Back to index

COPYRIGHT Public Relations Quarterly 1994                             
Date: Tue, 1 Apr 1997 17:39:39 -0700
Subject: Bibliographic records

Bukatman, Scott. Virtual textuality. (hypertext). In Artforum Jan
     1994, v32, n5, p13(2). 

Although the term "hypertext" has yet to acquire the mass-cultural    
(and instantly cliched) cachet of "virtual reality," a growing corps  
is treating it with a similar utopianism. Yet the two modes have      
interesting points of divergence: where VR eliminates language,       
hypertext is based entirely on the sign; where VR emphasizes a        
dizzying phenomenology of direct experience (or the elaborate         
illusion thereof), hypertext emphasizes symbolic representation;      
where VR is sexy and mainstream (Wild Palms, Lawnmower Man),          
hypertext remains the province of Brown University's English          
department (just kidding). A "virtual reality," as anyone not living  
in one knows by now, is a real-time computer-generated environment    
that single or multiple users can inhabit with the aid of such        
devices as Datagloves, electronic bodysuits, 3D Eyephones, and the    
simulation of 360 !degrees^ sound. These instruments immerse the user 
in an environment of data, which might one day represent anything     
from a cockpit or a surgical operating room to spreadsheet figures or 
a Westworld-style vacation paradise. "Hypertext" designates texts     
composed and displayed on computer terminals. The structures of these 
texts are nonlinear (or multilinear): on-screen, the text is          
separated from its physical existence on the computer's hard disk,    
and becomes a malleable, "virtual" text. Through a click of the mouse 
or a touch of a key, one unit of text may be "linked" to another, or  
to a different text altogether: a glossary or annotation, or another  
work by, or influenced by, that author, or even written in the same   
period. Further, these texts can incorporate illustration, video, and 
sound, as well as music or movie samples.                             
In 1945, in the Atlantic Monthly, Vannevar Bush posed the developing  
problem of the information explosion, and the need for a means of     
threading through it all. Since the human mind "snaps instantly" by   
association from one idea to the next, Bush proposed a device called  
a "memex" (for "memory extender")--a kind of giant desk packed with   
oodles of microform texts that would allow a reader to annotate and   
quickly rearrange the retrieved information. Bush, George Landow      
writes, was proposing "what are essentially poetic machines--machines 
that work according to analogy and association, machines that capture 
the anarchic brilliance of human imagination. Bush . . . assumed that 
science and poetry work in essentially the same way."!1^              
Virtual reality and hypertext might be seen as similarly both         
scientific and poetic, and both are similarly concerned with          
negotiating what would otherwise be an overwhelming proliferation of  
data. Each depends upon spatial metaphors. Much of VR's appeal in the 
popular imagination derives from the primacy it grants bodily         
experience--it heightens one's sensorial experience of data--and from 
its promise of fully realized, hyperreal alternate realities (a       
promise that continues to lurk behind most nonspecialist discussions  
of VR). The mapping of a familiar physicality onto unfamiliar systems 
of information transforms the digital into the tactile, reversing a   
process described by Jean Baudrillard over a decade ago. Hypertextual 
systems constitute a different kind of electronic experience,         
remaining largely rooted in the culture of the words. Still, a        
rhetoric of spatiality continues to define the structures of          
hypertext ("readers move through a web or network of texts"), not to  
mention the general proliferation of texts fostered by the computer   
("a vast sea of database"!2^). Jay Bolter maintains that every        
writing technology produces its own "writing space," which is also a  
reading space.!3^ The literature on hypertext repeatedly defines its  
flexible, unit-oriented writing space as a network that challenges    
the linearity of the book, questioning such elements as fixed         
sequence, definite beginning and end, and the ensuing perception of   
unity and wholeness. I'd argue that the reader continues to start,    
stop, and otherwise organize hypertext to produce a sense of unity or 
wholeness, but certainly textual authority has been displaced, if not 
obliterated.!4^ For novelist Robert Coover, an ardent hypertext       
enthusiast, this is a medium in which "narrative bytes no longer      
follow one another in an ineluctable page-turning chain. Hypertextual 
story space is not multidimensional and theoretically infinite."!5^   
The phrase "theoretically infinite" raises another question: the lack 
of closure may be a theoretical strength but a practical weakness.    
Landow concedes that "complete hypertextuality requires gigantic      
information networks" linked more tightly than existing networks.!6^  
A "complete" hypertext, like the perfect simulation promised by       
virtual reality, remains a kind of electronic grail. Descriptions of  
