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Moulthrop, Stuart. Traveling in the breakdown lane: a principle of
     resistance for  hypertext.(Media Matters: Technologies of
     Literary Production). In Mosaic (Winnipeg) Dec 1995, v28, n4,

In the mid-1980s, more than two decades after Theodor Nelson first    
broached the subject of "hypertext" or "non-sequential writing"       
(0/2), computer scientists finally began to implement this concept on 
a broad scale. Among the outcomes of their work is the World Wide     
Web, an international electronic publishing system which realizes at  
least part of Nelson's vision (Dougherty & Koman 9-13). With millions 
of documents and tens of millions of links in place -- numbers that   
increase daily -- the World Wide Web is de facto the most complex     
textual enterprise in history.                                        
Hypertext has arrived: so definitively, perhaps, that in another five 
years the concept may have fossilized into cultural bedrock along     
with the automobile, radio, or the microprocessor itself. Terms like  
"horseless carriage," "wireless communication" and "computing         
machine" seem increasingly quaint the farther we get from their first 
appearance. Very few people move around chiefly by horse, communicate 
only over copper wires (phone traffic goes increasingly by laser and  
microwave), or do complex mathematics in their heads. These           
technologies have familiarized themselves, passing into that second   
nature that McLuhan called the environment of human invention (53).   
It may be, as Jay David Bolter has argued, that hypertext represents  
a decisive shift in the environment of writing (40). If so, we are    
probably near the point at which hypertext will no longer provoke     
much interest. It will simply be the way most writers -- of news      
stories, technical reports, legal documents, business analysis,       
teaching materials -- structure their work. Yet this list omits       
literature. What about fiction, poetry and drama? This essay will     
argue that creative writing represents a special and crucially        
important case, one where the neo-naturalism of writing technologies  
must necessarily break down. McLuhan described artists as a kind of   
racial antenna system (55). Unlike ordinary people, he believed,      
artists are sensitive to flaws and constraints in our second nature   
or re-invented world. In their engagement with technologies, or       
`media' as McLuhan called them, artists reveal the medium's message.  
They probe the limits of the artificial environment. Though creative  
writers have only begun to work with hypertext, their early           
experiments have already produced some important statements, both     
about this inherently disjunctive medium and the fast-forward culture 
from which it springs.                                                
The concept of breakdown -- which will be given a more technical      
definition later on -- suggests a condition of opposition or          
difficulty. This certainly seems to be the case in the encounter      
between hypertext and the literary world, particularly for fiction.   
To some (perhaps most) in the cultural establishment, hypertext       
presents a rather daunting problem. Here is Robert Coover's forecast  
for hypertextual narrative, from a manuscript cited by Landow (119):  
On-line talent wars will occur: [there will be] a need to keep the    
clean and open....Above all, perhaps, the author's freedom to take a  
anywhere at any time and in as many directions as he or she           
the obligation to do so: in the end it can be paralyzing....One will  
the need, even while using these vast networks and principles of      
and expansive story lines, to struggle against them, just as one now  
struggles against the linear constraints of the printed book.         
True to Coover's prediction, the responses to hypertext have so far   
been mixed. While some struggle gleefully against "the line"          
(variously defined), others rush to its defense. After Coover         
declared "The End of Books" in his 1992 commentary in the New York    
Times Book Review, hypertext has turned up with surprising frequency  
in literary discussion. Michiko Kakutani worries that it spells the   
end of responsible writing (B8), while Nicholson Baker decries        
"hypertextual bouleversement" as a scare tactic for terrorizing       
writers and publishers (25). In his Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts  
laments the encroachment of hypertext on his "fixed acres of print"   
Other responses seem less agonized. A recent issue of the academic    
trade paper Lingua Franca profiles Jerome McGann's effort to          
"repossess" literature through electronic media -- or vice versa      
(Johnson 24). Richard Lanham and Jay Bolter have both argued at       
book-length that hypertext carries on the ancient project of          
literacy. For them, the transition from books to electronic webs      
carries the force of historical necessity. These counsels seem to     
carry some weight, at least among those interested in novelty.        
Commenting on Bolter's Writing Space, the pop producer and conceptual 
artist Brian Eno calls Bolter "the new Gutenberg' (12). As Eno's      
remark suggests, there has been even more enthusiasm from the radical 
wing of contemporary culture. Thomas Pynchon refers casually to "the  
do-it-yourself hypertextualist" in one of his rare prefaces           
("Introduction" xv) -- though Pynchon's novels are of course          
important hypertextual precursors. The "media philosophers" Mark      
Taylor and Esa Saarinen think that we should all become               
hypertextualists. As they see it, hypertext and networked             
telecommunications represent a new intellectual order. "If you read   
books," they challenge, "justify it" (Imagologies, `Superficiality"   
We are asked to understand the future in terms of putative            
revolutions, sweeping changes in the way we make and receive texts.   
We must now justify what we have done for centuries. Some (notably    
Birkerts) find this demand unjustified. They would replace Coover's   
forecast of "struggle" with one of decadence and decline. A character 
in Bruce Sterling's recent novel Heavy Weather puts this case very    
nicely, surveying the intellectual landscape of a post-apocalyptic    
There were derelicts who could fit all their material possessions in  
paper bag, but they'd have a cheap laptop and some big chunk of [the  
electronic Library of Congress], and they'd crouch under a culvert    
it, and peck around on it and fly around in it and hypertext it, and  
they'd come up with some pathetic, shattered, crank, loony, paranoid  
theory as to what the hell had happened to them and their                                                              
almost beat drugs for turning smart people into human wreckage. (74)  
Amateur hypertextualists and "novice paranoids" (as Pynchon elsewhere 
calls them) should take note.                                         
Whether or not we can justify reading books, or writing hypertexts, a 
certain amount of doubt seems warranted. As Coover predicts,          
hypertext confronts us with a paradox. To the extent that it          
represents any kind of innovation (the claim is debatable), hypertext 
departs from the hard line of monology, or what Roland Barthes called 
the "classic" text (4). According to contemporary theory -- not just  
the postmodernists and deconstructors, but also response theorists    
like Ingarden and Iser and dialogists like Bakhtin -- pre-electronic  
writing has been moving in this direction for a long time. Writing    
itself allows us to capture the play of language in artifactual form, 
opening discourse to reflection and thus to complication. The         
invention of printing amplified the dissemination of writing,         
enabling the rise of literary markets and professional authorship.    
