George P. Landow

Hypertextual Derrida, Poststructuralist Nelson? +


The Definition of Hypertext and Its History as a Concept
History of the Concept of Hypertext
Annotation in a Print Text
Roland Barthes and the Writerly Text
Reading and Writing in a Hypertext Environment

Other Convergences: Intertextuality, Multivocality, and De-Centeredness
Jacques Derrida: Textual Openness and Assemblage
Hypertext and Intertextuality
Mikhail Bakhtin: Hypertext and Multivocality
Hypertext and De-Centering

Vannevar Bush and the Idea of Hypertext
The Memex
Bush’s Memex as Poetic Machine

Virtual Texts, Virtual Authors, and Literary Computing
Jean Baudrillard and Digitality

The Network Paradigm
The Nonlinear Model of the Network in Current Critical Theory
The Network in Marxist Theory

Hypertext in Context of Earlier Information Regimes
Cause or Convergence, Influence or Confluence?
Analogues to the Gutenberg Revolution

Printed Sources Cited in Text
Other Printed Materials
Electronic Materials

The problem of causality. It is not always easy to determine what has caused a specific change in a science. What made such a discovery possible? Why did this new concept appear? Where did this or that theory come from? Questions like these are often highly embarrass- ing because there are no definite methodological principles on which to base such an analysis. The embarrassment is much greater in the case of those general changes that alter a scienceas a whole. It is greater still in the case of several corresponding changes. But it probably reaches its highest point in the case of the empirical sciences: for the role of instruments, techniques, institutions, events, ideologies, and interests is very much in evidence; but one does not know how an articulation so complex and so diverse in composition actually operates. (Michel Foucault: The Order of Things)

When designers of computer software examine the pages of Glas or Of Grammatology , they encounter a digitalized, hypertextual Derrida; and when literary theorists examine Literary Machines , they encounter a deconstructionist or poststructuralist Nelson. These shocks of recognition hypertext, apparently unconnected areas of inquiry, have increasingly converged. Statements by theorists concerned with literature, like those by theorists concerned with computing, show a remarkable convergence. Working often, but not always, in ignorance of each other, writers in these areas offer evidence that provides us with a way into the contemporary episteme in the midst of major changes. A paradigm shift, I suggest, has begun to take place in the writings of Jacques Derrida and Theodor Nelson, Roland Barthes and Andries van Dam. I expect that one name in each pair will be unknown to most of my readers. Those working in computing will know well the ideas of Nelson and van Dam; those working in literary and cultural theory will know equally well the ideas of Derrida and Barthes.

All four, like many others who write on hypertext and literary theory, argue that we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them by ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks. Almost all parties to this paradigm shift, which marks a revolution in human thought, see electronic writing as a direct response to the strengths and weaknesses of the printed book. This response has profound implications for literature, education, and politics.

The many parallels between computer hypertext and critical theory have many points of interest, the most important of which, perhaps, lies in the fact that critical theory promises to theorize hypertext and hypertext promises to embody and thereby test aspects of theory, particularly those concerning textuality, narrative, and the roles or functions of reader and writer. Using hypertext, critical theorists will have, or now already have, a laboratory with which to test their ideas. Most important, perhaps, an experience of reading hypertext or reading with hypertext greatly clarifies many of the most significant ideas of critical theory. As J. David Bolter points out in the course of explaining that hypertextuality embodies poststructuralist conceptions of the open text, “what is unnatural in print becomes natural in the electronic medium and will soon no longer need saying at all, because it can be shown” (143).

The Definition of Hypertext and Its History as a Concept

History of the Concept of Hypertext

In S/Z , Roland Barthes describes an ideal textuality that precisely matches that which has come to be called computer hypertext – text composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains, or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms link, node, network, web , and path: “In this ideal text, says Barthes, the networks [réseaux ] are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable... ; the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language” (emphasis in original; 5-6 [English translation]; 11-12 [French]).

Like Barthes, Michel Foucault conceives of text in terms of network and links. In The Archeology of Knowledge , he points out that the “frontiers of a book are never clear-cut”, because “it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network... [a] network of references” (23).

Like almost all structuralists and poststructuralists, Barthes and Foucault describe text, the world of letters, and the power and status relations they involve in terms shared by the field of computer hypertext. Hypertext , a term coined by Theodor H. Nelson in the 1960s, refers also to a form of electronic text, a radically new information technology, and a mode of publication. “By ‘hypertext’, Nelson explains, I mean 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” (0/2). Hypertext, as the term is used in this work, denotes text composed of blocks of text – what Barthes terms a lexia – and the electronic links that join them. Hypermedia simply extends the notion of the text in hypertext by including visual information, sound, animation, and other forms of data. Since hypertext, which links one passage of verbal discourse to images, maps, diagrams, and sound as easily as to another verbal passage, expands the notion of text beyond the solely verbal, I do not distinguish between hypertext and hypermedia. Hypertext denotes an information medium that links verbal and nonverbal information. In this network, I shall use the terms hypermedia and hypertext interchangeably. Electronic links connect lexias “external” to a work – say, commentary on it by another author or parallel or contrasting texts – as well as within it and thereby create text that is experienced as nonlinear, or, more properly, as multilinear or multisequential. Although conventional reading habits apply within each lexia, once one leaves the shadowy bounds of any text unit, new rules and new experience apply.

Annotation in a Print Text

The standard scholarly article in the humanities or physical sciences perfectly embodies the underlying notions of hypertext as multisequentially read text. For example, in reading an article on, say, James Joyce’s Ulysses , one reads through what is conventionally known as the main text, encounters a number or symbol that indicates the presence of a foot- or endnote, and leaves the main text to read that note, which can contain a citation of passages in Ulysses that supposedly support the argument in question or information about the scholarly author’s indebtedness to other authors, disagreement with them, and so on. The note can also summon up information about sources, influences, and parallels in other literary texts. In each case, the reader can follow the link to another text indicated by the note and thus move entirely outside the scholarly article itself. Having completed reading the note or having decided that it does not warrant a careful reading at the moment, one returns to the main text and continues reading until one encounters another note, at which point one again leaves the main text.

This kind of reading constitutes the basic experience and starting point of hypertext. Suppose now that one could simply touch the page where the symbol of a note, reference, or annotation appeared, and thus instantly bring into view the material contained in a note or even the entire other text – here all of Ulysses – to which that note refers. Scholarly articles situate themselves within a field of relations, most of which the print medium keeps out of sight and relatively difficult to follow, because in print technology the referenced (or linked) materials lie spatially distant from the references to them. Electronic hypertext, in contrast, makes individual references easy to follow and the entire field of interconnections obvious and easy to navigate. Changing the ease with which one can orient oneself within such a context and pursue individual references radically changes both the experience of reading and ultimately the nature of that which is read. For example, if one possessed a hypertext system in which our putative Joyce article was linked to all the other materials it cited, it would exist as part of a much larger system in which the totality might count more than the individual document; the article would now be woven more tightly into its context than would a printed counterpart.

