Hypertext Panel

January 17 1996

This involved three short contributions by Ian Lancashire, Susan Fisher, and myself. Only my own is reproduced here. In my contribution I raised some points about what it means to read texts, whether hyper- or literary. The informal tone is largely retained in the transcript below.

Further information -- see below.

Hypertext and Reading

Cyberspace may be a textual domain, but it is not the Gutenberg Galaxy same as it ever was. Textuality in the new writing space is not constrained by the rigid ordering principles native to pre-electronic media. This means that we must fundamentally re-think our position as subjects of electronic textuality. (Stuart Moulthrop, 'Getting over the Edge,' 1995)

Must we? Do we have a problem here? And is it a genuine problem?

Hypertext, so the argument goes, involves the transgression of borders, and an end to monologism -- Moulthrop, in another of his pieces on hypertext (Mosaic 28:4 (Dec. 1995), 55-77) would argue for the notion of opposition or difficulty as encoded into hypertext -- that it invites, in his phrase, the concept of breakdown. "Travelling in the breakdown lane", in fact, is the title of this article. Breakdown as an necessary condition, then -- in fact, on Moulthrop's Interstate, all lanes are breakdown lanes. But this is where, I think, Moulthrop's account of hypertext is, while provocative and suggestive, also in some ways, problematic, or misconceived. And, I would add, in both these ways, representative. If Moulthrop, and those like him (I think of George Landow, or Patrick Connor), see hypertext as the condition of the texts of the future, a step towards a more valid way of representing textuality, I want to query some of the assumptions being made here -- in particular, I want to argue that Moulthrop's view, and those like it, engages in a kind of sleight of hand: what is being obscured here is the nature of reading.

This term, breakdown, is taken by Moulthrop from the cognitive scientists, Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores (in a book of 1985, Understanding Computers and Cognition). Following Heidegger's concept of "thrownness", they attempt to develop new kinds of software that go beyond standard computational, linear methods: "we prefer to talk about 'breakdowns,'" they say. "By this we mean the interrupted moment of our habitual, standard, comfortable 'being-in-the-world.' Breakdowns serve an extremely important cognitive function, revealing to us the nature of our practices and equipment, making them 'present-to-hand' to us, perhaps for the first time." (cited, Moulthrop, p. 71).

The process referred to here is the development of new principles of software design: in a word, self-repairing systems. Breakdown is an opportunity for learning and redesign: "A design constitutes an interpretation of breakdown and a committed attempt to anticipate future breakdown" (cited, p. 71).

For Moulthrop, on the other hand, the cardinal feature of hypertext is breakdown (not repair): he enshrines difficulty and obstruction at the very heart of hypertext theory. In this, he aligns himself with postmodern theories of textuality, from Roland Barthes onwards, which insist on textual meaning as decentered, associative, riven -- But anticipating future breakdown leads in a quite different direction -- and this is the blind spot in Moulthrop's account.

If breakdown is, I quote, "the interrupted moment of our habitual, standard, comfortable 'being-in-the-world'" (Winograd and Flores), this is, of course, interestingly close to the defamiliarizing moment proposed by Romantic theorists, such as Coleridge or Shelley, or the Russian Formalist Shklovsky: it can be a characteristically literary effect. Poetry has its effect, says Coleridge, "by awakening the mind's attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us" (Biographia Literaria, Ch. XIV); or, a quite different example taken from Shklovsky ("Art as Technique"), the Tolstoy story told from the perspective of a horse ("Kholstomer"), which awakens us to the cruelty of human behaviour and the irrational obsession with private property.

Breakdown, in other words, is followed by a constructive process: whether this is modelled in the software domain as anticipating future breakdown, or the adoption (however temporary) of a different perspective on some human behaviour or custom, breakdown is an opportunity for development, not a state of repeated and permanent obstruction. Moulthrop, who mainly discusses hypertext fiction, seems particularly impressed, given his term breakdown, with the fact that so many of these authors are obsessed with car crashes -- he even reproduces a screen shot from one fiction of an image of a crash in his article -- But the car crash, I would suggest, despite David Cronenberg, isn't very sexy, and it certainly isn't a tenable way of life.

So, how is hypertext to be conceived? Isn't the shock of traversing the nodes a bit overstated? And in emphasising rupture rather than connecting or reconstruing, doesn't it focus on the link rather than the node? It's as though hypertext is, in its truest form, the gaps between acts of reading, rather than the reading itself -- pure geometry, in other words. The very structure of hypertext tends to leach out the text and leave pure hyperspace. To paraphrase Shelley, text "like a dome of many-coloured glass, / Stains the white radiance" of the Eternity of hypertext.

So this is the problem: hypertext invites a mode of reading that is unsettled, restless, meandering, insatiable. Readers are surfers. Is this how reading is, or how it must become in the electronic future?

There's a quite different sense of hypertext: examples would be large sections of the internet, the hypertext being created here by the Orlando project, or my own Romanticism hypertext. This is the use of hypertext for organizing or modelling knowledge, for retrieval, or for playing with knowledge, which can very effective (the ludic aspects of hypertext are particularly apparent now on the Internet).

