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Michelle Kendrick - Interactive Technology and the Remediation of the Subject of Writing - Configurations 9:2 Configurations 9.2 (2001) 231-251

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 remediates the liberal humanist subject, the very subject promised as "dispersed" in networked environments. This remediation thus divides considerations of the "subject" from a critical analysis of the technologies of digitalization themselves.

In the past decade, hypertext theorists have crafted two primary ways of discussing the subject in relation to writing. Hypertext, they claim, truly reveals the subject, for it enacts the patterns of cognition in the human mind with its technologically created immediacy and its associative structure. These cognitive metaphors naturalize the subject-of-writing myth: writing hypertext is metonymic with the very workings of the subject's mind. Brilliant flashes of association, long touted as the hallmark of the individual genius, are cast as the infrastructure of information transfer. At the same time, however, theorists such as Michael Heim and Landow claim that the author as subject--print culture's definitive subject--is dispersed and untraceable. These opposing discourses create a strange tension in hypertext theory in which the subject, known during the era of print culture as a producer of texts, is simultaneously naturalized and declared obsolete. Hypertext, therefore, depends both on earlier claims of writing as self-discovery and on postmodern deconstructions of the subject--a curious double logic indeed.

In my second section, I suggest that this "author" paradox culminates in a compensatory rhetoric that reallocates the author's lost "agency" to the reader, who is specifically cast as a consumer of texts. Hypertext theory, in narrating the history of the reader, must claim a technologically constructed subject, both formed and constrained by the less-interactive technologies of print. At the same time, as [End Page 233] proof of the viability of their revolutionary rhetoric, hypertext theorists must reveal an a priori subject, the "liberated" reader. This reader is not created by the technology, but instead liberated by it, and endowed with a newfangled agency defined in terms of consumer choice. This subject--both created by technology and prior to technological intervention--is caught in the dialectic that Bruno Latour calls the modernist constitution. Latour argues that within the myths of modernity new hard-to-define objects, like hypertext, confound the desired division between the natural and the technological. Such hybrids necessitate discourses of purification--cultural narratives that redistinguish nature from technology by camouflaging hybrids, while still permitting the miscegenation of these constructs to continue. This narrative sleight of hand allows a preexisting subject to create, use, and remediate technology while denying or repressing the fact that his or her existence cannot be isolated from a host of technological interventions. In the case of hypertext theorizing, the hybrid is the "natural" subject that, paradoxically, is unknowable except through its technological articulations. Like Bolter and Grusin, therefore, Latour offers a means to analyze the double bind of hypertext to allow us to explore the logic that underlies the values and assumptions of the so-called digital revolution.

The compensatory narrative of hypertext offers the newly empowered "reader" as the third term to transcend this paradox. This abstract reader is free to discriminate among networked texts and empowered to create her own texts through the manipulation of multiple online sources. The dispersed subject, in hypertext discourses, is refigured not merely as a "reader," but as a consumer created primarily through particular "interactive" features of the technology. Such a creation relies on a simplified, gendered notion of interactivity, where "surfing" is equated with critical thinking and reading is equated with consumption--acts that are modeled on consumerist models of "free choice." Furthermore, these rhetorics of interactive reading ignore the fundamentally visual nature of the largest reservoir of hypertext, the World Wide Web. As advertising and consumer-oriented graphic design pervade the Web, a richer understanding of the visual aspects of hypertext is critical to any coherent theory and/or historicist archaeology of new media. As hypertext becomes almost solely the visual technology of the World Wide Web, where the power of e-commerce has captivated nearly everyone--even as the NASDAQ has lost half its value, e-commerce still seems to stand synecdochically for capitalism itself--it becomes increasingly important to interrogate the premises of the hypertext [End Page 234] theorists in order to see where the early promises of hypertext have validity and where we need to reconsider their very premises.

Hypertext and the Subject

Over the last decade, emerging "hypertextual" forums, the World Wide Web, and digital video disks (their increased bandwidth and vast storage capacities giving them greatly enhanced hypermedia capabilities) have all been touted more-or-less successfully as "new" writing environments, calling for revolutionary changes in writing practices. George Landow, in 1992, made the now-familiar claim that these new writing technologies "mark the next major shift in information technology after the development of the printed book"; such technology, he argues, "promises (or threatens) to produce effects on our culture, particularly on our literature, education, criticism, and scholarship, just as radical as those produced by Gutenberg's movable type." 5 Not surprisingly, then, given the connections between writing and identity, these new digital technologies are also the sites of claims concerning new subject formations, claims of a networked self that transcends both flesh and politics.

