The Hypertextual Moment

David S. Miall

University of Alberta

(Draft #2, February 1998)

Revised version now in English Studies in Canada, 24 (June 1998), 157-174.

  1. This may be as far as it gets. Hypertext has been promoted as the revolutionary next step, the replacement for five centuries of print culture. In its latest internet form it may even be the answer to television and other visual media, once these media are reconfigured as supplements to hypertext. Although celebrations of its revolutionary powers have become routine (e.g., it "is nothing less than the process of reconfiguring civilization itself," says Glenn Jones, as reported by Anson), a chorus of critics has gathered in the wings. While Sven Birkerts (1994), hearing the apocalyptic tone, laments the end of reading and of the private self, others have challenged the claims that underwrite apocalypticism: Andrew Dillon (1996) points to the incoherence of such familiar arguments as the non-linearity of hypertext or its supposed modeling of associationist patterns of mind; Richard Grusin (1996) has deconstructed the nearly-universal attribution of agency to hypertext by its proponents; Paul Duguid (1996) has suggested that the liberationist argument is an illusion.

  3. While these are telling points amidst the prevailing rhetoric, they relate to the formal and instrumental aspects of hypertext. Perhaps the more urgent struggle over hypertext is to find significant content for this new tool. What, actually, it is good for is an issue that haunts both its informational and literary applications. Unlike the familiar curriculum of the textbook or engineering manual, and unlike the epic, the pastoral, or the satire, hypertext has no preprogrammed content appropriate to it. This is an odd spectacle, not without bathos. In the eyes of Stuart Moulthrop, for example, an assiduous hypertext author and theorist, the native condition of hypertext is breakdown, its content exemplifed by the auto crash. "Perhaps," Moulthrop muses, "hypertext is a technology of trauma, reflexively figuring its own assault on the textual corpus in terms of insults to the physical body" ("Traveling" 70). In such figuring, however, lies a refusal of referentiality: the physical has become virtual; the textual assault, if that is what it is, is on other texts; the reader disappears in reflexivity. This locates the destiny of hypertext in the hyperreal, in Baudrillard's (1994) prescription for simulacra of the third kind: "simulacra of simulation, founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game -- total operationality, hyperreality, aim of total control" (121). If so, how did we get here, and what happens next, if all of hypertext is "just gaming"?1

  5. Hypertext paternity is usually traced to an innovative fantasy of Vannevar Bush, the "memex," which Bush first described in a paper in 1945. Bardini (1997) shows that hypertext as a computer-based function began with the research of Douglas Engelbart in 1960-61 and the proposals of Ted Nelson, who is said to have coined the term hypertext in 1962. Each of these founding visions is addressed to the manipulation of information: in Bush's memex this was to be handled by indexed microfilm, and it was authorized by an associationist model of mind. Engelbart proposed to improve thinking and communication, Nelson to bring together and interlink all texts, whether of the past or yet to be written. In each case the central principle was the machine-supported modeling of information and greater instrumental control over it, although Nelson saw his system principally in terms of support for writing rather than communication. The originary complicity of hypertext with information modeling imbricates its nodes and links: this constitutes, I will argue, a problematics central to hypertext in all its forms, a spectral presence that deforms the advocacy of its proponents.

  7. As a supposed postmodern scene of writing, moreover, hypertext renders tropologies as networks, or, more specifically, the literary is reduced to the informational. This seems to make hypertext "an almost embarrassingly literal" (Landow 53) example of Frederic Jameson's critique of postmodern spatiality, confined to a perpetual present, as Myron C. Tuman has noted (Tuman 118). The moment of hypertext, in a word, is all there is: What you see is what you get. It is also a moment, to historicize once again, that may be about to pass leaving hypertext as just another tool, "something terribly exciting for a little while and then a bore" (Dobrin 315).

  9. In this essay I examine some typical accounts of the hypertext medium and query the visionary claims made for it in its opposition to print culture. I focus especially on the writings of Stuart Moulthrop, who has produced noted work as an author both of hyperfiction and a body of theoretical writing about hypertext. While discussions such as Moulthrop's often appear to be based on hyperfiction (of the kind published by Eastgate), their claims generalize beyond fiction to hypertext as a genre; it is these issues that will preoccupy me here, rather than particular questions about hyperfiction. If hypertext exemplifies the postmodern regime, as Moulthrop and others believe, then it also admirably fulfils Lyotard's prognostication for the information age. "Along with the hegemony of computers comes a certain logic" prescribing what counts as knowledge; "We may thus expect a thorough exteriorization of knowledge with respect to the 'knower,' at whatever point he or she may occupy in the knowledge process" (Lyotard 4). As a striated structure, hypertext also appears resistant to the undefined space of the nomos, in Deleuze and Guattari's term. Reversing some familiar claims for hypertext, I will argue that literary texts in linear form fulfil the possibilities of nomos much better by countering the informational propensities of language. Here, then, are some of the liabilities of reducing knowledge to information apparent in the discourse on hypertext.