VR deemphasize language to evoke a kinetic, phenomenologically        
heightened field of bodily movement and metamorphosis. This           
depreciation of the linguistic is easily aligned with an              
all-too-prevalent discourse (I call it cyberdrool) that imagines      
cyberspace as a site of Dionysian antirationalist liberation. (For a  
brief but memorable period, cyberdrool was most easily locatable in   
the magazine Mondo 2000.) In this version of the future, VR actually  
poses itself against language, and ultimately, in its solipsistic     
focus on a solitary disembodied subject adrift in the cyberdelic      
fields, against culture and history as well. As VR-developer Jaron    
Lanier writes, "In virtual reality, there's no question that your     
reality is created by you"--a remark that is typical of the rhetoric  
of subjective empowerment surrounding VR. This rhetoric inevitably    
yields to an almost parodic evocation of sublime transcendence:       
"Virtual reality is the first medium to come along that doesn't       
narrow the human spirit."!7^ At the same time, however, many writers  
have stressed the potentially revelatory power of a medium that       
permits absolute control over the objective conditions of subject     
formation. Allucquere Stone and others have convincingly argued that  
VR encourages a new interrogation of Being, as once unalterable       
conditions, such as the relation between subject and bodily identity, 
are suddenly rendered malleable (at least in theory).!8^ If VR may    
become an ontological testing ground, hypertext permits an            
exploration of some of the tenets of poststructuralism, creating "an  
almost embarrassingly literal embodiment" of such issues as           
authorship, multiply centered texts, and the active power of the      
reader.!9^ The rhetoric may be more modest than that of Vr, but by    
emphasizing an active, creative, and free reader who not only follows 
but forges links between units of writing, hypertext, like VR,        
presents itself as a liberating "space" of empowerment. It also gives 
us a breakdown of barriers: between texts, between kinds of texts,    
between reading and writing, and between reader and writer. Yet even  
as it celebrates decentered discourses, multiple authorship, and      
multiple linearities, it still retains and extends the controlling    
power of the individual reading subject. Paradoxes abound. While both 
VR and hypertext designers privilege the individual subject, both     
also make the formation of community an anxiom, and both posit new    
public "spaces"--cyberspaces--to enhance or replace more traditional  
spaces and communities. VR communities will operate in a real-time,   
simulated environment. Users will coincide in time while their "real" 
bodies remain spatially distant. Hypertext communities, on the other  
hand, will "incorporate" (interesting word) temporarily "distant"     
(also interesting) users, each using and annotating the same text     
over an indefinite and perhaps infinite period of time. The most      
active existing cyberspace community, the Internet, combines aspects  
of both of these modes, as users both "chat" in real time (albeit     
without full sensory interface) and post messages and responses for   
other users to encounter at their own pace.                           
Inevitably, as on the Internet, virtual realities and hypertexts move 
together. As real-world limits reduce the scope of VR's ambitions,    
and increased power in desktop computing expands the capabilities of  
hypertext, the two forms will undoubtedly blur together. But right    
now (at least until next Tuesday) the separation between them         
remains. Their merger will generate a synesthesia of data experience, 
one that might finally establish the crucial relation between the     
phenomenological subject privileged by virtual reality and the        
acculturated, historical subject that grounds the hypertextual        
exploration. 1. Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," The Atlantic        
Monthly 176, July 1945, pp. 101-108; and George P. Landow, Hypertext: 
The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology,       
Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, p.    
2. Landow, pp. 11 and 22.                                             
3. Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the  
History of Writing, Hove and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,     
1991. See also writings by Friedrich Kittler on typewriter "space."   
4. Landow, p. 102. Landow grudgingly allows the possibility of this   
organizing activity on the reader's part.                             
5. Robert Coover, in a talk quoted by Landow, pp. 104-105.            
6. Landow, p. 187.                                                    
7. Jaron Lanier, quoted in "Virtual Reality," Mondo 2000: A User's    
Guide to the New Edge, eds. Rudy Rucker, R. U. Sirius, and Queen Mu,  
New York: Harper Collins, 1992, pp. 257-59.                           
8. See, for example, Allucquere Rosanne Stone, "Virtual Systems,"     
Zone 6, 1993, pp. 609-21.                                             
9. See Landow, p. 34.                                                 
COPYRIGHT Artforum International Magazine Inc. 1994