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Encyclopedia of Aesthetics

George P. Landow


The term hypertext, coined by Theodor H. Nelson in the 1960s, refers to a form of electronic text, a radically new information technology, and a mode of publication. By his term, Nelson meant a kind of “text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen … a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways” (1987). The idea of hypertext, of which the World Wide Web provides a flat, somewhat primitive approximation, derives from Vannevar Bush's ideas of the Memex—essentially a microfilm device that would permit readers to create a new form of writing in which chains of associations overlaid already existing books. To a certain extent, hypertext theorists, authors, and system designers divide into those who see this medium chiefly as a form of Nelsonian atomized, electronically linked textuality and those who emphasize Bush's reading paths.

Whichever emphasis one takes, hypertext is an information technology in which a new element—the link—plays a major part. All its chief practical, cultural, educational, and aesthetic characteristics derive from the fact that linking creates a new kind of multisequential or multilinear (rather than nonlinear) writing. Until digital computing, writing had always been a matter of physical marks on physical surfaces. Computer-based information technology, however, transforms writing into electronic codes that can be rapidly duplicated, transmitted, and searched or otherwise manipulated. This electronic coding also permits the creation of the link.

Reading a fully hypertextualized version of the present essay, one encounters it on (or by means of) some electronic device—usually a computer monitor or projector—and, at points where links indicate the availability of additional information, one finds some sign of that fact: differently colored text, underlining, icons, changes in the on-screen appearance of one's pointing device, or the like. Using a touch screen, computer mouse, or other such tool, one commands the virtual page to display indicated material, which can take the form of annotations, images, or the entire text to which a note might refer. For example, in the hypertext version of this essay one might find links to material on Nelson, Bush, and their writings, and these in turn might link to other texts.

Although the hypertext experience to an extent resembles that of reading a scholarly article with footnotes or endnotes, there are major differences. First, although the quasi hypertext created by an annotated essay does permit readers to pursue different reading paths—some choose to neglect the notes, others glance at them, and a few abandon the original article to consult materials it discusses—the structure remains fundamentally axial. In any large hypertext environment, such as the World Wide Web, each text exists within an enormous network. Second, linking tends to erase the manuscript- and print-based distinction between main and subsidiary text, and annotations can link to other notes, thus creating a kind of layered text, or to many points in the same text, thus producing glossary-like functions.

Some rudimentary hypertext systems, such as early Hypercard or most World Wide Web viewers, replace the current text by the linked text, but more sophisticated ones make such annotations appear in a second window or document. Some systems, such as Intermedia, Storyspace, or Microcosm, permit authors to attach two or more links to particular words, phrases, or images.

Hypertext exists both as a congeries of actually existing systems and as an ideal of textuality with certain political, cultural, and aesthetic assumptions. For example, because electronic links can create multiple reading paths, the pioneering theorists of hypertext have always emphasized that some of the author's power and responsibilities shift from author to reader. In fact, they also urge that readers should have power to add their own links and even texts as well. All forms of literary hypertext do not, however, necessarily share authorial power with readers. Michael Joyce's Afternoon (1987), which is generally recognized as the first important novelistic hyperfiction, uses its multiple pathways to create multiple versions of its story, all under the author's control. This and other examples suggest that informational and fictional hypertexts might represent fundamentally different modes and instantiate differing degrees of democratization.

Hypertext redefines print-based conceptions of authorship, intellectual property, textuality, and related matters. For example, electronic links tend to blur the boundaries of individual texts because they can connect passages “external” to a work—say, commentary on it by another author or parallel or contrasting texts—as well as passages within it. Like devices of information retrieval, links permit readers to move as rapidly between the beginning of Paradise Lost to a parallel passage in the Divine Comedy as between that passage and one that appears on the next page of a printed edition.