    Hypertext against print

  11. Hypertext is not one thing, but a set of multifarious techniques ranging from the conservative reproduction of the book in hierarchical form to the self-navigating fiction with multiply-interlinked "rhizomatic" nodes. But it is clear that for its advocates hypertext of the latter kind is set to supersede print culture. While George Landow or Gregory Crane have worked to reconfigure classical literary texts (whether Greek or Victorian) within the medium of hypertext, Stuart Moulthrop and his colleagues argue a view of hypertext that calls for a radical mutation in reading and the disappearance of pre-hypertextual literary culture. "Some of us keep saying," Moulthrop noted in an essay of 1993, "that we need a revolution, a paradigm shift, a total uprooting of the old information order" ("You Say" 73). This constitutes a political move, as Geoffrey Nunberg has recently argued: such hypertext visionaries, he suggests, have "no real interest in advancing a historical thesis." The point of their rhetoric "is chiefly to establish their right to control the cultural moment and the material resources that it commands" ("Introduction" 11). As a result, their accounts of prehypertext literature seem beset by Oedipal echoes. These go well beyond the misreadings of Harold Bloom's literary genealogy: the murderous impulse rises into view quite plainly. The impulse is legitimated along the following lines.

  13. First, the content of the codex or printed book is collapsed into its material form, which is found to be fixed or static. As Moulthrop puts it, "Codex is thus an essentially conservative form, a means of exactly repeating knowledge or fictional discourse validated over time. It is the supreme discursive expression of the sedentary, the established, the legitimate" ("War"). Since print within the book is taken to represent the power of property, the second move is to show that hypertext may "threaten to upset the stability of language-as-property" ("You Say" 74). Hypertext achieves this by eliminating the margins of each text it incorporates: in Landow's words, hypertext "blurs the boundaries of individual texts" (Landow 23), so that "the notion of an individual, discrete work becomes increasingly undermined and untenable within this form of information technology" (Landow 40). It follows that a text that is no longer demarcated by its boundaries is necessarily demystified, just as a given string of text entered into a database becomes equivalent to any other string entered in the same position. While it is not clear if Landow intends us to take this model seriously, he notes that "A data base search . . . permits the active reader to enter the author's text at any point and not at the point the author chose as the beginning" (Landow 75). Thus the third and final point is reached: the death of the text. A hypertext network model, says Landow, shows "the irrelevance of distinctions between inside and outside a particular text" (Landow 8). This, he adds, is analogous to "the way that some chemicals destroy the cell membrane of an organism: destroying the cell membrane destroys the cell; it kills." An individual section of text loses its distinctiveness, being "dispersed" into other texts (Landow, 53), or in Moulthrop's term, reduced to "multiplicity." In hypertext a given text "has no clear defense against the potential vastness of the network and its multiplicity, if not 'randomness'" ("Traveling" 59).

  15. To recapitulate, it appears from the comments I have cited that the route away from the printed book with its "bias toward hegemony and monologue" ("They Became" 227) lies in a swerve towards information technology, conceptualized as a database or network. The insistence, in this discourse, on a medium characterized by figures of dispersal or multiplicity, strongly suggests the notion of entropy, thus echoing an intriguing formulation of Baudrillard (1994) that INFORMATION = ENTROPY. "Information in which an event is reflected or broadcast is already a degraded form of this event" (86). More systematically than Baudrillard could have envisaged, hypertext reverses the negentropy of the (extended) printed text by unmargining it and making its fragmented constituents accessible to an infinite order of readings within multiple perspectives. As Geoffrey Nunberg puts it, equalizing access to information has a tendency to "flatten" it ("Farewell" 118).

