Table of Contents

Glosses in Hypertext Studies

The Heresy of Hypetext: Fear and Anxiety in the Late Age of Print
John Tolva

Examines an "array of anxieties" attending the cultural alignment of emerging technologies with current investments. Posits this alignment as a succession for dominance: the move from print to screen is a power struggle.

The array reflects deconstructive concerns

This typology establishes the Platonic pedigree of the terms of debate. However it does marginalize the intertextual working of hypertext (notably Ted Nelson's definition of hypertext as branching non-sequential writing).

The redeployment of the branching definition of hypertext results in or is caused by a stress on "ekphrasitc anxiety", a term borrowed from W.J.T. Mitchell. Hypertext in its electronic (dis)incarnation is viewed as collapsing the difference between pictures and words. This collapse is fraught with cultural significance.

The Heresy of Hypetext focuses upon technological change or "our culture's slow passage from print to electronic textuality". The social aspects of this passage are illuminated by a smart summary of some arguments marshalled against the delivery of textual artefacts in non-codex form. If it is quite clear that the "book" is the locus of a power struggle, it is not so clear that there is just one struggle here. The push of a mono-time line history is inscribed in the argument:

[The] parallel between ancient and modern polemical stances should emphasize that electronic textuality is merely the most recent novum monstrum in a long line of communication technologies that have slowly subrogated their precursors.

There are at least two struggles or debates that need to be distinguished:

Somehow here as in Burnett (1993) multi-media capability is connected to democratization of knowledge production. Indeed, it is partially true that when "the difficulty of typographical initiation disappears" a "collective environment" of "participatory poetics" à la Ong is possible. However, Ong's own remarks about personalist versus corporationalist culture in his book on Ramus would caution readers to consider that the recognition of authority depends upon institutional and not merely technical factors. The analysis requires attention to concurrent forms of communication.

The troublesome collapse maybe between reader and writer not between the verbal and visual:

Digital textuality effects this formal, structural and perceptual experience of ekphrasis on a purely technical level. It is an ekphrastic medium that quite literally shapes the message. No longer a literary device or trope, ekphrasis as it applies to the computer is a practical description of the visual ways that the reader approaches the verbal text.

Note the migration from noun and literary production to readerly approach and adjective. However, notwithstanding whatever technological aids may be available, not all readers are writers but all writers are readers. In painterly terms, many can see, few can make to be seen.

Still there is something about the electronic object that strikes the imagination. Two things actually: ease of reproduction, ease of transformation. But the source of this power is not only in the electronic apparatus that provides speed but is also a result of the mediation of a system of notation that provides the requiste level of abstraction. The digital can be non-electronic. The electronic medium merely automates the digital.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software translates a digital image into encodable text so that voice synthesis software can produce sounds. A digitalized recording is fed into software for dubbing a video sequence. These two examples of varying degree of complexity both operate through the mediation of systems of notation.

What happens when when the automation of transactions across the notation is increased? The democratic potential of the electronic medium in its digital form may well be its branching power, its ability to link and to decouple.

It can lead to odd challenges and tests of evidence:

To the mind weaned on the indelibility of the printed word, electronic text seems unstable, less epistemologically graspable. I sumbit that this mostly unconscious perception of instability generates anxiety in the reader, anxiety of the type usually written off to the "it just feels different" category. Like most anxieties, though, this one can be overcome; but not until writers who use word processors employ a completely paperless editing process (and no author yet does) will proof exist of a truly comfortable relation between the writer and the digital word.

It is a very special mind, that one, perhaps one connected to a body that never pencilled in the margins nor read aloud off the screen.

For Further Reading

For more on media and democratization see Fractal Dreams: new media in social context edited by Jon Dovey. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1996).


Consider a triangle, a square, an octagon.
Describe how each compares to the others in terms of reproducibility and transformation according to a set of rules or repeated steps.
Which is the most complex shape? The most simple?
You might want to use a grid.

Copyright © François Lachance 1998
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