From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media

From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media

From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media

From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media

Synopsis

It is a tenet of postmodern writing that the subject—the self—is unstable, fragmented, and decentered. One useful way to examine this principle is to look at how the subject has been treated in various media in the premodern, modern, and postmodern eras. Silvio Gaggi pursues this strategy in From Text to Hypertext, analyzing the issue of subject construction and deconstruction in selected examples of visual art, literature, film, and electronic media. Gaggi concentrates on a few paradigmatic works in each chapter; he contrasts van Eyck's Wedding of Arnolfini with the photography of Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger; examines fiction that centers on an elusive subject in works by Conrad, Faulkner, and Calvino; and explores the ability of such films as Coppola's One from the Heart and Altman's The Player to emancipate the subject through cinematography and editing. In considering electronic media, Gaggi takes his argument to an entirely new level. He focuses on computer-controlled media, specifically examples of hypertextual fiction by Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop. Besides recognizing how the computer has enabled artists to create works of fiction in which readers themselves become decentered, Gaggi also observes the impact of literature created on computer networks, where even the limitations of CD-ROM are lifted and the notion of individual authorship may for all practical purposes be lost.

Excerpt

It is a commonplace of structuralist and poststructuralist criticism that the subject is socially constructed, a product of language and discourse rather than an essential psychological-spiritual center that uses language for its own transcendental purposes. Emil Benveniste writes, “It is in and through language that man constitutes himself as a subject, because language alone establishes the concept of ‘ego’ in reality, in its reality which is that of the being” (224). As a construction, the subject is susceptible to deconstruction—a laying bare of its multiplicity and contradictions and a revealing of the social nature of what might otherwise be regarded as a natural, self-evident foundation of purpose and meaning. the rhetoric of “structure” and “construction” suggests a metaphor of architectural construction, involving bricks, lumber, and nails, or of some other kind of structural engineering; thus, the clever deconstructor need only identify the rhetorical sutures—the mortar holding the bricks together—to expose the fact that the house or church was made and did not grow from a seed.

Although it is generally acknowledged that language and representation play a crucial role in the formation of the subject, there are differences regarding the extent of this role. Is the subject entirely a product of representation, linguistic or otherwise, or does the critic hedge and by this hedging implicitly acknowledge the possibility of some pre- or extralinguistic subject or proto-subject, inaccessible to language though it may be, some originary material that is shaped by representation? Recent debate has suggested that there may be dangerous implications to the view that the subject is entirely a construction. For if the subject is wholly a construction, what ethical constraints on that construction could be possible? in an age characterized by the ubiquity of mass media representations and by the unprecedented cultural power of those representations, might the deconstruction of the subject, regardless of the ethics and politics of those who theorize the subject, license the construction of social subjects who behave and consume in ways most beneficial to those who control representation? Given the power of the media, the subject deconstructed inevitably will be reconstructed in some form, old or new, and if so, on what basis shall that reconstruction be conducted?

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