  17. In this maneuver more is effaced than the hegemony of the text: it releases the reader from the close, consistent engagement with the single text said to be enforced by its print form (a liberation celebrated in the democratizing rhetoric of hypertext advocacy). With all textual nodes equally accessible to the gaze through the universal hypertext machine, the reader is somewhat in the position of the overseer of the notorious Panopticon; no longer disciplining the body of the text by acts of close reading, the withdrawn reader now subdues the text by requiring it to internalize a power that exceeds any possible text whatever -- the structuring power of the hypertext as an information technology. As in Baudrillard's entropic hyperreality, the interlinking technology of hypertext has become more significant than anything that it can be used to represent. But N. Katherine Hayles (1993) warns that while
    the Panopticon abstracts power out of the bodies of disciplinarians into a universal, disembodied gaze. . . . it is precisely this move that gives the Panopticon its force, for when the bodies of the disciplinarians seem to disappear into the technology, the limitations of corporeality are hidden. (151-2)
    Corporeality will return, like the repressed Other, however, to shadow the hypertext enterprise.

  19. Meanwhile, it is apparent that the resistance to corporeality is written across hypertext rhetoric in various locations. In particular the discourse on prehypertext simultaneously shows both a refusal of the embodiedness of the act of reading (an aspect of reading I explore in more detail below) and a projection of physicality onto the object read based on a simple contrast between electronic and print media. Landow, for example, argues that print technology "engenders certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text that hypertext makes untenable" (Landow 33). Similarly, in developing an argument premised on its physical properties, Landow claims that the book suppressed anything that "resisted linearization" (Landow 43). "The printed book or written codex," adds Bolter, "encourages the notion of a text as an organic whole -- a unit of meaning that is physically separate from and therefore independent of all other texts" (Bolter 163).

  21. The rhetoric of these claims exhibits a type/token confusion, as though the book form determines how a text is to be produced and read. A printed book, however, is only a token of the text within it, text that may appear in a range of different tokens from manuscript to electronic pixels; and it is as a type (of which style and genre are signs) that a text determines how it will be read. Such readings, notably in the case of literary texts that have discourse force, in Brewer's (1980) term, may be indifferent to the specific token by which they are mediated. As one witness reports, reading a Voyager book (an electronic version of a canonical literary text): "Once you get past the initial unease of reading off a computer screen, the trappings fade away and once again you're transported back to the familiar space of the mind's eye" (Lu 497). The kind of determinism represented here by Landow or Bolter has been challenged on similar grounds by Carla Hesse (1996) in her objection to the use of the term "print culture": this is misleading, she suggests, because "it implicitly carries with it a technological determinism that conflates the history of a means of cultural production (the printing press) with the historical development of a mode of cultural production," that is, "the modern literary system" (21). In the case of print, then, "the medium is not the mode" (22).

  23. But the oddness of the arguments used to anathematize printed books and their authors show that they are overdetermined: the physicality of books is merely the occasion for a broader attack on the cultural capital they represent. Once again, Stuart Moulthrop's writing provides the clearest examples (now in collaboration with Nancy Kaplan). A textbook (Reading Texts, 1987) is praised for promoting interaction during reading and for enabling the student reader to resist absorption; thus, the textbook is said to encourage "resistant readings through critical independence," or "strong" readings that resist "the text's seductions" ("They Became" 225-6). And just as literary texts must be resisted, so all earlier textual practices become reified: a stereotyped account of them is placed on view for judgement. Thus we encounter such characterizations as "the realm of self-validating truths and decrees" of pre-hypertextual writing (cited 206); the reading process analysed by Iser that is "internal and passive," a purely mental event which hypertext externalizes (221); and the practice of pre-electronic literacy that "serves the interests of individual authority, monologic discourse, and linear argument" (221).

  25. Broadening their scope, Moulthrop and Kaplan go on to attack the education and publishing system, accusing them of conspiracy. The capital investment made by publishers in "literature" supports educational practices obliged to treat a text as univocal in order to preserve the investment. Since hypertext opposes this "strategy of containment," it threatens "the orderly and autonomously meaningful text" with its "unvoiced assumptions" (222). Moreover,
    Restrictions on the creation of 'authorized' writing produce an economy of scarcity. If only a few texts survive to be disseminated, it is much easier to concentrate and control literary value, and, of course, this economy benefits those who live by study as well as those who live by sales. ("They Became" 223)
    Thus print is said to produce "conditions [that] favor singular and definitive discourse -- the production of a literature devoted to property, hierarchy, and a banking model of culture" (236). This is the consequence of "the literary institutions we have inherited from the history of print" ("They Became" 236-7).

