Hypertext and De-Centering

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

[Pages 11-13 in print version. © the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992].

As readers move through a web or network of texts, they continually shift the center -- and hence the focus or organizing principle -- of their investigation and experience. Hypertext, in other words, provides an infinitely re-centerable system whose provisional point of focus depends upon the reader, who becomes a truly active reader in yet another sense. One of the fundamental characteristics of hypertext is that it is composed of bodies of linked texts that have no primary axis of organization. In other words, the metatext or document set -- the entity that describes what in print technology is the book, work, or single text -- has no center. Although this absence of a center can create problems for the reader and the writer, it also means that anyone who uses hypertext makes his or her own interests the de facto organizing principle (or center) for the investigation at the moment. One experiences hypertext as an infinitely de-centerable and re-centerable system, in part because hypertext transforms any document that has more than one link into a transient center, a directory document that one can employ to orient oneself and to decide where to go next. Western culture imagined quasi-magical entrances to a networked reality long before the development of computing technology. Biblical typology, which played such a major role in English culture during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, conceived sacred history in terms of types and shadows of Christ and his dispensation. Thus, Moses, who existed in his own right, also existed as Christ, who fulfilled and completed the prophet's meaning. As countless seventeenth-century and Victorian sermons, tracts, and commentaries demonstrate, any particular person, event, or phenomenon acted as a magical window into the complex semiotic of the divine scheme for human salvation. Like the biblical type, which allows significant events and phenomena to participate simultaneously in many realities or levels of reality, the individual lexia inevitably provides a way into the network of connections. Given that Evangelical Protestantism in America preserves and extends these traditions of biblical exegesis, one is not surprised to discover that some of the first applications of hypertext involved the Bible and its exegetical tradition.

Not only do lexia work much in the manner of types, they also become Borgesian Alephs, points in space that contain all other points, because from the vantage point each provides one can see everything else -- if not exactly simultaneously, then a short way distant, one or two jumps away, particularly in systems that have full text searching. Unlike Jorge Luis Borges's Aleph, one does not have to view it from a single site, neither does one have to sprawl in a cellar resting one's head on a canvas sack. The hypertext document becomes a traveling Aleph.

As Derrida points out in "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," the process or procedure he calls de-centering has played an essential role in intellectual change. He says, for example, that "ethnology could have been born as a science only at the moment when a de-centering had come about: at the moment when European culture -- and, in consequence, the history of metaphysics and of its concepts -- had been dislocated, driven from its locus, and forced to stop considering itself as the culture of reference" (251). Derrida makes no claim that an intellectual or ideological center is in any way bad, for, as he explains in response to a query from Serge Doubrovsky, "I didn't say that there was no center, that we could get along without a center. I believe that the center is a function, not a being -- a reality, but a function. And this function is absolutely indispensable" (271).

All hypertext systems permit the individual reader to choose his or her own center of investigation and experience. What this principle means in practice is that the reader is not locked into any kind of particular organization or hierarchy. Experiences with Intermedia reveal that for those who choose to organize a session on the system in terms of authors -- moving, say, from Keats to Tennyson -- the system represents an old-fasioned, traditional, and in many ways still useful author-centered approach. On the other hand, nothing constrains the reader to work in this manner, and readers who wish to investigate the validity of period generalizations can organize their sessions in terms of such periods by using the Victorian and Romantic overviews as starting or midpoints while yet others can begin with ideological or critical notions, such as feminism or the Victorian novel. In practice most readers employ the materials developed at Brown University as a text-centered system, since they tend to focus upon individual works, with the result that even if they begin sessions by entering the system to look for information about an individual author, they tend to spend most time with lexias devoted to specific texts, moving, for example, between those about works of fiction and nonfiction (Trollope's The Way We Live Now and Carlyle's "Hudson's Statue) or between lexias about a particular novel, say, Gaskell's North and South and informational and contextual materials (biographies, chronologies, essays on setting and characterization in the novel, Evangelical Anglicanism, public health, working-class diets, and so on). [Follow for The Victorian Web, based at Brown University, which contains the latest, much-amplified version of this corpus of interlinked documents originally created for Intermedia.]

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