- The Text Is Dead; Long Live the Techst
 This is a review of George P. Landow’s book about a phenomenon almost as outlandish in a paper-based culture as scripture must appear to be when it arrives in societies without records. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Literary Theory and Technology is part of a series called “Parallax: Re-visions of Culture and Society.” Steven G. Nichols, Gerald Prince, and Wendy Steiner are the series editors. I think it is a marvelous book, and this essay is meant to prod you into reading it from cover to cover.
Hypertext could be the keystone volume in a graduate curriculum where the rhetorics of networking and screen display are scrutinized right beside those of oral and scribal modes, of scroll and codex technologies. But at least four audiences may still be hostile to it: Curmudgeons who don’t know which upsets them more, critical theory or technology; closet word-processors for whom the concept “programming” still smacks of mind control; theorists for whom Barthes and Derrida and Lyotard are old wallpaper against which background some significant struggles are (at last) taking place; and technophiles ashamed of their access to tools that others cannot afford.
The book itself is not a menace, but the technologies it celebrates—or the still unexplored opportunities offered by the hypertext technology—threaten assumptions so deeply held that most people will deny that they can be challenged. After all, these words mean what they mean, don’t they?
Landow himself issues no directly apocalyptic challenges. No foam around his mouth. His presentation is measured, experiential, lucid, moderate and sensible. He merely points out that the concept “hypertext” lets us test some concepts associated with critical theory, and gracefully shows how the technology is contributing to reconfigurations of text, author, narrative and (literary) education.
As an advocate for the technology Landow describes so clearly, my goal in this review is to tell you enough about it so that you will feel compelled at least to read Hypertext, even if you don’t rush out and invest all at once in the electronic paraphernalia you would need to become acculturated. I will try to describe the phenomenon, and then try to suggest how hypertext demands that we re-place those four self-evident terms. As I perceive it, the technology undermines fundamental assumptions about authority and control of time.
Just what is this “thing,” this “concept,” this technology that has acquired the label “hypertext”? Landow does a good job of explaining it, as do Bolter and Moulthrop and Slatin (emphasizing “Storyspace”), but it’s like trying to describe digital recording to Oscar Wilde or trying to help a fish understand “breathing.” Even readers of PMC need help, I suspect, in spite of their acquaintance with at least two other transforming technologies, word-processing and networking. Not everyone has easy access to the relatively expensive Macintosh platform where most of the writer-artist hypertext software performs.
Please note: We are not discussing the ballyhooed “multimedia” here, nor the pseudo-hypertext built in to the “Help Menus” of commercial software applications. My own experience (limited) is with Eastgate Systems’ “Storyspace” (and a few hours with Ntergade’s “Black Magic,” and a few minutes with Knowledge Garden’s “Knowledge Pro”). George Landow, in sharp contrast, has designed and experienced entire “docuverses” in the “Intermedia” environment developed and installed at Brown University. He has practiced what he preaches, that is. What’s more, he and Paul Delany have already edited Hypermedia and Literary Studies (MIT, 1991), 17 essays whose cluster of perspectives supplements and qualifies the authoritative focus of his 1992 monotext being reviewed here.
Once more, then: What “is” hypertext?
It can be imagined as an endless electronic nesting of “footnotes,” each one enriching all the others, none of them secondary even though one had to be encountered first. You can place them whenever you want, in whichever typeface (or “tone”) you choose, and with whatever coloration you prefer.
Another image is of a book’s...