  27. These and similar arguments are put forward with no acknowledgement of the wide range of values associated with several centuries of book-related practices. They totalize by decree, eliminating every previous value in favour of hypertextual multiplicity. It is a practice that projects a fate for the literary sphere somewhat analogous to that produced by the Jacobins in the political, who made a point of executing intellectuals such as Lavater, or the Khmer Rouge, who slaughtered anyone who appeared to have a higher education. At the same time, it is important to notice that in this clash of values no claims are being made about the meaning of literary texts -- meaning is marginalized in the figure of "seduction." By breaking texts up, dispersing them across an information network, control shifts to hypertext as a system; its structural potential is conceived to be more important than any content available to it. The argument is not about meaning, but about power.

  29. The future thus appears to lie with those forms of hypertext that disperse textual meaning within endless permutations of intertexuality, in particular, hypertext fiction -- texts produced for and read as hypertext ("native hypertext" in Moulthrop's term: "Traveling" 60). But Moulthrop also has a more radical view in prospect. While hypertext fiction (as published by Eastgate) for the most part leaves the reader free only to choose different pathways through fixed textual materials, new web media such as MUDs or MOOs are participatory and constantly in change. Thus,
    The 'new writing' cannot have authors in the old-fashioned sense. If hypertext and other electronic media hold out any differences, it would seem to lie in participatory forms, not such traditional offerings as electronic novels and monographs. The native country of hypertext must be a stranger place than anything we have yet imagined. ("Traveling" 65)
  30. A major implication of this move is to unsettle the notion of the author once again. In hypertext, "The author is placed into a context of incompleteness, stress and dis-closure" in which the major stress appears the struggle between linear and non-linear processes, what Moulthrop calls "the struggle for and the struggle against the line" ("Traveling" 67). So far, however, this struggle seems to replicate something we have always known about the form of literary texts. Invited in particular by the dialogical processes they contain, readers must continually mediate between linear relationships and multidimensional or contextual ones. An author, in this sense, can never wholly determine response: literary reading, to borrow Moulthrop's own terms, is charactistically suffused with "incompleteness, stress and dis-closure" ("Traveling" 67). This seems to call for closer examination of the roles of author and reader within the new economy of hypertext. First, however, what is this new world that hypertext invites us to inhabit?


    The ideology of resistance

  32. Hypertext eschatology is pervasive among both detractors and supporters. Bolter suggests that "by moving from the order of print to the electronic, we risk the loss of the sense of obstacle as well as the feel of the particular that have characterized our experience over millenia." Although the reappearance of a sense of obstacle among hypertext users is common, as I will mention, Bolter goes on to observe that "We are poised at the brink of what may prove to be a kind of species mutation. We had better consider carefully what this means" (Bolter 31). Birkerts, similarly, argues that electronic media are changing human subjectivity: "We are experiencing the gradual but steady erosion of human presence, both of the authority of the individual and, in ways impossible to prove, of the species itself" (228). Appealing to evolutionary notions he observes that we are "biologically, neurophysiologically -- creatures of extraordinary adaptability" (222). This is, of course, quite correct, but the fifty years in which electronic communications have become widespread is far too short a time to see evidence of species change (evolutionary theorists think in terms of fifty generations, not fifty years). Davida Charney (1994), commenting on such appeals to biology, remarks laconically that since the evidence is against the notion that literacy changed the structure of the mind, it is unlikely to be changed by the advent of hypertext (260).

  34. Less concerned by such biological fundamentalism, Stuart Moulthrop engages rather in extended fantasy about the "new culture" that hypertext will bring into being. This involves several related moves. He repudiates prior forms of identity, suggesting that a new one can be dreamed into existence, following Michael Joyce's suggestion that we seem to "be undergoing a change of identity, weaving a fresh social fabric" through a pervasive "marketplace of semiotic exchange." This argues for "a reformulation of the subject, a truly radical revision of identity and social relations" ("Rhizome" 299-300) which attempts to "stand outside any stable order, old or new." While Moulthrop calls on Lyotard's suggestion that we can no longer appeal to any metanarratives, it is clear that his own fantasy is itself a master narrative, since it takes upon itself to place within a totalizing perspective all earlier forms of identity and culture. "The dream of a new culture is a fantasy of immanent change" (300), he says. The totalizing scope of the "fantasy" is shown by his later comments that tie the hypertextual revolution to "opposition to the rightward political drift of the West and the demise of state socialism in the East" (301). Moulthrop's eschatological claims could hardly be wider if, as he suggests, hypertext is to produce something "outside any stable order, old or new" ("Rhizome" 300).