Roland Barthes and the Writerly Text

Hypertext blurs the boundaries between reader and writer and therefore instantiates another quality of Barthes’s ideal text. From the vantage point of the current changes in information technology, Barthes’s distinction between readerly and writerly texts appears to be essentially a distinction between text based on print technology and electronic hypertext, for hypertext fulfills the goal of literary work (of literature as work) [which] is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and its consumer, between its author and its reader. This reader is thereby plunged into a kind of idleness – he is intransitive; he is, in short, serious: instead of functioning himself, instead of gaining access to the magic of the signifier, to the pleasure of writing, he is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text: reading is nothing more than a referendum. Opposite the writerly text, then, is its countervalue, its negative, reactive value: what can be read, but not written: the readerly. We call any readerly text a classic text. (S/Z , 4)

Compare the way the designers of Intermedia, one of the most advanced hypertext systems thus far developed, describe the active reader that hypertext requires and creates:

Both an author’s tool and a reader’s medium, a hypertext document system allows authors or groups of authors to link information together, create paths through a corpus of related material, annotate existing texts, and create notes that point readers to either bibliographic data or the body of the referenced text... Readers can browse through linked, cross-referenced, annotated texts in an orderly but nonsequential manner. (17)

To get an idea of how hypertext produces Barthes’s writerly text, let us examine how the print version and the hypertext version of this book differ.

Reading and Writing in a Hypertext Environment

To get an idea of how hypertext produces Barthes’s writerly text, let us examine how the print version and the hypertext version of this book differ. In the first place, instead of encountering it in a paper copy, you read it on a computer screen. Contemporary screens, which have neither the portability nor the tactility of printed books, make the act of reading somewhat more difficult. For those people like myself who do a large portion of their reading reclining on a bed or couch, screens also appear less convenient. At the same time, reading on Intermedia, the hypertext system with which I first worked, offers certain important compensations.

Reading an Intermedia version of this book, for example, you could change the size and even style of font to make reading easier. Although you could not make such changes permanently in the text as seen by others, you could make them whenever you wished.

More important, since on Intermedia you would read this hypertext book on a large two-page graphics monitor, you would have the opportunity to place several texts next to one another. Thus, upon reaching the first note in the main text, which follows the passage quoted from S/Z , you would activate the hypertext equivalent of a reference mark (button, link marker), and this action would bring the endnote into view. A hypertext version of a note differs from that in a printed book in several ways. First, it links directly to the reference symbol and does not reside in some sequentially numbered list at the rear of the main text. Second, once opened and either superimposed upon the main text or placed along side it, it appears as an independent, if connected, document in its own right and not as some sort of subsidiary, supporting, possibly parasitic text.

The note in question contains the following information: “Roland Barthes, S/Z , trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 5-6”. A hypertext lexia equivalent to this note could include this same information, or, more likely, take the form of the quoted passage, a longer section or chapter, or the entire text of Barthes’s work. Furthermore, that passage in turn links to other statements by Barthes of similar import, comments by students of Barthes, and passages by Derrida and Foucault that also concern this notion of the networked text. As a reader, you must to decide whether to return to my argument, pursue some of the connections I suggest by links, or, using other capacities of the system, search for connections I have not suggested. The multiplicity of hypertext, which appears in multiple links to individual blocks of text, calls for an active reader.

A full hypertext system, unlike a book and unlike some of the first approximations of hypertext currently available (Hypercard, Guide), offers the reader and writer the same environment. Therefore, by opening the text-processing program or editor, as it is known, you can take notes, or you can write against my interpretations, against my text. Although you cannot change my text, you can write a response and then link it to my document. You thus have read the readerly text in several ways not possible with a book: you have chosen your reading path, and since you, like all readers, will choose individualized paths, the hypertext version of this book would probably take a very different form, perhaps suggesting the values of alternate routes and probably devoting less room in the main text to quoted passages. You might have also have begun to take notes or produce responses to the text as you read, some of which might take the form of texts that either support or contradict interpretations proposed in my texts.

Other Convergences: Intertextuality, Multivocality, and De-centeredness

Jacques Derrida: Textual Openness and Assemblage

Like Barthes, Foucault, and Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Derrida continually uses the terms link (liasons) , web (toile) , network (réseau), and interwoven (s’y tissent), which cry out for hypertextuality; but in contrast to Barthes, who emphasizes the writerly text and its nonlinearity, Derrida emphasizes textual openness, intertextuality, and the irrelevance of distinctions between inside and outside a particular text. These emphases appear with particular clarity when he claims that “like any text, the text of ‘Plato’ couldn’t not be involved, or at least in a virtual, dynamic, lateral manner, with all the worlds that composed the system of the Greek language.” Derrida in fact here describes extant hypertext systems in which the active reader in the process of exploring a text, probing it, can call into play dictionaries with morphological analyzers that connect individual words to cognates, derivations, and opposites. Here again something that Derrida and other critical theorists describe as part of a seemingly extravagant claim about language turns out precisely to describe the new economy of reading and writing with electronic virtual, rather than physical, forms.

Derrida properly recognizes (in advance, one might say) that a new, freer, richer form of text, one truer to our potential experience, perhaps to our actual if unrecognized experience, depends upon discrete reading units. As he explains, in what Gregory Ulmer terms “the fundamental generalization of his writing” (58), there also exists “the possibility of disengagement and citational graft which belongs to the structure of every mark, spoken and written, and which constitutes every mark in writing before and outside of every horizon of semiolinguistic communication... Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written... can be cited, put between quotation marks.” The implication of such citability, separability, appears in the fact, crucial to hypertext, that, as Derrida adds, “in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable” (“Signature”, 185).

Like Barthes, Derrida conceives of text as constituted by discrete reading units. Derrida’s conception of text relates to his “methodology of decomposition” that might transgress the limits of philosophy. “The organ of this new philospheme”, as Gregory Ulmer points out, “is the mouth, the mouth that bites, chews, tastes... The first step of decomposition is the bite” (57). Derrida, who describes text in terms of something close to Barthes’s lexias, explains in Glas that “the object of the present work, its style too, is the ‘mourceau’”, which Ulmer translates as “bit, piece, morsel, fragment; musical composition; snack, mouthful”. This mourceau , adds Derrida, “is always detached, as its name indicates and so you do not forget it, with the teeth”, and these teeth, Ulmer explains, refer to “quotation marks, brackets, parentheses: when language is cited (put between quotation marks), the effect is that of releasing the grasp or hold of a controlling context” (58).

Derrida’s groping for a way to foreground his recognition of the way text operates in a print medium – he is, after all, the fierce advocate of writing as against orality – shows the position, possibly the dilemma, of the thinker working with print who sees its shortcomings but for all his brilliance cannot think his way outside this mentalité . Derrida, the experience of hypertext shows, gropes toward a new kind of text: he describes it, he praises it, but he can only present it in terms of the devices – here those of punctuation – associated with a particular kind of writing. As the Marxists remind us, thought derives from the forces and modes of production, though, as we shall see, few Marxists or Marxians ever directly confront the most important mode of literary production – that dependent upon the techne of writing and print.

From this Derridean emphasis upon discontinuity comes the conception of hypertext as a vast assemblage, what I have elsewhere termed the metatext and what Nelson calls the “docuverse”. Derrida in fact employs the word assemblage for cinema, which he perceives as a rival, an alternative, to print. Ulmer points out that “the gram or trace provides the ‘linguistics’ for collage/montage” (267), and he quotes Derrida’s use of assemblage in Speech and Phenomena : “The word ‘assemblage’ seems more apt for suggesting that the kind of bringing-together proposed here has the structure of an interlacing, a weaving, or a web, which would allow the different threads and different lines of sense or force to separate again, as well as being ready to bind others together” (131). To carry Derrida’s instinctive theorizing of hypertext further, one may also point to his recognition that such a montagelike textuality marks or foregrounds the writing process and therefore rejects a deceptive transparency.

