Electronic Hypertext

In "Literature in the Electronic Writing Space," Jay David Bolter asserts the oft-held claim that "The shift from printed book to electronic hypertext becomes a watershed as important as the shift from manuscript to print in the fifteenth century . . . the printing press affected styles of writing and genres of literature . . . [and] the electronic medium will do the same" (Bolter, 21-22). As such, electronic spaces are currently facilitating a radical shift in the forms and conventions of the text. This shift is most readily apparent in hypertext, about which Bolter says that "We never break free of the linear experience of reading, but links among elements in the network do free us from that single reading order that is required of a first reading in print" (Bolter, 31).

Drawing upon the ideas of such writers as Bolter, Ted Nelson, and George Landow, the term "hypertext" has been related to such capacities as fluidity, interactivity, connectivity, non-fixity, associative thinking, and non-linear readings. Given the fluid, malleable nature of an electronic hypertext, it has likewise been said to form a new relationship between author and reader and text, where reader in a sense becomes author of a dynamic environment. Hypertext also facilitates the ability to view alternatives; and as Landow comments: "Changing the ease with which one can orient oneself within such a context and pursue individual references radically changes both the experience of reading and ultimately the nature of that which is read" (Landow, 5).

While presenting us with an electronic textual space, the Web does not offer a true hypertext in the terms related above. To a large extent a Web browser must travel through a linear path - meaning only backwards or forwards or through the given links on the current page. Yet the Web does offer a highly exploratory and fluid environment, one in which each "reading" of any given part requires the individual navigation and interaction of the reader. In this sense the Web, as other electronic textual spaces, works to change the relationship between the human and the textual body.

In Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet Sherry Turkle claims that "Computers embody postmodern theory and bring it down to earth" (Turkle, 18). The idea of a fluid, decentered text where the context continually shifts recalls the notion of the continually shifting center in the theories of Jacques Derrida.

Similarly, in speaking of an ideal text in S/Z, Roland Barthes posits:

the image of a triumphant plural, unimpoverished by any constraint of representation (of imitation). In this ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one.
(Barthes, S/Z, 5-6)

Landow claims that Barthes' description of an ideal print text precisely matches what is currently known as computer hypertext, which Landow himself defines as "text composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains, or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality" (Landow, 3).

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Web page written and constructed by Laralynn Weiss, Georgetown University