  36. Moulthrop runs into difficulty trying to specify the nature of the new culture, however, and engages in two strategies to defend it which, following his own terms, can be labeled hallucination and resistance. Both falter, I will suggest, on the founding liability of hypertext as an information tool limited to the replication of presence. Thus, we can ask of Moulthrop's vision, whether his future has a past. If he proposes "We may find ourselves one day arriving as the first nomads of cyberspace, voyaging smoothly across the grids of consensual hallucination" (317), I would ask what has to occur on the day before to make this possible? Following Deleuze and Guattari Moulthrop appeals to the notion of becoming ("Rhizome" 303), but there is strictly nothing in Moulthrop's account in this essay that would make that possible. This is shown first by the hallucination.

  38. Unable to show the basis for a new culture in available technologies, Moulthrop turns to allegory, putting in its place a substitute fulfilment, the "New Dope," a fable of Thomas Pynchon: "the minute you take it you are rendered incapable of ever telling anybody what it's like, or worse, where to get any" (cited 311, from Gravity's Rainbow). This fabled dope is, of course, perfectly self-defeating: it represents self-enclosure, a failure of community, the ultimate narcissistic imprisonment. In other words, it negates precisely the new culture that Moulthrop would bring into being. It offers a witty replication of the absolutism of protestant grace, since "It is the dope that finds you, apparently" (cited 311). Like an act of God, the granting of elect status is due neither to good works nor any moral qualities: it is, one day, simply endowed on the individual. For Moulthrop the appeal of the new dope is that it represents "a true alternative to the capitalist order," but this remains a fantasy, since he cannot offer any routes towards implementation.

  40. Becoming, then, is not in question. Moulthrop here is responding to the trenchant critique of Martin E. Rosenberg (in the same collection), who charges that the supposed nonlinearity of hypertext is really only multilinearity. He agrees that "Such matrices are always edifices, never autonomous zones; they are structures that do not allow for deterritorialization" (310). Implicated in this response, however, are two critical oversights: Moulthrop does not note the central thrust of Rosenberg's argument, which is that the dynamic systems on which hypertext is based are reversible; nor does he acknowledge the consequences of "deterritorialization" for the topological perspective of hypertext theories such as his own. The mode of becoming that would realize the dream of a new culture requires representations that are neither reversible nor topological, but in Moulthrop's topographical world deterritorialization is literally unthinkable. His nomads can never voyage outside the informational grids.

  42. Thus Moulthrop's stance effectively jettisons any of the instruments by which his dream could be realized. The production of a new culture can only be based on a transforming process applied to the old. That is, an existing organ takes on a new role, or a new role is derived from a new relationship between organs already in place. In Moulthrop's anti-evolutionary world, however, we can only dream another culture into existence by a total rejection of the past, but history shows that to do that is to evoke one of the nightmares of history (the state terror of the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge). A rhetoric dedicated solely to "the designation of places or occasions" (note the topographical figure once again) leads to such instruments of terror as Robespierre's Festival of the Supreme Being, symbol of an order imposed on a society which had ceased to possess any instruments for thinking about cultural transformation.

  44. Moulthrop's future thus has no past. But noting the failure of the hallucinatory strategy (although not its cause), Moulthrop moves on to offer a second defence of hypertext: the futility of resistance. This is exemplified in a second allegory, the tale of the student of hypertext Karl Crary (a story that Moulthrop finds sufficiently compelling to offer two accounts of it, in "Rhizome" and "They Became"). The prelude to the story requires a brief account of a Borges narrative.

  46. As Bolter puts it, "To read multiply is to resist the temptation to close off possible courses of action; it is to keep open multiple explanations for the same event or character. It is an almost impossible task for the reader to remain open in a medium as perfected as that of print" (142-3). These implications are worked out explicitly by Moulthrop and Kaplan in developing the multiplicity implicit in Borges's story, "The Garden of Forking Paths." In the ideal fiction of Ts'ui Pên described in the story, time does not exclude one event because another has happened: events occur in parallel, and the actor in the novel, in Borges's words, "chooses -- simultaneously -- all of them," so that he has "diverse futures, diverse times" ("They Became" 229). This is a striking fable, but the story shows that it is not literally attainable. The protagonist Yu Tsun must decide, and he does so by committing the murder he had set out to do earlier in the story. Borges's plot places emphasis on the necessity of choice: Yu kills; he in turn is hanged. Death, being irreversible, is surely one of the guarantees of narrative becoming.