Some critics writing on hypertext seek a way to keep a political subject intact in order to preserve the notion of writing as a meaningful act imbued with transformative agency. Myron Tuman, for example, explores the relationship between the modernist subject and the era of print technology. In a complex weave of the modes of production, emerging technologies, and educational practice, he claims, the modern subject--that self-identical, coherent, discoverer of the new--was created. Writing in 1992, before the popularization of the World Wide Web, Tuman predicts how current changes in our practices of literacy, fostered by new computer technologies, might come to construct a different kind of subject. Instead of Faustian man, committed to an endless, solitary quest for knowledge, Tuman explains, the on-line subject is centered on a very different set of values--negotiation, collaboration, and diversity:

Online literacy represents a rejection of liberal ideology and its principal valorization of a political and . . . an educational system based on the normative status of the autonomous individual. . . . The literate of the future will be neither the dutiful but unimaginative scribe, nor the powerful but at times heedless intellectual; the computer age will support a new literate, someone committed [End Page 235] to working with others, indeed inextricably linked with them, both literally through computer networks and metaphorically through common causes. 6

The shift posited by Tuman, and by other critics, is from the familiar coherent subject of modernism (however contested that subject has become) to the "new literate": the e-subject, a dispersed, networked, postmodern consciousness that needs others in order to gain any sense of wholeness, and needs on-line connection or a kind of collaboration to acquire any valid agency. 7 Rather than a paralyzing fragmentation or a postmodern deconstruction of the subject, Tuman sees subjectivity reformed in communal arrangements, given new life through the writing practices enabled by computer technologies. Some sense of the subject's agency, however contingent, remains in such accounts--an individual who can define and situate his or her "causes." Variously called community subjectivity, the virtual self, and the fragmented subject, the e-subject is possible only in and through the machine. 8 Tuman sees writing, whether materialized through the technologies of print or those of the computer, as participating in a subjectivity both constructing and constructed by the values of the culture at large.

Other critics on hypertext, however, have been less dedicated to preserving an authorial subject, however reformed. Landow--an early and major theorist of hypertext--claims that hypertext instantiates the dismantling of the subject in writing: "Lack of textual autonomy, like lack of textual centeredness, immediately reverberates through conceptions of authorship as well. . . . One can destroy (what we mean by) the author, which includes the notion of sole authorship, [End Page 236] by removing the autonomy of text"; he suspects that in striking such a laudatory note concerning this dismantling, readers will find his theories, and the experience of hypertext, "simultaneously terrifying and bizarrely celebratory." 9 The alternatives Landow presents--terror or celebration--rest, in part, on the assumption that writing in new media has reversed traditional relations between composition and political context. Writing was once celebrated as the reflection of the uniqueness of a writing subject, and its encoding offered resistance, both explicit and implicit, to totalitarian social forces (think of Orwell's 1984). Now the author, and the printed text she produces, as Tuman notes, may be seen as totalitarian. And so Lyotard laments: "It is the great age of book culture, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries [that] have given us as much terror as we can take. . . . We have paid a high enough price, for the nostalgia of the whole and the one, for the reconciliation of the concept and the sensible, of the transparent and the communicable experience." 10 It is in only by reversing the valence of writing and subjectivity--so that traditional writing effectively imprisons the self in a prison-house of language--that nonlinear, electronic texts are seen as liberating us from the tyranny of print culture.

Hypertext as Remediation

Hypertext, theorists argue, will overturn many of the cultural values mandated by print technologies. Linearly constructed texts, often cast as overly rigid containers, will no longer be the information technology of choice; instead, a more associative, immediate, and "natural" hypertext will reign. In making such claims, Landow and other theorists assume rather than demonstrate the link between hypertext and associative thinking--hypertexts are more "natural" because they are more like the human mind. They assume, further, that this cognitive model, drawn on the algorithmic computer, is all that is needed to understand why such a mode of inscription is better than older technologies. That is, cognition, assumed to be primarily associative in nature, is proclaimed the best model for technologies of inscription. 11 The revolution of print, made possible by [End Page 237] Gutenberg's movable type--and all of the consequent changes accorded to it--is finally being overturned by a technology equally powerful and more naturally aligned with human cognition. Not only do Landow, Lanham, and others simply assume that hypertext is cognitively rich, they also assume a simplistic model of media transformation: old forms of media are relegated to a secondary status when "better" forms are developed.

The ways in which new media are defined with and against prior media are richly explored in Grusin and Bolter's Remediation, a text that situates the Web and other digital forms of communication within a framework that owes much to cultural critics of science such as Latour, Michel Serres, and Donna Haraway. Grusin and Bolter argue that all emerging media subsume previous technologies of representation in order to claim an improved ability to create a more "real" or authentic experience. New media technologies always gesture both forward (to their "advanced" capacities) and backward (to the technologies they supplant) in a double logic that Bolter and Grusin call remediation: "Each new medium is justified because it fills a lack or repairs a fault in its predecessor, because it fulfills the unkept promise of another medium. . . . In each case that inadequacy is represented as a lack of immediacy." 12 Always structured as a solution to or transcendence of the gaps and shortcomings of older media, new representational media claim to improve verisimilitude, to strip away the mechanics of representation and to bring one closer to the presence of an unmediated reality. Ironically, however, improvements in verisimilitude can be evaluated only in the context of the materials and practices of prior technologies. That is, emerging media promise, currently and historically, to eradicate mediation--a promise that can be fulfilled only by highlighting the improvements in the complex of technologies needed to access this unmediated reality. Thus the promise of immediacy vacillates with the emphasis on what Bolter and Grusin call hypermedia: "Hypermedia and transparent media are opposite manifestations of the same desire: the desire to get past the limits of representation and to [End Page 238] achieve the real." 13 The "real," they go on to point out, is itself an artifact of that desire--not a solid base, but an affect of ongoing techno-cultural negotiations.