Hypertext might indeed be seen as a direct extension of these trends  
-- and yet this is where things start to turn paradoxical.            
Bolter's description of our era as "the late age of print" (2) seems  
increasingly accurate. This is a time not of rupture but of           
transition. Print and its cultural influence are far from dead,       
though the Gutenberg age has clearly reached a "late" or belated      
phase. As Harold Bloom teaches, belatedness is an inherently          
ambiguous condition. One is apt to find oneself "in the father        
without knowing him" (3), or if this scene seems too patriarchal, in  
some other ancestral relationship, caught in a matrix of tradition    
even as one seeks to rebel. New technology promises a swerve from the 
level line of literary tradition, a venture into strange new worlds   
of polyvalent, polyvocal form. This swerve is an ellipse, not an      
escape. Our outward movement cannot overcome the pull of cultural     
gravity; so there will be, at some point, a turnabout or return. We   
will not struggle against the line without also struggling against    
the web. If hypertext implies change, it also implies resistance. We  
will not understand either hypertext or the larger cultural           
developments to which it connects without coming to terms with this   
The desire for a resistance to hypertext is a complicated matter. In  
other work, Nancy Kaplan and I have examined this effect both as      
students of the text and teachers of literature. It seems to us that  
the threat of multiplicity in electronic writing tends to turn        
scholars back to their books, while it confronts students, often more 
willing to experiment, with a discursive hall of mirrors ("`They      
Became'" 233-37). One can choose to resist hypertext the way that     
some conservative critics do, by cleaving to print and ruling out any 
engagement with electronic technology. For instance, Alvin Kernan     
proposes mass microfilming, instead of electronic encoding, to save   
books from acidic decay, presumably because microfilm preserves the   
integrity of the book as object (135-36). Words on microfilm stay     
firmly within the fixed acreage of the page; they are not permutable  
as in electronic storage. Kernan's strategy seems misguided, since    
microfilm is hardly more durable than paper over the long run. As an  
alternative, some may opt for half-measures like "electronic books"   
(Yankelovich 134), or "Expanded Books," as the Voyager Company calls  
its products (Smith 8). Such "expansions" put us on a slippery slope  
of innovation. Voyager's electronic libraries include facilities for  
intertextual reference and annotation. Such devices blur and collapse 
the boundaries between works, as hypertext tools tend to do. It is a  
very small step from the electronic book to true hypertext.           
As Kaplan and I have observed in working with students, electronic    
writing complicates literary criticism. A critical project set up     
inside a hypertextual network (and we must think now of the World     
Wide Web) becomes an intimate and integral part of the work on which  
it operates. In its root sense, "criticism" implies a separation of   
one discourse from another; but in hypertext this primary agenda runs 
into difficulties. If one chooses to work in hypertext, one has no    
clear defense against the potential vastness of the network and its   
multiplicity, if not "randomness." Assuming that one does not simply  
unplug the machine, resisting hypertext is no simple matter. Yet it   
does not follow that Coover's prescription is impossible and that     
there is no balance between the demands of the network and those of   
the line. Any such accommodation must be deeply ambiguous, however.   
Before we can take these insights farther, we must first know what we 
are resisting. Consider O. B. Hardison's breezy dismissal of          
hypertext in his otherwise brilliant book on late modernism,          
Disappearing through the Skylight. Hardison conjures up a             
hypertextual edition of Shakespeare's Tempest, a hypothetical         
compendium of source texts, commentaries, scholarly apparatus and     
recorded performances. He wonders: "What does hypertext do for -- or  
to -- The Tempest? Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as it   
might seem to be in the abstract. The clear implication of hypertext  
is that The Tempest is not a literary work to be enjoyed but a heap   
of facts to be memorized or a puzzle to be solved or a mystery to be  
explained....When we `read' in this way, the play tends to disappear  
into the hypertext like water in a sponge" (263-64). This seems a     
devastating critique until one realizes that it is aimed at the wrong 
target. Hardison takes a rather uninteresting example of hypertext as 
typical of all work in the medium -- a serious mistake. His           
theoretical Tempest project represents only incunabular hypertext, a  
hybrid production that is neither electronic text nor book (nor       
indeed play) but an uneasy mixture of all these things. In this view  
Shakespeare's text figures as butterfly in the electronic web, a      
beautiful victim whose vitality is sucked out by academic predators.  
This is regrettable, but also far from universal. Not all hypertexts  
put canonical art in such distress.                                   
Hardison is largely pessimistic about electronic technology in        
general. He believes that 20th-century culture enacts a               
"disappearance" in which nature (whatever that was) is steadily       
displaced by artifacts. We no longer know things directly, we know    
only what our machines tell us about them; which is to say, all we    
really know is our own instrumentalities (1). At the end of this      
process, Hardison predicts, our technologies themselves will          
disappear in a final act of desertion. He cites a NASA researcher who 
claims that with "the rapidity of technological evolution, it is      
reasonable to expect that machines and their descendants only a few   
thousand years from now might be invisible" (341). That is, advanced  
information devices will operate at scales, speeds, and bandwidths    
beyond even our technologically extended senses. They will no longer  
share our ontological level. According to this view, carbon-based     
life is near the end of its evolutionary program -- and also the      
limits of its biosphere (for which see again Sterling's eco-crash     
novel, Heavy Weather). The future lies up and out, in the             
machine-friendly environment of space. The future is therefore        
post-human. Homo sapiens aliquantum will be left behind as its        
erstwhile creations vanish over the "horizon of invisibility,"        
literally disappearing through the sky's light.                       
