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Author: David J. Staley
Title: Digital Historiography: Hypertext
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
June 1998

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Source: Digital Historiography: Hypertext
David J. Staley

vol. 1, no. 1, June 1998
Article Type: Book Review

Digital Historiography: Hypertext

Editor: David J. Staley

Department of History
Heidelberg College
Tiffin, Ohio 44883
(419) 448-2173

Reviews of Print Resources

  • Bolter, J. David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing (Lawrence Erlbawm Associates 1991)
  • Landow, George. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992)

Robert A. Rosenstone, the US editor of the journal Rethinking History, laments that historians have not kept up with the literary and artistic trends of the twentieth century. When historians claim that our craft is an "art," they "seem to mean the [nineteenth century] novels of Scott and Thackeray, for they have not yet even absorbed the literary forms of the early part of this century," as represented in figures such as Joyce, Ibsen or Yeats. Rosenstone, who engages in what he terms "experiments in writing," employs such contemporary rhetorical devises in his own work, such as making historical figures "converse" with the reader, inserting himself (as author) into the narrative, and unexpectedly shifting the sequencing of the account, a la Marquez. [1] In short, Rosenstone is challenging historians to write "history" as postmodern theorists would imagine it. The computer—specifically hypertext—makes such experimentation possible. Hypertext refers to the digital connection of words as in a web, not in a linear chain as in a printed text. Rather than being confined within the physical limits of the printed codex, the "text" of a hypertext expands to fill the electronic network, since any block of text can be theoretically linked to any other block of text somewhere in the electronic ether. The plot of the text meanders through this web, determined as much by the decisions of the reader as by the intentions of the author. Therefore, the computer screen provides a non-linear writing surface where there is no beginning, middle or end to the text, where traditional notions of linear plot and sequence are overturned, and where the solid boundaries between writer and reader are shattered.

Writing "history" in such a medium would appear to open our discipline to the kind of experimentation advocated by Rosenstone. Yet before historians rush to experiment, I would urge caution: we need to first explore the implications of such experimentation, in order to ask and answer metaquestions about digital narratives to determine if we truly wish to follow this path.

Two important texts on computers, narratives and hypertext provide a useful starting point for such an inquiry. George Landow's Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) is close in spirit to Rosenstone's call to action, since it places the technology of digital writing within the context of the critical theory of Derrida, Barthes and Foucault. These theorists, according to Landow, understood the implications of hypertext even before they had the tools at their disposal. Derrida, for instance, declared that "the end of linear writing is indeed the end of the book."(29) Barthes was already writing through blocks of text, or lexia, in S/Z.(52-53) Foucault, system theorists and other contemporary scientists had already foreseen the arrival of the "network paradigm."(26) The larger message of Landow's book is that the appearance of hypertext confirms the ideas of these theorists.

Perhaps because Landow is dealing with a relatively new technology, his text can appear hyperbolic and exaggerated, a fault of many works on computers. For example, Landow claims that hypertext makes scholarship and teaching easier and more efficient. "The medium's integrative quality," he contends, "offers a means of efficiently integrating one's scholarly work and work-in-progress with one's teaching. In particular, one can link portions of data upon which one is working...Such methods...allow faculty to explore their own primary interests while showing students how a particular discipline arrives at materials." (125) Hypertext also makes interdisciplinary collaboration more efficient. "In contrast to previous education technology," Landow argues, "hypertext offers instructors the continual virtual presence of teachers from other disciplines."(125) These observations should not remained unexamined, however: how many of these attributes are intrinsic to the technology, and how many are ascribed by the observer? What is preventing interdisciplinary work right now? What is keeping some professors from sharing their research interests with students right now? I would argue that Landow has mistakenly identified technical issues, problems to be resolved by efficient technology. The road blocks to interdisciplinary work are as much matters of administrative inertia, disciplinary pigeonholing or lack of collegiality, problems a computer cannot solve. Further, nothing prevents scholars from displaying their work—even their work-in-progress—to students right now; in fact, many do just this without the aid of computers. I fear that computer enthusiasts occasionally invent uses for computers, when no such need or imperative really exists.

