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Theory and Hypertext

Ilana Snyder – Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth



ALSO SEE AROUND 5 min mark in this vid (

Why don’t we read hypertext novels? – Anne Mangen, Adriaan van der Weel

Theodor H Nelson provided the first explicit definition of hypertext, ‘By ‘‘hypertext’’ I mean nonsequential writing – text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways’ (Nelson, 1992: 0/2). Of crucial importance to the concept are the terms ‘non-sequential’, ‘interactive’, ‘chunks’ and ‘links’. Often, the chunks of text are termed ‘lexias’, after Roland Barthes’s S/Z (1993), commonly considered a theoretical anticipation of hypertextuality (Landow, 1997). The invocation of Barthes’ seminal post-structuralist work launched the beginning of a lasting marriage of hypertext theory and post-structuralism.


Landow (1992/1997) devotes a whole chapter to Jackson’s bestselling hypertext, describing it in terms of ‘Bakhtinian multivocality’ (200) and emphasizing the handing over of ‘Frankensteinian’ power to the reader, ‘stitching together narrative, gender, and identity’ (ibid.). According to Goldberg, Jackson, as much as Shelley (unwittingly), draws on Baudrillard in that ‘Frankenstein and his real-life predecessors … sought … to create new life, a copy without an original – Baudrillard’s simulacrum’ (Goldberg, 1998).

In fact, the notion of a patchwork quilt runs through the text, piecing together quotations from a plenitude of sources ‘in an intuitive, crazy-quilt style’ [sources]. In the same lexia, the author lists further seminal works of postmodernist and feminist criticism (e.g. Cixous, Deleuze and Guattari, Haraway, Lyotard, Theweleit), which further increases the hypertext’s academic, scholarly flavour.

Janet Murray – Hamlet on the Holodeck (new edition)

The second kind of digital labyrinth, which has arisen from the academic literary community, is the postmodern hypertext narrative described in chapter 2. Full of wordplay and indeterminate events, these labyrinths derive not from Greek rationalism but from poststructuralist literary theory and are unheroic and solutionless. Like a set of index cards that have been scattered on the floor and then connected with multiple segments of tangled twine, they offer no end point and no way out. Their aesthetic vision is often identified with philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s “rhizome,” a tuber root system in which any point may be connected to any other point.1 Deleuze used the rhizome root system as a model of connectivity in systems of ideas; critics have applied this notion to allusive text systems that are not linear like a book but boundaryless and without closure. Stuart Moulthrop, a theorist and electronic fiction writer, states it this way:

Seen from the viewpoint of textual theory, hypertext systems appear as the practical implementation of a conceptual movement that … rejects authoritarian, “logocentric” [i.e., truth-affirming] hierarchies of language, whose modes of operation are linear and deductive, and seeks instead systems of discourse that admit a plurality of meanings where the operative modes are hypothesis and interpretive play.2

The postmodern hypertext tradition celebrates the indeterminate text as a liberation from the tyranny of the author and an affirmation of the reader’s freedom of interpretation.

J. Yellowlees Douglas – The End of Books, Or Books Without End: Reading Interactive Narratives
It is not that the Author may not “come back” in the Text, in his text, but he then does so as a “guest.” . . . He becomes, as it were, a paper-author: his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work.
—Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text” (1971)

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.
—Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1968)

Of course, critics, many of them steeped in literary theory, have begun noticing affinities between the features of hypertext and the way that poststructuralist theorists had described the Text.14 Even the neologisms coined to describe print text—liaison (link), toile (web), réseau (network), and s’y tissent (interwoven)—seem, uncannily, to anticipate the hallmarks of hypertext. You do not need to be particularly perceptive to see the possibility of producing sequential yet nonlinear discourse with hypertext as an illustration of Jacques Derrida’s contrast between linear and nonlinear writing. Nor do you need to be fantastically well versed in the writings of Roland Barthes to recognize hypertext in his description in “From Work to Text” of print text as a network of references to and reinfections of other works.
Or to seize on Derrida’s definition of text as “a differential network, a fabric of traces . . . [overrunning] all the limits assigned to it so far”15 as a decent sketch of a hypertext like Christiane Paul’s Unreal City: A Hypertext Guide to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, where readers leap seamlessly between extracts of Jessie L. Weston and snatches of Chaucer, from Ezra Pound’s contributions to its editing into the
familiar, canonized version of the poem, even earlier draft versions of the work, as they traipse through lines of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land—without needing to search through catalogs, wander library stacks, or page through dozens of sources. If activities like these felt familiar the very first time you surfed the World Wide Web, it may well be because you have encountered something like this already in
the works of Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, and J. Hillis Miller, theorists who see meaning as distributed within texts through dense networks of associations with other texts reaching past the boundaries of the physical work itself. Or you might be reminded of the relatively recent shift in critical attention from authors and texts to the role of the reader, prefaced by Barthes’s famous “Death of the Author” that
declares the reader is the single device that ultimately controls the signifying potential of any text.

