Computers & Texts No. 16/17
Table of Contents
Winter 1998

Review: Hypertext 2.0

Joseph DiNunzio
University of Oxford

The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. George Landow. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Pp. x+353.

'Technology always empowers someone' (273). It is a wonderfully Victorian sentiment, dressed for contemporary discourse. Thomas Macaulay expressed it differently in 1846. Bill Gates could have said it yesterday. George Landow did say it; it is one of the main presuppositions of Hypertext 2.0. Another related premise is that technological election will be heralded by its own visionary high-priests: 'Most post-structuralists write from within the twilight of a wished-for coming day; most writers of hypertext, even when addressing the same subjects, write from within the dawn' (103). This dawning destiny is the book's American strain, its 'electronic Pisgah Sight' (Landow's usage) from which a promised land of textual power and, somehow, other kinds of 'Power' might be viewed. 'Writers on hypertext are downright celebratory', he explains, and with a breadth of utopian thought, he urges us to abandon all doubts and accept its 'revolution in human thought'.

This is a heady mood, one which continues that of Landow's earlier version of this book, Hypertext (1992). Similarly, the second edition gives a basic definition of hypertext as 'blocks of text. . . and the electronic links that join them', (3) which is usually as specific as anyone gets about the matter. In Landow's further elaboration of the electronic new age, however, he continues to assert hypertext's practical embodiment of post-structural literary and cultural theory. Old friends return in Hypertext 2.0 to help cover a familiar ground: Landow's hypertext is 'open-ended' (Edward Said), 'perpetually unfinished' (Jacques Derrida), 'non-linear' (Roland Barthes), 'multivocal' (Mikhail Bakhtin), and of course, 'decentered' (Michel Foucault). Examples from these exciting thinkers assist in denouncing the tyrannical hierarchies of the printed book, the methods of which, he asserts, form the opposite of these theoretical terms and produce the 'triumphs of capitalism'. There is a goal in all this - Landow's repetition of the communal 'we must' makes it clear. The goal is for post-structural hypertext to be at the service of individual power - intellectual but also political - achievable perhaps in some future time when 'all individual texts will electronically link themselves to one another' (49).

Having reached this theoretical and visionary mass, I must admit my own need for greater clarification. Like other contemporary critics, Landow finds in 'the West' and Western printing the source of things fixed, linear, and hierarchical in various forms. At least the first chapter does, and it proposes hypertext as a welcome change from the assumptions of 'Western thought since Gutenberg'. The next chapter is perplexing, however. 'Western culture imagined quasi-magical entrances to networked reality long before the development of computing technology'(37) Which is it, then? If 'the West' is at times hypertextual, then the book's exhaustive claims for the exceptionalism of hypertext are confusing. And if 'the West' has held both notions of a 'unitary' self as well as its contrary (a later chapter rightly observes), then a Western tradition of 'multivocal' thought already applies. Hypertext itself, we then recall, is a Western idea as well; it is shaped by those origins which its pretence to newness can never wholly evade.

There are similar difficulties throughout the book. We are told that the experience of reading print is somehow sequential or 'linear', though hypertext systems 'produce a very different effect, for they allow non-sequential reading and thinking' (82). A later chapter then cautions us that it is actually the other way round. 'It is the text that is multi-sequential not a particular reading path through it' (124). At Landow's contradiction I resolved to abandon the terms 'sequential' and 'linear', though his confusion would suggest that there is nothing at all linear about the 'stream of language' either in print or electronic form, and that the philosophical analogy between one's thoughts when reading and straight lines is scandalously vague.

The ubiquitous term 'virtual' dies a similar death. For Professor Landow, the 'Derridean' quality of electronic text is exemplified by the act of writing with electronic 'virtual, rather than physical, forms' (33), 'electronic codes, rather than physical marks on a physical surface' (20). Later, all texts encountered electronically are 'virtual, rather than real,' and in some cases, 'the reader exper-iences the virtual presence of other contributors' (104). It is difficult to know what metaphysic Landow is engaging with here, though a post-structuralist metaphysic seems hardly plausible. The mark, for Derrida, is the smallest unit of writing which can be (and must be) repeated in the absence of its 'subject'. I cannot imagine that the physical existence of texts on screen makes them somehow 'unreal' for Landow, and his experience of the 'virtual presence' of other writers is precisely what his exemplar Derrida criticises in Western thought. The term 'virtual', used in this way, masks the material conditions of digital text which do have implications for the interpretation of hypertext.

