- Narrative Subjects Meet Their Limits:John Barth's "Click" and the Remediation of Hypertext
What good is the ability to choose or perform if the choices available are already circumscribed? Narrative, consciousness, and agency always produce a problem in conceiving of anything other than binary gender, since the very presumptions upon which they depend also already systematically rely upon binary gender as both cause and effect.Judith Roof, "Is There Sex after Gender? Ungendering/The Unnameable"
Whosoever, instead of writing about one's resistance toward writing, really omits writing altogether violates the general intellectual openness and will be eliminated on grounds of antisocial behavior.Carl Schmitt, "The Buribunks: A Historico-Philosophical Meditation"
In this analysis, I return to one of the initial strains of new-media theory, the "first-generation" hypertext theory of J. David Bolter, George P. Landow, and Richard A. Lanham, to examine the theoretical assumptions that led to an overestimation of hypertext and its effects on subjectivity.1 In relying on a constructivist theory of sociotechnological mediation, adapted from [End Page 275] poststructuralism and deconstruction, to explain new media, their work runs up against and evidences important limits to this theoretical framework.2 Most notably, this constructivist approach leads these theorists to extend a print-narrative framework to explain digital hypertext.3 While staking their claims on the revolutionary potential of hypertext, Bolter, Landow, and Lanham actually situate hypertext within a familiar print-narrative framework. Their insistence on the novelty of hypertext is undercut by their simultaneous reproduction of a print-narrative framework and, even more sharply, by their retooling of an instrumental understanding of subjectivity as a form of symbolic mastery or self-authorship, an understanding of subjectivity that this framework helps to naturalize. Thus "first-generation" hypertext theory unwittingly reproduces the instrumentalism at the heart of humanism's hermeneutic model. Although these theorists refuse the hermeneutic model's privileging [End Page 276] of a transcendental, subjective interiority, in privileging narrative meaning in its place, they continue to abstract narrative and subjectivity from any material basis and thereby refuse to acknowledge the transformative effects these material operations have on subjectivity. In spite of their explicit aims, these theorists recontain new media within an instrumental framework for understanding subject-technology relations that is paradigmatic of humanism.
In addressing the limits to these theories of digital hypertext and tracing them back to a set of constructivist assumptions about sociotechnological mediation, I will identify an overlooked opportunity to engage new media such as digital hypertext to rethink constructivist theories of mediation and the print-narrative assumptions they further. Digital hypertext and other new media draw attention to the couplings between subjectivity (itself a coupling between cognition and the human body) and emergent and existing technologies of communication. In this respect, they can equally prompt engagements with the "hitherto underthematized 'hardware' dimensions of communication," to use a phrase Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht offers in his pivotal collection Materialities of Communication. This collection hardly glances at new media, yet the theoretical project it undertakes—a project of reading humanism's hermeneutic model, its meaning and its forms of subjectivity, as products of a historically specific, technological and institutional apparatus or "discourse network," in Friedrich A. Kittler's terms—is clearly furthered, if not wholly prompted by, the attention new media draw to these circuits between cognition, technologies of communication, and various human bodies.4 [End Page 277]
My interest in tracking the significant investment that hypertext theory and a constructivist approach, more broadly, have in an instrumental, print-narrative framework is to insist that new media such as digital hypertext instead provide an important means of reapproaching and marking the limits to this framework and, in particular, to the gender binaries that it reproduces. New media serve as an opportunity for reflecting more rigorously on subjectivities and their transformative relation to various media that is forfeited when a constructivist framework unthinkingly extends these assumptions about subjectivity and subject-technology relations to explain new media. Indeed, rigorous reflection is required in light of the liberal humanist subject's reliance on this instrumental framework to negotiate a highly ambivalent relation to technological transformation. Don Ihde, in his exacting, phenomenological analysis of...