Thursday, July 2, 2015

Moving Organically Through a Digital World

Hypertext is a non-linear form of reading and writing that requires agency from the reader to advance storylines. Readers are given clickable choices that enable them to co-create the course of the story. George Landow describes hypertext as, “ text composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality” (Landow).

Landow, in Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, uses theorist Roland Barthes’ idea of the “ideal textuality” to define what hypertext has come to be: “’In this ideal text,’ says Barthes, ‘the 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; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable …; the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language” (Landow). With this Barthes and Landow are describing a completely open-ended universe of interweaving ideas and opportunities. A universe in which there are multiple –potentially infinite – players, not just one almighty. This is the universe we’ve come to call hypertext.

According to theorists, hypertext as a legitimate medium for literature and other texts is thought to have a great deal of benefits:

According to Scott Carpenter, hypertext allows readers to experience texts/works in much more organic ways instead of the chronological, alphabetical linear system of traditional print texts. Hypertext operates in a way that is much more akin to human thought. Carpenter illustrates this with an example of recollection: “If I attempt to dredge up some memory of my year in the third grade, knowing how to spell ‘third grade’ is of very little use: my memories have not been filed in alphabetical order. Instead, my route will be more circuitous and idiosyncratic, moving, perhaps, from a visual memory of my classroom, to an aural memory of the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, to an olfactory memory of that kid who sat next to me” (Carpenter).  According to Carpenter, hypertexts' capacity to be idiosyncratic, individualized, and associative makes it “more akin to the structure of the imagination” (Carpenter).

As a benefit of hypertextuality, Landow discusses the issue of space in reference to print and electronic technology. For example, in a print text like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which possesses about a hundred pages of endnotes (depending on what edition you have), the reader literally becomes spatially lost between the text and the endnotes. The literal distance between them create a virtual distance between them in our thoughts. “Electronic hypertext, in contrast,” says Landow, “makes individual references easy to follow and the entire field of interconnections obvious and easy to navigate. Changing the ease with which one can orient oneself within a context and pursue individual references radically changes both the experience of reading and ultimately the nature of what is read” (Landow 754-755).  When we are able to click on a link to receive a footnote, endnote, anecdote, etc. as opposed to flipping potentially hundreds of pages, we are likely more in touch with the true context of the work.

In J. Yellowlees Douglas does an excellent job highlighting the benefits of the readers’ interactivity in hypertext works. Interaction, for Douglas, is a conversation. Print texts do not allow for conversation or co-creation. Instead, reading a print text is like listening to a monologue (Douglas 9). By allowing readers to literally choose their own pathway through a story, one person can read a wholly different story than another did. The text and the reader can literally create their own story. Also, says Douglas, “readers engaging in interactive narratives have the option of limiting their textual experience to the pursuit of narrative strands which intrigue them” (Douglas 12). This ability to limit gives readers near complete control over their reading experience.  

While hypertext seems to be answering many theorists’ prayers, it is not without its drawbacks:
  •        Hypertext is potentially harder to create than print literature. These authors are no longer sitting down to write as they have for hundreds of years. Now, they need to have access and technological knowledge in order to build their stories.
  •        Hypertext writers create their works for a limited audience. It’s true, many people have access to modern technology and the internet. And true, fluency with this technology is increasing. However, there are still a fair number of people in America and throughout the world who do not have access to modern technology. For that percentage of people, these hypertexts are out of reach. Do you really want to have such a limited audience? I understand that when traditional print authors create their works they do not expect everyone to read them, but there is always the potential. Hypertext authors don’t have that option.
  •        Is it possible that reading hypertext can be too much of an individualized experience? The biggest drawback with hypertexts that I can see is that “no two people have ever read the same book” (Carpenter). This makes analysis extremely difficult, because one hypertext is never one story.

I don't believe that hypertext can ever hope to replace print literature. There are too many devoted and traditional bibliophiles out there. However, I do imagine that once more people become involved in this truly wonderful and interesting medium, that it will make a pleasant accomplice to printed literature

Works Cited:
Carpenter, Scott. “Click Here: Hypertext and Reader Response.” Reading Lessons: An
Introduction to Theory. NY: Longman, 1999. 135-49. Web. 30 June 2015.
Douglas, J. Yellowlees. “What Hypertexts Can Do That Print Narratives Cannot.” Web.
30 June 2015.
Landow, George. “Hypertext 2.0” 


No comments:

Post a Comment