hypertext and the text > 22/07/05

In many ways, my vision and practice of hypertext link up with Roland Barthes’ theory of the text. This is not a ‘hard’ theory but rather a speculation held together by a continuous engagement with language, literature, photography and the pleasures of reading. Part of that theory, his differentiation between work and text has become a mantra for many hypertext critics in that Barthes here differentiats between work, which is a closed linear narrative, and texts that are open-ended and decentered.

As shown by George P. Landow in Hypertext 2.0, Barthes’ proposition of lexia is productive in understanding the structure of hypertext. Each text can, according to Barthes, be divided into segments, into lexias that — when taken together — make up the entire text. In hypertext writing, each screen is a lexia that is linked to other lexias by means of association which — when taken together — make up the text. In this way hypertext is closer to the way in which our mind, or body, works than ordinary linear text is.

The validity of this strategy can be questioned. Is it fruitful to scramble fragments into another (seemingly) hazardous heap of fragments? I’d say yes, very often it is, possibly with the exception of randomly generated text as any text, in my view, is an articulation of subjective experience. It could however be argued that even randomly generated text is an articulation of subjective experience as the output is the result of someone’s input data, scripting, or self-made software, in other words, that the result is the outcome of someone’s subjective choices.

Another point in Barthes’ theory of the text that is often referred to in relation to hypertext and other forms of interactive writing is the death of the author, which was proclaimed by Barthes in the 1960s. ‘The death of the author’ challenged the prevailing notion of the author as authority, origin and organizing principle of a body of texts that brought about a shift in critical practice from looking for a text’s originality and the author’s intention to issues of textuality; from the author as the originator of a work to text as a textual practice that goes on in the language(s) we‘re traversed by and that constitute us. No one is, as Freud said, master in his own house.

This shift of focus has been subject to a great deal of misreading among both postmodernists and web artists in general. Many has come to see the death of the author as a veritable death of the writer and/or artist and, in its stead, we have for instance randomly generated poetry. What is forgotten here is Barthes‘ emphasis on textual practice, on writers‘ and readers‘ engagement with language — and the struggle that it involves.

The death of the author was further accompanied by the birth of the reader and the erotics of reading, but in hypertext criticism it has been suggested that we witness the death of the reader in new media writing. These are complex issues that I want to look further into in the future. At the moment I‘d say that texts that emphasize programming, interaction and randomly generated text may reinstall the author. It might even be argued, in the words of Patrick Herron, that:

“a preprogrammed personalized poem is the mirror image of Internet control and domination. The personalized poem application, in whatever form it is in, is entirely predictable in its output, and those outputs are completely determined by the actions of one individual: the programmer … The programmer is in control of such poetry … and the poetry is deterministic despite the randomness of human input.”

Let‘s stop here.


Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Image Music Text, Translated by Stephen Heath. Hill & Wang, 1977, pp. 142-148.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Translated by Richard Miller. Hill & Wang, 1974.

Herron, Patrick. "Poetic Radicalism in the Internet Age." proximate.org, last accessed 23 Aug 2009, www.proximate.org/internetage.htm.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0. Johns Hopkins, 1997.

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