Why Hypertext?

Hypertext is a means of joining pieces of a data (text, pictures, sound, movies, or anything else that can be digitally represented) by links, thereby connecting related pieces of information to one another.  Originally, in choosing to use the format for this project, I was looking for a way to write differently; at least differently than every paper I have written since high school.  It also occurred to me that the format could work well for dealing with the topic I wished to explore: literary allusions, specifically those in T.S. Eliot's poetry.   Allusions inherently have hypertextual character in that an allusions ties one author's work to that of another.  I was also curious as to how the use of hypertext and related modern technology (computers and the internet) can and has changed the study of allusions. As Eliot was a poet who addressed the changes in his modern world through his poetic imagery, I wished to address changes in our modern world that effect they ways in which we can now study that same poetry.

Eliot's chaotic use of imagery (as well as the general concept of modernism) is often seen as a reaction to the creation of modern mass culture.  It is ironic that the mass culture of the 90s, which is even more widespread and powerful than Eliot's, largely through the creation, increasing power, and breadth of the internet, can provide the resources to delve into his obscurities.  The references he cryptically interwove may now be tracked down and traced to their sources, the sources themselves decrypted and analyzed, and all of that information compiled in a new way with new technology. We have the opportunity to make the study of Eliot and other such authors more accessible than ever before by bringing together in one place his poems, the works he draws upon, works that draw upon him, and the endless amounts of scholarly criticism that have sprung up around each.  Not only is this a study of one poet's allusions, but it is also becoming one of the ways in which we now receive information.  This has the potential change to scholarship drastically, and in fact, has already begun to do so. More resources are more easily available than ever before, as are easy ways in which to exchange ideas and opinions.  This in turn brings up ideas of intellectual property rights and well as other questions more likely to bother lawyers than scholars.  Then there are the academic question of the proper way to approach works written before the information age.  If the author did not intend or even conceptualize such technology enhanced readings, are they valid ways to approach the work?

I feel that not only are such methodologies are valid, but that ignoring them entirely would be a mistake.  It is impossible for us to study a poet such as Eliot in his own time with the same education and literary background that he had.  Instead, we should make the most of the resources which we have at hand and of the different (though not radically) ways of thinking that such resources have created.  At the same time we must be wary of the information at our fingertips.  There is now so much available that one person could never hope to take in the contents of every scholarly article on the topic at hand.  It is also increasingly easy for incorrect data or bad analyses to join the mixture.  Despite these dangers, the medium has too much potential and too many possible advantages to be ignored.

In his Hypertext 2.0 (The first chapter of the book's first edition, Hypertext: the Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology is available at http://landow.stg.brown.edu/ht/contents.html, the second edition is suffixed 2.0 in the manner of differentiating between different versions of software [HV: Sorry, link is now broken. Apr 2001]), George Landow sees hypertext as a democratizing force, a way to improve scholarship, a way to attain new levels of cooperation during the writing process, and an entirely new form of the text that can continue to change long after the author has finished typing the original words.1  As this is a major work in the field, and representative of other similar theses, I am going to address some his purported benefits of hypertext, several of which I agree with, but I will also deal with areas in which his claims are excessive. He sees hypertext as improving scholarship by the production of documents that allow the teacher or student to instantly access additional information on the subject at hand.  He also believes that hypertext will benefit the scholar as a reader - in that footnotes and side notes can be easily traced with a simple click and without the necessity of flipping pages or going astray from the main text.

Landow also discusses the topics of allusion and intertextuality such as relates to my topic.  He uses one of Eliot's contemporaries, James Joyce to build an example based around Joyce's Ulysses, another text well known for its confusing nature and widespread use of allusions.  He views such works as already being implicitly hypertextual in that they intentionally draw the reader to other materials that are, or can be treated as, texts.  While I would not go so far as too say that Eliot and Joyce were intentionally writing hypertextual works, it easily follows that their works are well suited to a hypertextual presentation.  Landow's suggestion as to how a hypertext presentation of Joyce's novel might be accomplished, including biographical information, critical commentary, and variations of the text, could potentially be an ideal, all inclusive presentation.

