cite this article as
Currents in Electronic Literacy
Fall 2001 (5),
- On June
21, 1992, the front page of the New York Times Book Review
proclaimed "The End of Books." This headline was the
title of an article by Robert Coover on hypertext, and while
the article presented a highly optimistic evaluation of this
new art form, Coover's title was clearly playing on the technophobic
fears of his book-loving audience. Coover argues that hypertexts
stress "fluidity, contingency, indeterminacy, plurality,
[and] discontinuity" instead of the traditional, linear
narrative (25). In place of the traditional narrative structure
with beginning, middle, and end, hypertexts provide endlessly
"branching options, menus, link markers and mapped networks"
(23); Coover adds that even character and plot are "two
traditional narrative elements that are decidedly in jeopardy"
- Of course,
Coover is aware that all of these features have appeared in
print texts; he even begins his article with the following disclaimer:
"[T]hrough print's long history, there have been countless
strategies to counter the line's power, from marginalia and
footnotes to the creative innovations of novelists like Laurence
Sterne, James Joyce, Raymond Queneau, Julio Cortázar,
Italo Calvino and Milorad Pavic, not to exclude the form's father,
Cervantes himself" (1, 23). Coover's own fiction could
also be added to his list; his non-linear short story, "The
Babysitter," for example, could easily be read as a proto-hypertext
narrative. And his prophecy of the end of character and plot
seems to echo Alain Robbe-Grillet's 1957 essay "On Several
Obsolete Notions," in which Robbe-Grillet argues that the
concepts of character, story, form, and content are no longer
relevant to contemporary literature (25-47). However, Coover
quickly adds that "true freedom from the tyranny of the
line is perceived as only really possible now at last with the
advent of hypertext" (23), and he concludes by stressing
that hypertext is "truly a new and unique environment"
and its principles will displace those of traditional narrative
"in the same way that relativity not so long ago displaced
the falling apple" (25).
- This article
seems to encapsulate all of the significant debates surrounding
hypertext over the past decade. These debates have been largely
concerned with questions of authorship, of narrative, and of
what constitutes a text, as well as questions about the role
of technology in the act of writing and reading. While many
critics have attempted to explain the differences between print
and hypertext by focusing on formal properties of the texts
themselves, there does not seem to be any clear consensus as
to how print narratives actually differ from hypertext narratives,
and in this paper I would like to suggest that it is ultimately
impossible to account for the differences between these two
technologies solely by examining narrative structure. Through
a close reading of two of Michael Joyce's now classic hypertexts,
Afternoon and Twelve Blue, and an analysis of
the ways in which the characteristics of these hypertexts are
compatible and consistent with the goals and techniques of print
texts, this paper will attempt to illustrate the difficulties
of determining a precise difference between print and hypertext
the most frequently debated issue involves the question of authorship:
specifically, who is authoring these narratives, or whether
hypertext eliminates the notion of authorship altogether. Coover's
article, which was written at a time when Brown University's
Hypertext Workshop had only been in existence for two semesters,
was one of the major catalysts for discussions of hypertext
as a new art form which demanded new skills and new narrative
techniques. In an article written by Coover in 1993, he even
added that there would be a "transitional time" before
writers fully adjusted to working in the new medium ("Hyperfiction"
10). Such a claim might suggest that hypertext writers are today's
avant-garde artists; however, hypertext is more frequently championed
by critics, such as George Landow, as eliminating the author
altogether and thus serving as a perfect illustration of Post-Structural
theory. Obviously Landow does not hold that this theory only
applies to hypertext, but rather he sees hypertext as a way
of testing Post-Structuralism (Hypertext 2.0 2).
