Part I. Hyperfiction theory


Defining hypertext: 'Death of the Author'

What makes hypertext as such different from 'ordinary' text? What effect does the altered concept and perception of text have on the process of the reading and understanding of text ? These are the questions that the majority of hypertext writers devote most of their 'writing space' to investigating and answering, and I will briefly try to summarise and outline some of these answers, so far making no distinction between the kind of hypertext that is made up of factual information and the kind of hypertext that is made up of fictional prose. [3]

First and foremost, hypertext in general introduces a new mode of thinking textual structure. The process of linking lexias, (alternate names for the individual unit of text that is being linked) in a hypertextual web proceeds from a combinatory thinking based on associative rather than causal ordering. Hence, a link which may, for instance, be whatever word, image or discursive 'unit' in a given lexia, leading to another 'lexia' which can be a prose comment on the preceding text, an image that explains a detail further, a poem that is placed there because a sentence in the previous lexia has made the 'author' think of this poem and so forth. In principle, there are naturally no limits to the numbers of and nature of the links that can be embedded in a particular lexia.
This 'chaotic' way of structuring the text as a whole logically makes the reader's choices of links the more important when it comes to actually ascribing order and meaning to any hypertextual reading. Since the text no longer presents the reader with a clearly structured, hierarchic ordering of the reading process, 'order' and 'hierarchy' can only be imposed by the reader herself. Consequently, one might say that the particular reader's choices of links are the reading. Accordingly, an almost infinite variety of readings of an individual hypertext is possible, since the reader can choose to 'read' his way through a new 'trail' of links every time he enters the storyweb.

From this point of view, one might say that in hypertextual reading, active readership predominates over the more 'passive' readership of printed fictions, in which the reader is a more or less witness to the temporal, causal unfolding of story.[4]. In other words, one might say that in hypertexts what counts is no longer the 'result' or content of the reading, but rather the process of reading in itself.

Obviously, reading a book of fiction has always been a process that asked for the reader's active participation in the creation of the content of the text and, especially in this century, both literary theory and modern literary fiction have from various viewpoints been discussing and examining how 'making sense' positively depends on the reader's inscriptions in and on the text at hand. The 'schools' of Reader-Response criticism (Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish), Deconstruction (Jacques Derrida), Psychoanalysis (Julia Kristeva), Semiotics (Umberto Eco and his theory of the 'open work') spring to mind as well as the writings by Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, Italo Calvino, Julio Cortazar, the group of French Nouveau Roman writers and logically, it is also these thinkers and writers that the hypertext theorists look to, when they look for theoretical validation and literary inspiration in 'the past'.[5]Hence, the statement that hypertext offers its reader much more author-ity than the printed literary texts needs further qualification. Thus, I find it worth noting that hypertext's authoritative empowerment of the reader is made possible only by the fact that he or she is able to interact physically with the text. The text must present the reader with a choice of links in the first place and then assimilate itself to the reader's 'input' (most often in the form of a 'click' with the mouse or a press on the 'Return'-key).

True interaction implies that the user corresponds to the system at least as often as the system responds to the user and, more important, that initiatives taken by either user or system alter the behaviour of the other (Michael Joyce, Of Two Minds, p. 135)[6]

Hence, interaction ideally conceived of as equal exchange between reader and 'system' (the reader as interactor) becomes essential for the development of a hypertext 'aesthetics', since the degree and variety of interaction made available to the reader invariably frames the outcome and experience of the reading process and, in continuation of this, the eventual experience of the meaning 'extracted' from a particular reading. [7]. Not surprisingly, one will therefore find that latent assumptions of what 'good' or 'true' interaction is, informs many of the theoretical discussions of hypertextuality, including those I will be examining later in this chapter.

Finally, among those effects of hypertextual reading that are of relevance to a literary approach to the subject, is the altered nature of the experience of narrative, especially those aspects that pertain to the construction of narrative (i.e. story and narrative content). Since every reading is different and, furthermore, since, in theory, every reading can take its vantage point in whatever lexia is preferred, one can no longer talk of a closure of story or 'final' reading. There is no such thing as one final story that the reader can take away with him. 'Story' comes into being as the reader goes along, and although the reader proceeds from link to link in time, eventually combining events in his own causal and chronological order. Therefore, according to the theorists, an experience of simultaneity (an awareness of the fact that simultaneously to one's own reading, a lot of things are 'going on' in other lexias that one could also access) will come to dominate the experience of narrative 'unfolding' instead of the experience of events happening in one continuous linear time.

