Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Traveling in the Breakdown Lane: A Principle of Resistance for Hypertext

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Traveling in the Breakdown Lane: A Principle of Resistance for Hypertext

Article excerpt

In the mid-1980s, more than two decades after Theodor Nelson first broached the subject of "hypertext" or "non-sequential writing" (0/2), computer scientists finally began to implement this concept on a broad scale. Among the outcomes of their work is the World Wide Web, an international electronic publishing system which realizes at least part of Nelson's vision (Dougherty & Koman 9-13). With millions of documents and tens of millions of links in place -- numbers that increase daily -- the World Wide Web is de facto the most complex textual enterprise in history.

Hypertext has arrived: so definitively, perhaps, that in another five years the concept may have fossilized into cultural bedrock along with the automobile, radio, or the microprocessor itself. Terms like "horseless carriage," "wireless communication" and "computing machine" seem increasingly quaint the farther we get from their first appearance. Very few people move around chiefly by horse, communicate only over copper wires (phone traffic goes increasingly by laser and microwave), or do complex mathematics in their heads. These technologies have familiarized themselves, passing into that second nature that McLuhan called the environment of human invention (53).

It may be, as Jay David Bolter has argued, that hypertext represents a decisive shift in the environment of writing (40). If so, we are probably near the point at which hypertext will no longer provoke much interest. It will simply be the way most writers -- of news stories, technical reports, legal documents, business analysis, teaching materials -- structure their work. Yet this list omits literature. What about fiction, poetry and drama? This essay will argue that creative writing represents a special and crucially important case, one where the neo-naturalism of writing technologies must necessarily break down. McLuhan described artists as a kind of racial antenna system (55). Unlike ordinary people, he believed, artists are sensitive to flaws and constraints in our second nature or re-invented world. In their engagement with technologies, or `media' as McLuhan called them, artists reveal the medium's message. They probe the limits of the artificial environment. Though creative writers have only begun to work with hypertext, their early experiments have already produced some important statements, both about this inherently disjunctive medium and the fast-forward culture from which it springs.

The concept of breakdown -- which will be given a more technical definition later on -- suggests a condition of opposition or difficulty. This certainly seems to be the case in the encounter between hypertext and the literary world, particularly for fiction. To some (perhaps most) in the cultural establishment, hypertext presents a rather daunting problem. Here is Robert Coover's forecast for hypertextual narrative, from a manuscript cited by Landow (119):

On-line talent wars will occur: [there will be] a need to keep the lines

clean and open....Above all, perhaps, the author's freedom to take a story

anywhere at any time and in as many directions as he or she wishes...becomes

the obligation to do so: in the end it can be paralyzing....One will feel

the need, even while using these vast networks and principles of randomness

and expansive story lines, to struggle against them, just as one now

struggles against the linear constraints of the printed book.

True to Coover's prediction, the responses to hypertext have so far been mixed. While some struggle gleefully against "the line" (variously defined), others rush to its defense. After Coover declared "The End of Books" in his 1992 commentary in the New York Times Book Review, hypertext has turned up with surprising frequency in literary discussion. Michiko Kakutani worries that it spells the end of responsible writing (B8), while Nicholson Baker decries "hypertextual bouleversement" as a scare tactic for terrorizing writers and publishers (25). …

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