Problems in HyperCriticalSpace

While technology now makes available a version of the hypertextual world first imagined by Theodor Nelson, we do not have Xanadu yet. Most noticeably, the tensions between linear and nonlinear models of presenting ideas have not been resolved, in part because the two modes engage their virtual readers in different ways. At the heart of this choice lies the problem of which structure our readers will follow more readily, the familiar linear forms we know so well or the linked form which Nelson argues are more natural to the ways we think (45-50)? The issue of the reader is crucial because in hypertext, the reader constructs the essay, creates and recreates its order. This empowers the reader to follow my argument, for example, in any number of ways--as long as I have set the links.

However, this empowerment of the reader only goes so far. If he or she has no access to the Internet or even uses a different Webrowsing program than the author, technological factors can block the reader's ability to engage the text at all! And imagine how much more important such technological considerations become when the author needs evaluations of the work? Even though an essay mounted on the Web is "published" more widely than most professional journals, how do we assess its professional value? What is its scholarly contribution? Just as important, how can the author take credit for the argument if the electronically browsing reader actually puts the essay together?

A structure as open as a website offers a whole new set of challenges to the ways we think about scholarship: its use, its circulation, and its (possible) ends. To pick up on comparison offered by one of my students, I am building a system of roads, but I do not control how you travel on them. In fact, I do not control who travels on them. Although this essay is intended for seminar participants at Shakespeare Association of America Conference in April of 1996, anyone who has access to the Internet can visit it. And it could conceivably outlast the conference should I decide to keep working on it. As Harry Rusche puts it in the introduction to his website, "'Shakespeare Illustrated' will always be a work in progress." This idea of a project perpetually in progress is cause for celebration for textual editors, as Jerome McGann argues in "Radiant Textuality." A critical project which presents scholarship in process has both advantages and disadvantages.

As I see it, challenges attached to doing criticism in hyperspace are several and related:

There are those, like Sven Birkerts, who approach at least the last three of these as the decline of rational linear thinking. Others, like Richard Lanham, embrace these revisions of the linear text as an intellectual challenge to the ways we think about and construct meanings. I take a more moderate, but positive view. But a real optimist would considering solutions, not problems.

breaking out of the text