Hypermediacy is the deliberate showcasing of technology: hardware is celebrated, stylized, and dramatized. A particularly instructive example of remediation is seen in the discourses of Virtual Reality technology, c. 1991-1993. Virtual Reality promised immediacy and immersion in an artificial environment that could be more "real" than our current reality. Meredith Bricken, a Virtual Reality, researcher, wrote that within VR, "technology is invisible, and carefully adapted to human activity so that we can behave naturally"; these spaces are "information forms [which] are utterly malleable; you can be inside worlds patterned after real locations like a city, another planet, or a human body." 14 The goal of Virtual Reality as described by Bricken was to create a human-constructed and technologically enabled real that would surpass, in terms of authentic experience, the real of nature. The profound difficulty of this project, and the extent of VR's achievements, was then emphasized by the celebratory attention given to the "hardware" needed to enter the virtual world. Far from being "invisible," the technology was fetishized: the elaborate headgear, the wires, the bulky glove, and the enormous terminal are a few of the familiar images from the early 1990s that stress the hypermediacy required to enter the real of Virtual Reality.

The history of hypertext theory, like the characteristic model of hypermedia claims demonstrated by Virtual Reality, emphasizes both erasure and intensification. Hypertext claims to supplant the book--as a faster, more natural and flexible mode of information transfer. Hypertext, Landow and others argue, will immerse one immediately and fully in a reality of information, making a vast array of connections and associations one click away in a multilayered information system. Such immersion is promised by the spatial language and metaphors used by both theorists and marketers of new technology, particularly the World Wide Web--consider Microsoft's highly successful ad campaign, "Where do you want to go today?" As the "you" in the Microsoft ad makes explicit, the claims for hypertext as a technology are isomorphic with claims about its effects on subjectivity. To prove that this new forum is "more natural," [End Page 239] faster, and more effective than the book, theorists of hypertext have continually focused on--by either re-creating or dismantling--the authorial subject; hence the claim that hypertexts function more nearly as the mind functions: in a nonlinear, associative, and immediate manner.

In the last decade, numerous theorists have claimed that Vannevar Bush's 1945 prediction has been realized in hypertext writing environments. Even Bolter, prior to his work in remediation, claimed that hypertext's "electronic symbols in the machine seem to be an extension of a networked of ideas of the mind itself . . . the computer reflects the mind as a web of verbal and visual elements in a conceptual space." 15 This model of the mind is repeated as a truism by more hypertext theorists.

Kathleen Burnett admits that the mind has other characteristics than associative linking, but she still insists:

hypertext is, nonlinear, and therefore may seem an alien wrapping of language when compared to the historical path written communication has traversed; it is explicitly non-sequential, neither hierarchical nor "rooted" in its organizational structure, and therefore may appear chaotic and entropic. Yet clearly, human thought processes include nonlinear, non-sequential, and interactive characteristics. 16

She goes on to suggest that the history of "information transfer [is] tyranny against such characteristics." In suggesting that the history of prior technologies can be read as "tyranny," Burnett claims that hypertext, as a new technology of writing, liberates the writing process, removing layers of mediation to reveal more closely the writerly mind. 17 The complexities of technology disappear into the fiction of an unmediated access to an abstract and intentionalist mind. The claim that the "real" of the writer's mind is divulged by these new technologies is an example of Bolter's and Grusin's remediation at work. Burnett's claims celebrate the mind's freedom from the prior constraints of print culture and of the very technologies [End Page 240] that enable a digital realm to "exist." Like the reality enabled by Virtual Reality, however, this more natural access to the "mind" is utterly dependent upon the new generation of technologies; it is not reality, but techno-reality. 18

In this same vein, hypertext promoters have often demonstrated a kind of nostalgia for the unmediated "oral" tradition, going so far as to suggest that hypertext can recapture something of what was lost in the shift from oral to print cultures. Evocative of what Walter Ong would call "secondary orality," Michael Heim, for example, writes that "digital writing . . . recaptures some of the immediacy--the apparent near-identity of thought and symbolization--that characterized oral culture." 19 Digital writing, in Heim's argument, obfuscates the technology that enables it, recaptures orality, and reduces the mediation between thought and symbolization. These claims evoke a nostalgic return to a mythic, oral subject that can "speak" its truth, while eliding the technology that enables this articulation of the mythic subject. This evocation of the "oral," in a context radically disembodied, reflects the desire implicit in hypertext theory for a coherent subject, while it erases the technological mediation that enables such a subject over distance and time. 20