.- -. -.. / .- -. -.. / .- -. -.. / .- -. -.. -.. -.. -.. -.. -..

  • Ladan Modir, Ling C Guan, and Sohaimi Bin Abdul Aziz –Text, Hypertext, and Hyperfiction_A Convergence Between Poststructuralism an
  • Perla Sassón-Henry – Chaos Theory Hypertext and Reading Borges and Moulthrop

.- -. -.. / .- -. -.. / .- -. -.. / .- -. -.. -.. -.. -.. -.. -..

Scott Rettberg’s ‘The American Hypertext Novel, and Whatever Became of It?’

The other important aspect to consider is that as a publisher, Eastgate was participating in an evolving literary culture that was trying to establish itself. Eastgate advertised itself as the publisher of ‘serious’ hypertext fiction—perhaps in an attempt to differentiate itself from ‘text adventure’ publishing enterprises or the emerging market of games. The social and critical apparatus is important. Publishing both software and literary works, Eastgate was partially modelled after the type of serious small press publishers that popularised modernist literature during the 20th century, and partly modelled on contemporary software companies. Theorists such as George Landow, Terry Harpold, Jane Yellowlees Douglas and others were foregrounding the connections between hypertext narratives and postmodern theory, just as later theorists such as N. Katherine Hayles emphasised the materiality of these text-machines in their media-specific context and their relation to the idea of the posthuman.

Patchwork Girl, Jackson’s inventive retelling of the Frankenstein story from the perspective of the female monster, wore its postmodernism on its sleeve. In the tradition of American literary postmodernism, Patchwork Girl is a self-conscious text, by turns intertextual, polyvocal and expressly concerned with post-structuralist questions of identity. Five sections of the hypertext novel: the journal, story, graveyard, crazy quilt and the body of the text each used different material structures and stylistic conventions. A more visual thinker than Joyce, Jackson both
used some limited imagery—woodcut images of a female body and a man’s skull—and took advantage of the visual layout features of Storyspace software to produce visual user interfaces. The reader of Patchwork Girl participated in navigating the work in acts of pastiche. Assembly of different types of texts occurs throughout the work. In the “crazy quilt” section of the text, for example, Jackson stitches together quotations from Jacques Derrida’s Disseminations, Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, L. Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz, Barbara Maria Stafford’s Body Criticism and the Storyspace User’s Manual. The first draft of Patchwork Girl was originally produced for one of theorist George Landow’s courses at Brown University, and throughout the novel, we can see how Jackson was testing the waters, using both fiction and a new writing technology she was encountering for the first time to represent and deconstruct theories of identity.

As was the case for the majority of the other hypertexts mentioned, The Unknown had a number of metafictional characteristics, including a number of asides on writing in the form itself, which are included in the “metafictional bullshit” nodes of the text. In the node “Hypertext is/are Electronic Space” William Gillespie, for example, mused in Deleuzian fashion:

Hypertext, to put it clearly, is a mapping of a text onto a four-dimensional ‘space.’
Normal grammars, then, do not apply, and become branching structures anew.
Fragments, branches, links.

The word is glowing and on a screen. It is electronic and cannot be touched. It has been copied over thousands of times and reverberates through virtual space.8 (Gillespie et al 1999)


Writing, as the term is used in contemporary literary theory, is the mode of literary creation that comes of age in the wake of The End of the Book and The Death of the Author. In Of Grammatology, Derrida demonstrates that, from Plato (who, of course, prohibited poets from his ideal Republic) to Rousseau and Saussure, the western philosophical tradition has systematically excluded and suppressed the concept of writing as a free-play of signification. In our logocentric world, speech is privileged over writing for its sense of proximity to the source of utterance; when I speak, the seal between my words and the meaning I intend by them remains intact, secured by my physical presence. Writing, by contrast, seems to drive a wedge between the speaker and his or her utterance. Cut off from the consciousness which would guarantee their meaning, words begin to move, to take on unintended connotations, to be received in unexpected ways. Signifiers are no longer fixed to their signifieds, but begin to point beyond themselves to other signifiers:

The meaning of meaning […] is infinite implication, the indefinite referral of signifier to signifier […] its force is a certain pure and infinite equivocality which gives signified meaning no respite, no rest, but engages in its own economy so that is always signifies again and differs. (Derrida, Writing and Difference 25)

To question the bond between sound and sense is to subvert the metaphysical tradition of logocentrism at its roots. As Christopher Norris notes, writing for Derrida is “that which exceeds–and has the power to dismantle–the whole traditional edifice of Western attitudes to thought and language” (29).