- This claim,
that hypertext decenters the author and empowers the reader,
has been contested in several different ways. Some critics,
such as Espen Aarseth, argue that hypertexts are not interactive
enough (178), and rather than privileging "hypertext"
as a new form of textuality, Aarseth argues for the term "ergodic
literature," which could be applied to either print- or
computer-based texts in which the reader can truly interact;
Aarseth even goes so far as to question whether there is a difference
between hypertexts and print texts, and in his book Cybertext
he states that "no such essential difference is presumed"
(17). Other critics, such as Tony Tremblay, argue that print
texts are actually more interactive than hypertexts because
they allow the reader to write marginal comments, and he adds
that readers of print texts are equally as active in that they
"constantly jump forward and backward, left and right,
reading as much between the lines as between the margins"
(127). And there is yet a third group of critics, such as Silvio
Gaggi, who argue that "although the reader's ability to
make choices seems to indicate control and empowerment, that
empowerment may be specious" (105). The reader is free
to forge his/her own path, Gaggi argues, but "[t]he complexity
of the Web and the possibility of having to make decisions without
sufficient information regarding where any choice may lead can
result in a disorientation that precludes meaningful freedom"
(105). Gaggi suggests that, despite claims of empowerment, the
technology is itself inherently tied to corporate and military
interests (116-7), and Tremblay similarly points out that the
interactivity of hypertext merely obeys the logic of corporate
advertising: "[H]ypertext is the dreamwork of advertising,
lending itself to a seemingly naturalized peer pressure that
is an integral part of the corporate experience" (126).
- The other
characteristics of hypertext which Coover champions are its
non-linearity, its multiplicity of narrative threads, and the
fact that hypertext narratives are infinite, unbounded, and
without closure, but the claim that these aspects are traits
of hypertext and not of the traditional narrative has similarly
been met with resistance. While some critics, such as Jay David
Bolter, argue that non-linearity marks a crucial distinction
between print and hypertext because print narratives are inherently
linear ("Rhetoric" 287), others, such as Ilana Snyder,
argue that there is a tradition of non-linearity in print texts
which stretches back as far as Tennyson (98). Although Bolter
acknowledges that there are print narratives which are non-linear,
a sub-genre he refers to as "topographic writing,"
he argues that these print narratives work against the medium
in which they were made and that they merely reveal the limits
of print technology itself (Writing Space 143). Frank
Kermode's theories of narrative, however, would seem to suggest
that non-linearity is not simply a feature of experimental writing,
but rather it is an inherent feature of narrative itself. Like
the hypertext link, Kermode's notion of "peripeteia,"
the reversal or turn of events in a narrative, depends on the
falsification of the reader's expectations, and "[t]he
more daring the peripeteia, the more we may feel that the work
respects our sense of reality; and the more certainly we shall
feel that the fiction under consideration is one of those which,
by upsetting the ordinary balance of our naïve expectations,
is finding something out for us, something real"
(18). The hypertext link would seem to be the most daring peripeteia
of all because of the way it shocks the reader and defies any
narrative expectation whatsoever.
- This conception
of narrative as a form which is inherently filled with shocks
and disjunctions would leave only one feature which could distinguish
print narratives from hypertext narratives: the fact that print
narratives are bound by a beginning and an end while hypertext
narratives are unbounded and endless. According to Kermode,
narrative relies on beginnings and endings because it is the
sense of an ending which gives narrative its meaning and helps
the reader to become aware of his/her own sense of mortality.
Molly Abel Travis similarly argues that a lack of resolution
deprives the hypertext reader of any pleasure (119). However,
most critics seem to agree that hypertext does provide a sense
of closure. According to J. Yellowlees Douglas, for example,
the only difference between the ending of a print narrative
and a hypertext narrative is that the ending of a hypertext
occurs at a moment chosen by the reader once he/she believes
a mystery has been solved (8). Even Landow admits that hypertexts
still provide a sense of an ending (Hypertext 2.0 192).
Hypertext writer Michael Joyce also argues that closure simply
occurs when the reader becomes tired.
- Like Coover,
who sees similar features in print narratives going back to
Cervantes, the critics engaged in these debates seem acutely
aware of the print antecedents to hypertexts, and while they
struggle to define the precise differences between print and
hypertext narratives, none of their arguments are ultimately
persuasive. Many critics, such as Susan Lang, have even begun
the process of incorporating hypertext into literary studies
by applying hypertext technology to printed texts (305), which
would suggest that print narratives are not radically different
from hypertext narratives. While this is certainly an important
and useful approach, particularly in its application to pedagogy,
it might also be useful to look at the ways in which hypertexts
are themselves compatible with traditional literary studies.
A close reading of Joyce's Afternoon and Twelve Blue,
and an analysis of the ways in which the characteristics of
these hypertexts--such as reader interactivity, non-linearity,
multiplicity, and unboundedness--are compatible with the goals
and techniques of print texts, will illustrate the difficulties
of determining a precise difference or specific differences
between print and hypertext narratives.
begins with a highly traditional and compelling narrative hook:
"I may have seen my son die this morning." Like the
most effective openings of print texts, this line raises many
questions: Is the narrator's son dead or not? Why isn't the
narrator sure? And what happened? The reader is presented with
several options, in terms of words. The reader can click on
any word, and the word selected will link to a new page, but
no matter which word is chosen, the reader always eventually
returns to the primary path of the story. As the story unfolds,
it is revealed that the narrator believes he saw his ex-wife's
car in an accident; and there were two bodies on the ground
which may have been hers and their son Andy's. The narrator
begins to play detective as he attempts to track down clues,
but of course, there are many obstacles in his way, including
his own status as an exile from the family, the lack of cooperation
he receives from his ex-wife's lover, Desmond, the "half-blind
musician," and the recurring failure of communications
technologies--the latter a tangible example of narrative breakdown.
The narrator attempts to return to the scene of the accident,
but all he finds are impressions in the ground where the bodies
were lying and a paper floating in the wind which turns out
to be a report his son wrote for school.
- The linear
part of the story ends at the point when the narrator decides
to call Lolly. And then the reader is presented with more options.
Clicking on the word "Lolly" reveals an enigmatic
phrase, "Love or death?" When this path is pursued,
some obscure details about the narrator's relationship to Lolly
are revealed, or quotations from literary texts such as Cortázar's
Hopscotch and "Blow Up," or Sterne's Tristram
Shandy, but all these links eventually lead back to the
sentence, "I may have seen my son die this morning,"
and the story begins again--or is it continuing? Joyce also
makes several references to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni,
such as Red Desert and Blow Up, the latter which
is based on the Cortázar story. These quotations, reflecting
the labyrinthine structure of the hypertext itself, include
frequent references to Frank R. Stockton's classic labyrinth
story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" Joyce also quotes
Tolstoy: "[G]enuine drama occurs on the upward or downward
slopes, never at the apex." This quote seems particularly
appropriate for a hypertext in which a reader can move from
slope to slope and avoid the apex entirely.
Douglas and Travis both argue that Afternoon has a definite
ending (Douglas 8; Travis 121), my readings never achieved any
particular climax. For me, Afternoon never seems to answer
the questions raised by its narrative hook, and I was never
quite sure whether the answers existed within the text or not.
But as Nancy Kaplan points out, hypertexts do not culminate
with the unraveling of any plots or the revelation of any secrets:
"How will we know when we're done with the reading? Either
the reader exhausts the text or the text exhausts the reader
. . . hypertext [reading] is never done." Joyce describes
this feature of hypertext in a slightly different way: "Hypertext
is the confirmation of the visual kinetic of rereading"
("Nonce" 580). In other words, Joyce claims that the
questions posed by a hypertext are never answered and that the
reader is never finished reading; rather, the reader is always
engaged in the act of rereading, which is an accurate description
of my own experience reading this hypertext.
is a somewhat anomalous hypertext because, although it lacks
a clear-cut ending, it still contains a clearly defined beginning
which leads into a seemingly linear storyline. One of Joyce's
later hypertexts, Twelve Blue, though, has no beginning
whatsoever. Instead, it presents the reader with a graph of
twelve parallel lines which each pass through eight points on
a grid. These lines are jagged and frequently intersect or overlap
one another. The grid itself provides 96 different nodes which
each link to pages of text. This hypertext also differs from
Afternoon in its absence of any primary storyline. In
place of this linear foundation is the grid itself, sections
of which appear to the left of each page and provide links to
other pages. Unlike my readings of Afternoon, which all
seemed roughly similar because of the presence of a single storyline,
my readings of Twelve Blue were much more varied and
unpredictable. There seemed to be several possible main characters
and several different storylines which all twisted around each
- The first
time I read Twelve Blue, it seemed that the mysterious
drowning of a deaf boy, Samantha's boyfriend, was the central
focus of the narrative, but in my second reading, it seemed
that Javier's discovery of a photograph of his great-grandmother
in Ed Stanko's hotel was a pivotal scene. Although I often read
the same page several times during the course of reading, or
rereading, I was struck by how the meaning of individual pages
changed each time they were placed within a different context.
