What’s All the Hype About? : A Critical Exploration of Hypertext Theory and Authorship

By Sarah Schutlz
April 2012
Hamilton College

The age of digital scholarship has marked a shift in the text: how we constitute it and how we interact with it. Plato argued “texts are inadequate because they do not converse;” however, the digital environment has invited us into a new kind of conversation with the text (Mcgann 158). Hypertext systems illuminate texts in a distinctly new way by drawing the individual text into a web of connected texts. This web of associations puts the text in new meaningful contexts and allows for thematic and historical undercurrents to surface. However, all the hype is not positive. Creating an effective digital environment is challenging and many skeptics argue that hypertexts undermine our reading skills and the cannon of literature. Thus the exciting potential of hypertext is countered by valid skepticism. However through all the many perspectives some clear conclusions emerge in how we must consider hypertexts. Firstly, digital texts are unique and therefore cannot be assessed by print conventions. Secondly, their primary value lies in the network of associations, richness of contextualization, and immediacy of related information which hypertext affords literature. Ultimately, for the future of literary criticism we must consider how to capitalize on hypertext’s value and possibilities.

To appreciate, evaluate and criticize digital texts we must first recognize them as unique entities and free them from print conventions. To move away from the print centric notion of text as a piece of paper or a book, and to broaden our definition, we can consider text in a more abstract way. Instead of associating text with an object, we must think of the text as simply an opportunity, a chance to expose many possible meanings, connections and values through various media. By doing so, we avoid thinking of texts as static items with finite boundaries or reducing them to simply “containers or even vehicles of meaning” (McGann 2). Jerome Mcgann suggests that when looking at a text, the question is not what does the text mean, but rather how can we release or expose the possibilities of meaning and how can our analysis dwell in those possibilities (Mcgann 108). He describes every “page” of a text as being “n-dimensional,” or with endless possibilities, and thus the question becomes how the text’s “multivariate character” can be marked and released by the reader (184). To better understand hypertext we must assign the reader this agency in creating the text through interpretation, which recalls the foundation of reader response theory. Hypertext thrives on this sense of reader agency and on the excitement of revealing the endless possibilities of the text.

It seems difficult to move away from a print centric definition of text when it has, for so long, defined our reading experience. However, Mcgann does not suggest that we dismiss paper as meaningless. We must consider how paper has shaped our reading experience in order to consider how other mediums might also affect us. Many critics see literature as immaterial verbal constructions: a view that denies the significance of how literature is embodied in the world through physical vehicles. Katherine Hayles is one of the most prominent scholars currently advocating for the importance of media-specific analysis (MSA). She argues that the physical form of the literary artifact always impacts how the words themselves are received, and thus we must consider the material when considering how the text functions (25). She emphasizes that, “materiality thus emerges from interactions between physical properties and a work’s artistic strategies” (Hayles 33). The technology of a work dictates how we interact and experience it. Thus, the author’s intentions for how we receive the work are enacted through his or her choice of medium. For Hayles, authors who engage with the digital world use computers as “simulation machines” that produce text as environments, which in turn encourage dramatically different artistic strategies and reader interactions from print texts. Thus, digital texts must be evaluated by the materiality of the medium they employ, not by print conventions that have dictated literary criticism until now.

While many scholars have come to agree that a new paradigm is needed for understanding and evaluating digital texts, establishing that paradigm has proven difficult, largely because of the wide variety of digital textual projects rapidly emerging. Hypertext developed out of earlier digital innovations, which encouraged a more scientific approach to the study of literature. The first word search tools, most commonly called Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), were created in the 1960s. They were used to create word concordances by searching documents for the appearance of the desired words, marking the text, and presenting the data in an organized fashion. While these tools were groundbreaking, they proved useful only for finding surface features. An emphasis on surface features suggests that we approach the text as primarily the distribution of aesthetic qualities, or features that can be easily quantified and grouped, such as the number of times a word appears or patterns of words (Rommel 89). However, reducing the text to quantifiable features creates inherent problems for humanities scholars: “Because [TEI] treats the humanities corpus- typically work of imagination – as informational structures, it ipso facto violates some of the most basic reading practices of the humanities community, scholarly as well as popular” (Mcgann 139). Thus the original tools left much to be desired creatively and analytically.