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The lack of finitude or perhaps, more appropriately 'one-ness' of story also has considerable implications for the authority of the author himself. The altered relationship between author and reader (the reader being solely responsible of inscribing particular 'meanings' to the text, the impossibility of writing just one story), would imply that in writing for a hypertextual environment the author is deprived of some of the traditional means of conveying a specific 'message' through his writing (such as the moral of the outcome of a particular story). One might in other words say that one can no longer grant the author very much intentional authority. Hence, the discussion of what an author is, and what he 'should' do, when he writes, become intrinsic to hypertext theory as well. Taken to its idealistic limits, hypertext writing is, to many hypertext theorists, a joint project where text expands infinitely and everybody through this process of expansion becomes a co-writer so that one can no longer speak of a 'master -author'.

Last, but not least, apart from the impact it has and will have on the concepts of author and reader, hypertext as electronic text has a profound influence on the experience of text itself. From the day text became electronic, the sense of its material presence, its 'substantiality' has been increasingly affected by the consequences of the constant manipulation of text that electronic 'word processing' makes possible. Not only can the word or the letter be manipulated graphically in every so many ways, but furthermore it can always be erased, written over, moved, inserted again elsewhere et cetera ad infinitum.[8]Once more this does away with the sense of finality, electronic text being, in principle, continuously in a 'drafted' state, prone to yield to further 'word processing'. Hence, the absence of fixed material presence - the 'once-and-for-all-here-ness' of the printed word - makes the electronic much 'weaker', 'authoritatively' speaking. However, this possibility of interchangeablity of the word, is what simultaneously draws one's attention to it, the electronic word in principle becoming much more an object (in itself) to 'play around with' than its predecessor, potentially an almost living 'organism' that might change size and shape everytime one looks at.


Landow and Bolter: hypertext as episteme

Whereas terms like death, vanish, loss, and expressions of depletion and impoverishment color critical theory, the vocabulary of freedom, energy, and empowerment marks writings on hypertextuality. One reason for these different tones may lie in the different intellectual traditions, national and disciplinary, from which they spring. A more important reason, I propose, is that critical theorists, as I have tried to show, continually confront the limitation - indeed, the exhaustion - of the culture of print (Landow, p. 87)

This quotation from Landow's Hypertext adequately sums up his and Bolter's attitude and approach to the subject of hypertext. Both embrace the possibilities of hypertext with 'energy' and optimism, intuiting in hypertextuality a liberation from the limitations on conceptual thinking the ideology of print has imposed on Western Culture. As for Landow, he even regards the emergence of hypertextuality as the sign of the coming into being of a new episteme in the Foucauldian sense, that is, as a new way of structuring the way we think of and impose order on the world.

Both of these authors place themselves in the category of avant-garde thinkers, assuming the position of those who, from the vantage point of the new world of electronic writing, confront the 'old' culture of print. Accordingly, the discursive vocabulary they employ primarily denotes and emphasises a process of decomposition and 'deconstruction' of existing practice. However, this point of view also imposes some limitations on their thinking and their apprehension of the concept of hypertext, since their one-sided concentration on what differentiates hypertext from printed text to a certain extent make them look towards the past, rather than the future.