I read the same page about Eleanor pleading insanity at least
six times before I learned that Eleanor had murdered Ed Stanko--and
that familiar page suddenly took on a more profound meaning.
Through the act of rereading, therefore, the expected became
the unexpected, and the familiar became strange.
Afternoon, Twelve Blue does not contain any literary
quotations; rather, Joyce plays other, more subtle, textual
games. Every page, for example, repeats the word "blue"
at least once, such as "blue cars on the whirly ride"
or "Javier and Beth travel through the Blue Ridge Mountains,"
and the story is full of water imagery. For example, Lisle is
sewing a quilt of the river which is twelve feet by eight feet,
an obvious replica of the hypertext's grid. There is also a
minor character, the wife of a scientist, who drowns in a diving
accident by getting tangled up in seaweed. The narrator muses,
"Life is a river that flows both ways, it doesn't do to
get caught up in the threads the water weaves." Water therefore
serves as a metaphor for the transience of the characters' lives:
Their relationships are always changing, their families quickly
form and then collapse, and their roles are constantly in flux.
The only character who seems resistant to change is Ed Stanko,
a bitter old man, and in my reading Stanko was the only character
who died; the characters who survive all manage to adapt to
the fluidity of their lives.
- This fluidity
is also conveyed through the often confusing use of names. Many
of the characters have more than one name, or have names with
several possible meanings. Beth's name is actually Tevet, meaning
"April," but the name can also be pronounced "Tebet"
or "Tebeth." Javier's new girlfriend Lisle is nicknamed
Lee, the same nickname as Javier's lesbian ex-wife, Aurelie.
And characters often misremember each other's names, such as
Samantha, Lisle's daughter, who always confuses Aurelie's name
with Lorelei (another aquatic reference). Everything seems fluid
in the story, not only the plot but also the characters themselves
and their names.
- The characters
also seem to be aware that the story they inhabit does not focus
solely on them, but rather it merely passes through their lives
from time to time. For example, the narrator discusses Lisle's
philosophy of life: "she had taught herself abandon, taught
herself that they were not minor characters, she and her daughter
[Samantha], but at the center of something flowing through them."
The plot of the fiction does not follow these characters, it
is not organized around them, but rather it flows through them.
The narrative thread the reader chooses might follow one character
for a few pages and then a link will send them off to another
character. These links seem to be a perfect illustration of
Kermode's notion of "peripeteia," the reversal or
turn of events in a narrative. Just as the peripeteia in traditional
narrative is designed to falsify the reader's expectations and
take him/her in unforeseen directions, so do these links falsify
expectations by constantly surprising the reader and keeping
him/her guessing how the narrative will unfold.
also discusses how certain experimental works, such as Jean-Paul
Sartre's La Nausée, had a higher degree of peripeteia.
Written in 1938, La Nausée is constructed around
contingent or accidental relationships between events rather
than cause-and-effect relationships. Sartre wrote this novel
as an episodic work in which each narrative move had no relation
to the last; in this way, he was attempting to write a narrative
which reflected everyday life and human consciousness and therefore
had a heightened "sense of reality." When peripeteia
is taken to this degree, its similarity to the hypertext link
becomes even more clear: Peripeteia, in its purest form, is
a structural chaos which seems to express the actualities of
lived experience rather than the confined limitations of a fixed
narrative. Sartre's use of peripeteia to reflect the workings
of consciousness also supports the claims of critics such as
Landow and Joyce, who argue that the chaos of hypertext links
replicates mental processes (Landow and Delany 4) and/or that
they can be used to discover our own "distinctive structures
of thought" (Joyce, "Siren Shapes" 13).
