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Hypertext(ual) consciousness. Literature (?) on new media

The new media (or the new, digital medium, as Jannet H. Murray insists) today undoubtedly mark a domination of new technologies of writing. Even if a text is not computer-generated, the preparation of manuscripts for printing (editing and text design) implies the digitalisation of the “manuscript.” The electronic element has thus “sneaked” into the writing of even those authors who are not aware of such changes. The production of books in the electrosphere (R. Sukenick) is entirely taken over by digital technology.

In addition, the change in the economy of writing (D. Bolter) (shall) undoubtedly mean(s) the altering of literary paradigms, but in dilemma of whether the future is happening now already, both futuristic predictions (which announce a domination of non-linear, multi-media artefacts) and sceptical doubts in the revolutionary nature of the changes (which claim that the literature in the last decades has just changes the writing tool) can be heard concerning the literature on the new media. The announcement of the pompous death of the book was so noxious forthe new forms of literature, that, after the death had never come, and after everybody sighted with relief, the hypertextual novels and stories, machine modulated poetry, generators of stories, mail art, web performances, interactive films etc., were entirely forgotten.

A dogged and persistent life of the book (to which the hypertextual forms were designated to write the final obituary) denied the theorists’ utopian forecasts – the hypertext has lost its aura of spectacular literary-scientific genre or the epithet of “the most important avant-garde to day” (used by David Bolter). After a decade of attracting writers, literary critics and methodologists, the hypertextual project (E. Aarseth) seems to be exhausted. A work consisted of lexias – “segments of textual material … and links – series of connections that lead from one segment to the other” (N. Kaplan), was, in the nineties, a key-figure of the new literacy and the embodiment of the post-structuralist textualism. The prevailing belief was that the hypertext would abolish the rule of the linear text, of the printed book, and of the author.

Theodor Nelson, who is one of its first designers, defined hypertext as the “text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best to read as an interactive screen.” Theodor Holm Nelson (born 1937) invented the term hypertext in 1965, and is a pioneer of information technology. Even if there were ever any discussions about other parts of this definition (such as about the free choice and the role of the reader), the theorists agree that the branching of the text is fundamental for all hypertextual organisations. The idea of the hypertext lies in the non-linear writing and associative organization, but such theory was suppressing the fact that such a change in the writing process appears only as the result of the change in thought, and not the opposite. In hypertext, the associatively organized data change the practice of transfer of messages – since they are arranged in a non-linear way, all data have the same value. There is no main thought – there is no head and tail – the beginning, middle and end, which would define the narration – the information float freely, streaming through the consciousness, which then allows roaming, diverging from the subject, digressions, rushes of footnotes which thus become the body of the text itself.

The scientific community has never been willing to re-examine its criteria of professional judgement. David Bolter notes that the forms of communication change in the nineties, when the World Wide Web became the most popular communication space, but at the same time the academic essay as a form did not change at all. All seminal texts on hypertext are written linear. In the nineties, the number of studies and academic departments dedicated to the hypertext has drastically increased– but there was rarely any academic and scientific conference that accepted hypertextual essays. In «The Shadow of an Informand» Stuart Moulthrop describes the hypertextual scientific article adapted for the medium of the print as of “the shadow of the shade.” By analysing the complexity of (his own) position and decision to “adapt” the form of the essay, Moulthrop concludes that he simply “chicken out” and wrote a “less confrontational paper.”

The criteria of the scientific judgement are resistant and firm to such a degree that it is easier to imagine the change of the language used in communication by the participants in different conferences, than the change of the format of their studies. The textual form has proved to be one of the fundamental scientific norms, something too-large-to-swallow for hypertextual experimenters and theorists.

The hypertext failed to satisfy the forecasts of the institutional theory, which in turn responded withdiscontent – there are a large number of extensive discussions around the modest volume of hyper-novels, hyper-poems or theoretical texts written hypertextualy. The most famous writers of hypertext gained their popularity with printed works, as is the case with Rober Coover or theorists like Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop, who decided (just like priests who refuse the celibacy for the purpose of progress) to write hyper-novels. The general rule is the following: in order to proveto be a hypertextual author, you need to write in some entirely different format.

It was a general impression during the nineties that the educational systems would profit from hypertext. The hypermedia has its advantages in the shaping and reshaping of the canons; hypertextual education enables an individual approach to information and thus questions the authority of the teacher. Theodor Nelson (who himself was in conflict with school authorities when he was a boy) already criticized the educational system that promotes the simplification of every problem and its transfer through the unquestionable authority of the teacher. The hypertextual organization of the teaching units enables different sorts of connections, conceptualisation of the work, linking, linking up of several different authors, addition of critical texts, etc. In the hypertextual education students become readers-authors by selecting their own ways and links, and by adding their own documents and texts to it. An instructor thus becomes a trainer, older guide, as George Landow, himself a participant in one of the successful projects (The Dickens Web optimistically announced.