Hypertext and Intertextuality

Hypertext, which is a fundamentally intertextual system, has the capacity to emphasize intertextuality in a way that page-bound text in books cannot. As we have already observed, scholarly articles and books offer an obvious example of explicit hypertextuality in nonelectronic form. Conversely, any work of literature – which for the sake of argument and economy I shall here confine in a most arbitrary way to mean “high” literature of the sort we read and teach in universities – offers an instance of implicit hypertext in nonelectronic form. Again, take Joyce’s Ulysses for an example. If one looks, say, at the Nausicaa section, in which Bloom watches Gerty McDowell on the beach, one notes that Joyce’s text here “alludes” or “refers” (the terms we usually employ) to many other texts or phenomena that one can treat as texts, including the Nausicaa section of the Odyssey, the advertisements and articles in the women’s magazines that suffuse and inform Gerty’s thoughts, facts about contemporary Dublin and the Catholic Church, and material that relates to other passages within the novel. Again, a hypertext presentation of the novel links this section not only to the kinds of materials mentioned but also to other works in Joyce’s career, critical commentary, and textual variants. Hypertext here permits one to make explicit, though not necessarily intrusive, the linked materials that an educated reader perceives surrounding it.

Thais Morgan suggests that intertextuality, “as a structural analysis of texts in relation to the larger system of signifying practices or uses of signs in culture”, shifts attention from the triad constituted by author/work/tradition to another constituted by text/discourse/culture. In so doing, “intertextuality replaces the evolutionary model of literary history with a structural or synchronic model of literature as a sign system. The most salient effect of this strategic change is to free the literary text from psychological, sociological, and historical determinisms, opening it up to an apparently infinite play of relationships” (1-2). Morgan well describes a major implication of hypertext (and hypermedia) intertextuality: such opening up, such freeing one to create and perceive interconnections, obviously occurs. Nonetheless, although hypertext intertextuality would seem to devalue any historic or other reductionism, it in no way prevents those interested in reading in terms of author and tradition from doing so. Experiments thus far with Intermedia, HyperCard, and other hypertext systems suggest that hypertext does not necessarily turn one’s attention away from such approaches. What is perhaps most interesting about hypertext, though, is not that it may fulfill certain claims of structuralist and poststructuralist criticism but that it provides a rich means of testing them.

Hypertext and Multivocality

In attempting to imagine the experience of reading and writing with (or within) this new form of text, one would do well to pay heed to what Mikhail Bakhtin has written about the dialogic, polyphonic, multivocal novel, which he claims “is constructed not as the whole of a single consciousness, absorbing other consciousnesses as objects into itself, but as a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the other” (18). Bakhtin’s description of the polyphonic literary form presents the Dostoevskian novel as a hypertextual fiction in which the individual voices take the form of lexias.

If Derrida illuminates hypertextuality from the vantage point of the “bite” or “bit”, Bakhtin illuminates it from the vantage point of its own life and force – its incarnation or instantiation of a voice, a point of view, a Rortyian conversation. Thus, according to Bakhtin, “In the novel itself, nonparticipating ‘third persons’ are not represented in any way. There is no place for them, compositionally or in the larger meaning of the work” (Problems, 18). In terms of hypertextuality this points to an important quality of this information medium: hypertext does not permit a tyrannical, univocal voice. Rather the voice is always that distilled from the combined experience of the momentary focus, the lexia one presently reads, and the continually forming narrative of one’s reading path.

Hypertext and De-Centering

As readers move through a web or network of texts, they continually shift the center – and hence the focus or organizing principle – of their investigation and experience. Hypertext, in other words, provides an infinitely re-centerable system whose provisional point of focus depends upon the reader, who becomes a truly active reader in yet another sense. One of the fundamental characteristics of hypertext is that it is composed of bodies of linked texts that have no primary axis of organization. In other words, the metatext or document set – the entity that describes what in print technology is the book, work, or single text – has no center. Although this absence of a center can create problems for the reader and the writer, it also means that anyone who uses hypertext makes his or her own interests the de facto organizing principle (or center) for the investigation at the moment. One experiences hypertext as an infinitely de-centerable and re-centerable system, in part because hypertext transforms any document that has more than one link into a transient center, a directory document that one can employ to orient oneself and to decide where to go next. Western culture imagined quasi-magical entrances to a networked reality long before the development of computing technology. Biblical typology, which played such a major role in English culture during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, conceived sacred history in terms of types and shadows of Christ and his dispensation. Thus, Moses, who existed in his own right, also existed as Christ, who fulfilled and completed the prophet’s meaning. As countless seventeenth-century and Victorian sermons, tracts, and commentaries demonstrate, any particular person, event, or phenomenon acted as a magical window into the complex semiotic of the divine scheme for human salvation. Like the biblical type, which allows significant events and phenomena to participate simultaneously in many realities or levels of reality, the individual lexia inevitably provides a way into the network of connections. Given that Evangelical Protestantism in America preserves and extends these traditions of biblical exegesis, one is not surprised to discover that some of the first applications of hypertext involved the Bible and its exegetical tradition.

Not only do lexia work much in the manner of types, they also become Borgesian Alephs, points in space that contain all other points, because from the vantage point each provides one can see everything else – if not exactly simultaneously, then a short way distant, one or two jumps away, particularly in systems that have full text searching. Unlike Jorge Luis Borges’s Aleph, one does not have to view it from a single site, neither does one have to sprawl in a cellar resting one’s head on a canvas sack. The hypertext document becomes a traveling Aleph.

As Derrida points out in “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, the process or procedure he calls de-centering has played an essential role in intellectual change. He says, for example, that “ethnology could have been born as a science only at the moment when a de-centering had come about: at the moment when European culture – and, in consequence, the history of metaphysics and of its concepts – had been dislocated, driven from its locus, and forced to stop considering itself as the culture of reference” (251). Derrida makes no claim that an intellectual or ideological center is in any way bad, for, as he explains in response to a query from Serge Doubrovsky, “I didn’t say that there was no center, that we could get along without a center. I believe that the center is a function, not a being – a reality, but a function. And this function is absolutely indispensable” (271).

All hypertext systems permit the individual reader to choose his or her own center of investigation and experience. What this principle means in practice is that the reader is not locked into any kind of particular organization or hierarchy. Experiences with Intermedia reveal that for those who choose to organize a session on the system in terms of authors – moving, say, from Keats to Tennyson – the system represents an old-fasioned, traditional, and in many ways still useful author-centered approach. On the other hand, nothing constrains the reader to work in this manner, and readers who wish to investigate the validity of period generalizations can organize their sessions in terms of such periods by using the Victorian and Romantic overviews as starting or midpoints while yet others can begin with ideological or critical notions, such as feminism or the Victorian novel. In practice most readers employ the materials developed at Brown University as a text-centered system, since they tend to focus upon individual works, with the result that even if they begin sessions by entering the system to look for information about an individual author, they tend to spend most time with lexias devoted to specific texts, moving, for example, between those about works of fiction and nonfiction (Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and Carlyle’s Hudson’s Statue) or between lexias about a particular novel, say, Gaskell’s North and South and informational and contextual materials (biographies, chronologies, essays on setting and characterization in the novel, Evangelical Anglicanism, public health, working-class diets, and so on). [Follow for The Victorian Web, based at Brown University, which contains the latest, much-amplified version of this corpus of interlinked documents originally created for Intermedia.]

