Table of Contents

Glosses in Hypertext Studies

Electronic Signs
Jay David Bolter
Chapter Six of Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing
Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991 (pp 85-106)

This particular study argues that "the computer promises [...] the embodiment of semiotic views of language and communication." Collapses some very important distinctions such as

  1. embodiment and movement
  2. acts and traces of acts

and therefore can avoid some very sticky questions of mediation in the game of being and becoming.

Likewise takes a restricted view of unlimited semiosis. Posits perpetual circularity of acts of signification (uses the example of linked and looping entries in a dictionary).

Argues that in the electronic environment text functions as program. Forgets that text also functions as data. Yes signs point to other signs but they traverse diverse spaces. There is no single uniform writing space.

"The battle is over" declares the final sentence of the section just before the trumpeting of the title of the next section: "A NEW REPUBLIC OF LETTERS". The struggle has been between the traditional humanists and the deconstructionist. Yet the last sentence of the chapter undermines the assuredness of the closure.

And like all the previous candidates, the computer makes the seductive promise to break down the barrier between thought and writing, to join the mind and writing surface into a seamless whole.

Where there is seduction, there is a body and a mind at work. Both seducers and seduced think through the body. They are not however under certain regimes held to the same standards of accountability.

Attention to the plurality of contexts might avoid the equation of unlimited semiosis with circularity.

The definition of any word, if pursued far enough through the dictionary, will lead you in circles. This paradox is the foundation of semiotics. A sign system is a set of rules for relating elements. The rules are arbitrary, and the system they generate is self-contained. There is no way to get "outside" the system to the world represented, because, as in the dictionary, signs can only lead you elsewhere in the same system.

Where is the paradox? The reader or interpreter is not "in" the system. Readers can be positioned to read through a sign system. The quibble is not with the limits on the possibility of attaining full access to some represented world. The quarrel is with the assumption of some uniform space in which a global system operates. Readers read books. Some readers read both electronic and hard copy forms of text.

Some readers even communicate with other readers about their readings. Electronic Signs in its invocation of Pierce's notion of interpretant fails to observe that Pierce brings the work of signification to rest in community. One of the important stops in the endless chain of unlimited semiosis is the consensus of a community of interpretants. This does not lead to the picture of a lone reader enclosed by single represented world. A textual instance is not simply a system.

However, even in a closed system not all points are equal. But this is not reflected in the following assertion:

A text in the computer is a dynamic network of relationships, and each path through the network defines an order, interpretation, and meaning for the text according to a certain code. The sum of all connections becomes all possible interpretations of the text.

The sum of the connections does not suffice to account for all possible meanings. One must consider weighting or which connections occur when. The sum of all possible meanings is a sum of permutations and combinations. Note how that pesky preposition "in" ("a text in the computer") again situates the text within the bounds of the medium.

It almost seems as if the possibility of translation is set aside. This is especially evident in the divide between orality and writing that is produced in the discourse of Electronic Signs and used to inaugurate the New Republic of Letters with a tale of the decay of orality.

One wonders if there is not a corollary story where readers talk and interpretative economies crumble: a story with other seductions.

For Further Reading

On Charles Sanders Pierce: see Israel Sheffler "Pragmatism as a Philosophy" in In Prase of the Cognitive Emotions, New York & London: Routledge, 1991.
See also Israel Sheffler, Four Pragmatists, London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1974.

On bodies and textual theories see Flanders, Julia. "The Body Encoded: Questions of Gender and the Electronic Text" in Electronic Text: Investigations in Method and Theory ed. by Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997 pp. 127-143). See especially Flanders's description of responses that follow from a fetischization of the book.


In an other part of the book Writing Space perception and semiosis are explicitly dichotomized (p.186)

Perception and semiosis somehow come together in human intelligence, but not in a way the digital computer can duplicate. Again this reason is that the computer is a technology for writing and reading systems of discrete signs. There must always be a gap between the continuous world of perception and the world of signs, a gap that can never be closed in any technology of writing.

What kinds of communicative models can be generated by using parallel processing as a basis? If machines are networked what happens to the divide between perception and semiosis?
How is sensation different from perception?
How does a cybernetic model of perception relate to matters of textual modelling?
See Emulations

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