Feral Hypertext : When Hypertext Literature Escapes Control

A new idea!  Instead of a weekly update of what I am reading for my thesis and the project Toni and I are working on, how about I just blog my research daily as it goes on.  Bear with me: I am bouncing between a number of sources so posts will go back and forth between them often.  My goal is to upload one per day.  In fact, if all goes well the focus of this blog will shift for the time being to my current, in progress, research and writing almost exclusively.

Oh, I will get back to War Prayers soon.

History Lesson
My first entry will be for Jill Walker-Rettberg’s Feral Hypertext : When Hypertext Literature Escapes Control.   Dr. Walker’s paper offers a lot of useful information on two fronts.  There is plenty of good historical information about hypertext and many useful arguments for what Toni and I are working towards in our project, which is moving towards a focus on how texts have been, and are, defined and how this effects electronic literature.  Walker argues that hypertext before the World Wide Web is “domesticated…bred in captivity” (1).  She continues by arguing that hypertext was, however, always intended for individual users.  In 1974, Ted Nelson insists that ordinary people need to have access to personal computers.  Thirty years before, in an essay for The Atlantic in 1945, Vannevar Bush also argues for this:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

Continuing the historical look, Nelson creates the term “hypertext” in 1965.  Two years later, Julia Kristeva does the same for Intertextuality.  What becomes important here for my own thinking is, as Walker notes, the similarities between contemporary critical theory and hypertext have been pointed out numerous times, including, the work I am most familiar with, George Landow’s Hypertext 2.0 from 1997.  Walker is quick to point out, as Landow is as well, that the “relationship between hypertext and critical theory is not that simple” (3).

Walker continues by offering a brief history of preweb hypertext systems like Hypercard and Storyspace:

Though the first personal computers became available in the late seventies, the first home hypertext systems weren’t available till the late eighties. Peter Brown’s GUIDE [8] was followed by HyperCard, a hypertext authoring system that was packaged with Macintosh computers. Soon afterwards, Eastgate’s Storyspace became available, first for the Macintosh and later for the PC.  Tinderbox, released from Eastgate in 2001, is probably the tool that most closely follows in the footsteps of these systems, which were very much created in the spirit of Vannevar Bush and the desire for an intimate extension to memory. These hypertext authoring systems allow an individual to organise his or her personal notes and create his or her own self-contained hypertext which can be shared with others by copying it onto a diskette or CD or by emailing it as a single file. While Tinderbox and HyperCard were primarily intended as organisational tools, Storyspace was explicitly developed as a tool for fiction authors.

The Evolution Of The Writerly Text
Distribution of literary hypertext before the World Wide Web still shared many of the characteristics of the bounded text.  Like a copy of Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight in paperback, a CD of Shelley Jackson’s Patch Work Girl still restricted readers to a “sustained reading of a self-contained work” (5).  The rise of cheaper personal computers and the World Wide Web began to allow anyone with an Internet account to publish on the web, link, and be linked to.  This led to what Walker refers to as “feral hypertext,” hypertext that is “no longer tame and domesticated” (1).  For my own work, the most important point here is that hypertext on the World Wide Web in general cannot be tamed any longer.  Hypertext is very unruly and rather disobedient!

As Walker points out, literary hypertext that has gone, in her words, “feral” demands of the reader “to accept structures that are neither predefined nor clearly boundaried” (2).  Collaboratively written works like The Unknown and digital poetry like Megan Sapnar and Ingrid Ankerson’s Cruising defy the boundaries of the bounded text.  An interactive memoir like Caitlin Fisher’s These Waves Of Girls is an unruly and rather untamed account of growing up told with audio and visual links.  After making sure to note that Landow and others have pointed out the differences between critical theory and hypertext while pointing out their similarities, Walker expresses the idea, which I strongly agree with, that theorists involved with critical theory and intertextuality are already arguing that texts are unruly and extremely disobedient.  Literary hypertext on the World Wide Web is an evolution of the writerly text.  Hypertext that is feral is, as I see it, an interactive expression of the writing of the work on authorship of theorists like Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes.