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Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth

Author: Llana Snyder
Publisher: New York: New York University Press, 1996
Review Published: October 1998

 REVIEW 1: Douglas A. Brooks

In his most recent book, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), Slavoj Zizek asserts that "cyberspace merely radicalizes the gap constitutive of the symbolic order: (symbolic) reality was always-already 'virtual'; that is to say every access to (social) reality has to be supported by an implicit phantasmic hypertext" (143). Despite the apparent inevitability of such a radicalized phase of "virtual" reality, Zizek is nevertheless deeply troubled by what he sees as an emergent symptom of late capitalism. Of particular concern for Zizek, referring to "multiple windows in a hypertext," is the potential for asking oneself, "What if RL [real life] is just one more window?" (132) In a strikingly cautionary moment, Zizek advises, "[o]ne should adopt towards cyberspace a 'conservative attitude'; like that of Chaplin vis-a-vis sound in cinema" (130), and subsequently specifies that, "one should avoid both traps, the simple direct reference to external reality outside cyberspace as well as the opposite attitude of 'there is no external reality, RL is just another window" (132).

Readers of Llana Snyder's recent book, Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth, will find neither a cautionary tale about "virtual" reality nor a call for adopting a "conservative attitude" toward cyberspace. Instead, Snyder offers up a celebration of sorts in which, even in the book's most skeptical moment, a brief final section titled "Assuming a Critical Perspective," she ultimately concludes that hypertext "offers an opportunity for teachers and students to produce, circulate and receive texts in an unparalleled and exciting confluence of literature, writing and technology" (122). If Zizek's anxiety about the cyber present is fueled by his careful readings of Hegel, Marx, and Lacan, Snyder's exhuberance is generated, perhaps, by her somewhat less careful readings of Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault or, more often than not, her readings of other recent cyber-theorists who, as she puts it, have "drawn parallels between definitions of the postmodern text in contemporary literary theory and the physical characteristics of hypertext" (119). Indeed, Snyder's effort here to straddle two worlds -- an effort that has come to be known among cyber-theorists as "embodiment" because hypertext is seen to "embody" theories of textuality initially posited (in French) some three decades ago -- constitutes the major problem with this study. Asserting that, "[c]entral to this book are the affinities between hypertext and the postmodern text as defined by Barthes, Derrida and Foucault," Snyder concludes a paragraph later that, "[t]his book argues on behalf of the educational value of such interconnections: because hypertext embodies postmodern theories of the text, it makes it easier to understand them" (119). This last statement, however, seems to me to be at odds with Snyder's earlier assertion that her "interest is in how the versatile and volatile technology of hypertext may be used educationally for imaginative and playful purposes" (xii). Arguing on behalf of hypertext as an exegetical tool for interpreting critical theory is quite a bit different from understanding how hypertext can make the classroom more imaginative and playful, though I suppose Derrida's oft-misunderstood (and by now largely forgotten) notion of "freeplay" constitutes something like a connection. But, in fact, as I read this book I often got the impression that Snyder was -- to borrow from the technology that is at stake here -- working in two different windows on two different documents that can not be wholly merged.

To merely cut and paste back and forth between the two discourses may well "embody" some postmodern/hypertext notion of textuality, but it also does, I think, a disservice to both of the fields that are ostensibly the subjects of this book. If, on the one hand, the goal is to explain hypertext's "imaginative and playful" potential, than a rather wide range of readers not conversant in French post-structuralism of the late '60s and early '70s will be largely excluded from the explanation. Another considerable body of readers, those academics who initially read English translations of Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault in the late '70s and early '80s when it was fashionable -- and nearly mandatory -- to do so will, I suspect, find that observations such as "Barthes describes the text as 'asystem without end or center,' which is an equally appropriate description of hypertext" (48) sound banal and a bit dated. For better or worse, post-structuralism's early preoccupation with textuality, which was in part a reaction to contemporary theoretical "crises" in linguistics, semiotics, philosophy, anthropology, and psychoanalytic theory, has been all but abandoned by scholars in the past decade or so who have moved on to more Historicist concerns with issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationalism, and imperialism. In short, recent advances in digital technology -- especially in this moment when the looming Y2K computer crisis evokes images of imminent chaos and catastrophe for many -- do constitute a new and important source of cultural anxiety and concern; Derrida's Of Grammatology, regardless of its prevalence in scholarly footnotes, does not and, outside of certain circles, probably never did.

If, on the other hand, Snyder's goal is to use hypertext to explain "postmodern theories of the text," then I have equally serious reservations about the book's usefulness. For more than two centuries, poor Hamlet has been forced to "embody" the latest in intellectual fashions. Though some of these efforts have made for compelling reading, Shakespeare's prince remains as complicated and mysterious as ever. To reduce, as one of the most famous of such embodiments does, Hamlet's notorious delay to the interiorized historical workings of an Oedipus complex is to pass over a vast and complex range of early modern social, cultural, theological, juridical, aesthetic, and political concerns that inform Shakespeare's play and condemn his character to a stage life of anxiety and paralysis. Similarly, to look for the key to understanding a tumultuous decade of critical and theoretical activity in an emergent technology which, epistemically at least, is partly grounded in that activity, is to pass over a comparably vast and complex range of social, cultural, and intellectual inheritances. Indeed, any number of influences, ranging from rather abstract events such as the early twentieth-century emergence of linguistics from an older philological tradition or Alexander KojÚve's lectures on Hegel in the 1930s to rather more mundane and historically precise events as the availability of French translations of Heidegger in the '50s or the Parisian student demonstrations of the late '60s, gave shape, substance, and form to the various discourses that are conveniently -- if inappropriately -- grouped together under the label of post-structuralism. Any teacher hoping to explain Foucault's The Order of Things would do well to have their students read Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals before sending them off to play in the computer lab.

Despite these serious misgivings, in truth I suspect that the fault for this book's poorly hybridized conception lies not with its author but rather -- as befits our post-Barthesian/Foucauldian moment -- with its epoch in two main senses. In the first sense, critical theory parasitically occupied so many host discourses so rapidly in the '80s that by the early '90s it had practically exhausted its life support systems. Because cyberspace and its emergent discourses represent a significant new site for theoretical colonization, Snyder's focus on the "affinities between hypertext and the postmodern text" is itself a kind of pre-programmed response or survival instinct. In the second sense, hypertext is such a new technology that there is still very little of substance to be said about it. Writing some eighty years after the invention of the printing press, Rabelais, a French proto-post-structuralist in his own right who had a great deal to say about nearly everything, could merely remark that, "The elegant and accurate art of printing, which is now in use, was invented in my time, by divine inspiration" (Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. J.M. Cohen [New York: Penguin Books, 1955] 194. More than two centuries passed between the moment Gutenberg pulled a printed copy of a papal bull from his press and the publication of Joseph Moxon's monumental book, Mechanick Exercises, or the Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Art of Printing (1683). No comparable book on hypertext has been written yet. Moreover, if Marshal McLuhan was right that the technological/epistemological advances of a given period can not be properly understood until they are on the verge of being displaced by new ones, then it is quite likely that no such book will appear any time soon. As such, Snyder really has little recourse but to do what she can to link an emergent technology to an exhausted and faltering discourse. And so, she presses on.

An initial chapter looks at electronic writing in order to argue, as Walter Ong and others have with regard to the advent of print, that the computer not only extends existing writing practices but also alters them as well as the thought processes to which they previously gave shape. The subsequent chapter sets out to explain hypertext, a task that takes Snyder little more than four pages and concludes with the following definition: "Hypertext is essentially a network of links between words, ideas and sources that has neither a centre nor an end" (18). The chapter's remaining twenty pages are devoted to an archeology of hypertext's origins in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1849 "Treatise on Method," Vannevar Bush's post-WWII vision of a memory machine, Ted Nelson's '70s Xanadu project, and, of course, Jorge Louis Borges's infamous story, "The Library of Babel," all get unearthed by Snyder's methodical, if sometimes tedious, digging. The reader who stops here, 38 pages into the book, has learned all that Snyder can find to convey about the thing-in-itself. To read on is to be navigated through a rather stagnant pool of links.

The third and longest chapter of the book posits and begins to work through the convergences between hypertext and literary theory I have discussed above. The following chapter, devoted to showing how both hypertext and literary theory have brought about reconceptions of reading and writing, gets off to a somewhat rocky start with the following assertions: "In the age of manuscripts, when scribes frequently altered what they copied, the distinction between authors and readers was not so significant. It was the invention of the printing press that strengthened the authority of the author. Because printing was a costly and laborious task, few readers had the opportunity to become published authors" (61). Readers familiar with Chaucer's stern admonishment of his scrivener for miscopying his work will be surprised by the first statement, and those who have read the recent scholarship of Arthur Marotti or Harold Love know that the relationship between manuscript and print was much more complex than the simplistic binarism of Snyder's thinking here will permit. As for her contention that print "strengthened the authority of the author," Moxon depicts a strikingly different scenario in the late seventeenth century when he asserts that, "[i]t is necessary the compositer's judgment should know where the author has been deficient, that so his care may not suffer such work to go out of his hands as may bring scandal upon himself, and scandal and prejudice upon the Master Printer." (219). Finally, anyone who has flipped through the pages of Pollard and Redgrave's Short Title Catalogue will get the not incorrect impression that thousands of writers living in Renaissance England found their way into print, frequently enough against their will. And our current knowledge of early modern authorship in England, based as it is on extant texts, may represent no more than a fourth of what was actually printed in the period.

Two subsequent chapters treat the implications of hypertext for narrative theory and pedagogy, respectively. In the former, Snyder seeks to contrast hypertext's narrative flexibility, its non-linearity with that of the printed book in which readers, she asserts, follow "a carefully scripted route which ensures that they get from the beginning to the end in the way the author wants them to" (82). This linear, even teleological element of book-bound narrative is certainly integral to literature, but to generalize about the linearity of all "print narratives" is to ignore the fact that a range of elements that are disruptive of linearity -- marginal glosses, indexes, and other types of finder aids -- came into prominence with the advent of print. For Snyder, the impact of hypertext on "literary form" has been assessed within two very different scholarly approaches. One approach views hypertext as a valuable critical tool for re-evaluating proto-hypertextual print narratives such as Lawrence Stone's Tristram Shandy and James Joyce's Ulysses. According to this approach, readers familiar with hypertext "can appreciate the degree to which both authors produce texts that resist linearity" (83). The other approach takes hypertext narrative on its own non-linear, multi-linear, multi-media terms and seeks to produce a phenomenological description of it. Such narratives or hyperfictions -- Snyder focuses at length on Michael Joyce's 1987 story afternoon -- which have developed "from a specifically twentieth-century tradition of experimental literature" (85), can be divided into two basic modes: narratives of multiplicity and mosaic narratives. Although both modes, according to Snyder, "use familiar narrative strategies to make beginnings easier, hyperfictions challenge readers by avoiding the corresponding devices for achieving closure" (100).

In the book's sixth and final chapter, Snyder turns her attention to the "pedagogical potential" of hypertext. Most recent theorists of what might be called the hypertext classroom have been ebullient about the kinds of decentering, democratizing, and even utopian possibilities it promises, and Snyder is not about to spoil the celebration. Relying heavily on the work of hypertext theorists G.P. Landow and R.A. Lanham, Snyder fantasizes about classrooms of the future in which hypertext will facilitate individual and collaborative learning, bring about new ways of teaching the arts, stimulate students' to think critically, meet the learning needs of students with differing abilities, enrich writing classes, revolutionize the teaching of literature, and generate new academic genres.

Scholarly work on print and other pre-digital writing technologies is dramatically under-represented here. Indeed, it is hard to believe that a book so committed to mapping the journey from print to hypertext would not, for example, list Elizabeth Eisenstein's monumental study on the advent of print in its bibliography. Nor is there any reference to historical studies which, for example, examine the impact of the typewriter on the late 19th century work force, or the transition from scroll to codexin the first century AD. As for literary theory, Snyder compresses it into a dozen or so now-canonical works by a handful of mostly French theorists and another dozen or so books written in the wake of theory. Conspicuously absent from this group are a number of important gender-focused studies that have examined various writing technologies, especially their role in reinscribing dominant patriarchal narratives. Where Snyder has clearly immersed herself is in the current scholarship on cyber-technology though, as I have already intimated, this remains at present a fairly limited discursive field. Indeed, many times while reading this book I felt that it was primarily directed at a relatively small group of hypertext/computer theorists whose publications Snyder so frequently cites. This is especially true in the case of Landow, whose work is quoted throughout.

Recent estimates indicate that some 70 million people in the U.S. presently cruise the information highway, 18 million of which hit the pavement for the first time this past year. Many of these users, I suspect, would welcome a book that helped them locate the digital age in a larger historical and cultural framework. Unfortunately, as long as scholars like Snyder direct their work at a small, inclusive group of insiders, the vast majority of us will remain without a much-needed set of road signs.

Douglas A. Brooks:
Douglas A. Brooks is Assistant Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama at Texas A&M University. He has recently finished a book on authorship and the advent of print culture, and is currently working on book about the institution of the King's printer in England from 1504 to 1649.  <dab39@acs.tamu.edu>

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