Despite of different theoretical announcements, the hypertext hasn’t conquered literature, education or science. However ... “Hypertext is not an object, but a system,” as, warns one of the most eminent archaeologists of that futuristic form. In «In the Zones» Stuarth Moulthorp reiterates Barthes’ distinction between the “text” and the “Work,” understanding hypertext not as the work, but as a “dynamic, expansible collection of writings.” Legitimisation of the hypertext as a form of the literary of scientific text is the product of the theoretical thinking, which deals with hypertext as with a (literature or theoretical) form. Hypertextual project “produced” a specific way of thinking about the canon of hypertextual works, which follows the rules of the printed canon.

Even Manuel Castells, one of the most eminent “internetologist,” notices that we have created a “too material image of hypertext” – “hypertext as a material interactive system which communicates digitally and is managed electronically.” Instead, Castells propheticallyexclaims “[we] have the hypertext: hypertext is inside us,” it is the feature of our mind manifested through the ability to combine “texts, images, sounds, silence and empty spaces.” The possibility of an associative, non-linear, decentralized and de-hierarchiesed thought existed before its technological invention.

Theory talks about hypertext while in fact it should talk about hypertextuality. As claimed by the avant-pop guru Mark Amerika, theory should analyse different features of the text, but also of the mind, instead of analysing a canon of the work, following in that way the well-known and familiar institutional patterns. The hypertextual consciousness that Amerika invoke in the same literary-theoretical hypertext is the feature of our mental structures. It does not imply (only) the literature or theoretical works, but also the principle of organization. In addition to, and one step further from the Moulthrop’s rule, another new (even more melodic) rule needs to be introduced – hypertext is not a work but a principle.

In the technical sense, both the global systems of electronic communication and the World Wide Web function in a hypertextual way. The hypertextual, non-linear and associative thinking became the foundation of the mental habits of the WWW, e-mail, news groups, chats, MUD communication, as well as of hyper-novels, hyper-poems, mail-art, avant-pop manifestos, multimedia, etc. Each web site is linked to some other site; each e-mail is linked to another e-mail, each post on news is the response to some other post, etc. A certain space for optimism opens up here: instead of the hypertextual project, or the death of the book, here we have the death of the non-linear, hierarchiesed, closed and centralized thinking.

The technological change has already been made possible by word-processing programs – Michael Heim speaks of the total management, automatization of writing and text control. Different from the book with fixed, unchangeable text, the manipulation with the electronic text represents the “manipulation with symbols,” with elements, which are separated, from the elements of inscription. A digital writing becomes the writing “without friction;” thoughts are formed directly into the electronic element, which causes increased number of acronyms and formulas. Writer-based writing (M. Heim) is characterized by immediateness, spontaneity, directness and speed.

Hypertext as a literary and theoretical genre signifies the continuation of the culture of experimentation rather than the global change in literacy, which is reserved for those “more popular” forms of writing and communication. One segment of the theory rightly detected and defined the hypertext as a continuation of the tradition of non-linear literature: from the first works that, by their dislocation of the order of events attacked the “natural order” of the printed text, like, for example, Sterne’s Thristram Shandy, to the novels embedded in the stream of consciousness which follow the logic of associativeness, to the post-modern novels characterised by parallel narrative universes (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler or encyclopaedic Gravity’s Rainbow). It seems that Bolter’s invocation of the “avant guard” was not completely wrong: hyper-novels such as Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, or Stuart Mouthrop’s Victory Garden, although considered to be the classics of the genre, are not included into the canon of contemporary literature. Their position is determined by the form in which they are written, and the canon treats the authors of such works in the same way as it treatsdadaists – they were always, just as hypertextualists are today, just an interesting “diversion” from the norm.

The project failed, but the patient survived – the new literary and theoretical hypertextual generation of today produces crazy, almost completely multimedia works, which are more and more separated or distanced from the mainstream because of their manifestoes. It becomes difficult to define the genre of some (hyper) texts, like for example, Mark Amerika’s Grammatron an experimental multimedia environment in which dwells the character of Abe Golam, an “info-shaman.” A musical experiment, but also a performance, are the structural parts of Shally Jackson’s most popular Patchwork Girl, and there is more and more hypertexts, like John Tolve’s Hypercafe that combine film and video together with textual segments.

Today, after the grand projects failed and the theory is worn out, after the hypertextual literary canon was charged with being responsible for stagnation, only experimental works exist, works that are not interested in the mainstream literature and which are completely immersed in the electronic environment. After all, the hypertextual consciousness is the only thing that matter, since, by defining the contemporary identity, it opens up new spaces for new hyper-narratives or any other future hypertextual mutants.


The prevailing belief was that the hypertext would abolish the rule of the linear text, of the printed book, and of the author. The hypertextual theory reiterates Barthes’ differentiation between the closed or completed, fixed Work and the Text, which is similar to an open and “incomplete” hypertext. The hypertextual meaning is, in a non-metaphorical sense, constructed again and again in each separate process of reading. And while theprinted book is not just the text, but also an object, material thing, the electronic “book,” in its immateriality, embodies the expression of the fluid form. Jacques Derrida concluded that “the end of the linear writing is certainly the end of the book...” Digital forms of writing implementedthe callto the new forms of visual writing (which were able to escape from logocentrism and from the chains of linearity, just as Derrida wished). Although the “end of the book” (a phrase introduced by Robert Coover in 1992) as well as the break up from the concepts of linearity, closeness, fixedness and staidness of writing and reading have often been proclaimed, the new media today are increasingly commercialised and are returning to traditional practices.