Vannevar Bush and the Idea of Hypertext

The Memex

Writers on hypertext trace the concept to a pioneering article by Vannevar Bush in a 1945 issue of Atlantic Monthly, that called for mechanically linked information-retrieval machines to help scholars and decision makers faced with what was already becoming an explosion of information. Struck by the “growing mountain of research” that confronted workers in every field, Bush realized that the number of publications has already “extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships” (17-18). As he emphasized, “there may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene” (29).

According to Bush, the main problem lies with what he termed “the matter of selection” – information retrieval – and the primary reason that those who need information cannot find it lies in turn with inadequate means of storing, arranging, and tagging information:

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path. (31)

As Ted Nelson, one of Bush’s most prominent disciples, points out, “there is nothing wrong with categorization. It is, however, by its nature transient: category systems have a half-life, and categorizations begin to look fairly stupid after a few years... The army designation of ‘Pong Balls, Ping’ has a certain universal character to it” (Literary Machines , 2/49).

In contrast to the rigidity and difficulty of access produced by present means of managing information based on print and other physical records, one needs an information medium that better accommodates to the way the mind works. After describing present methods of storing and classifying knowledge, Bush complains, “The human mind does not work that way” (“As We May Think”, 31) but by association. With one fact or idea “in its grasp”, the mind “snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain” (32).

To liberate us from the confinements of inadequate systems of classification and to permit us to follow natural proclivities for “selection by association, rather than by indexing”, Bush therefore proposes a device, the “memex”, that would mechanize a more efficient, more human, mode of manipulating fact and imagination. “A memex”, he explains, “is a device in which an individual stores his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory” (32). Writing in the days before digital computing (the first idea for a memex came to him in the mid-1930s), Bush conceived of his device as a desk with translucent screens, levers, and motors for rapid searching of microform records. [Since I wrote this discussion of Bush’s memex, Paul Kahn and Ian Adelman have created a sound-enhanced animation of the device, which you can download from YouTube.]

In addition to thus searching and retrieving information, the memex also permits the reader to “add marginal notes and comments, taking advantage of one possible type of dry photography, and it could even be arranged so that he can do this by a stylus scheme, such as is now employed in the telautograph seen in railroad waiting rooms, just as though he had the physical page before him” (33). Two things demand attention about this crucial aspect of Bush’s conception of the memex: First, he believes that while reading, one needs to append one’s own individual, transitory thoughts and reactions to texts. With this emphasis Bush in other words reconceives reading as an active process that involves writing. Second, his remark that this active, intrusive reader can annotate a text “just as though he had the physical page before him” recognizes the need for a conception of a virtual, rather than a physical, text. One of the things that is so intriguing about Bush’s proposal is the way he thus allows the shortcomings of one form of text to suggest a new technology, and that leads, in turn, to an entirely new conception of text.

The “essential feature of the memex”, however, lies not only in its capacities for retrieval and annotation but also in those involving “associative indexing” – what present hypertext systems term a link – “the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another” (34). Bush then provides a scenario of how readers would create “endless trails” of such links:

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. Out of view, but also in the code space, is inserted a set of dots for photocell viewing; and on each item these dots by their positions designate the index number of the other item. Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. (34)

Bush’s remarkably prescient description of how the memex user creates and then follows links joins his major recognition that trails of such links themselves constitute a new form of textuality and new form of writing. As he explains, “when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail... It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book”. In fact, “it is more than this”, Bush adds, “for any item can be joined into numerous trails” (34), and thereby any block of text, image, or other information can participate in numerous books.

These new memex books themselves, it becomes clear, are the new book, or one additional version of the new book, and, like books, these trail sets or webs can be shared. Bush proposes, again quite accurately, that “wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified” (35). Equally important, individual reader-writers can share document sets and apply them to new problems.

Bush, an engineer interested in technical innovation, provides the example of a memex user studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him. [34-35]

And, Bush adds, his researcher’s memex trails, unlike those in his mind, “do not fade”, so when he and a friend several years later discuss “the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest” (35), he can reproduce his trails created to investigate one subject or problem and apply them to another.

Bush’s Memex as Poetic Machine

Bush’s idea of the memex, to which he occasionally turned his thoughts for three decades, directly influenced Nelson, Douglas Englebart, Andries van Dam, and other pioneers in computer hypertext, including the group at the Brown University’s Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship (IRIS) who created Intermedia. In “As We May Think” and “Memex Revisited” Bush proposed the notion of blocks of text joined by links, and he also introduced the terms links, linkages, trails , and web to describe his new conception of textuality. Bush’s description of the memex contains several other seminal, even radical, conceptions of textuality. It demands, first of all, a radical reconfiguration of the practice of reading and writing, in which both activities draw closer together than is possible with book technology. Second, despite the fact that he conceived of the memex before the advent of digital computing, Bush perceives that something like virtual textuality is essential for the changes he advocates. Third, his reconfiguration of text introduces three entirely new elements – associative indexing (or links), trails of such links, and sets or webs of such trails. These new elements in turn produce the conception of a flexible, customizable text, one that is open – and perhaps vulnerable – to the demands of each reader. They also produce a concept of multiple textuality, since within the memex world texts refers to (a) individual reading units that constitute a traditional “work”, (b) those entire works, (c) sets of documents created by trails, and perhaps (d) those trails themselves without accompanying documents.

Perhaps most interesting to one considering the relation of Bush’s ideas to contemporary critical and cultural theory is that this engineer began by rejecting some of the fundamental assumptions of the information technology that had increasingly dominated – and some would say largely created – Western thought since Gutenberg. Moreover, Bush wished to replace the essentially linear fixed methods that had produced the triumphs of capitalism and industrialism with what are essentially poetic machines – machines that work according to analogy and association, machines that capture and create the anarchic brilliance of human imagination. Bush, we perceive, assumed that science and poetry work in essentially the same way.


Virtual Text, Virtual Authors, and Literary Computing

The characteristic effects of computing upon the humanities all derive from the fact that computing stores information in electronic codes rather than in physical marks on a physical surface. Since the invention of writing and printing, information technology has concentrated on the problem of creating and then disseminating static, unchanging records of language. As countless authors since the inception of writing have proclaimed, such fixed records conquer time and space, however temporarily, for they permit one person to share data with other people in other times and places. Printing adds the absolutely crucial element of multiple copies of the same text; this multiplicity, which preserves a text by dispersing individual copies of it, permits readers separated in time and space to refer to the same information (116). As Elizabeth Eisenstein, Marshall McLuhan, William M. Ivins, J. David Bolter, and other students of the history of the cultural effects of print technology have shown, Gutenberg’s invention produced what we today understand as scholarship and criticism in the humanities. No longer primarily occupied by the task of preserving information in the form of fragile manuscripts that degraded with frequent use, scholars, working with books, developed new conceptions of scholarship, originality, and authorial property.

Although the fixed multiple text produced by print technology has had enormous effects on modern conceptions of literature, education, and research, it still, as Bush and Nelson emphasize, confronts the knowledge worker with the fundamental problem of an information retrieval system based on physical instantiations of text – namely, that preserving information in a fixed, unchangeable linear format makes information retrieval difficult.

We may state this problem in two ways. First, no one arrangement of information proves convenient for all who need that information. Second, although both linear and hierarchical arrangements provide information in some sort of order, that order does not always match the needs of individual users of that information. Over the centuries scribes, scholars, publishers, and other makers of books have invented a range of devices to increase the speed of what today are called information processing and retrieval. Manuscript culture gradually saw the invention of individual pages, chapters, paragraphing, and spaces between words. The technology of the book found enhancement by pagination, indices, and bibliographies. Such devices have made scholarship possible, if not always easy or convenient to carry out.

