The Definition of Hypertext and Its History as a Concept

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

[Pages 3-4 in print version. © the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.]

In S/Z , Roland Barthes describes an ideal textuality that precisely matches that which has come to be called computer hypertext -- text composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains, or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms link, node, network, web , and path: "In this ideal text," says Barthes,

the networks [réseaux ] are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable . . . ; the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language" (emphasis in original; 5-6 [English translation]; 11-12 [French]).

Like Barthes, Michel Foucault conceives of text in terms of network and links. In The Archeology of Knowledge , he points out that the "frontiers of a book are never clear-cut," because "it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network . . . [a] network of references" (23).

Like almost all structuralists and poststructuralists, Barthes and Foucault describe text, the world of letters, and the power and status relations they involve in terms shared by the field of computer hypertext. Hypertext , a term coined by Theodor H. Nelson in the 1960s, refers also to a form of electronic text, a radically new information technology, and a mode of publication. "By 'hypertext,' " Nelson explains, "I mean non-sequential writing -- text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways" (0/2). Hypertext, as the term is used in this work, denotes text composed of blocks of text -- what Barthes terms a lexia -- and the electronic links that join them. Hypermedia simply extends the notion of the text in hypertext by including visual information, sound, animation, and other forms of data. Since hypertext, which links one passage of verbal discourse to images, maps, diagrams, and sound as easily as to another verbal passage, expands the notion of text beyond the solely verbal, I do not distinguish between hypertext and hypermedia. Hypertext denotes an information medium that links verbal and nonverbal information. In this network, I shall use the terms hypermedia and hypertext interchangeably. Electronic links connect lexias "external" to a work -- say, commentary on it by another author or parallel or contrasting texts -- as well as within it and thereby create text that is experienced as nonlinear, or, more properly, as multilinear or multisequential. Although conventional reading habits apply within each lexia, once one leaves the shadowy bounds of any text unit, new rules and new experience apply.


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