Hypertext developed out of this foundation as a new digital tool that attempts to illuminate texts in a way simple text encoding cannot. The term hypertext has been attributed to Theodor Nelson who used it in the 1960s to describe text that is “non-sequential writing” (Landow 3). Nelson and his contemporary literary scholars, namely Derrida and Barthes, laid the foundation for hypertext theory through their postmodernist and poststructuralist approach to viewing literature as units of linked meaning. Landow describes their new paradigm as one that makes us “abandon systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them with ones of multi-linearity, nodes, links and networks” (2). Accordingly, text is conceived of as units or blocks, what Barthes calls “lexia,” that can be connected in a number of ways through links. The links create networks of associations and meanings, which constitute the text. Thus, the reading becomes multi linear, interactive, and full of possibilities. According to Derrida this system allows us to appreciate the openness of texts to connect to multiple worlds, while freeing us from the narrow constraints of print technology and the reading strategies of formalism and structuralism (Landow 96). Since the 1960s, the definition of hypertext has remained closely linked to this foundation. It is now defined by three associated elements: units of text, linking mechanisms, and multiple reading paths.

Digital hypertext has become the primary material vehicle for this kind of text; however, hypertext also exists in print. Most basically, the encyclopedia can be considered one of the first popular hypertexts, consisting of text divided into units, multiple ways of organizing and making connections between entries. Many scholars also point to Italo Calvino as a contemporary novelist who employs hypertext conventions in his print novels, which invite multiple reading paths between his seemingly disjunctive units of text. Thus, the digital world itself did not conceive of the hypertextual style of reading and writing; rather, digital tools have proven the most effective support for this kind of work.

Despite the print examples, most hypertext exists in the digital world; the digital environment presents a new set of factors that alter the reading experience by affecting the text itself, the reader, and the writer. Digital hypertext organizes textual elements in a radically different way from the typical linear organization of print texts, creating a kind of “decentered” text. Texts exist in a spatial network, connected to one another by links, with no absolute starting point, ending point, or central text. Hypertext is a web: “It resembles more that fabulous circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (Mcgann 70). The reader must create his or her own starting and ending points; in doing so the reader assigns a first layer of meaning to the words, chapters, units of texts by ordering them and putting them in relation to one another (Landow 78). The fluidity of organization allows for constant reordering thereafter by creating new points of entry or exit and new meaningful connections: “One is encouraged not so much to find as to make order – and then to make it again and again, as established orderings expose their limits” (Landow 71).

The possibility for multiple meanings depends on the depth and richness of the hypertext’s web of connections. The beauty of the hypertext system lies in its openness for changes and additions. Texts become “borderless,” and yet they do not exist in a temporal or historical vacuum; one text simply cannot shut out other texts (Landow 80). As connections are rapidly made between texts, the original text becomes less central and instead another piece in the puzzle of literature and of reading the world: “over time the effect of hypertext will be to subvert the very sense of a primary text with a defined beginning, a dominant axis of movement, and a clear end” (Gaggi 102). While the hypertext system may deny centrality or authority to any single text, it does not negate the value of individual texts, but rather gives new contextual and associative values. The decentralization of one text allows for the rise of many others, which highlights connections and undercurrents throughout the surrounding texts and the “original” text, or starting point. The web of the hypertext system brings to the forefront those items of value that often get left behind or overshadowed. Landow says that “hypertext thrives on marginality” (Landow 88) to emphasis how hypertext makes even those texts with more loose connections, thus existing on the periphery of the network, easily accessible.

However, orienting readers to this “decentered” system comes with challenges, especially in making readers who are accustomed to linear reading systems feel comfortable. The seemingly endless web of links and the lack of a home base can make readers feel confused and lost within the network. Moreover, if the purpose and value of a link is not clear, readers may feel as if they have failed to understand the connection’s or web’s significance, in turn creating frustration and a lack of confidence in their ability to create meaningful readings from such texts (Landow 126). The ultimate question that arises is whether this supposed reading and navigational freedom is more limiting than it is actually liberating. Yet, design features of the hypertext system can alleviate some of these issues because although hypertexts are not centrally organized, they are created with governing orders (Mcgann 71). Authorial decisions on design and organization play a critical role in ensuring the success of a hypertext. For example, an accessible interface, a way to easily return to the home page, and clear navigational tools as well as clear and significant content can help a reader maintain a sense of orientation through the web of links and texts.

Maneuvering the decentered nature of hypertext’s organization requires new reading skills and thus the possibility of a new kind of reader emerges. In many ways the term reader has now been replaced with the term “user,” for engaging with hypertext is considered a far more active process than reading print (McKnight 215). The reader must make choices that determine the meaningfulness of the text, giving him or her autonomy but also responsibility to think critically. The reader’s interests and curiosity become the organizing principle of the text system (Landow 37). However, to make meaning out of multi-layered texts, the reader must think in a non-linear way. Readers must focus on relational thinking and do multi-causal analysis (Landow 125). However, by pushing the reader to think critically about the relationships between parts of a text and interrelationships among texts, hypertext demands the kind of thinking that has always been essential to literary scholarship.