It seems logical enough, given this Darwinian fatalism, to regard a   
development like hypertext as the outbreak of noise in an endangered  
humanist system Hardison's narrative of disappearance is by no means  
the only one we might apply, however. A sharply different view may be 
found in the work of Manuel De Landa, a technological historian who   
approaches his subject not like Hardison, as an alienated humanist,   
but as a researcher well versed in the military-scientific complex.   
This shift in perspective brings a crucial difference in              
understanding. Being an insider, De Landa knows that the course of    
technological development regularly runs awry. Seeking to consolidate 
its own hegemony, militarized science creates powerful devices, from  
the conoidal bullet to distributed computing networks. Such           
technologies quite often develop in unintended ways, leading not to   
the consolidation of power but to its unforeseen dissemination        
through ad hoc structures, such as guerrilla armies or the Internet.  
Given these possibilities for unforeseen change, De Landa does not    
predict a technological takeover. Quite the reverse: in his view,     
interactive computing tools (including hypertext, which he cites      
specifically) open "the machinic phylum" to human understanding. This 
is the direct antithesis of Hardison's "disappearance." By using      
machines to complicate our representation of nature, we make the      
world around us more richly and deeply present. Interactive graphics  
enable us to discover the mathematics of chaos, enabling a new        
understanding of physical structure. By the same token, interactive   
texts might inspire an exfoliation of language and symbolic           
imagination. Coover's "vast networks" might not be entirely sinister  
after all. De Landa sets an important limit on techno-skepticism.     
"The task confronting us," he concludes, "is to continue the positive 
tasks begun by hackers and visionary scientists as embodied in their  
paradigm of human-machine interaction: the personal computer" (228).  
Seen from this perspective, hypertext represents a much more positive 
development. Yet if we follow De Landa's upbeat reasoning, we have to 
define hypertext differently than Hardison does: as an encounter with 
the "machinic phylum." This means separating hypertext incunabula,    
which do indeed seem questionable interventions into book culture,    
from what we might call native hypertext: productions conceived and   
developed entirely in the electronic idiom. Native hypertexts are     
creative and critical expressions of De Landa's "paradigm of          
human-machine interaction." They use the interactive attributes of    
the computer not to routinize understanding, but to augment our       
potential for inference and expression. Hardison's nightmare of       
evolutionary bypass stems from a common misunderstanding of computing 
machines -- the old cybernetic dream of electronic brains, or the     
robot as a replacement for human workers. To a large extent,          
proponents of expert systems and the "strong" thesis in artificial    
intelligence still cherish this dream (Penrose 17).                   
"Strong" AI, however, lies in disgrace these days, overtaken by       
concerns with self-organizing rather than linguistically determined   
systems, and by a commitment to augmentation rather than autonomous   
mechanism. The recent interest in hypertext, both in the sciences and 
the humanities, proceeds from this epistemic shift. H. Van Dyke       
Parunak, a specialist on the mathematical properties of hypertext,    
has noted that works in this form "offer semantic richness of data    
storage comparable to that used in expert systems. In fact, a         
hyperdocument can be viewed as an expert system whose inference       
engine is not a computer but a human being" (388). Or to paraphrase,  
a hypertext is a sort of quasi-AI in which the "I" is you. To some    
extent this principle is implicit even in Hardison's incunabular      
hypertext; but it finds fullest expression only in writings that come 
after "the end of books."                                             
As Coover suggests, these native hypertexts are mainly (though not    
always) works of fiction -- and as we will see, the term interactive  
fiction should perhaps be understood in two senses: every interactive 
fiction depends upon a fiction of interaction. In English, the idea   
of two-way writing goes back at least as far as Sterne, whose         
Shandean alter-ego claims that "writing, when properly   
but a different name for conversation" (108). The application of      
computers to this eccentric storytelling began with the earliest      
interactive operating systems. Will Crowther and Don Woods of the     
Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory programmed the first      
text-exploration game, called Adventure, in 1976. Adventure in turn   
launched a genre (Hardison 265). Its offspring, called "text          
adventures," became a mainstay of the early computer-game market,     
with several titles, such as Robert Pinsky and Michael Campbell's     
Mindwheel and Douglas Maretsky's A Mind Forever Voyaging, earning     
literary notice and praise (see Pinsky).                              
When the current hypertext boom began in the mid-1980s, a number of   
writers tried to take interactive fiction beyond the deductive,       
problem-solving milieu of text adventures. Michael Joyce's afternoon: 
a story (originally composed in 1985) introduced a major technical    
enhancement. Joyce rejected the pragmatic commands found in adventure 
games ("Go North"; Take gold"; "Hit troll with ax") in favor of       
"words that yield": cues to further development imbedded in the       
language of the story itself. In an encounter with afternoon, the     
reader may find the sentence: "I want to say I may have seen my son   
die this morning." If readers select the word "son," they move in one 
narrative direction; if they choose "die," "I want," or some other    
set of words, they will go another way entirely. Eastgate Systems,    
publishers of afternoon and Storyspace, the authoring system used to  
create it, have developed a growing list of hypertext fictions and    
have just launched the Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext, the    
first journal of hypertext literature.                                
Most work of the so-called Eastgate School resembles text adventures  
in that it is chiefly verbal; but as word-based hypertext software    
has given way to more complex "multimedia" tools, interactive fiction 
has begun to incorporate sounds and images as well. Monica Moran's    
Ambulance (Electronic Hollywood, 1993) brings the esthetic of "adult  
comics" to electronic form. John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom       
Funhouse (Eastgate Systems, 1993) presents the reader with electronic 
sketchbooks, digital photo-montages and audio tapes. Greg Roach's     
Madness of Roland (Hyperbole, 1991) combines verbal text and          
interactive video. None of these fictions makes the literary          
experience "disappear" in Hardison's terms. They do not operate upon  
any prior, printed work. Though discernible stories do emerge in      
texts like afternoon, The Ambulance and Uncle Buddy's Phantom         
Funhouse, the narrative content of the text does not depend upon some 
authoritative pre-text. Literature does not vanish into the           
electronic network, but rather precipitates from it on each reading.  
