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  • Reveal Codes: Hypertext and Performance 1
  • Rita Raley

Node 1: Charting

The *system* is the art, not the output, not the visual screen, and not the code. I want to let the data express itself in the most beautiful possible way.

—Net artist Lisa Jevbratt, in Alex Galloway’s “Perl is My Medium”

From its very inception, hypertext has had the question of its ontological difference from analog text as one of its core themes. Indeed, from the earlier wave of critics such as George Landow, Michael Joyce, Jay David Bolter, Stuart Moulthrop, and Jane Yellowlees Douglas to the more recent work of Raine Koskimaa, Terry Harpold, Espen Aarseth, Mark Poster, and N. Katherine Hayles, virtually the entire history of hypertext criticism and hypertext itself has played out in terms of this very question. Generally organized in units called nodes or packets and interconnected through links—a syntactic, structural, and distinctive feature anticipated within the visionary labor of Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson—hypertext is stationed upon the problem of itself as a discrete form of textuality.2 Despite its claims for difference and the claims of a great deal of hypertext criticism for the same, I must say from the outset that it is not possible to locate a strict or fundamental difference in the metaphysical sense: this mode of distinction must always be fated and any binary that is constructed between the analog and digital is bound to be unraveled or dissolved. There cannot be a metaphysical or ontological difference between the analog and the digital, and yet it cannot be denied that something different happens when one works with, even performs, hypertext: the difference this difference makes is the problem that concerns me and hypertext itself.

Up to this point, the question of what constitutes a difference between the analog and digital—with regard to language, text, material substrate, modality, reader, or author—has been answered at length in practical, rather than theoretical terms. While a certain reduction is required to do so, we can discern a significant divide within critical commentary thus far between those commentaries holding that the digital constitutes an epistemological break, and those holding that the digital extends, amplifies, or overlaps with the analog, or even that these categories are not adequate to describe textual properties that extend across media. Whether the line between the two is fixed, fluid, or obliterated, the two sides share the same inclination toward practical, functional standards. So, the question of the difference of digital textuality has tended to produce a standard litany of responses, whether in the mode of elegy or encomium:

  • ○ Different media produce different readers, different reading environments, and different reading practices;

  • ○ The book retains a kind of democracy by virtue of print technology and public libraries, while the computer is technologically and economically elitist; or, the digital retains a kind of democracy by virtue of its circumvention of the modern institutions of publishing and circulation, while the book is bound to the elitist institution of the school;

  • ○ The modern figure of the author is no longer a tenable idea in the face of WYSIWYG editors and web rings; or the author persists as an author-function, a juridical category preserved by the renewed attention to copyright and the ownership of digital information;

  • ○ The digital text is non-linear, open while the analog is closed, and interactive; or, the analog is itself non-linear and interactive, from the I Ching and “Choose your own adventure stories” through to artists’ books and the novels of Julio Cortazar, Italo Calvino, and Milorad Pavic;

  • ○ Computers have displaced, even killed off, the cultural authority and relevance of the book; or, the beauty and sensuality of the book can never be equaled by the flat pixels of the screen because the book maintains voice, presence, and materiality;

  • ○ The analog book is the repository of canonical cultural value; or, despite its connection to the archive, the digital book can never be a repository at all, much less bear the weight of culture—it is too ephemeral, too closely aligned with the dot-coms, too prone to fluctuations and arbitrary standards of evaluation and appreciation.

Critical treatment of the discrete and particular...