Electronic text-processing marks the next major shift in information technology after the development of the printed book. It promises (or threatens) to produce effects on our culture, particularly on our literature, education, criticism, and scholarship, just as radical as those produced by Gutenberg’s movable type.

Text-based computing provides us with electronic rather than physical texts, and this shift from ink to electronic code – what Jean Baudrillard calls the shift from the “tactile” to the “digital” (115) – produces an information technology that combines fixity and flexibility, order and accessibility – but at a cost. Since electronic text-processing is a matter of manipulating computer-manipulated codes, all texts that the reader-writer encounters on the screen are virtual texts. Using an analogy to optics, computer scientists speak of “virtual machines” created by an operating system that provides individual users with the experience of working on their own individual machines when they in fact share a system with as many as several hundred others.

Similarly, all texts the reader and the writer encounter on a computer screen exist as a version created specifically for them while an electronic primary version resides in the computer’s memory. One therefore works on an electronic copy until such time as both versions converge when the writer commands the computer to “save” one’s version of the text by placing it in memory. At this point the text on screen and in the computer’s memory briefly coincide, but the reader always encounters a virtual image of the stored text and not the original version itself; in fact, in descriptions of electronic word processing, such terms and such distinctions do not make much sense.

As Bolter explains, the most “unusual feature” of electronic writing is that it is “not directly accessible to either the writer or to the reader. The bits of the text are simply not on a human scale. Electronic technology removes or abstracts the writer and reader from the text. If you hold a magnetic tape or optical disk up to the light, you will not see text at all... In the electronic medium several layers of sophisticated technology must intervene between the writer or reader and the coded text. There are so many levels of deferral that the reader or writer is hard put to identify the text at all: is it on the screen, in the transistor memory, or on the disk?” (Writing Space , 42-43).

Jean Baudrillard and Digitality

Jean Baudrillard, who presents himself as a follower of Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan, is someone who seems both fascinated and appalled by what he sees as the all-pervading effects of such digital encoding, though his examples suggest that he is often confused about which media actually employ it. The strengths and weaknesses of Baudrillard’s approach appear in his remarks on the digitization of knowledge and information. Baudrillard correctly perceives that movement from the tactile to the digital is the primary fact about the contemporary world, but then he misconceives – or rather only partially perceives – the implications of his point. According to him, digitality involves binary opposition: “Digitality is with us. It is that which haunts all the messages, all the signs of our societies. The most concrete form you see it in is that of the test, of the question/answer, of the stimulus/response” (Simulations, 115). Baudrillard most clearly posits this equivalence, which he mistakenly takes to be axiomatic, in his statement that “the true generating formula, that which englobes all the others, and which is somehow the stabilized form of the code, is that of binarity, of digitality” (145). From this he concludes that the primary fact about digitality is its connection to “cybernetic control... the new operational configuration”, since “digitalization is its metaphysical principle (the God of Leibnitz), and DNA its prophet” (103).

True, at the most basic level of machine code and at the far higher one of program languages, the digitization, which constitutes a fundamental of electronic computing, does involve binarity. But from this fact one cannot so naively extrapolate, as Baudrillard does, a complete thought-world or episteme . Baudrillard, of course, may well have it partially right: he might have perceived one key connection between the stimulus/response model and digitality. The fact of hypertext, however, demonstrates quite clearly that digitality does not necessarily lock one into either a linear world or one of binary oppositions.

Unlike Derrida, who emphasizes the role of the book, writing, and writing technology, Baudrillard never considers verbal text, whose absence glaringly runs through his argument and reconstitutes it in ways that he obviously did not expect. Part of Baudrillard’s theoretical difficulty, I suggest, derives from the fact that he bypasses digitized verbal text and moves with too easy grace directly from the fact of digital encoding of information in two directions: (1) to his stimulus/response, either/or model, and (2) to other non-alphanumeric (or non-writing) media, such as photography, radio, and television. Interestingly enough, when Baudrillard correctly emphasizes the role of digitality in the postmodern world, he generally derives his examples of digitization from media that, particularly at the time he wrote, for the most part depended upon analogue rather than digital technology – and the different qualities and implications of each are great. Whereas analogue recording of sound and visual information requires serial, linear processing, digital technology removes the need for sequence by permitting one to go directly to a particular bit of information. Thus if one wishes to find a particular passage in a Bach sonata on a tape cassette, one must scan through the cassette sequentially, though modern tape decks permit one to speed the process by skipping from space to space between sections of music. In contrast, if one wishes to locate a passage in digitally recorded music, one can instantly travel to that passage, note it for future reference, and manipulate it in ways impossible with analogue technologies – for example, one can instantly replay passages without having to scroll back through them.

In concentrating on non-alphanumeric media, and in apparently confusing analogue and digital technology, Baudrillard misses the opportunity to encounter the fact that digitalization also has the potential to prevent, block, and bypass linearity and binarity, which it replaces with multiplicity, true reader activity and activation, and branching through networks. Baudrillard has described one major thread or constituent of contemporary reality that is potentially at war with the multilinear, hypertextual one.

In addition to hypertext, several aspects of humanities computing derive from virtuality of text. First of all, the ease of manipulating individual alphanumeric symbols produces simpler word-processing. Simple word-processing in turn makes vastly easier old-fashioned, traditional scholarly editing – the creation of reliable, supposedly authoritative texts from manuscripts or published books – at a time when the very notion of such single, unitary, univocal texts may be changing or disappearing.

Second, this same ease of cutting, copying, and otherwise manipulating texts permits different forms of scholarly composition, ones in which the researcher’s notes and original data exist in experientially closer proximity to the scholarly text than ever before. According to Michael Heim, as electronic textuality frees writing from the constraints of paper-print technology, “vast amounts of information, including further texts, will be accessible immediately below the electronic surface of a piece of writing... By connecting a small computer to a phone, a profession will be able to read ‘books’ whose footnotes can be expanded into further ‘books’ which in turn open out onto a vast sea of data bases systemizing all of human cognition” (10-11), The manipulability of the scholarly text, which derives from the ability of computers to search databases with enormous speed, also permits full-text searches, printed and dynamic concordances, and other kinds of processing that allow scholars in the humanities to ask new kinds of questions. Moreover, as one writes, “The text in progress becomes interconnected and linked with the entire world of information” (161).

Third, the electronic virtual text, whose appearance and form readers can customize as they see fit, also has the potential to add an entire new element – the electronic or virtual link that reconfigures text as we who have grown up with books have experienced it. Electronic linking creates hypertext, a form of textuality composed of blocks and links that permits multilinear reading paths. As Heim has argued, electronic word processing inevitably produces linkages, and these linkages move text, readers, and writers into a new writing space:

The distinctive features of formulating thought in the psychic framework of word processing combine with the automation of information handling and produce an unprecedented linkage of text. By linkage I mean not some loose physical connection like discrete books sharing a common physical space in the library. Text derives originally from the Latin word for weaving and for interwoven material, and it has come to have extraordinary accuracy of meaning in the case of word processing. Linkage in the electronic element is interactive, that is, texts can be brought instantly into the same psychic framework. (160-161)

The Network Paradigm

The Nonlinear Model of the Network in Current Critical Theory

Discussions and designs of hypertext share with contemporary critical theory an emphasis upon the model or paradigm of the network. At least four meanings of network appear in descriptions of actual hypertext systems and plans for future ones. First, individual print works when transferred to hypertext take the form of blocks, nodes, or lexias joined by a network of links and paths. Network , in this sense, refers to one kind of electronically linked electronic equivalent to a printed text. Second, any gathering of lexias, whether assembled by the original author of the verbal text, or by some else gathering together texts created by multiple authors, also takes the form of a network; thus document sets, whose shifting borders make them in some senses the hypertextual equivalent of a work, are called in some present systems a web.