Although this fact might invalidate the hard resistance of Kernan,    
Hardison, Birkerts, and other mourners of the book, dispensing with   
one misguided form of resistance does not preclude finding a better   
one. Coover's injunction to "struggle" seems all the more urgent when 
applied to native hypertext. In a form of writing that has            
effectively abandoned singular sequence, Coover's worst fears of      
"randomness and expansive story lines" seem to be realized. Native    
hypertext appears particularly vulnerable to elliptical and anarchic  
impulses. The problem for writers and readers alike is both to resist 
and engage its hazardous energies.                                    
Coover suggests that this accommodation will not be reached without   
"on-line talent wars"; and indeed the first salvos have already       
landed. In a recent issue of the Village Voice, Erik Davis attacks    
the "precious literary experiments loved by Robert Coover." Davis     
prefers a more open, improvisational writing space, one whose         
inhabitants can "breed narratives of love and war, and jam like       
improv poets with their chat" (43). This critique was anticipated     
some months earlier by Espen Aarseth, a theorist of computer-based    
writing, who posted this message to an Internet discussion group:     
I am not convinced a particularly strong example of    
how "electronic textuality" challenges tradidiological [sic] concepts 
such as readers, authors, freedom (of print/publishing) etc.          
Significantly, there is very little *free* [hypertext] fiction out    
on the net (George [Landow] making available his students' work seems 
to be the only exception): the texts we discuss on tnc are written,   
and reviewed (and even canonized) in a very traditional way.          
Furthermore, their writers are *authors*, with all significant        
motor-parts intact....Hypertext fictions are novels, both             
and sociologically. To find "the new writing" we must look elsewhere; 
would suggest towards UseNet, IRC, and the MUDs.                      
According to their rhetoric at least, people like Davis and Aarseth   
are progressives, not reactionaries. As avid computer users, they     
have little in common with Birkerts or Hardison beyond a low opinion  
of hypertext. Indeed, they would seem to be the true radicals.        
Aarseth and Davis discount the current generation of electronic       
writing not because it destroys traditional literature, but because   
it maintains some of its trappings. This is a form of struggle        
against hypertext which Coover did not foresee.                       
Aarseth's counterexamples, "UseNet, IRC, and the MUDs," represent     
alternative possibilities for electronic writing. They share the      
post-Gutenberg situation of hypertext, though they differ in          
structure and concept. Unlike the native hypertext discussed above,   
all three of Aarseth's writing environments operate over the          
Internet, that vast, self-organizing assemblage of communications     
systems which might evolve into an "information superhighway." UseNet 
supports thousands of "news groups" on which users exchange technical 
information, cultural opinions, art work, confessions, civic notices, 
political debate, and less decorous things (Krol 238). "IRC" stands   
for "Internet Relay Chat," a computerized version of citizen's band   
radio in which users trade typed messages in something close to real  
time. For our purposes, the most important of Aarseth's alternatives  
is "the MUDs." The acronym MUD stands among other things for          
"Multiple-User Dimension." Thousands of such constructs exist around  
the Internet, including variants called MOO (MUD-Object-Oriented),    
MUSE (Multiple-User Simulated Environment) and MUSH (where the "H" is 
for "Hallucination"). Roughly speaking, these creations grow out of   
the Adventure game: they are virtual spaces constructed within        
computer memory, having the same metaphoric spatiality as hypertexts. 
MUD users move through the space by issuing commands. They may also   
manipulate objects and (most importantly) conduct transactions with   
other users (Rheingold 145-75).                                       
Aarseth's comparison of MUDs to the current generation of hypertext   
fictions seems quite cogent. In many ways, MUDs deliver the same kind 
of textual experience that hypertexts do. Any engagement with a MUD   
involves some level of interactive writing, as the user describes     
actions and receives passages of prose from the program in reply. In  
addition, the MOOs, MUSEs and MUSHs allow users to create new spaces, 
objects, and even simulated persons called "NPCs" or "non-player      
characters" -- a term from role-playing games, which are an important 
source for the MUD subculture. This creative franchise represents a   
significant difference from the sort of hypertext that we have thus   
far considered. Works like afternoon or The Madness of Roland do not  
allow their readers to change the content or structure of the network 
-- though it is true that some hypertexts, such as Bolter's           
electronic version of Writing Space and McDaid's Funhouse, allow      
readers to write within the presentation space. Deena Larsen's Marble 
Springs (1994) invites readers to fill deliberate gaps in its story   
matrix, promising to include some of these additions in subsequent    
editions. Even within hypertext, the lines are blurring; but on the   
whole, literary hypertext keeps the roles of author and reader        
In an important early contribution to hypertext theory, Michael Joyce 
proposed two different modes of interactive writing: "exploratory"    
and "constructive" hypertext. Generally speaking, exploratory texts   
allow readers to navigate through fixed bodies of material, while     
constructive texts represent "structures for what does not yet        
exist," open-ended and contingent forms ("Siren Shapes" 10-12). In    
exploratory hypertext, the distinction between primary author and     
subsequent reader-explorers remains clear. In constructive hypertext, 
anyone is free to change the text. There can be many authors, or      
perhaps it is more accurate to say that no author retains that status 
absolutely. This account distorts Joyce's actual argument somewhat.   
In fact his terms are more continuous than exclusive-even most        
commercial hypertexts retain some traces of constructive form.        
Nevertheless, most ventures in open, collaborative electronic writing 
betray some lingering elements of authorial control; and this         
realization bears importantly on the claims made for MUDs.            
