Book: George P. Landow, Stephan Porombka 1 Jan 1992


The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology

Landow's book is an attempt to understand the possibilities and consequences of the hypertext medium in terms of the philosophical and literary-critical theories of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard.

The now legendary Les Immateriaux exhibition, which took place in Paris in 1985, did not only comprise the exhibition in the Beaubourg and the publication of the catalogue. A lesser-known component was the network project in which a select group of writers, critics, artists, administrators, architects, philosophers, art historians and natural scientists were directly connected to each other for a few months via the French phone company's Minitel system.

Only the last group really managed well in these new surroundings. Almost everyone else devoted most of their time in front of the screen to reflecting on the new system. This led to a stream of pedantic objections, annoyances and pontifications on the dangers of electronics. Those who had no problems with the system were often forced by the others into the role of peddlers of newfangledness, resulting in rows.

The project may safely be considered a failure, though the book of the repercussions of the exchanges contains much to fascinate. The strongest texts come from two people who in fact hardly paid any notice to others, but every few days electronically published a sample of their activities. They are Michel Butor and Jacques Derrida.

Their names frequently pop up in Landow's Hypertext. His book is an attempt to understand the possibilities and consequences of the hypertext medium in terms of the philosophical and literary-critical theories of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard. His thesis is simply that these French theorists' idea of the text comes out of the investigation into the boundaries of the universe of the printed word. Their terms describe a new type of textuality and are the preparation for a new universe, namely Hypertext. By now it has long been more than an abstraction, but rather a new, promising technology which is outgrowing the experimental stage in rapid tempo.

Landow considers books like Derrida's Glass, Barthes' s/z and A Lover's Discourse, and the literary work of Michel Butor as attempts to make hypertext-like reading experiences possible within the limitations of the old medium of the book.

Along with a short history of hypertext, Landow's book contains a clearly written and systematic exploration of the various properties of the textuality which arises with hypertext. Great emphasis is placed upon the non-linear character of texts. One might envision a web of documents which are connected to eachother at thousands of interfaces, or reference points, without there being a beginning or end.

It is impossible for the reader to remain passive; there is no argument to lead him by the hand. Hypertext consists of multiple perspectives, kinds of texts, and approaches, and reading it presupposes a route chosen by the reader himself.

Following poststructuralism, Landow speaks of a radical intertextuality: there is no longer any clearly demarcated boundary between the inside and outside of a text, since every 'link' in the text is a hole in which the outside of that text is located. The traditional boundaries between primary and secondary work,between essay and footnote, between statement and reference, thesis and quotation become elastic, since hypertext lets all text appear equally easily, equally quickly and in the same space.

The most important boundary lost is that between the writer and the reader. Since the reader becomes a user and can only read by actively choosing, he 'writes' his own version into being from the network of documents to which he has access. In addition the structure of hypertext invites users to create 'links' themselves, and add documents (their own or otherwise) to the web. Landow bases his optimistic interpretation of these properties of hypertext on his years of experience with the system in teaching at Brown University. The enthusiasm of the students and the quality of their papers increased by leaps and bounds.

Of course, in the second half of his book Landow also devotes attention to arguments against hypertext. He consistently compares these to the opposition encountered by the printed book during the Renaissance. He sees hypertext as a true threat to the sort of scholarship, the cultural economy and the education which are based on the printed word. Fortunately, he does not hazard too many prophecies and limits himself to describing the copyright problems which will arise should hypertext really exist in the form of public access networks.

Weak spots in the book are the passages where Landow tries to describe the social consequences of hypertext as a competitor to the printed word. Here he is embroiled in a hazy debate with enlightened Marxist critics without taking a clear standpoint himself. The chapter in which Landow discusses narrative in hypertext is a bit vague as well. It is abundantly clear that hypertext has immense potential where texts are concerned whose principal content are information and knowledge.
Scholarship, research, commentaries and cooperative projects - hypertext is made for these. But a narrative traditionally exists by grace of a beginning, a middle and an end. This classic story form is impossible in hypertext, and notions like 'protagonist' and 'plot' lose their contours. Landow refers to the literary tradition which reaches back to the late middle ages, in which these ingredients of the narrative have been sabotaged, ignored and derided.

He extensively discusses successful literary hypertext fictions, like Michael Joyce's Afternoon and an adaptation of Borges' Forking Paths by Stuart Moulthrop. These leave me with an impression of being a hybrid between the knowledge system that is hypertext and the old literary text. That the relationship between this new genre and linear narrative is a very different one from that between the old-fashioned textbook and a hypertext web in the computer of a university seems clear to me, but Landow does not draw this conclusion.

Landow's book is a highly valuable publication which links the most important theories in the field of textuality with new technology in a critical and lucid manner, without degenerating into futuristic generalities. He speaks from years of practice, which he pain-
stakingly describes. Landow is an enthusiastic champion of hypertext, but without fanaticism, without the ecstatic yapping.

Hypertext appears through this book as a medium which concerns everyone, for it just might turn out to be the Noah's Ark inside which knowledge and scholarship will have to survive the future.


Cover of "Hypertext" -


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