In its potentially radical transformation of the literary mode, hypertext has obvious alliances with Derrida’s conception of writing. Moving from node to node in an undetermined path, meaning in a hypertext accrues not in the word, but between words; a text’s meaning lies less in what the author intended than in the ways it is read and, in being read, is re-written. Hypertext, in its electronic form, takes on the mutability and mobility with which Derrida characterizes writing; disseminated through phonelines and electronic bulletin boards, the electronic word has no author, has no point of origin, has no meaning except that of its transmission, of its devotion to the possibilities of dissemination itself.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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6.3 Hypertext as rhizome, collage, and montage

This section will be relatively light on images, despite being about visual images for “hypertext”–that is to say, hypertext in general. Two such images have enjoyed wide currency in the last decade, namely hypertext as rhizome and hypertext as collage, even though the visual particulars of either term have never been spelled out (or shown). In a certain way, they are instances of the elusive generalized image mentioned in the introduction, and both have been pressed into service to characterize what is different about hypertext as a way of organizing information. A third, somewhat more abstract metaphor for textual and hypertextual structure, namely linkage as cinematic montage, is nearly as old as montage itself but has had a revival with the advent of hypertext.


“The Rhizome” opens one of the pivotal texts of Post Modernism, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. The rhizome is contrasted to the tree and tree-like structures as master images of the “books” specifying the relation and connectedness of things. A tree has both root and shape, but the rhizome has no center and ramifies (potentially) in various directions without limit. First published in 1980, “The Rhizome” was not offered as a figure for hypertext or the Web, but the traits they highlight are salient ones of webs and the Web and were quickly applied to hypertext by Kathleen Burnett among others. It gave its name to, a major site and archive of from 1996 on, and a section “Hypertext as Rhizome” was added to George Landow’s Hypertext in edition 2.0. It is now very established as a way of thinking about the Web, although it is also recognised that it is a much more comprehensive term as used by Deleuze and Guattari. (See for example the logo-and-explanation page for the CHID program at the University of Washington.) Strangely enough, although A Thousand Plateaus has illustrations, it does not include one of a rhizome, and the CHID page is to be congratulated for having a go at it, since as has been noted by Darryl Laferte among others, unbounded things cannot be imaged. (They also say rats and ants are rhizomes.) The image at the left illustrates the point, since it depicts just a little fragment of the World Wide Quackgrass rhizome. The particular botanical properties of rhizomes do not seem of much interest to Deleuze and Guattari–as for example that they are not roots but stem-like bodies growing underground with scales and nodes that can sprout roots–but they do say enough to indicate that it is an impossible object or, as Landow says, “a counter paradigm, not something realizable in any time or culture” (42). There are a number of discussions of the adequacy of the analogy of Web to rhizome (and to its sister concept, smooth space) (e.g. by Stuart Moulthrop (1994) and Martin E. Rosenberg (1994), but this discussion has nothing to do with the visual representation of the rhizome, of which there is little or none, but with the concept and growth habit. The rhizome hypertext metaphor appears to be what is sometimes called a verbal image (as opposed to a mental image and to a visual one–this last being what we mean by image here). W.J.T. Mitchell discusses verbal image as a very broad and loose category, suggesting that we would all be better off without it (1994: 19-21). We seem very close to tree in the graph theory sense that has severed its connection to the plant world—i.e., it is a term for a rather abstract morphological form.