The writing environments that Aarseth likes best -- UseNet            
newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat lines and Multiple-User Dimensions -- 
closely resemble Joyce's constructive ideal. In fact, since both news 
groups and MUDs allow the linking of elements as "threads" or         
"rooms," they might qualify as constructive hypertexts. Aarseth might 
also have mentioned other instances of hypertextual writing           
distributed on the Internet, such as the World Wide Web itself, which 
permits users to create documents whose links span the entire global  
network (Krol 281-82). When Nelson first described hypertext in the   
1960s, he argued for the constructive, not the exploratory model. If  
we remember this, then Aarseth's point seems well taken. The "new     
writing" cannot have authors in the old-fashioned sense. If hypertext 
and other electronic media hold out any difference, it would seem to  
lie in participatory forms, not such traditional offerings as         
electronic novels and monographs. The native country of hypertext     
must be a stranger place than anything we have yet imagined.          
If we take constructive hypertext as our ideal, though, how can we    
construct a principle of resistance? In a writing environment without 
authors, there would seem to be no check on what Foucault called the  
"perilous" spread of discourse. It was to control such an explosion   
in language that Foucault's "author-function" was called into being   
(216). If Aarseth is correct in his claim that "the new writing" must 
be radically non-authoritative and collaborative, then perhaps any    
struggle against the centrifugal force of hypertext must fail. This   
would be consistent with the effect Kaplan and I have noticed in our  
experiments with hypertextual criticism. Perhaps critics should       
simply stop worrying and love the death of the author. Or if we do    
not wish to surrender so easily, we might redouble our scrutiny of    
ostensibly radical electronic writing systems. After all,             
environments like UseNet, IRC, and the MUDs do have discernible       
elements of structure. Many UseNet groups, for instance, are managed  
by moderators who screen incoming material. There are clear           
conventions for turn-taking, greeting, and departure on Internet      
Relay Chat. We can even expect some level of coordination, if not     
deterministic control, in Multiple-User Dimensions.                   
As it happens, Aarseth's claim that MUDs represent author -- free     
zones cannot to be taken at face value -- and to be fair, Aarseth     
offered this opinion not in formal writing but in the spontaneous     
give-and-take of an electronic debate. The MUDs present many signs of 
old-fashioned authorship. In a recent visit to PMC-MOO, a multi-user  
space set up by the on-line journal Postmodern Culture, one of my     
colleagues discovered quite vividly how greatly the demise of         
authorship has been exaggerated. Within ten minutes of logging on (in 
a female persona), my informant had encountered sexism, bullying and  
even terrorism. First she was accosted by another user who insisted   
on addressing her as "lady." Reminded that some women find this term  
objectionable, the user in question replied that "there are only      
three kinds of females: ladies, babes, and bitches." As this exchange 
further degenerated, the garrulous user abruptly pulled rank,         
claiming to have "wizard privileges" and then storming off into       
cyberspace. My informant was initially puzzled by his last remark but 
soon discovered its meaning. Shortly after the encounter with the     
digital ladies man, she came across another user claiming to be a     
"terrorist." This person tossed her a "bomb," which was actually a    
subprogram that placed her in an obscure room in the virtual space.   
She could not leave this room without invoking another subprogram     
which required special privileges on the system. These privileges are 
conferred only on "wizards," users who have access to the coding      
facilities underlying the MUD.                                        
There would seem to be no fundamental difference between a MUD wizard 
and the author of an exploratory hypertext. Both exert control over   
others' movements through a virtual or symbolic space. Both exploit a 
power gradient within the textual construct. Both represent a         
response to Coover's dilemma, the need to limit the elliptical spread 
of networked discourse even as one struggles against the monology of  
traditional writing. This is not to say that authors and wizards are  
alike in all respects. There may be several wizards in a MUD, just as 
there can be many authors in a distributed, constructive hypertext.   
This multiplication of authorship can have important consequences,    
especially when wizards find their interests in conflict. One wizard  
of my acquaintance discovered that another programmer had begun to    
add rooms to "his" MUD, changing the nature of social interactions    
there. In response he introduced a self-replicating electronic kudzu, 
which quickly filled all the new rooms -- and unfortunately the old   
ones as well. The MUD in question went extinct.                       
Stories like these shed some light on our engagement with hypertexts, 
virtual spaces and other kinds of electronic writing. They suggest,   
pace Aarseth, that we may not really want to abolish authors or       
amputate their "motor parts." In these new textual environments we    
may from time to time imagine that the author is "dead" -- long live  
the author-function, distributed and deconstructed but still with us. 
Our new schemes for writing continue to invest power in managers of   
linguistic structure -- albeit a mutable, transient and contingent    
sort of power, given to a class of users who do not map neatly onto   
the old auteur. Any principle of resistance for hypertext must        
acknowledge this transformation, which Michael Joyce has recently     
named "the re-placement of the author." This formulation offers an    
alternative both to Hardison's attack on hypertext incunabula as the  
enemy of literature and to Aarseth's dismissal of exploratory         
hypertext as a form of bourgeois reaction. Hypertext may come after   
"the end of books" (whatever that means), but it is not quite the     
revolution some fear and others crave. Joyce insists that we place    
the author once again within the text, and that we simultaneously     
re-place him/her in a context of difference:                          
Electronic text can never be completed; at best its closure maps      
on point until time is real and the text stays itself, becoming       
print. But                                                            
when a point suddenly fails to map onto itself the author is          
Replacement of the author turns performer to author. The world        
intended by the author is a place of encounter where we continually   
create the future as a dissipative structure: the chance of oriented  
insertion becomes the moment of structural instability, the           
link wherein we enact the replacement of one writing by another.      
In discussing the failure of a textual point to map onto itself,      
Joyce draws deeply on topology, dissipative systems and other         
critiques of spatial reasoning. It would take more space than we have 
here to do these concepts justice. In fact the re-placement of the    
author is probably best addressed in creative writing, not theory.    
For the present critical purposes, it suffices to note that the       
moment of replacement involves "structural instability," or to use an 
idiom from computer science, breakdown. The author is placed into a   
context of incompleteness, stress and dis-closure. In this "place of  
encounter," the author still operates intentionally, creating a       
little world, his/her text or hypertext. Since that world is a        
performance space, however, allowing multiple authors as well as      
readers to occupy the stage, we must understand the author-function   
within a particular situation -- if not under erasure, then at least  
in difficulties (see Douglas, "Where the Senses"). It is in this      
context that we must understand the struggle for and the struggle     
against the line, which between themselves make up the dynamic of     
resistance in hypertext.                                              
Yet practice seems always more revealing than theory. Before we can   
approach these concepts in the abstract, it is necessary to consider  
some particulars. Having re-placed the author within electronic       
writing, it follows that we should glance at least tangentially at    
what some authors do in that space. This requires a digression.       