Manuscript and printed versions of the Bible, the Talmud, and other heavily annotated works also provide partial analogies for such reader-directed information technology, as does the modern newspaper. Nonetheless, one must be careful about analogies that can misdescribe this developing form of textuality as much as illuminate it. For example, those who are trying to develop a new rhetoric and stylistics of writing in large networked nonspatial electronic environments have drawn on spatial analogies involving physical movement: orientation, departure, navigation, and arrival. Similarly, the unfortunate metaphor of “home page” seems inappropriate in the gigantic, networked, definitively nonbook environment of the World Wide Web. Describing a hypertext document as an “electronic book” also seems unhelpful: electronifying a printed book involves translating its alphanumeric characters into code, preserving its hierarchical organization, and perhaps adding a search tool. Fully hypertextualizing a print book—an action obviously appropriate for reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, airline schedules, and parts catalogs—requires placing it in an environment of other books that in some way opens it to them. Creating something equivalent to a book in hypertext (rather than hypertextualizing an already existing one) demands that one begin with a networked, rather than a hierarchical, structure to take advantage of what Nelson calls the digital “docuverse.” The appropriate paradigm for the hypertext web, therefore, is not the electronic book but the electronic library.

Before proposing to locate any putative universal aesthetic qualities or implications of hypertext, one must realize that the limitations and constraints of existing systems mean that each thus far provides only a partial approximation of the powerful Bush—Nelson vision. Although all hypertext systems permit readers to make choices, only a few, such as Intermedia and Microcosm, permit readers to share the author's power more fully and create materials that other readers can see. Similarly, hypertext environments that work only on individual computers, such as Hypercard, Toolbook, and Storyspace, can realize only a small part of the ideal, which requires the availability of a large number of texts. The kinds of linking possible also prove to have major effects on the text and hypertext created. For example, although true hypertext would seem to require that multiple links can attach to any single word or phrase, thus promoting reader choice, many early systems, including current World Wide Web viewers and their underlying hypertext markup language (HTML) code, do not permit this crucial feature.

Although the wide variety of both systems and authorial practice makes difficult proscribing rules, this new information medium does seem to have certain discernible aesthetic implications. For example, like other forms of digital text, hyperfiction, poetry, and informational works readily combine visual and verbal elements, and they do so not only because they so easily include images and sound but also because elements of graphic design become increasingly important. Writing hypermedia, in other words, promises to require increased visual literacy. One can also see that hypertexts tend toward network structures that emphasize fragmentation and collage, multiplicity, and forms of argumentation or narration featuring multiple climactic moments or resolutions. As one might expect of an information technology based on linking, hypertext encourages abrupt juxtapositions and border crossing, thereby calling manuscript- and print-based notions of genre into question. It also permits and may encourage placing major emphasis on irony and the grotesque.

The ideas associated with postmodernism and poststructuralism have proved especially appropriate to theorizing this new information technology, and much of the creative work produced within and by it embodies their qualities. Ideal descriptions of hypertext, for example, share many qualities with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's rhizome, and they also approximate the “ideal” writerly text of Roland Barthes, whose

networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one.(Barthes, 1974, pp. 5–6)

Similarly, Mikhail Bakhtin's multivocality describes hypertexts far better than it does print-based works, and post-structuralist pronouncements on the death of the author appear more convincing when applied to the ways in which linked electronic environments reconfigure our experience of authorship and intellectual property. Jacques Derrida's ruminations on texts, deconstruction, and meaning, particularly in Dissemination (1981), provide a valuable means of understanding hypertextuality and its relation to texts created in the world of print. His notions of decentering and the difficulties of defining the limits of individual texts seem especially helpful.

Although much literary and critical theory since the 1960s illuminates both the ideal and the experience of hypertext, practical criticism faces major difficulties when confronting literary and artistic texts that readers can enter or leave in multiple places. Even when not considered as an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality, hypertext in the form of individual webs causes problems for the critic, in part because they refuse to be mastered. Because many webs are simply too large and complex to follow every possible reading path, critics can no longer pretend to master the documents about which they write. Because each reading of a web produces an individual performance, critics will consequently have to work in ways resembling those of music or drama critics, who must base their work on a limited number of performances. Indeed, as some have already pointed out, perhaps the only appropriate form in which the critic can work involves working in hypertext itself, adding links and commentary that readers may or may not wish to pursue.

See also Artificial Intelligence; Computer Art; Cyberspace; Digital Media; Multimedia; Text; and Virtual Reality.


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                    George P. Landow