The interactive nature of the hypertext system gives the reader new authority. Barthes calls the hypertext user a “writerly reader” who acts in many ways like an author by doing research, moving back and forth between texts, commenting, drawing new texts into the web, and creating the organization of meaningful reading experience (Gaggi 101). The “writerly reader” writes his or her own experience of the text through the hypertext. Readers within a hypertext system become engaged in a two-way communication system that reading a printed text does not require. Comment functions and possibilities for editorial contributions allow readers to connect with authors or other readers, facilitating fast paced and widely disseminated dialogues about text. Moreover, using the comment feature of the hypertext allows a reader to instantly become a contributing writer, foregoing the capital necessary for print publishing (Landow 109).

The empowered reader seems to challenge traditional notions of authorship. Print technology creates the illusions of a single author and a single reader; we can seem to engage as individuals in solitude with a single book, though in reality we are simply able to physically block out the network that surrounds that text and our reading experience. Our sense of authorial property is very much tied to a kind of technology – print – that is becoming increasingly less dominant and a historical period that we are swiftly moving out of (Gaggi 107). Hypertext also challenges strict notions of intellectual property. The rapid dissemination of knowledge and written contributions makes it difficult to assign single authorship. As more connections are made and more individual texts are drawn into the web of texts, lines of authorship are blurred. Hypertext “does not permit a tyrannical, univocal voice (Landow 36). The once private act of reading, reflecting and writing has now become a very public act, redistributing the authority of intellectual production that once separated lofty author from lowly reader (Landow 93).

Ultimately, the paramount value of hypertext lies in the rich network of associations it affords to individual texts. Mcgann warns against thinking the digital field is inherently more complex and powerful than the bibliographical. The digital field however, is potentially richer, more flexible, and more accessible than the bibliographical field (168). In doing so, hypertext systems highlight a text’s undercurrents, which may provide the deeper levels of interpretative experience that critical reading requires. Two particularly relevant kinds of undercurrents are most significant; the first is that of editions. Hypertext systems such as digital archives often feature multiple versions of a text, allowing a reader to trace editions and compare versions, providing essential contextual information. Moreover, the hypertext system helps preserve texts at risk of becoming obsolete with time. Historical documents (in the form of digital copies) can be put in circulation while they “retain traces of their original articulations” through explication and contextualization on the web page where they appear (Latham 419). Texts considered to be peripheral, which often end up “erased by the process of canonization,” can be saved and called upon when scholarly attentions shifts their way (Latham 418).

Theme and content constitute the second valuable undercurrent that hypertext makes available to the reader. While early digital humanities tools like TEI were criticized for focusing on surface features, hypertext systems have begun to expose deeper features of interest. By using a theme as an organizing principle, hypertext users can draw together a wide variety of texts through meaningful yet less apparent connections. One example of this is Hamlet on the Ramparts, a hypertext project maintained by MIT’s Shakespeare Project. The website brings together all kinds of multimedia – text, image, sound, etc.- that relate to Hamlet’s first encounter with the ghost. Though the event is very specific, its wider significance is evident from the many later works that contain allusions to it. The hypertext system is able to highlight the far-reaching influence of the scene and constantly attach new additions to it.

Hypertext’s ability to draw together many kinds of texts related to a specific theme or event encourages a more interdisciplinary approach to the study of literature. Palmer describes hypertext as a kind of “laboratory” with all the necessary tools for experimentation available with the click of a mouse (356). Hypertext has the ability to collect together all kinds of humanities artifacts - historical documents, literary documents, artwork, music, video, etc. – for comparison and critical discussion. In his article on “New Age Scholarship,” Latham describes a kind of “latent critical energy” that hypertext has the potential to activate through the “entangling of disciplines” (412-413). Latham experimented with searching for the word “imperialism” in the early 20th century British magazine The New Age. His search satisfied his cultural studies approach to historical research by providing him with a broad scope of the word’s use as well as the ability to search more deeply. He could literally see the distribution of the word across cultural fields, and how it was used specifically within any given discipline: “the digitization of the archive transforms this practice from an intellectual abstraction into a visual reality” (Latham 424). Landow similarly identifies the value of hypertext systems for cultural studies though what he calls a shift in attention from “the triad constituted by author/work/tradition to another constituted by text/discourse/culture” (35). This shift gives the text new global significance, opening it up to cross-cultural identifications; hypertext recognizes but surpasses local and temporal significances in favor of the possibilities of a global network of associations.