In trying to create a "new foundation" for software design, the       
cognitive scientists Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores begin with    
the Heideggerian concept of "thrownness" or contingent                
being-in-the-moment. The metaphor they use to introduce this concept  
involves a highway scare: they invite the reader to imagine driving   
along a turnpike in heavy rain and crowded traffic at 55 miles per    
hour. Into this situation comes a large dog who runs in front of the  
car. The incident presents a problem in analytical reasoning (it is   
drawn from a book called Decision Support Systems), but it also       
implies something larger.                                             
"This driver," Winograd and Flores note, "is an example par           
excellence of the thrownness that Heidegger points out in our         
everyday life. We do not act as a result of consideration, but as a   
way of being. The driver's reaction in this situation cannot be       
adequately described in terms of rationality, even bounded            
rationality. His habits or his experience of a prior accident may be  
much more important than any of his concepts or evaluations of risk"  
(145-46). "Thrownness" furnishes a revealing way of thinking about    
our relation to a world of automated and quasi-autonomous             
technologies. The driver is indeed the definitive technological       
citizen -- see the interminable buzz about the "information           
superhighway." According to the science-fiction writer Pat Cadigan,   
we are living through the early days of an "Age of Fast Information"  
(26). We do indeed seem thrown into this frenetic milieu, without     
deliberation or option, and with only minimal reaction time once we   
are up to speed.                                                      
We might reasonably suspect that hypertext, as a popular form of      
writing on the Internet, is implicated in this Age of Fast            
Information. Winograd and Flores's high-speed encounter might thus    
tell us something about our experience of hypertext. Indeed, at least 
one electronic manifesto has already taken up the trope of automotive 
mayhem. Consider this press release by Eric Swenson announcing BLAM]  
Digital CD-ROM Magazine for the Macintosh]]                           
These are the end times and we're playing in the streets] But do you  
what happens when you play with your back to the traffic? Hint: think 
BLAM] Are you just going to stand there and get run over? BLAM] is    
born at the                                                           
point of impact. You provide the meat, we provide the speed freaks,   
the motor                                                             
mavens, the gypsy cab drivers, the habitual drunks, the little old    
lady from                                                             
Pasadena, and other regulars on the DMV's most-wanted list. BLAM]     
manipulate you into colliding with explosive material.                
This is perhaps a good place to stop digressing and resume the        
subject of hypertext and resistance. There is certainly plenty to     
resist in the BLAM] manifesto. These may be "end times," but some of  
us learned a long time ago about playing in the street. Many readers, 
no doubt, will not be pleased with Eric Swenson's desire to run them  
down, treat them as "meat," or fling explosives, like those           
bomb-throwing terrorists of the MUDs. Swenson's hyperventilating      
claims arouse a strong impulse toward criticism in its root sense-an  
attempt to separate this rant from other, less Sadean approaches to   
electronic writing. Yet this response could constitute bad faith. It  
may be that BLAM] and its rhetoric cannot be set apart from hypertext 
literature. Swenson has one thing dead right: this writing is indeed  
"born at the point of impact." Consider this crucial moment in Monica 
Moran's Ambulance: At this point we might reflect on an insight from  
McDaid's Funhouse, words of wisdom delivered by one of Uncle Buddy's  
bandmates: "We have to explore the inner realms of the mind and know  
how to shoot a good car chase" ("The Writer's Brain," card 115). Car  
chases tend to involve collisions; and in such scenes, the collisons  
often multiply. Moran's "instant of demolition" is repeated over and  
over through much of the current generation of hypertext fiction.     
We have already noticed the arresting proposition from Michael        
Joyce's afternoon, "I want to say I may have seen my son die this     
morning." What the narrator means, it develops, is that he has seen   
the aftermath of an encounter much like the one above. Driving to     
work, he passes the wreck of a gray Buick that looks just like his    
ex-wife's car. There is an emergency crew on the scene and two        
covered bodies. Much of the tension that animates afternoon, through  
initial readings at least, flows from this fearsome discovery.        
Similarly, in Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse one of the documents     
deeply concealed in the labyrinth is a newspaper clipping about a     
member of Uncle Buddy's college band who dies when his car skids into 
a tree. Given its positioning in the text and the way it completes    
certain patterns in Buddy's life, this event might be crucial to the  
meaning of the story--though such judgments are hard to make in a     
text without an overt narrative.                                      
Nonetheless, if the car crash in the Funhouse does not unravel that   
particular story, it does seem indicative of an emergent pattern in   
hypertext writing generally. This brief survey might also include a   
fourth text, J. Yellowlees Douglas's "I Have Said Nothing," which     
answers the terrible question, "What happens when a Chevy Nova with a 
280 engine hits you going 75 miles per hour?"                         
-It fractures your collarbone, your scapula, your pelvis, your        
sacral, lumbar, thoracic and cervical vertebrae.                      
-It splinters your ribcage, compresses your liver, kidneys, spleen,   
stomach, intestines, lungs and heart.                                 
-It fractures your skull and bruises your brain.                      
-It causes massive hemorrhaging, throws the heart into cardiac        
arrest, and throws the central nervous system into profound shock.    
Since Douglas, McDaid and Joyce are all inmates of the "Eastgate      
School," their obsessions may simply be variations on a shared theme. 
Since all three live within a certain proximity of Manhattan, we      
might put it down just to New York pavement hysteria. By the same     
token, maybe Eric Swenson's Blam] mentality and Monica Moran's        
obsession with the point of impact stem from similar urban anxieties  
mirrored on the west coast. Why, however, do these fears seem so      
compelling and revealing in our Age of Fast Information?              
