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Configurations 9.2 (2001) 231-251

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Interactive Technology and the Remediation of the Subject of Writing

Michelle Kendrick
Washington State University

Ideological change is a linguistic conversion that carries with it a reorganization of the self.

--Alvin Gouldner

Vannevar Bush, in his 1945 article anticipating hypertext, argues that the human mind operates by association. Focused on one item, it can immediately snap "to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain." Predicting mechanization that would duplicate and even improve on the brain's associative abilities, Bush explains:

Selection by association, rather than by indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage. 1

Since Bush's prediction, the idea that hypertext is structured analogously to the mind has become commonplace. Hypertext theorists over the last decade have continually celebrated the connection between a technology of links and nodes and the presumed associative ability of the human mind. Despite claims for the "revolutionary" nature of these new technologies, there remains a strong sense, as [End Page 231] James Berlin notes, that writing--even hypertextual writing--emerges "directly from the self." 2 Despite ongoing poststructuralist, postmodern, and deconstructionist critiques, this myth of writing remains pervasive and persists even in techno-rhetorics of hypertext.

I will examine here the paradox of the subject in new writing technologies, notably hypertext and its most prolific, if corrupted, articulation--the World Wide Web. This essay is a concise archaeology of the rhetoric of hypertext during the last decade--an attempt to chart how we have moved from the utopian ideals espoused by the early champions to the consumerist model of hypertextual reading and writing currently, if implicitly, promulgated. It is my contention that theorists of hypertext, over the last decade, have tried and failed to escape familiar notions of a liberal humanist subject that is ontologically prior to its social articulations, and they thus retreat to a default consumerist model. These theorists promise new associative structures that dismantle the author, print culture's definitive subject, and replace this figure with a distributed authorial function. Within these new technologies, they see a plethora of choices for the reader, who will now control his or her own path through the material "interactively." These technologies, however, are frequently treated as though they can be isolated from historical and theoretical accounts of the complex, dialogic interactions between "technology" and "culture." In suggesting that the death of the author somehow liberates the interactive reader, hypertext theorists have offered internally incoherent explanations of the role of the subject within new media technologies, and such theorizing may already be having negative impacts on the teaching of reading and writing--in promoting a view of "choice" that is more indebted to consumerist models than to critical thinking, and in severing theories of "writing" from the contextualist arguments that define the cultural studies of science and technology. 3

In the first section of the essay I use J. David Bolter's and Richard Grusin's theory of "remediation" to show how utopian claims about hypertext demonstrate a paradoxical relationship not only to prior [End Page 232] writing technologies but also to the subject. 4 Bolter and Grusin's theory reveals the doubled logic that permeates the discourse about new technologies--as expressed by authors such as Richard Lanham, George Landow, and Kathleen Burnett; with its emphasis on improved efficiency and speed, this discourse claims that hypertext erases mediation, empowers writers and readers, and increases verisimilitude. At the same time, however, the technology itself is celebrated and fetishized as the "tool" that enables such progress. This doubled logic promises metaphysical transcendence, while paradoxically grounding such transcendence in technology's materiality and specificity. I will show, furthermore, that the process of remediation for new media technologies--this doubled movement of erasure and intensification--inevitably...