Here difficulties arise in the scope Landow seems to be suggesting. The major problems with producing such a document, at least as I see them, would largely consist of the legal and technical difficulties of getting all of the possible source materials into the proper electronic format, plus the labor necessary to construct such a comprehensive document. An entirely comprehensive work may be currently impractical, but it easy to see how including even a fraction of the possible sources or facts through such linking methods can vastly increase the amount of knowledge (and therefore, at least theoretically, understanding) passed to the reader.  Additionally, Landow seems to be suggesting that every link to every page a reader could possibly follow from this paper to any other document would be included within the definition of what the original document (in this case, this very paper) consisted of.  I do not agree with anything of the sort.  I may have visited a lot of web pages while doing research for this project, but I do not feel that the sites together make up one coherent document of any sort. Nor do I include any of the external sites I link to in my description of this document.  They are intended as farther references, but should not be thought of as part of this project.

There are other senses in which Landow and his fellow proponents of hypertext seem to go too far.  One is in their seeming claim that hypertext is an entirely new and unique format, as revolutionary as the printing press.  They speak of the words of a hypertext document not as concrete marks on the page but as far more ephemeral, unstable, and inherently ever changing.  What they seem to neglect is the fact that their words are stored securely and concretely within their computer system, just as 1's and 0's instead of letters printed on a piece of paper.  And yes, the electronic version is easier to change, but it's just as plausible that changes can be made upon the page and/or a new version of the page including the changes produced.  Richard Grusin addresses this, along with several other problems with the ways Landow and others are pushing hypertext in his essay "What is an Electronic Author? Theory and Technological Fallacy" [HV: Sorry, can only view this page if your or your institution is subscribed to Project Muse].  As the title suggests, he looks at some of the issues involved in hypertext within the context and with the terminology of Michel Foucault's "What is an author?" essay.  He sees that what is most important about electronic writing is "not its immateriality but rather its power to marshal such a diversity of material, cultural, and technological forces"2.

That said, I wish to return to the topic of exploring the use of hypertext specifically to explore allusions. On a technical level it allows me to create a hypertext version of the poem I am examining, "The Hollow Men", in which words, phrases, or lines of the poem link to a separate document that annotates the allusion's original source and analyzes its use.  Additionally, I can link to related discussions within my own project, quotes from the source, the full text of the original source (when freely available), and as much other related material as I can find.  Hopefully, this has allowed me to include more information and present it in a more comprehensive way than I would be able to otherwise.  I'm attempting to take advantage of these benefits, but not radically change the nature of this, a critical paper.  Almost everything within this document should be coherent on its own.  The use of hypertext should merely add to its effectiveness, but it should not rely on hypertext to be effective.

The one major portion of this project where that may not necessarily apply is my hypertext version of "The Hollow Men".  The notes I have created to correspond to certain pieces of the poem do not exactly resemble an essay or typical analysis, per se.  Nor are they flat out annotations, but instead they are a combination of annotation and analysis.  While this may not make for very good reading by itself, it should work almost as well when read alongside a paper copy of the poem as when the hypertext links are used.  The advantage of the hypertext version is in the ease of making the connection from poem to source and/or analysis, plus in the creation of additional external links that demonstrate farther connections and make farther resources available.

The study of a poem that incorporates allusions requires a knowing reader, or least a reader with a willingness to know, while the use of a hypertext document requires an active reader.  By active reader, I mean one who is willing to follow the connections with which s/he is presented.  This requires neither previous knowledge nor excessive effort.  For a reader of a traditional text who is not inherently knowing (that is to say that he or she does not recognize and understand the allusion on his or her own), action is also required.  In fact, if the research is carried out the 'old fashioned way' that action acquires far more effort that the actions of an active hypertext reader.  While hypertext may not be a radically new and different textual form, it does at least extend the possibility for a reader to actively learn more about what s/he is reading.  It allows an active reader to become a knowing reader, while requiring a minimum of unnecessary effort to do so.

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