive reader of whom we make so much. Electronic readers can do all the things that are claimed for them--or choose not to do them. They can genuflect before the text or spit on its altar, add to a text or subtract from it, rearrange it, revise it, suffuse it with commentary. The boundary between creator and critic (another current vexation) simply vanishes./35/

In the classroom, hypertext blurs the distinction between teacher and student, "liberating" and "empowering" the student./36/ Instead of the traditional hierarchy of the classroom, teacher and student become collaborators in the project of creating and using hypertext.

(2) Hypertext is fluid, multiple, changing; not fixed or single/37/

The printed page sits fixed and still; electronic text is always in flux, flickering on and off our computer screen./38/ Anyone who has done wordprocessing knows that electronic text is "fundamentally unstable," "restless," prone to "change" and likely to "disappear," and therefore "ephemeral." All the more so with hypertext, where "the text changes with each reading."/39/ Reading a particularly challenging piece of hypertext fiction, one that leaves narrative sequence entirely up to the reader, Bolter observes: "There is no single story of which each reading is a version, because each reading determines the story as it goes. We could say that there is no story at all; there are only readings."/40/ The language of the printed page conventionally strives to express a single, clear voice or point of view, but hypertext lends itself to multiple, perhaps even conflicting voices./41/ No piece of hypertext stands alone; it co-operates with all the other pieces with which it is networked in the docuverse.

(3) Hypertext has no beginning or ending, no center or margin, no inside or outside/42/

With the codex book it is easy to distinguish the words in the center of a page from the blank margins that surround it, or the first page of the book from the last, or one book on the shelf from another, but none of these physical realities holds anymore with electronic text. When one electronic text is linked to another, or when one text is copied and pasted into another, the notion of a distinction between texts evaporates. If two texts are linked, and if the reader can jump back and forth between them at will, then who is to say that one text is primary and the other secondary, or that one is of central importance while the other is peripheral? Primary/secondary, central/marginal, top/bottom, first/last, inside/outside, orthodox/heretical, canonical/non-canonical--all of these binary opposites derive from a world shaped by the linear, hierarchical organizational structures of the manuscript and the printed page; they vanish in the networked world of hypertext.

A network has no top or bottom, no beginning or ending, but reading always begins somewhere and somewhere reading must end. It is up to the reader of hypertext, however, to decide how and where to begin reading, and likewise when and where to stop. Hypertext is thus "open and open-ended"/43/; whatever closure is desired by the reader must be produced by the reader.

(4) Hypertext is "multicentered"; "infinitely recenterable"/44/

Hypertext mirrors the decentered, disseminated self of much poststructuralist critical theory./45/ Landow associates such thinking with contemporary shifts in communication technologies: while print encourages the posture of the single, integral self, electronic text encourages multiple, even conflicting voices.

Nonetheless, centers are crucial; humans cannot live for long without a center. The danger, perhaps, is the fixed and permanent center, imposed tyrannically. Hypertext, however, offers the possibility of a shifting center, a "multicentered" or "infinitely recenterable" textual universe, with the center to be determined by an empowered, liberated reader. Centers come and go; the act of establishing a center, however, is an ongoing necessity, to be repeated again and again:/46/

. . . hypertext does not only redefine the central by refusing to grant centrality to anything, to any lexia, for more than the time a gaze rests upon it. In hypertext, centrality, like beauty and relevance, resides in the mind of the beholder. Like Andy Warhol's modern person's fifteen minutes of fame, centrality in hypertext exists only as a matter of evanescence. . . . This hypertext dissolution of centrality, which makes the medium such a potentially democratic one, also makes it a model of a society of conversations in which no one conversation, no one discipline or ideology, dominates or founds the others./47/

(5) Hypertext is networked text/48/

Unlike the linear or hierarchical structure of print,/49/ hypertext is a multilinear network. A network has no obvious beginning or ending, no top or bottom. Therefore, a network can uphold no enduring hierarchy or central authority./50/ Furthermore, the shift to the network paradigm encompasses more than hypertext; it is redefining our whole culture:

. . . just as our culture is moving from the printed book to the computer, it is also in the final stages of the transition from a hierarchical social order to what we might call a "network culture." For decades all forms of hierarchy have been disintegrating, as greater and greater freedom of action is granted to the individual. . . . Hierarchies in government, church, and family may retain status in law, but they have almost no moral authority. . . . The network has replaced the hierarchy./51/

(6) Hypertext is collaborative/52/

It is long overdue to say so now, but the best way to learn about the new possibilities and implications of hypertext is jump into it and start swimming. Landow's description of the collaborative, democratic learning environment that is facilitated by a sophisticated hypertext system at Brown University might tempt us to test the waters:/53/

Within a hypertext environment all writing becomes collaborative writing, doubly so. The first element of collaboration appears when one compares the roles of writer and reader, since the active reader necessarily collaborates with the author in producing a text by the choices he or she makes. The second aspect of collaboration appears when one compares the writer with other writers--that is, the author who is writing now with the virtual presence of all writers "on the system" who wrote then but whose writings are still present./54/

Landow's considerable experience in collaborations with colleagues and students leads him to claim that hypertext nurtures a genuinely collegial community of learning, not only by putting teacher and student closer to the same level, but also by promoting interdisciplinary work and the integration of a scholar's teaching with her or his research./55/

(7) Hypertext is "antihierarchical and democratic"/56/

Because hypertext is "infinitely recenterable," it is inherently "antihierarchical and democratic."/57/ Putting remarkable power into the hands of ordinary people, the electronic media are proving to be a surprising force for democracy, rather than merely the latest nightmare of totalitarian control:

These technologies are inherently democratic and transnational. They will help create new and hitherto unimagined forms of democracy, political involvement, obligation, and power. . . . Those new forms of democracy I have mentioned are not some utopian hope. They are appearing at the moment I write this all over the world, for example in the extraordinary events of the past few months in Eastern Europe./58/

Theorists such as Bolter and Landow draw bold conclusions about the implications of the history of information technologies for human culture:

I contend that the history of information technology from writing to hypertext reveals an increasing democratization or dissemination of power. Writing begins this process, for by exteriorizing memory it converts knowledge from the possession of one to the possession of more than one. As Ryan correctly argues, "writing can belong to anyone; it puts an end to the ownership or self-identical property that speech signaled" (Marxism and Deconstruction, 29). The democratic thrust of information technologies derives from their diffusing information and the power that such diffusion can produce./59/

Hypertext foregrounds the responsibility of the reader to make ethical and political decisions. As a multiple, diverse network, hypertext can readily incorporate conflicting arguments and interpretations; it can "encompass conflicting possibilities."/60/ Thus, hypertext can provide the arena in which ethical and political arguments over authority and canonicity can take place./61/

For instance, Gerald Graff suggests that the proper response to the canon wars raging in literary studies today is to "teach the conflicts."/62/ That is, instead of trying to decide the shape of the canon once and for all, why not shift the spotlight to the process of arguing over the canon? Highlight the argumentative process, not the decision at the end of the process, Graff says, for canons come and go, but the need to argue over values, norms, beliefs, and behaviors will remain with us forever. Coincidentally, hypertext embodies and enacts Graff's advice to "teach the conflicts."

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