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New (Social) Structures for New (Networked) Texts

anti-hypertext

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 But — and this is one of the dirty little secrets of electronic textuality, one that doesn’t get spoken terribly often — hypertext can often be painful to read. And to teach: the vast majority of my students have visceral reactions against hypertext every time I introduce them to it. Some of what they hate, of course, may be attributed to a general appearance of datedness that most of the classic hypertexts now have, given that Eastgate hasn’t ported the most crucial StorySpace composed texts to OS X-native formats, and thus they must be run in “Classic” mode, a mode decreasingly available and, when available, increasingly clunky on newer machines.[6] But when pressed to think beyond the slowness, the small window, the pixelated fonts, what my students most often voice is their sense of disorientation, their lostness within the world of the text. They stab randomly at it, trying to find their way somewhere; they wander aimlessly, trying to make sense of their paths; they finally give up, not at all sure how much of the text they’ve actually read, or what they should have taken from it. As critics including Christopher Keep have pointed out, the disorientation produced by hypertext’s apparent immateriality can have powerful physical and metaphysical effects; as Keep argues, “Hypertexts refigure our perception of ourselves as closed systems: sitting before the computer monitor, mouse in hand, and index finger twitching on the command button, we are engaged in a border experience, a moving back and forth across the lines which divide the human and the machine, culture and nature” (165). This “back and forth” cannot be experienced neutrally, as it suggests a profound dislocation of the self in the encounter with the machinic other.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The negative response to hypertext often gets dismissed as a kind of reactionary technophobia among traditionalist English majors, and not without reason; we’ve taught them, and they’ve learned well, to value the organizational strategies of the book, and students of mine who’ve been willing to rough it through the confusions of a text like Gravity’s Rainbow have felt stymied by Afternoon, unable to discern from the text the most basic rules for its comprehension. But I’m unconvinced that the problem that this generation of students has with hypertext is entirely a retrograde one; one of the other issues that they point to, in their complaints about the hypertext form, is feeling manipulated. Hypertext isn’t really interactive, they argue; it only gives the illusion of reader involvement. And certainly only the illusion that the hierarchy of author and reader has been leveled: clicking, they insist, is not the same as writing. In fact, hypertext caters not to the navigational and compositional desires of the reader, but to the thought processes of the author. Hypertext, after all, was originally imagined in Vannevar Bush’s classic essay, “As We May Think,” not as a technology through which readers would encounter a single text, but as a means for researchers to organize their thoughts about multiple texts, and to share those thoughts with other researchers. Similarly, Ted Nelson describes “the original idea” of his Xanadu project as having been the production of “a file for writers and scientists” (84). The “we” doing the thinking in both Bush’s and Nelson’s visions was the author and his descendants, not average readers. Insofar as hypertext attempts in its form to more accurately replicate the structures and processes of human thought, it is the processes of the author’s thought that are represented, often leaving the reader with the task of determining what the author was thinking — thus effectively reinscribing the author-reader hierarchy at an even higher level. Given this focus on authorial desires, the languishing of Eastgate’s titles in “Classic” mode begins to suggest the possibility that while readers who found themselves compelled by early “interactive fiction” titles such as Zork and Adventure included a number of technologists who produced a range of engines that have kept those texts alive through a wide range of platform changes, few readers felt themselves quite so included in the production of these StorySpace texts as to put their own labor into updating them to contemporary standards.[7]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Experiments in hypertext thus pointed in the general direction of a digital publishing future, but were finally hampered by these difficulties in readerly engagement, as well as, I would argue, by having awakened in readers a desire for fuller participation that hypertext could not itself satisfy. For this reason, I want to suggest that if we are going to make any real headway in bridging the gap between our evident abilities with respect to arranging pixels on screens and the difficulties that remain with organizing texts in digital environments — in moving away from thinking about electronic publishing as a problem revolving around the future of print and instead thinking of it as a problem related to the future of the codex — we need to refocus our attention on a different aspect of the digital network. This is where the structural innovations of a project like CommentPress become particularly important. Enormous amounts of research has been done on the means of situating the text within a technological network — on making text digitally transmissible, comfortably readable onscreen, and so forth. All this is of course necessary, and no doubt a necessary precursor to the problem on which the developers of CommentPress chose to focus: the need to situate the text within a social network, within the community of readers who wish to interact with that text, and with one another through and around that text. This is a particular need within electronic scholarly publishing (and even more so within the humanities), on which I’ll focus much of what follows, as the very purpose of scholarly reading is the discursive exchange and development of ideas amongst peers.

  • [6] Mark Bernstein of Eastgate left a comment on the draft of this paper noting that “[a]ll Storyspace hypertexts will soon be available today for MacOS X. And, of course, they run fine on Windows XP and Vista.” This is of course excellent news, though news that does raise an additional conundrum for electronic textuality more generally: it’s rare that one needs to pay for an upgrade, in the codex realm; a new edition might have corrections or features that a reader might prefer, but the old edition rarely stops working. Moreover, the codex is platform-independent; it’s all but impossible to imagine a circumstance in which readers of the hardcover are left behind while the paperback remains up-to-date.
  • [7] There are two obvious points to make here, each of which significantly complicates the assertion above: first, the proprietary publisher, Eastgate, bears most of the responsibility for the stuckness of such early hypertexts, indicating that one of the dangers in translating traditional publishing industry models to the digital realm is precisely the problem of remaindered texts; while a book that has gone out of print, released by a publisher that has gone out of business, remains readable in such research libraries where it may be housed, a digital title that loses currency runs the risk of becoming technologically illegible. As Robert Coover pointed out in the early days of hypertext, “even though the basic technology of hypertext may be with us for centuries to come, perhaps even as long as the technology of the book, its hardware and software seem to be fragile and short-lived” (Coover). The second point arises in no small part in response to that first: the Electronic Literature Organization has of late put significant energy into the preservation and protection of texts such as these, through its committee for the Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination of electronic literature. See Montfort and Wardrip-Fruin and Liu et al.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/cpfinal/anti-hypertext/