The Electronic Labyrinth

Connections without Centre: Infinite Hypertext

The sense of infinite possibilities offered by hypertext is an illusion.
Jay David Bolter, Writing Space

The necessity of forging links in hypertext is also the necessity of connecting ideas. This task is not without its aesthetic implications. Stan Dragland, in his introduction to AirWave DreamScapes, has tried to reconcile two opposed literary attitudes toward connection:

In E.M. Forster's Howard's End, Margaret Schlegal has a sort of motto, "Only connect," which she lives by. Her pleasure, her human function, is to build a "rainbow bridge" of meaning between scattered, contrary things. In Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, F. proselytizes for a non- interventionist approach to what is. "Connect nothing," he says. I think F.'s approach and Margaret Schlegal's are complementary rather than contradictory. You might make of the two a reasonably inclusive approach to life and literature. (8)

The two attitudes are indicative of the distinction between two literary milieux, the modern and the postmodern. Forster anticipates T.S. Eliot's despair at the possibility of ever being able to connect anything again. Eliot writes, in "The Waste Land:"

On Margate Sands.
I can connect nothing with nothing.
The broken fingers of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing. (300-304)

This despair sits in the ruins of the will-to-connect, itself another manifestation of Nietzsche's will-to-power, the violent yoking together of disparate objects born of the rage for order. The ruins were already evident in the hard sciences: in mathematics Kurt Gödel overturned David Hilbert's program (which held that every mathematical problem could be answered, either by furnishing the solution or proving its insolubility); in physics Einstein announced the loss of space and time as independent absolutes which led to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle for sub-atomic particles.

As more connections are made, the possibility for contradiction increases. This is the paradox of all self-engulfing and centreless systems. It achieves its most acute formulation and hence its most ardent dilemmas in transfinite number theory (does the set containing all things contain itself?). The centre finally disappears when connecting everything and connecting nothing produce the same result.

Unlike the modernists who mourned the loss of meaning, Cohen's F is thoroughly postmodern, rejoicing in the loss of the centre. In Borges' infinite "Library of Babel" (which contains all books), the pathways of unmeaning and meaning are hopelessly intertwined for, taken as a totality, these volumes express:

all that it is given to express, in all languages. Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogue of the library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolation of every book in all books. (54)

The implication of infinite connection may be infinite implication. The attitude toward hypertext which suggests it as a way of avoiding the tyranny of the centre, perhaps in the hope that somehow the books of Hermes Trismegistus (in which are written all things) may be recreated, brings with it the liberations and the terror of the infinite. As Borges points out the result may be "a fearful sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere" ("The Sphere of Pascal" 192). The fear mentioned is Pascal's, the connections are Borges'.

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