Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


All media, according to athropologist Edmund Carter, are new languages. Each codifies reality differently; each conceals a unique metaphysics. Writing, for example, didn't record oral language, it was a new language which encouraged an analytical mode of thinking with an emphasis on lineality. Subject became distinct from verb, adjective from noun, thus separating actor from action, essence from form.

Where preliterate man imposed form diffidently, temporarily --- for such transitory forms lived but temporarily on the tip of his tongue, in the living situation --- the printed word was inflexible, permanent in touch with eternity: it embalmed truth for posterity.

The embalming process froze language, eliminated the art of ambiguity, made puns the lowest form of wit, destroyed word linkages. The word became a static symbol, applicable to and separate from that which it symbolized. It now belonged to the objective world. It could be seen... The word became a neutral symbol, no longer an inextricable part of the creative process.

Gutenberg completed the process. The manuscript page with pictures, colors, correlation between symbol and space, gave way to uniform type , the black and white page, read silently, alone. The format of the book favored lineal expression, for the argument ran from cover to cover, subject to verb to object, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, chapter to chapter, carefully structured from beginning to end, with value embedded in the climax. This was not true of great poetry and drama, but it was true of most books... Events were arranged chronologically and hence, it was assumed, casually; relationship, not being, was valued. The author became an authority; his data were serious, that is, serially organized. Such data, if sequentially ordered and printed, conveyed value and truth; arranged any other way, they were suspect. (435-6)

Ted Nelson's invention of the new language, hypertext, in the 1960s disrupted the sequence of data and thereby disrupted the configuration of truth. Truth is embodied within the process of revelation in a hypertextual network: the fixity of print has been diffused into digital ephemera which gain substance and meaning only when a reader chooses to edify them with light. Hypertext creates a palimpsest of layered meaning wherein hegemonic authority defers to multilinear relativism. For McLuhan and other cyber enthusiasts, this necessarily tolerant structuration of knowledge approaches a state of spiritual nirvana more closely than any other medium to date.

The paradigmatic shift from print (linear) to digital (hypertextual) culture has not yet occurred and we cannot, according to Thomas Kuhn, accurately predict its occurrence. The splendid anarchy which a hypertextual structure such as the Internet has the capacity to accommodate cannot as yet pervade the political and ideological configuration of our culture. In its beginning stages, the impact of digital media is certainly widespread, but not even close to universal. Only a fraction of America --- much less, the rest of the world --- can access and participate in the hypertextual medium, though its ubiquity increases exponentially every day. For now, we continue to emulate the linear modes of thinking and learning on which Western civilization has long been predicated. These habits become less oppressive as we become more aware that they are merely learned. Though we cannot expect to witness in our lifetimes a full-fledged paradigmatic shift from print- to digitally constructed culture, we are equipped to dedicate ourselves to the first stages of repositioning --- but not nullifying --- the authority of print media. We shall challenge the fixity of things and protect the space in which readers become authors, consumers become producers, and meaning lies in the process by which it is revealed.

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