The Electronic Labyrinth

Landow and The Politics of Connection

Hypertext, as a mechanism for organization and representation, calls into question the political implications of the act of connection. The necessity of forging links is also the necessity of connecting ideas. Hence, in the hypertext environment, a political stance is defined by the very selection and connection of elements from a diverse world of information. The web and the network function by rules of relevance, inclusion and exclusion.

In Hypertext: the Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, George Landow points out that "[t]echnology always empowers someone, some group in society, and it does so at a certain cost. The question must always be, therefore, what group or groups does it empower?" (171). His answer concludes the section "Hypertext and the Politics of Reading:"

As long as any reader has the power to enter the system and leave his or her mark, neither the tyranny of the centre nor that of the majority can impose itself. The very open-endedness of the text also promotes empowering the reader. (176)

After much valuable discussion of technological invention and the political use of language, this answer is disappointing. In particular, it ignores the bias present throughout the work of Landow and others which understands hypertext as primarily a tool of the academy, which in turn regulates who can and cannot gain access. (Much of the pioneering work on hypertext was done at Brown University where Landow is Professor of English and Art History.) Indeed, Landow defines the "starting point of hypertext" as "the standard scholarly article in the humanities or physical sciences" (4). In "The Rhetoric of Hypermedia", Landow presents a series of rules which call upon the author to make connections in clearly defined and rigorous way:

Rule 1: The very existence of links in hypermedia conditions the reader to expect purposeful, important relationships between linked materials.
Rule 2: The emphasis upon linking materials in hypermedia simulates and encourages habits of relational thinking in the reader.
Rule 3: Since hypermedia systems predispose users to expect such significant relationships among documents, those documents that disappoint these expectations appear particularly incoherent and nonsignificant. (83)

It seems evident that these rules are of limited utility to the author of a fiction. Moreover, even within the academic setting abstract or tenuous links are going to require justification, and the very act of justification is going to privilege a notion of what is obvious, purposeful and relevant.

It also seems evident that the projects Landow discusses, The Dickens Web and The In Memoriam Web, have a well-defined conceptual centre, namely Charles Dickens and Tennyson's poem. Moreover, Landow's rules for connection, with their focus on relevance, significance, and purpose, suggest a goal or aim. The student is free to enter the system and leave his or her mark, but marks not made according to the proper rules will miss the centre and hence become "incoherent and nonsignificant." The implicit form of connecting ideas is the dialectical argument, the exposition, and the "notes toward..." The conditions of literary experience in this medium are far from uncentered and are rather ordered by a new scholasticism of connection.

In his imaginary dialogue between Professor Jones and Student Smith, Landow proposes hypertext as a means of affording Smith the ability to connect (on a computer screen) to all the relevant passages which Professor Jones carries in her head. The goal is not independant thought but rather for Smith to reason, that is, to connect ideas in the same way that Jones does.

The encyclopedia--with its indexes, footnotes, cross-references, and notes for further reading--exemplifies a print version of exhaustive study. Similarly, Landow's conception of hypertext points towards a deceptive inclusiveness. Vladimir Nabokov uses the hypertext form to satirize just this academic will-to-inclusion in Pale Fire.

See also: Connections without Centre: Infinite Hypertext.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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