Landow and Bolter respectively define hypertext as follows:

A hypermedia display is still a text, a weaving together of elements treated symbolically. Hypermedia simply extends the principles of electronic writing into the domain of sound and image. The computer's control of structure promises to create a synaesthesia in which everything that can be seen or heard may contribute to the texture of text. These synaesthetic texts will have the same qualities as electronic verbal texts. They too will be flexible, dynamic and interactive; they too will blur the distinction between reader and writer (Bolter, p. 27)

Hypermedia simply extends the notion of the text in hypertext by including visual information, sound, animation, and other forms of data. Since hypertext, which links a passage of verbal discourse to images, maps, diagrams and sound as easily as to another verbal passage, expands the notion of text beyond the solely verbal, I do not distinguish between hypertext and hypermedia. Hypertext denotes an information medium that links verbal and nonverbal information (Landow, p. 4)

Nevertheless, even if both Landow and Bolter recognise hypertext as being virtually the same as hypermedia, or use the concept of 'text' to include other media than the written word, in fact what they do concentrate on is the written text and the graphical manifestations of it on the screen. This is logical since their project is to confront the culture of print and they therefore focus on the conceptual thinking produced by hypertext (the notions of 'linking' and 'network structure'), but it leaves out an entire area of possibilities of 'writing' in hypertext that needs to be examined as well if the concept of hypertext/hypermedia is to be understood and explored more fully.

Hence, I would argue for the necessity of a further examination of the different variations of 'hypertext', on the grounds that even if the implementation of sound and images does not affect the conceptual structure of the hypertext 'product' as such, the usage of a specific form of media nevertheless has or will have a profound impact on the way the author conceives of his product and on the way the reader 'reads' it, a circumstance that is true for both factual and fictional products. For instance, if an author chooses to explain the process of book printing in words rather than through a videoclip or if he chooses to show a film clip of a car accident rather than describing it in words, this will affect the way the reader perceives of the 'voice' of the author and of the meaning of the information given. On one hand, showing a video might restrict the 'number' of facts related to the reader, since the usage of moving images forces the narrator to focus on a singular, concrete and physical event rather than on the general aspects of the topics. Hence, if the author chooses to create a lexia that consists of a videoclip, this videoclip might impose limitations on the imagination of the reader (a car accident has to be one specific car accident). On the other hand, the use of a video clip might have a much larger effect in terms of narrative 'action' in the story or encourage a perceptual as well as an emotional identification with a story character. Thus, the choice of media will have an impact both on the degree of author-authority practicable and on the reader's level of learning and/or experiencing the story. The author's or designer's choice of media might in turn affect the way the reader experiences the hypertext structure, that is: the degree of imaginative engagement with the text that is offered will, at least partly, determine if the reader experiences the structure as being more or less 'open' (for communication).

Thus, in relation to this complex relation between words and images, it is puzzling that although Landau and Bolter discuss at length the implications of hypertext writing for the concepts of 'author' and 'reader', and even acknowledge that a hypertextual structure can and may present 'text' in multimedia versions, they consistently refrain from discussing the possibilities of visualisation (in a broad sense). Hence, the concept of 'author' and 'reader' in, for instance, film theory, computer science or 'game theory' might have been drawn upon as well.[9]

In Writing Space, Bolter even seems to go as far as to completely renounce the usage of media that lure the reader into 'embodying' the hypertext world, (embodying in this context thought of as a perceptual immersion in the universe, the text renders). Thus, in a passage on the possibilities of the electronic encyclopedia, he writes:

Entering into an environment is the antithesis of reading, because in place of a symbolic structure of words, equations, graphs, and images, the program offers the user the illusion of perceptual experience. An encounter with texts is replaced by perceptions, and the distancing and abstracting quality of text is lost..(....). To structure knowledge we need a book: in the electronic encyclopedia the computer as hypertext, not as superhuman (Bolter, p. 99).

In this passage, Bolter seems to reject implicitly the possibility of applying any form of visual imagery to a text which could lure the reader into an perceptual-emotional identification with the subject in question. This would imply that to Bolter the use of 'rhetorical' or persuasive devices, such as spatial concretisation, does not count as being as valid as the abstract and 'unpolluted' qualities of the written word. Thus, here Bolter seems to be pointing towards an 'ideology' of text that literally read excludes all other textforms but the graphical ones, which would consequently place Bolter in the camp of those belonging to 'the age of print' rather among those devoted to the coming of the electronic millennium. This paradoxical contradiction between theoretical thinking and 'practical' inclination might be one of the explanations why the hypertext theorists shy away from the world of multimedia. I will return to a further discussion of this dilemma in the conclusion.

