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On Text and Hypertext, or Back to the Landau
by David Solway

Hypertext: a term invented by Theodore Nelson to indicate a non-linear writing mode in which users follow multiple links and associative paths through a constantly expanding online library of textual documents to which users themselves may contribute.

The problem of reading coherently and patiently and with understanding, which according to many educators is now assuming epidemic proportions among the younger generations of students, cannot be solved by anything but reading itself and by the example set by concerned parents and responsible mentors. It certainly cannot be solved by the vaunted hypertext revolution in screenal reading practices as advocated, for example, in contrived and facile efforts like George Landow's influential Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, where the centered text and univocal voice are duly dismissed as "tyrannical." The electronic docuverse of textual juxtaposition and nonsequential tracking favoured by our current crop of hyper-theorists clearly does not ground, expand and complexify a reader's response to a given text as its proponents confidently maintain. Quite the contrary. It disperses and distracts the attention, leading the reading mind down a coiled labyrinth of links, webs, nodes, maps, illustrations, diagrams, sound bites and animations into a state of HyperCard intellectual convection. The text is not enhanced so much as vaporized by such practices. The concrete sense of realized, consistent and tensile meanings that need to be laboriously commanded by an attentive, centered mind are scattered and ephemeralized in a kind of astral dislocation of the reading self.
"[T]his absence of a center," writes Landow, "means that anyone who uses hypertext makes his or her own interests the de facto organizing principle (or center) for the investigation at the moment. One experiences hypertext as an infinitely de-centerable and re-centerable systemÓa directory document that one can employ to orient oneself and to decide where to go next." But my own students could never do this very well, in large measure because there is almost no initial and gerundive reading center to be de-centered or re-centered in the first place. This is why the presence of the teacher and the parent and the agency of the book are absolutely indispensable. Landow goes on to claim that hypertext "involves a more active reader" but this, I suspect, is generally not the case. It involves a more frenetic reader who at the same time is a reader passively locked into digital space, an electronic cubicle about three feet square.
It is precisely here, then, when we come to an analysis of the relation between hypertext and education that the kind of thinking which Landow represents appears so injurious. Landow claims (as do his congeners, who are legion) that hypertext, like some sort of pedagogical holodeck, holds out "the possibility of newly empowered, self-directed students" who, as active reader-authors, will be able to choose "individual paths through linked primary and secondary texts" and to add new "texts and links to the docuverse." This is perhaps the most pernicious illusion of all. Except in the case of already competent students working in focus disciplines at advanced levels of specialization or those attending elite universities like the one in which Landow is privileged to teach, it is not a question of sponsoring a generation of presumably active readers. Most of the students I have worked with, high school and college graduates from largely middle-class and well-to-do backgrounds, have enormous difficulty acquiring even minimal competence as passive readers. Turn them loose in the docuverse and they will self-destruct on the instant. These younger "readers" need to be materially helped, not "empowered," "liberated," "activated," and all the other clichTs by which they are remorselessly and systematically defrauded. They need to be trained in the protocols of grammar and syntax, introduced to the canon, read to, talked to, personally instructed, lovingly but sternly attended to and supervised.
Moreover, a truly active reader is in no way identical with the fidgety hypernaut hurtling along the forking paths and ramifying time-lines of hyperspace into the dimension of infinite self-expression. An active reader is an educated reader, capable of both locutionary and illocutionary recuperations, eager to practise with imaginative vigor upon a given text. An active reader is not a reader who pretends to be a co-author on a level with the actual writer but is someone who in all modesty gives over to the story or who diligently labors to understand the ideas conveyed by the text before presuming to compete, collaborate and create. My students were not, as writers and thinkers, on an equivalence with Rousseau, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Lampedusa, Bakhtin, and Derrida. I did not ask them to rewrite or overwrite the texts with which I had them engage but to acknowledge, respect, struggle against and come to eventual terms with them, that is, not to "construct" but to learn.