Hypertext as collage Deleuze and Guattari also describe a third figure, the radicle-system or fascicular root, which is intermediate between the tree/root and the rhizome. Its representation is multiple and fragmented–in short, radicle-system is found in collage (and in Hegel, Joyce, and Nietzsche). It is not all the way to rhizome, they say, for it frequently reveals a higher unity behind the apparent multiplicity of fragments, just as, we might say, a collage is in fact a bounded work and a composition and one may talk about the whole, although the whole is no longer one based on representation. Not surprisingly then, if one thinks of hypertext not in terms of the totality but in terms of individual works, the analogy with collage springs to mind. In the Electronic Word, speaking of digital replication and repetition, Richard Lanham declares: The same aesthetic operates at the heart of electronic text, though we seldom notice it for what it is–an aesthetic of collage, the central technique of twentieth-century visual art. (40) (Visual art here is apparently restricted to the static kind.) As we have seen, a case can be made for at least sharing the center with montage, or generalizing them to the notion of multiple, usually mixed-mode images. Lanham is speaking immediately of Andy Warhol’s Thirty Are Better Than One (silk-screened images of Marilyn Monroe) which is certainly multiple, though not exactly your classic collage. Replication, juxtaposition, and differences of scale are the main traits he ascribes to collage, as well as an oscillation between looking at and looking through the fragments (i.e., Bolter and Grusin’s hypermediation—38-41). Landow develops the point by deriving the traits of “textual collage” from the hypertext link. Because it joins different things, the link “inevitably produces juxtaposition, concatenation, and assemblage.” And then a step farther: If part of the pleasure of juxtaposition inevitably tends towards catachresis and difference for their own ends and for the effect of surprise, sometimes surprised pleasure, that they produce. (171) Since catachresis is the yoking together of disparate things, an “extravagant, unexpected, far-fetched metaphor” (Lanham, Handlist, 31), and these are the hallmarks of metaphysical poetry, all hypertext links aspire to the condition of the metaphysical conceit. This passage catches a certain possibility for witty play with the hypertext link, but as a deductive argument, it has problems. Hypertext links don’t always produce juxtaposition, which I take to be an abrupt placing together with no connection or transition. A link can be quite explicit about the connection it makes–in fact, Mark Bernstein argues, too explicit. There seems to be a quiet equivocation with the senses of different, moving from “nonidentical” (“Try a different card.”) to “disparat want to follow” (talk at Hypertext 2000); HT00.html” (the Monty Python pseudo-transition “And now for something completely different”). Hypertext links can join one section of an argument to the next one: no great leap or witty yoking together there. One suspects that Landow is trying to pass off a kind of hypertext linking that he likes as the inner telos of links. To be fair to Landow, however, we should note that he elsewhere in the book maintains that: Hypermedia as a medium conveys the strong impression that its links signify coherent, purposeful, and above all useful relationships, from which it follows that the very existence of links conditions the reader to expect purposeful, important relationships between linked materials. (1997: 126) pointing out that users who cannot bridge or integrate the material at the target of the link will experience the text as incoherent and confusing. We might resolve the matter this way: a page appears juxtaposed to the first if the viewer cannot predict what the relation of the page will be to what she has been viewing; if after viewing the second page, she is still unable to see the relationship of the second page to the first, she may treat the link as an unresolved enigma, a Deleuzian nonsignifying discontinuity, or an annoying bit of user unfriendliness or authorial flakiness.

Implicit in the comparison of hypertext to collage is the notion that we could become better readers or writers of hypertext by studying collage, although it is rarely spelled out which collages or by whom. A notable exception is a recent article by Joseph Janangelo. Janangelo has suggested that a salutary model for student writers of hypertext is one of Joseph Cornell’s “homage” collections (kept in a valise), namely the one dedicated to Ludwig II of Bavaria (“Toller Ludwig”). Though not a collage strictly speaking, the piece is certainly a multiple. Many of the things in the valise seem only obscurely related to the Mad Prince, but the principles of selection become apparent with some study of the book, a copy of which is included in the valise. (We are not able to study this book ourselves, of course, since the piece is always shown under glass at its home museum in Philadelphia.) This is a surprising piece to offer as a model for how to write hypertext, especially “persuasive” hypertext, since it is mute according to the best Greenbergian strictures (though there is text involved between the covers of a biography of Ludwig, a copy of which is included in the valise). Janangelo reports the work of Dickram Tashjian on the piece, in which various bookmarks that Cornell placed in the book are used to provide background on why some of the particular items were included. Interestingly, having unpacked the significance of some of the valise and celebrated its subtlety and richness, Janangelo turns on it and judges it as in need of revision if it is to function as a hypertext essay, at least with him as a reader and grader. There are a couple of common failings of student hypertexts that Janangelo hope to mitigate or correct, including the non-selective inclusion of everything the student finds on a subject, and for that purpose the analysis of “Homage to Ludwig II” makes some sense, not as an example of design or visual form but of selecting materials with relevance to a particular aim. At this point we may say the tables have completely turned round on the relations of the visual and textual. We began with the Modernist ban on mixing visual and textual modes, in part to prevent the corruption of painting by literature and narrative. By the 1980s, the influence of Modernism had declined, and there have been numerous applications of language-based categories to visual works. But now we have explicit urgings to apply visual ideas to the new quasi-textual realm of hypertext. Articles like Janangelo’s are not yet common, however, and it remains to be seen whether we have here an interesting experiment or the beginning of a new approach to teaching (hypertext) reading and writing.