  48. Moulthrop and Kaplan, however, set out to subvert Borges's story by creating in their own hypertextual version of the story the alternative paths left unrealized by Borges. This maneuver is an instructive one: "With hypertext," they claim, "the range of options broadens, allowing narratives that at least approximate Yu's vision of infinite pathways" ("They Became" 229). In this way they make hypertext appear to evade the narrative contingencies of time and death. In reality, of course, the existence of simultaneous pathways in a hypertext is impossible, except potentially; an actual reader must choose, and will read events in one order or another. Their maneuver thus only mimics "intertextuality, polysemy, or difference" (235): the praxis of hypertext reading is necessarily linear, an unfolding in time. The formal properties of hypertext thus cannot be said to "exactly invert those of print" (235): this is an illusion.

  50. Moulthrop and Kaplan invited students to produce their own responses to the new Borges-based hypertext. Their story centers on one student, Karl Crary. His response took the form of adding further nodes to the hypertext itself in which he offered a critical account of the hypertext "pastiche" produced by Moulthrop and Kaplan, including a classification of the kind of nodes it contained (231-3). This prompts the theoretical claim that although Crary attempted to offer a critique of the hypertext story, his writing was actually absorbed by the hypertext to which he contributed. Crary's additional nodes were included by his scheme of classification. "In this medium, there is no way to resist multiplicity by imposing a univocal and definitive discourse . . . In the space of hypertextual writing, anything that arises will be merged, gathered into the network of polyvalent discourses" (235). In this perspective, resistance to hypertext is said to be futile. The implication of Moulthrop and Kaplan's argument is that any node linked to an existing hypertext becomes a part of that hypertext. Hypertext may at times subvert the kind of distinctions Cary attempted to make, but Moulthrop and Kaplan's account reduces hypertext to something completely amorphous which, if true, would mean an end to all discourse. As the proverb puts it, The sea and the gallows refuse no one.

  52. But if the resistance argument is correct, it indicates that the nodes Crary added to the hypertext became information. Only databases are infinitely extendable, not discourse. The discourse of narrative cannot be extended without consequences, as the Borges story shows, since multiplying choice-points deprives choice of its temporal contingency; it makes choice formally equivalent to the information that would be considered at the moment of choosing, which deprives narrative of its point. A similar conclusion can be drawn from the critical discourse offered by Crary: for an argument to qualify as argument it must be decisive, at least potentially: that is, it must be terminable, capable in principle of overcoming the resistance of alternative positions; an argument without this property reduces to information. While Crary's nodes appear to be vulnerable to this predicament (he failed to provide any distinguishing marks to signal the difference of his nodes from the hypertext to which he joined them), the story reveals that it is not the impossibility of resistance but the the spectre of mere information which haunts the image of polyvalence celebrated by Moulthrop and Kaplan.

  54. The apparent impossibility of realizing the "new culture" through hypertext leaves Moulthrop falling back on a provisional, halfway notion, that of transition. Like the political revolutionaries whose strategies he emulates Moulthrop cannot see how the promised land is to be realized, except dimly, as a dream; thus progress towards it must be installed permanently: "The transition seems likely to be both permanent and perpetual," he announces, echoing the "permanent revolution" of the Bolsheviks after 1917 ("Rhizome" 317). Yet the only image of that transition state that he can offer is a return to the image of Japan with which this chapter begins (299), a navigation of the streets of Tokyo: "Head east till you come to the Ono-Sendai Building, hang a left at the statue of Colonel Sanders," etc (317). Such traversal is tied to the geometric as firmly as any of the hypertext thinking that in his response to Rosenberg he had identified as "bad faith" (309).

  56. What is lost, then, in hypertext of the kind described by Moulthrop, Bolter, or (at times) Landow, are the contingencies of both narrative and argument. (Whether hypertext must conform to this model is another question, which I take up below.) Both are filtered out in the hyperreal, to which Moulthrop appeals (referring to Baudrillard):
    Hyperreality, we are told, is a site of collapse or implosion where referential or 'grounded' utterance becomes indistinguishable from the self-referential and the imaginary. We construct our representational systems not in serial relation to indisputably 'real' phenomena, but rather in recursive and multiple parallel, 'mapping on to different co-ordinate systems.' ("You Say" 74-5; the quotation is from Pynchon).
    The simulacrum, as Baudrillard himself puts it, "no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance. It is no longer anything but operational" (2). The efficient and multiple cycling of information, in this view, is the proper realm of hypertext. If the structuring of hypertext is not in "serial relation" to the real, however, it must be asked what principles support it. Here it is appropriate to consider the role attributed to the hypertext reader.