also claims that the most essential components of narrative
are beginnings and endings because they are connected to the
process of making human life meaningful, of giving value to
the interval between birth and death: "[I]n 'making sense'
of the world we still feel a need, harder than ever to satisfy
because of an accumulated scepticism, to experience that concordance
of beginning, middle, and end which is the essence of our explanatory
fictions" (35-36). While Afternoon does have a definite
beginning, its ending is completely elusive, giving the reader
the impression that he/she is merely abandoning the text rather
than finishing it. And Twelve Blue is even more radically
disrupted: There is no beginning nor end, only a seemingly endless
series of "pages." According to Kermode's definition
of narrative, these hypertexts would fail to help us make sense
of the world and our own mortality because they fail to establish
any concordance between beginning, middle, and end.
acknowledges that there is a connection between narratives and
mortality, although for him this connection does not rely solely
on the presence of a clear beginning and ending: "Either
our lives seem a line in which our reading has ever circled,
or our lives seem to circle on themselves and our reading sustains
us in its directness and comforts us in its linearity"
("Nonce" 580). Rereading, according to Joyce, is not
a unique requirement of hypertexts but rather the standard practice
readers engage in every time they read:
choices change the nature of what we read. Rereading in
any medium is a conscious set of such choices, a sloughing
off of one nature for another. . . . [W]e linger or shift
back intentionally upon a text, making each reoccurrence
or traversal its own new or renewed text, the exploration
of a dark seam of meaning that mere choice seems to illuminate
and (we hesitate to suggest) create for us. ("Nonce"
therefore, not only create meaning for us, but our reading
choices contribute substantially to that process of creation.
Joyce also extends this theory of rereading to the question
of non-linearity and mortality. By drawing on the work of
Hélène Cixous, Joyce argues that hypertext narrative
is still capable of invoking the reader's sense of mortality,
not through the sense of an ending but rather through the
movement between reading and writing: "Cixous seamlessly
moves from reading to writing, seeing in the exchange between
them a recognition of mortality, which is to say the body"
Kermode's claim that beginnings and endings are the most essential
components of narrative has also been questioned by literary
critics, such as Peter Brooks, who have attempted to theorize
the middle of narrative. Brooks clearly agrees with Kermode
that narratives are related to mortality, but he points out
that "between beginning and end stands a middle that we
feel to be necessary . . . but whose processes, of transformation
and working-through, remain obscure" (96). While repetition
has frequently been claimed as a characteristic feature of hypertext,
Brooks argues that narratives are always "in a state of
repetition, as a going over again of a ground already covered"
(97). To explain the function of this repetition he employs
Freud's fort/da game, in which the child reenacts the disappearance
of the mother in order to gain a sense of mastery over an uncontrollable
situation (97). Brooks argues that, like the fort/da game, narrative
is an attempt to gain mastery and assert "control over
what man must in fact submit to--choice, we might say, of an
imposed end" (98). Brooks goes on to suggest that "[w]hat
operates in the text through repetition is the death instinct,
the drive toward the end" (102); however, he also adds
that repetition "retards the pleasure principle's search
for the gratification of discharge" (102). In other words,
narrative repetition drives the reader toward the inevitable
ending, but it also functions as a constant postponement or
delay of this ending, thus giving the reader a sense of mastery
or control over it. Brooks eventually claims that by constantly
postponing the ending, repetition "ultimately subverts
the very notion of beginning and end" and suggests that
"the interminable never can be finally bound in a plot"
(109). Brooks also compares narrative to the process of analysis.
Like analysis, Brooks argues, narratives "impose an end
which yet suggests a return, a new beginning: a rereading."
He also claims narrative "wants at its end to refer us
back to its middle, to the web of the text: to recapture us
in its doomed energies" [emphasis added] (109-110). Although
Brooks does not discuss hypertext, his description of narrative
as a "web" of endless repetitions, which is constantly
being reread, without beginning or end, would seem to suggest
that hypertext narratives with the same features merely reflect
the fundamental structure of narrative itself.