Third, the term network also refers to an electronic system involving additional computers as well as cables or wire connections that permit individual machines, workstations, and reading-and-writing-sites to share information. These networks can take the form of contemporary Local Area Networks (LANs), such as Ethernet, that join sets of machines within an institution or a part of one, such as a department or administrative unit. Networks also take the form of Wide Area Networks (WANs) that join multiple organizations in widely separated geographical locations. Early versions of such wide-area national and international networks include JANET (in the U.K.), ARPANET (in the U.S.A.), the proposed National Research and Education Network (NREN), and BITNET, which links universities, research centers, and laboratories in North America, Europe, Israel and Japan.

The fourth meaning of network in relation to hypertext comes close to matching the use of the term in critical theory. Network in this fullest sense refers to the entirety of all those terms for which there is no term and for which other terms stand until something better comes along, or until one of them gathers fuller meanings and fuller acceptance to itself: “literature”, “infoworld”, “docuverse”, in fact, “all writing” in the alphanumeric as well as Derridean senses. The future wide-area networks necessary for large scale, interinstitutional and intersite hypertext systems will instantiate and reify the current information worlds, including that of literature. To gain access to information, in other words, will require access to some portion of the network. To publish in a hypertextual world requires gaining access, however limited, to the network.

The analogy, model, or paradigm of the network so central to hypertext appears throughout structuralist and poststructuralist theoretical writings. Related to the model of the network and its components is a rejection of linearity in form and explanation, often in unexpected applications. One example of such anti-linear thought will suffice. Although narratologists have almost always emphasized the essential linearity of narrative, critics have recently begun to find it to be nonlinear. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, for example, argues that, “by virtue of the very nature of discourse, nonlinearity is the rule rather than the exception in narrative accounts” (“Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories”, 223. Since I shall return to the question of linear and nonlinear narrative in a later chapter, I wish here only to remark that nonlinearity has become so important in contemporary critical thought, so fashionable, one might say, that Smith’s observation, whether accurate or not, has become almost inevitable.

The general importance of non- or antilinear thought appears in the frequency and centrality with which Barthes and other critics employ the terms link, network, web, and path. More than almost any other contemporary theorist, Derrida uses the terms link, web, network, matrix, and interweaving associated with hypertextuality; and Bakhtin similarly employs links (Problems, 9, 25), linkage (9), interconnectedness (19), and interwoven (72).

Like Barthes, Bakhtin, and Derrida, Foucault conceives of text in terms of the network, and he relies precisely upon this model to describe his project, “the archaeological analysis of knowledge itself”. Arguing in The Order of Things that his project requires rejecting the “celebrated controversies” that occupied contemporaries, he claims that “one must reconstitute the general system of thought whose network, in its positivity, renders an interplay of simultaneous and apparently contradictory opinions possible. It is this network that defines the conditions that make a controversy or problem possible, and that bears the historicity of knowledge” (75). Order, for Foucault, is in part “the inner law, the hidden network” (xx); and according to him a “network” is the phenomenon “that is able to link together” (127) a wide range of often contradictory taxonomies, observations, interpretations, categories, and rules of observation.

Heinz Pagels’s description of a network in The Dreams of Reason suggests why it has such appeal to those leery of hierarchical or linear models. According to Pagels, “A network has no ‘top’ or ‘bottom’. Rather it has a plurality of connections that increase the possible interactions between the components of the network. There is no central executive authority that oversees the system” (20). Furthermore, as Pagels also explains, the network functions in various physical sciences as a powerful theoretical model capable of describing – and hence offering research agenda for – a range of phenomena at enormously different temporal and spatial scales. The model of the network has captured the imaginations of those working on subjects as apparently diverse as immunology, evolution, and the brain.

The immune system, like the evolutionary system, is thus a powerful pattern-recognition system, with capabilities of learning and memory. This feature of the immune system has suggested to a number of people that a dynamical computer model, simulating the immune system, could also learn and have memory... The evolutionary system works on the time scale of hundreds of thousands of years, the immune system in a matter of days, and the brain in milliseconds. Hence if we understand how the immune system recognizes and kills antigens, perhaps it will teach us about how neural nets recognize and can kill ideas. After all, both the immune system and the neural network consist of billions of highly specialized cells that excite and inhibit one another, and they both learn and have memory. (134-135)

The immune system, like the evolutionary system, is thus a powerful pattern-recognition system, with capabilities of learning and memory. This feature of the immune system has suggested to a number of people that a dynamical computer model, simulating the immune system, could also learn and have memory... The evolutionary system works on the time scale of hundreds of thousands of years, the immune system in a matter of days, and the brain in milliseconds. Hence if we understand how the immune system recognizes and kills antigens, perhaps it will teach us about how neural nets recognize and can kill ideas. After all, both the immune system and the neural network consist of billions of highly specialized cells that excite and inhibit one another, and they both learn and have memory (134-35).

The Network in Marxist Theory

Terry Eagleton and other Marxist theorists who draw upon poststructuralism frequently employ the kind of network model or image to which the connectionists subscribe (See Eagleton, Literary Theory, 14, 33, 78, 104, 165, 169, 173, 201). In contrast, more orthodox Marxists, who have a vested interest (or sincere belief) in linear narrative and metanarrative, tend to use network and web chiefly to characterize error. Pierre Macherey might therefore at first appear slightly unusual in following Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault in situating novels within a network of relations to other texts. According to Machery, “The novel is initially situated in a network of books which replaces the complexity of real relations by which a world is effectively constituted”. Machery’s next sentence, however, makes clear that unlike most poststructuralists and postmodernists who employ the network as a paradigm of an open-ended, non-confining situation, he perceives a network as something that confines and limits: “Locked within the totality of a corpus, within a complex system of relationships, the novel is, in its very letter, allusion, repetition, and resumption of an object which now begins to resemble an inexhaustible world”. (268).

Frederic Jameson, who attacks Louis Althusser in The Political Unconscious for creating impressions of “facile totalization” and of “a seamless web of phenomena” (27) himself more explicitly and more frequently makes these models the site of error. For example, when he criticizes the “anti-speculative bias” of the liberal tradition in Marxism and Form, he notes “its emphasis on the individual fact or item at the expense of the network of relationships in which that item may be imbedded” as liberalism’s means of keeping people from “drawing otherwise unavoidable conclusions at the political level” (x). The network model here represents a full, adequate contextualization, one suppressed by an other-than-Marxist form of thought, but it is still only necessary in describing pre-Marxian society. Jameson repeats this paradigm in his chapter on Herbert Marcuse when he explains that “genuine desire risks being dissolved and lost in the vast network of pseudosatisfactions which make up the market system” (Marxism and Form, 100-101). Once again, network provides a paradigm apparently necessary for describing the complexities of a fallen society. It does so again when the Sartre chapter he discusses Marx’s notion of fetishism, which, according to Jameson, presents “commodities and the ‘objective’ network of relationships which they entertain with each other” as the illusory appearance masking the “reality of social life”, which “lies in the labor process itself” (Marxism and Form, 296).