The difficulty of post-structuralism's support for Professor Landow's argument affects every critical term in the book. In hypertext theory as we find it here, the author becomes a 'decentered. . .network of codes' whose 'tyrannical, univocal voice' is dispersed, his 'reduced autonomy' shifting power to the creative reader. Yet another paragraph will find that 'the presence of individual authors becomes both more available and more important', that writers 'have a much greater presence in the system' (104). It is unclear whether the author can be both less important and more important in the contexts given, but I am certain that the 'presence' of an authorial voice is precisely what post-structural theory argues is pure fantasy. Hypertext simply cannot both 'embody many of the ideas and attitudes proposed by Barthes, Derrida, Foucault' and allow authors 'greater presence'. If hypertext 'has no authors in the conventional sense' then the book's defence of their moral and intellectual rights is unnecessary.

What I suggest with these few examples (there are many more) is that post-structural theory only distracts from the book's concerns for the perceived hierarchies of print which Professor Landow would wish hypertext to alter. Although one chapter is devoted entirely to the 'politics of hypertext', Landow's 'electronic Pisgah Sight' runs clearly through the entire book. 'Hypertext does not permit a tyrannical, univocal voice', we recall (36). This is the corollary to the dubious 'technology always empowers someone', and rounds out the idea of hypertext's 'democratizing potential' that 'fundamentally subverts hierarchy' (74). In the eventual linking of all to all, then, the empowered reader-author will traverse and mark the decentred 'docuverse' in egalitarian bliss. But we are thick with troubles here, only one of which is that no network, existing or proposed, is designed to give everyone an equal voice. The fetish of the web may have replaced the fetish of the text, but just as poetry is not capable of saving us, neither can hot-links.

What emerges from Landow's powerful faith, is that its tenets of belief are based almost entirely on his experience of specific pieces of commercial technology, rather than on the structures of hypertext which underlie his fondest assumptions. It is ironic, therefore, that he criticises the 'naturalization' of print culture, the sense in which its operations seem 'normal'. For the hypertextual medium to 'permit us to follow natural proclivities' (8), and to enable users to read 'pleasurably, comfortably, and efficiently' is to naturalise or normalise in precisely the way Landow finds tyrannical in print culture (124). The book is full of information on how to normalize hypertext and even provides prescriptive rules for its presentation. These democratizing abilities are always under the auspices of some commercial system - HyperCard, Storyspace, Dynatext, Microcosm - rather than the underlying codes and structures which have complex implications for hypertext's interpretive or 'ideological' role in the material it includes or excludes. Landow's very brief comments on markup languages fail to address the issue that to name some element <title> or <poem> at the code level is to privilege it in an interpretation. It would be all too easy to design a hypertext system that was indeed hierarchical, closed, authorial, and univocal - that permitted entrance at one point only and could contain only the links provided. Perhaps Storyspace does not behave in so undemocratic a manner, but it is wholly conceivable that hypertext could condone such behaviour, and in many cases it does. Professor Landow's World Wide Web site is one particularly illustrative example of a closed, hierarchical hypertext.

The issue, I believe, is more than information rich vs. poor, or how to get more computers in schools or even network or copyright access. The weakness of the book is that the structure of hypertext is not intrinsically free, open, or innocuous. It is only Professor Landow's particular interpretation of hypertext that might seem so, and it is an interpretation actualised in a rarefied sub-network of an elite American university. If the book's final chapter indeed acknowledges some of the problems which obscure its democratic vista, it is either resting upon that contradiction or expressing a faith that commercial technology will adhere to Professor Landow's idea of liberal progress. I suspect the latter is the case, though this is hardly a comforting faith.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 16/17 (1998). Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

HTML Author: Michael Fraser
Document Created: 25 April 1998
Document Modified: 6 April 1999

The URL of this document is