- The only
way in which Twelve Blue might still remain distinct
from print narratives is through its use of images. It not only
uses an opening graphic, which I have already discussed, but
it also incorporates illustrations of a riverbank. Landow and
Delany employ the term "hypermedia" to describe hypertexts
which incorporate images and sound; the promise of hypermedia,
they claim, is that it "takes us even closer to the complex
interrelatedness of everyday consciousness" (7). Such a
practice of hypermedia seems to directly address Vladimir Nabokov's
criticism of James Joyce's "stream of consciousness"
technique: "[S]tream of consciousness is a stylistic convention
because obviously we do not think continuously in words--we
think also in images; but the switch from words to images can
be recorded in direct words only if description is eliminated"
(363). By combining images, text, and sound, therefore, hypermedia
has the potential to replicate consciousness more precisely
than print texts. Nabokov also points out a second difference
between stream of consciousness and actual consciousness: "[S]ome
of our reflections come and go, others stay; they stop as it
were, amorphous and sluggish, and it takes some time for the
flowing thoughts and thoughtlets to run around those rocks of
thought. The drawback of simulating a recording of thought is
the blurring of the time element and too great a reliance on
typography" (363). Hypertext also seems to resolve this
problem by not relying on a strict typography and by blurring
the time element of reading through frequent and irregular stops
and starts. Hypertext's ability to duplicate "everyday
consciousness" can therefore be seen as a natural extension
of the modernist project.
- The characteristics
of hypertext which were praised by Coover nearly a decade ago,
such as reader interactivity, non-linearity, multiplicity, and
unboundedness, can clearly be seen as natural extensions of
techniques and goals which are fundamental to print narratives
as well. However, there remains an understandable urge to define
precisely what is new about the medium of hypertext, or, more
generally, to define the relationship between individual narratives
and the technologies with which they are written and read. For
example, Joyce argues that the question hypertheorists should
be asking is not whether print texts anticipated the innovations
of electronic textuality but rather whether differences in reading
characterize them ("Nonce" 587). The key difference,
Joyce adds, is that the hypertext reader can never go back to
the same text again, and thus rereading is always an "unreading"
which undermines or effaces a previous reading ("Nonce"
589). Tremblay similarly focuses on how hypertext changes the
act of reading rather than its supposedly transgressive narrative
form. "It seems only so much common sense that a message
written with a typewriter . . . differs from the same message
written with a computer" (123), Tremblay argues, but the
only real distinction he sees between hypertext and print text
is that "with the advent of the computer, a populist medium
is for the first time in history both [a] writing and
reading machine" (124). In other words, what is truly unique
about hypertext is that it can only be read with a computer,
and the computer, Tremblay argues, "foregrounds the visual
and auditory to the detriment of the tactile and haptic"
(128). This leads Tremblay to address what he calls the "physiological
dimension" of reading and the tactile qualities of the
book, such as the size, shape, sound, and weight of the page;
Tremblay even goes so far as to mourn the loss of the book's
argument is certainly not new to hypertheorists, and most of
them respond to these claims as simply conservative and reactionary;
Coover even anticipated such a response when he imagined a hypothetical
reader resisting hypertext by saying, "what do you mean,
you can't take it to bed with you?" ("Hyperfiction"
10). However, it seems that a consideration of the physiological
dimension of reading does not simply mark a resistance to hypertext
but rather a valuable insight into the essential difference
between hypertext and print text. Instead of explaining this
difference through the formal features of hypertext narratives,
such as reader interactivity, non-linearity, multiplicity, and
unboundedness--features which fail to adequately distinguish
the experience of reading hypertext from the experience of reading
print text--recent critics, such as N. Katherine Hayles, are
calling for a new form of "media-specific analysis"
which "moves from the language of 'text' to a more precise
vocabulary of screen and page, digital program and analogue
interface, code and ink, mutable image and durably inscribed
mark, texton and scripton, computer and book." In other
words, rather than making claims about the ways in which the
formal features of hypertext narratives affect the process of
reading--claims which can be just as easily applied to print
narratives--media-specific analysis focuses instead on the technology
of hypertext itself and the ways in which this new form of media
affects the physiological dimension of reading. By focusing
on the material differences between computers and books, for
example, media-specific analysis promises to provide a much
more accurate description of the ways in which the technology
of hypertext affects the reading experience and the ways in
which the act of interpretation is mediated by the relationship
between the writing and the reader. Such an approach thus offers
a much more precise explanation of the essential differences
between hypertext and print text, as well as the ways in which
the computer collaborates with the reader in the creation of