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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

Neil Postman (1992, p. 71) distinguishes late capitalism as a technopoly, that is, a "culture [that] seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs." Certainly, current models of electronic technology are disputing our traditional organizations of knowledge and how they are valorized. New ways of knowing are being created, maintained, and privileged on the Internet and hypertext offers possibilities for contextual studies which text just cannot achieve, no matter what the publisher's budget. Academics have tended to preserve a stable body of knowledge by maintaining a set of terms -- periods, genres, schools, methods -- that seem natural, particularly when the power differentials are complicitly maintained by departments and institutions world-wide. As Kathy Sutherland (1996, p. 14) notes:
    What the computer and electronic space are facilitating is the postmodern reception of our inherited structures for knowing, which in scholarship are represented by the discipline-based, professionalized, scientific methods advanced since the nineteenth century. What is replacing them is a promiscuous merging or collision of previously compartmentalized categories of knowledge, an impermanent customization of information which presents itself as user-rather than expert-led.

The interrelatedness of the Internet is beginning to reconfigure the way in which we teach and learn English, just as the landmarks of academic print culture are being felled on the landscape of the Internet. The difficulties of this new landscape is that teachers and learners alike need to be steered through it, rather than the teachers passing on the navigational skills.

The prefix cyber- comes from the Greek kubernetes, meaning steersman. Stephanie Browner, Stephen Pulsford, and Richard Sears' Literature and the Internet alleges to be just that, a steersman, guiding cyber-novices through the maelstrom of academic teaching and research in the Internet. The back cover claims that it "is a groundbreaking guide that responds to a widespread need" for "a clear, intelligent, and focused examination of the role of the Internet in literary studies." Although the choice of several of these adjectives must be ascribed to fancy, this book certainly does address the reconfiguration of English studies within the defining technologies of the Internet. Bolter (1984, p. 11) characterizes a defining technology as one which "develops links, metaphorical or otherwise, with a culture's science, philosophy, or literature; it is always available to serve a metaphor, example, model, or symbol . . . Technology does not call forth major cultural changes by itself, but it does exemplify them in new ways to larger audiences." The divide between pedagogy and cybertheory is a wide one, particularly in English, and Literature and the Internet makes some gestures towards closing that gap. It recognizes that moment of the late 1990s on the Web, in which "[o]ne is much more apt to see an author page than a site that is work- or period-oriented or than a site with a genre or other contextual orientation . . . The Internet literary world is divided into famous authors who may (or must) be approached through biographical criticism, much as in the nineteenth century" (27). Literature and the Internet also correctly identifies the Internet as searchable, connected, collectible and reproducible, and makes the connection with archives and libraries. For those new to cyberculture, the notion of the Internet as just another library, albeit a vast one, can be soothing. However, the dangers of this analogy need to be addressed -- after all, Umberto Eco, in an interview with Wired, commented on how strange it was that he could instantly navigate the semiotics of the bookstore but how he could not do the same on the Web.

Literature and the Internet is divided into three discrete sections, each one single-authored. Part One (comprising chapters one through five) contains Sears' introduction to the study of literature through the Internet for the complete novice. He provides useful distinctions for the novice web-researcher, distinguishing, for example, between the subject tree (consists of categories and sub-categories) and the subject guide (containing annotations) and gives a lucid account of the problems with ratings sites. The bulk of this section is taken up with brief descriptions and URLs of literature-related Web sites. In Part Two (comprising chapters six through eight), Browner discusses the pedagogical implications of the Internet, covering such diverse topics as plagiarism, Web site evaluation and how electronic texts are created. The final section consists of one chapter in which Pulsford provides a compact introduction to the major cultural shifts in the study of cybertheory and hypertext. The authors maintain that the book does not need to be read from front to back and they gesture towards a dipping-in approach analogous to surfing the Web. Indeed, they point up the eighty-odd pages of URLs as the most valuable part of the book, claiming that "[a]ny user -- even the rawest novice -- can visit hundreds of literary home pages without benefit of anyone else's ideas, advice, or theorizing" (viii). This does jar somewhat with the stated intention of the book -- that is, to advise on and to theorize about the practice of using the Web for literary research. Significantly, the book does feel as though three separate pieces were brought together for publication rather than there being communication between the authors, let alone it being truly co-authored.

One result of this is that the authors contradict or undercut one another. One section of the book celebrates the explosion of the canon and the democracy of interaction on the Internet whereas another section calls for more regulations and ratings. As Richard Sears notes: "Even the slightest effort to assess is a little helpful in a field where a lot of help is needed. If a person with a bit of liberal education makes a few informed judgements in rating Internet sites, that step should be welcomed, at least as a step in the right direction" (20). Liberal humanists working in cybertheory surely must welcome such a statement but I find a "bit of liberal education" not that reassuring. Similarly, we are told that "Romanticism on the Net and Postmodern Culture, for example, offer some or all of their issues free on the Internet" (139). Some thirty-odd pages later we are informed that these same journals "offer their journals on the Internet for no fee at all" (166). Which is it -- some or all? Finally, vague references are made throughout to a group of nebulous "Internet critics" but we are never told who they are. The meager bibliography consists of references made in Part Three to the positioning of cyberculture within poststructuralism and postmodernism, with glancing references to Landow's Hypertext, Bolter's Writing Space, and Barthes' S/Z. No account is given of the larger field of cybertheory -- where is the reference to Featherstone and Burrows' Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk? To Benedikt's (ed) Cyberspace? To Penley and Ross' Technoculture? To Wolmark's (ed) Cybersexualities? These (by now) standard texts on our existence in cyberculture play a crucial role in our understanding of online pedagogies. Even terms such as cyborg surely needed to be addressed, if only to ensure that the student/teacher/researcher gains some understanding of her/his particular relationship with the Internet.

There is a time and a place for such a text as Literature and the Internet. The time is definitely now, but it is a now that changes every moment. As it is, this book -- only two years after its publication -- is already somewhat out of date. To pinpoint a specific historical moment on the Internet and then to universalize practice from thereon is a futile exercise, reminding one that windmills are not just there to be tilted at. Some of the technical information is already outmoded, such as the expectations of a browser (12-13). The biggest technical flaw is in the eighty-odd pages of URLs and descriptions. I randomly chose a selection of the Web sites and typed them into my browser. Half of them could no longer be found. The authors acknowledge that some of the sites will disappear -- which leaves one asking the question why were they included in the first place? The problem of obsolescence could have easily been addressed by a change in place for this guide. Had this been a Web site with hyperlinks to listed URLs and with exercises in how to use search engines effectively then I would be recommending students and researchers to begin any project there. It could be updated easily and could reflect up-to-the-minute technological developments. As it is, this is a book that is out of date and out of place, its only purpose now being to stand testament to the fickle landscape of the Internet.

Jay David Bolter, Turing's Man (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

Lee Marshall, "The World according to Eco: The Wired Interview," Wired 5.03 (March 1997) http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.03/ff_eco.html.

Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

Kathy Sutherland, "Looking and Knowing: Textual Encounters of a Post-Poned Kind," in Beyond the Book: Theory, Culture, and the Politics of Cyberspace, eds. Warren Chernaik, Marilyn Deagan and Andrew Gibson (London: Centre for English Studies, 1996).

Stacy Gillis:
Dr. Stacy Gillis is a Research Fellow in Cyberculture in the School of English, University of Exeter, U.K. Her research interests involve textual bodies, cybersexual subjectivities, and the use of new media technologies in higher education. Recent publications include a chapter on cybercriticism in Introducing Criticism at the 21st Century (Edinburgh University Press, 2002).  <stacy.gillis@ukonline.co.uk>

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