Hypertext fiction enables the reader to exert a direct form of control over the text in a more pronounced and self-conscious way than prior forms of print media. The ability to click from link to link—spiraling further and further from direct engagement with the original text—empowers the reader and elucidates the bankruptcy of the idea of a central kernel of meaning as put forth by countless post-modern and post-structuralist theorists from Derrida to Barthes to Baudrillard. However, this liberation of the reader seems to entail a relative loss of authority on the part of the writer—which seems simultaneously part of one of the objectives of hypertext fiction, but also to undermine other projects. George P. Landow indicates as early as the introduction in Hypertext 3.0 that the “very active reader“ as writer of revisionist (neo-Victorian, post-colonial, feminist, etc) fiction exerts more power than other forms of “active readers“ including the reader of hypertext fiction:
All of these forms of active reading differ from the experience of the hypertext reader in read-only systems, whose writing takes the form not of adding new texts but of establishing an order of reading in an already-written set of texts. Readers of large bodies of informational hypermedia create the document they read from the informed choices they make. It might appear that such is rarely true of readers of fictional hypertexts who may not know where particular links lead. Nonetheless, the best hyperfictions, I submit, permit the reader to deduce enough basic information, sometimes, as in Michael Joyce’s afternoon, by retracing their steps, to make informed (thus creative) decisions when they arrive at links. Still, no matter how much power readers have to choose their ways through a hypertext, they never obtain the same degree of power — or have to expend as much effort — as those who write their texts in response to another’s. [Landow 18-19]
In this way, the “active reader“ of the hypertext novel also possesses the ability to hijack the project of the “very active reader“ as writer of revisionist fiction by choosing the freedom of engaging with the hypertext novel over the revised text of the print novel. The “active,“ but also potentially casual, distracted, and only semi-engaged consumer of hypertext need only understand the most “basic information” related to theme or story to navigate the hypertext with relative ease. Readers of hypertext “never obtain the same degree of power“ as “those who write their texts in response to another’s,” but it seems necessary to interrogate the amount of “power” the hypertext author retains if the reader is expected (at best) to “deduce enough basic information“ to navigate the text. This model seems to put the writer of hypertext in the least powerful position in the triad of “active reader,“ “very active reader,” and creator of the hypertext novel.
Looking at the example of Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, the voice of the creator of the hypertext (Jackson) seems displaced by the fancy or confusion of the reader to the detriment of the ideas put forth in the text. It’s seems difficult for even the most patient reader of this text to navigate through the space without some degree of frustration. Where can I click to link to another text? Why can’t I click on a name and be taken to another text that explains this name? To what end does Jackson release her text to the world? Why should I continue navigating through broken parcels of narrative? Jackson seems occasionally concerned with addressing some of these concerns. In the segment called “this writing,“ she elucidates some of the theoretical underpinnings of her project:
Assembling these patched words in an electronic space, I feel half-blind, as if the entire text is within reach, but because of some myopic condition I am only familiar with from dreams, I can see only that part most immediately before me, and have no sense of how that part relates to the rest. When I open a book, I know where I am, which is restful. My reading is spatial and even volumetric. I tell myself, I am a third of the way down through a rectangular solid, I am a quarter of the way down the page, I am here on the page, here on this line, her, her, her. But where am I now? I am in a here and present moment that has no history and no expectations for the future. Or rather, history is only a haphazard hopscotch through other present moments. How I got from one to the other is unclear. Though I could list my past moments, they would remain discrete (and recombinant in potential if not in fact), hence without shape, without end, without story. Or with as many stories as I care to put together.
In some ways, this puts the impatient reader’s mind at ease. Part of the idea behind this project is to display the “haphazard hopscotch“ that is narrative and history. However, her relative success in disrupting the “restful“ reader of novels obscures the political aims that seem to drive the project. It takes very little clicking to gather that Jackson’s text rewrites Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from a more bodily, feminine perspective. However, the (arguably political) project of disrupting the center and exploding history seems to overshadow the nuances of the content of her feminist or revisionist politics. The lazy, cursory, casual, or distracted reader may never stumble upon the political heart of her project. This seems puzzling because even Jackson’s updated monster possesses organic and ideological centers: a head and a heart.
1. One danger of hypertext’s ability to de-center narrative construction seems that as it fulfills or displays certain elements of post-structuralist or post-modernist projects, it simultaneously renders any collective political or ethical project impotent. To what degree can a hypertext novel retain a project with some amount of specific content?
2. A corollary danger of the hypertext novel seems related to its participation in consumerism. Does hypertext’s liberation of the reader resemble the ideology of the market? It seems that the “active reader“ and the consumer resemble one another very closely. Is the hypertext novel a very effective way to participate in a project that is even remotely Marxist (including countless projects related to identity politics of all sorts)? Can other less Marxist political, social, or ethical projects make use of the liberating aspects of hypertext?
3. What kinds of hypertext spaces would allow for collectivity in a way that retains some degree of political or ethical responsibility and particularity? It is relatively easy to understand how these spaces can radically de-center meaning through a kind of over-saturation of meaning, but how can a revised, self-conscious, critical form of meaning be re-injected into these spaces without submitting entirely to ideology of the market?
4. To what degree does Jackson’s attempt at de-centering narrative construction rob her political project of head or heart—even as she gives her “patchwork girl“ both of these organs? Does limiting her project to a computer program (rather than linking to all of cyberspace) achieve some degree of containment?
5. Thinking about form and content in terms of neo-Victorian texts, which texts that we have seen this semester seem most effective in balancing form and content in a manner that is most conducive to upholding revisionist projects? Is the neo-Victorian novel (print or hypertext) any more or less susceptible to form hijacking content and ultimately obscuring the author’s underlying project than other forms of feminist, post-colonial, or queer texts?
Jackson, Shelley. Patchwork Girl. Environment: Storyspace. Cambridge: Eastgate Systems, 1995.
Landow, George P. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.
Last modified 19 April 2010