Is Hypertext Really Different from Print Text?


The claim I'm making that hypertext is more "constructed" and "intertextual" than the print text may seem too obvious to need expansion. But the deeper you go into reader response and postmodernist reading theory, the more you begin to wonder whether this is really so. In its more extreme forms, such as that propounded by Stanley Fish, reader- response theory suggests that any text can produce any meaning if a discourse community exists to legitimate that meaning.

Whether you buy these theories fully, it is still obvious that readers don't always read linearly from the beginning of the book to the end. They skip back and forth, reread passages, and walk over to the bookshelf for another book before they've finished the one in hand. And even if they don't literally skip, the representation of text they create in their mind is always constructed from an amalgam of the words of the text and their own experiences, purposes and meanings. Louise Rosenblatt distinguishes between the reader, the text and the "poem":

It is not an object or an ideal entity. It happens during a coming-together, a compenetration, of a reader and a text. The reader brings to the text his past experience and present personality. Under the magnetism of the ordered symbols of the text, he marshals his resources and crystallizes out from the stuff of memory, thought, and feeling a new order, a new experience, which he sees as the poem.
(The Reader, the Text, and the Poem, p. 12)

If all text is constructed in ways that the writer cannot predict, what makes hypertext so special?

I would argue, with George Landow, that the difference is a difference of such a great deal of degree that it becomes more like a difference in kind. Hypertext pushes text past what McLuhan calls a "break boundary," the point at which a medium becomes speeded up to the point ar which it becomes something utterly different.

Print text at least gives the author the opportunity to suggest a default path through the text. The author can also assume, or write as if she assumes, that the average reader will read the entire text. The author of hypertext can make no such assumption. The reader can find no default path, no suggested order of text blocks from one page to the next, and can never be sure that she has found every node. The constructedness of text, underground in print, is now in your face. Linking becomes not just possible, but easy, natural, inevitable. This is what pushes the text over the break boundary.


Break boundary A little more detail on McLuhan's "break boundary" in a different context.
Landow on the uniqueness of hypertext More from Landow on this subject.
Is Hypertext Formless? An elaboration of the importance of form plus some self-criticism of my suggestion that hypertext lacks form because it lacks linearity.
"Brent's law" on the effects of media A digression on my more general principle that the effects of media depend on what they make easy.

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