    Reading hypertextual reading

  58. Hypertext fiction has constituted a small but growing genre since the publication of the first most distinguished example, Michael Joyce's Afternoon in 1987. There are now several reports reflecting what it means to read such fiction. For example, Silvio Gaggi's encounter with Afternoon recognizes its indeterminacies:
    One is never sure to what extent the sense that one makes of the story is the story's own sense or the reader's construction. Thus, experiencing the story may actualize, may make more explicit, the kind of activity one normally engages in when one builds a picture of, constructs an understanding of, the world. (126)
    In hyperreality, however, it is precisely this kind of activity that is rendered impossible. In fact, Gaggi has nothing further to say about this supposed constructive activity as it relates to the world. In his account, "Electronic networks create a horizonless conceptual space that speaks almost to itself" (111). What chiefly seems to concern readers of such fictions are questions about their structure. Stuart Moulthrop, for example, notes a comment of J. Yellowlees Douglas "that the complexity of hypertextual discourse can drive readers into an obsession with authorial design" ("War"). Despite the often proclaimed death of the author, according to these reports authorial power is felt to be stronger than ever in hyperfiction:
    Despite working within a new computer environment that literally removes the need for an author -- and with a postmodern aesthetic that seems to demand it -- literary hypertexts, it turns out, have authors who in some ways exercise greater power than print authors, both writing the text and through manipulation of the software controlling the degree of 'freedom' the reader experiences. (Tuman 76)
  59. Reading in the linear order of the pre-postmodern book we commonly learn to accept and trust the author; like any other framing condition, once the author-function is set in place we tend to overlook it and become immersed in the narrative itself. In hypertext fiction, by contrast, the author is a trickster, a stage manager whose presence we sense in every link, so that we never forget the author for more than a moment. If, as Birkerts puts it, "Necessity is dethroned and arbitrariness is installed in its place" (163), then the author of that arbitrariness is also installed in every screen and every link as we read.

  61. This is one way of pointing to what Moulthrop has helpfully called the hypotext, the underlying structures and specifications of the hypertext that must also be read, which Moulthrop interestingly describes as the part of hypertext that is "arguably the most important." What readers such as Tuman or Birkerts are reporting, then, is their engagement with the hypotext that, according to Moulthrop, forms the "lower layer" of "any hypertext document or system" and consists of "The command structures that govern linkage, display, editing, accounting . . ." Among its other features, it creates recursive structures "that militate against absolute linear control" (no doubt a primary cause of the author-function that readers attribute to hypertext). Moulthrop argues that literacy itself must now extend to the hypotextual form, so that readers will understand print "also as a meta-tool, the key to power at the level of the system itself" ("You Say" 86-7).

  63. To the extent that the hypotext preoccupies a reader's attention the reader's own control system for directing reading -- a function that we might term hyporeading -- will be disabled. Although literary texts, according to reader response theorists such as Wolfgang Iser (in The Act of Reading, 1978) or the Stanley Fish of "Affective Stylistics" (1980), offer distinctive structuring devices that shape the act of reading, the interactions that occur during reading are unpredictable and vary from one reader to the next. As Gerard Genette noted towards the end of his extended account of the temporal structures of narrative, a reader will take up the affordances of a text in her own way, since (to quote Proust), "In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self" (Genette 261). But in place of the implications of reading for the self, the hypertext reader faces "a self-consciousness about the technological mediation" of reading ("You Say" 87). In other words, the expectations that form a key part of the reader's hyporeading are unlikely to coincide with the choice points structured into the hypotext.

  65. Drawing on the contrast of Deleuze and Guattari between nomadic and arboreal structures, Moulthrop proposes that "the discursive space of hypertext" is smooth rather than striated, "constituted so as to subordinate the point to the trajectory" ("War"). This relation of point to trajectory, it might be argued, also holds true of many literary texts, since points of style or narrative turns serve to create the trajectory of expections that sustains reading; no specific point in a text is without its critical dialogical context that projects the larger patterns of the text. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, in their own commentary on literary style, the atypical expression (e.g., a moment of foregrounding) "constitutes a cutting edge of deterritorialization of language, it plays the role of tensor; in other words, it causes language to tend toward the limit of its elements, forms, or notions, toward a near side or a beyond of language" (99). As they note elsewhere, nomad art or science, "follows the connections between singularities of matter and traits of expression, and lodges on the level of these connections" (369). The linguistic deviations that shape literary response, in other words, prompt the reader to jettison the common schemata that reduce language to information, producing "individuations" (369) that depend as much on the reader as on the text (cf. Miall, "Schema"); such a reader, seeking to interpret a text, inhabits her own nomadic space. Central to this process of reading is the reader's free construal of the points of the text, dispersed linearly as well as in a continuum from phonetic to narrative levels; no choices are predetermined.