The flip side of these discourses that separate nature and culture can be seen in the more radical discourse involving the notion that technologies of inscription form, rather than merely reflect, human cognition. These claims, first popularized by Ong, suggest that writing technologies--from the alphabet, to the printing press, and to electronic technologies--structure cognition in ways reflective of their materiality and functions. Paradoxically, this evolutionary narrative of the technology-cognition relationship, with hypertext, returns writers to a state of cognition reminiscent of states of "primitive" orality, a more natural--though now achieved technologically--state of mind. This is a classic example of Latourian "purification": the reinscription of the modernist subject and the modernist constitution by repressing the material affects of the technological mediation of "cognition" itself. [End Page 241]

Coterminous with the claim that hypertext is structured, and operates as the mind, comes the seemingly contradictory, but now quite familiar, claim that the subject as author is dismantled and diffuse. The authorial subject, it seems, has "vanished" in network environments. In print culture, the individual book presupposes an author function, as Michel Foucault defines it: "the singular relationship that holds between an author and a text [as] the manner in which a text apparently points to this figure who is outside and precedes it." 21 As texts restructure and blend, as they move on-line, fragment, and reform, so too does this authorial figure. Heim writes: "As the authoritativeness of the text diminishes, so too does the recognition of the private self of the creative author." 22 In Landow's view the author is thoroughly dispersed, so that "the self takes the form of a decentered (or centerless) network of codes, that, on another level, also serves as a node within another centerless network." 23 Mark Poster agrees: "The mode of information indicates communication practices that constitute subjects as unstable, multiple and diffuse." 24 With the author dispersed, it is evident why there can be few discussions of the notion of authorship tied to subject matter, style, or method of argumentation. What is not so clear is why there is not any discussion of the content of hypertext. In many discussions of hypertext, it is the technology alone, as a technology enabling "choice," that drives the new media revolution.

Thus while the cognitive metaphors and the evocation of orality erase the technologies necessary for their articulation, the claims for the dispersal of the author celebrate the technology. Bolter and Grusin's theory of remediation can explain a perplexing phenomenon in many discussions about hypertext: the unwavering focus on the form of hypertext and the utter disregard of questions of content. For example, during the 1999 "Computers and Writing" on-line conference, the moderator began with the question, "What constitutes hypertext?" The discussion that followed was a vigorous debate about what constitutes the technology of hypertext: links versus pages, Storyspace versus the World Wide Web, interactivity versus stasis, and books (as technological artifacts) versus computers. A side debate started when someone suggested that, the huge [End Page 242] on-line bookseller, was not hypertext because of its commercial focus. In response, Albert Rouzie mused on-line:

there are many terms for what are sometimes referred to as "hypertextual" qualities: intertextuality, associative webs, allusions etc. I think it's important to differentiate between qualities of textuality that began with print texts and the material technology of hypertext (however varied). Did J. Joyce write hypertext? No. M. Joyce? yes. Is hypertext? yes. If you point your browser to a web page and the page has no links on it--is that page hypertext? No. If you go to many such pages and use the go menu (in Netscape) as a linking tool, is it hypertext? Hmmmm, I'm not sure. I guess that it is. No electronic link, no hypertext. 25

Hypertext, the object of so much theorizing during the last decade, is here reduced to a basic technological operation: electronic linking. Tuman also notes this strange focus for theorists. "Hypertexts," he charges,

are not really texts at all, not documents prepared by authors to convey a distinct world view to readers; they are systems for storing and retrieving information, in much the same way that an online version of the Library of Congress catalogue is a system for shelving and subsequently locating library materials. 26

One cannot imagine a whole body of theory solely devoted to the operations of the library storage and retrieval mechanisms without regard to what is to be stored or retrieved.

Erasing the author, eliding content, and celebrating only the "click" feature trivializes hypertext. This discourse, typified by the "Computers and Writing" on-line exchange, and the alternative discourse that evokes the subject as "mind," are explained best as remediation. As Bolter and Grusin suggest, the desire expressed by discourses of new technologies is always to move beyond mediation. The author, in the cognitive-metaphor strand of theorizing (where hypertext is isomorphic with cognition), stands as the measure of mediation and thus as the measure of its erasure. In writing environments, the more natural, the more like the mind, the "better" the writing technologies. In the alternate discourse, where the author is dispersed and the reader empowered, the figure of author is refigured as a form of unnecessary mediation, another obstacle to information that "must be free." [End Page 243]

At their core, these dialectical discourses focus on the subject as a measure of the liberatory power of hypertext. Discourses concerning subjectivity are, I maintain, at their core concerned with agency. What the subject is is a measure of what the subject does. These various narratives of hypertext have difficulty expressing what, if any, agency the nascent hypertextual writing subject may have. The discourses that naturalize the subject obfuscate the technology and disembody and depoliticize the subject, while remaining dependent on that very technology to articulate this more "natural" subject. No longer seen as solely the "producer" of text in his or her own right, the naturalized "subject-as-mind" is undermined by the tension created by the implicit, but irrefutable, notion that this subject is always the product of the technology.

