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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 managed...is
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 hypertext...is 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
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,
mavens, the gypsy cab drivers, the habitual drunks, the little old
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
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
[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.
A note on citation of electronic texts. Elements or "places" in
Joyce's afternoon and Douglas's 1 Have Said Nothing" are not numbered
but named, so references are given by place name. McDaid's Uncle
Buddy's Phantom Funhouse is organized into named "stacks" which
contain a fixed sequence of "cards," end is cited according to that
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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)