Alice Bell – The Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction

Hypertext theory has always accompanied hypertext novels and many hypertext fiction authors, including Joyce, Moulthrop and Jackson, have made significant contributions to the field (e.g. Joyce, 1987, 1988, 1997; Moulthrop, 1989, 1991b, 1994; Jackson, 1995, 1998). However, some of the primary, or what has recently been termed ‘first wave’ (e.g. Pang, 1998; Bell, forthcoming), hypertext theory has been scrutinized by what might be appropriately termed a ‘second wave’ of hypertext theory for its potential theoretical and methodological limitations.

Initially, a number of first-wave theorists explore some potential and attractive similarities between the hypertext structure and form and the hypothetical textual models described in poststructuralist theory. As a consequence of hypertext’s branching structure and multi-linearity as well as the choice that was permitted because of its interactivity, discussions boast the potential changes that hypertext will bring to readers, writers and texts. First-wave theorists claim that ‘the new dialectic of hypertext will compel us, as Derrida put it, to “reread past writing according to different organization space”’ (Bolter, 1991: 117) and that hypertext ‘might come close to realizing Roland Barthes’ vision of “the Text”’ (Moulthrop, 1991c: 130). The term ‘lexia’, which is used to describe individual chunks of text in a hypertext, is also appropriated from Barthes’ work. In addition to Derrida’s (1979, 1981) concept of a decentred text (e.g. Bolter, 1991, Landow, 1994, 1997, 2006) and Barthes’ (1990 [1974]) ‘writerly’ text (e.g. Delany and Landow, 1991; Moulthrop, 1991c; Landow, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2006), hypertext is also compared to Deleuze and Guattari’s (1988) conception of a ‘rhizome’ text (e.g. Landow, 1994, 2006) and as a medium which might facilitate Cixous’ (1991) idea of l’écriture feminine (e.g. Landow, 1992, 1994, 2006; Page, 1999).

Yet while many of the poststructuralist models are seductively suggestive of the hypertext form, beyond very superficial similarities the comparisons are unfeasible and consequently unsuccessful. If hypertext is, as Delany and Landow (1991) most famously declare ‘an almost embarrassingly literal reification or actualization’ (10) of contemporary literary theory, it is most likely because it resembles a form of writing that was not available to theorists working with print. As Bolter (2001) points out, ‘if poststructuralist theories … seem to resonate with hypertext, it is important to remember that these theories developed among writers who were primarily working in and with earlier technologies. … To deconstruct a text, one used a vocabulary appropriate to the computer precisely because this vocabulary contradicted the assumption of print’ (181). While initially theoretically appealing, therefore, hypertext does not fully possess the capabilities associated with the poststructuralists’ ideals. Perhaps more importantly, from a methodological point of view, little is to be gained in terms of generating critical analyses by locating the hypertext structure within an abstract theoretical model. It does not aid a literary critical understanding of individual novels and instead abstract structures are used only metaphorically and the hypertext form is allied to a theoretical blueprint from which few, if any, analyses have since materialised.

In the second chapter of ‘The Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction’, Alice Bell offers several critiques of hypertext theory:

  • Overall, while hypertext fiction does offer choice, the reader’s degree of control, which was envisaged by many first-wave theorists, is inflated and readers are erroneously attributed with unrealistic powers in their actual capacity to manipulate and operate within the text.
  • Yet while hypertext fictions may well cause confusion for readers by retracting what has been said, giving different versions of the world or different versions of events in that world, in their implicit drive towards closure, the theorists undervalue the reader’s response to narrative irresolution and ambiguity by assuming that all are driven towards the same end – a single and unambiguous ending.

Page 19 – As the discussion has shown, since readers are required to participate in the construction of all hypertexts, often choosing from a number of different possibilities, their role in the fiction-making process is emphasised. In addition, however, because readers of Storyspace hypertexts experience different events, different versions of events, or a different ordering of events, depending upon the path they choose to take, the narrative structure of the novels further foregrounds the artificiality of the text. The reader is always aware that the current reading path can be replaced by an alternative so that it is apparent that it is only ever a temporary construction. In addition to the branching structure that the Storyspace software facilitates, as the theorists above verify, many Storyspace hypertext novels also contain additional self-reflexive features within the narratives which draw further attention to their artificiality. Thus several devices combine to draw attention to the ontological status of the fictional world that the reader helps to materially and mentally construct. — IE THE FORM IS PART OF THE THEME  …. an endless chain of possible worlds (don’t like explain the theory, just hyperlink ‘possible worlds’ …


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