Through the hypertext system, individual texts are able to escape strict disciplinary divisions and also genre distinctions. Organizational systems for print documents hinge upon assigning texts one primary organizing principle, for example author, title, medium, date, etc. These labels allow us to systematically order print texts in a physical space. However doing so privileges one characterizing label over all others. Hypertext defies the separations that usually occur in libraries, such as primary document versus secondary sources or books versus journal etc, providing a much more holistic research process (Palmer 353). Dr. Ed Folsom, the co-director of the digital project The Walt Whitman Project, found the hypertextual system of the digital archive the most appropriate way to present the work of Walt Whitman. While Whitman typically gets pigeonholed into the label of poet, Folsom prefers to call his work rhizomorphous, like roots that spread from a tree. If nothing else, Leaves of Grass is indeed a collection of many loosely connected parts drawn together because of the demands of print conventions. Hypertext frees Whitman from the constraints of these conventions: “Whitman’s work- itself resisting categories – sits comfortably in a database” (Folsom 1573). In the database, each section of the poem is presented independently, but can also be accessed through an “etext” of the entire volume. Moreover, essays, letters and scholarly commentary are available to help readers get a more holistic picture of Whitman’s approach to writing.

Hypertext has created a comfortable home not only for authors who defy genre but also for texts that do -- texts that do not conform in content or presentation to traditional forms or conventions. Postmodernism has celebrated fragmentation in literature and art. The digital realm supports this and other kinds of non-linear style:

After the novel, and subsequently cinema, privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate-- the database. Many new media objects do not tell stories; they do not have a beginning or end; in fact, they do not have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise that would organize their elements into sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other.

Folsom 1574

This literary style, a departure from simple linear progression, thrives with new packaging that hypertext affords, which supports the ever growing and stretching collections of parts that have come to replace neatly packaged narratives.

Yet amidst all of the exciting possibilities hypertext presents, there are evident limitations. The first limitations correlate to how we make hypertext, for not all hypertexts are effective. Simply creating links between texts and web pages is not enough to constitute a meaningful scholarly reading or interpretation. Rather, careful consideration must be taken as to how and why links are made and how they enhance the reading experience. Text retrieval provides information; however, it alone does not significantly change the processes of scholarship if it does not guide analysis and reveal undercurrents.

In creating The Rossetti Archive, Mcgann was forced to confront these issues. The Rossetti Archive is an impressive hypertext archive of the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It brings together two kinds of media – literature and art work- into a comprehensive database, which Mcgann hoped would help preserve the relationships between Rossetti’s cross disciplinary work. Mcgann embarked on the creation of the archive in the late 1990s, completing the first installment in 2000 and continuing to expand and adapt it since. Aside from the archive itself, Mcgann’s work provided invaluable insight into the challenges of creating an archive, which he has published in a number of books and articles. After working through the early stages of creating the archive, Mcgann was faced with his first difficult realization: the digital tools he was using were doing little more than retrieving, connecting and sorting the information, and not always in the most meaningful ways. While the corpus of Rossetti’s work remained neatly intact and easily accessible, the interesting connections between the art and literature that Mcgann hoped to highlight were not being brought to the forefront. The tools alone could not enrich the material, exposing a “gulf” that seemingly divides new media tools from traditional humanities practices (Mcgann 17).

Ultimately Mcgann concluded that while there is undeniable value in the digital archive, the digital humanities community has not yet reached consensus on how digital tools can be used more effectively to elucidate the texts they have so carefully organized and made accessible. He holds that “these new tools offer an unprecedented opportunity for clarifying our thinking process” because they are used to “clarify – to define precisely - what we know about books and texts … when they show us what they know they are reporting ourselves back to us” (142-143). Thus the tools are not inherently valuable; they do not make meaning on their own. Rather they can be used to enhance our reading, building on the foundation of our analytical practices. To do so, they must reveal our analytical desires, and thus we must work to make them do so. Database and hypertext authors must design their projects to encourage deeper understating of texts; the tools alone cannot do so.

The other set of limitations come from how we receive hypertext. Hypertext skeptics and print traditionalists suggest that hypertext actually hinders our reading and critical thinking. While hypertext proponents celebrate the anti-hierarchical nature of the system, skeptics fear a kind of literary anarchy in which all texts are considered equal and measures of literary quality are lost. Sven Birkerts worries that the database makes all work present and therefore “in a way, equal” (Latham 413). Thus hypertext threatens to dissolve the cannon of literature in favor of an endless web of works that are of deceivingly comparable literary merit and influence. David Miall, one of the most vocal skeptics of hypertext, expresses similar concerns, arguing that hypertext can “undermine the historic value gained from reading books” (1). He presents a kind of reverse argument stating that hypertext actually distorts context rather than enriching it, by obscuring the importance of the original text due to the “disembodied nature of electronic reading” (4). Underlying these scholar’s fears seems to be the problem of aesthetic judgment and who controls the archives and databases. The loss of control over publishing potentially means a loss of control over quality, standards and historical value of peer review by experts.