There is no main thought – there is no head and tail – the beginning, middle and end, which would define each narration – the information float freely, streaming through the consciousness, which then allows roaming, diverging from the subject, digressions, rushes of footnotes which thus become the body of the text itself. The changes are much deeper and involve much more than just the writing, editing, saving, correcting, printing and sending of documents electronically. It involves the issue of mental habits (M. Heim), which surround the writing, and the main question is their future influence on the “process of human thought.”

The technology (of writing) is not just a nice and cosy“upgrade” of our existing abilities, it also makes a substantial difference – the author who writes in a digital environment approaches the very act of writing from a different direction, in a different way. From simple models of “cutting” and “pasting,” to the functions of “find” and “replace,” the writing in digital environment is automatized, and the reading includes strategies of “non-linear” reading – of skimming and skipping, key-word text searches etc.

The linking of different texts in the electronic environment forms the “textual network” which becomes the logical product of the modelof thought shaping the automatization of information. Different texts are linked togetherin a network not only on the Internet, but also intertextually, by connecting different information units (spell-checker is just one example). In the global hypertextual communication, perpetual networking and the re-contextualization of different texts erases the borders between separate works, the respective positions of the author and of the reader are constantly changing, and in the situation of an advanced communication neither the sender of the message, nor its recipient have the overall control of the text any more. Just like in e-mails, which very often have the fish-bone structure – the message of the sender is included in the body of the recipient’s answer. The limits of a post on a news-group or in an e-mail disappear; it is unclear where one text ends and the other begin. Such a communication situation put in question the concept of authorship. The terms of the communication theory such as the sender and recipient are becoming more and more imprecise– the positions of the sender and that of the recipient are constantly changing places, which are the reason why Michael Joyce introduced the notion of interlocutor, of the author-reader.

The possibility of an associative, non-linear, decentralized and de-hierarchiesed thought existed before its technological invention. Although the technological determinists wrongly identified cultural changes with technological ones, some suggests today that it is the issue of possibilities rather than that of technological “inventions.” By observingtechnology as transparent and non-included, technological determinism obscures the fact that technology, by its very organization and ways of functioning, promotes certain structures of thought.

This issue especially refers to the promise of democratisation of the media actualised recentlyby the introduction of digital technology. By its “mentality” of instantaneous download, the Network turns the issues of access and accessibility clearer than ever, while a cyber-democracy (M. Poster) questions even the classical, until now unquestionable areas of distribution and free access to information – to manuscripts, music, software etc. Although the new technologies set and allow a relatively high degree of freedom for the participants, the designers and the centres of power that have the main initiative, adapt such technology to the existing (analogue) models, which in turn make the control much easier. The magic of Internet is the magic of technology „which puts cultural actions, and all other forms of symbolization, in the hands of all participants ... which radically de-centralizes the positions of discourse, publishing, film production, radio and TV broadcasting – in short, the mechanisms of cultural production” (Mark Poster). However, the question is whether technologies, at the end, bring us democratisation and pluralization of the media (announced by McLuhan and Habermas), or is the non-hierarchies, open, non-structured organization assimilated by the new strategies of consumerist contents, hidden behind the notions such as “interactive,” “dynamic,” “immediate,” and etc.

Hypertext as the continuation of the tradition of non-linear literature

The critics of the technological determinism emphasize that the writing on a computer is not sufficiently distinctive, and therefore the whole phenomenon cannot be identified with the introduction of the new technology. Experimental works of the pre-technological era, as well as the essays in non-linear writing, prove that there already existed specific cultural practices, which anticipated the possibilities introduced and actualised by the new media. Thus Espen Aarseth introduces the notion of ergodic literature which relates to all digital, but also to all experimental works in the tradition of print, which are organized non-lineary: from the inscriptions in the pyramids in Egypt, to Appolinaire’s Caligrams, to post-modern prose.

Comparisons can be found inthe eighteenth century’s “conversation novels” and Laurence Sterne’s Thristram Shandy, in which the dislocation in the course of narrative events attacks the “natural order” of the print. Surrealists, Futurists and Dadaists are usually mentioned as the predecessors of “interactive poetry,” since their works followed the associative organization, often combined with some sort of graphical experiments (Guillaume Appolinaire’s “lyrical ideograms” in Caligrammes, Stéphane Mallarmé’s “pure poetry” in the poem Un Coup de Dés, etc.). Also, (James Joyce’s or Virginia Woolf’s) stream of consciousness modernist novels are also interesting in a different way, as they represent the line in the narrative literature that follows the associative organization. Postmodernist works, although pertaining to different and heterogeneous practices, went a step further from the associative and non-linear principles. From the laying bare of the writing techniques (with different beginnings of narrative courses, elliptic endings, series of parallel worlds, etc.), to hypertextual organisations in the print (Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars), etc.


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