This work comprises a collection of essays originally presented in 1988 at the Sixteenth Annual University of Alabama Symposium on English and American literature. Its intent is to explore (1) the new forms of literacy made available by electronic technology; (2) the opportunities that “literacy online” affords those who teach and study literature; and (3) more broadly, the implications of new literacies for key cultural ideas, such as authorship, the textual canon, and critical thought, that are strongly associated with traditional print technology. The articles are integrated by Myron Tuman’s introductory and closing remarks and by short roundtable discussions that appear at the end of each section.
Most of the articles take as their focus the notion of the “hypertext,” a multi-layered congerie of literary works, critical commentaries, and contextualizing materials that render immediately accessible to the online reader the expertise that would otherwise be restricted to a narrow elite of professional scholars. Many hypertext programs have been written over the past decade for pedagogical and other purposes, and there is a substantial technical literature on the topic (for instance, the online catalog of the University of California libraries lists more than thirty recent books with the word “hypertext” in their titles).
I shall first consider the range of issues— hypertext, pro and con—that the authors confront in their articles, then attempt to present a somewhat more radically sociological view of these matters, from the perspective of Pierre Bourdieu.
One apparent advantage of the hypertext is that readers may participate actively in its development by manipulating its databases in diverse ways, and by contributing their own writings to it: George Landow argues that to deploy the hypertext as an “open, changing, expanding system of relationships” permits the contextualization of an otherwise fixed central canon of texts, and encourages interdisciplinary team teaching. This he believes to be a “major strength of hypermedia.” Similarly, Jay David Bolter contends that “[t]he reader’s control of a hypertext can be expressed as the ratio between looking at and looking through the text, between the experience of reading the words and the new experience of choosing the path.” While “open relationships” and “new experience” tend to be disproportionately privileged in North American cultures, this seems to be a promising avenue of approach.
Another feature of value is the new nonlinear styles of thought that are putatively encouraged by the hypertext. As Helen Schwartz suggests in her essay, the hypertext may offer both graphic and verbal components, potentially integrating “left-brained” and “right-brained” styles of knowing with the hypertext as “prosthesis.” Pamela McCorduck echoes this: “knowledge of different kinds is best represented in all its complexity for different purposes by different kinds of knowledge representations,” such as those afforded by the computer. Indeed, McCorduck surmises that the new forms of knowledge implied by the hypertext portend a revolution fully as significant, in their own way, as that of the Neolithic. Again, though one may be justifiedly sceptical about the grounding of computer literacy in terms of neurophysiology (a naturalizing gesture that adds little to its understanding), or about the actual, as opposed to the ideal, cognitive effects of secondary orality (pace McLuhan), it cannot be gainsaid that there may be something here worth pursuing.
More contentious, however, are the political implications of hypertext. Some argue that hypertext is politically neutral; Victor Raskin, for instance, states that “[a]ll hypertext does is to present a format, a methodology, a tool for recording the already-established links.” Similarly, Richard Lanham suggests that “the computer with its digital display is no technological vis a tergo but the condign medium for expressing how we nowadays think of ourselves and our world.” Yet matters are not so simple.
By contrast, in support of the non-neutrality of hypertext, Bolter points to the dissolution of standard author-reader relationships, Landow (citing Barthes’ S/Z) to the new...