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Literature and the Internet: A Guide for Students, Teachers, and Scholars

Author: Stephanie Browner, Stephen Pulsford, Richard Sears
Publisher: New York & London: Garland, 2000
Review Published: October 2002

 REVIEW 1: Pramod K. Nayar
 REVIEW 2: Stacy Gillis
 REVIEW 3: Betsy Huang
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Stephanie Browner

Technology has always played a major role in the production and consumption of the arts. From the ancient stylus through movable type to 'word-processing,' literature has always adapted its form and content to new technologies. The newest arrival on the scene of writing is the Internet. Stephanie Browner, Stephen Pulsford, and Richard Sears' slim and eminently readable Literature and the Internet: A Guide for Students, Teachers, and Scholars serves as an introduction to the scope, dimensions and future of the impacting of the new communications and digital technology on literature.

The volume begins, usefully, with a survey of the essential features of the new technologies in the first two chapters. They provide an introduction to Internet libraries, browsers, and searching the Internet, and detail the terminology of the new technoculture. Chapter one discusses the new notions of 'text' in the digital age, research libraries, the canon, and the digital text's 'unlikeness' to traditional books and libraries. Chapter two, of a more technical nature, provides useful information on downloading, printing, and bookmarking information from the Net. Chapter three is a quick, well-organised survey of the kinds of literary sites and projects in the digital age. The chapter has a small section on 'the breaking of literary hierarchies' which points to one of the most fascinating results of the 'digital literatures.' It discusses the 'intrusion' of the non-academic, commercial, and therefore 'not-great' literary texts into the more 'traditional' forms. A buyer's comments on a particular book, hosted by, say, Amazon.com, finds equal (or perhaps more) space than an academic's review of the same. Richard Sears (who has written this section of the book) concludes:
    The leveling performed by the Internet is related to the realization that ordinary people read great books and comment on them, even love them. Their critical writing has been going on . . . in a cultural matrix far from the academic realm. The breaking of hierarchies has not been (so far) a rearrangement of works, but of contexts and readers. (31)

The detailed bibliographies of chapters four and five offer a ready-reference for literary scholars. The authors also provide a rating of the best sites for specific authors. Since there is a glut of sites on any author/period/subject today, the need to evaluate them is urgent. In Chapter six, Stephanie Browner discusses possible standards for evaluating sites: basic, technological, and aesthetic, and suggests verifying the documentation of sites or their evaluation-ratings by standard works such as the Britannica Internet Guide and ratings/reviews from sites like Choice, Voice of the Shuttle, or Luminarium.

Chapter seven shifts the focus of the book onto pedagogical issues. The chapter discusses several different pedagogical uses of the Internet: teaching ideas and materials (syllabi and course home pages, discussion lists, assignments); online texts for teaching (literature e-texts in classrooms, contextual and secondary sources); the Internet as pedagogy (teaching with Internet technology, hypertext assignments); and writing courses. Chapter eight looks at literary careers in the electronic age. Browner suggests that the rapid expansion of electronic publishing and editing, and the increase in the number of digital libraries present a new avenue in academic careers. Browner also discusses the several versions of markup language, Modern Language Association's guidelines for electronic editions, challenges in electronic editing, the kinds of digital libraries and electronic databases, and the emerging field of Humanities Computing.

The most 'academic' chapter is the last, where theoretical and political considerations of the new technology are discussed. Critics as varied in approach as Robert Scholes and Hillis Miller figure in the debates around the impact of the new technology on literary studies. In the section 'The Death of the Text: Refiguring Writing,' Stephen Pulsford discusses the features of hypertextual prose. The non-linearity of texts and 'plots' -- theorised by thinkers such as Roland Barthes -- allows considerable narrative flexibility and 'multilayeredness.' Hypertext technology, for instance, radically redefines 'contextualising' of poems and novels. Any author's cultural and socio-economic contexts can now be incorporated into assignments and readings. Annotations can now become virtually unlimited in length due to the Internet's vast spaces. Pulsford points out that it is now possible to "bypass the many stages of print publishing," any and all kinds of writing can be published, thus providing an alternative writing space which is truly infinite and free (179).

People also read electronic texts differently. In the 'The Birth of the User: Refiguring the Reader,' Pulsford argues that the reader is now a user. Simultaneous 'windows' facilitate annotations, commentaries, and criticism to be read alongside a literary text. The reader may also choose a specific 'path' through, say, a Shakespeare play by opting for factual information from an online reference, a post-structuralist interpretation, or a biographical note. The mode of 'navigation' through a literary text, therefore, is entirely the reader's prerogative, and is not restricted to the 'order' of the text's organisation (what Pulsford pithily terms 'directed reading,' 180). This produces a 'writerly' text (as Barthes terms a text produced by the reader's act of reading). It also demands, as Hillis Miller argues, a new 'ethics,' where readers will have to take responsibility for the routes they take through the Internet. Finally, in 'The End of Geography: Refiguring the World,' Pulsford argues that the Internet reorganises the world. It blurs institutional, national, and other boundaries, making it a truly global(ising) technology. The Internet is a new writing space that must be "celebrated as an opportunity for marginalized voices" (184). A democratisation of the world is underway with the free(r) access to information and texts and the freedom to post individual opinions for similar free consumption.