Agency in the dispersed-author discourse is problematic as well--for with this model there is nothing produced congruent with traditional understandings of production. Hypertext, reductio ad absurdum, is a technological mechanism: click here, it is hypertext; no links, it is not. Hypertext is thus equated with a keystroke choice, and, as Tuman notes, there is no "text" produced in hypertext. I click and drag; therefore I am.

Latour's theories, in this respect, are quite useful in explaining the self-referential quality and circular logics that are seen in much hypertext theorizing. One of the defining features of the "modern," according to Latour, is that it designates "two sets of entirely different practices which must remain distinct if they are to remain effective." 27 One modern set of practices is the creation of hybrids, the complex merger of the natural and the cultural. The alternate set of practices, which Latour calls the work of purification, "creates two distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand; that of nonhumans on the other." 28 Latour defines the modern as the complicated bracketing, through a play of immanence and transcendence, of the interwoven character of nature and society. He defines this elaborate system of empowerment and denial as the modernist "Constitution" whose work is to enable a proliferation of the very hybrids that it seeks to deny:

To undertake hybridization, it is always necessary to believe that it has no serious consequences for the constitutional order. There are two ways of taking this precaution. The first consists in thoroughly thinking through the close connection between the social and the natural order so no dangerous hybrids [End Page 244] will be introduced. The second one consists in bracketing off entirely the work of hybridization on the one hand and the dual social and natural order on the other. 29

More often than not, for Latour, the latter system of denial is practiced. Such bracketing, he argues, is done through the production of compensatory narratives, which enable the modernist Constitution to continue to produce hybrids while denying their existence.

As I have suggested above, hypertext is a Latourian hybrid. In order to bracket the strange hybridity of this nascent mode of writing, the discourse surrounding hypertext alternates between describing it as a natural phenomenon and as a blatant technological effect (the cognitive model and the hypermediated model). The "author" of such texts is, in turn, reified and dispersed. This subject/no subject dichotomy demonstrates precisely Latour's double constitution of modernism: he has argued that a compensatory rhetoric thus becomes necessary to conciliate the tensions produced by these dialectical discourses. In both, the compensatory constitutive narrative centers on the "reader." Hypertext's hybrid nature is continually elided by the increased focus on the "reader"--but a reader defined as a consumer of texts. Where reading was once seen as an act of absorption--as Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief," where one subjugated oneself temporarily to an author in order eventually to claim a critical distance from which to evaluate his or her claims--reading, in hypertext, is defined primarily through the metaphor of consumption. 30 The consumer is not subjected to, in the traditional readerly sense, but is rather the subject, par excellence.

Readers, Consumers, and "Choice"

Since 1994 there have been various attempts to characterize the World Wide Web as residing outside the marketplace of postindustrial capitalism. Richard Barbrook describes what he believes is the "anarcho-communism" of the Web, which he argues is predicated on a "gift" economy where information is freely offered and free to accept. 31 While it is true that there is an increasing amount of information offered "free" on-line, the increasingly consumerist nature of the World Wide Web, the largest forum for hypertexts, is quickly becoming [End Page 245] evident to even the most casual surfer. Banner advertisements adorn most "serious" pages; on-line auctions--like E-bay and Amazon--now sell everything from Barbie dolls to classic cars. E-commerce on the Web, including business-to-business sales, was close to $300 billion in 2000, up from $7.8 billion in 1998. 32 Forty million U.S. households are projected to be shopping on-line in the next five years. 33

The compensatory narrative of the reader in much hypertext discourse is symptom and agent of an increasing cultural focus on consumption and commodification in digital forums. The consumer is, perhaps, the most theological of positions in this secular society, granted supposed unlimited agency within controlled and selective abundance. Digital forums are seen as instantiating the consumer dream of inexhaustible resources: Lanham enthuses wildly, "Unlike print, electronic texts defies proverbial wisdom. You can have your cake, give it away, then eat it and still have it. Because it is so easily replicable." 34 This may seem the fantasy of a digital Marie Antoinette--but it is this elision of the material by the digital that underwrites much theorizing of new media.

The dream of endlessly reproducible resources, creating a supermall of information, underlies the theories of hypertexual education as well. Marcel O'Gorman describes a hypertext that will "free the reader from the tyranny of the writer who 'imposes' upon the reader's textual experience," primarily because it offers an "array of choices." 35 As Landow explains it, hypertext holds out the possibility of "newly empowered, self-directed students" who are inspired by the interactivity of hypertext to "choice." 36 He sees hypertextual experience as empowering the reader because it includes "associative indexing (or links), trails of such links, and sets of webs of such trails. These new elements in turn produce the conception of a flexible, customizable text, one that is open--perhaps vulnerable--to the demands of each reader." 37 With his admission of the vulnerability of the text, Landow creates the reader as one who can now [End Page 246] "demand" what the text(s) will supply. In this Latourian compensatory rhetoric, the reader is granted the agency lost to the author; witness Sue Barnes's enthusiasm: "Learning text navigational skills transforms the student into an active information explorer who blazes trails through information space." 38

The frontier metaphor of trailblazing constructs the reader as uniquely American; such a "self-made" frontiersman, explorer in a land of unlimited resources, is evoked as well in the rewriting of the subject as reader. Landow, too, "frees" such a subject: "All hypertext systems permit the individual reader to choose his or her own center of investigation and experience. What this principle means in practice is that the reader is not locked into any kind of particular organization or hierarchy." 39 Of course the freedom offered Landow's reader is a radically dehistoricized and disembodied freedom, unaffected by "real world" organizations and hierarchies such as those based on race, class, ethnicity, and sexual preference. 40 Abstract notions of choice, again, without regard to the power structures and ideologies governing such choices, are sanctified as bestowing transformative agency.