But the claim that hypertext is the "natural" exemplification of textuality blurs literary and non-literary kinds of reading, or reading for different purposes -- and in this context the literary is the loser: specifically, it loses its boundedness, or margin.

To cite another passage mentioned by Moulthrop, "hypertext kills." According to Landow, the individual component or "lexia" in such a text

associates with whatever text links to it, thereby dissolving notions of the intellectual separation of one text from others in the way that some chemicals destroy the cell membrane of an organism: destroying the cell membrane destroys the cell: it kills. In contrast, similarly destroying now-conventional notions of textual separation may destroy certain attitudes associated with text, but it will not necessarily destroy text. It will, however, reconfigure it and our expectations of it. (Landow, Hypertext, p. 53).

But "certain attitudes" is a poor way of representing the change that hypertext makes to reading. Hassan puts it better:

The loss of literariness, then, destabilizes literature, unmargins it. Without formal or generic constraints, our ability to make specific sense of literature diminishes even as our freedom, as readers, swells. (Hassan, The Postmodern Turn, p. 201)

To read for inquiry or learning is a quite different type of experience than reading for aesthetic purposes. The first type of reading is model building (cf. Johnson-Laird) -- it involves propositional structure, situation models, concept mapping. Hypertext can model this well, both facilitating orderly learning about something, as well as the unexpected cross-linking that leads to surprise or discovery. This, of course, is also the kind of reading that we do of literary texts for research and scholarship, where, in part, the process involves computing relationships, building structures, making comparisons, etc.

But the reading that I would characterize as experiential or aesthetic involves a different process. It is most likely to occur with the "literary" text: poetry, novels, etc.,

although the border line of the "literary" is a disputed and shifting one. Such reading can be characterized in two ways:

1. It assumes the stability of the text (e.g., editing practices generally valorize a version of a text). Electronic texts are inherently unstable: even if the words of the text remain unchanged, hypertext links (not authored by the writer) shift attention in potentially destabilizing ways. To assume a stable text, means endowing it with a certain quality of attention as an artifact: these words in this order -- this matters.

2. Literary reading primarily centres on feelings, memory, desire, the pull of narrative; it may call upon feelings that you haven't acknowledged or recognized before; and this is likely to be at times a defamiliarizing, perspective-shifting experience (and I would include in this the relations, explicit or not, of the text being read to other literary texts, art works, etc).

So I want to think about the LOCATION of reading:

Hypertext can be seen as a mental prosthetic, in some of the ways that a dictionary, encyclopedia, catalogue, etc. can be; information is externalized and dispersed -- hence a web or network are effective tropes -- so hypertext offers a valuable matrix for knowledge modeling, etc.1

The literary, in contrast, is internal, self-organizing, embodied -- and I mean that literally: response often consists, physically, in a tension of forces within the self, formulated in the body image; especially in those indeterminate aspects of the literary, those points of multiple meaning (which may or may not be resolved as you read further);

So I am claiming that the postmodernist celebration of hypertext tends to confuse the issues:

The "book" is seen as determined, limited, linear -- hence tyrannic, outmoded. But studies of reading suggest this image is far from true: literary reading often seems dialogical, recursive, multivalent. Hypertext, at least at present, with its prestructured links, may in practice be more determining and limiting, and deceptively so, because with mouse in hand, you seem to be in control ("Where do you want to go today?" asks Microsoft. Nowhere that you could possibly know about, I reply, as I pick up a literary text).

Postmodern enthusiasts, then, have hypostatized the act of reading from books; the physical, linear nature of the book doesn't automatically transfer to the reading of it. In sum, we need to know a lot more about what happens when we read before we can make any grand claims about what hypertext has to offer, or think that we can simulate the reading process electronically.


1. Cf. this comment by Pamela Gilbert:

If technology, as McLuhan argued long ago, is always in some sense an extension of the human body, the vertigo induced by the speed and scope of the Net as an extension of our bodies makes us cling to the familiar tropoi and topoi. We may stride in seven league boots, hurtle down fiberoptic trails, but we still walk, upright bipeds with opposing thumbs, confident that we crawl the web -- it doesn't crawl us. We "finger" one another, "surf" the Net, "go to" a remote site, "get" files from one place, and "put" them somewhere else. The metaphor of the Net as space masks the disassociation of Netters from their bodies, masks the fact that the bodies are elsewhere, real, material -- invested with a responsible subjectivity.

"On Space, Sex and Stalkers," Women and Performance 17: Sexuality and Cyberspace (January 26 1997). http://www.echonyc.com/~women/Issue17/art-gilbert.html

Further information

I'll be participating in a conference at which I speak about hypertext and writing and offer a workshop: see the web site for Making Words Selling Words, February 27 to March 1 (Faculty of Extension).

An online essay on literature, computing, and hypertext is available here on my web site.

I'll be offering a graduate course on hypertext in the Autumn term, 1997. A course description and bibliography is available online.

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Document revised Thursday, February 6th, 1997