Literature and the Internet is a useful guide to literary studies in the 'new world' of digital technology. The listing of Web sites, the clues to evaluating sites, and practical tips on accessing, storing and marking provide an easy practical handbook. The explanation of the new jargon (HTML, SGML and so on) ensures that the non-technofetishists among literary and humanities species do not get put off by (yet another) obscurantist book on cyberculture. While George Landow's Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1997) is the essential subtext to Browner et al's effort, the latter are careful to avoid abstract theorising and critiques in favour of a more basic introduction. This approach, evidently targeting those first meeting the interface of literary studies and digi-culture, is remarkably lucid, well-documented, and practical. The chapters on pedagogy and theoretical reflections are more academic (but nonetheless fluidly argued!). Further, one appreciates the cautious enthusiasm with which the authors treat the new technologies: rather than a hagiography of the Internet, Literature and the Internet is a systematic exploration of the potential and weakness of the new writing/reading/publishing technology.

The volume pays close attention to not just the production of literature but the institutionalised forms of teaching and studying literature. Though it might seem like (unfairly) seeking an extended programme for the present volume, I shall list a few issues that, I believe, any work on literary studies and the Internet should address. The writers point out that the Internet is a democratising and 'levelling' technology with its potentially free distribution of information and texts. But what happens to research and research methods with the advent of the Internet? Let me illustrate. Right now, the British Museum and its India Office Records (IOR) are indispensable for any research on colonial India. What happens to 'archival' research if the entire IOR collection is digitalised and made available on the Internet? Will it enable authoritative Indian work on colonialism, and thus erase the postcolonial 'lag' where Indian research and critiques follow similar work by Western/Western-academy-situated critics? Or will the control over archives remain elusive, and continue to require Western institutional funding for 'Third World' academics to research? The same arguments apply to research areas such as early modern culture or the Enlightenment. Will this new technoculture mean that countries and institutions lacking access to archives will be forced into academic ghettoisation where they only research their own cultures? Does the Internet thus actually confine and circumscribe through a new technicity?

So much now depends on techno-speeds: the first reviews, the first responses, the first archives and translations, the first critiques, and so on. I wonder about the impact the new technisation might mean for archivisation and past-retrieval. At a time when nationalist and regional literatures the world over seek to frame a postcolonial identity, what does the absence of a cyberpresence -- Web sites or digitised archived material -- for any reason from their own traditions mean?

The writers argue that the Internet encourages a "dissemination of alternative voices" (185). However, this 'institutionalised' freedom of alternative literary expression is driven by the extremely imbalanced techno-monetarism of a new global order. The new space for alternative voices is (perhaps) not so open after all, and the institution of literature has only added one more expensive technological tool to its apparatus of dissemination (better servers, leased telephone lines, faster access, software). If the Internet is a truly 'diverse community,' as Urs Gattiker (2001) has so persuasively argued, then a discussion of degrees of empowerment of the diverse constituents of this community, their experience of this new democracy, and the conditions of digital 'freedom-to-articulate' become essential to the debate.

If to learn is to remember, then the Internet presents an interesting new paradigm. What happens to reading and memory-skills with the advent of a prosthetic memory and a mode of almost instant recall via the Internet? What sort of reading skills are now required to read, say, a Michael Joyce novel on the Web?

Finally, I would have personally preferred a section on the implications of the Internet for censorship and 'controversial' literature. Does the Internet represent the ultimate freedom for the writer? Jacques Derrida (1992) described literature as an institution that, by definition, allows one to 'say everything, in every way.' As Derrida puts it, "the space of literature is not only that of an instituted fiction but also a fictive institution which in principle allows one to say everything" (36). A consideration of legislation such as the USA's Communications Decency Act (to which John Perry Barlow responded with his now-famous "Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace") in the present volume would have problematised the notion of this free space of literature. It would then have been possible to call into question issues of censorship and cultural relativism where a particular piece of writing is accepted by one culture/country, but banned in another, and, indifferent to either can be circulated freely in cyberspace (as Tim Jordan (1999) has argued, 84).

These are, of course, questions that a much larger book on literature and the Internet will need to address. The present volume, with its focus on a student- and classroom-oriented approach, has provided the first sustained introduction to the themes and issues involved.

Derrida, Jacques. (1992). "This Strange Institution Called Literature." In Attridge, Derek (Ed.), Acts of Literature. New York and London: Routledge.

Gattiker, Urs. (2001). The Internet as a Diverse Community: Cultural, Organizational, and Political Issues. New Jersey and London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Jordan, Tim. (1999). Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet. London and New York: Routledge.

Pramod K. Nayar:
Pramod K. Nayar teaches in the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad, India. His latest work is Literary Theory Today (New Delhi: Asia Book Club).  <nayarpramod@hotmail.com>

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