The reader/explorer is also somehow granted critical thinking skills bestowed by the act of choice among links. Barnes claims unabashedly that "this type of access to multiple texts improves critical thinking skills because readers can decide if a note warrants careful reading or if the reader should return to the main text." 41 The most charitable analysis of these claims would have to acknowledge that the rhetoricians who celebrate the "critical thinking" skills conferred by the technology are implicitly assuming that readers will come to hypertext already equipped with the higher-order skills needed to forge associative connections. 42 To assume that the technology of [End Page 247] hypertext will bestow such skills is to lift reading from its social, historic, educational, and economic context, to take for granted that the options of pointing and clicking on multiple texts magically confer higher-level thinking skills. Such claims, I would argue, are ideologically isomorphic with claims in postindustrial capitalism that defined democratic agency as choice among products. Lester Faigley defines the postmodern "free" individual of consumer capitalism as "one who can change identities at will because identities are acquired by what one consumes." 43 In hypertext theory, what is consumed is seemingly not important; instead, "identity" is acquired simply by the act of consumptive "choice."

In the hypertext rhetorics of interactive reading, there is linguistic slippage in the term "link." It at once implies a connection that is "meaningful"--that is, one that takes its meanings from the relation of two substantive things linked in some fashion. But in hypertext theory the link substitutes the mechanistic--and inherently visual--nature of the link for the semiotic. The linking system of the World Wide Web is overwhelmingly iconic. Links are suggested by colors, by images, and by image maps. Linking (as reading) here takes more attributes from the reading of popular culture images like advertisements, video games, or music videos. As such, there is no guarantee that the reading done through the selection of links will confirm anything in the way of content or "critical" thinking skills; it is at least as likely that the pastiche of links will evoke an iconic, imagistic, pop culture "reading" that will have more to do with postindustrial consumerism than with critical education.

In the ongoing reformulation of the hypertextual reader, then, traditional print-based acts of reading must be recast as primarily passive. Theodore Nelson writes that a principal point of hypertext "is that the student is in control and may use his [sic] initiative dynamically; the subject is NOT artificially processed into a presentational sequence." 44 Like others, Nelson can characterize print text as "artificial" and passive in order to construct hypertext as dynamic and natural. Hypertext is coded as active--interactive, to be precise--and interactivity is defined in mechanistic, yet transcendent, "click" terms once again. The cognitive act of reading print text [End Page 248] must be seen as much less interactive; only the "click" of computer technology counts. Reading books, in this view, is engaging with a locked-in, already narrated story line--equating books with television, and both with a kind of passivity that John Palattella reminds us is coded as female. 45

The focus on the technological mechanisms of hypertext, glorifying this click feature as natural and dynamic (and masculine as well), once again fetishizes the technology in a strange formula: click = choice = liberation. The decoupling of issues of content from "choice" mirrors current notions of consumerism as increasingly connected to global capitalism. Zillah Eisenstein connects them directly: "Cyberdiscourse operates as a democratic imaginary along side that of the fantasmatic open globe. Supposedly, neither cyberspace nor the globe have a center of power. Neither are defined by local borders. Both represent new democratic communities defined by unfettered individual freedom." 46 Within global capitalism the product is severed completely from its mode of production--what Arthur Kroker calls the "virtual class" moves the site of labor oversees, where labor is cheaply purchased, and American media and politics focus instead on the "democratic" freedom inherent in the choice between products. Thus we have the "promise" of hypertext, decoupled from the author, divorced from content and instead driven by rhetorics that celebrate the "empowered" reader, free to choose from a seemingly infinite array of options. The fantasy of cyberspace is the fantasy of infinite exchange in a realm irrevocably encoded as capitalist.

Click Here for Conclusion

Applying the logic of remediation to the subject as articulated by hypertext theorists during the past decade demonstrates clearly that the subject is primarily apprehensible through the logic of technology. Indistinguishable from notions of the real, the e-subject is constituted in the same manner--caught up only in a play of new technologies to prior technologies, forever compromised in a technological system that can only refer to prior systems, while trying to claim a transcendence from the system altogether.