Hypertext in Context of Earlier Information Regimes

Cause or Convergence, Influence or Confluence?

What relation obtains between electronic computing, hypertext in particular, and literary theory of the past three or four decades? At the May 1990 Elvetham Hall conference on technology and the future of scholarship in the humanities, J. Hillis Miller proposes that “the relation... is multiple, non-linear, non-causal, non-dialectical, and heavily overdetermined. It does not fit most traditional paradigms for defining ‘relationship’” (11).

Miller himself provides a fine example of the convergence of critical theory and technology. Before he discovered computer hypertext, he wrote about text and (interpretative) text processing in ways that sound very familiar to anyone who has read or worked with hypertext. Here, for example, is the way Fiction and Repetition describes the way he reads a novel by Hardy in terms of what I would term a Bakhtinian hypertextuality: “Each passage is a node, a point of intersection or focus, on which converge lines leading from many other passages in the novel and ultimately including them all”. No passage has any particular priority over the others, in the sense of being more important or as being the “origin or end of the others” (58).

Similarly, in providing “an ‘example’ of the deconstructive strategy of interpretation”, in “The Critic as Host” (1979), he describes the dispersed, linked text block whose paths one can follow to an ever widening, enlarging metatext or universe. He applies deconstructive strategy “to the cited fragment of a critical essay containing within itself a citation from another essay, like a parasite within its host”. Continuing the microbiological analogy, Miller next explains that “the ‘example’ is a fragment like those miniscule bits of some substance which are put into a tiny test tube and explored by certain techniques of analytical chemistry. [One gets] so far or so much out of a little piece of language, context after context widening out from these few phrases to include as their necessary milieux all the family of Indo-European languages, all the literature and conceptual thought within these languages, and all the permutations of our social structures of household economy, gift-giving and gift receiving” (Miller, “The Critic as Host”, 223).

Miller does point out that Derrida’s “Glas and the personal computer appeared at more or less the same time. Both work self-consciously and deliberately to make obsolete the traditional codex linear book and to replace it with the new multilinear multimedia hypertext that is rapidly becoming the characteristic mode of expression both in culture and in the study of cultural forms. The ‘triumph of theory’ in literary studies and their transformation by the digital revolution are aspects of the same sweeping change” (“Literary Theory”, 20-21). This sweeping change has many components, to be sure, but one theme appears in both writings on hypertext (and the memex) and in contemporary critical theory – the limitations of print culture, the culture of the book. Bush and Barthes, Nelson and Derrida, like all theorists of these perhaps unexpectedly intertwined subjects, begin with the desire to enable us to escape the confinements of print. This common project requires that one first recognize the enormous power of the book, for only after we have made ourselves conscious of the ways it has formed and informed our lives can we seek to pry ourselves free from some of its limitations.

Looked at within this context, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s explanations of preliterate thought in The Savage Mind and in his treatises on mythology appear in part as attempts to de-center the culture of the book – to show the confinements of our literate culture by getting outside of it, however tenuously and however briefly. In emphasizing electronic, noncomputer media, such as radio, television, and film, Baudrillard, Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, McLuhan, and others similarly argue against the future importance of print-based information technology, often from the vantage point of those who assume analogue media employing sound and motion as well as visual information will radically reconfigure our expectations of human nature and human culture.

Among major critics and critical theorists, Derrida stands out as the one who most realizes the importance of free-form information technology based upon digital, rather than analogue, systems. As he points out, “the development of practical methods of information retrieval extends the possibilities of the ‘message’ vastly, to the point where it is no longer the ‘written’ translation of a language, the transporting of a signified which could remain spoken in its integrity” (10). Derrida, more than any other major theorist, understands that electronic computing and other changes in media have eroded the power of the linear model and the book as related culturally dominant paradigms. “The end of linear writing”, Derrida declares, “is indeed the end of the book”, even if, he continues, “it is within the form of a book that the new writings – literary or theoretical – allow themselves to be, for better or worse, encased” (Of Grammatology, 86). Therefore, as Ulmer points out, “grammatalogical writing exemplifies the struggle to break with the investiture of the book” (13).

According to Derrida, “the form of the ‘book’ is now going through a period of general upheaval, and while that form appears less natural, and its history less transparent, than ever... the book form alone can no longer settle... the case of those writing processes which, in practically questioning that form, must also dismantle it”. The problem, too, Derrida recognizes, is that “one cannot tamper” with the form of the book “without disturbing everything else” (Dissemination , 3) in Western thought. Always a tamperer, Derrida does not find that much of a reason for not tampering with the book, and his questioning begins in the chain of terms that appear as the more-or-less title at the beginning pages of Dissemination: “Hors Livres: Outwork, Hors D’oeuvre, Extratext, Foreplay, Bookend, Facing, and Prefacing”. He does so willingly because, as he announced in Of Grammatology , “All appearances to the contrary, this death of the book undoubtedly announces (and in a certain sense always has announced) nothing but a death of speech (of a so-called full speech) and a new mutation in the history of writing, in history as writing. Announces it at a distance of a few centuries. It is on that scale that we must reckon it here” (8).

In conversation with me, Ulmer mentioned that since Derrida’s gram equals link, grammatology is the art and science of linking – the art and science, therefore, of hypertext. One may add that Derrida also describes dissemination as a description of hypertext: “Along with an ordered extension of the concept of text, dissemination inscribes a different law governing the effects of sense or reference (the interiority of the ‘thing’, reality, objectivity, essentiality, existence, sensible or intelligible presence in general, etc.), a different relation between writing, in the metaphysical sense of the word, and its ‘outside’ (historical, political, economical, sexual, etc.)” (Dissemination, 42).

Analogues to the Gutenberg Revolution

If we find ourselves in a period of fundamental technological and cultural change analogous to the Gutenberg revolution, this is the time to ask what can we learn from the past. In particular, what can we predict about the future by understanding the “logic” of a particular technology or set of technologies? According to Alvin Kernan, “the ‘logic’ of a technology, an idea, or an institution is its tendency consistently to shape whatever it affects in a limited number of definite forms or directions” (49). The work of Kernan and others like Roger Chartier and Eisenstein who have studied the complex transitions from manuscript to print culture suggest three clear lessons or rules for anyone anticipating similar transitions.

First of all, such transitions take a long time, certainly much longer than early studies of the shift from manuscript to print culture led one to expect. Students of technology and reading practice point to several hundred years of gradual change and accommodation, during which different reading practices, modes of publication, and conceptions of literature obtained. According to Kernan, not until about 1700 did print technology “transform the more advanced countries of Europe from oral into print societies, reordering the entire social world, and restructuring rather than merely modifying letters” (9). How long, then, will it take computing, specifically, computer hypertext to effect similar changes? How long, one wonders, will the change to electronic language take until it becomes culturally pervasive? And what byways, transient cultural accommodations, and the like will intervene and thereby create a more confusing, if culturally more interesting, picture?

The second chief rule is that studying the relations of technology to literature and other aspects of humanistic culture does not produce any mechanical reading of culture, such as that feared by Jameson and others. As Kernan makes clear, understanding the logic of a particular technology cannot permit simple prediction because under varying conditions the same technology can produce varying, even contradictory, effects. J. David Bolter and other historians of writing have pointed out, for example, that initially writing, which served priestly and monarchical interests in recording laws and records, appeared purely elitist, even hieratic; later, as the practice diffused down the social and economic scale, it appeared democratizing, even anarchic. To a large extent, printed books had similarly diverse effects, though it took far less time for the democratizing factors to triumph over the hieratic – a matter of centuries, perhaps decades, instead of millennia!