Perhaps this trope is not so trivial. The particular "thrownness" of  
which Douglas speaks--the jolting of the victim into "profound        
shock"-might be read as a signature of the hypertextual effect.       
"Profound shock" could describe the conditions from which these texts 
emerge as well as the effect they may have on certain critics.        
Perhaps hypertext is a technology of trauma, reflexively figuring its 
own assault on the textual corpus in terms of insults to the physical 
body. Sterling's 21st-century cynic may be right to compare hypertext 
to certain drugs: like speed (in both senses), hypertext kills. In    
fact Landow actually says exactly this in a description of            
incunabular hypertext. According to Landow, the individual component  
or "lexia" in such a text "associates with whatever text links to it, 
thereby dissolving notions of the intellectual separation of one text 
from others in the way that some chemicals destroy the cell membrane  
of an organism: destroying the cell membrane destroys the cell: it    
kills" (53).                                                          
If hypertext really "kills" the text, then those who care about       
literature can justifiably condemn it--unless this hit-and-run murder 
of the text is not the whole story. Simply condemning hypertext, or   
retreating into crotchety bibliomania, raises certain problems.       
Refusing to look at the crash site does not undo the accident.        
Declining to drive, while a fine civic gesture, cannot really         
insulate us from the horrors of the superhighway, electronic or       
otherwise. After celebrating the death of the traditional text,       
Landow offers a justification: "destroying now-conventional notions   
of textual separation may destroy certain attitudes associated with   
text, but it will not necessarily destroy text. It will, however,     
reconfigure it and our expectations of it" (53). Whether we like it   
or not, we must come to terms with this reconfiguration, or in        
Joyce's terms, the "re-placement of the author."                      
First, however, we will need to revise our expectations. Surely no    
attempt at reconciliation can be wholly successful here. This is why  
Coover predicts struggle and warfare. There will always be an impulse 
to reject the violence of the crash, to restore the broken dignity of 
writing, or to haul the sullied body of the author from the           
collaborative MUD. We could dwell on this restorative impulse in its  
own right, but that is not a very good way to reach a principle of    
constructive resistance. To move beyond "profound shock" and simple   
denial, we need to understand that there is something paradoxical     
about the crash scene. At least metaphorically speaking, some         
so-called accidents are not so accidental. By the same token some     
crashes, though evidently destructive, may actually create new order. 
To unravel these apparent contradictions, we need once again to       
invoke the concept of breakdown. Like "thrownness," this idea comes   
out of Winograd and Flores's encounter with phenomenology. "Following 
Heidegger," they write, "we prefer to talk about `breakdowns.' By     
this we mean the interrupted moment of our habitual, standard,        
comfortable `being-in-the-world.' Breakdowns serve an extremely       
important cognitive function, revealing to us the nature of our       
practices and equipment, making them `present-to-hand' to us, perhaps 
for the first time. In this sense they function in a positive rather  
than a negative way" (77-78). Winograd and Flores use breakdown as a  
conceptual fulcrum in their efforts to shift the ground of software   
design. Dismayed by claims of strong-AI proponents such as Roger      
Schank that computer programs can have actual knowledge, Winograd and 
Flores point out that understanding cannot be captured in             
representations and scripts. These structures can never be            
sufficiently comprehensive. There will always be crucial gaps,        
leading to moments of failure. "New design," Winograd and Flores      
argue, "can be created and implemented only in the space that emerges 
in the recurrent structure of breakdown. A design constitutes an      
interpretation of breakdown and a committed attempt to anticipate     
future breakdowns" (78).                                              
Unfortunately, not all designers understand or honor this commitment. 
Drawing not just on phenomenology, but also on the biophysics of      
Humberto Maturana and the speech-act theory of John Searle, Winograd  
and Flores argue for a deeply contextual view of the world in which   
structures of meaning weave an indefinite web of associations--a      
model, we might note, that recurs in the poststructuralist concept of 
le texte, in De Landa's "machinic phylum," in Nelson's or Landow's    
descriptions of hypertext, in Joyce's notion of "a structure for what 
does not yet exist," and in the World Wide Web itself. The complexity 
of this network defies simple calculation; or to use the idiom of     
cognitive science, "decision space" has no precise boundaries.        
Therefore attempts to link cognition to the tools of technology must  
always encounter (or engender) breakdown.                             
Winograd and Flores cite many instances of this effect, the most      
striking involving Joseph Weizenbaum's program ELIZA, which mimics a  
psychotherapist. ELIZA does not contain a formal representation of    
therapeutic knowledge; in essence the program consists of a very      
clever set of language tricks. Given input of a certain form, ELIZA   
commonly responds with a simple modification of that input. So when   
ELIZA encounters a construction of the form, I am [verb phrase], it   
may respond with the construction, How long have you been [verb       
phrase]? Herein lies a fatal weakness. One of ELIZA's interlocutors   
made the claim, "I am swallowing poison" (121). ELIZA's response      
("How long have you been swallowing poison?") may be a fine piece of  
satire, but the program is supposed to be a therapist, not a          
satirist. This case nicely defines the phenomenology of breakdown.    
By drawing on breakdown as a criterion for technological design, we   
may finally be able to frame a principle of resistance for hypertext. 
There does seem to be a strong thematic coincidence among the         
superhighway metaphor, Winograd and Flores's description of           
"thrownness," and hypertext fiction's obsession with crash scenes.    
Perhaps these coincidences stem merely from what Thomas Pynchon calls 
"our front-brain faith in Kute Korrespondences" (Gravity's Rainbow    
590)-which is to say, they may not be very meaningful in themselves.  