Hypertext theorists, while trying to "free" information by refiguring the hypertextual authorial subject, inevitably reconstruct the familiar [End Page 249] liberal humanist subject in the position of the mechanistic reader. Latour recognizes this odd dance of deconstruction and reconstruction as the paradox of the postmodern:

Postmodernism is a symptom, not a fresh solution. It lives under the modern Constitution, but it no longer believes in the guarantees the Constitution offers. It senses that something has gone awry in the modern critique, but it is not able to do anything but prolong that critique, though without believing in its foundations. 47

Hypertext theorists no longer believe in the authorial subject, but their theorizing returns, in a modern feedback loop, to the foundational subject that they have tried to dismiss. Latour suggests a way out of the system of modern/postmodern oscillation: the nonmodern. To be nonmodern is to recognize the compensatory rhetorics as prophylactic, as escape valves that divert the power of hybrids into familiar narratives of modernity.

To be nonmodern is to recognize the "networks" that channel creative writerly energies to construct the narratives that we tell ourselves about ourselves--to recognize these networks as far vaster and more complicated than digital networks. As Latour writes,

Seen as networks, however, the modern world, like revolutions, permits scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, minuscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old belief. When we see them as networks, Western innovations remain recognizable and important, but they no longer suffice as the stuff of saga, a vast saga of radical rupture, fatal destiny, irreversible good or bad fortune. 48

When networks, in this rich and complex sense, and democracy are reduced to fiber optic lines and "click" technology--as I have demonstrated in this essay--educators and theorists capitulate to familiar and often dangerous narratives about the self, about agency, and about reading and writing practices. To understand networks in a more inclusive sense requires new media users to see these technologies not as radical rupture, but as both continuation and change--as enabling certain kinds of communication practices, but always still imbued with the ideologies and power structures that continue to influence the most "revolutionary" activities.

Hypertext may well enable very different kinds of writing and different kinds of reading; it was not my purpose here to deny that. My [End Page 250] claim is that electronic media are not in themselves "revolutionary": to understand critically the myriad effects of such new technologies one needs a sophisticated, theoretically informed understanding of "history," "technology," and "theory." In exploring the potential, over the next decade, educators and theorists must be careful not to do what many educators and theorists have done over the last decade: turn reading into consumerist browsing; value technology, in and of itself, as pro forma endowing students with critical thinking skills; valorize "click" choice over critiques of systems of choice; and demean acts of print-reading and the activity of comprehension in favor of a mechanistic sense of interactivity. Instead, they must work to keep visible the complexity of subject formation and its relation to writing. Furthermore, writing and reading in cyberspace have to be taught within a context of the cultural studies of science and technology. This is not to promote a new orthodoxy (Latourian or materialist or feminist), but to provide teachers and students with a vocabulary to extend the insights of a theory of remediation into a critical awareness of their own practices and stances. It is true, then, this myth of writing that says we write our "selves." Rather than write our selves as demanding consumer/readers, and as either naturalized or diminished subjects, I suggest we ask what kinds of selves we would like to write with these new technologies of inscription--complex, partial, local, both connected to and indebted to larger networks of meaning, but still able to critique and change aspects of those networks. To write anything less would be to foreclose the true potential of new technologies.


Michelle Kendrickis Assistant Professor of Electronic Media and Culture at Washington State University, Vancouver. She is a primary author of Red Planet: Scientific and Cultural Encounters with Mars, an interactive DVD published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, and co-editor of Eloquent Images: Visual Literacy in New Media (MIT, forthcoming). In addition, she has published widely on technology studies in various books and journals.


1. Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, pp. 101-108; p. 106. On-line at (accessed June 10, 1999).

2. James Berlin, "Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories," in The Writing Teacher's Sourcebook, ed. Gary Tate, Edward P. J. Corbett, and Nancy Myers, 3d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 9-21, quotation on p. 15.

3. Some of the more recent theorists, such as Johndan Johnson-Eilola, and some of the more established theorists, like Michael Joyce, have also pointed out the consumerist drift in hypertext theorizing. Specifically, see Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1997); Michael Joyce, "New Stories for New Readers: Contour, Coherence and Constructive Hypertext," in Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era, ed. Ilana Synder (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 163-182.

4. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999).

5. George P. Landow, Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, 2d ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 21. See also Bolter and Grusin, Remediation (above, n. 4).

6. Myron Tuman, Wordperfect: Literacy in the Computer Age (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), pp. 122-123.

7. See also Mark Poster, The Second Media Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Polity Press, 1995); Landow, Hypertext 2.0 (above, n. 5); Richard Lanham The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

8. This, perhaps, has always been the case. All writing is technologically dependent--whether the technology is the quill, the pen, the typewriter, or the computer. Computer technologies' participation in deconstructing the subject, in (re)constructing the subject, is both celebrated and lamented. Those who celebrate the computer's role in the shift do so on the grounds that a networked, collaborative subject is better able to adjust in a postindustrial economy, better able to express our global diversity. Surely, the argument goes, such a (fragmented and contingent) subject must be better than the arrogant, earth-destroying self of old. Those who lament the shift believe that the fragmentation strips away the last of our stability, robs our children of the ability to concentrate, and seduces us with information that all too easily replaces knowledge.

