The Electronic Labyrinth

Writing Space

The hypertext version of Jay David Bolter's Writing Space is an introductory tour through some of the theoretical implications of the hypertext format. The opening comments are quite playful, offering the reader the possibility of doing whatever they wish with the electronic hypertext. If you can convince someone to pay you for your own version of Writing Space, "take the money" urges Bolter. The permissiveness stops at the printed format however.

The electronic text of Writing Space is mutable. After clicking once on a screen, the reader may change the text with the keyboard. Bolter is anxious to see any changes and has included his address so that permutations may be forwarded to him. A few screens are immune to this editing procedure, including the introductory screens described above.

Writing Space engages in a self-reflexive contemplation of writing in the electronic hypertext format:

The printed book also requires a printed persona, a consistent voice to lead the reader through the text. It has been hard for me to avoid maintaining such a persona in this electronic text. It's hard to write multiply. The sense of infinite possibilities offered by hypertext is an illusion, but an illusion that tends to overwhelm as much as encourage the spontaneous change in voice.

Indeed, despite the playfulness of the introduction and some unusual graphic elements (such as crippled icons), Writing Space maintains a consistent tone.

Bolter raises a number of contentious issues, one of the most provocative of which is his definition of "antireading:"

Passive reading, the desire to be surrounded by the text, is as close as reading can come to being a perceptual rather than a semiotic experience. The goal of passive reading is to forget oneself by identifying with the narrative world presented. In this sense passive reading is antireading, since true reading is an encounter with signs in which the reader continually asserts (and repeatedly loses) his or her independence of the text. Like reading technologies, the computer too can be used for antireading.

The terminology of antireading, with its obvious debt to Barthes' notion of the readerly text, is fairly loaded. It implies that some specific relationship between text and author could possibly constitute "true" reading. Moreover, in the context of postmodernism and the anti-novel, one might wonder if one reads a novel but antireads an anti-novel. Bolter's antireading, like Landow's rules for authors, assumes that reading and writing are goal-directed activities. True reading moves steadily towards its centre while antireading moves in the opposite direction.

Yet what is this goal that rests at the centre of reading? What remains unwritten in Bolter's passage is the reason a specific type of reading is "anti" or false. This reason is alluded to in passages which Bolter quotes from Plato's Phaedrus. In the dialogue, Socrates relates the myth of Theuth's gift of writing to Thamus, the king of Egypt. Thamus is not pleased with the gift, however, saying:

If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. (520)

The evil of writing is that it will implant forgetfulness. Just as for Bolter the evil of antireading is that it makes it possible to "forget oneself by identifying with the narrative world." If writing and reading cause the loss of self they hinder the classic Socratic dictum to "know thyself."

This is only to give a taste of the many issues Bolter deals with in his text. Other points of interest include issues pertinent to philosophy of mind, linguistics, semiotics, structuralism, and writing in general.

Writing Space is available from Eastgate Systems; it is written in Storyspace.

Jay David Bolter
119 Willow Way
Chapel Hill, NC

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