- "I Am a Double Agent":Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl and the Persistence of Print in the Age of Hypertext
In the early 1990s a number of academics began to note the potentially drastic changes new media might have on the place of print literature in college classrooms and society at large. Richard A. Lanham began his 1993 look at the future of literature, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts, by wondering, "Perhaps the real question for literary study now is not whether our students will be reading Great Traditional Books or Relevant Modern ones in the future, but whether they will be reading books at all" (3). George P. Landow's important 1992 analysis of the exciting synergy between new media and poststructural theory predicted that print probably will continue into the next century but warned that it "should feel threatened by hypertext…. Descendants, after all, offer continuity with the past but only at the cost of replacing it" (183). As both of these quotations suggest, something new was emerging at the end of the century besides a concern about high culture or the value of literary studies. The material form of the book itself was what seemed to be under attack. Where television or film just threatened to steal away audiences from the novel, hypertext and electronic books seemed capable of making the print form obsolete. For both Lanham and Landow, such a future, one where print is replaced by computer screens, was not only possible but preferable, as the next logical step in the evolution of Western arts and theory.
Before the World Wide Web and the use of computers to combine text, graphics, and sound, the central feature of new media [End Page 84] threatening the preeminence of print was the hypertext link. The hypertext novel emerged at this moment as a promising embodiment of the literary future. No longer constrained by paper, literature could finally fulfill the postmodern vision of plurality and democracy in the classroom (Lanham) or break down the troublesome divide between writer and reader (Landow). Even print novelist Robert Coover agreed that the emergence of hypertext meant "the end of books," as his frequently cited 1992 New York Times Book Review article was titled. Of these first-generation hypertext novels, one of the most widely acclaimed has been Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl; or, a Modern Monster (1995), with Coover in 2000 naming it "the true paradigmatic work of the era" because it makes construction of the text through hyperlinks a central thematic concern ("Literary Hypertext").1 Criticism of Jackson's novel almost unanimously agrees that the most notable feature of the text is the correspondence between the medium and the message. Many critics read Patchwork Girl as a meditation on the fragmented nature of human subjectivity, particularly female subjectivity, a meditation enhanced by the multiple reading paths characteristic of hypertext. The overly enthusiastic proclamations of the early and mid nineties about the future of hypertext literature contribute to this standard reading of Patchwork Girl, tying the importance of Jackson's work to the revolutionary nature of hypertext novels for literary studies in general. However, fifteen years after the first generation of hypertext novels emerged, hypertext literature remains on the fringe of literary studies. The relationship between print and digital media has indeed grown more complicated, as people do more and more reading on their computer screens, but many of the ballyhooed features of early hypertext novels remain restricted to experimental works. In this essay, I will argue for reading Jackson's novel as an increasingly relevant meditation on the relationship between print and digital media, rather than as a paradigmatic [End Page 85] work of a literary movement that has yet to catch hold. I will argue that Jackson's text combines print and hypertext in order to posit a more complicated relationship between the two media—a relationship that leads to a more complex vision of female subjectivity than one attached to hypertext alone.
In 1996, Barbara Page wrote about several female authors who utilized hypertext—or used print in a way that was "hypertextual in principle" (1)—in order to resist patriarchal forms of...