Moreover, embracing non-linear and non-hierarchical reading practices comes with costs, which may threaten to disrupt literary critical practices with regard to issues of context. On one hand hypertext enables rich contextualization through the inclusion of surrounding texts, multiple versions and publication histories. Conversely, however, it provides readers with so many linked materials that the text potentially disappears from view. While again, these fears play into print conventions, they are not unjustified, especially when considering how print texts are being translated into hypertexts. Likewise, many critics think hypertext systems are turning readers into data miners. Reading has become too easy. Rather than moving slowly and deeply through a text, we use search functions to read rapidly, narrowly and shallowly. We have become “harried and information-driven readers” (Latham 416). However the speed and style of our reading is only significant in how it affects our analytical skills.

Conversely, information or key word driven searching actually ensure that all texts are not treated equally and considered of equal merit. Those texts that surface from a search become ordered by their relevance and therefore take on different significance. Thus while all texts may appear to be granted equal status, particularly in the way they are spatially presented on a given interface, upon using a hypertext they quickly become ordered based on the user’s interests. As long as we continue to search for meaningful tags, the hypertext system will preserve standards of quality and merit.

The critical question is whether hypertext facilitates or hinders meaningful connections that print texts do not. On one hand, links can be considered constraining in the way they lead readers down certain paths of connections. Miall argues that the use of links undermines the natural and valuable cognitive process of reading: “the mechanical invocation of nodes through links will rarely correspond to the process of anticipation that a reader of a novel or poem experiences, since the need to choose from an array of multiple pathways at each step in unlikely to sustain the progressive unfolding of the reader’s affective engagement with the text” (5). Conversely, Jane Douglas conducted an experiment that suggests print text leaves few connections to the imagination. She presented students with a short narrative, printed and cut into small pieces, and asked them to put the story back together to mimic the experience of hypertextual reading. From the student’s difficulty with yet enjoyment of the exercise, she concluded that print makes cognitive linking and bridging narrative gaps seem inevitable or nonexistent, while breaking up the linearity of the text forces readers to confront “other associative or thematic connections” that can be “driven beneath the surface of the text by its conventional linearity” (6). Similarly, the hypertext system prevents readers from seeing only one macro structure for the text, instead presenting a multiplicity of possible structures, which can support different thematic focuses.

These drastically different views on how hypertext hinders or facilitates analytical connections suggest that in many ways hypertext is still in its early stages and that the literary community is still very much divided on how to approach it. In order to advance hypertext as a valuable technology, we must address the essential question: to what degree does hypertext fundamentally change the way we read and do critical scholarship? Ultimately, an optimistic yet skeptical approach may allow us to assign concrete value to the hypertext system because while hypertext may not fundamentally change the foundation of literary scholarship, it suggests that we focus on new goals and significantly changes our methods. Firstly, hypertext pushes scholars and students of literature away from narrow close reading methods in favor of more holistic research approaches that emphasizes putting texts in the context of history, other literature, and cultural studies. This kind of relational thinking – moving away from close reading and towards comparative and contextual readings- is essential to literary criticism and done in print as well; however, hypertext encourages it in a way that is far more apparent and unavoidable than with print technology. The process of making connections is expedited through a web of relevant texts that cannot be glossed over or excluded due to the restraints of physical paper texts.

Hypertext does not have to radically alter the foundation of our scholarship to prove an essential tool for literary analysis in the future. As we abandon print technology and move into the digital realm we must continue to identify what we hold as fundamental to studies of literature and consider how the possibilities of digital humanities can further enhance and adapt technology to those ends. Firstly, we must divorce ourselves from a print centric notion of textuality to embrace the specificity of the digital medium and allow for the growth of digital texts and digital tools. Thereafter we must adapt our tools to enhance the reading experience by creating hypertexts that take into account the challenges of reorienting readers to the new digital systems. The most successful projects will be those that effectively draw a reader into a rich network of meaningful connections and useful historical context, while illuminate a text’s undercurrents. As Mcgann suggests, digital humanities may lead us down many new paths through both the successes and the failures of our trials. Despite the challenges however, hypertext holds groundbreaking potential to reveal the possibilities of literature in a new and enriching way.

Works Cited

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