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A hypertext is like a printed book that the author has attacked with a pair of scissors and cut into convenient verbal sizes (Bolter, p. 24)

Furthermore, from my point of view, another limitation of Landow's and Bolter's writings is the relatively meagre space they allocate to the discussion of hypertext fictions. Focusing on the way hypertext encourages alternative ways of understanding and acquiring factual information, these two writers mainly discuss the way this new mode of thinking affects the distribution, organisation and acquisition of knowledge, for instance in the academic institutions responsible for conveying and producing 'knowledge'.

Thus I could have wished for a more thorough discussion of the relationship between the author's intentions (i.e. his ambitions of leading his readers' readings in certain directions) and the hypertextual 'scattering' of 'text' into a large number of lexias. Devoid of the possibility or ability to produce a closely knit story, all that seem to be left for the author to do is to provide a structure that lends itself to as many readings as possible? Certainly, according to Bolters idea of the 'ideal' hypertextual writer, this appears to be the case.

The elements of the text are no longer fragments of a prior whole, but instead form a space of shifting possibilities. In this shifting electronic space, writers will need a new concept of structure. In place of a closed and unitary structure, they must learn to conceive of their text as a structure of possible structures. The writer must practice a kind of second-order writing, creating coherent lines for the reader to discover without closing off the possibilities prematurely or arbitrarily (Bolter, p.144, my emphasis)

In conclusion, in the writings of both Landow and Bolter one senses an underlying 'ideology' of freedom. This ideology seems to take as a given that the 'best' interaction is that which allows the interacting reader maximum freedom of movement within the hypertext structure. In so far as their main project is to revolt against and de-stabilise the existing authoritative 'mode of thinking' which the culture of print entails, this stance is comprehensible.

However, this point of view makes them focus precisely on the results of the reading and not on the reading process itself. Furthermore, this centering on the goals achievable through reading, means that they do no engage in a discussion of what a good reading experience is. Thus, one might say that these two writers tend to think more in terms of a 'politics' of reading than in terms of what an actual 'aesthetics' of reading would be like. Hence, the question of why one would choose an interactive reading in the first place remains unaccounted for. For instance, would we choose to read an interactive piece of fiction just because it is interactive?

Evidently, this criticism does not imply that Bolter's and Landow's reflections on hypertext reading should be disqualified. Thus, the first section of this chapter will hopefully have shown, that their writings remain invaluable when it comes to a fundamental understanding of what it is that make hypertext different and of how we as readers 'make sense' with hypertext.


Joyce: Making divisions - two forms of hypertext

In his book Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics multi-disciplinary writer Michael Joyce, himself an author of fiction (both printed and hyper-), comes closer than his peers to an actual outline of a 'poetics' of hyperfiction writing.[10]. He draws a clear distinction between what he calls, respectively, "exploratory" and "constructive" hypertext. Exploratory hypertexts are hypertexts that contains factual information and are constructed in a way that allows the reader to traverse (i.e. read) this information and perhaps to supplement it with his or hers own comments and analyses. However, with this kind of hypertext the reader does not have to invest himself in the process of 'making-sense' since the texts contained in the exploratory web already makes sense in themselves. Hence, although interaction is 'empowered' (Joyce, p. 178) in exploratory hypertext, it is still restricted. Constructive hypertext differs from this kind of textweb in that it depends entirely on the reader as sensemaking agent, through the process of 'meaning-by-movement' (Joyce, p. 201).

A true electronic text, the constructive hypertext differs from the transitional exploratory hypertext in that its interaction is reciprocal rather than empowered. The reader gives birth to the true electronic text. It says: what you do transforms what I have done and allows you to do what you have not yet anticipated (Joyce, p. 179-180)

Therefore, in Joyce's vocabulary, the author of the hypertextual web, provider of infinite transformations of text, becomes a scriptor that 'authors' a structure for what does not yet exist (Joyce, p.179).

