Digital culture here refers to the critical thinking and doing around computer based discourses. This includes the use of the World Wide Web and other online resources for the various forms of work that such technologies make possible.
More specifically I want to concentrate on a small segment of this larger digital culture, what is generally known as hypertext. (Hypertext does not exclude the nontextual , but it does refer to the retention of text s primacy.)
Hypertext theory appears to be represented by three separate undertakings.
Personally, I represent the latter.
(Very few people are conversant across all three domains, though it is probably common to have people who are familiar with two.)
And there is the recent rise of the hypertext theorist, someone who might not know anything about programming but who is able to bring a critical theory tradition to think about what sort of thing hypertext is, or might be.
The people who design hypertext software and attempt to implement various visions of what hypertext is are hypertext programmers. These people represent (from my point of view) the technical side of hypertext theory, and deal with the theoretical pragmatics of implementing various visions of what a hypertext system is.
There are what might be described as hypertext information managers (I would include a lot of HTML users in this category), people who use hypertext systems to catalogue, publish, distribute or otherwise organise information.
The two founding texts in the hypertextual canon are, perhaps ironically, an article by Vannevar Bush that appeared in a 1945 edition of the Atlantic Monthly and Ted Nelson s books of the 1960s and 70s.
While various recent developments have eclipsed or avoided the possibilities in Nelson s ideas, the general principles of hypertext have solidified around the use of digitial technology and links to combine disparate information sources, and types, across documents, networks, and systems. The World Wide Web is a popular and possibly dominant model of such a system, but should be understood as one variety of hypertext, rather than hypertext per se.
In the arena of critical theory hypertext has developed its own particular discourse.
Bush s article described a mechanical machine that could store and retrieve different data types through a process of associational linking across material.
Nelson s work, which continues today in Project Xanadu, envisioned a massive hypertextual system that theoretically would incorporate all documents in a docuverse , and would provide a guaranteed system of authorial rights and returns on the use of parts of any individual s or organisation s work.
Hypertext theory that looks to literary and critical theory (and so is explicitly interdisciplinary in its endeavour) in English has a small group of significant writers, who all rely on various poststructural theories or theorists to engage with, describe, promote, or criticise hypertext.
In all these approaches hypertext is understood to be a particular technology of reading and writing, and quite particularly to enact or perform what poststructuralism (loosely and broadly speaking) has defined or characterised as the implicit and immament qualities of textuality qualities that poststructuralism has also suggested are disguised, disavowed, or concealed in traditional accounts of what texts are, and what they do.
In other words those values that the traditional or classical text is understood to aspire to or represent (clarity, authorial intentionality, singular argument and meaning, regularity of tone or voice) and that poststructuralism demonstrates to the implicit and always already active in all texts, become the qualitative and formal basis of what such theory thinks hypertext might, or should, be.
As Moulthrop and McHoul, amongst others, have pointed out the poststructural theorists that hypertext theory relied upon described qualities in print based text, not hypertext. The more contemporary view of the relation of hypertext to poststructuralism is probably more reasonably described as complimentary, where hypertext makes literal and visible the claims of poststructural theory.
Hypertext theory, certainly in its earlier first rosy blushes, strongly argues that hypertext can, and ought to, include the following:
These have strong implications for academic writing, including screen studies.
Traditionally texts are understood to have attempted to be singular in their approach to narrative. This might be understood as simply embodying a singular narrative line, or a single set of events that constitute the narrative of the text (and narrative here is being used in its broadest sense, as the linear and causal structure that all discourse requires).
However, because hypertext is digitally based it is able to be randomnly accessed, and so a strict form of linearity becomes unnecessary. In addition it becomes feasible to offer several narratives, several stories or versions, of whatever the text is about, and these versions may simply provide different ways of characterising the material, or could in fact offer contesting versions or opinions on, or around, the material.
For hypertext theory the point is very simple the effort in many forms of critical practice (and fiction) to embody these various possibilities has always been stymied by the linearity of the page, but can now be realised in this medium.
writing and dialog
writing and dialog
Some modes of critical theory have emphasised the way in which all writing performs a dialogue:
with the texts that surround and contextualise the individual work
in the writing itself (between writer and text, and between text and writer I write this, this writes me)
This dialog, it is argued, is something that the specific forms of writing in print culture conceal, or even actively disavow, yet remain fundamental to what it is to write.
Hypertext is understood to provide a formal system that does in fact allow such a dialog, this is by virtue of the link (perhaps the fundamental structural unit of hypertext) which allows a dialog within the work itself, but more significantly allows any work to no longer be discrete as we link across documents and eventually networks.
The page, which ever way we look at it, has quite strict dimensions.
Words and sentences, which ever way we look at them, also need a rather strict formal linearity.
Combined, we develop books that privilege a beginning, middle and end. Our dominant forms of fiction, and academic writing, strongly support this model.
On the other hand many of our works also provide mechanisms to counter this linearity tables of contents, indexes and footnotes are all various ways to provide alternative pathways through a text.
Hypertext is able to make these alternative (and apparently lesser) pathways central to the text itself, so no longer does a work require a single and dominant centre, but can actively allow the reader to meander through a field of work.
Traditional forms of writing have tended to emphasise a consistency of tone and writing style that is a product of print technology. At its heart, there is a certain protestant suspicion of textuality in our development of black print on white paper arranged in highly regular patterns across consecutive pages.
This singularity of writing style or voice is the exception, rather than the rule, of our communicative competencies. In any given day I speak as father, son, husband, teacher and student, to name a few, and each requires, often literally, a different voice and style.
Hypertext writing, through all of its formal properties, is able to utilise and incorporate these different voices, these different ways of writing. Hypertext theory seeks to validate the inclusion of these diverse tones (or tongues) so that the document becomes not only a palimpsest of what has gone before or into the writing but becomes a plural arena of all those writings that are implicit but excluded in all writing.
From the use of an erudite note on an illuminated manuscript to the modern footnote, marginalia have a very long history in their relation to the written word.
These marginal notes, almost asides, of course can contain extremely important material, and regularly point to other references that the particular work is citing in some manner.
Without the page a hypertext has no visible hierarchy that inevitably produces the relation of margin to centre that is the footnote. It allows for what is apparently minor to have an authority that is otherwise excluded, and also allows these parts of the text to develop their own links through a work.
Furthermore a hypertext can, in theory, link into the very work that the footnote otherwise merely indicates , in the process not so much softening the role of the marginal but dissolving it altogether. Here the relation between a principal text and the footnote disappears as the link performs an action that has the effect of producing an object that is neither one or the other, and privileges neither.