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Unspun: Key Concepts for Understanding the World Wide Web

Editor: Thomas Swiss
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 2000
Review Published: September 2002

 REVIEW 1: Kate O'Riordan

Unspun: Key Concepts for Understanding the World Wide Web is Thomas Swiss's second edited collection to focus on the Web. In addition to The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory, co-edited with Andrew Herman, Swiss has also published around popular music and produced poetic fiction. He is Professor of English at Drake University, U.S.A., where he is also director of Web- Assisted Curriculum. The range of expertise at his disposal is wide and this is reflected in the management of the collection.

Unspun is a useful addition to the growing selection of publications that are building up around the Web. Publications that precede this Web-orientated focus have been issued under the auspices of 'computer-mediated communication,' 'cybersociety,' and 'digital culture' amongst other categories. The focus on the (non)specificity of the Web is welcome at a time when it has become the dominant form to emerge from these wider fields.

Overall, Unspun is an excellent level-one text and as such could be used to organize undergraduate courses that involve the critique of Web-based media and/or Web-mediated activity. The collection delivers, as the title promises, an organization of the field around thirteen key concepts including race, gender, community, political economy, and multimedia. Separate contributors (including Jay D. Bolter, Sean Cubitt, Rob Shields and Lisa Nakamura) write each entry but there is also a cross-referencing between the articles within the collection, which adds to the sense of coherence.

Unfortunately, this sense of coherence does become repetitious in places. There is an over reliance on Sherry Turkle and by the time her work had been referenced in three of the first four chapters I was concerned that too narrow a field of literature was being used. However, this field is expanded considerably in the following chapters. The same point is true regarding the reliance on Alluquere R. Stone whose (same) work is used in three of the first four chapters, even to the extent that exactly the same quote is used in two separate entries. Julian Dibbell's LambdaMOO article is also cited in at least three entries. However, this repetition is largely a stylistic rather than substantive criticism. It occurs primarily in the early entries and the rest of the collection widens the field considerably.

The entries on Hypertext, Multimedia, and Race, are particularly strong. With his entry "Hypertext," Matthew G. Kirschenbaum provides a historically grounded introduction to the topic. He produces a useful synthesis of George Landow and Jay D. Bolter's work, which discusses oral and textual forms in terms of both production and consumption. Citing William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Jorge Luis Borge, amongst others, Kirschenbaum draws together an informed survey of the main connections to be made between literary theory and hypertext. He also discusses hypertext as a technology and neatly couples the notions of text as technology. A direct reference to Walter Ong would have been useful for students (although this does appear in the Ideology entry).

Sean Cubitt provides the Multimedia entry and gives a concise introduction to the field and some of the main issues such as problems of definition, operation, functionality, and design. He focuses primarily on the tension between montage and organic unity as design principles whilst also critiquing pastiche. Cubitt concludes on a cautionary note and warns that 'we' need to slow down as both consumers and producers and consider meaning again. This modernist approach is a useful balance to some of the multi/digital media hype but Cubitt only provides a limited range of references, and a reader would find it difficult, from this, to locate him/herself within the wider debates to which this entry speaks.

In the section on "Race," Lisa Nakamura deals excellently with this concept. As she points out, race is rarely analyzed in relation to the Web, and thus it makes a very necessary appearance here. The lack of attention to race and ethnicity remains a gap in the literature around the Web. Nakamura is one of the few commentators in the field overall to deal with race in a substantive way. She examines here the ways in which whiteness is reified as the default category in the context of the rhetorically 'race-free' Web. Nakamura draws on Gloria Anzaldua's 'mestiza' to both critique the narrow assumptions displayed through Web portals and to point to the possibility of change and re-signification.

Nakamura argues that the digital cultures of the Web are predominantly monocultural and in this argument she also points out an omission from Unspun. An entry on globalization would have been a useful addition here. Although several entries refer to commentators such as Ziauddin Sardar and mention the corporate culture of the Web, a separate entry on the concept of globalization could have highlighted issues of inclusion/exclusion and mono/multiculturalism more clearly.

Overall, Unspun is a useful and important undergraduate text that could be used to enhance the curriculum. It coheres fairly successfully around the chosen concepts, which provide a vital overview of the ways of examining the Web. It provides a historical context and is balanced in terms of the way it positions the Web. As Swiss writes in the introduction: "The aim of this book is to invite readers into the range of possible ways of thinking, talking and writing about the Web and to participate in constructing its meanings" (3). These aims are certainly met and in places they are met comprehensively. A few entries are short or repetitive, however, and some selection is required by anyone putting this on an undergraduate reading list. After the Web, Unspun is best read out of sequence and should be used in relation to the individual themes rather than as a linear or sequential text.

There is a companion Web site to the book with some online chapters but its primary usefulness is the direct linking of the bibliography to online texts. This is a useful aid to have whilst reading the book because in terms of layout the book does not highlight sources particularly clearly. The chapters have very little end or footnoting and the bibliographies for reach chapter are in a separate section at the end of the book. It is possible, for example, to read the "Performance" entry without coming across Judith Butler, although she is cited in the bibliography at the end. Given that this entry provides a nuanced differentiation between performance and performativity, this detracts somewhat. Likewise, the "Governance" entry provides references to the broad context of Manuel Castells' work but does not highlight other works specific to this area, even in the bibliography. In this, it is similar to several of the entries; they all provide a broad introduction to the organizing concepts, but occasionally some of the details are omitted.

In sum, Unspun achieves a coherence and focus which can be hard to find elsewhere. Simultaneously, it brings together an impressive range of contributors with relevant expertise. It is a critical undergraduate text, placing the Web in the context of cultural studies, which would be suitable for any curriculum. It could also be used by postgraduate students or faculty who are changing or expanding their disciplinary areas, because it does, as promised, introduce a 'range of possible ways' of thinking about the Web, details some of its antecedents and history, and provides some invaluable links to primary and secondary sources.

Kate O'Riordan:
Kate O'Riordan is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Brighton and a lecturer in Media Studies in the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sussex. Her research interests are in gender, sexuality, and new media. She previously reviewed David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, eds., The Cybercultures Reader for RCCS.  <K.S.O-Riordan@sussex.ac.uk>

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