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  • Nonce Upon Some Times: Rereading Hypertext Fiction
  • Michael Joyce (bio)

That which is reread is that which is not read. The writer rereads and unreads in the same scan, sometimes looking for the place that needs attention, other times seeking surprising instances of unnoticed eloquence that her attention now confirms in a process of authorship. Most often she looks for the thicket, the paragraph or phrase that relinks a vision or reforms it, a vision she put aside or lost, which dwindled or lapsed, which exhausted her or she exhausted. In the process of reading for what she has not written (or written well) she often does not read what she has written well (or not written).

For over eight years now in workshops with writers exploring hypertext fiction I have posed a question about rereading and held my breath fearing an obvious question in return.

Suppose at this point your reader, before going on, has to reread one part of what comes before, I ask.

No one asks why. There are reasons.

For the writer rereading, the question seems to be one of ends. “What happens at the end of a text?” asks Hélène Cixous. “The author is in the book as we are in the dream’s boat. We always have the belief and the illusion that we are the ones writing, that we are the ones [End Page 579] dreaming. Clearly this isn’t true” (98). While Cixous is not thinking explicitly of hypertext here but rather the novels of Thomas Bernhardt, she nonetheless evokes the reader’s experience of hypertext. Hypertext, only more consciously than other texts, implicates the reader in writing, at least by choosing its sequences. Hypertext, more clearly than other texts, seems to escape us before we have it formed into an understanding we might call a reading. It beckons us as it escapes. The writer reading (or the reader as writer) thinks toward an ending but more often looks for transport and escape, a way out that is, after all, another way in. It is as Cixous says:

We are not having the dream, the dream has us, carries us, and, at a given moment, it drops us, even if the dream is in the author in the way the text is assumed to be. What we call texts escape us as the dream escapes us on waking, or the dream evades us in dreams. We follow it, things go at top speed, and we are constantly—what a giddy and delicious sensation!—surprised. In the dream as in the text, we go from one amazement to another. I imagine many texts are written completely differently, but I am only interested in the texts that escape.


Start again.

Hypertext is the confirmation of the visual kinetic of rereading. This is not a good first definition of the form or art, but rather one made possible by a kind of prospective rereading that, given a world in which ketchup bottles have websites listed with their ingredients, assumes the reader has at least a muddled sense of hypertext from the World Wide Web. Hypertext is a representation of the text that escapes and surprises by turns.

The traditional definitions of hypertext begin with nonlinearity, which, however, is not a good place to start, given the overwhelming force of our mortality in the face of our metaphors. Either our lives seem a line in which our reading has ever circled, or our lives seem to circle on themselves and our reading sustains us in its directness and comforts us in its linearity. My own amended definition of hypertext acknowledged the mortality and turned the metaphor to drama while unfortunately adding an element of the metaphysical: “hypertext is [End Page 580] reading and writing in an order you choose where your choices change the nature of what you read” (Joyce 177).

Our choices change the nature of what we read. Rereading in any medium is a conscious set of such choices, a sloughing off of one nature for another. The computer is always reread, an unseen beam of light behind the electronic screen replacing itself with itself at thirty cycles a second. Print...

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pp. 579-597
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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