Where Words Collide
Literature Professor And Information Theorist George Landow Tours The Stacks Of The Web's Expanding Global Library.
By Gregory McNamee
AUGUST 17, 1998:
Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, by George P. Landow (Johns Hopkins University Press). Paper, $18.95.
THE UNIVERSE IS a vast library, said the Argentine writer and metaphysician Jorge Luis Borges. Every book holds a conversation with every other book, countered the Austrian playwright and social critic Karl Kraus.
Nice thoughts, those, and well suited to the spirit of the World Wide Web, which unveiled the promise that the whole of human culture could be linked to form a vast library in perpetual conversation with itself. With the Web, a screen of information--made up of text, graphics, sounds, perhaps someday even tastes and smells--could be joined to a potentially infinite number of other screens to make just that library, to hold just that grand discourse.
If the Web is a universal library in the making, then Brown University literature professor George Landow is, by virtue of longevity, one of the few who know enough about it to give a thorough, guided tour of the stacks. Landow has been theorizing about the possibilities of linked information for many years, and his 1992 book Hypertext has already become a minor classic of the small literature in which literary theory and technology meet.
When that book appeared, the Web was little known outside of government and scientific circles. Six years later, millions of computer users the world over have come to it, and the Web has sparked a publishing revolution that has extended the medium of text, of written words, to include other media in a single presentation; a Web page, unlike a book, can engage more than just the eyes. The new hypermedia are admirably suited to some kinds of information--heavily annotated articles in the humanities and social sciences, for example, in which citations can be followed to their origins; or scientific articles, in which critical comments can readily be incorporated.
Some writers of fiction have been trying to carry out the promise of Julio Cortázar's 1966 multiple-track novel Hopscotch with hypertext, allowing readers to construct alternate endings and even influence the course of narrative, insofar as they can enter a text at many different points. And forward-looking teachers are using Web-based information to construct new kinds of interdisciplinary courses, "interdisciplinary" being an old code word, as Landow writes, for "that which should not be done" or "that for which there is no money."
With the emergence of this hypermedia--which literary scholar Michael Joyce has called "the revenge of text on television since under its sway the screen image becomes subject to the laws of syntax, allusion, and association"--has come a growing school of technology-based literary criticism. Much of it, like so much critical theory today, is trivial and silly, an academic exercise in one-upmanship in which obscurity and obfuscation are held to be virtues. But much else deals with real issues that the new hypermedia raise: the control of information, for instance, and the erosion of textual ownership by a single copyright holder, and the loss of traditional notions of authorship and authority as every text becomes palimpsest.
Landow takes on these issues in Hypertext 2.0, a book
he brands "simultaneously an enthusiastic hard sell, a prophecy,
a grim warning, and a report from the front." His grim warnings
are few, except to his fellow academicians, whom he warns had
better get used to new ways of doing things. His enthusiasm, however,
is nearly boundless, as he exults in the expansion of the author's
role to embrace things like typesetting and desktop publishing.
(Landow's notes on good and bad design are worth the price of
admission.) He is not overly worried about the inevitable confusions
of authorship that an ever-evolving hypertext involves; by its
nature, he writes, hypertext is a collaborative effort that places
any given document in the "virtual presence" of every
other document that's been brought to bear on it--
Landow writes with missionary zeal for the possibilities of hypermedia: "We translate print into digital text and then hypertextualize it for several reasons: for accessibility, for convenience, and for intellectual, experiential, or aesthetic enrichment impractical or impossible with print." But, he believes, the present technology of the Web, which favors relatively one-dimensional HTML presentation, does not do those possibilities full justice; hypermedia demands things like one-to-many linking and multiple windows that languages like Java can better address. No matter. Landow seems sure that the technology will evolve to match the demands of the new medium.
Traditionalist critics frown on hypertext for many reasons. Landow disarms some of them, and his arguments will be of interest to anyone working with Web-based textual information. So, too, will his insistence that the advent of hypertext does not mean the death of literature, or even of the printed book, but merely signals the latest of its many transformations.
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