Hypertext 3.0: Critical theory and new media in an era of globalization
George P. Landow
Parallax Re-visions of Culture and Society, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006
Ever since cuneiform tablets and papyrus, writers have committed their words to some kind of printed material. And for the past 500 years the culture of the book has shaped our thinking about writing and reading and literacy.
But as more writers create and distribute their work in hypertext it’s important to think about how dramatically that is changing the humanities, arts, and culture in general.
George P. Landow guides us through this process drawing from his experience as a professor of English and art history at Brown University. A long time user of hypermedia in teaching and writing, he observes that the worlds of literary theory and computer hypertext have increasingly converged over the past couple decades.
Landow shows how electronic linking changes our conceptions and definitions of terms like author, text, and work. Hypertext shows that many of our attitudes toward literature and literary production result from the culture of the printed book. The book carries with it notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text – concepts that hypertext makes untenable.
With hypertext literature, readers become reader-authors: They choose their paths through the text and also read more actively. Hypertext makes certain elements in literary works stand out for the first time: it is a lens that reveals things previously unnoticed or unnoticeable, and it them extrapolates the results of this inquiry to predict future developments, Landow says.
Hypertext writing also calls into question our notions of 1. fixed sequence, 2. definite beginning and ending, 3. a story’s certain ‘definite magnitude’ (cf. Aristotle’s Poetics), and 4. the concept of unity or wholeness associated with these concepts.
At the moment, all writing in hypertext is experimental, because the medium is taking form as we read and write, Landow says.
Landow predicts that we will see more meta-texts formed by linking individual sections of individual works. The notion of an individual, discrete work will become increasingly undermined and untenable, as it already has within much contemporary critical theory.
Landow notes the parallels between computer hypertext and critical theory. Critical theory promises to theorize hypertext, and hypertext promises to embody and test aspects of theory, particularly those concerning textuality, narrative, and the roles or functions of reader and writer.
Examples of hyperfiction and hyperpoetry can reveal individual links and entire webs that appear coherent. Hypertextual writing by definition is open-ended, expandable, and incomplete. If one puts into hypertext a work conventionally considered complete, such as Joyce’s Ulysses, it would immediately become “incomplete.” Electronic linking emphasizes making connections, and so immediately expands a text by providing large numbers of points to which other texts can attach themselves.