  67. In the hypotext, in contrast, Moulthrop insists (citing Deleuze and Guattari 380) that "every point is a relay and exists only as a relay." Literally speaking this subordinates nodes to links, privileging hypertext structure over any content, and forcing reader choice. This observation underwrites Terence Harpold's conclusion that "In a hypertext, the distinctions between textual registers collapse into a single measure -- the pause between lexias." Harpold characterizes the pause as follows:
    To be more precise, the spatial field dividing the textual from the paratextual . . . is contaminated by, subordinated to, the detour's temporality. The pause may be measured by ever-smaller fractions of a microsecond, but it is ultimately irreducible, because it has priority over the spatiality of the lexias it joins . . . (196)
    Thus the link is a rupture, "a point of singularity where everything that came 'before' is changed in ways that cannot be predicted prior to that rupture" (197).

  69. Deprived of the tensor, a signifying system with the predictive functionality that literary devices typically encode, the hypertext reader is reduced to a state somewhat like Antonio Damasio's famous patient, EVR. Following surgery for a brain tumour that involved some loss of the prefrontal cortex, EVR's behavior became random and unpredictable. When required to make a decision he would be "plunged into endless debate," pursuing "a course of interminable comparisons and successive deliberations" (Damasio, et al. 217); his social understanding deteriorated, leading to the loss of his job and a divorce (Damasio 36-7). His condition is explained by Damasio as the loss of ability to understand and apply implied meanings, such as the consequences of an action or a feeling about a person. In other words, EVR could no longer make choices based on meaningful predictions: he suffered, in Ingvar's apt phrase, from loss of "memory of the future" (Ingvar 1985).

  71. Damasio, in common with other neuropsychologists, suggests that EVR's syndrome originates with a disruption to the feelings and emotions consequent on a lesion in the cortical connections to the midbrain. He postulates that a specific function of the prefrontal cortex is the formation of "somatic markers" that guide thinking and behavior: these "force attention on the positive or negative nature of given response options based on their foreseeable consequences" (Damasio, et al. 200-21). The hypertext reader, however, has not actually suffered EVR's fate: the reading mechanism remains intact with all that the feelings and their bodily concomitants render us liable to. Thus the corporeality noted by Hayles returns to shadow the act of hypertext reading: the somatic marker, whose anticipatory function is systematically denied by the hypotext, haunts the rupture of the link in particular, focusing attention, as Tuman, Birkerts, and others bear witness, on the arbitrariness that this microsecond encodes.

  73. But must hypertext be like this? In this essay my main intention has been to interrogate some predominant theoretical claims about hypertext and to show the consequences for reading hypertext that follow. Yet it may be that this new technology will overcome its roots in the information science of Bush or Engelbart and unfold an aesthetic that complements rather than subverting the powers of reading. One problem appears to lie in conceptualizing the link, as the proliferation of incompatible accounts from hypertext theorists suggest. For example, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (1996) in a recent paper suggest that the link shows that "replacement is the essence of hypertext" (335). Moulthrop, on the other hand, speaks both of "the gap or synapse of transition, a space which the receiver must somehow fill with meaning," and of Deleuze and Guattari's "principle of asignifying rupture" ("Rhizome" 304). The four terms for a link used here, replacement, gap, synapse, and rupture, are far from synonymous. This miscellany of terms in itself signals confusion: a link cannot be all of these things, and it may be none of them. Whether this will matter in the long run is, of course, another question: hypertext may become just another writing tool; it may be rejected as the Trojan horse of powerful commercial interests (cf. Golumbia); or it may simply disappear under the weight of its theoretical contradictions.



  1. In Lyotard's sense: "each game is played as such, which implies that it does not give itself as the game of all the other games or as the true one" (Lyotard and Thébaud 60). In this respect hypertext is said to show us what all textual play really is, undermining what David Jay Bolter calls the "solemnity" of printed literature (130). Back

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Document last revised, December 1st, 1998