Like Landow, J. David Bolter's Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing (Lawrence Erlbawm Associates 1991) deals with contemporary theory, but also places electronic texts within the context of the history of writing, from clay and papyrus to paper and the digital environment. This text appeared in an electronic hypertextual format (on a Mac disk), yet the bound codex version is preferable, since it contains more material than the abridged digital version. In placing hypertext in the context of the history of written language, Bolter makes the differences between printed and electronic text less jarring and exaggerated. Writing has taken on varying characteristics depending on the medium; thus, hypertextual writing, while in many ways distinct from printed writing, nevertheless shares characteristics with earlier methods of recording language. For instance, hypertextual writing—owing to the increased role of the reader, or audience—resembles oral discourse.(58-59) In so placing hypertext in a larger historical context, Bolter avoids much—but not all—of the hyperbole surrounding many works on computers. Both texts are excellent introductions to theories on hypertext, although both are deficient as practical guides. Neither discusses historical narrative explicitly, yet the implications raised in both are of vital importance to contemporary historiography.

If historians choose to write about the past in a hypertextual environment, we should be prepared to reconsider many of our cherished ideas, such as chronology. If hypertext has no beginning, middle or end, if plot is nonlinear, folding back upon itself in ways determined by the reader, can we continue to view historical time as linear or even cyclical? Landow draws attention to such nonelectronic but hypertextual novels such as Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars or Swift's Waterland or Lively's Moon Tiger, each of which features a narrative structure based on a "spatial sensation of time."(107) Rather than experiencing time sequentially, the reader of these novels experiences time "as a patterning of interrelated experiences reflected upon as though it had a geography and could be mapped."(107) Imagine composing a history not as the linear sequence of events but as a two or three dimensional map of experiences, the links between which would be determined by the reader. Will historians working through this medium therefore favor stream-of-consciousness narratives over logical arguments as a result?

Bolter argues that the network-like characteristics of hypertext contrast to the linear presentation and hierarchical organization of scholarly writing. This arrangement results from the intrinsic restraints of the medium of print—a point with which I do not entirely agree— as well as the desire of the writer to guide the thoughts of the reader through a logical argument. Hypertext reorders this arrangement, an observation with clear implications for historians. "The historian's task," contends Bolter, "is to establish causes and effects: to provide the reader with a consistent, analytic path through some aspect of history. The historian would not be allowed to offer two or more explanations that bore no relation to one another." While the historian could most certainly write this way without the aid of a computer, "only the linear-hierarchical style of argument is permitted in orthodox writing. And this orthodoxy is approved by and built into our institutions of learning and research."(113) Linear and hierarchical textual organization may indeed be intrinsic to the medium of print, but may also spring from an intellectual and cultural context irrelevant to the technology. Altering textual relationships, therefore, will not necessarily change this larger context.

Nevertheless, Bolter's observations suggest interesting implications. If the historian can no longer easily establish cause and effect in a hypertextual environment, then what becomes the purpose of historical inquiry? Will the increased use of hypertext therefore require a reconsideration of our tasks? Before historians use hypertexts, must institutional change come first; that is, will graduate schools grant degrees to apprentices who write in this fashion? Will contributions to journals devoted to such writing count toward hiring or tenure?

Once these implications are explored (and there are surely many more unasked questions), historians are still left with a more significant metaquestion: why should we experiment with narrative? Rosenstone's claim that historians have not "kept up" with contemporary literary theories implies that historians are mere intellectual followers, failing to keep pace with trend setters. Experimenting with narrative is fine, writing on the screen is fine, suspending linear ideas of chronology is fine, but should be done with a higher purpose in mind. In other words, historians should not experiment for the sake of experimentation. Finally, we should be careful about believing that computers and hypertext are the inevitable means by which we will communicate. If hypertext dominates our thinking and writing about the past, it will not be because the technology has forced itself upon us; it will be because we have consciously or unconsciously decided to allow it.


1. Robert A. Rosenstone, "Editorial," cited in World History Bulletin (Fall 1997):16-19.