Yet hypertext, we are told, is not a teaching-system but a learning-system. I am afraid it is neither. Hypertext does not foster "discovery learning" or an increased sense of contextualization and "integration." What it emphasizes is appetite and willfulness and as such merely completes the process of real disempowerment from which our students have been made to suffer. It also exacerbates their confusion. When Landow argues that the new medium "encourages readers to choose different paths rather than follow a linear one," the rejoinder is painfully obvious, namely, that each "path" a reader chooses is always linear so long as he or she is on it. All that has happened is that the reading-line has been supplanted by a confusing multiplicity of equally linear paths. The so-called "shift away from linearization" is no shift at all, just another set of linearities teased into a chaos of consecutive brachiations, meaning subcontracted out among a swarm of largely uncoordinated and often clashing semantic units. Or when he asserts that hypertextual materials "are open-ended, expandable, and incomplete," dissolving the borders of the "text" or rendering them permeable both to an infinity of other texts or to any addition the reader/(writer) wishes to attach to them¨rather than stressing a productive relation between texts which companion one another in the vast library of the world¨we become aware that what is being proposed is not only the supersession of the book but the death of literature and the cultural mutation of the mind into something quite unprecedented and not necessarily benign.
When we read Dickens, we want to read Dickens¨and to reflect in privileged solitude on what we are reading. We certainly don't want to lose our bearings in a glut of academic papers about Dickens that start up into disruptive existence at the scamper of a mouse, or to be buried under an avalanche of links, facts, illustrations, animations and sound gobbets, or to find ourselves reading, not Dickens, but some interloper's self-important annotations. Hypertext is not a good technology for educational and reading purposes, for a good technology is one which consists, as Sten Nadolny writes in The Discovery of Slowness, of "equipment designed to serve not the exploitation but the protection of individual time, territories reserved for care, tenderness and quiet reflection." The book itself is the best example of a good educational technology that we have.
Landow's principal thesis is that "the linear habits of thought associated with print technology often force us to think in particular ways that require narrownessÓif not downright impoverishment." He would like to be able to take an argument in several directions, refusing to distinguish among their several weights and values, so that one could develop and follow an otherwise suppressed passage or minor footnote into an alternative textual universe. Why give anything up? Why relegate what may demonstrably be a minor point to the position of a lowly footnote when we can accord it the status of an independent argument on an equal footing with the main text? The answer is simple. It just so happens that not all arguments and thematic "trajectories" are of equal value and importance. That is one of the blunt facts of life that our media specialists and theoreticians have forgotten to their eventual discomfiture, like Stephen Leacock's enthusiastic equestrian who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions at once. What Landow and his kinsfolk seem to think of as a new textual democracy is nothing more than a mobocratic writing and reading practice, a textual ochlocracy in the making.
Even more crucially, the "linear habit of thought" which Landow and others like him so fashionably deprecate manifestly precedes print technology (though in more rudimentary and protean forms). This disparaged linearity which threads its way through multiplicity is the aprioristic form of narrative which structures all human thinking. People told stories before Aristotle arrived on the scene to systematize and Gutenberg to formalize them. The problem with hypertext is that it fractures the narrative continuity on which thought is inexorably predicated and privileges a tumult of digressions at the expense of the linear gravity which keeps these digressions in stable orbit.
But our electroliterate apologists are not to be deterred in the confidence and serenity with which they propose their innovations. As we have seen, Landow typically affirms that hypertext systems "which insert every text into a web of relationsÓallow for nonsequential reading and thinking," a corollary of his position on linearization. But this is abject nonsense. There is no such thing as nonsequential thinking (or reading, for that matter). Every thought tells a story and every theory is a kind of narrative. Further, linear thinking by no means rules out imaginative leaps in which ideas seem to be plucked out of thin air. It is highly probable that what we experience as lucky, serendipitous or unprepared "finds" result from a kind of subliminal thinking which escapes conscious attention¨not to mention that, once captured, these sudden insights need to be developed logically and sequentially, like poet Timothy Steele's "field of birds who chase, dive, or retire/To linear order on a span of wire." As Hermann Hesse affirmed in the somewhat more conservative dialect of his later essays, "the laws of the spirit change just as little as those of nature." Thinking in its realized form, despite its hypothetically abrupt, unpredictable and saltatory irruptions, is by its very nature inescapably linear, as the objective fact of Landow's own book or of any book on the subject amply testifies. It may not be good thinking but it is nevertheless sequential thinking. Thinking is a way of connecting the dots even if they are not always the right dots or even if the dots remain to be discovered.