This division of hypertext into constructive and explorative hypertexts might be useful as it makes viable a distinction between hypertext genres, based on questions like 'How does this text want to be read?' and 'For which purpose is this text written?' Evidently, in most cases the exploratory hypertext has been constructed with a pedagogic purpose, that is primarily intended to expand the reader's 'knowledge of the world', both factually and structurally. As a progressive (?) educational tool, hypertext clearly should have 'ideological' implications since learning/education is intricately related to a general problematics of institutional practices and structures of power and, ultimately, to the distribution of knowledge and knowledge 'hierarchies' in society as such. Thus, one might find that an analysis of an exploratory hypertext would tend to focus on 'why we learn' and 'what we should learn', in other words, on what are the effects of reading the 'hypertextual' way, rather than on the experience of hypertextual reading itself. On the other hand, I surmise, an examination of constructive hypertexts will tend to focus exactly on the structural aspects of the text in question, such as for instance how the 'structure of possible structures work'. Since 'someone' must have conceived of and designed this structure, an analysis might eventually engage with questions like 'Who has designed this structure?' and 'What in this structure or storyweb in particular does this scriptor want his readers to be confronted with?


Birkerts: Hypertext as regression and 'paradise lost'

To counterbalance the optimistic tone of the hypertext proponents, I have chosen to briefly point to the writings of essayist Sven Birkerts, who in The Gutenberg Elegies embarks on a quest to save the joy of 'traditional' reading from oblivion, a task which by chance (?) includes pinpointing some of the disadvantages of hypertextual reading.[11]

Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted and summarized, but as experience. It is a participatory arena. Through the process of reading we slip out of customary time orientation, marked by the distractedness and surficiality, into the realm of duration. Only in the duration state is experience present as meaning (Birkerts, p. 31-32)

It is Birkerts' point that the 'evasive' and non-stable nature of the electronic word as well as the 'versional' stories hypertextual fictions can offer, prevents the reader from entering this 'realm of duration': the experience of coherence and unity and of time as uninterrupted history that the reading experience (of printed fictions) offers him. The lack of authorial guiding, the 'collaborative' writing which precisely characterises hyperfictive writing makes the creation of this meditative space impossible, since the reader who 'goes to work' to be 'subjected to the creative will of another' (Birkerts 1994: 162-163) no longer can meet this Other (the author) but only himself in the hypertextual universe.[12]

Birkerts point is intriguing indeed, since he, contrary to the hypertext theorists, approaches the experience of reading from the point of view of a personal aesthetics. Certainly, interaction is also interference of story, and as such leads to a immediate lack of coherence, and one might wonder if the reader's imaginative powers, his constant filling in of the gaps can counteract the loss of a uninterrupted experience of durational space and time. Hence, as discussed above, even if the conceptual structure of hypertext changes the relationship between reader and author and the requirements these 'discursive entities' must meet, there is a difference between the factual and the fictional structuring of texts. Thus, information may relatively easily be dispersed into a number of autonomous lexias, annotated and supplied by various readers, whereas 'fictional' information cannot so easily be cut into pieces without this fragmentation having a decisive effect on the perception of the story and its content, that might not all be for the 'benefit' of the reading experience, since this fragmentation will inevitably prevent any continuos immersion in the universe of the text from taking place. Hence, although Birkerts 'aesthetics of immersion' might not be the solely conceivable or optimal way of reading, surely there is a paradox here that needs to be confronted, if not solved, by the theorists. I will be returning to this problem in the following chapters.


Conclusion: outlining a 'poetics' of hypertext fiction

Applying an understanding based on Joyce's division of hypertext in respectively exploratory and constructive hypertext to a reading of Landow and Bolter, makes it clear that they primarily (inadvertently?) focus on exploratory hypertexts, not on constructive hypertexts. Nevertheless, to a certain extent what they have to say about hypertext in general does apply for constructive hypertexts as well, since some of the 'genre-transforming' qualities of hypertext is due to its very nature, not just the way it is applied in practice. However, when it comes to an actual analysis of a piece of hyperfiction it appears to me that conceiving of it as a constructive hypertext (asking the questions that this approach entails) would prove to be the most successful approach. Consequently, this is what I have tried in the following chapter, where I try to explore how one as a reader experiences the reading of a storyweb (for instance, does one ever 'finish' reading it) and the confrontation with its scriptor that the interaction with the structure inevitably seems to bring about.


Index


Lisbeth Klastrup, 1997