9. Landow, Hypertext 2.0 (above, n. 5), p. 103.

10. J. F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1984), pp. 81-82.

11. In fact, research indicates that cognition is not "associative" in the manner described by Landow and others. Davida Charney writes: "The idea that hypertext is somehow more 'natural' or more 'intuitive' than linear text assumes a structural correspondence between networked information in a person's long-term memory and the presentation of information in hypertext network. This assumption contradicts some important, long-standing psychological findings about the organization of information in memory and the process by which new information is acquired" ("The Effect of Hypertext on Processes of Reading and Writing," in Literacy and Computers: The Complications of Teaching and Learning with Technology, ed. Cynthia Selfe and Susan Hilligross [New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1994], pp. 238-263, on p. 242).

12. Bolter and Grusin, Remediation (above, n. 4), p. 60.

13. Ibid., p. 53.

14. Meredith Bricken, "Virtual Worlds: No Interface to Design," in Cyberspace: First Steps, ed. Michael Benedikt (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), pp. 363-384, on p. 371.

15. Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer. Hypertext and the History of Writing (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991), p. 207.

16. Kathleen Burnett, "Toward a Theory of Hypertextual Design," Postmodern Culture: An Electronic Journal of Interdisciplinary Criticism 3:2 (1993): par. 1.

17. Of course, it may be that hypertext is reflective of cognitive pathologies: "In psychology, medicine, and the social sciences, the prefix hyper means 'agitated' or 'pathological.' Hypertext thinking may indeed reveal something about us that is agitated, panicky, or even pathological. As the mind jumps, the psyche gets jumpy and hyper" (Michael Helm, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993], p. 40).

18. See Michelle Kendrick, "Cyberspace and the Technological Real," in Virtual Realities and Their Discontents, ed. Robert Markley (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 143-160. It is also worth noting that the claim that the characteristics of hypertext are also demonstrated in prior technologies (the book, the play, film) is an example of how the process of remediation both connects prior technologies and supercedes them.

19. Michael Heim, Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), p. 113.

20. Poster, Second Media Age (above, n. 7).

21. Michel Foucault, "What Is An Author?" in idem, Language, Counter-Memory. Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 113-138, on p. 125.

22. Heim, Electric Language (above, n. 19), p. 221.

23. Landow, Hypertext 2.0 (above, n. 5), p. 91.

24. Poster, Second Media Age (above, n. 7), p. 32.

25. Alberto Rouzie, on-line discussion from temporary listserv for Computers and Writing Conference, 1999.

26. Tuman, Wordperfect (above, n. 6), p. 75.

27. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 10.

28. Ibid., pp. 10-11.

29. Ibid., p. 41.

30. Paul Ricoeur has called the willingness of readers to "suspend" their own belief system and enter the world of the text "distanciation." Through distanciation, readers appropriate the world of the text temporarily.

31. Richard Barbrook, "The Hi-Tech Gift Economy," First Monday: Peer-Reviewed Journal on the Internet, at University of Illinois (accessed July 6, 1999).

32. Lori Enos, "U.S. E-tails Dropped in Q1," May 17, 2001, E-Commerce Times, at (accessed May 21, 2001).

33. James McQuivey, "Retail's Growth Spiral," in Forrester Report, November 1998, at (accessed July 6, 1999).

34. Lanham, Electronic Word (above, n. 7), p. xii.

35. Marcel O'Gorman. "How to Wread Hypertext," at (accessed June 8, 1999).

36. Landow, Hypertext 2.0 (above, n. 5), p. 209.

37. Ibid.

38. Sue Barnes, "Hypertext Literacy," Interpersonal Computing and Technology: An Electronic Journal for the 21st Century, 2:4 (October 1994), (Washington, D.C.: Center for Teaching and Learning, Georgetown University), pp. 24-36.

39. Landow, Hypertext 2.0 (above, n. 5), pp. 209-210.

40. To be fair, many of these hypertext theorists were, and are, imagining widespread use of a hypertext system like Storyspace, which allows users to annotate the on-line texts they are reading. In 2001, however, it seems clear that the form of hypertext that will be most commonly available for the largest numbers of readers is the internet and its graphical interface, the World Wide Web. Given the impossibility of discussions of content on the Web, the rhetoric continues to rely primarily on "choice" as the emancipatory feature of this technology.

41. Barnes, "Hypertext Literacy" (above, n. 38), p. 28.

42. Myron Tuman writes: "Yet in all this enthusiasm for the liberating power of hypertext, one question goes unaddressed: what happens to future generations of students who differ from Lanham, Landow, and Bolter in not having spent the first forty years of their lives mining the vast cognitive and psychological resources of print literacy?" (Tuman, Wordperfect [above, n. 6], p. 80).

43. Lester Faigley, Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), p. 16.

44. Theodore Nelson, Computerlib/Dream Machines, rev. ed. (Redmond, Wash.: Tempus Books of Microsoft Press, 1987) (emphasis in original), p. 31.

45. Palattella, John, "Formatting Patrimony: The Rhetoric of Hypertext," Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, 23:1 (1995): 13ff.

46. Zillah Eisenstein, Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Lure of Cyberfantasy (New York: New York University Press, l998), p. 43.

47. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (above, n. 27), p. 47.

48. Ibid., p. 48.

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