Similarly, as Marie-Elizabeth Ducreux and Roger Chartier have shown, both printed matter and manuscript books functioned as instruments of “religious acculturation controlled by authority, but under certain circumstances [they] also supported resistance to a faith rejected, and proved an ultimate and secret recourse against forced conversion”. Books of hours, marriage charters, and so-called evangelical books all embodied a “basic tension between public, ceremonial, and ecclesiastical use of the book or other print object, and personal, private, and internalized reading”.

Kernan himself points out that “knowledge of the leading principles of print logic, such as fixity, multiplicity, and systematization, makes it possible to predict the tendencies but not the exact ways in which they were to manifest themselves in the history of writing and in the world of letters. The idealization of the literary text and the attribution to it of a stylistic essence are both developments of latent print possibilities, but there was, I believe, no precise necessity beforehand that letters would be valorized in these particular ways” (181). Kernan also points to the “tension, if not downright contradiction, between two of the primary energies of print logic, multiplicity and fixity – what we might call ‘the remainder house’ and the ‘library’ effects” (55), each of which comes into play, or becomes dominant, only under certain economic, political, and technological conditions.

The third lesson or rule one can derive from the work of Kernan and other historians of the relations among reading practice, information technology, and culture is that that transformations have political contexts and political implications. Considerations of hypertext, critical theory, and literature have to take into account what Jameson calls the basic “recognition that there is nothing that is not social and historical – indeed, that everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political” (Political Unconscious , 20).


If the technology of printing radically changed the world in the manner that Kernan convincingly explains, what then will be the effects of the parallel shift from print to computer hypertext? Although the changes associated with the transition from print to electronic technology may not parallel those associated with that from manuscript to print, paying attention to descriptions of the most recent shift in the technology of alphanumeric text provides areas for investigation.

One of the most important changes involved fulfilling the democratizing potential of the new information technology. During the shift from manuscript to print culture “an older system of polite or courtly letters – primarily oral, aristocratic, authoritarian, court-centered – was swept away... and gradually replaced by a new print-based, market-centered, democratic literary system” whose fundamental values “were, while not strictly determined by print ways, still indirectly in accordance with the actualities of print” (Printing Technology, 4). If hypertextuality and associated electronic information technologies have similarly pervasive effects, what will they be? Nelson, Miller, and almost all authors on hypertext who touch upon the political implications of hypertext assume that the technology is essentially democratizing and that it therefore supports some sort of decentralized, liberated existence.

Kernan offers numerous specific instances of ways that technology “actually affects individual and social life”. For example, “by changing their work and their writing, [print] forced the writer, the scholar, and the teacher – the standard literary roles – to redefine themselves, and if it did not entirely create, it noticeably increased the importance and number of critics, editors, bibliographers, and literary historians”. Print technology similarly redefined the audience for literature by transforming it from a small group of manuscript readers or listeners... to a group of readers... who bought books to read in the privacy of their homes. Print also made literature objectively real for the first time, and therefore subjectively conceivable as a universal fact, in great libraries of printed books containing large collections of the world’s writing... Print also rearranged the relationship of letters to other parts of the social world by, for example, freeing the writer from the need for patronage and the consequent subservience to wealth, by challenging and reducing established authority’s control of writing by means of state censorship, and by pushing through a copyright law that made the author the owner of his own writing (4-5).

Electronic linking shifts the boundaries between one text and another as well as between the author and the reader and between and the teacher and the student. It also has radical effects upon our experience of author, text, and work, redefining each. Its effects are so basic, so radical, that it reveals that many of our most cherished, most commonplace, ideas and attitudes toward literature and literary production turn out to be the result of that particular form of information technology and technology of cultural memory that has provided the setting for them. This technology – that of the printed book and its close relations, which include the typed or printed page – engenders certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text that hypertext makes untenable. The evidence of hypertext, in other words, historicizes many of our most commonplace assumptions, thereby forcing them to descend from the ethereality of abstraction and appear as corollary to a particular technology rooted in specific times and places. In making available these points, hypertext has much in common with some major points of contemporary literary and semiological theory, particularly with Derrida’s emphasis on de-centering and with Barthes’s conception of the readerly versus the writerly text. In fact, hypertext creates an almost embarrassingly literal embodiment of both concepts, one that in turn raises questions about them and their interesting combination of prescience and historical relations (or embeddedness).


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_______ . Postmoderne Concierge: Die “Tagesschau.” Wortwelt und Weltbild der Fernsehnachtrichten. Opladen, Germany: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1990.

Scholes, Robert. Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

_____. Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Scholes, Robert, and Robert Kellogg. The Nature of Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Schor, Naomi. Breaking the Chain: Women, Theory, and French Realist Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Smith, Tony C. and Ian H. Witten. “A Planning Mechanism for Generating Story Text.” In The New Medium: ALLC-ACH 90 Book of Abstracts, 201-4. Siegen, Germany: University of Siegen, Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, and the Association for Computers and the Humanities, 1990.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Female Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

Steinberg, S. H. Five Hundred Years of Printing. 2nd ed.Baltimore: Penguin, 1961.

Weissman, Ronald F. E. “From the Personal Computer to the Scholar’s Workstation.” Academic Computing 3 (October 1988): 10-14, 30-34, 36, 38-41.

Wilson, Kathleen S. “Palenque: An Interactive Multimedia Optical Disc Prototype for Children.” Working Paper no. 2. New York: Bank Street College of Education/Center for Children and Technology, 1986.

Yankelovich, Nicole, George P. Landow, and David Cody. “Creating Hypermedia Materials for English Literature Students.” ACM SIGCUE Outlook, 19, no. 3-4 (1987): 12-25.

Electronic Materials

CD Word. The Interactive Bible Library. Environment: Specially amplified Guide. Dallas: CD Word Library Inc., 1990.

The Dickens Web. Developer: George P. Landow. Editors Julie Launhardt and Paul D. Kahn. Environment: Intermedia 3.5. Providence, R.I.: Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship, 1990.

Exploring the Moon. Developers: Katie Livingston, Jayne Aubele, and James Head. Editors Paul D. Kahn and Julie Launhardt. Environment: Intermedia 3.5. Providence, R.I.: Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship, 1988.

Joyce, Michael. Afternoon. Environment: StorySpace Beta 3.3 Jackson, Mich: Riverrun Limited, 1987.

Moulthrop, Stuart. Forking Paths: An Interaction. Environment: Storyspace Beta 3.3 Jackson, Mich: Riverrun Limited, 1987.

Perseus 1.0b1: Interactive Sources and Studies on Ancient Greek Civilization. Beta pre-release version. Developers: Gregory Crane and Elli Mylonas. Environment: HyperCard. Washington, D.C.: Annenberg/ Corporation for Public Broadcasting Project, 1990.

Seid, Tim. Interpreting Manuscripts. Environment: HyperCard. Providence, R. I.: 1990.

Winter, Robert. CD Companion to Beethoven Symphony No. 9: A Hypercard/CD Audio Program. Environment: HyperCard. Santa Monica, Calif.: Voyager, 1989.

Source of the original text:
George P.Landow: Hypertext and Critical Theory, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Chapter One: Hypertextual Derrida, Poststructuralist Nelson?