Yet they may point symptomatically to a more significant perturbation 
of the cognitive field. Breakdown seems as good a name as any for     
this primary disturbance. If we are drawn to images of fast transit   
and hurtling machinery partly because they represent our              
not-so-oriented insertion, or our "thrownness" into the Age of Fast   
Information, then perhaps we should see where that "Korrespondence"   
leads. We might theorize that we are obsessed with the image of the   
crash, particularly in interactive text, because it tells us          
something deeply important about our mad futurity. If Winograd and    
Flores are right, technology evolves only through the experience of   
breakdown. There must be Roger Schanks and ELIZAs in the world, and   
they must make their audacious claims, which must contain serious     
errors and thus lead to mortifying failures. At the same time, we     
recognize these errors, coming to understand our technological        
systems as fundamentally--even positively--unreliable                 
In this last insight lies our principle of resistance. Hypertext      
fictions are rife with collision, impact and the scattering of "motor 
parts" all over the roadway. Perhaps these images are so pervasive    
precisely because hypertext fiction enacts and incorporates the       
principle of breakdown. Much like Weizenbaum's ELIZA, works like      
Joyce's afternoon, Moran's Ambulance and my own Victory Garden        
implicitly claim multiplicity, or at least "a semantic richness of    
data storage comparable to that found in expert systems." The         
hypertext pretends to be a mental world made cunningly. In his        
introduction to afternoon, Joyce claims that in his text "we match    
minds" ("in my mind"). As Terence Harpold has observed, however, this 
putative encounter more often than not turns into a mismatch, an      
instance of wandering or error in the deepest sense (132).            
Under "re-placement," the hypertext author cannot know how his work   
will resonate against the particular "thrownness" of a given reader.  
Readers who choose the yield word "die" in afternoon may be dismayed  
to find that the connections running through their minds (the die is  
cast; Un coup de de's; dies irae) are not realized at the point of    
arrival, which simply describes a car wreck. The link in this sense   
is usually--or always, at some level of abstraction--a detour         
(Harpold 129). No doubt something of this sort happens in             
conventional writing also, but books do not involve the same          
"oriented insertion" as electronic texts. At any and perhaps every    
interstice in a hypertext, the technological situation opens itself   
to breakdown. To read these texts is to encounter, in series and at   
depth, the same deconstruction of authority that takes place between  
ELIZA and the self-described suicide. The program does not answer our 
expectations. It violates our sense of commitment, at least to the    
extent that this is defined in terms of what Joyce calls a "selfish   
interaction," or an assumption that the story really does exist to    
please us ("Selfish" 80-81). Breakdowns always teach us something. In 
this case we learn that there is an author here after all, and an     
egotistical and opinionated one at that, making hypertext fiction     
look like a true branch off the Shandean tree.                        
The term "deconstruction" is not used idly here. There is a           
self-revising double logic inherent in the fiction of interaction     
that underlies interactive fiction. Its principles may be asserted    
only under the mark of their own erasure. The author is present but   
re-placed. The promised but frustrated multiplicity of exploratory    
hypertext opens inevitably into the seductive possibilities of the    
Internet and constructive hypertext. Displeased by the "backslidings" 
of the Eastgate School, some will "sprawl" in the MUD's "much mire,"  
as Robert Browning might have said. Principles of randomness and      
expansive story lines beckon--and so we come back to the point at     
which this discussion began: Coover's forecast of a contentious       
future for electronic writing. We have been trying to evolve a        
resistance which will both endorse and oppose the essential           
promiscuity of hypertext--its tendency to mix things up. The concept  
of breakdown seems to help in this, though much more needs to be said 
about how breakdown may be applied in electronic reading and writing. 
It might be objected that concentrating on breakdown as a limit to    
multiplicity slights the legitimate pleasures of the web, moments     
when a contingent order manifests itself from the chaos of            
possibilities. The point is well taken. Hypertextual breakdown should 
not signify a compromise with the line but a continuation of          
struggle. The pleasures of the web are real. They are also fragile.   
This fragility--both the effect and the cause of breakdown--seems to  
be an enduring feature of the landscape. Scott Bukatman quotes Coover 
to the effect that "[h]ypertextual story space is now                 
multidimensional and theoretically infinite." Bukatman finds the      
remark provocative. "The phrase `theoretically infinite' raises       
another question," he notes. "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. A `complete' hypertext,   
like the perfect simulation promised by virtual reality, remains a    
kind of electronic grail" (13). Like the argument for pleasure in the 
web, this is an important objection.                                  
One could adduce Gravity's Rainbow as evidence of what happened to    
grail quests in the 1960s, but that would be another story. Suffice   
it to say that we no longer expect to arrive at a Holy Center, though 
we may come in the fullness of time to the Dark Tower or some other   
scene of success-through-failure. Anyone who understands the ways of  
native hypertext knows that the point is not to struggle against      
hypertext. Rather the act of reading in hypertext is constituted as   
struggle: a chapter of chances, a chain of detours, a series of       
revealing failures in commitment out of which come the pleasures of   
the web, or the text. We must understand hypertext as an information  
highway where every lane is reserved for breakdowns, a demolition     
epic in which the vehicles continually come apart. Some of us may not 
be interested in a "complete" hypertext--indeed certainly not in a    
"complete" evocation of virtual reality or any other technological    
"enframing." As P. Michael Heim pointed out some time ago, we must    
worry about a monolithic drift tending toward "an all-enframing       
technology ... which points to the reduction of the metaphorical      
powers of language to a single aspect of information management"      
(72). Give us this day our daily breakdown rather than any such       
sinister success.(*)                                                  
[Figure ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]                                         
(*) In my thinking in this essay I owe debts to three colleagues. In  
the spring of 1993, I read J. Yellowlees Douglas's fiction, "I Have   
Said Nothing," which started me thinking about crash esthetics in     
hypertext. That summer, Terence Harpold suggested in correspondence   
that J. G. Ballard's Crash might have some bearing on hypertext       
fiction. Espen Aarseth's "motor parts" remark, coming shortly         
afterward, stimulated me to put it all together.                      
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR                                                      
STUART MOULTHROP is Associate Professor of Communications Design at   
the University of Baltimore and co-editor of the journal Postmodern   
Culture. He has published numerous articles and technical papers on   
electronic writing, as well as the hypertext fictions Victory Garden  
(1991) and Hegirascope (1995).                                        
COPYRIGHT 1995 Mosaic (Canada)