Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology

George P. Landow
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992
255 pp., $21.95 hc

Michael Sexson
Montana State University

A common complaint heard these days from virtually every point on the political spectrum is that contemporary theoretical discourse has become so rarified and obfuscatory that it has simply become irrelevant to real life. Philosophers not only bake no bread, they have abandoned the bakery and left the wheat field to the weeds. Barthes, Bakhtin, Foucault, and Derrida, it is claimed, appeal only to academics, and among academics, only to a perverse few. Well, George Landow, professor of English and art history at Brown University, not only denies this claim but convincingly asserts that these arcane thinkers are the most articulate witnesses to a new sense of reality being brought about by electronic information technologies.

In Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, Landow argues that contemporary critical theory is simply expounding the nature and meaning of a new post-print paradigm. Virtually every contemporary theorist's projection, from Barthes' insistence that the reader become a producer rather than a consumer of a text, to Derrida's claim that there is no outside the text, is present in hypertext, a radically new way of reading in which a given piece of discourse is electronically linked to vast databanks of information. The reader is no longer held hostage to the authoritarian page but becomes a kind of navigator through books and icons, film clips, animated archives, all in Dolby sound and with Spielbergian special effects.

This radical re-imagining of the role of reading and writing, Landow insists, is already here, albeit in a simplistic form, in the computer program Hypercard which runs on the Apple Macintosh. Landow provides the reader with photographs of his own Hypercard program of Tennyson's In Memoriam, a non-linear poem which is best read, not sequentially, as traditional typography insists, but intertextually and interactively, as hypertext permits. Each word of the poem is a potential "hot spot," which, when clicked on by an electronic "mouse," opens up into other information lying below (or beside, above, within) the word. The reader is encouraged to explore the margins, get side-tracked, go off on tangents, for it is in these "errors" that discoveries are made and genuine education takes place. The prevailing metaphor is no longer a ladder, reading from top to bottom, but a web in which the slightest pressure on one thread sets the whole structure shimmering. Liberated from the tyranny of the printed page, the reader becomes a virtual starfighter pilot soaring through a galaxy of signifiers unattached to signifieds, those oppressive anchors of thought dreaded by the poststructuralist pantheon.

Decentered, non-linear, open-ended, contradictory, democratic, playful, polymorphic, and pleasurable, hypertext "promises to have an effect on cultural and intellectual disciplines as important as those produced by earlier shifts in the technology of cultural memory that followed the invention of writing and printing."

This is a large claim but Hypertext demands hyperbole. What is distinctive about this book is that the author has little or none of the shrill tone that characterizes most journalistic hype on the subject. Instead, he tempers his obvious enthusiasm with print culture virtues: clarity, coherence, linear organization. He takes the reader from an overview of hypertext and critical theory to how authors, texts, and narrative are reconfigured within the crucible of this new paradigm, and finally to thoughts about education and politics as they relate to hypertext. Needless to say, Landow claims that hypertext empowers the individual and renders most of what passes for education (including laughably archaic rules for scholarship, promotion, and tenure) hopelessly obsolete.

This is not, it should be mentioned in closing, a book critical of the new emergent paradigm. Landow is a hypertext evangelist, and a very good one. It remains for other writers to point out the ways in which this radical re-visioning of reality may be seen not only as a promise, but as the electronic version of the Faustian desire for total knowledge. These days, Mephistopheles may be hiding in your computer's motherboard.

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