Landow et al. have plainly succumbed to the facile postmodern temptation to dismiss linearity as lamentably old-fashioned and subjectively centered while privileging a supposed polyphony of styles, fragments and alternative routes to nowhere in particular. If we are constantly confronting bifurcating pathways, we find ourselves having to accept the Yogi Berra koan¨when you come to a fork in the road, take it¨as a serious recommendation. Now we can be everywhere unlocatably at once, a circle whose center is its circumference, the Cusan god. In this way mere anarchy is loosed upon the world in the disingenuous name of freedom and novelty. And relying on suspect authorities to buttress such claims only serves to further discredit the argument. Theodore Nelson's claim in Literary Machines, to the effect that any book or "detached copy someone keeps is frozen and dead, lacking access to the new linkage," only betrays a multiply-compounded shallowness. (Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word, which maintains that the interactivity promoted by digitized texts and videotronics is actually beneficial in its open-endedness, runs a similar risk.) The "text," however we define it, exists neither in the printed book nor in an electronic network, which are media technologies and not reified intellectual substances. The text lives in the mind, which is its only real home. But a feverish and disordered mind clicking its way into hypertext oblivion has banished the text from the only haven in which it can survive.
Hypertext is a kind of latter-day Gnosticism expressing what we might call an updated Nag Hammadi dynamic. That is, in trying to make sense of such Gnostified productions, we find that we are dealing with a heterogeneous library which contains an expanding number of different versions and variant readings of an original but elusive text, like the Apocryphon of John. This is a typical Gnostic treatise which circulated in different editions and which could be easily corrected, revised and added to, a fluctuating and continuously self-divergent product of an ever-accreting bibliographic universe whose principal effect was one of dispersion. It represented an experiment in communication which led nowhere and ultimately had to be abandoned since, unlike the Hebrew Talmud which also grew over a long period of time, it was never fixed and codified. Hypertext, on this account, is only a sophisticated attempt to revive an extinct evolutionary mistake. Or to say it more gently, it is only a trendy and customized version of a very old mode of transportation, like a cross between a horse-drawn buggy and the retrolook PT Cruiser.
There is an absolute difference between hypertext with its volatility, porousness and amateur-friendliness on the one hand and, on the other, the book, which Milton described as "the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life," and Marcel Proust called a "limpid crystal," an antidote to solipsism and our closest approach to truth, communication and knowledge. The book enables us to get out of the prison of the unfurnished self and to make contact through imaginative sympathy with character, narrative and idea, with a world that is not us yet gradually becomes us, thus enlarging the sense of our own identity. But this is not all, for a kind of local evolutionary process also occurs. Both story and argument develop in time and the attentive reader finds, by a species of transfer or immutation from book to mind, that he or she begins to think and feel more coherently, to experience a stronger sense of linear continuity. In other words, the book confers both amplitude and consonance upon its reader.
I hope profoundly that Harold Bloom is right when he asserts in The Western Canon that there will always be readers "who will go on reading despite the proliferation of fresh technologies for distraction" but I concur with his elegiac fear that literary and humanistic education may not "survive its current malaise." People may tend increasingly to hitch a ride with Robert Coover to Hypertext Hotel and the Storyspace Lounge, where they can all contribute to the unfolding saga of the end of the book, or to participate in Moulthropian informand networks to maximize the effects of unfettered cacophany before retiring to Babble Bungalow and the public privacy of their keyboards. This would be a disaster whose scope we cannot even begin to compute. For the fact is: in the last analysis hypertext, as a function of our electronically mediated infatuations in general, tends to disorient as well as dilute the mind, while the book in its bounded integrity and preservation-function offers to ground and concentrate it. The book is in this sense both analogue and sponsor of the integrated self. And that is why if the book dies, it will likely take a civilization with it. ˛

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